It’s a small town…a nowhere town?
Fewer than forty thousand people live there.
It’s probably best known for…Valerie Singleton?
Oh, Charles Dickens daughter and granddaughter came from Hitchin too. But that was a long time ago. And they probably only lived there…they were never real Hitchin folk.
0800 1994 097
“Thank you for calling “Dial-a-Cliche”, you’re speaking to Gail. How can I help you today?”
“Hi Gail, this is Mild Mannered Max, do you have a cliche about kids from small towns who want to be pop stars?”
“One moment please Max. Yes, we do! We would recommend using the “Kids from nowhere towns are driven by a desire to get out that fuels their ambition in ways that kids from the cities can never match.” cliche today.”
“You’re welcome. Is there anything else we can do for you today?”
“No thanks. Bye.”
A cliche it may be but it’s true nonetheless.
Growing up nowhere gives kids who feel they should be somewhere and somebody a focus that their peers in bigger, brighter and, maybe, better places can’t match or even properly understand. I get it, I grew up in a soulless, joyless, empty town that was famous for the smell of linoleum…the flooring, not the band.
James and Jude Cook decided fairly early on that life in the confines of Hitchin wasn’t really working for them. They wanted out. I suspect it’s probably more accurate to say that they yearned for something more than the life they saw people around them living. Maybe, and I can’t be sure about this, they felt they deserved something better than what was on offer…plastic pubs, dead end jobs, rowing and fighting, clothes from Next.
So they did what all sensible people do…they started a band.
My first band was called “The Persuaders” which was, I think we can all agree, a dreadful name for a band…only bettered in the rotten name stakes by the Arctic Monkeys (I’m not arguing about this…it’s a shit name for a band) and I deserve to be publically ridiculed about it. James and Jude decided that “The Shade” was a good name for a band…fortunately they saw the error of their ways in time and plumped for something much better.
That first attempt at becoming musicians featured a brief stint on the drums from Simon Gilbert who would, famously, go on to be part of the band who changed British music in many ways and, arguably, created the environment for Britpop to arrive…Suede. Like many teenagers up and down the UK the arrival of the flamboyant, sexually ambiguous, dangerous and melodious Suede had a seismic impact on James and Jude…suddenly the song was back on the cultural radar and, instinctively, they knew that their time had come.
Replacing Simon Gilbert with Kevin Matthews the brothers set about the process of making their own mark on the world by writing the songs that would, eventually, emerge as “Plastic Jewels” in 1995. By that point what had started with two defiantly English records from Suede and blur (“Suede” and “Modern Life is Rubbish”) had evolved into a full blown cultural and pop phenomenom. Everywhere you looked there were gangs of bright young things who were hip to the Britpop beat.
My first exposure to The Flamingoes came with the 1994 single “Disappointed”. The sleeve for that record was worth the purchase price alone…two suburban girls, dressed up, a full can of Ellnet hairspray each and a look of, well, disappointment on their faces as if they both know that whatever terrible nite-klub they are holed up in is beneath them. It positively reeked of fading English glamour and the awfulness of the 1980’s. The song itself was everything one could have hoped for…a proper song with a melody, a catchy chorus, sharp guitars and suggested that here we had a band who could make the transition from the fringes to the mainstream.
Listening to that song now and the other singles released in 1994; “Teenage Emergency” and “The Chosen Few” it’s clear to see that James and Jude (who shared vocal and songwriting duties) were just like me…and you. They may have arrived at a point where there sound was going to see them thrown into the “scene” but they were a mess, a mass of influences. The obvious things were there like The Kinks, The Jam and the rawer moments of The Who but there were other things lurking in the shadows, including (gasp!) Nirvana.
“Teenage Emergency” doesn’t even try to hide the impact that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” had had on them. It’s in the raw riffs and, if you look hard enough through half-closed eyes, on the sleeve (above) which features a Cobain-lite look-a-like? No? Just me? Fine. The thing is what Flamingoes did was to take the things about Nirvana that were enjoyable and strip out all the background rot that made them unlistenable and unlovable!
The album “Plastic Jewels” arrived in 1995 and highlighted the fact that Flamingoes were about much more than power pop and pop power. Lyrically they were capable of dealing with the types of issues that the likes of Strangelove and Marion were over on the darker side of Britpop, particularly on “Absent Fathers, Violent Sons”…an honest and deeply personal song written by Jude about the impact of divorce, a step-parent and an absent father. Musically the album is a rush…it’s brash, melodious, adrenaline fuelled, pop music that manages to owe a debt to its influences while never stepping over the line into cover versions or tribute act.
The problem for so many bands at this point was that while the “scene” generated label interest and the opportunity to grab a few paragraphs in the N.M.E or Melody Maker it was also crowded…which made making the leap from the edges to the centre very difficult, particularly after 1994 when the press had already decided who the “important” bands were; Suede, Pulp, Oasis and blur dominated the press and radio to such an extent that bands like Flamingoes were starved of the oxygen of publicity that would have given them a shot at the big time.
It took 12 years for a follow up to “Plastic Jewels” and it arrived in the form of “Street Noise Invades the House” which was, as has to be expected after so long, a more mature collection of songs…I’m not sure what that means to be honest, I guess it means that the rawer, rougher edges of “Plastic Jewels” had been replaced and refined with something more polished. It’s further proof of the enormous talent of both James and Jude but it arrived at the wrong moment…like so many other bands the backlash against Britpop meant that the songs, no matter how great, were never going to find favour with certain journalists and the labels had moved on to whatever they thought the next big thing was going to be.
Thankfully both Cook brothers have found other outlets for their creativity in the form of writing; fiction, reviews and, in James’ case, a soon to be released memoir called “Memory Songs: a personal journey into the music that shaped the nineties”. The chances of seeing them back on stage again and making new music seem slim right now but, maybe, with enough love and enough pestering we could see one last hurrah for one of the best bands of the Britpop era; a chance to give them a proper goodbye would be a wonderful thing.
You can order a copy of “Memory Songs” by James Cook here…