1994 was quite the year for giddy pop tarts like me. I say pop tart because, given the fact that I was 21, I couldn’t accurately describe myself as a pop kid. I was young though. Young enough certainly. Old enough to know better too.
It was the year that Britpop really broke into the mainstream. It had been quietly making its mark on indie kids up and down the country since Blur released “Modern Life Is Rubbish” (maybe even since they released “Popscene”) but the juggernaut that was grunge was making it nearly impossible to sell records unless you were American, had dreadful hair and wore a plaid shirt. But the kids who knew better were searching out something sharper, something smarter and something less Seattle.
Step forward the Fierce Panda singles “Shagging in the Streets” and “Return to Splendour”. Two double 7″ compilations with spiky, angular, awkward British new wave of new wave and Mod revivalist tendencies featuring the likes of Compulsion, Blessed Ethel, S*M*A*S*H, The Bluetones and Mantaray. Not every track was a corker but enough of them were.
Then came a certain Select magazine front cover and off we went. A great big shiny pop movement was born. Bright young things in the best clobber they could find were turning their back on the howl of American dissatisfaction and tuning into mockneys, cockneys and anything else that came wrapped in a reclaimed from the far right Union Flag.
“Parklife”, “Definitely Maybe”, “His ‘n’ Hers” and “Dog Man Star” were all released in 1994. Four albums that could easily lay claim to the best albums of the decade. All utterly different…the classic British pop of Blur, the Northern swagger of Oasis, the outsider chic of Pulp and the gothic glam of Suede. Great records all.
The problem was that these bands and others like Supergrass, Elastica, Shed Seven, Sleeper and a few others occupied so much of the media’s attention and dominated the playlists that other groups struggled to break through. Sure they got deals and toured but actually making it was nearly impossible.
Step forward “Mantaray”. A more perfect encapsulation of that time you would struggle to find. Even if they had had no musical ability they could have got a record deal on the back of how great they looked. Singer Christopher Latter made Damon Albarn look like the hunchback of Notre Dame. David Standen and Simon Mortimer were hardly going to struggle to find favour with the ladies either. Chuck in some great hair and a wardrobe full of proper gear and there you had it. Unlike the likes of Menswe@r who were also sharp kids and who had an ear for a catchy melody Mantaray were a proper band. Not just chancers (that’s not a criticism of menswe@r by the way).
Their track “Sad” on Shagging in the Streets was a brilliant slice of pop with attitude. “I’m so fucking sad, don’t know why…” is quite the way to introduce yourself to the general public. I was hooked straight away. These kids were alright. It took about another year before I heard anything else and then came “Insomniacs Dream” which was so perfect I had to listen to it six times in a row to make sure I hadn’t allowed anticipation trick my ears into hearing something that wasn’t there. Catchy hooks, memorable chorus and more of that attitude that had won me over in the first place.
Another single “Hide and Seek” and then what I had been waiting for…the debut album. What a debut it was. Not only was it loaded with classic pop hits but it was released on yellow vinyl and came with a free skinny fit Mantaray t-shirt. You see that right there is what separates a band you can care about from the likes of Radiodead. People who care about pop music don’t give a shiny shit about your musicianship, your development, your politics or your desire to break new ground…we want to sing along, we want yellow vinyl, we want t-shirts and we want to feel like that’s all being delivered from people just like us.
That was what Mantaray gave the people who listened. I loved them for it. When the 30th anniversary of Britpop rolls around and we have to listen to Justine Frischman talk about her relationship with Damon Albarn again please spare a thought for Mantaray. A great band buried in the Britpop graveyard and unfairly forgotten by all but a few.