The best writers seem to be speaking directly to you.
It’s like they’ve been living in your wardrobe.
They’ve seen you naked, rifled through your pockets, heard all of your best lines, been there through cold blooded old times and they know all of your secrets. At least that’s how it seems. This should seem sinister, intrusive and unwelcome but it doesn’t, it feels comforting.
The reason they are able to connect with you like this, the reason they understand you, the reason that they “get” you is because they are just like you. Or maybe they are just like the you you wish you were. Usually it is the frank, but never vulgar, deep and open way in which they write and what they are writing about that forges the connection.
This is never more true than when the writer in question is writing pop music. Forget the arguments about high and low art, the ultimate means of inspiring, consoling, comforting and connecting with an audience is through song. That blending, melding, of words, melody, voice and music can be the purest, maybe the only, form of love at first whatever. Sight or sound. It can happen in under three minutes. A stranger…a different gender, a different colour, a different nationality, a different life lived and it matters not one jot. A verse, chorus, middle-eight, a riff and you are in love.
I had been watching films like “Alfie”, “Blow Up”, “Get Carter”, “The Italian Job” and “The Ipcress File” since sixth form. We didn’t have a common room, we had a small section of a corridor that was blocked off by portable partitions where we could assemble at break and lunch or during “study” periods. At the end of our little kingdom there was a set of stairs that led up to a classroom with a television and video player. Before school started I would make my way up the stairs with Chris and we would watch these sixties and seventies classics (with a heavy bias towards Michael Caine) or recordings of Vic Reeves “Big Night Out” and we would sit in the dark watching them. The day would unfold with us seeking out opportunities to quote lines from the films at every turn.
“You’re a big man, but you’re out of shape. With me, it’s a full time job.” was a favourite. We would do our very best Michael Caine voice and then repeat it whenever we felt it fitted…usually when someone was acting tough or when we thought it might make the other one laugh in class.
This was 1991 and the idea of a renaissance in British pop music seemed, unlikely. Or at least a turn towards the sort of pop music that Chris and I deemed acceptable seemed unlikely. Madchester had threatened just such a turn briefly but a combination of class A narcotics and the fact that there were only three or four bands worth listening to meant it all died out before it really got going. Then grunge arrived and the world turned from the ecstasy tinged day-glo hues of Madchester and rave to the aching grey of a rainy day in Seattle.
It was awful.
It was Ginsberg’s “Howl” but without the poetry.
“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,
starving, hysterical, naked…”
Then in 1994 I bought a single by a band called Sleeper. The single was “Delicious”. I don’t know why I bought it; a review in the NME maybe, or an interview with Louise Wener in the Melody Maker? Who knows now, it was all so long ago.
“You’re a big man, but you’re out of shape” sang Wener and, just like that, I was in. She had watched “Get Carter”, she knew that this was the line. She was just like me. She was one of us. Of course she wasn’t really just like me; I was nobody living nowhere and doing nothing with my life. She was a star already. A star in nine words. That was all it took. The rest of the song spoke about all manner of things that a celibate boy like me had only ever allowed himself to think about when he felt sure God might not be looking or listening. It was, in short, a song that changed my life.
Then, at the start of 1995 the world caught up.
Sleeper released “Inbetweener” and crashed into the top twenty, onto the covers of every magazine, into living rooms thanks to television appearances and into the hearts of indie kids, the grotesquely lonely and the hipsters alike. This was the sort of brilliantly crafted, dizzyingly melodic, foot stomping, heart beating, pop song that forced people to pay attention. It was infectious, like a sonic bird flu and had an equally devastating effect on people; I couldn’t get out of bed for a fortnight after I heard it for the first time. A pop fever of a single.
A certain type of person, an awful, crushing bore of a person, is rubbing their slightly greasy hands together at this point. Their stubby fingers poised to point out that I have, in fact, missed part of the story. Before either “Delicious” or “Inbetweener” there had been “Swallow”. A song that is soaked in the conflicting musical tastes and histories of both Wener and Dr Jon Stewart, a glorious mess of The Pixies and The Wedding Present with the usual unusual pop picks, lyrical biography and soul saving wonders. Just wonder at the thunder of a line like this…
“That’s no lover, that’s a vanity thief”
Girl power, grrrrl power, a brilliant exposing of the very worst aspects of a certain type of…man?
Before that there had been the bands debut single “Alice in Vain”…
I know what you are thinking.
This is all over the place.
But that’s because I am presenting these thoughts in the order that I discovered each of the songs. I could have lied to you, deceived you, told you that I was hip to the beat long before you…that I liked them before they were popular.
I’m not that person.
You know people like that.
You might even be that person.
This cat has no time for that sort of sour milk.
The first I knew of “Swallow” and “Alice in Vain” was when “Smart” landed.
But when I heard “Alice…” that first time it hit me hard.
What does it sound like when you put two fiercely intelligent, passionate music lovers in a band and throw all of those peculiarities of pop and rock together? Probably not very good nine times out of ten. It would sound like two people trying to be different. It would sound like four people trying too hard. It would sound muddled and confused.
It may have sounded like that for Sleeper at the beginning too.
But that mixed-up, muddled-up, shook-up stew of influences and differences, along with some other tensions, created something other than the slop that most other groups would have produced from it. Alice, Alice, who the Hell is Alice?
You could be Alice.
I was Alice.
“Max in the playground,
He ain’t got a girlfriend,
Oh, oh, that’s a pity,
He’s not even pretty, oh…”
Eighteen months before “Alice” I was standing in the playground of Balwearie High School.
Balwearie is a comprehensive school in Kirkcaldy…a coastal town that they forgot to bomb.
I was in fifth year…I was one of the big kids.
Because Britpop hadn’t arrive yet I was still a freak as far as most of my peers were concerned. Maybe not a freak but certainly I was peculiar…different.
I was aware of how the cool kids viewed someone like me. They all had perfect skin, fashionable haircuts, places on school sports teams, boyfriends and girlfriends. I was tolerated. A shadow figure. Not a shadowy figure. I wasn’t bullied or harassed…I wasn’t a victim.
Then as I stood in the playground that day a little girl from the first year came and stood directly in front of me.
She looked at me with…disgust?
“Pizza pus” she shrieked.
“What?” I replied.
“PIZZA PUS! PIZZA PUS! PIZZA PUS!” she yelled…then kept on yelling it.
Everybody within a five mile radius could hear her.
I felt the rush of shame and embarrassment rise up from my gut before it coloured my already scarlet face an even brighter shade of red.
I started to walk away from her.
She followed me.
It didn’t matter where I went she was behind me.
Morning break lasted for fifteen minutes.
This had been going on for about half of that time.
Finally I took shelter in the boys toilet.
I locked myself in a cubicle and cried.
Then the bell rang, I wiped my face, went to English with Mr Spiers and pretended that nothing had happened.
“She’ll discover, girls don’t hurt each other”
I discovered that day that everybody is capable of hurting everybody else.
“Smart” would have taken its place at the top table, maybe at the head of the table, for nineties albums by British bands, maybe just by bands, without the presence of any of the singles. That is a remarkable claim, extraordinary. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence of course.
“She’s got skin the colour of bread”
“Your beautiful face making my eyes feel sore”
“Got an old desire for you”
“I want to see you boxing naked to the death”
“I just haven’t felt the same, but then I’m very sentimental”
“He’s reading a thin book, it’s got no words just pictures”
“I think you’re attractive…but in a strange way”
How do you capture the whole of an album like this?
It’s a lyrical album…and I don’t mean the lyrics.
Not just the lyrics.
There is imagination, beauty and emotion in every note…each demented riff and lick from Jon, from each tickle, brush and pound of the drums at the hands of Andy and in each groove of the bass from Diid.
People will spend days, weeks, months, swallowed by, wallowing in, nostalgia for the big boys this year…”The Great Escape”, “Morning Glory” which both also turn 25. But, as I have said once already this year, the truth is that those albums are little more than the musical equivalent of stifled yawns.
If you want an album that sounds like a band who think they might not get another shot and who are going to make sure that if this is “it” that “it” is going to be something worth remembering then you don’t need the mockneyisms of “The Great Escape” or the MOR puff of things like “Wonderwall”…you need “Smart”.
This is what the album you wanted to make when you had a head full of dreams would sound like…because it was made by people with the same dreams. This is the sound of you and me filtered through people with more drive, more determination and, yes, more talent than we could muster between us.
This is an album worth celebrating.
Sleeper will be playing “Smart” in its entirety as part of the Star Shaped Festival later this year.