Ft Is 10
England is DIFFERENT (or SPECIAL if you want to be polite) to everywhere else for many reasons, but one is because our music “industry” (it’s not an industry – making baked beans is an industry, and nobody does THAT in their spare time, writes fanzines about it or has them poured over themselves at weddings. Usually) is SO virulently centralised. Bands in, for instance, France, do not all dream of moving to Paris the SECOND their first tape demo is posted to Le Fanzine De Pop!, for example, but here it sometimes seems that London Is Everything – the major labels are all there, and the “professional” “music” “press” is too, with its “journalists” unwilling to venture past the M25 when new bands can be discovered simply by asking their idiot friends what group they’re in THIS Friday.
ANYWAY, the GOOD thing about this is that we get to have the LOCAL BAND, “local” here meaning “not from London” – bands from Scotland or Wales are, of course, labelled Scottish Bands and Welsh Bands (in that order). That’s not to say Local Bands are the same throughout England – for instance, Derby Bands will want to ROCK, Leicester bands will never have anything resembling a singer, Bristol bands will think they are much cooler than anyone else, and Birmingham bands will own a Stereolab record – but the Basic FACTS about them will remain the same. And here they are for you to learn and enjoy.
For a while – maybe even a week – after New Year’s, I could still glance at the top of newspapers and feel a quiet, thrilling jolt at the date. Of course I hadn’t thought anything would change when the year did, but even so there was briefly an air about that little row of zeroes, something solemn beyond even the most rational of my cynicisms. Maybe it was only the look of them, oval, open and welcoming, that made me feel sneering was – well, not the wrong response precisely, but an easy, cheap one nonetheless. For those few days, hoping despite the evidence that some kind of change would come felt a great deal less crass than trumpeting that it wouldn’t.
I’m in a central London cinema watching Fight Club: on the screen, Brad Pitt has forced a Korean shopkeeper to kneel in a puddle and is holding a gun to the man’s head. Pitt tells the man he is going to die, then asks him what he most wanted to be in life, and the answer comes back in pitiful blubbery sobs: a vet. Pitt gives the man his wallet back and tells him that in six months he’ll be back to check if he’s taking steps to realise his veterinary dream. The man runs off howling, and all around me the audience start to laugh – throughout the cinema, I hear scattered applause.
Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s
You can tell when you’re in the Midlands because there’s metal on all the taxi radios. There are parts of the country where the 90s didn’t happen, they just passed in a slow iron-grey drag, and though I’ve never been there I imagine Blackwood in South Wales might have been like that too. It’s not poverty these places have in common, it’s the sulkily self-sufficient feeling of not mattering: the sing-song accents, the patches on the jackets, the dead industries, the endless guesthouses that used to be farmhouses, the metal on the radio – all one side of a timeless equation of which the other is metropolitan contempt. The Manics’ first and best shot at the rock anthem is the perfect soundtrack for that flat, ignored landscape. “Under neon loneliness / Motorcycle emptiness” – for all I know they might have wanted it to mean James Dean, but for me it sounds like an A1 service station.
In 1992 the Manics looked cheap but beautiful and that’s what “Motorcycle Emptiness” sounds like, sort of. Not in the Cinderella-meets-Clash sense of the band image, but more literally. The production is thin, especially on the drums, which anyway are far more baggy than bitchin’, and the under-resourced arrangement makes it painfully obvious how much the band are relying on James Dean Bradfield’s studied guitar licks and solos. They’ve certainly sounded less professional than this, but they’ve never sounded more callow, more touchingly like a schoolboy rock band. And yet this is a song which has moved me to the brink of tears. Why?
For one thing, no matter how imitative those licks and solos are, they’re also damned catchy. It seems laughable now but back then I suppose even the thought of a young British band trying to play arena rock, rather than dancing or droning their career away, was an odd one. The first thing I remember about the Manics, before I even heard the music, was their insistence on being a cross between Public Enemy and Guns’n’Roses. I don’t know how serious they were being, but it seemed then and seems now that with such a precise and perfect grasp of the pop concept they would have made superb critics or svengalis. You can’t hear much PE in “Motorcycle Emptiness” but you can hear plenty of the Gunners. Axl Rose’s great trick was to mix up his wastrel rocker appeal with melody and pathos, meaning you wanted to help him as much as you wanted to party with him, and the Manics learned a lot from that. Gold Against The Soul, which “Motorcycle Emptiness” anticipates (it sticks out like an un-sore thumb on its raucous parent album), is a half-classic of sensitive metal, Axl’s confused-nihilist persona internalised and fucked up to the point of collapse, while the riffs just keep on playing.
People sometimes sneer at rock music and call it ‘adolescent’, for all the world as if it shouldn’t be. “Motorcycle Emptiness” bristles with the heightened sensitivities and furious missions of the neurotic boy outsider, and though the themes are pretty familiar – cultural horror, everyday futility, existential loathing – the anthemic setting isn’t. Usually, though, songs like this hold out for some kind of route out, even if it’s only through rockin’ out: not here. In “Motorcycle Emptiness”, escape is illusory and resistance is useless: tramps like us, baby, we were born to ruin. And that’s the contradiction which makes this record so corny and so moving: it’s a song which goes out of its way to deny what its own music is promising. Or, of course, a song which promises with every note the thing it wants to deny.
Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s
Kids, I swear, it was a grass-roots musical revolution out there! While the NME nobs sipped Chardonnay in their Wapping skyscrapers and cossetted their chinless audience with flaccid guitar nostalgia, the working class youth of Britain were havin’ it all night in squats’n’warehouses’n’fields’n’car parks, getting loved-up and raving, raving, raving all weekend to an avant-ardkore frenzy, before going back to their tower blocks and sink estates to kill another worthless week listening to the pirates. Such rough glamour, my dears, such a contrast! Luvvit!
If this becomes the accepted version of 90s British pop, as it yet might, then we’ll still only be getting half the story. Pop out of London, into the big Northern clubbing centres on a Friday night, for instance, and you’d have encountered crowds of your authentic working-class Chemical Generation hedonists. Shivering in queues against brick walls with gelled-down short-cut hair or spangled eyelashes or market-bought Hilfiger tops or short silver dresses, these people and the music and nightlife they loved stand fit to be written out of pop history. Their culture wasn’t fast moving or ‘surprisingly’ intelligent or lumpen-experimental enough to matter, I suppose, though they were people out for escape and kicks as plainly as anyone else this decade.
If you’d followed the queue into one of their clubs, the music you’d have heard was ‘handbag house’. In Energy Flash, his near-definitive history of dance music, Simon Reynolds dismisses handbag, the staple clubland fodder of the mid-decade, as “mere disco”. And the very name of this least-loved of genres tells you where many of its critics were coming from. A handbag is functional and feminine, and handbag house was girls’ music, as dismissable and distrusted as anything that ever got called teenybop, but without even the voyeuristic screamy starlust stuff that generally attracts pop-ologists to the female fan.
Handbag was girly, but was it any good? Well, like most pop, it worked a formula, and like most formulae, it won’t win the glow of nostalgic respect until we’re well away from it. But at its best, handbag was a glorious, unaffected, swoon, and JX was its best. Like happy hardcore, this music worked with simple beats and even simpler, easily euphoric melodies, but rather than go all out for rapture-through-speed, it took disco’s sass and yearning, and simply looped the most strident bits. JX’s first hit was “Son Of A Gun”, an anthemically repetitive tune lifted from an old Barbara Roy shouter – by the time of the dreamy “There’s Nothing I Won’t Do” he’d refined and extended his craft. “There’s Nothing…” is handbag house perfected, chiming synth sequences building and looping and breaking around the singer’s breathy devotions. The singing is as plainly effective as the music, with no soul or sophistication to get in the way of the delight. ‘Pure pop’ may be the most overused and smug phrase in the critical dictionary, but for once I can use it without shame: this joy fails all description, and is pure.
Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s
The sharp London boy dialogue which bookends Weekender‘s 12 minutes sounds like Billy Liar or some other bolshy, aspirational 60s youth fable. It’s that link as much as the length which tips you off that Weekender is big stuff, a grimy and inchoate attempt to tell you What It’s Like, to cram the whole stupid mess of the 90s into one sprawling record, before it’s all happened and been cut up and bagged and tagged and historified. Weekender is an aggressive, unique record, a record that doesn’t want to be made sense of, a surly epic existing to tell you just that no matter what you’ll read about 1992 in some future pop textbook, it wasn’t like that, wasn’t nearly so neat.
That’s not to say this song’s got any kind of truth to tell. The record’s too addled and phantasmagoric for that, its invisible protagonist led by his nose through a hedonistic wonderland London by the singer, who then turns on him in disgust: “Weekender, fuck off, fuck off and die.” And that’s when the big dirty groove drops out of the song to leave a lurching bad-dream jazz meander. The hapless weekender needs the singer’s guidance but can’t ever truly enter his world, and in this sense Weekender is more political than it seems, a dramatisation not only of post-Rave London but of the classic clubland division between the people for whom it really is a lifestyle and the vast bulk of us, the weekend ravers who drop in and out of the scene at will – “tell at work your weekend tale / Still need the pressure of the daily sale”. And in the end the singer, reconciled, even sympathetic, sends the weekender on his way.
Weekender is a record about drugs and dancing which doesn’t mention drugs and can’t easily be danced to. That doesn’t stop it being as much a classic dance record as anything on this list, though – it was the culmination of a fertile, nervous period when British alternative music struggled to come to terms with the explosion in clubbing and the things it was doing to pop and to life. And Flowered Up (hyped up, loved up, tooled up scam merchants turned seers) were as perfect a faceless, fast-moving, unrecoupable pop package as any one-hit techno kids, it just so happened they were working with guitars and freewheeling, slack-arsed funk as well as the odd sample. Listening back from a non-historical perspective, though, what makes Weekender for you now is the extraordinary voice of Liam Maher, his lunatical Cockney scat coming on like John Lydon playing in Oliver!, a gibbering sound-portrait of a city, a scene, a psyche on the brink of either losing it entirely or sinking back into the doldrums it came from.
England under the knife: the second great British pop album of 1999 is a sick and bruised twin of the first. XTC’s Apple Venus painted England as a rustic, mystic utopia, where lives find rest and satisfaction in changeless countryside ritual. How I Learned To Love The Bootboys is its twisted counterpoint, with thwarted ambitions, stillborn hopes and a thousand pointless personal defeats congregating sullenly in the sidestreets and alleyways of that perpetual suburb of pop culture, the Nineteen-Seventies.
Why the Seventies? It’s when Luke Haines grew up, obviously, but it’s also a particularly damp, dark time for British mass culture, when the illusion of national relevancy brought on by the Sixties boom had collapsed. What we, who never properly lived through it, remember from that time is political failure and cultural trivia – chopper bikes, top trumps, Posh Paws, Richard Allen, the three day week, Lieutenant Pigeon, The Rubettes….and this is where Haines comes in.
The minutiae of the Seventies are all that survives of the era in our perpetual, carnival present, and so Haines focusses on them, but he gets the mood right too. Haines’ curdled Britain is the same Britain you see in Gordon Burn’s book on Fred and Rose West, Happy Like Murderers, a country of joyless, pinched lives; the timid and the luckless stumbling about in the dark, then disappearing. sometimes suddenly. Violence, and violent crime, are always bubbling away under the Auteurs’ stark, simple music. Not any more the glam anarcho-violence of Ulrike Meinhof or the Red Army Faction, but a sadder, more rotten kind which the way Haines sings it is lodged in the culture like a splinter. Kids lured into cars and tied up in the boot; suburban kickings on a Saturday night; amateur hitmen hired outside concrete-walled pubs; garage suicides and unwanted gropes.
Where are these bootboys? ‘At tne end of the road / At the top of the charts’ : everything connects, pop music and everyday life most of all. Haines despises the mythology of pop but he can’t get away from it – for every ‘The Rubettes’, where ordinary kids find pop music mocking their attempts to get (it) on, there’s a ‘Future Generation’, which finds Luke hoping, grudgefully, for better times ahead. At times pop mystery and Haines’ repulsed vision blend: ‘Johnny And The Hurricanes’ is a feverish spell, a four minute curse in which Haines has visions of early deaths, black masses, and pop itself sinking back to the smug fifties bonhomie from whence it came. ‘The future’s 1955’ he sings, looking around himself at a sewn-up music business riddled with nostalgia bores, thinking back to the Meek/Parnes era.
Wild interpretation, of course: I should stick to the music, since the lyrics are so cryptic, personal and detailed. And the music is malnourished, in places queasy, but surprisingly varied. The title track resurrects PIL’s paranoid punk-dub lurch with impressive accuracy, ‘Some Changes’ is all over-the-top flourishing and keyboard power chords, ‘Sick Of Hare Krishna’ a spindly acoustic reverie. With five albums behind him, Haines has a tight grip on what exactly he wants from his sound, and knows his limitations. He works his below-average voice to good effect, too, turning its weakness into virulence. Most effective of all is ‘The Rubettes’ and its sickly, desperate reprise, ‘Lights Out’, warping a classically cheesy seventies pop chorus into a ghastly sneer, then surrounding it with taut, thin-sounding guitar pop.
It’s an excellent album, with a couple of caveats – minorly, it sags two-thirds of the way through, with the boring ‘The South Will Rise Again’, where Haines can’t cope with his own scansion, and with ‘Asti Spumante’, whose cut-up lyrics read like Cornershop doing Manics parodies. And more pointedly, there’s a danger in doing this kind of thing that you’ll end up sounding too aloof from the crapness you’re describing (like Bono or Thom Yorke) or that you’ll end up somehow glorifying your grimy subject matter. I think Haines gets away with it, just about, but he’s fallen into both these traps before, with Black Box Recorder and more forgiveably Baader Meinhof. His basic message remains undiluted: England was horrible in the seventies, and it’s scarcely less so now. And we shouldn’t kid ourselves otherwise.
This is a selection of the Funny Folk cartoons which ran on Freaky Trigger during 1999. Script and Art by Al Ewing except * where Script is by Al and Tom Ewing.
“Choke – it’s predicted DOOM – for ME!”
“I’ll ‘beef’ seeing you – IN GAOL, ME OLD PUB!”*
“Do you think I’m a STUPID FOOL?”
“I’m teaching my dog to sue.”
“Could this be BEATLESMAN’s FINAL “Day In The Life”!??”*
“I’d drunk EIGHT CANS of TANGO and it WASN’T ENOUGH”*
“Does man have a TRUNK? NO!!”
If he had been born in any pop era, Brian Wilson would’ve flourished at least to some degree with those mad skills of his. He wrote and co-wrote cunning songs about surfing, hotrods and teenage autonomy without any firsthand experience; doubtlessly he could’ve come up with good murder ballads or novelty hits for racoon-fur-wearing college students if the need came up. But Brian’s genius (and greatest influence, probably) came from his production work:
“In his own milieu, on his own terms, Brian Wilson sought to subvert the system by which his music was funneled to the outside world…Brian demanded total production authority on the third Beach Boys album. He wanted no staff A&R men vetoing songs, hiring sidemen, and meddling with arrangements; no go-betweens of any kind except Western Studios’ chief engineering Chuck Britz who would toil for him…For the first time in the history of rock and roll the artist himself had absolute studio authority over his album-length output.” (Timothy White, The Nearest Faraway Place)
A coin in a jukebox, a basement that smells of piss and rust, full of vinyl at ten pence a time, a tape in a cheap cardboard sleeve, bought in a train station, a green courier bag holed where the corners of 12″s poked through, a radio aerial, queuing behind a couple of 13-year olds in WH Smith’s, buying the same thing as them. Dust, static, tape distortion, CD pop: what’s not to love about singles?