What’s All The Fuss About? – Stereophonics (1997-2001)

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Just think about this for a second.

Ten career top ten albums.  Nine of those top five.  Six of them number ones.  Five of those number ones were consecutive.  The only album not to crack the top ten reached number 11.

Twenty-four career top forty singles.  Twenty of those were top twenty.  Ten of those were top ten.  Of those ten all of them were top five.  A number one single.

Over seven and a half million album sales in the UK.

Over two million singles sales in the UK.

Ten million album sales worldwide.

Five multi-platinum album certifications.

Two platinum albums.

Four gold certified albums.

Ladies and gentlemen, say “Hello” to one of the most successful Welsh bands of all time…the Stereophonics.  A band so successful that they put not only their national contemporaries firmly in the shadows but they also place most UK bands in the musical equivalent of the Scottish national football team.  Make no mistake about it, when you start discussing bands who are successful, bands who write songs that demand to be listened to and bands who have a loyal and passionate following the Stereophonics are at the top table.

In the summer of 1997 I bought a ticket for the V festival in Leeds.  I was not, and am still not, a festival person.  I don’t like hippies and I hate the toilets.  The line-up for this festival though appeared to have been created by someone who had access to my most intimate thoughts…it was my fantasy festival.  The Bluetones, Ash, Gene, Geneva, Mansun, Divine Comedy, Monaco, Embrace and the legendary Echo and the Bunnymen were all slated for the N.M.E stage and over on the main stage were Echobelly, Dodgy, Kula Shaker, The Prodigy and others that also piqued my interest.  The sun was shining, hippies were few and far between, the toilets were tolerable and I was young enough to have the energy to cope with the demands of a whole day in a field.  Very early in the day a band took the stage that I was vaguely aware of…a gang of young men only marginally younger than me, the Stereophonics.  They roared through their set and left everyone in attendance stunned and utterly besotted.

At the end of the day I drove home to Scotland, exhausted and exhilarated.  I had watched in awe as Ian McCulloch picked up a smouldering fag that someone had thrown on stage, took a draw and then drop kicked it back in the direction of the offender all while wearing a fake fur coat in the blistering heat of this sunny afternoon.  I had come over all peculiar at being quite so close to a member of Joy Division and New Order when Monaco took the stage.  I felt giddy when The Bluetones sang all the songs I loved.  When Geneva stepped up I had impressed everyone around me with my note perfect rendition of “Into the Blue”.  That last one isn’t accurate.  In fact I threw at least one person into a rage with the sheer awfulness of my attempt to match what Andrew Montgomery was doing.

The thing that really stuck with me as I wound my way homewards though was the set from the Stereophonics.  They had been loud, melodic, passionate, driven, determined, a bit rock but more roll…crucially they also didn’t sound like anyone else I saw that day.  It was the beginning of the end for Britpop and in the Stereophonics I got a little glimpse of the future for guitar music in this little island.  There were no nods to the sixties, no attempts at singing in a cockney accent, no Fred Perry…nothing “London”.  Instead there were songs, melodies and a bruised and gallant honesty in the lyrics.  I liked what I heard.

The debut album “Word Gets Around” arrived shortly after that V Festival set.  It confirmed everything that I had suspected; it was an album dedicated to the radical idea that songs with melodies and lyrics that told stories and that you could sing along with might just be worth listening to.  Opening track “A Thousand Trees” takes the radio unfriendly story of a respected member of a community and an allegation of child abuse and turns it into roaring anthem that takes the breath away.  It’s a bold and admirably brave song and one that highlights just how different Stereophonics were at this point.

The maudlin tale of a local character living in a small town who is a figure of fun for the local kids, loneliness, poverty and small town attitudes all make up “Looks like Chaplin”.  More of that small town desolation and desperation fills “More Life in a Tramps Vest”.

What comes next elevates this debut from good to the extraordinary, “Local Boy in the Photograph” is a hymn to the passing of a boy too early.  Suicide?  True Story?  It really doesn’t matter because it is a song that could only have been written by someone who understands the horror of a life cut short.  The passion in the vocal from Kelly Jones is enough to bring your heart to a stop the first time you hear it…and the last time you hear it too.

“Is anyone going anywhere?  Everyone’s got to be somewhere.” those are lyrics that Paul Weller or Ray Davies could have penned at their peak.  The hope and hopelessness of suburban life, small town living, neatly packed up in two lines by a 23 year old kid in “Traffic”.  Think that’s a bit O.T.T?  What about this from “Not Up To You”; “Swings don’t swing, the parks been dead for years”…the devastation of the death of the industrial heartlands of Wales and the rest of Britain in the 80’s summed up in one, poetic, line.

Then there’s the teenage pregnancy terror of “Check My Eyelids for Holes”.  There’s more sex, longing, desperation and death on “Same Size Feet” which, despite the blistering, buzzing guitar hooks is a terribly sad song.

The one song on the album that tips its hat in the direction of Britpop is “Last of the Big Time Drinkers”…only the fact it’s delivered without a “Lahn-dahn” accent would stop you from mistaking it for a blur track, well that and the fact that you get the feeling that Kelly has actually been in a pub for drink and not just to gawp at the “ordinary people” inside it.

If you didn’t know that this was an article on Stereophonics and you read the following lyrics you would think we were examining the finest moments in Dylan’s career (Bob, not Thomas);

“I’m drinking, sinking, swimming, drowning
Working, smirking, learning, burning, sleeping 
Thieving, cheating, beating 
I’m eating I’m deep in a goldfish bowl 
It’s sink or swim”

Anyone who has ever been to a wedding that isn’t held in St. Paul’s Cathedral will recognise the characters and events that are laid out in “Too Many Sandwiches”.  It’s a riotously hilarious look at the type of family gatherings that I remember all too clearly.  Think the “Royle Family” and you are in the right territory.  Humdrum.  Small town.  The album finishes off with “Billy Davey’s Daughter” which is another song about the passing of someone with more life in front of them than behind them.  It’s heartfelt, honest and tear inducing.  It’s a rare thing for a songwriter to be able to deal with the events described in this song with such care and compassion.

“Word Gets Around” is a flawless body of work.  Very few bands are able to produce work like this at any stage in their career, that the boys from Cwmaman.  They took the people, places, events and character of their hometown and delivered a set of songs that were instantly recognisable to people all over the world, especially to those of us from the same sort of dead end town.  I felt like I was listening to people I knew singing about things that had happened in our lives.  Morrissey urged the record buying public to hang the DJ for the crime of playing music that said nothing to him about his life…Stereophonics fixed that situation by making songs about their lives, our lives and then wrapping them up in fabulous, uplifting melodies.

1998 saw the arrival of the follow up album “Performance and Cocktails”.  Lead single “The Bartender and the Thief” was a song that demanded to be played very loudly.  It was intense, bordering on violent, and left you battered and bruised by its end.  It’s another example of Jones ability to write genuinely funny lyrics and for his place as the very best type of writer; a people watcher with empathy.  He had this to say about the song;

“We were waiting for a plane in New Zealand and all these sailors were walking in and out of the bar. Everyone was acting really weird and there were lesbians at the bar. I thought the bartender must see so many different things as people change character, from Jekyll to Hyde, sober to drunk. So I wrote this completely tongue-in-cheek story about the bartender and the thief who is robbing everybody. I found the melody for the chorus on a Dictaphone tape. I’d been putting ideas on tape for two years and had never played them back before, until then!”

The album spawned another four massive hits in the shape of “Just Looking” (“Do I want the perfect wife?  But perfect ain’t quite right.”), “Pick a Part that’s New” (“People drinking on their own, Push buttons on the phone, was I here once before? Is that my voice on the phone? That last drink on my own.”), “I Wouldn’t Believe Your Radio” (“But you can have it all if you like You can have it all if you like And you can pay for it the rest of your life”) and “Hurry up and Wait” (“So hurry up and wait, but what’s worth waiting for?”).  Four songs that proved, again, that Stereophonics were not an ordinary “rock ‘n’ roll” act.  Four songs that highlighted their ability to match the likes of Oasis for tunes and that had lyrical heft to boot.

The follow up album “Just Enough Education to Perform” sold 140,000 copies and delivered three more top ten singles.  Now, I know that lots and lots of bands who aren’t much cop sell lots and lots of copies of their albums and that commercial success is no measure of quality but, and this is really important, it does suggest that people like it.  With that in mind let me allow a little bit of darkness into the light of this article in the form of the comments of a “professional critic” on this album;

“…regardless of their level of education, the Stereophonics clearly have no performing qualities whatsoever. If they are suggesting a connection between formal education and musical ability, they must be four illiterate morons who were expelled from playschool for being too thick…musical excrement, scooped unhygenically from a poorly-maintained squat toilet in an area without adequate sanitation.”

Those were the views of Tony Heyman writing in the Observer Music Monthly.  Remember Tony?  No?  Come on…Tony, Tony Heyman.  You must remember Tony.  Surely?  No?  Nothing?  Well.  Funny old world isn’t it.  When I read those comments from Tony I remembered something the divine Kenneth Williams once said about critics; “They’re a bit like eunuchs in the harem.  They’re their every night.  They see it done every night.  But they can’t do it themselves.”  I think that just about captures Tony doesn’t it?

The truth is that there are people in the music press who hate, loathe, despise and detest anyone who dares to be successful.  A certain type of music journalist has a special level of loathing reserved for people who didn’t attend a certain type of university.  Those journalists just love people like Florence and the Machine and Mumford and Sons…funny that.  Of course, there are other critics who also like to prove how edgy they are by saying things they don’t actually mean but that will generate a response…we call that sort of thing click-bait nowadays.  On behalf of Stereophonics, their fans, people who value politeness, people who love pop music and rock ‘n’ roll in all its various forms can I just wish those critics all the best in their careers.  We wish you all the best and certainly don’t pray to a variety of Gods for the imminent demise of your careers.

So, what’s all the fuss about?

Honest writing.

Earworm melodies.

People like us.

Anthems.

Making the ordinary extraordinary.

Documenting real lives.

If that’s not enough reason to make a fuss then I don’t know what is.

 

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