Thursday, 7 September 2017

Volume 21 - Tracks 1-5 - Oasis, Sleeper, Echobelly, Cracker, Perfume

Formats: CD, Cassette
Year of Release: 1995

Well, here we are, slap bang in the middle of the nineties. I almost thought we'd never get here. Let's take a look around and breathe the air, shall we? It does all look a bit different, feel a bit different. John Major is still the Prime Minister, but the Conservative Party's hold seems shaky to say the least, and by '95 Labour were a rapidly rising political force. A mere two years ago, people had been talking about the far right starting to worm their way into British politics, now a bigger question mark hung over whether a stale, confused, beleaguered right wing could actually hang in there at all.

In turn, Britpop was now no longer a fantasy belonging to Select magazine journalists, but a commercial reality. The so-called losers of British music, the fey indie kids with floppy fringes, were now a dominant force. EMI, Phonogram, Warners and others had their pens poised over many a freshly printed contract for indie bands they passed over a mere few years before (Stephen Jones of Babybird frequently talked about his old rejection letters with relish, noting A&R reps who once rudely snapped "Write a middle eight, and we'll think about it, and even then probably only think about it". Many were now begging him to sign on the dotted line).

But hold on, look again. There's a little sour-faced cynic barking from the back who wants to say something to us. There's always one, isn't there? It's not Luke Haines this time, though. What's... what's that the little squirt is saying? His voice seems so thin, pathetic and reedy. Oh, typical. He's saying that Tony Blair is actually a very centrist politician with some particularly lukewarm ideas, and he's not going to transform Britain, just tinker a bit around the edges. His next words are almost drowned out by booing from the Labour supporters, who are shouting that we have to let Labour into power without questioning any of their ideas at this crucial stage, and shutting up would be the best course of action, as Tony Blair is actually playing a complicated game of political chess and none of the more right-wing things he's said are going to be Labour policy will actually become Government policy in practice. Right on. Oh, hang on... he's also trying to say that Britpop is also a chimera, a watered down version of the original ideas behind indiepop in 1986, and that if we allow it to go too far, it will become one big Union Jack waving wankfest filled with anthemic laddish songs and not one ounce of outsiderdom or oddness. His voice raises. "Do you actually want to be barged out of the way on the dancefloor while the rugby boys dance to Pulp's Common People?" he asks. The boos get deafening.

Take a step back. Tap your heels together several times. Breathe again. We're back in 2017. We've cut away from the bit where I approach the man in question, laugh at him, and tell him to be quiet about Blair and Britpop, both of which are unquestionably good things. I find that too embarrassing and not at all in keeping with my present personality and beliefs.

In truth, though, I did find 1995 to be a period of almost overpowering optimism. It was a fantastic time to be young, and to feel that a lot of the ideas you had spent your short adult life arguing on behalf of were finally starting to seem relevant. Not just politically, but also musically too. It's only as a grown man with years of bitter experience behind me that I realise that actually, things weren't quite as they seemed, and the celebratory party was going to be rather brief. Ignoring mid-nineties politics completely, which is an incredibly complicated argument to have (though did have an impact on music and culture in general) Britpop itself could often be rather dull and formulaic in places, especially by the time we got to 1996, and it was often the material that got caught in its slipstream that tended to be most interesting. In a similar manner to how anything weird and wonderful tended to get signed to bemused major labels in the late sixties, so the mid-nineties saw all manner of unexpected candidates get major deals. I interviewed Euros Childs of Gorky's Zygotic Mynci in early 1995, and tried to suggest they'd be with a major label within the year. I was told not to be ridiculous. A year later, they were (it didn't really work out, but to be fair, I didn't actually predict that it would).

At the commercial peaks, there were also several names who really mattered. Blur were frequently fantastic. Pulp were spellbinding. Oasis were damn good. New names were emerging, such as Supergrass, who were clearly also going to be around for a long time. In many respects, we had won the argument. And the indie charts... well, we all watched them avidly when they turned up on "The Chart Show" on Saturday mornings as always, but we weren't necessarily asking whether Oasis had got to number one in the indie chart. We wanted to know if they had gone top ten in the national charts.

The "Indie Top 20" series was beginning to lose its grip at this point. Phonogram were on the verge of launching the "Shine" series, featuring a ton of alternative artists the "Indie Top 20" series both was including and couldn't really afford to include, and it retailed at a lower price. EMI were about to launch the "Greatest Album In The World... Ever!" series for a similar purpose. Beechwood were being squeezed out of the picture. They had to compete, but how could they?

We're drawing close to the end now. Sometimes the cost of winning the argument is that everyone else with more money and power runs away enthusiastically with your ideas, and you no longer have a vital place left in the debate.

1. Oasis - Live Forever (Creation)

If anyone had any doubts about Oasis's abilities, they were utterly swept to one side by the time "Live Forever" emerged. It was the first sign that Noel Gallagher did far more than write attitude-drenched pieces of indie rifflola like "Supersonic" or "Shakermaker", and could actually write anthems.

The track opens with the metronomic clicking of Tony McCarroll's incredibly simplistic drumming, which ill prepares you for the mountain the track itself is going to scale. The guitars chime in, and Liam's voice hollers out, defiant. So far, it sounds like an incredibly good Las track with a mid-sixties backbeat, but also powerful, aware of its scruffy post-punk place.

Then the chorus arrives, and suddenly you're swept along on blissful ideas which wouldn't have been out of place on a Stone Roses or Paris Angels track back in 1989 or 1990. It's both ridiculously cocksure and yet slightly aware that its central focus is hope, not telling the listener things as they truly are. When Liam delivers the line "Baby, I just want to fly/ Wanna live I don't wanna die", he clearly knew Noel wasn't battling with Leonard Cohen for finely crafted lyrical ideas. But if you listen closely, there's a keenly different pronunciation of the word "die" to the rest of the words - it's almost spat out in disgust. Then, as the song surges forward, it changes key and tone completely towards the final minute and sounds less hopeful, as if each line actually has a question mark on the end. "We're gonna live forever?" asks Liam.

I know. I'm reading a colossal amount into a popular Oasis song, which you're not supposed to do. But the way the song is constructed is very canny and clever. It's not just a simple anthem, it also moves forwards, and melodically seems to encompass a wide range of emotions. Nobody actually believes they're going to live forever. It's a feeling you get a few times in your life, when a moment seems so astonishing that absolutely anything seems as if it could be possible, including your own immortality. But moments have to fade. The peaks in life either continue and become the new normal, with their own unique trials and tribulations or previously unforeseen pitfalls, or they fade away. The final descending chords always make me feel as if "Live Forever" is crashing back down to earth in a way that a track like Echobelly's "I Can't Imagine The World Without Me" wouldn't dare or bother to do.

I spent the summer of 1994 working in a data entry job, typing people's names and addresses into a bank's marketing spreadsheet for seven hours a day. "Live Forever" may have only got to number ten in the charts - which seems ridiculous in retrospect - but I knew Oasis were more than just the next Suede in commercial terms when everyone in the office yelled "Oasis are on Radio One now!" whenever the track got played. People rustled in their bags for their portable radios and headphones. Something was changing. Everyone was starting to listen now.

We won't meet Oasis again on this blog, but summarising the rest of their career here seems a bit pointless. You already know what comes next.

2. Sleeper - Inbetweener (Indolent)

Sleeper's first proper hit single was also a very predictable event, with some music journalists, such as Caitlin Moran, going as far as to call it a piece of classic British songwriting to be reckoned with alongside any of the greats you care to name. Uh-huh.

As discussed on Volume 20, Sleeper's move to more commercial waters was blameless but slightly cynical nonetheless. Sensing the axe hanging over their careers if they couldn't write at least a couple of bona-fide hits, Wener began crafting the catchiest riffs and melodies possible to ensure she wouldn't end up back on the scrapheap. "Inbetweener" is, it has to be said, proof that she could pull it off, but it's far from their finest hour.

A bit like Blur's "Parklife", the verses all have a jogging, matter-of-fact pace to them, like a person humming their way through a to-do list, but unlike "Parklife" it lacks wit or absurdity. "She's shopping for kicks, got the weekend to get through/ keeping the rain off her Saturday hairdo" it begins, setting the tone for the rest of the song. Throughout, we are heavily signposted towards a woman who is merely making do with things - most certainly her present boyfriend, and probably other aspects of her life as well. The chorus is like a nagging friend staging an intervention, and is much more epic in its style. "What kind of A to Z would get you here?" it asks. It's clear we're at a turning point in the unfortunate person's life, and "Inbetweener" acts as a soundtrack to that halfway house, the chiming chorus of common sense bursting through the humdrum verses. The trouble is, I find the verses quite irritating, very middling, matter-of-fact and la-di-da. They make their flat, weary emotionally exhausted point, but once that's sunk in (after the first listen) they seem increasingly as if they're marking time, acting as blank little incidental buffers between the chorus's burst of sunshine.

Wener's views on the grey dullness of suburban life were also coloured by her childhood experiences of growing up in Gants Hill... which is where I'm typing this blog entry right now. I was born in the same hospital as Louise Wener, and due to various differing paths in our life stories, I didn't end up having pop success and moving to Crouch End (though to be fair, she deserves it more than me). Gants Hill forms part of Ilford, a strange area which can't quite make up its mind what it wants to be. A local newspaper recently conducted a poll to ask whether residents believed they lived in London or Essex. The results were almost 50/50. As you walk around, you can see that contradiction everywhere - it's tremendously ethnically diverse (unlike, say, Canvey Island or Clacton) and urban looking. Then you pass a neon-advertised karaoke night, and a bar boasting of "Eighties sounds tonight!" and feel as if you're way out of the city and close to the coast. It's a complex and frequently absurd area, with its own peculiarities, conflicts and eccentricities - another ex-resident Simon Amstell nailed some aspects of those more effectively on "Grandma's House", a series which was littered with in-jokes. You can only consider Ilford outright dull if you're looking out for glamour, famous people or movers and shakers. They're about twenty minutes up the Central line, which is no distance whatsoever (although I appreciate that psychologically it may feel like a hundred miles away).

Damon Albarn also grew up in Essex, and was another keen supporter of the "life of the dull commuter town nobody" narrative. Problematically, I happen to think that striving to better yourself and rise above the herd rather than work with your given community is a very Essex idea and aspiration in itself, in whatever form it takes. The area is littered with working class and lower middle class people who grabbed the opportunities afforded to them in the seventies and eighties and flew with them, looking over their shoulders and laughing at their old school friends as they left. The financial districts of Central London are littered with such people to whom the scoffing insult "Losers!" has become acceptable conduct. By writing sketchy lyrics about the "little people" from a loftier, more enlightened perspective, it could be argued that some Britpop stars were actually doing exactly the same as their old curtain-twitching neighbours who felt "rather sorry for Angela at number 26, in her scruffy dress going to a job she really hates". I feel closer culturally to Wener and Albarn than probably any other pop stars of this era, and yet there are moments when both make me feel uncomfortable. They remind me of the worst bits of my own personality I had when I was much younger. This may not be your problem, but there's a strong chance it stops me from enjoying some of their work as much as I should.

I have much less of a problem with Jarvis Cocker's observational lyrics, perhaps partly because he was much less close to home geographically speaking, and also partly because he genuinely, passionately rooted for the people he wrote about. His voice used to yelp and crack in protest about their missed opportunities, pitting them against a society that had ill-treated them. "Inbetweener", by comparison, wears a smile on its face and has the emotional pull of a short "real life" piece for a weekly gossip magazine. You get the impression Wener doesn't like anybody in the song much at all - they're primarily described by their failings ("he's nothing special/ she's not too smart") and the take-home message seems to be "Thank God tonight it's them instead of you". It's a catchy pop song, but nobody can accuse it of having a great deal of warmth.

3. Echobelly - Close.... But (Fauve)

"Close.... But" is a downright strange little single, in that it actually has a very jerky, almost XTC-esque rhythm pattern behind it, and manages some very unexpected frills, jolts, twists and changes. All the way through, Sonya's voice hiccups, hollers, sighs, soars and generally performs gymnastics worthy of a slightly more subdued Kate Bush.

As I've typed all that, I've realised something that doesn't make sense. Despite all the above, the song doesn't once manage to sound like anything other than a fleeting, inoffensive noise. It somehow disguises its oddness through its well-produced, mid tempo pace, and slips through the net as a daytime radio possibility rather than an evening radio certainty. All this would be fine if, while doing so, it didn't also end up sounding slightly unremarkable and unmemorable. If there's a hook or a compelling reason to put this on again, I really can't find it. Pass.

As it turned out, most of the public passed on this as well, and it didn't manage to come even close to charting within the Top 40.

4. Cracker - Low (Virgin)

Cracker were briefly enormous news in the USA, and this single had a strong cult following both over here and there. It's a brooding piece of epic alternative rock, with noodling, angsty chords and biting vocals. Unlike Smashing Pumpkins or Stone Temple Pilots, it stops itself short of histrionics and gets right to the point, which acts very much in its favour. This track has a bite to it, and a memorable hook - I was amazed to find myself humming along to it almost immediately after the first note, despite not having heard it for years.

Unfortunately, it remains the song Cracker are most known for, and they didn't manage to write follow-ups which had the same impact. They remain an active cult group in the USA, but their work had never had the light of the mainstream shining on it since.

5. Perfume - Lover (Aroma Sound)

Leicester's Perfume were one of those rare Britpop era groups who managed a degree of press acclaim and daytime radio airplay, and yet somehow still managed not to peek over the wall of the Top 40. Their biggest single, the much played "Haven't Seen You", had to settle for a number 71 chart place.

Much more than that raucous track, "Lover" sounds as if it should have found more widespread public appreciation. Filled with swooping, wailing vocals and a continually evolving melody, it's almost a little bit too perfect for its own good, sounding somewhat close to an early eighties construction from a psychedelic post-punk group like Wild Swans or an indie-fied piece of Eastern European rock, rather than a simple, joyous pop sound. It's possibly for this reason that it failed, acting as far too much for the time-pressed punter to take in. It was remixed and reissued in 1997 with a string section, which I actually prefer (though their fans tend to be quite sharply dismissive of it). It still achieved nothing, though.

Perfume wouldn't appear on another "Indie Top 20" album, but Universal Records saw fit to include them on the "Britpop Story" three CD set when it was issued in 2009, proving that someone, somewhere still remembered the fact that they partly soundtracked the era, even if their sales statistics were unimpressive compared to many of their peers.

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