Year of Release: 1994
Volume 19 is a somewhat odd entry in the "Indie Top 20" canon, in that it's the first one where you get a sense that neither Tim Millington (the compiler) or Beechwood Music (the label) understood the direction alternative music was going in. It fails to introduce one new act who would even go on to achieve cult significance, never mind anything else. If you wanted to be charitable you could offer the space afforded to Radiohead as an example of the series being ahead of the curve, but the 1993 reissue of "Creep" really doesn't count. The group had already been signed to EMI for some time, had a hit in America, and released their debut album by this point.
That's not to say that this is a bad compilation, and certainly the front end of it is stuffed with all kinds of goodies. It's just that 1994 was the year of Britpop emerging as a force for either good or ill, depending on your point of view, and the first "Indie Top 20" LP of the year completely failed to grasp or understand the change in the prevailing winds. Even at the time, this seemed like an odd release, and a sign that perhaps the series wouldn't be with us for much longer.
1. Inspiral Carpets - Saturn 5 (Mute)
When the teacher asked the boys and girls in my class "What do you want to do when you grow up?" I never hesitated to answer. "Astronaut", I replied. Then again, so did the boy sat next to me, Neil. And the curly-haired pompous voiced little boy Michael, an absurdly tall only child who knew everything about space, much more than the rest of us, and even had more books than us on the subject, actually. (When I imagine Michael now, he's wearing tweed and smoking a pipe, and looks about 65. He's also constantly on social media putting other people straight). The rest of the boys all wanted to be astronauts too. None of us had an original career in our brains. But why should we have? What else would you have wanted to be?
"Well, who knows what the future might bring?" my teacher replied sceptically, but we all knew. The future was space. We'd all either be visiting there or living out there, commuting to the moon and Mars and back in home for tea. I drew the Saturn 5 spaceship obsessively in my art book, perfecting its outlines, dreaming that one day I would travel on such a thing.
"David, Saturn 5 doesn't look like that!" Michael objected just loudly enough that the teacher could hear. I always drew Saturn 5 to look much more futuristic than it really was. Looking at Google images now, I can see it's a fairly typical looking rocket, but I drew it wider and flatter looking, like some kind of elongated metal flatfish. Who put that idea in my head? Who knows? I was only six. Still though, when I imagine "Saturn 5" now, I imagine my doodled representation of it rather than the rocket as it actually looked.
At that point in time, there were songs about the future and space on the radio, and they all sounded metallic, chromatic and faintly foreboding. Synthesisers and drum machines were usually at the forefront. We had all our eyes on the horizon towards a jet pack future. Fast forward to 1994, and I'm trying to become an adult, and suddenly The Inspiral Carpets were writing songs about the very spaceship that had fascinated me as a small boy. The Inspiral Carpets. A band with squeaky sixties electric organs and decidedly retro leanings. Being excited about the future had become a thing of the past, a fond memory in itself. Futurism was now nostalgia. "Eee, do you remember the days when we all thought the near future would be a lot more technologically advanced than it's turned out to be?"
"There's a popular misconception, says we haven't seen anything yet" sings Tom Hingley on this single, and it's clear that while there's a simple pop bounciness to it, it's infused with the feeling that the future we all dreamed for ourselves never quite materialised. "Monochrome TV, all the things that you ever represented to me/ take me once more, take me to heaven again".
I don't want to overanalyse "Saturn 5" too much. It is, at its heart, a very simple indie pop single, and I bet most people are able to appreciate it as such. By talking about it in such a tone, I run the risk of making myself sound ridiculous. When the group's brilliant drummer Craig Gill died last year, an online campaign was set up to get it back in the charts again, which I can only imagine was because it was seen as being one of the group's most accessible and uplifting songs ("This Is How It Feels" would have felt horribly inappropriate). It re-entered the Top 50, spending one week at number 48 in sympathy.
Trouble is, when others hear "Saturn 5" I think they just hear a sixties obsessed group of Oldham lads singing an uplifting Monkees-esque pop song about outer space. Fair enough, as that's undoubtedly correct. But I don't hear that. I hear something a bit hollow, something that at its heart feels that wondrous human achievements are a thing of the past, and from now on the biggest thing the human race can hope for is keep what we've got as intact as possible. From this point forth, if we're going to sing about a future in outer space we'll have two choices open to us - turn the vocoders and doomy synth pre-sets on ironically, or pound on Jetsons electric organs while singing "Woo-hoo-hoo" backing vocals.
"Saturn 5", then. It's not as depressing as "This Is How It Feels", but for some reason it does make me feel a hell of a lot more despondent.
It reached number twenty on its debut release in 1994, ensuring the group had a lifespan far beyond the baggy years, though regrettably "Devil Hopping" would turn out to be their last album.
2. Carter USM - Glam Rock Cops (Chrysalis)
Carter's fortunes, meanwhile, continued to decline. "Glam Rock Cops" is probably one of the duo's most recognised and appreciated singles, but was in itself a callback to former glories. The leaden glam rock beat pinned to the foundations of this single sounded strangely similar to the one used on "Bloodsport For All", one of their big breakthrough moments.
Lyrically, the track veers all over the road from the personal to the political, talking about South London street muggings to the group's own strange role in the music business. "You took it all from me/ My cheque book, my wallet/ my pride and dignity" rants Jim Bob one minute, before later observing "They put me in the spotlight, tied me to the stage/ the only thing I got right was to lie about my age". So if there's a key theme running through the single at all, dignity seems to be it. Undignified street robberies, a government mugging the public by taking more public services away from them, and a possible confession that Jim Bob and Fruitbat were starting to feel a bit irrelevant as thirty-something pop stars. It's tied together very loosely as an argument about how doomed authentic political commentary in rock music is (or at least, I think that's the the common strand they're trying to wrap everything up with). Nobody's listening because nobody cares, and nobody cares because nobody else is listening anyway. It feels a tiny bit clumsy, though, and once again I find myself wishing the group had left themselves out of the argument.
Still, "Glam Rock Cops" is probably the last single in their canon to really sound like a possible hit, having a demanding keyboard clarion call and a defiant stride to its chorus, and a solid trucker's beat behind it. And it was indeed their last top thirty hit, reaching number 24. Times were changing, and Carter would have no real part to play in the new media vision.
3. Blur - Sunday Sunday (Food/ EMI)
And here the new boys are, bang on cue. The trouble is, "Sunday Sunday" is frequently taken at face value as some kind of Jamie Oliver styled roast beef and Yorkshire Pudding knees-up. The printed subtitle the track was given perhaps should have been underlined in red biro: "Legislated nostalgia - to force a body of people to have memories they do not actually possess".
As a single in its own right, "Sunday Sunday" isn't one of Blur's finest. It's an oompah ridden frolic and skip through an imaginary English Sunday landscape, doffing its cap to the ladies as it passes. As a statement, on the other hand, it's a very stinging pisstake, and worryingly prophetic in the way it highlights the ridiculous lengths mainstream British society (or perhaps more accurately, the media) will go to to glamourise and falsify its traditions, past and role in the world. "You meet an old soldier and talk of the past" sings Albarn proudly "He fought for us in two world wars/ And says the England he knew is no more". Remind you of anything you've read recently?
Having Blur rub up against Carter USM on this compilation starkly highlights the differing approach to politics and social commentary the old indie guard and the new Britpop heroes had. The scruffy, glamour-free authentic bunch of old took the angle of "Everything is wrong, and we're going to tell you exactly why with some witty rhyming couplets". Blur and their ilk took a more subtle approach, and you could argue that it was so subtle it went straight over the heads of at least half their audience (you shouldn't doubt the fact that plenty of people in Blur's home county of Essex did take "Sunday Sunday" very literally, because I had petty arguments with them about it).
Is that irresponsible? Were Blur having their cake and eating it, appealing to future UKIP supporters and knowing students in the same breath? While it certainly didn't hurt them commercially in the long run, you can only consider their approach irresponsible if you also level that charge at every art-school band from the early sixties onwards (including The Beatles), most of whom also had their moments of being less than opaque and choosing to weave interesting narratives rather than issue dictums. For my taste, "Sunday Sunday" is a lot more cunning, biting and subversive than "Glam Rock Cops", even if it's not a Blur track I return to very often.
(Incidentally, Andy Partridge of XTC was the initial producer for "Modern Life Is Rubbish", and I've often wondered whether the Colin Moulding penned "Washaway" was an inspiration for "Sunday Sunday". It takes a very similar lyrical tack).
4. The Charlatans - Can't Get Out Of Bed (Beggars Banquet)
The Charlatans had been absent from the "Indie Top 20" series for some time by this point, last being seen on Volume 12 with "Happen To Die". I suspect that Beechwood felt that the group were rapidly becoming irrelevant, and didn't feel the need to give them space during their "wilderness years" (these things are relative, though - The Charlatans still remained reasonably popular during their post-baggy/ pre-Britpop slump years).
Of all the groups to adapt to changing styles, The Charlatans possibly had the easiest ride, and emerged more popular than ever. There always was a swaggering mod groove to their most popular singles, and an identifiable attitude. "Can't Get Out Of Bed" emphasises this, having a beery, pounding Faces styled groove at its foundations. Gone were the old-school Charlatans rhumba rhythms, and in their place was music to thrust your hips to.
To my ears, this is less interesting than "Then" or "Over-Rising", killing off any atmosphere or curious psychedelia for a bit of a stomp down the Marquee. Still, it saved the band's bacon, and ensured they survived as a force where most other groups of their era fell.
5. Radiohead - Creep (Parlophone)
I'm almost tempted to pass on this one. "Creep" has become such an iconic single now, and Radiohead such a colossus of a band, that attempting to pass any kind of pithy comment on it or them is doomed to failure. For a start, it's a huge red herring in the group's catalogue, a piece of lovelorn angst penned by a very young Thom Yorke about a woman he went to university with. No wonder he's faintly embarrassed by it now. Everything I've written along those lines is kept well away from public view (on the down side, nothing I wrote back then set me up for a long creative career).
Also, while Radiohead's reputation as being one of the era's most innovative and forward-thinking groups is seldom questioned, "Creep" did beg and borrow as shamelessly as Elastica. Leaning on elements of The Hollies "The Air That I Breathe" so much that the group were later forced to credit (and reward) that track's authors Hammond and Hazlewood, it's not a work of enormous originality. Even the clattering guitar lines were later revealed to be a studio accident.
What "Creep" did do, however, was provide an anthem for awkward youths and misfits everywhere. While the point may be skated around now, there's no doubt that it sold in the US to huge volumes of grunge kids, leading many of us (me included) to suspect that the group were no more than a passing angsty storm. Most of Radiohead's singles from this period were contorted, irritated balls of disgust, recalling Howard Devoto at his most direct as well as the likes of Cobain at their most incendiary. Only the US mix of "Stop Whispering", with its scaling, epic arrangement, pointed towards something more intricate, developed and astonishing around the corner.
"Creep" does serve its purpose bloody well, however - listening back to it now, trying to think about the first time I heard it, I feel just as uncomfortable as I did then. Unlike most of Radiohead's other material, it's piercingly direct. Yorke was a decidedly awkward looking rock star in 1993, and you felt and believed every word of the track primarily because he was delivering it. It also acted as a necessary development for the group. Prior to "Creep", Yorke appeared in press photos looking defensive and out of place, like a sulky, scolded geek. By the time it was released, he was regarded in a different light, and his role as a thwarted outsider rock star emerged (let's stop short of using the word "tortured" shall we, or I'll really have to jump out of the window in shame).
Problematically, I later ended up meeting a friend of the woman the track was directed at, and got to hear about the basis for the song - since then, I've never been able to listen to it without it being reminded of a series of adolescent soap opera anecdotes. Still, erasing those thought processes from my brain as best I can, it's hard to hear "Creep" as being anything other than the ultimate loser's anthem. The early nineties weren't short of those, but this towered above them all with an enormous, weighty crown on its head.