Secret secrets are no fun
Secret secrets hurt someone
(The Office, Season 3 – Episode 14)
I’m going to tell you a secret.
Well, it’s not really a secret.
It’s something that everyone knows but, a bit like the lack of clothes on the Emperor, most people are too afraid to say it.
Are you sitting comfortably?
Then I’ll tell you…
Listening to certain voices you could be forgiven for reaching the conclusion that Britpop is about as appetising as a loaf of stale white (and I do mean white) bread. Every aspect nineties pop music culture is reduced to “guitar music” by which those voices mean people who bend the knee to The Beatles. They have turned the thrills, spills and occasional bellyaches of Britpop into a moribund, bucket hat clad, cocaine snorting, boorish, anti-culture deadzone. Like something from a Cronenberg film where people have had their ability to see colour and to appreciate variety removed by a parasite with a copy of “Stanley Road”.
These are the same people who think that Mod was about The Kinks and The Small Faces or that punk starts and ends with “Never Mind the Bollocks”. The fact (and it is a fact lads) is that the original Mods were listening to jazz records, the sort of anti-establishment music that terrified the middle-classes thanks to it being made by black artists who “spoke” in a language they didn’t understand. The real faces enjoyed a bit of British music inspired by American jazz and blues of course but their real passion was soul music; a revolutionary musical force that drove political and social change. The punks a decade or so later didn’t have any records to listen to and so their clubs were filled with the sweet sounds of reggae and dub thanks to characters like Don Letts…often joined by their enemies on the streets, the skinheads.
Revisionist history isn’t the sole preserve of racist anti-Semites like the disgraced and disgraceful David Irving. A form of cultural revisionism has taken hold of Britpop too. The breadth and depth and peculiarity of the era has been redcued to a certain type of guitar music being played by a certain type of bloke. In part this is because many of the voices who speak on the subject weren’t actually there. They were non-participant observers. Too young to be in the clubs or on the streets and so blind to the reality of what was actually happening. A quick look at the voices in Daniel Rachel’s “Don’t Look Back in Anger” reveals that artists of different stripes, classes and races were all central to the formation and success of what became “Cool Britannia” and Britpop had it’s fair share of that diversity and experimentation.
It is a terrible thing to see how the whole period has been reduced to a handful of records, a rejection of anything outside of the narrow cultural eruv as determined by the self-annointed Elders of the current scene. Out goes art and artifice and in comes a set of approved records that could, quite easily, be on a compilation pulled together by Richard Hammond and sold at motorway service stations as “Ideal for Father’s Day”.
My Britpop tale involves being genuinely thrilled by Tracey Emin’s “Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995” and terrified by Damien Hirst’s “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living”. Those two pieces were as important to my Britpop experience as “The Drowners” by Suede and were significantly more important and influential than “The Riverboat Song” by Ocean Colour Scene.
I can remember visiting Ozwald Boateng’s boutique on Vigo Street in 1995 and thinking that I was looking at clothing that may never be bettered. Tailoring that was so sharp that you could cut yourself with it. I couldn’t afford anything but I knew it was better than a pair of Gazelle’s.
Despite living in Scotland for the entirety of the nineties I was able, thanks to a cocktail of sobriety, student loans and a part-time job in McDonald’s, to get to London fairly frequently. It was obvious that, despite being able to access the scene remotely through the pages of the NME or on television, if I was really going to be a part of what was happening I needed to be in London. That meant the night bus from Glasgow’s Buchannan Street bus station to London’s Victoria coach station…a long, sleepless and uncomfortable journey. Often I would leave on Friday night to arrive on Saturday morning, wash in the toilets of the station and then spend the day strolling up and down Carnaby Street, Oxford Street, Camden High Street or riding the tube. Second hand record stores and the Merc for records and cloth. Then, at night, it would be a club like Smashing or Blow Up to dance until the early hours of Sunday before heading back to the coach station for the return leg of the journey.
In the early days of the whole dizzying thing there were not enough records from the sorts of bands who now sit on the “approved” list to fill an hour. Even if there had been who really wants to listen to the Shine compilation albums from start to finish in a club? The answer to that question is, of course, nobody. On the crowded dancefloors of nineties London, and beyond, the soundtrack bore no resemblance to what modern commentators and influencers on the scene would have you believe. It was a mess, a glorious mess, of glam, punk, soundtracks, television themes, electronica, indie, soul and dance music. And it was magnificent.
With “Super Sonics – 40 Junkshop Britpop Greats” Smashing DJ Martin Green has captured some of the flavour of what Britpop really tasted like. Many of the “faces” of the period attended Smashing and it isn’t difficult to see how they might have been influenced by what Martin was playing…if you listen carefully.
There are familiar sixties/Mod sounds in the shape of the brilliantly titled “Inelegantly Wasted in Papa’s Penthouse Pad in Belgravia” and there are nods to the couldabeenacontenders like Powder with their single “Afrodisiac”. These are the sorts of things that drift close enough to what has been determined to be the Britpop sound to keep certain people happy but the real joy of “Super Sonics” lies in the darker corners of the club…
“Inevitable Fast Access” from Add N To X’s debut album “Vero Electronics” is the sort of weird, wonky, guitar free, wonder that will have boys in bucket hats and girls in Reverend and the Makers t-shirts reaching for the skip button. On the floor of Smashing though…it was a floor filler. That was because we were all desperate for every new sound, every new look and every act of self-expression we could find. We were high…on life, on the times and on certain class A drugs. Not me of course. I was a good boy.
Here, for the first time ever, is “Mood Music” by We Are Pleb. Pleb were fronted by the now (in)famous Paul Kaye who found fame as agent provocateur Denis Penis in the nineties and who also, famously, enjoyed a bit of a tear up with one Martin Rossiter of Gene. The song itself is a genuine gem. Urgent, ferocious, furious and powering along at breakneck speeed. It’s a bit NWONW but it is also a bit too peculiar to be anything other than a Britpop oddity.
More electronica surfaces with “On Me Not In Me” by Earl Brutus. A downbeat affair that, under the right circumstances, can be genuinely unsettling with its refrain of “On Me…Not In Me…” and what happens at one minute fifty will have people who have bought the album hoping to find that Reef single they really liked throwing up into a bin in the corner of the kitchen. It’s just demented and brilliant because of that fact.
Three of my favourite bands of the era are also here. “Her Jazz” by Huggy Bear was a thing of wonder when it dropped at Smashing. Girls with the right haircuts and terrific shoes flinging themselves onto the floor while the boys in the club tried to figure out what young women listening to music like this meant for them and the soft porn they had torn from the pages of “Loaded” and taped to their bedroom walls. It was the same thing when you heard the opening to “Supermodel Superficial”; “I DON’T GIVE A SHIT…” before reeling off all the bullshit notions of beauty that the fashion industry had dumped on women for generations. This holy trinity of riot grrrl righteous fury is finished off with Mambo Taxi’s “Do You Always Dress Like That In Front of Other People’s Girlfriends” which is so good it could almost prove the existence of God.
The real joy and wonder of what Martin Green has achieved here is that he has, for the first time, presented a body of work that actually captures the reality of Britpop…it was a fucking glorious blast of creativity, eccentricity, gender politics, art and artifice. Unlike so many of the (ahem) authorities he hasn’t turned his nose up at any aspect of the era, choosing instead to embrace it all.
Some people are going to have an almost physical reaction to the absence of “Country House” and “Wake Up Boo” on this compilation but they should console themselves with the fact that there will be another compilation available at their local 24 garage or on the shelfs at Tesco that will satisfy their appetite for mundanity. For people who want to relive what it was really like to be in a club in the nineties then this is the only compilation you will need.
Super Sonics 40 Junkshop Britpop Greats is available to pre-order from Cherry Red now and is released on July 17th.