Music hall legend, Billy Merson, recorded the William Hargreave’s song “The Night I Appeared as Macbeth” in the early 1920’s. It is, in very many ways, the earliest example of what would become, nearly seventy years later, Britpop. With more than a hint of nostalgia and a romantic vision of London life the song is also witty and, at times, laugh out loud funny. You can hear echoes of people like Merson, in flashes, on records by Blur (most obviously) but also in things like Thurman’s “English Tea” or The Weekender’s “All Grown Up” and, much more obviously, in the work of David Devant and His Spirit Wife. There is one line in the song that always makes me chuckle; “They made me a present, of Mornington Crescent, they threw it one brick at a time“.
Ah, Mornington Crescent.
Home to Spencer Gore, first president of the Camden Town Group, a gathering of English Post-Impressionist painters who would meet at the home of Walter Sickert, who also lived on the street for a time. Gore painted several views from his home at number 31 Mornington Crescent.
Sickert, for his part, was living at number 6 when the Camden Town Murders took place and he later renamed a series of his paintings with the same name. Etchings and paintings of a clothed man and a nude woman on a bed, clearly “inspired” or echoing the murder of Emily Dimmock in 1907.
It is the work of another artist that is most closely associated with the Crescent in the minds, and hearts, of a certain type of forty-something individual though. A quarter of a century ago Jake Shillingford gathered around him a gaggle of musicians to breathe life into the grand, grande, baroque pop, orchestral manoeuvres and sixties soaked songs that were buzzing around his heart and soul. The result of that was an album that, possibly more than any other of the period, captures the spirit of nineties London…a time when Cool Britannia seemed, however unlikely this sounds now, to be something more than just a marketing soundbite, a time when anything and everything seemed possible and a time when we all wanted to sparkle.
“Mornington Crescent” was released to absolutely no fanfare.
It reached number 115 in the charts.
Two of the three singles released from the album didn’t chart and the third, a song called “You Don’t Sparkle (In My Eyes)” reached the high spot of number 155 in the singles charts.
It wasn’t that nobody was listening…I was and I played my part in propelling “Sparkle” to the bottom of the hit parade. People were listening, it’s just that not enough of us were listening. “Mornington Crescent” is a staggering, swaggering, shimmering, slinky and, whisper it, sexy, album filled to bursting with Bond themes for Bond films that never were and the sort of sixties pop that bands in the sixties couldn’t have dared dream of producing. It was the musical equivalent of a pair of tailor made trousers from Chittleborough & Morgan; mohair, frog mouth pockets, cut on the ankle, no belt loops, fully lined. Proper.
The problem for “Mornington Crescent” lay not in the fact that it wasn’t any good but in the fact that by January 1995 “Britpop” was a thing and, in the eyes and ears of the general public, that “thing” meant trainers, tracksuit tops, beer, Oasis and Loaded. The thrilling, and frilly shirted, delights of a baroque pop group were always going to find it difficult to break through. They did, eventually, and that meant people could discover the album at last and help to cement its reputation as one of the greatest albums of the era.
2015 will mark the 25th birthday of a lot of “classic” albums from the all conquering MOR ache of “Morning Glory” to the flawed charms of “The Great Escape” as well as the pervy wonders of “Different Class” but Oasis, Blur and even Pulp, never made a record that was so swollen with ambition, filled with flutters and bloated with brilliance as this.
You can have the stifled yawn of “Wonderwall” if you want it.
I’ll take “(Theme From) Checkmate”…
You can have sonic flaccid member of “Country House” if you want it.
I’ll take glittery stomp of “Motorcade”…
You can have the familiar (but still wonderful) “Common People” if you want it.
I’ll take the aching swoop and soar of “You Don’t Sparkle (In My Eyes)…
This was the sound of youth, of a generation finding the confidence to suggest that maybe, just maybe, we could be…better than we had been. That we could cast an eye to the past for inspiration but then craft something defiantly modern from that. This was the sound of the hope that was going to blow a despised government out of office and usher in the prospect of something…better. This was the sound of style meeting substance. This was the sound of Saturday night at the local dance palace but stripped of the malice that usually soaks the crowd at closing time. This was the sound of first love with every love. This was the soundtrack to our lives…or at least to the lives we wanted to live.
#britpop25 is going to appear on your Twitter feed a lot over the next twelve months and there will be re-releases, tours, special editions and more to commemorate so many wonderful albums but, please, spare a little time for a record that is the musical equivalent of bullets flying or stars colliding.