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Saturday, 17 February 2018

Vinyl Diary, part 4: New Wave

In 1993, the rock press started to talk about something called ‘Britpop’. I had no idea what it meant, other than that someone had invented yet another music genre. The phenomenon went on to carry some cultural weight, although perhaps not always for the reasons celebrated by some commentators. Depending on your point of view, Noel Gallagher hanging around Downing Street with Tony Blair was either the zenith of ‘Cool Britannia’ or the precise moment at which rock music relinquished its risible claim to be the standard bearer for anything resembling a counter-cultural movement. Here’s a clue: If you’re sipping tea with the Prime Minister, you may still fancy yourself as a rebel, but you are most definitely inside the tent, pissing out. 

It is generally accepted that the first two Britpop albums were by Suede and The Auteurs. Suede had some good songs, but the production on their album was awful, spoiled by an excess of washy reverb and the vocals being too far back in the mix. The singer, Brett Anderson, wrote lyrics coyly alluding to vague homosexual encounters and once claimed in an interview that he was "a bisexual man who never had a homosexual experience". It seemed a bit lame, but at least he looked like a bona fide pop star.

By contrast, Luke Haines of The Auteurs, with his foppish hair and junk shop clothes, looked more like your well-read sixth-form mate who would sit at the back of the class making snide remarks. He sang like someone who had only previously performed in his bedroom, with the vocals all double or even treble-tracked; his weedy voice and cynical tone conveyed the impression of someone who was, perhaps, out to take some revenge upon the world. 

For all of the vocal limitations, his songs certainly had a bit of devilment and wit about them. When I heard ‘Showgirl’ on the radio for the first time, I was struck by the boldness of the opening few bars. The sudden drop after the line “I took a showgirl for my bride” sounded brave, assertive, brimming with confidence; it compelled me to shut up and listen. The songs on ‘New Wave’ appeared to explore a bohemian demi-monde of actors, musicians and dancing girls, stuck permanently between jobs and waiting for their big showbiz break. In ‘Valet Parking’, Haines sang “I’m sick of parking cars” and you got the feeling that he meant it. 
His lyrics could be acerbic, but were sometimes mysterious and allusive. On the splendidly cryptic ‘Idiot Brother’, he directed the following line at surely the only person in the world who would understand what it was about:

"And what about our fat friend
With the golden ear?"

I had no idea what was going on, but it was fun trying to guess.

'American Guitars’ was interpreted by some as a Britpop statement of intent, something along the lines of: ‘we’ve had enough of these bloody yanks influencing our pop kids’. But the lyric is clearly celebratory, with Haines -for once- expressing genuine admiration about something, perhaps in recognition of an authenticity that he felt his own work might have lacked:
"Some people are born to write, some people are born to dance
Thought I knew my place in the world, thought I knew my art.
Glad to be there, see them begin.
It was easy to see them, they were the best band to be in … American Guitars"

I really liked the sound of the group. The uncomplicated guitar and minimalistic piano always served the interests of the songs, while James Banbury’s cello added a certain je ne sais quoi to the proceedings. On ‘Bailed Out’ –which, in the wrong hands, might easily have turned out to be a bit of a plodder- Banbury’s deft lyricism lifted the track into another dimension.
Despite making a distinctive contribution to the sound, Banbury was viewed as a mercenary by the group leader. In the first volume of his memoirs (‘Bad Vibes – Britpop and my part in its downfall’ published in 2009), Haines, throughout the text, refers to him merely as ‘the cellist’. The book is bitter, bitchy and misanthropic, but there is also humour in the mix, with the author being honest about what a twat he could be at times.
Bad Vibes’ paints an illuminating picture of the thin line between failure and success, but it is even better on the thinner line between ‘modest’ and ‘massive’ success. The Auteurs famously lost out on the Mercury Music Prize by one vote to Suede; I don’t know if that made any difference to their respective trajectories, but Suede went on to be huge and The Auteurs didn’t. Haines eventually got over the disappointment and, henceforth, only felt sick about the injustice of it all once every couple of minutes.

One of the reasons I think I liked ‘New Wave’ so much was the fact that I was -at the time- in a band which, to my ears at least, ploughed a similar furrow to The Auteurs. “If this is Britpop”, I thought, “bring it on”. My hope was that my own band might get a record deal on the back of some timely zeitgeist-surfing. We also hired, at considerable expense, a cellist to play on some of our recordings and the results convinced me that we were in transition from being ‘half-decent’ (we were quite a solid unit) into something ‘quite interesting’. But finding a good cellist who would do the stuff that the rest of us were willing to do (paying for rehearsals, gigging in grotty pubs, paying for van hire etc.) was about as difficult as finding a unicorn that could cook; all the good ones wanted MU rates just to get out of bed.   

My band never managed to secure that elusive record deal. But I eventually got over the disappointment and nowadays only feel sick about the injustice of it all once every couple of minutes.

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