“A “hate” song about the terrible nights out, which we were too poor to have at the time…”
Pop music, at its very finest, rescues the damaged from the dreary and drags them to something approaching delirium. It can do that with a riff that rattles bones, a melody that makes you melt, a lyric that leaves you feeling something other than let down. Sometimes, but only sometimes, a pop song comes along that manages to capture all three of these things, and when such a song arrives in your life you will forever hold it close. To let it go would be an act of self inflicted emotional abuse.
In 1994 I was 21 years old.
The world was my oyster, I was a grain of sand ready to become a pearl through the gentle agitation of the waves of experience. The disappointment of my teenage years was behind me. I had left the nowhere town I had lived in for the majority of my life, left my parents home, left the familiar faces and playground bully chases and set out on a new life.
OK, I had chosen to start that new life in Paisley which, in 1994, was in the grip of a Benzodiazepine crisis with shell suit clad geezers dropping to the ground like wounded birds all along the main street. It was like a Romero movie. But despite the feeling that I had jumped out of the frying pan and into a Hellish fire I was determined to be free, be free to be what I wanted to be, to have a good time…or at least a better time than I had been having.
Sadly the University of Paisley at this point was not a hotbed of intellectual debate, revolutionary politics, eccentric behaviours or opportunities to explore ones creative desires. Instead it seemed to be almost entirely populated by people who thought beige was the most exciting colour in the world and who wanted nothing more from the experience than to settle down with a boy called Brian, or a girl called Chevonne, before the end of the first term. It was like “Love Island” but with less steroids and, incredibly, even less hope.
Thankfully this coincided with the blossoming of Britpop from a murmur on the edge of the mainstream cultural conversation to a full blown revolution. Within a matter of weeks my position as the outsiders outsider had been flipped, turned upside down and I was, through no real effort of my own, someone who could just about be described as “cool”…just about.
At the same time as this two brothers, James and Jude Cook, were writing music for their band The Flamingoes. Jude was in his flat in Camden when James arrived with a new song he had been working on. James was obsessed with tempo at this point, the idea of how to write an indie hit that people might actually dance to occupied his thoughts night and day. Their first single, “Teenage Emergency”, had been all pushes, stops and starts.
“I was listening to groups like Elastica and The Breeders, songs with a solid 4/4 undercarriage…hearing Simon Price blast out “Connection” at ULU at nosebleed volume was a real turning point. Basically, we needed a hit. “Disappointed was my attempt to write one. It was my attempt to write a song that would get a play at Popscene or Blow Up.”
The song is a wonderful fusion of influences from the past and the present. From The Beatles to Pavement. All coming together to create a song that was entirely suited to the times. James describes the music like this;
“The curvilinear shape of the verse melody I pinched off The Beatles’ “Get Back” – a rise to form a set up, then a pay off on the fall…but over a descending chord sequence so no-one would know! After days of whittling it like a stick, the chorus, in a different key, emerged. Well, it was a related key, the IV that then, somehow snaked its way back to the home key which is B…the vertiginous key. Both “Happy” and “Jumpin’ Jakc Flash” by the Stones are in B!”
What dragged the song deep into my heart wasn’t the musical magpie charms or the careful construction, at least not at first, no, for me it was the lyrics. The only time in pop music that “intellectuals” has ever been rhymed with “perfect pectorals”? Or “kick in the heart” with “Exchange and Mart”? Surely. It was very English which, of course, enables it to take its place at the heart of the era.
“The words used English or British idioms” continues James “Such as “what a waste of time” and “I don’t mind” but I always refused to sing in a mockney accent. The “Exchange and Mart” line was an attempt at a bit of Lennon-esque nonsense…I always wanted to write in a less pointed, literal way”.
Despite the Britishness of the lyrics the song is also influenced by one of the best American bands of the era…Pavement. Their quirky, but never wacky, sensibility and incredible use of language and melody set them apart from the grunge crew and that allowed them to find favour with indie kids like me who were, largely, rejecting anything that came from anywhere outside of Camden at this point.
I hadn’t heard it before I bought it, I hadn’t heard it on the Evening Session or asked the assistant in the store to play it for me.
I couldn’t have known then that what I was buying was the best single of the Britpop era.
How could I?
The best single of the Britpop era.
I know, you love “Popscene” and “The Drowners” and “Babies” and “Live Forever” and…and…and…goodness, some of you even love “Wonderwall” and “Common People” and “Wake Up Boo” and “Parklife” and…and…and…what about The Bluetones and Sleeper and Echobelly and Elastica…and…and…and…Salad and Thurman and The Supernaturals…
I hear you.
I love lots of those songs too.
I adore those bands.
I bought them.
I’ve written long articles here praising so many of those bands and those records. My praise for one song isn’t a criticism of another song.
But someone, somewhere, sometime and somehow has to decide which single is the best of the era and I don’t see why that someone shouldn’t be me here, now and like this.
Everything about “Disappointed” is perfect.
It perfectly captures the spirit of the era while still managing to be a timeless pop song, a classic piece of English pop music that transcends narrow confines like nationality and language. It is universal.
It should have been the record that broke The Flamingoes.
That’s not because of the song.
The truth is that the field was crowded…overcrowded.
There were new bands, best new bands, best bands in the world, best bands ever in the world ever, cropping up on the front cover of NME, Melody Maker, Select, Vox and goodness where else on an almost weekly basis. That, combined with the mainstream presses fixation on “the big four” meant that a band like The Flamingoes were always going to struggle to get a foothold.
The band agreed that this could have been a hit. Looking back now James recalls “When we took it to Kevin, our drummer, in the rehearsal room there was real excitement. “Hey, we might a hit on our hands”. It immediately went to the start of side one on the album running order. Like “For Tomorrow” it was also the last song written for the album. Then, when we were mixing the album at Wessex, Steve Lamacq played it on the Evening Session back to back with “Caught by the Fuzz” by Supergrass. We sounded weedy in comparison. Everyone in the room was chuckling at the “Here comes my mum/she knows what I’ve done” line, which, I admit, is priceless…but I was a bit jealous, deflated. Disappointed?”
“Caught by the Fuzz” is a great record and that line is a great line but James is, I think, wrong to feel that “Disappointed” sounded “weedy” in comparison. It is a more intricate, delicate, complicated and beautiful record than “Fuzz”…it’s not a “banger” but it has the ability to put a smile on your face, make your body sway and have you sing along in ways that only the very best songs can.
The very best songs.
When the song talks about how hard it is to be aspirational when you don’t have a pot to piss in with the line “It’s hard having higher thoughts/when you’re on income support” there isn’t a kid on a council estate or a working class home anywhere in the world who doesn’t get it. Every one of those kids would feel a surge of electricity down their spines when they hear someone saying it on the radio or through their music provider of choice.
Those are the kids like the girls on the front cover of “Disappointed”. Living lives of quiet desperation, given hope only by the promise of a Friday night out. Never daring to dream that it could be them on Top of the Pops. Finding it impossible to believe that there is anything more to life than watching “pretty people throw up” in the taxi line. Hating the fact that the sort of night out they really want seems…out of reach.
“Disappointed” isn’t on the latest, greatest hits of Britpop compilation because it wasn’t a hit. It rarely features in lists of the best songs of the era (except this one) because a lot of people don’t know it exists.
I know what you are thinking.
“How” you are thinking “Can you take a song that so few people bought, that none of the nostalgia pieces even mention, that isn’t an anthem, that hasn’t been covered by some alt-folk singer from Sandy, Utah and make it your BEST single of the era?”
Let me answer that, if I haven’t already, as simply as I can.
I like the people on the fringes, the people who can see the finger of fame beckoning but don’t quite reach it…but who then stop and start again. James and Jude Cook started a band, got a deal, played gigs, released an album (a really bloody good album) and then when the spotlight shifted they moved on becoming writers; renaissance men.
The cover art is the best of the entire era. Yes better even than “Parklife” which, with hindsight, was poverty porn…middle class boys mixing it up with working class culture. It’s a shot that captures almost every night out I had in the nineties despite being taken in the eighties. I love it. I love everything about it. The font, the colour palette, the look on the faces of the girls, the lipstick…everything.
The song itself is catchy, clever, carefully constructed and creates a concise, clear, carbon copy of my frustrations, hopes and dashed dreams at that moment in time. You could probably say the same thing. There were bigger bands, there were records that defined the era and that sold in the tens of thousands but this is the one that captures my experience of Britpop better than any other.
No more discussion.
“Disappointed”…the best single of the Britpop era.