Lost Alternatives – Steve Lamacq #4

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The fourth disc in this look back at the alternative scene of the UK in the nineties is the most alternative of all.  The big names of the Britpop years are absent and many of the bands here will be, relatively unknown, to the casual listener who has purchased this compilation because of the presence of the aforementioned big names.  It is for that reason that this is the most illuminating and challenging of section of the compilation.

Things start with Scottish purveyors of frank and, at times, shocking indie honesty Arab Strap.  Hailing from the nowhere town of Falkirk, Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton were a key part of the Scottish music scene in the late nineties…their sound was a clear reaction to Britpop; it was bleak, defiantly Scottish and drew on a range of influences that would have been unknown to many of the the people who had made Oasis the biggest band in the world; The Palace Brothers, (smog), Will Oldham, dance music and more.

“The First Big Weekend” is a diary entry of the dead end nature of life in a town like Falkirk; it is funny, witty and wilfully shambolic.  This was 1996 and the come down from the highs of peak Britpop was beginning…Arab Strap were unlike everything and everyone who had made a dent on the music scene up to that point in the decade.  The fact that this did make a dent in the charts highlighted the power of the songwriting and the appetite for something slightly less day-glo from a certain section of society.

Something equally challenging for the sort of people who had bought “Country House” and who enjoyed Texas arrived with Mogwai…another gaggle of Scottish kids Hell bent on making music that reflected who they were, where they were and that didn’t just sound like a Madness b-side or a lost track from “Village Green Preservation Society”.  They are here with “New Paths to Helicon pt.1” which is a jaw droppingly beautiful soundscape, a soundtrack for a film that hasn’t been made yet but that you are desperate to see.

I saw Idlewild at around the time they released their mini album, “Captain”.  It was an electrifying experience.  Roddy Woomble flailing around a tiny stage in Edinburgh, the microphone lead wrapping itself around and around him, the rest of the band engaged in the musical equivalent of that.  Fiery, fierce, punky, punchy and with a dangerous hint of melody.

More Scot-pop is showcased here than on any of the other discs in the collection with The Delgados and the Beta Band also featuring…this isn’t a coincidence, the Scottish indie scene has always been a place for the contrary (which is why it has produced so many influential bands) and it is that contrarian spirit that runs through all of these bands.  No knees up muvver brahn for this lot.

Further contrary delights are found with the psychobilly madness of an early release from Ten Benson…”The Claw” is, and let’s be honest with one another, genuinely weird.  If indie music has always had a demented fringe for the sort of people who don’t like the bands they like being liked then Ten Benson, at this moment, were the band for them.  It sounds like something that was recorded on Sun Records in 1956 by a group of hillbillies on LSD…and that’s a compliment.

By the time the sun had set on Britpop in the summer/autumn of 1998 American bands were making a dent on the charts and on the consciousness of the record buying public againg…Foo Fighters and Green Day were on the brink of becoming, if they were not already, BIG deals.  That signalled a shift in the approach of record labels and bands.  Out went, what Simon Reynolds called, “…the trebly production” of Britpop and in came the wall of noise grunt of post-Grunge bands.  The Llama Farmers provide evidence of exactly that with “Paper Eyes”…a fine single and one that could easily have featured on the more accessible of the Nirvana albums.

Ultrasound provide some comfort for the Britpop faithful here with “Stay Young”.  A Britpop curio…if indeed it really is Britpop.  With hints of prog and experimental rock in the sound this is, though, the sort of thing that would still fill the floor at any Star Shaped night.

What is really assembled here are the bands who didn’t really “make it” but who made it…on their own terms and who were genuinely happy for that to be the case.  Bands like Cay, Seafood, Clinic, Mogwai and Arab Strap had/have no interest in the sort of cocaine and gold disc fame that certain people in the Britpop era would have, maybe even did, sell their souls for.  Instead these are bands who wanted, gasp, to make the music they wanted to make and who did so with a love and passion that fills every moment of their records.

It is a fine way to bring the entire collection to a close and listening to all of the songs that feature over the four discs I think this one is the one that has brought me the most happiness because lots of these bands I hadn’t heard or hadn’t listened to for a long time.  It was nice to get (re)acquainted.

“Lost Alternatives” is available to pre-order now and will be released on March 22nd.

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