1. Black Grape – Reverend Black Grape
When Shaun Ryder parted ways with The Happy Mondays it was after one of the most disastrous recording sessions in history. ‘Yes Please’ was recorded in Eddy Grant’s house in Barbados, where the group had been sent so that Shaun wouldn’t take heroin. They stole and sold Eddy Grant’s furniture and used it to buy crack, which they smoked on sun-loungers next to the swimming pool. Returning to the UK, they held the tapes hostage, and threatened to destroy them. After paying up, Factory found that the songs contained no vocals whatsoever – Shawn hadn’t even gotten around to writing any. The label went bankrupt soon after. The idea that any record label would trust Shaun Ryder to record anything again was faintly ridiculous, and I doubt anyone could have guessed that he’d recruit a few of his mates, release an LP on a major label and a have series of hits just a couple of years later. 1995 was an odd time – and odder still, their debut single is simply brilliant, joyfully plundering from a vast buffet of inspiration, and with an actual bass-line and beats behind it all – completely joyful and triumphant. It wasn’t to last, of course, but never mind that.
2. Oasis – Acquiesce
It’s the start of 1995, and Oasis are still on the ascendant. Acquiesce finds them returning home in triumph, a shame there was nobody to whisper “you are mortal” in their ears. Rumor has it that the swapping of vocal duties between the verse and the chorus meant that Noel and Liam were singing about each-other – now if that isn’t wishful thinking, then I don’t know what is. More like it was one of their last experiments, and I wish there had been more.
3. McAlmont and Butler – Yes
Bernard Butler, who had left Suede in a fog of acrimony mid-way through the recording of their second LP, wrote ‘Yes’ as a snide kiss-off to the group when they asked him to return, then found David McAlmont (who had also recently left a group) to sing it. The result is five minutes of the most positively joyful “fuck you” you’ll ever hear – “I feel well enough to tell you what you can do with what you got to offer” – i.e “take your band and shove it.” The pair would stay together for only a few months – long enough to record enough tracks for a short album.
Delicatessen never sought to be pop stars, that’s for sure, but Britpop was a scene, and its tendrils extended even this far out, connecting these lovers of discordancy to the members of Suede, Supergrass and Powder. CF Kane is the closest thing they had to a hit, and its chorus is literally a man screaming over a wall of white noise.
5. Cast – Finetime
The La’s would have been perfect for Britpop, but after taking the best part of five years to record a short LP’s worth of songs, Lee Mavers retreated into his cave, and it was left to his bassist John Power to form a new band, which he named ‘Cast’ as the final lyrics on “The La’s” are “the change is cast” – to JP this is a powerful metaphor, meaning the group is a continuation of an predestined idea, but as a name by itself it gives the impression of a rotating group of anonymous, replaceable players following a script. Fortunately John had a couple of good songs up his sleeve – Finetime and Alright – but unfortunately the well seemed to run dry soon after. By the time “Walkaway” had become the stock music for montages of sports teams losing, I was bored with Cast.
6. Heavy Stereo – Sleep Freak
The concept behind Heavy Stereo was simple – “We’re The Glitter Band,” and that was basically it. It was good enough for me, though, I actually bought two singles, and contemplated getting the album too, though looking back it’s hard to see why I didn’t just buy a ‘Best of Glam Rock’ instead. “Sleep Freak” seems to be the only thing that stands up on its own now, and even that only just. Heavy Stereo thought they had a big break when they went on tour with Oasis, and guitarist Gem Archer really did – Noel noticed that he was better than Bonehead and quickly moved to absorb him into his folds. For the rest of Heavy Stereo, that was that.
7. Smaller – God I Hate This Town
Pete “Digsy” Deary might have had a number one hit in France, Italy, Germany, and Hong Kong (Cook da Books’s ‘Your Eyes’) but he’s still destined to be forever remembered as “mate of Oasis” and nothing much else. Smaller were too slow off the marks, and didn’t really ever look like a going concern, but at least with “God I hate This Town” they managed to tie the rock side of Britpop to a vaguely Punk outlook.
8. Elcka – Games We Play
There seemed to be a blizzard of new bands in 1995, and even though I was scouring Select for any mention of anyone new, some things even escaped me. Elcka, by all counts, were an excellent live act, but didn’t seem to get it together in the studio until it was too late. I’ll leave it to someone who actually saw them at the time to go into a little more depth here. There was a goth-glam undercurrent to much of D-list Britpop (I’m thinking of King Adora and Subcircus here), which finally emerged into the mainstream in the form of Placebo. If you don’t think that Placebo are mainstream then you probably haven’t lived in continental Europe.
9. Menswe@r – Stardust
In the years after Britpop’s great wave pulled back, Menswear’s reputation suffered more than any other, to the extent that their name alone became a punchline for the follies of 1995. This wasn’t confined to uninformed members of the public – music journalists, former friends, even their drummer has made a few comments of the “what were we thinking?” variety. As someone that owned their first LP ‘Nuisance’ and actually listened to it well after 1995, this seemed like a bizarre development. Maybe they weren’t the best group around, but their highlights still seemed genuinely exciting – the music was arty post-punk brilliantly corralled into chart pop (surely that’s what everyone wants?) and they looked fucking cool (this too.) It wasn’t until a bit later that I realized that (a) people who dislike artiness + people who dislike pop = almost everyone who has an opinion about anything (b) there’s that ‘authenticity’ thing that people care about for some reason again and (c) my god did Menswe@r go out of their way to piss off absolutely everyone, and not in a cool punk way. There was even a small article in the NME (which I’ve just spent a fruitless hour trying to find) which accused Chris Gentry of blagging his way into the whole thing by elbowing his way into conversations with important people at The Good Mixer and offering them cocaine.
The trouble with looking at the group in this way is that it turns everything into a game of “who deserves this more?” – and worthiness has never been a great yardstick to measure the value of music. Sure, Chris was a chancer, but he had the guitar licks to back it up. Johnny Dean is surely more important – later diagnosed with autism, his very un-indie disconnect from musicianliness, coupled with a focus on honing the purest possible form of pop star iconography almost qualifies as performance art in itself. ‘Stardust’, my favourite Menswear single, is on the surface a character assassination of Bobby Gillespie – “he’s a superficial fucker” – but the twist is that every mocking line could equally be directed at Johnny by his critics – and his critics seemed to consist of most of the group.
Meanswear wouldn’t last, of course – even by 1996 they were yesterday’s news, and their second album, released only in Japan, is an unwelcome mainsteam-country-rock let-down. Then there was nearly 20 years of nothing, the members going into radio and A&R, until last year JD finally got back up on stage to perform under the name again. You’d have thought enough time had passed to look at 1995 with a bit of perspective, but apparently there is still a way to go.
10. Marion – Let’s All Go Together (Slide Mix)
Boasting the best voice and the prettiest face in Britpop, Jamie Harding seemed feted to be one of the lasting stars of the movement. The music had a vague edge of dangerousness to it, the group had a knack for writing epic-sounding rock songs… aside from boasting Britpop’s Only Beard™ they seemed to have everything sewn up. But then Jamie discovered heroin, and swiftly transitioned from debauched rockstar to junkie in a bedsit. This surprisingly candid NME article has most of the detail – a sad story, especially with their early promise, but the good news is that he seems to be past it now, and is back to performing. ‘Let’s All Go Together’ is a growling romp about mass suicide, which featured on an excellent Select tape.
11. Powder – Deep-Fried
Menswear had an easy ride compared to Powder, who elicited two responses; “I hate them” and “who?” The second response became ubiquitous when singer Pearl Lowe later emerged as a celebrity of some sort, for reasons too silly to go over here. Powder were a bit like a gothy, female-fronted Menswear, all louche debauched messiness over ‘fuck it’ art-punk. Pearl wasn’t the most talented singer, but her 6am growl suited the mood, and they at least had, what, three half-decent tunes to back it up. They broke up when Pearl became pregnant, so any promise was ultimately unfulfilled, though Pearl did go on to join Britpop D-league supergroup Lodger a few years later. I proudly submit myself as one of a select few who genuinely enjoyed every minute
12. Northern Uproar – Rollercoaster
Oh god, just look at them. Four high school kids who think if they put on parkas and glare at the camera they’ll be the next Oasis. That’s what I used to think, anyway – if ‘they’ hated Menswear and Powder, then I had license to hate Northern Uproar, that sounded fair. Only it wasn’t, of course, these kids had a right to the same treatment as anyone else, and while I’ll never really be a fan, Rollercoaster is still not bad, capturing as it does a lot of the excitement of being a 16-year-old on tour with your heroes.
13. Super Furry Animals – Hometown Unicorn
Up to this point ‘Brit’ has generally stood for ‘England’, or actually ‘Camden’. The scene had started there, and that’s where you moved if you wanted to be in on it. Much as with other musical movements, there was a ripple effect as people around the country realized that being in a band could get you on top of the pops, not just playing the local toilet circuit. Wales in particular saw an explosion in new groups, though some of them are too left-field (i.e Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci) or too rock (Sterophonics) to be included here. The Super Furry Animals were easily the most exciting of these, turning up to festivals in a tank, recording the sweariest single of all time and featuring celebrity drug-smuggler Howard Marks on their album cover, inevitably leading to both cult following and chart success. At this point I’m almost ashamed to admit that even after buying their first few singles, SFA never really clicked with me as something I could truly love, and I am entirely unable to put my finger on exactly why. This is embarrassing as almost all my friends love them. Sorry.
14. Brassy – Boss
Muffin Spencer (sister of Jon, of Blues Explosion fame) is (as far as I know) the only American voice on this compilation, and she’s here because she made her way across the Atlantic, formed a group with locals in Manchester, and released a couple of astonishing singles: like Chrissy Hynde, only better, and without any of the success. ‘Boss’ is my favourite – a tight low-fi racket with Muffin purring her way through vague descriptions of an unspecified (but disgusting sounding) sexual act. Unfortunately their label would collapse before they were able to put an LP out, but years later they would reform to make an indie hip-hop LP which finally had some success in the form of a Motorola jingle taken from the single ‘Play Some D’. Poor old Brassy.
15. Mansun – Thief
My sense is that Mansun don’t belong to Britpop at all, but they were the beneficiaries of the A&R scramble for indie bands in the wake of Parklife, so they fit around here in the story. Blessed with huge prog rock pretentions and lyrics so bad that they felt they needed to write another song to stop people reading them, they weren’t really my thing – and yet I seem to have bought the One EP, Two EP and Three EP, and listened to them, and enjoyed them enough to listen to them again. ‘Thief’ is from the One EP, a standard-enough Mansun b-side which lurches into a tremendous breakdown halfway through.
16. Gene – Fighting Fit
Gene were early at the party, but took a while to get going. ‘Fighting Fit’, their biggest and most anthemic single was released in the Autumn of 1996, and its parent album not until the following year. This small amount of success seemed to be something of a long service prize, the group having stuck to their plan of recording songs that sounded like weepy yet macho versions of Smiths ballads even as it failed to get them on Top Of The Pops. To be fair to Gene, it was clear that there was something of substance here, and at another time or another place it would have been valued more. A couple of years later it was all done – a fact I realized when they felt the need to send a promo of their LP to my (circulation approx. 25) non-Gene-related zine.
17. Telstarr – Berserk
I must have picked up this record at the much missed Magpie Records in Worcester, though I have no idea why, only that it’s a complete joy of a post-Pulp Britpop single, a paean to the joys of washing away existential misery with a night out on the town. According to the internet it was played a few times on The Evening Session, and 45cat have a scan of the back cover with a full list of band members. Aside from that, the world seems to have forgotten Telstarr. If anyone has any further information about this group then please leave a comment.
18. Lush – Last Night
Stalwarts of The Scene That Celebrates Itself, Lush started out as a proto-shoegaze band, gradually became increasingly dreamy and floaty, then shifted direction completely when Britpop came along to become, if anything, the most commercial-sounding group of the lot. It’s unclear how much of this change was due to record company pressure, but they had certainly not given up on dream pop, as evidenced by ‘Last Night’ – one of a few gorgeously realized soundscapes which were relegated to b-sides or album tracks while ‘Single Girl’ and ‘Ladykillers’ were a-listed on Radio 1. Evidently the group were ready to shift back to the music they wanted to make as soon as possible, but after a depressing American tour supporting the Gin Blossoms, drummer Chris Acland commited suicide, and the rest of the group decided to call it a day, with Miki quitting music entirely. There’s a good article on the group here.
Edit: Three hours after I press ‘post’ Lush announce a reunion. Astounding. https://twitter.com/evjanderson/status/648467764139700224
19. The Bluetones – The Fountainhead
Shed Seven played Worcester at the start of 1995. I didn’t go, but people who did came back raving about the support act, The Bluetones, and a couple had bought their self-pressed 7″ single with future hit Slight Return on one side and The Fountainhead on the other. Everyone was sure that they’d soon be the biggest band in the world, which is odd as for all their success, nobody ever seemed excited about them again. Never Britpop’s brightest peacocks, The Bluetones hid their hooks in secret places – rhythms, countermelodies – and this was somehow enough to keep them in business for most of the decade. The Fountainhead (hopefully nothing to do with Ayn Rand) is a good demonstration of their appeal – an excerpt from a guitar jam, stretched out into a digression of a song, technically proficient and adventurous without showing off. Which brings us to…
20. Ocean Colour Scene – I Wanna Stay Alive With You
Making this compilation has meant listening to a few things I would’ve otherwise not. In the case of OCS, it meant I needed to confront my prejudices. Do I even really dislike them, or am I just following the opinion I’m expected to have? Is the problem with the group, or what they stand for? The way all this exciting music was morphing into a couple of dull formulas? The pride in musicianship ahead of quality? The way all the eccentric characters were disappearing to be replaced by identical muso blokes with nothing much to say? The last one seems unfair in this case – unlike most of the other acts here, OCS weren’t all white, or all-straight, and yet… And yet listening to their Britpop LP, Mosely Shoals, every track seems to be an homage to a certain type of mod or soul instrumental, intricately worked out, but lacking any character of its own. It’s not that any of it is bad, it’s just, what’s the point? What are they actually expressing here? The one exception to this is ‘I Wanna Stay Alive With You’, where the artifice is stripped away and we’re left with a simple, honest love song. I’m torn between enjoying it for itself and cursing them for not making more like this.