Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The scene that celebrates itself

Next year, people not born when England played West Germany in the World Cup semi-final will be taking their A-levels. For someone becoming ever more aware of the onward passage of time, that's more than slightly scary. It also goes to show how fast music moves on in this country - a full generation has already moved on since the heyday of acid house, probably the last youth movement connected with music that did actually cause socio-political ructions, the idea that these gatherings were happening without your permission.

There's a lot of talk about the tightening coils that make up a timeline of revivalism in the UK music scene, what with nu-rave and baggy influences around at the moment and the enveloping fog of Britpop influences already coming to the fore (why that should be the big issue given the tag 'post-Libertines' is already passe we don't know, but let's move on), which is why it's timely that this week sees compilation box set virtuosos Rhino Records release The Brit Box, a four CD box set shaped like a red telephone box, inevitably, complete with a large booklet featuring contributions from Alan McGee, Stephen Street, Alan Moulder and so forth. It's being sold not only as the first retrospective of what happened in this wave of UK music in the vein of previous Rhino releases Nuggets, Left Of The Dial and One Kiss Can Lead To Another, which will only really impress the US audience it was originally aimed at, but more specifically as a Britpop/Cool Britannia retrospective, which now water actually has passed under respective bridges and the documentarians have had their say might work in itself, but it's far from that, taking a fifteen year sweep of what was going on, cutting off in 1999 when the British music scene finally got over itself. For a bit. While nobody accused Nuggets of being too hasty even though it came out six years after its most contemporary inclusion, fifteen years is a wide angle to take if compressing British guitar music down to a flowchart of cultural studies.

But that's theory. What about music? Well, that's soon enough rendered - what we did was ripped, downloaded and variously acquired as many of the 78 tracks as we could in advance, falling just eight short in the end, listened to them and tried to make sense of what actually happened here.

Disc 1

It starts with How Soon Is Now? Well, of course it starts with How Soon Is Now?, perhaps even more than the Beatles the single great influence on what follows to this day, through that guitar and that lyrical concern, a strong stylistic link that takes in both Blur and Oasis. These early stages are really more of a cherrypick of what was dispritely going on rather than trying to make a linear narrative, with the Cocteau Twins' Lorelei existing in its own world and three tracks nodding at the continued underlying influence of C86. Interestingly there's an attempt to make them flow in the choices of tracks - Primitive Painters was a standout at the time but other Lawrence songs with less hazy production have aged better, while there's better examples of the Shop Assistants' sharpness than the shimmering attempt Somewhere In China. The Mighty Lemon Drops' charged Byrdsian jangles presage much of what came, but by that token the Wedding Present shouldn't have had pride of place here. We're on firmer ground with the Cure's Just Like Heaven, a song that gets irregular attempts at not so disguised remakes, not least by the Cure themselves for about the next five years, Echo and the Bunnymen's Lips Like Sugar also going towards mining a seam that really didn't have the advantage taken from it until after the nineties, although for our money Back Of Love or Seven Seas would have been better. In retrospect the Jesus and Mary Chain's April Skies, while as dark as reputation suggests, doesn't have anything like the impact of Psychocandy, and after the previous two tracks seems somewhat leaden. And what was it with proper drums being mixed to sound like electronic kits at the time?

Although they would become more influential with other songs, Spacemen 3's Walkin' With Jesus also stands alone, as much by its lush minimalism as being between J&MC and the Primitives' endlessly likeable Crash, both of which are on a level with the now sounding underpowered Unbearable by the Wonder Stuff, which sounds like the Mighty Lemon Drops grown up and discovering the joy of record sales when they actually made you money. This is where we turn into the 1990s, and thanks to Oakenfold and those million DJs who claim to have discovered house music are running their clubs and creating a word of mouth that's getting all manner of losers, boozers and jacuzzi users to invest in sequencers. And so it is here, the moment when bands became structurally and crossover-wise ambitious. She Bangs The Drums, The Only One I Know, Step On, Loaded, This Is How It Feels - all as familiar to men aged between 26 and 48 as the national anthem and a lot less dirgelike too. But, certainly in the first two and last cases, also the first strains of successful British music rooted in the 1960s beyond the Beatles, the sounds of Merseybeat, garage and the British Invasion, a connection even more explicit when followed by the Trash Can Sinatras' Obscurity Knocks - a choice which suggests trying to make connections between this era and what came later, as some Pop Will Eat Itself to cement the dance-rock lineage wouldn't have killed - and, with a creeping sense of inevitability, There She Goes. Disc 1 closes with the Sundays' Here's Where The Story Ends, which is its own little microcosm of homegrown UK music of the 90s - 1990's Reading, Writing And Arithmetic was for a few years talked about in hushed tones, at least for as long until they followed it up in 1997, but nowadays is lucky to receive a mention in dispatches. Although, again, there are better songs of theirs - Can't Be Sure, a piece of opaque greatness from two years earlier - you'd now struggle to call this 'indie', bearing more in relation to KT Tunstall than the Long Blondes.

Disc 2

Precious little such acoustic-led shilly-shallying on this disc, as we spend most of its eighteen tracks with hair lank, pedals maxed and eyes downwards. The progression is gradual, Ride's Vapour Trail having more than a hint of jangle and strings among its blurred tremelos, and while the Pale Saints more than match up in the hovering guitars and wan vocals, more latter Spacemen 3 than anything, it's not until track three when Loveless, represented by the still extraordinary Only Shallow, arrives to blow the joint apart, and we're off into the realm of the effects. Some found a way through - the tremendously underrated at all stages Lush's For Love makes a link between the Popguns and those around them here - but the Telescopes are fairly evidently taking after Ride while Chapterhouse are Shoegazing 101 makeweights and the Catherine Wheel - quite successful on American college radio, lest we forget - appear to be trying to become the introspective swirling complement to Soundgarden. Inevitably it's this disc which is hit hardest by a lack of download presence, though we doubt Bleach, Five Thirty, the Dylans, Thousand Yard Stare and Moose, whose singer became famous for never looking straight ahead on stage, are bearing up well, although the Family Cat might have offered something. Curve were important on the route to Garbageesque female fronted electro-rock but their dense production and (machined?) drum patterns suggest they were more one of a piece with many of those around. This means we join the story on its way out of shoegazing and realising we're missing some vital component parts. Where, for example, are the clustered guitars and superior darkscaping of the House Of Love at the start, the square pegs and much hinted at of late Kitchens Of Distinction or indeed one of the genre's most important and well remembered bands, Slowdive?

Instead we rejoin well on the way to what came with the ragtag Ned's Atomic Dustbin - nice of them to remember, but surely Jesus Jones deserved a mention, although with none of the Britpop-affiliated ends of electro and big beat referred to in the rest of the compilation the dance pastures hinted at with the Mondays and so forth have been abandoned by the compilers. Before Select could get Brett Anderson in front of a blue screen it briefly looked like British guitar music would literally be dragged back kicking and screaming into hard pastures, firstly with Birdland's Shoot You Down, not half as malevolent as it wants to be, and then the Manics, smartly choosing early 'sixteen million and then we'll split' rather than successful, although if the point's being made there are better songs to make it with, as James and Nicky would now attest, than Stay Beautiful. (Note for timeline tracers: it was Birdland disappointment Steve Lamacq invoked in his interview with Richey about commitment that caused the '4 REAL' business). After such sonic pounding the final track is the one that ends up pointing the way best, Teenage Fanclub's still peerless Star Sign, which takes the wall of guitars and does something straightforwardly melodic with them. This, however, was clearly not a vintage period, and the fact we were about to type "where's Carter USM?" confirms it.

Disc 3

Now we're into it. 'YANKS GO HOME!' said the famous Select cover, not long after Suede had burst out of nowhere, all makeup, androgyny and suggestions of 'other', The Drowners for many the starting pistol for what was to follow. So here we have... Metal Mickey. Less glam, less lyrically suggestive, less all round. Only then, for some reason, do we get Swervedriver, who have become co-opted into shoegazing retrospectively - pedals, Home Counties - but on Duel resemble a louder Teenage Fanclub. Eugenius are an intriguing addition, a Kurt Cobain favourite whose jangly Breakfast almost predicts the next Fannies album, but if this part, which includes the similar but more attempted ethereal Superstar, is showing the way towards 1995's apogee then it's odd not to see Cud or the Auteurs included. Instead there's an almost token nod to New Order's last great song Regret and James' Laid and, bizarrely, Nick Heyward, who was signed to Creation for a short while for some facile acoustic stuff. Was there an issue with picking something from weller's Wild Wood? It's interesting that at this point we get three bands who didn't really fit in at the time, the Boo Radleys' glorious psychedelic epic Lazarus (an inventive reappropriation of Merseybeat retro, and at least it wasn't the get-out clause of anything from Wake Up!), Saint Etienne's retro-futurism - how the Americans will take to You're In A Bad Way's reference to "watching Bruce on the old Generation Game" is anyone's guess - and Stereolab's reuse of influences most clued-up people still know little about. What this all goes to show, we suppose, is that in 1993-94 there was a lot of music about of quality but it needed to coalesce for wider appreciation.

You'll never guess who made the next three tracks, given that build-up. Last first, Common People will remain unimpeachable, doffing its cap to many a direct influence while sounding completely of the time and yet in a way that will never age its quietly shifting sound. Frankly, it's a song about not getting on with middle class art students that resonated for everyone. Oasis come before it with Live Forever, the perfect match of their early fire and Noel's classicist aspirations. (Interesting to note that despite being the ultimate rockist band Noel often namechecked trip-hop and dance music among his listening at the time, only much later thinning it out to just Cotton Mather and Kings Of Leon.) Blur? Intriguingly, their choice is from Parklife but it's Tracy Jacks, not even the most celebrated or well sketched out of the non-single album tracks. Girls And Boys would have fitted the sequencing better, This Is A Low or Badhead would have shown the depths Damon was capable of, Parklife and End Of A Century would be better for the theme. We can only assume they wanted to represent his character study period, which only really came into play on the albums either side of Parklife to wildly varying results. And then the issue really gets clouded with The New Wave Of New Wave, more precisely These Animal Men, who shot for the glam stars but ended up lumpen and somehow just unlikeable. Maybe this and the resolutely second division Mega City Four is the warning from history, the way it might have turned out in a parallel world. Echobelly's Insomniac has aged just as badly, but this is by no means their most representative moment. By now we're well into the Cool Britannia longeurs and assorted hypes, Gene hampered by sledgehammer production, the infamous Menswear's Sleeping In - why not their calling card Daydreamer? - like a modern pisstake of chirpy Cockernee schmindie. Even Supergrass' celebrated Alright doesn't survive all that well, the joi de vivre pulling through a lightweight arrangement, but it's less of a hostage to fortune alongside Cast's own Alright, which now sounds desperately short of ideas. Although that concept is in the eye of the beholder - Elastica didn't have too many different ideas in 1994, yet Stutter still sounds like an invigorating come-on of pure Buzzcockian stock. That's kind of the impression a large part of this CD gives off - those that have commitment and audible personality were few on the ground, and those are the ones you remember. Which means that when we get to the dregs as the music makes the leap from weeklies to daily showbiz columns, some people are in trouble.

Disc 4

Are Dodgy one such band? They swept the scene at one point, with Math Priest's Never Mind The Buzzcocks residency and Andy Miller dating Denise van Outen, but minus the quotability presence In A Room suggests they weren't exactly cut out to be frontrunners. Ash might well have been, Girl From Mars one of few of their early songs that have aged well, but they kept taking their eye off the ball. Sleeper fare less well, but again Sale Of The Century shows off Louise Wener's style less well than Inbetweener, and Marion's glam racket is better served by Time than Sleep. Nothing will ever serve better for Kula Shaker. Did we really all go head over heels for Tattva's third hand Small Faces plus mysticism? Actually Ocean Colour Scene do better than expected out of being picked up from the populism reject bin, although the famous riff from The Riverboat Song, now divorced from memories of Chris Evans at his height, sounds horribly underpowered. Babybird's You're Gorgeous is still a textbook lesson in how to wrest a radio friendly anthem from unfriendly sources, although its omnipresence that year did stop Stephen Jones from receiving his songwriting due. The Bluetones' Slight Return? Ooh, this is painful - we don't mind admitting we loved them at the time of Expecting To Fly, but in isolaton twelve years later it's clearly musicians working at the limits of their jangling abilities. The singles from the derided second album have weathered much better. There's also those pushed out through the circumstances of the storytelling - no place for the Longpigs' maximalism, or Space's cheek, or any mention of the bands the fanzine kids followed as a contrasting story to the now mainstream rock hegemony - no Bis, no Kenickie, no early Idlewild, not even Belle & Sebastian.

And so the talking stopped. Country House v Roll With It happened, then Morning Glory broke big, then over 1996 and 1997 it all began to ebb away, in contravention of basic physics because it got too big. The smart ones realised that to survive you needed a few out of the way ideas because nobody was standing for straight pub singalong choruses any more. Pub lads wouldn't get Gruff Rhys or Neil Hannon, whose Something 4 The Weekend and Something For The Weekend remain moments of individual flair compromised by Rhino's tracklister acting too smart. We don't know which version of Brimful Of Asha they're using, but no prizes for guessing which of Cornershop's Richman-hinting original and Fatboy Slim's big beateria has weathered best. Has anybody thought about Silver Sun in the last ten years? Album track Service is an odd choice, but its glam beat, power chords and Californian harmonies just about carry through. Jason Pierce's second appearance completely at odds with his surroundings comes with the title track from Spiritualized's Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space, still on the subjects of life's etherness and allusions to "taking away the pain" from perhaps the great lost classic of the '90s, routinely described as a masterpiece at the time but overlooked ever since. Plenty of people are still fond of Mansun too, and they don't sound like a lot of their disc compadres either in a very different way, especially when placed next to the post-Oasis bludgeon longeurs masquerading as gradiosity of Hurricane #1's Step Into My World and The Verve's Lucky Man. You can't help thinking it's this sort of radiant self-perpetuating reaching for the showbiz stars that's being replicated to smaller and smaller artistic merit - what is divisible by zero again? - as time passes. Rialto now sound exactly like the recent New Order albums, which probably wasn't their intention at the time. Britpop was conclusively over by this point, but it left a legacy of people who wanted to be in the tabloids at any cost. Exhibit A: there's nothing to Catatonia's Mulder And Scully, even the then sainted Cerys coming off second in an internal likeable vocal style contest with Wener. You Don't Care About Us is a fairly anaemic choice to represent Placebo but is Ace Of Spades next to Gay Dad, the final track and presumably chosen for their own story, hugely hyped in advance followed by instant backlash and mocking ever since. Oh Jim, rather than that much trailed debut single From Earth With Love, doesn't help that cause much. Evidently, UK music didn't learn anything as it went along from its mistakes. Or rather it did, and can repeat them when required.

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