That’s what we think of when we imagine the life of a rock ‘n’ roll band…a series of never ending highs…form a band, write a song, play a gig, play another gig, write another song, a better song, play another gig to a bigger crowd, get signed, record a single, play some more gigs, release the single, hear the single on the radio, play a gig to an even bigger crowd, record an album, release the album, it’s a hit, another gig, another single, another album.
The truth is that for every intoxicating high, for every band who “make it”, for every rags to riches story…there are other stories of missed opportunities, bad luck, misfortune, nearly, close but not close enough and tragedy.
Soda were a band who captured both sides of the story.
Wondrous highs and bitter lows.
Lets start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.
I had the chance to chat with drummer Carl Lonsdale about the Soda story, 20 years on from the bands too soon demise he has shared his thoughts and memories on what unfolded at that time…it’s quite the story.
Mind Garden had their origins in Hull in the early nineties. Playing regularly they built up a loyal local following and were favourites at the legendary Adelphi Club in the city. Like all good bands the line-up was fluid until things felt “right”. When that happened Mind Garden were consigned to the dustbin of history and Soda were born at the beginning of 1994. Even before that the original group had enjoyed some success supporting the likes of Kingmaker, Salad, Kinky Machine, Paris Angels and some chancers from Manchester called Oasis, I wonder what happened to them?
A self-funded single, “Slave to the Fashion Page”, made its way into the hands of the lads from Shed Seven who asked the band to support them on tour. “We caught the eye of Shed Seven’s management at one of these gigs who signed us after putting us in Fairview Studios to record some new Demo’s.” remembers Carl Lonsdale, the beating heart of Soda as the drummer.
“The early 1990s was such a great time for music and bands so we were obviously listening to a lot similair stuff back then. John Peel played a big part in most of our lives so we were listening to Bands like The Charlatans, The Fall, Loop, Ride, Inspiral Carpets, Blur, Happy Mondays, The La’s…but we also liked a lot of 60’s stuff like Soft Machine, Yes, The Who and Amercian bands like the Stooges and MC5.” is how Carl describes the bands who influenced the members of Soda. “Liam, our bass player, introduced us to a lot of good stuff when he joined the band in early 1994, bands like Mantaray & The Flamingos and I seem to remember Liam playing us singles by Shed 7 and Elastica…the first time we had heard them.”
By 1995 there was a lot of buzz around Soda.
A lot of buzz.
More than buzz.
They were a big deal who didn’t have a deal.
Five lads from the North…Ocean Reid on vocals, Liam Maloy on bass, Mike Milner on guitar, Chris Charlton on rhythm guitar and Carl Lonsdale on drums.
The proof of that is highlighted by the fact that by this time they were supporting the big deals with deals down in that London…Supergrass, The Bluetones and blur had all followed Soda on stage.
What was it like to be right at the very heart of a music scene that is in the midst of dominating an entire country, wooing an entire generation and setting the template for future guitar music in a way that few others have?
“These were heady times, there was so much going on. Is it just me or was the weather always good? I was in a band with my mates. Imagine it, we were just five lads from Hull stood outside the Dublin Castle in London and we’ve just said “Hello” to Jarvis Cocker, and then somebody from Elastica is just walking in! We were buzzing because every record label in the country wanted to sign us at that point.
We landed smack bang into the middle of this whirlwind in mid 1995.
We also did some more one offs with The Longpigs , Pere Ubu , Cast , Lick…and then full UK tours With Mansun and Shed 7. We have mostly happy memories about those early shows, we were honoured to play with a lot of these bands, although we didn’t bow down to them…we knew we were good too. There were a few bands along the way that enjoyed being difficult with us… buts that’s hardly worth a mention…” Good manners and a rare burst of professionalism forbids me from pressing Carl on that revelation. If you have suggestion about who he might be alluding to write them down on the back of a postcard and send them to me.
When the time came to head into the studio to record the label presented two producers with a fairly prestigious pedigree…Langer and Winstanley. These chaps had worked with Morrissey on “Kill Uncle”, Madness, Teardrop Explodes, Dexys Midnight Runners, Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Lloyd Cole and the Commotions and others…it must have been a bit intimidating to work with people who had worked with that little gang of British pop legends?
“We were pretty nonplussed when we heard Langer and Winstanley were going to do the album! Not that we didn’t know who they were, or their pedigree, it was kind of like that’s who had been chosen to do the album. We kind of had a raw side to us, a bit of an edgier sound with the guitars (which came from listening to punk bands as well as bands like Elastica and Wire) so we were wondering what they would bring to the table.
We recorded our first single “The Young Own the Town” at Townhouse Studios in Sept 95 with Paul Corket who was doing Strangelove’s stuff at the time, then we switched over to Westside Studios with Clive and Alan to record our second single “Inside” and the album.”
That debut single, “The Young Own the Town“, is the perfect encapsulation of Britpop. It’s got the punk energy of the New Wave of New Wave bands like These Animal Men and S*M*A*S*H, the post-punk, angular, art school swagger of Elastica and the “England my England” shine of “Modern Life is Rubbish” era blur. It’s the sound of young England in 1995. It should have been a massive hit. “Inside” was even better…sweeping guitars, soaring chorus, energy, youthful arrogance; everything a pop song should be.
“Clive and Alan were fine with us…amiable…we did a lot of pre-production with Clive ripping the songs apart, it was quite a lengthy process. They brought in Elvis Costello’s keyboard player, Steve Nieve, to work with us and David Arnold to do strings! It could have been done a lot quicker and on a much smaller budget but instead it took 3 months and cost a reputed £250,000! Nothing to do with us…its what Mercury wanted. We were sat in the Studio one day when all these people started to walk in with cellos and violins….a full orchestra, we thought they had got the wrong studio!“
In 1996 the band were invited to appear, and perform, on one of the biggest shows in the country at the time; The Big Breakfast on Channel 4. It’s difficult to imagine now but in the mid nineties that show was required viewing for anyone with even a passing interest in popular culture. I saw nearly every significant player on the Britpop scene performing and being interviewed on that show. Frequently those interviews were conducted by puppets Zig and Zag…a fate that befell Soda.
“The Big Breakfast was just one of those things that appeared on our schedule. Not that we weren’t excited to be doing it…but it nearly didn’t happen as Mercury Records hadn’t given it the all clear. I seem to remember Northern Uproar coming out of the cottages just as we were going in! we walked in and there was Zig And Zag!! Our first single had gone to No 8 in the indie chart & single of the week in the Melody Maker with the video appearing on ITV’s The Chart Show and now we were on this big show, it was a really great start for us.
The troubling thing for us was that radio just didn’t want to play the songs…full stop.
We never had one single solitary play of one of our songs on the radio back then. Despite this, people still bought the singles, and even with just that solitary (Big Breakfast) TV appearance to promote the second single, “Inside” and a UK tour in January 1996 with the Sheds, it went straight into the UK top 100 chart at no 91, and sold 5000 copies in Japan.
We were starting to get the feeling someone somewhere wasn’t doing their jobs (not because we weren’t selling records)- it just seemed like people were making it up as we went along. We were getting a lot of interest from Japan at that time, it would have made sense to organise a tour to boost our profile but instead management and the label sent us on another UK tour sponsored by Tennants with a band called Baby Chaos. The whole thing was just chaotic…gigs were getting cancelled. Maybe the label were trying to kill us off?“
Lots of bands are uncomfortable with the Britpop tag, how do you see it now?
“We were more than happy to have been part of that great 90’s musical revolution called “Britpop” and we still are. Wouldn’t change it for the world, despite how things ended for us it was a wonderful time to be in a band. We spent a lot of time in London shooting videos…photo shoots, recording and gigging which is were we felt it most…the epicentre if you will. There hadn’t been anything like it in our lives and there will never be anything like it ever again.“
Certain bands suffered a fate worse than death at the hands of certain journalists during Britpop. If Journalist X was sent to see you live and they were not Britpop friendly then it could kill you. Soda were victims of exactly that…they didn’t come from London, they didn’t have a permanent residence in the Good Mixer and they probably didn’t kiss enough arse.
“We felt it most from the N.M.E, they absolutely hated us right from the very start, and for no real reason. They shot us down, slating the singles, giving us bad gig reviews and slagging us off for having a record deal.! Its not that we wanted to be liked, we just wanted a fair crack. Something that we had worked very hard for …our dream to get the band and our music to where it deserved to be…a life long ambition…and certain journalists had the power to destroy that. They even felt it necessary to make personal insults into the way we looked. It’s funny really, coming from ‘Music Journalists’ who made a living off the backs of musicians like us – and who were more than happy to take money from our record company to advertise our singles. They didnt even review the songs. Just slagged us off.”
At that point though the slings and arrows of a few outrageous journalists at the (e)N.M.E could be cast to the side because Soda knew that the work they had been doing in the studio was about to deliver something…something that nobody would be able to ignore, not the radio, not the press and not the wider public. They had made a great Britpop album, full to the brim with melodies, hooks, riffs, giddy pop thrills and so much joy it would need to be accompanied by a warning sticker; “Caution: May Cause Dangerous Levels of Elation“. Once it was released the world would listen.
What should have been the start of something turned out to be merely the beginning of the end of something. It was April 1996 and Mercury were about to deliver a hammer blow to one of the Britpop scenes brightest hopes…
“When the Album was finished and delivered to the label around April time 1996 we were told that it was going to be shelved. There really was no explanation as to why. I Think Mercury wanted to see how a 3rd single would sell later on in the year. The first 2 singles had sold pretty well, despite no real big push and no radio play. Looking back on all this 20 years later there were things going on at the label and I think they had lost the plot…they really didn’t know what to do with us. I dont think we even had an A&R man at that stage…it also felt like they had put a time limit on us and that time had run out.
After the ill fated Baby Chaos tour we were told we were going back on the road again…this time with Mansun on a full Uk Tour summer in the summer of 1996.
We were pretty enthusiastic in the beginning but cracks had started to show….again it was patchy at best and again gigs were getting cancelled. It turned out we didn’t do the majority of the dates we were supposed to do which wasn’t anything to do with us.
Mansun were a great band though and we probably felt closer to them than any of the other bands we played with. We did a couple of extra dates in London after the Mansun tour and then played the Guardian stage at the Phoenix festival on the 20th July. Eventually the label released our 3rd, final, and most commercial single to date “Dragging You Into my Dreams” in August. They didn’t do anything with it, no support at all and that was it, the beginning of the end.”
From the highs of just 12 months earlier when it seemed like they had the world at their feet Soda had been left reeling and fearing for their future. After a huge financial investment from their label, months of touring, hours in the studio and more effort and energy expended than someone like me could imagine it was finished. The band headed home, shed a member and decided to try again under a different name.
Early on in this tale guitarist Liam had suffered a terrifying accident when he was electrocuted on stage during a soundcheck. The incident nearly killed him and left the rest of the band in shock. That incident, tragically, foreshadowed what was to happen next in this tale. After attracting some interest in their new incarnation from Fire who were ready to put them into the studio the unthinkable happened when Liam was diagnosed with leukaemia.
“We had big gigs booked in London…sold out dates…angry concert promoters…but none of that mattered. This was beyond anything that we had experienced before…beyond misfortune, we were facing up to the very real prospect of losing a friend. It was the end for us and the original members of Soda. That was it.”
People moved on.
The ties that bound had been all but severed.
Then in 2014 more tragedy…lead guitarist Mike Milner had passed away. As proof of how far apart the band had drifted news only reached the other members by chance. There is something so awful about that. Those bright young things who, in 1994, had been ready to take on the world had now been separated to the extent that they could only discover news like this by chance.
“We had had some very brief discussions about releasing the album a few years earlier, however we felt like now would be an ideal opportunity to do so, a tribute to Mike and something for his family. Maybe we could now put a full stop on the Soda story.“
That tribute to Mike arrived in 2016 on 20th November, his birthday, when the Soda album was finally released…unleashed. Happy birthday Mike.
That album, “Artificial Flavour”, is the best record you haven’t ever heard. It’s spiky, sharp, idiosyncratic, fun, energetic…a bitter sweet symphony of the very best elements of British pop from the nineties. Eleven pop songs delivered by five boys from Yorkshire who came agonisingly close to having it all. The singles “The Young Own the Town“, “Inside” and “Dragging you Into my Dreams” are the match of anything that other bands of that time with less talent and significantly less enthusiasm managed. The fact that it sounds fresh is testament to how good the songs are. It’s a celebration of youth, a hymn to dreaming and a testament to the power of pop music.
The good news is that there may well be more to come from Soda. The master tapes from the Polygram Library are back in the hands of the band and there may well be another release at some point this year. That really would be something to get excited about. Nearly as exciting as the chance to see those lads back on stage again, old wounds healed and the wrongs of the past righted. What are the chances?
“The unfortunate thing is that relationships have been damaged, we were quite close at one point five lads against the world kind of thing…a gang. It’s a real shame, but we just don’t know. My guess is that we are too far down the line and too much water has passed under the bridge for us to get back together. But, hey…you never know, never say never.“
“Artificial Flavour” is available to purchase here. If you loved Britpop you really shouldn’t be without it.
The Mild Mannered Army would like to thank Carl Lonsdale for being so generous with his time and his memories…see you on the reunion tour Carl?