16. Garbage - Subhuman (Mushroom)
Garbage's early career would probably have passed me by if it hadn't been for an unusually thick, heavy package arriving through my letterbox one day. Wondering whether it was a new record or an elaborate dirty bomb sent by the rugby boys in the university Conservative society, I opened it gingerly only to find a 7" single in a metal sleeve. I quickly glanced at the accompanying press release and learned that this was the latest project of Butch Vig, Nirvana's producer.
I was intrigued and attracted by the sleeve design, but I put it to one side in my listening pile anyway, among the lower priority singles. I actually wasn't a fan of Nirvana's "Nevermind" and assumed that this was likely to be another slice of American angst-rock. Contrary to the popular rock narrative, the rusty old grunge tap didn't just stop flowing out of respect after Cobain's death. All the worst second-division stragglers who had been picked up by record labels in 1993/4 continued to play to audiences of left-over hairies in every provincial town. I would get sent a brace of singles by new plaid-shirted bands every single week, and the vast majority were below par.
When I finally did put "Vow" on the turntable, though, I can remember every detail of where I was and how it made me feel. From that shimmering, disorientating opening to the messy effects-laden rush of guitars, to the fierce, gasping chorus, it sounded like an amalgamation of all the pop ideas I had loved growing up and was listening to at the time. The updated electronic twittering of "Virginia Plain", the insouciant pop stylings of Blondie, the soundscapes of Curve and the hard slap of the best, most aggressive bits of American college rock. I still love "Vow" dearly and while you never hear it played or talked about anymore, it's probably my favourite Garbage single.
As Garbage's career became more prominent, I began to develop a harmless post-adolescent crush on Shirley Manson, in common with thousands of others at the time. It wasn't just that she always looked spectacular in videos and photo shoots and was a charismatic frontwoman, it was also that she seemed incredibly complex and opinionated, and was usually on the right side of any given debate. All my friends picked up on my childish fancy and knew about it, and it seemed innocent enough. What could possibly go wrong? Well...
There is stuff in life that's simply not supposed to happen if you live in an unglamorous and ordinary town. Your weird daydreaming fantasies are not meant to become realities. When you're in Netto buying emergency toilet roll, for example, Renee Zellweger is not supposed to turn up in the same aisle looking for boxes of Mr Bloo toilet freshening blocks. When catching the ferry to Gosport to do a filing and data entry temp job, Zooey Deschanel is not supposed to be there as well on some kind of "underwhelming British waterways" jaunt. These aren't scenarios you should have to prepare for or think through in advance. Famous people are supposed to live in their own context, in their own world (back in the mid-nineties, I ran into the comedian Steve Punt on the steps of the Tate Gallery, and found even that faintly unreal at the time. What was he doing outside the television set looking all big?).
So while drinking in a very ordinary Portsmouth student pub, it's something of an understatement to say that I was somewhat taken aback when Garbage walked in. They were playing at the nearby Guildhall and seemed to be in need of cheap food and refreshment. Butch Vig strolled up confidently to the bar to get a round in, and returned to their table where Shirley Manson still had her hooded jacket on, seeming quite desperate to be ignored. A silence descended around my pub table. Everyone seemed to expect me to do something, for some reason. There was an unspoken but particularly sadistic glee in the air.
An energetic, over-enthusiastic, eccentric (and much loved) middle-aged Mancunian English Literature lecturer with a penchant for wearing seventies jackets was baffled by the fuss.
"What's going on?" he asked.
"Garbage have just walked in", I said.
"What? Is someone causing trouble?"
"No, GARBAGE the group. They're quite popular at the moment".
"Oh! Fantastic! I collect autographs of famous people, young man, I'll go over and have a word!"
"Eh, hello!" he apparently told them. "A young man over there told me you're very famous. In fact, he said you were Garbage, and I told him not to be so damn rude! Then he explained you were actually a very popular group. Please could I have your autographs for my collection? I collect autographs, you see."
They obliged, to which he continued "He's a top journalist at the NME, I'll have you know, and he'll probably want a word with you later on".
This wasn't true. It was an absurd claim and an absolute lie which would have been rumbled by everyone in seconds. Nonetheless, all my friend's eyes were on me, and everyone seemed to expect me to act on this ruse. So I did what anyone else would do in my position. I pretended I had to be somewhere else quite urgently and left the pub. To be honest, besides feeling under pressure I was also weirded out by the absurdity of it all.
So I never did meet Shirley Manson - if I had, perhaps I could give you a better ending to that shaggy dog story - but I followed Garbage's career closely and felt that they remained one of those bands who seemed to be inspired by a huge brace of ideas but had no obvious peers. Managing to attract fans from a wide cross-section of the music world, their popularity seemed partly bouyed up by the fact that they wrote damn good pop songs when they wanted to ("Stupid Girl" being the pinnacle of their achievements in that respect) but also that the multitude of influences they carried with them acted as a beacon to so many different people. You were as likely to rub up against a Sisters of Mercy fan at a Garbage gig as you were someone who loved Pulp or Nirvana.
Their second single "Subhuman", however, is probably one of my least favourites, and that's why I've dodged talking about it until the final furlong here. Whereas their other work succeeds by seamlessly incorporating lots of seemingly conflicting ideas, "Subhuman" is a pretty straightforward slice of threatening industrial rock. Listenable, enjoyable, but so far away from their best work that it's a huge pity this will be the only time we'll have a chance to discuss the band.
But anyway, you know the rest. And I still have that copy of "Vow" in my record box about four feet from where I'm presently typing this, and no, it's not for sale.
17. Mansun - Take It Easy Chicken (Sci Fi Hi Fi)
While Mansun's later material caused them to become an enormo-cult group with some very strange and obsessive fans, their earliest singles slipped out on their own label and were the stuff of frothing magazine reviews and late night radio play, but not a lot of attention or success.
I have to admit that at this point of their career, I didn't quite "get" them. Both this and the low-key follow-up single "Flourella/ Skin Up Pin Up" seemed more about the force of their personalities than the ideas they had. Squalling guitar riffs met Draper's drawled vocals, and while it was indie-rock with attitude, everything they produced just seemed like a slab of sneering noise - like glam without the spaces, or punk rock without the rawness. These early singles were relentless and didn't play with a very broad sonic palette.
Nonetheless, that turned out to be exactly what some people were looking for, and the pied pipers of Mansun busily toured the country picking up more and more fans as they went. After the success of the "Attack of the Grey Lantern" LP, it all eventually built up to the magnificently mad "Six" LP which I have to be in the right mood to listen to, but was certainly one of the most daring releases of the post-Britpop period.
18. Done Lying Down - Chronic Offender (Immaterial)
Done Lying Down seem to have slipped out of the history books of indie and alternative music, which is odd and unfair. Solid John Peel favourites and a constant press presence in the nineties made them seem, for a brief period, like the most prominent underground punk band on the circuit. They also managed to predate the sounds which would appeal enormously to skate-kids later in the decade.
"Just A Misdeameanour" was probably their finest and most appreciated single, but "Chronic Offender" gives you a strong sense of their power as well. It's a firestorm of a record with fat, beefy basslines and sudden eruptions of fury. Sophisticated it isn't, but the adrenalin on offer here acts as a fair indication of what you would have experienced at one of their many club gigs.
19. Supermodel - Penis Size and Cars (Fire)
Yet another group in this segment of the compilation who make me feel as if I'm reviewing an edition of "Snakebite City" rather than "Indie Top 20". Supermodel were a proudly lo-fi group from Staines who produced a multitude of records on miniscule budgets. Having more in common with the emerging sounds of the likes of Urusei Yatsura than the biggest acts of the day, they signposted a direction the indie scene would eventually take once Britpop flagged out.
"Penis Size and Cars" is two minutes of punchy noise, cheap but very potent indeed. Their live gigs were impressive enough to earn them many enthusiastic reviews, with Ian Broudie of the Lightning Seeds being so charmed by their racket he offered them a support slot on a tour.
Theaudience later covered this track as a B-side, proving that respect came from plenty of other quarters too.
20. Perfume - Yesterday Follows You (Aromasound)
Once again, Perfume prove here that weaving a web of considered, moody guitar led melodies didn't necessarily sell records in the mid-nineties. "Yesterday Follows You" creeps and drifts along like a subtle piece of mod rock, complete with shimmering freakbeat guitars in the chorus. The ghost of Steve Marriott was probably listening with interest (and just as he recorded parts of "The Universal" in his back garden, Perfume here seem to have shot the video in a back garden instead).
Jo Whiley apparently also appears on this record on "handclap" duties, which I'd be willing to bet is her only session credit ever. Rumours that Steve Lamacq played fingerbells on their debut LP have unfortunately not been confirmed as yet.