Brett Spaceman's alternative Britpop
By: Brett Spaceman
What is Britpop? What does it mean?
I mean why even raise the subject? That’s mid nineties. Old news, right? Well for starters, it’s the 50th anniversary of The Beatles first single, an event doubtless marked by many broadcasters and journalists alike. Hell, Q and Mojo magazines will probably stretch at least three editions off the back of it. Bless. Oh, let’s let them. I’m more tired of the dreary Beatles bashing that goes on in ‘cooler than cool’ circles. Sure, ‘Love Me Do’ was cack. But dissing an entire back catalogue, on the basis of ‘Love Me Do’ is selective memory at best. At worst it reminds me of holocaust denial. Grow up please children. Write something as good as ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ first, and then we’ll have a conversation about The Beatles being overrated. Got that?
After rightly celebrating the fab four, discussion will likely turn to those artists that The Beatles have influenced and by turn to Britpop. This summer you may have chanced upon a minor occurrence called the 2012 Olympic Games. And if you happened upon its opening and closing ceremonies, (events which pleased the rest of the world whilst polarising British audiences), then you would have seen the full Britpop lineage. Like a royal pageant we saw the grandfatherly figures of Paul McCartney and Ray Davies before roaring into the present day with…… erm….Beady Eye.
Embarrassing isn’t it.
Celebration or masturbation? Most agree if Britain does anything well (apart from cycling and moaning) then it’s probably pop music, only then to go spoil the party with a bunch of safe, lowest common denominator, line up choices. (Okay, I accept that there was Fuck Buttons but aside from a rude name, are they really all that? They aren’t Britpop in any case so we can park that one) Now I like Danny Boyle fine. His taste in music, certainly for his movies is pretty darn good.
It just isn’t as good as mine!!!! Which is why I’d like to offer you some alternative choices; some bands that the glossy monthlies will probably choose to overlook.
Before we get there though, what was Britpop? As much as we despise definitions here at [sic], Britpop was a genre of music that existed predominantly during the mid nineties. Stylistically the bands tended towards sixties London optimism, typified by bands such as Oasis, Pulp and Blur. The music coincided with the optimistic mood of the country. It was the time of Cool Britannia – the newly elected ‘New’ Labour party, lad-culture and cocksure posturing. Musically, the dominant bands of the day took their cues from merseybeat, glam and punk. Rather a wide net, don’t you think? So how come the music was so diverse? I’ll tell you:
Genres ……don’t really exist.
Bands exist, some good, some bad, but genre’s are only journalistic devices designed to create movement and fashions – neat little boxes that allow the music papers write something where otherwise they’d be incapable of individual thought or reasoning. You see if you have one good band you have one article to sell one edition. If you invent a scene, you can stretch it out for week after week culminating in…. “Blur Vs Oasis”, and two of the worst singles of all time in some kind of heavyweight contest.
Socially and economically the current musical landscape has shifted about as far away from 1995 as anybody could imagine. Tories are back in power, blue (and yellow) liars replacing the red ones. It’s like the 80’s all over again so we should probably all be listening to dark, edgy post punk whilst bland pop music dominates the daytime airwaves. Oh we are! (Got something right for once) Personally I’m fine with the idea of leaving Britpop far behind me. I mean there’s got to me more to life than “Supersonic, Gin and Tonic”. Don’t you think? Is that the best Britain can do? Really? I say no Sir. And humbly offer you some alternative choices of my own.
Yes, we’ll begin with a banker. The Jam. If Oasis are the grandchildren of The Beatles then Paul Weller is probably the generation that they skipped. The Daddy, the Guvnor, the, the Modfather! And we probably all know The Jam.
Or do we?
I have a small concern. Now that Weller is the Modfather, he strikes many as a kind of Clapton figure. That’s fine. If people want to think that way they can but that’s not the way I think. And I hate the idea of revisionist historians painting The Jam out of the picture.
The Jam began their musical career with sketchy punk music, music as thin as their sta-press and ties. Yet they ended up top of the hit parade, dabbling in Motown soul, (‘Town Called Malice’ = ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’) It’s the bit in-between that interests me. In 1979 Weller unveiled a masterpiece called Setting Sons. Conceived as a concept album about the state of Britain at the time, Setting Sons is a record loaded with top tunes and Brit charm. In truth it falls a few songs short of its earlier objective, with only ‘Little Boy Soldiers’ really treading the ‘concept’ path. However ‘Burning Sky’, ‘Wasteland’, ‘Private Hell’ (inspired by Ian Curtis) and personal Jam favourite, ‘Thick As Thieves’ saw The Jam finally bury their ‘singles band’ status.
Sound Affects may have been the breakthrough album for The Jam but Setting Sons for me evokes a hazy, dream-like vision of 1979 UK – Britain shifting from the failures of the Callaghan government (winter of discontent) into the doom of Thatcher’s iron monetarism. Weller was always at his best when rallying against something so it’s small wonder that 79 threw up some of his very best work. In this album I can hear pointers towards great albums to come such as Big Country’s The Crossing and of course, the whole Britpop thing. Question Weller’s relevance now if it pleases you. But his solo output, Stanley Road in particular, stands alongside any of the classic Britpop albums.
Post-punk, new wave, art rock…whatever. XTC deserve to be discussed in relation to Britpop for a number of very valid reasons. After a slew of early 80’s hits XTC seem to have been written out of Brit musical history. (Theme emerging here,) This is more than unfair; this is negligence of the highest order. In mainman Andy Partridge, XTC had one of the country’s finest songwriters. Memorable for his Wilshire burr, round glasses and zany video performances, Partridge has been borderline forgotten by mainstream music press for the very simple reason that he has suffered from stage fright throughout his career. Without a live presence, after those hits, XTC slipped out of the consciousness.
We cannot say it was all Partridge. Colin Moulding also performed songwriting duties; giving the band their breakthrough hit ‘Making Plans For Nigel’ . But albums such as Black Sea and English Settlement belong to the Britpop cannon every bit as much as Parklife. Indeed in the song ‘Respectable Street’ you can hear the seeds of ‘Tracy Jacks’. Oft-overlooked, Partridge has more than earned the right to be considered as one of Britain’s greatest pop songwriters.
Neil Innes and The Bonzo Dog Doodah Band
Older band this. An original, ‘first generation’ Britpop act. And if the name sounds a bit irreverent that’s because they were. Self-depreciating, tongue in cheek humour is a staple of Britpop and the Bonzos often found themselves followed by words such as “Whacky” and “Eccentric”. I suppose they were to The Beatles, what Monty Python were to something like On The Buses. A nice circle can even be drawn as main songwriter Neil Innes, contributed music (and more) to Python , especially in the Holy Grail and with Eric Idle created the Beatles pastiche Rutland Television News, spawning the band The Rutles (the prefab four) Indeed, the The Rutles movie All You Need Is Cash works as well as any straight Beatles documentary. But just listen to the music. It takes a special skill to be able to imitate the music of The Beatles to such an extent without falling foul of litigation. Innes has that skill and more. Ron Nasty put it best when he said….
“I feel good
I feel bad
I feel happy
I feel sad
Am I in love?
I must be in love
Anytime of the day I can see
her face when I close my eyes
The Innes Book Of Records, was commissioned and televised by the BBC in 1979, setting oddball videos against Innes’ music to superb effect. He has carved out a huge body of work, both, solo and collaborative. Added to that the early Bonzo stuff and you have a songwriter that must rank as one of Britain’s finest and certainly one of its most underappreciated. Andy Partridge probably listened to The Bonzo Dog Doodah Band.
Probably best known as a punk act, Wire defy genre definition Always one step ahead sometimes Wire seem hermetically sealed off from the rest of music, refusing to accept pigeonholing or acknowledge peer comparisons. Their three legendary punk era albums show a band that listened as much to Lennon as they did Lydon. Mainman Colin Newman seems to these ears to be most influenced by Brian Eno’s non-ambient solo output. When I listen to works such as Another Green World and Here Come The Warm Jets I can hear the seeds of Newmans own, quite stunning solo albums A-Z and Not To.
Wire’s defining contribution to Britpop came second hand when the band Elastica had a huge hit with ‘Connection’, a song so obviously derivative of Wire’s own ‘Three Girl Rhumba’ that the matter was settled fuss free out of court. You know it of course as the theme tune for Trigger Happy TV, yet ‘Three Girl Rhumba’ was less known than other classic Wire songs such as ‘Outdoor Miner’, ‘I am The Fly’ and the beyond words beautiful ‘Map Ref 41°N 93°W’.
They’ve worked in stops and starts since then. The late eighties records seem to be saying ‘we can do pop sheen just as well as New Order (probably better than them at that particular moment) And more recent comebacks seem to reinforce the perception of Wire exploring the artier side of pop music. Recent album Red Barked Tree contains the track ‘Two Minutes’ which is about how long it takes Newman and co to put Blur well and truly in their place.
I cannot praise Newman highly enough. Of the vocal pillars of punk rock, Devoto, E Smith, Lydon, and Newman it is the southern hemisphere of that quartet to whom I gravitate the most. Arch, contrary and cantankerous (even when young) Newman may not be the best known voice of that generation but he should be. If the likes of Q magazine do not see fit to give out a lifetime award, maybe [sic] Magazine should enter the game?
Where to begin your Wire odyssey? On Returning is a generous early, art punk period collection that gathers most of the significant songs in one place but typically obtusely omits ‘Map Ref_’. That’s Wire for you! The A List is a mid period singles collection, and probably a ‘must-own’ except that I personally have a preference for the full studio album A Bell Is Cup Until It’s Struck. Wire converts should swiftly turn their attention to Newman’s solo output. Seek out the aforementioned A-Z, Not To, and I’d have to add Commercial Suicide too, very different, more European in vibe with electronics and lush orchestration. Newman now contributes to Githead.
Newman should be knighted.
Sometimes I have the impression that if we took away Shack frontman Mick Head’s guitar he might not be able to function as a normal person in society. He has intimated as much himself. “I just wouldn’t know what else to fookin do”, I think, were the words? Fortunately, Mick and his brother John do make music – some of the best music in my collection in fact.
Michael (Mick) Head began his musical life with The Pale Fountains, one of those Liverpool acts of the early 80s like Care, Lotus Eaters and Wild Swans whose brand of fey, sixties oriented pop anticipated the C86 movement they predated. Labels such as Sarah and Creation clearly owe a debt to The Pale Fountains but at the time the band never really took off. Ironically Head stopped the band in 86 and formed Shack with his brother John.
After the band’s debut album Zilch showed promise, Shack’s career would take a series of turns that will go down forever in music folklore. The master tapes for their follow-up album Waterpistol were destroyed in a studio fire. The only known copy was a DAT which had been mislaid in a rental car. Shack’s masterpiece was doomed to be forever lost and by the time it turned up, the label had folded and the album had no distribution.
Fortunately for us, Waterpistol, one of my all time favourite albums, was eventually released some four years after its original slated date; Anyone who regards ‘Wonderwall’ as some kind of Britpop high water mark would be advised to track down this album and give ‘Undecided’ a spin. You’re unlikely to be undecided after hearing it.
The rest is history. HMS Fable spawned hit singles in the form of ‘Comedy’ and ‘Nathalie’s Party’. Recognition at last for one of Britain’s finest lost songwriters. And John Head’s contribution mustn’t be overlooked either. Arguably some of Shacks stronger, latter material came from the pen of John.
I have one more apocryphal story which links us back to Beatles denial. It concerns an awards ceremony, around the time of HMS Fable. Shack were seated on the same table as Mogwai. When it was the time of the evening to award Paul McCartney for a lifetime achievement a stony faced Mogwai neither stood, nor applauded. At this point Mick Head turned his addiction hardened stare on Messer’s Braithwaite and Co and hissed “You Las fookin clap”.
In truth, the music of Shack owes more to Arther Lee’s Love than it does to The Beatles. Find out for yourself. There is a wonderful compilation Time Machine which for once has a pretty good selection. For a fully rounded album take HMS Fable as your entry point but if you feel yourself falling under the bands spell, Waterpistol is an essential purchase. You can thank me in the morning.
Now, let’s…. stretch it a bit. If…. if, we say ‘Brit’ means Great Britain and Northern Ireland then ladies and gents, I give you the Divine Comedy. (The shaking of heads is almost audible but I’m sticking with this. Remember what I said at the beginning. Genre’s are just vehicles for journalists to talk about what they want. And I want to talk about the Divine Comedy.) Of course Divine Comedy aren’t solely Britpop. But they have…. dabbled. ‘National Express’, ‘Alfie’, ‘Something For The Weekend’ – these songs could be Britpop. Divine Comedy of course cannot be confined to one genre. They are much much more than that. Divine Comedy touches chamber, pop, classical and even electronic synth pop. Neil Hannon, for me, has a strong case for greatest songwriter of the last twenty years. Hannons material is loaded with personality, humour and melancholy. It’s a tough trick to pull off. Most bands who display humour are forever tagged as joke acts. Hannon navigates the thin line with ease, making laughter turn into tears with a chord change.
From the ridiculous to the sublime – that’s Divine Comedy. A beautiful singing voice elevates the man further still.
Albums are patchy affairs. The good stuff is superlative, the rest, pompous pretentious and downright odd. Promenade is all the above and contains two of my favourite songs, ‘Summerhouse’ and ‘Tonight We Fly’. Regeneration is more melancholy but a fuller and more complete work. Those are the outstanding studio albums. A Secret History is also a nice ‘best of’ compilation and decent point of entry.
Stretching things further still. Well, about as far as possible (the other side of the world far enough for you?) and we come to Crowded House. They can’t be Britpop of course because they aren’t British. But hang on. Does that make any sense? Is style dependant on birthplace or postcode? Of course not. And in mainman Neil Finn we find a lyrical honesty and skill with melody to rival anyone from the recognised Britpop brigade. When Finn sings I hear Lennon AND McCartney rolled into one (I kid you not) and anybody labouring under the impression that Crowded House just peddle bland radio friendly earworms I can assure you that there is much more to them than ‘Weather With You’.
Oh, and they have OBE’s! So they must be Britpop!
And now for my final trick. Epic45 – A band that is so not Britpop. And yet they are!!! When I listen to Epic 45 I think of village greens, red telephone boxes, lost summers….. Britain, my Britain. Putting up a video clip is almost counterproductive. It’s all in the imagination, and the connection. That’s how music works. It needs a listener; it needs us before it comes alive. A song is not a song until it’s listened to. Epic 45 may not be merseybeat or mockney, but their music is steeped in Englishness. And mores the point….it’s brilliant. Remember what I said. Genre – vehicle – journalist – conceit.
Now play these!
Well that’s it dear reader; the end of my Britpop conjuring act. If you feel deceived, you have my sympathy. And yet I maintain that if you have the records of these artists they’ll eclipse the likes of Pulp and Blur.
XTC were better than E’s or whizz.
Suede fade in the presence of Wire.
More’s the point, if this article proves anything (apart from its author revealing all the tricks of his trade) it’s that if these diverse acts have anything in common, it isn’t genre, it is sheer songwriting brilliance. In Weller, Partridge, Innes, Newman, Head, Hannon and Finn we have a cluster of the finest out and out songwriters this planet has ever seen. These are writers writers, appreciated most by those in the know.
None of these artists can be confined to Britpop. And yet they are more Britpop than the recognised crew. You see, the Gallaghers had it wrong. Britpop isn’t about champagne supernovas or Cool Britannia. That was all fake. The idea of all those guys going to 10 Downing Street to meet Blair makes me shudder.
Britain isn’t cool. Being British is nothing to celebrate. Real Brit pop therefore requires cynicism and self depreciating humour. Innes and Weller, they get it. Partridge gets it. Hannon… the man embodies it. We can call them anything we want. Rock, pop, Brit, pre or post everything. That fact remains, these guys write wonderful songs.
So if we’re proud to be British it’s like accepting that we’re proud of being nothing at all – something I think Danny Boyle understood despite his ‘play it safe’ policy. The only thing we’re really good at is music – music that says how bad, useless or irrelevant we are. This is something beyond the grasp of many journalists. Even the enlightened few probably wouldn’t let it stand in the way of a good story.
D’You Know What I Mean?