Gene – “Olympian” at 25

OLYMPIAN

There was a girl.

Isn’t there always.

She had t-bar shoes, a cute bob and spoke about herself in the third person…at the time that was charming, maybe even cute, it wasn’t until later I worked out what it actually meant.

That’s a tale for another time.

Sometime, never.

As ever the heart wants what the heart wants and so, like a Siren, her call lured me to dangerous, possibly deadly, shores.  Specifically to Greenock.

Ever heard of it?

Greenock comes from the Gaelic; Grianaig.

Do you know what that means?

Sunny knoll.

Stop laughing at the back.

Greenock sits on the West coast of Scotland and, despite its many charms, it isn’t somewhere that one would immediately stumble upon the word “sunny” when scrambling for ways to describe it.  Like so many places on the West coast it has suffered economic and industrial decline and hardship.  The people there are proud of their town, funny, hard and generous with their time and emotions.  A tough town filled with tough but tender people.

She didn’t actually live in Greenock but in the neighbouring, and infinitely more terrifying, Port Glasgow.  A place that takes its name from the Gaelic word “shithole” which, loosely, can be translated into English as the place with no redeeming qualities.

It’s horrible.

To any Portonions who may be reading I offer you no apologies but do offer my sympathies.

When describing Greenock she, and her friends, talked in hushed, reverential tones as if it were a place to rival New York for glamour and excitement.  A place where the bright young things of Inverclyde gathered in the latest fashions.  Truth rest your head.

My first journey to Greenock came on the 25th of February 1995, without her…we were not “there” yet…to see a band called Gene play in a venue called CC Browns.  I wasn’t alone in making the pilgrimage.  There were others from outside of the borders of Inverclyde.  We were there gathered to see Gene.

I had already been converted a year earlier when I saw them play at The Venue in Edinburgh.  Since then Gene had prompted the sort of slavish adoration and crazed fanaticism normally reserved for the likes of The Osmonds, Bay City Rollers and Joy Division.  Now, with their debut album looming and with a clutch of brilliant singles behind them it seemed certain that this would be the last time we would be able to see them anywhere like this again.

They were a riot.

It was the sight, and sound, of a band who knew, beyond doubt, that this was their moment.  Martin Rossitter confident, cock-sure and cocky.  Steve Mason playing with fire and skill and looking so sharp he made Oswald Boateng look like a Leveller.  Matt and his hat beating, brushing and bruising the drums with the sort of sophisticated, primal charm that only the very best of his breed ever reach.  Kev positively radiating the sort of cool that people think the bassist from Blur has…but doesn’t…and providing the groove that filled our hearts.

A riot I tell you.

Shortly after this “Olympian” arrived.

But which of the twelve Gods of the Greek pantheon did Gene most resemble?

For the dead…Hades.

The etymology of Hades suggests roots in words that mean “see”, “uniter” and, most appropriately, “that which is unseen”.  And there lies the heart of “Olympian”, it is a collection of eleven songs that, more often than not, deal with things that are unseen or which society would rather were unseen.

The ghosts of our pasts that haunt us and that we cannot escape.

The ache and horror of love requited and unrequited.

The shame of that which isn’t really shameful.

The pain of guilt.

The fear of being alone.

The shock of death.

The reality of loss.

The trudge of the ordinary.

The regret.

The awfulness of life unfulfilled.

It’s all there.

And more.

So much more.

What isn’t there is, almost, as interesting as what is.  The classic (and it is a classic)debut single “For the Dead”  with its “…goodbye ma” is absent as is the follow up “Be My Light, Be My Guide”.  This, as the Pet Shop Boys would have it, was a sin.  These were songs of vim, verve, wonder, guts and style.  Would the album have been improved with their inclusion?  Oh, I don’t really like to be critical about things, or people, I love but there is a simple answer to that question and it is, clearly, yes.

Who knows why they were not included.

Perhaps they felt that they had moved on already from those early pronouncements.  Or maybe, and this is just a guess, someone felt that they were already so good that they could afford to discard two gems.  In some ways they could but, and this is only my take, the album would have “worked” better, sounded more confident and strident had it been “Haunted by You” and “Sleep Well Tonight” that were left on the studio floor…that’s if it had to be two singles being replaced.  A decade before “Olympian” descended from Celestial heights another British band had pulled a similar trick by leaving their most recognisable, arguably best loved, single off of their debut album.  Maybe Gene were giving a nod to heroes or simply declaring; anything “they” could do, we can do better.

What do I know.

“Nothing”?

That’s just rude.

Accurate.

But rude.

Reviewing the album in the Melody Maker, journalist Simon Price said of “Haunted by You”; “If it was all you’d heard by Gene, you’d never listen again.”  If that sounds harsh…it isn’t.  Of the singles released from the album “Haunted by You” was the weakest, some lovely lines and a certain charm but nothing, you know, “special”.  It is the sparkler in the box of fireworks that makes up the album as a whole.  It is, to my cloth ears, not the sound of Gene.  If anything it sounds a little like a band trying to “do” Gene.  A shell of a song and not the heart and soul of a song that made us fall in love with them.

“Your Love It Lies” is a different beast.  “Those hands deny the hatred in your eyes” is a line that excites, thrills and teases a listener.  It is the sort of line that seems so easy to write but that only a very few writers would ever stumble upon.  The sweetly soothing guitar, the comforting thrum of the bass and a gentle wash of the drums soon give way to something that pounds and surges…here comes the thunder indeed.

When Brett Anderson made his clunky statement about being a bi-sexual man who had never had a homosexual experience back in the early days of Suede it sounded like someone trying a little too hard, desperate to cement his Bowie credentials and, instead, coming across as a bit…crass.  But this was the nineties and although for the likes of you and I it seems like yesterday and is bathed in the golden glow of eternal sunshine in our spotless minds the truth is that it was a long time ago and the world was a very different place.  Section 28 still hadn’t been repealed by the time Britpop came along, attitudes towards sex and sexuality were…different, difficult, destructive?  When Martin Rossiter arrived and openly declared himself to be a bi-sexual it was a, genuinely, bold and brave thing to do.

Currently in the UK Parliament there are over 50 openly gay MPs.  The halfway house of civil partnerships have been replaced with real marriage equality.  The age of consent for gay sex is the same as for heterosexuals.  Three examples of great progress towards a more tolerant and more equitable society for sure but, still, there remain battles to be fought (the flawed Turing Law being one example) in the field of gay rights.

Back in 1995 though things were very different songs like “Truth Rest Your Head” which, along with “Left-Handed”, were rages against the machine on behalf of a marginalised and still maligned section of society.  It is good to celebrate the victories…but  when “Six months inside Wandsworths finest landmark…first guilt now hates best son…for every MP, all their strong and kind words, “You can’t be guilty”, but you and I both know…” or “…bruised, kicked, lost your mother’s love” can be sung with as much conviction today as then we should maybe stop patting ourselves on the back.

“Left Handed” is also the first time that Gene prove themselves to more than capable of rocking and rolling with the best of them.  It is riotous, the sound of Jesus chasing the money lenders from the Temple.  Or something.  Only “To The City” comes close to matching it in the filth and the fury stakes.  This is the sound of Gene on stage, a physical, muscular (but never macho) proposition.  Like The Faces with a degree in gender studies.

One of the stand-out moments on the album is the opening line in “London, Can you Wait?” with Martin gently intoning and informing his kith and kin that he has sinned.  Much was made when Gene first arrived of their similarities to a certain other band but that was never accurate and was really built around the fact that Rossiter was a fop, a dandy and had a neat line in outrageous interview one liners.  But he was always more complex than you know who ever was…defiantly open about his sexuality, camp but never a stereotype, a great football player and obsessed with Paul Robeson.  He was, in very many ways, all things to all people…women wanted to be him and men wanted to be with him.

Watching that clip from “Britpop Now” you are also reminded of just how glorious the musicians in Gene were.  I’m not talking about their musicianship or their songwriting abilities here (and believe me they were very definitely songwriters…not bit part players in the Martin Rossiter show) but instead I’m talking about Steve Mason being the best dressed man of the nineties (calm down Wellends, the truth is the truth), Kevin is cooler than cool and Matt James is just…to be blunt, bloody great; the hat, the glint in his eye and a genuinely lovely human to boot.

During the “Revelations” tour I got a bit, just a bit, close to Martin.  I couldn’t call him my friend but I could call him.  We hung out a bit, had shared friends, played ten-pin bowling (I won) and ate pizza.  He was very kind.  What probably stopped us being friends was the fact that I really didn’t like Elvis.  Despite my flirting with rockabilly because of my Morrissey obsession I never really embraced The King or any other rockabilly.  I think it’s because my parents were…too Mod.  There were no Elvis records in our house.  My dad treated that sort of music with the same disdain as Jimmy in “Quadrophenia”…

Eventually Martin made me a compilation tape, the very best moments of Elvis.  It started with “If I Can Dream” ripped from the ’68 comeback special and, before it ended, I was hooked.  This may explain why my favourite moment on the album comes during “Still Can’t Find the ‘Phone” when Martin goes all Presley and warbles “uh-huh-huh”.  It makes me laugh every time I hear it and reminds me of some very lovely moments in my life.

“Sleep Well Tonight” is one of the songs I would have dropped for “Be My Light, Be My Guide” or “For the Dead”.  It has always sounded a bit…by the numbers?  That may be too critical but when you have songs as good as “Be My Light…” anything you elect to include ahead of it has to be, well, special and I’m not sure “Sleep Well Tonight” falls into that category.  But, having said that, live it was a different proposition…

Some people define Britpop by “Country House” vs “Roll With It”, by Knebworth, by “Common People”, by wailing “We only wannnnaaaarrr get drunk” as they spill out of a pub, by screaming “Parklife” or by “Loaded” magazine.  All of those things are part of the story of course and it would be churlish to try to suggest they were not or that they were no good.  But for a boy like me much of my nineties is defined by the other side of Britpop…the sweet and tender hooligans of Gene and the like.  Although who was really like Gene?

I was a mixed-up, muddle-up, shook-up kid in 1995.  I was twenty-two but I was a lot younger than that in very many ways.  I didn’t know who I was or how I should be.  I felt like a small boat on still waters…drifiting but without any sort of anchor I could be dashed against the shore when a storm came.  I was equal parts fey, winsome, Morrissey disciple and vulgar, boor, “Loaded” lad.  An angel and a demon.

At night in my student digs I listened to “Olympian” more often than any other song at this point in time.

“Give me something I can hold”

That’s all I wanted.

Something, maybe someone, to hold.

“It’s all gone hazy”

Oh, it really had.

I couldn’t see where I needed to be…what I needed to be…or who I should be.

“I can only be normal with you”

There is no such thing in life as normal.

The rise and fall of the song, the swoop and the soar, the whisper and the roar…it’s all too beautiful.

The perfect ending to an album.

Not for Gene.

Instead the whole affair comes to a close with “We’ll Find Our Own Way” which Simon Price in that Melody Maker review of the album described as ruining the brilliance of “Olympian” but I don’t agree.  The song is a breath, a pause, a space to gather oneself after the majesty of what came before…a moment to reflect.  It is also the sound of Rossiter reaching out to the grotesquely lonely, the broken and bruised, those who are drawn to the deep end and telling them; you are not alone.

“So tell me when you’re sad…my heart is strong…”

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