Sunday, 9 July 2017

Volume 18 Side 2 - Pop Will Eat Itself, Elastica, Verve, Teenage Fanclub, Kingmaker

1. Pop Will Eat Itself - RSVP (Infectious)

Since their last appearance on "Indie Top 20", Pop Will Eat Itself had "enjoyed" a fairly long but fractious stint with RCA. It was clear from the beginning that their relationship with the major label wasn't ideal. Not long after their debut RCA album "This Is The Day... This Is The Hour... This is This!" was released, Clint Mansell could be heard complaining in fanzines that the band's chances of bigger success had been ruined by a series of cock-ups followed by weak excuses at the label. RCA seemed confused by how to market the group, they felt, and had given up trying.

The group's relationship with them still managed a total of three studio LPs and one compilation before they were dropped at exactly the same moment their single "Get The Girl, Kill The Baddies!" smashed into the UK top ten. This peculiar achievement by both band and label caused them to be named as the first ever unsigned group to appear on "Top of the Pops" - until the same claim was made for Bis a number of years later (who, to be fair, did at least have absolutely no major label marketing budget or previous history on their side).

The more indie-friendly quarters of the British music press had a field day speculating what all this meant. Had RCA actually just done something incredibly stupid? Were Pop Will Eat Itself dumper-bound, or ascending towards something greater? The answer,  in the end, was neither - they would remain with the same status they always had. Somewhat unusually for a group who haven't been given much consideration since, they had a core and dedicated fanbase, and the high number nine chart placing for "Get The Girl" was down to the combined fluke of strong first week sales for them and a slow sales week across the rest of the board. They still had yet to achieve a top ten album, therefore still hadn't made any "real" money for their corporate employers.

While you would normally expect an unsigned band with a top ten single to cause a bidding war, the majors were therefore somewhat sniffy about rescuing PWEI, and they ended up back in Indieland, this time on the newly formed Infectious label. "RSVP" was their 1993 debut there, and it shows the group moving back towards a harder, edgier, guitar-led noise. Its chant-a-long chorus was memorable, the relentless noisiness of it very much in vogue with the grunge and industrial sounds edging into the mainstream, and it allowed them another one of their many minor Top 40 hits (seriously - count them). They even managed to get the twins from the Australian TV soap "Neighbours", Gillian and Gayle Blakeney, to appear in the video (who had been in the band The Monitors in the early eighties, as my other blog Left and to the Back will testify).

You could actually sympathise with major label's confusion about how to market the group, though, if such a dilemma did indeed exist. They continually sold modest volumes of records to the same bunch of dedicated fans for years without really gaining new converts or inching much further forwards. Attempts had been made to market them as "Britain's answer to the Beastie Boys" initially, then as an Indie-Dance group, then as a band who could crossover to Kerrang or Metal Hammer readers - none of these really stuck, and they sat in no-man's land appealing to their own gang of Grebo oddballs.

2. Elastica - Stutter (Deceptive)

As the old superstars of British indie found themselves being kicked off major labels or falling out of favour, so the arrogant and dashing new breed emerged. One thing that's often forgotten about Elastica is that they were a fledgling group when the first wave of publicity hit them, having only played a small number of gigs. Justine Frischmann was absurdly savvy and had a clear idea in mind of how the group should look and sound before they even put out their first single, of course - but even so, it's surprising how well they dealt with the media furore.

I caught them live supporting Pulp at the Portsmouth Wedgewood Rooms in 1993, and there was a palpable buzz in the room, and a slightly unexpected one considering they were only the support band (at this point, Pulp had yet to achieve a Top 40 hit, so their support bands were seldom groups about to dominate popular culture). A handful of fanzine-writing teenagers scurried to the front of the room, chatting excitedly with pens and notebooks in hand. As the group took the stage, one was heard to ask Donna "Did you like the photos I took?" to which Donna nodded somewhat distractedly.
"She said she liked them!" said the young photographer shamelessly, brimming over with excitement. "Did you hear that, she said she liked them!"
What the fuck was going on? Who were these people? I mean, I'd seen them in the NME and heard them on the radio, but...

Then the group began to play and... they sounded quite good. They sounded very much like what they were - a band with a probable future who had yet to develop a commanding live presence. Justine seemed confident and effortlessly cool, but only in the same way as lots of wealthy Hampshire types at my university.  I was starting to meet people born into wealth for the first time in my life, and at that point I couldn't see much difference between Justine's aloof, airy mutterings between songs and the distant poshness of some of my fellow students. Looking back on early interviews, it's apparent that she was incredibly intelligent, witty, cheeky and sparky in her own relaxed and casual way, but none of those personality traits were apparent on-stage yet.

Donna, on the other hand, seemed far more interesting, appearing born into her particular insouciant, punkish and vacant role in the group.

The debut single "Stutter", however, was two minutes of almighty and wonderful noise about the problems of drunken erectile dysfunction. At the time, the press bracketed the group in with the short-lived and under-achieving "New Wave of New Wave" scene, which tried to rally support for a raffish punk revival on Britain's somewhat underwhelmed gig circuit. Elastica were the only one of those groups to really go on to first division success, and if we're going to round up the best "NWONW" singles ever (though it's hard to understand why we'd bother) "Stutter" would almost certainly be number one. It's a commanding great treble-heavy, adrenalised rush which sounds like all the best elements of the late seventies era tied to the back of a Transit van and dragged along the road by a rope. Scuzzy, dirty (in every sense of the word) but so energising it's impossible not to listen to when it comes on the radio to this day, it actually sounded like the start of something big, brash and new, whereas the likes of "I Just Want To Kill Someone" by S*M*A*S*H (to give another NWONW single as an example) sounded like a reprisal of old ideas recreated to please ageing IPC journalists.

I didn't know it at the time, but in the space of one evening, I'd witnessed two groups with distinct identities both pointing different ways forward for British music, and both being correct. Britpop would prove to be a slightly bigger, broader tent than it's been credited for in recent years.

3. Verve - Slide Away (Hut)

And then there was Verve, of course, who with "Slide Away" provided Oasis with a future song title (or did they?) and arguably paved the way forwards for some of the mid-nineties indie sound. The melodrama of the song arrives through a thick pea-souper smog of effects pedal laden guitars, but the song still has a fussiness and fragility to it that would be sledgehammered out of the way by most of the new breed.

There will be those who disagree, but I personally find "Slide Away" a bit too directionless and woebegone to completely hit home. It's a big old meandering noise about nothing very much, and caused some people to wrongly assume the band had totally lost their footing. On the contrary, future releases would show they were actually beginning to find their way - commercially, at least.

4. Teenage Fanclub - Norman 3 (Creation)

Taken from their "underachieving" self-produced album "Thirteen", the pathetic number of views "Norman 3" has had since being uploaded to the Fannies official YouTube account certainly points towards opinions about this single being mostly negative or at best indifferent. In fact, many music journalists almost wrote the group off after "Thirteen" was released, feeling that whatever opportunities they had, they'd managed to lazily waste away with a mediocre follow-up album to a widely acknowledged cult classic.

That's needlessly harsh, though. "Norman 3" is the group at their most straightforwardly sweet, combining powerpop melodies with a slow, lazy wallowing in the emotions that surround the early stages of a love affair. "Yeah! I'm in love with you!" the chorus announces bouyantly, and it's incredibly simple and dumb but entirely relatable. It's not the group's finest moment, but catch it at the right moment on an early Spring day, and it will worm its way into your heart.

5. Kingmaker - Queen Jane (Chrysalis)

Few bands epitomise the slightly half-arsed politicised edge of early nineties indie more than Kingmaker. Released during a period when casual racism and fascism seemed on the upswing in Britain - though it all seems like a fairly harmless family row over Sunday dinner compared to the present day - "Queen Jane" paints portraits of disillusioned far right sympathisers, though fails to make particularly coherent or cutting points as it does so. It's clearly trying to make a clear and angry satirical point, but feels too scattershot and incoherent in its aims. "Oliver's Army" it isn't.

Musically, "Queen Jane" saunters along nicely, but also fails to deliver anything that might make it memorable or impactful. It swings by having made its snarling complaint, and within thirty seconds your mind is on to something else entirely. The late Conservative wilderness years of the early nineties probably did need a relevant political soundtrack of some kind, but God knows we deserved better than this.

Kingmaker had been hyped as one of the frontline indie groups of the early nineties, but as the decade progressed were struggling to maintain critical support. Their records all sold moderately well, but their sound clearly owed a debt to groups whose success was beginning to wane. When Suede supported them on tour, one highly critical review ran with the headline "Diamonds and Dogshit" (It made it quite clear, if you needed to be told, that Kingmaker were the "dogshit" in the evening's entertainments). Another tour of theirs featured Radiohead in the support slot. If nothing else, through accident or design they showcased two of the more influential nineties group on their tours, while failing to make any serious cases for themselves.

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