5. RUN COMRADE! THE OLD WORLD IS BEHIND YOU 1995 – 1999
‘Wake up it's a beautiful morning, feel the sun shining for your eyes’; 1995 was the high summer of Britpop and we celebrated in true ‘cor blimey’ fashion, whistling The Boo Radley’s poxy ‘Wake Up Boo’ as we set off in our charabanc with the in laws for a holiday camp knees up in the tatty, seaside town of Hastings. Strolls along the pier, amusement arcades, cockles and mussels, bingo every night and arguing with the missus, what could be better? If Damon ‘so cockney it hurts’ Albarn had been there he’d have loved it, or rather he’d have loved the concept of it because spending seven days in a caravan was as ghastly then as it is now.
What made it even more unpalatable was that fifteen years into our marriage my wife and I had developed a deep rooted aversion to spending any time together. Nonetheless, in a genuine attempt to make the best of it ‘for the sake of the kids’, I honestly believed that I could put our years of avoidance aside. I was wrong. Crammed together in the uncomfortable, seriously confined cardboard walls of a caravan, from day one just looking at her filled me with a fury I hadn’t quite expected, the week deteriorating from there to become just another nail in a coffin I’d already buried. Within eighteen months, very much like Britpop, I would be gone.
I think we all know by now what a right load of retro shit Britpop really was. My eleven year old son Dan loved it, going so far as to compile a nifty series of mix tapes he wittily entitled Britty Good, but ultimately even his interest faded with the homogeneous nature of it all. And he was right because ultimately all that came out of Britpop was one great group, a couple of decent others, a bunch of pub rock nobodies and the triumph of northern, working class, oaf-ism over southern, middle class, smart-arseism.
Then again, there had always been a few flies in the Britpop ointment. Not least was how much electronic dance, hip hop and the Bristol wild bunch of Massive Attack, Portishead, Tricky and Roni Size had already educated us with sonic adventures that were everything Britpop was not; almost exclusively black, anti-retro and female inclusive. What was surprising was how jungle and drum ‘n’ bass in particular refused to go on and engage with the wider world, preferring instead to wallow in increasingly elitist and confusing sub scenes swept aside by the Britpop onslaught. Those ambitious mavericks who had battled popular music on their own terms lost all the ground they had fought so hard to win and were pushed back into the margins, replaced by sixties tribute dullards whose media and marketing savvy became infinitely more important than the noise they made.
Despite the best efforts of individualists like Thom Yorke and Jason Pierce to shock and surprise, Britpop replaced the need for innovation and iconoclasm with fulltime worship at the altar of greed. Whereas the most notable British music had long been countercultural, this new incarnation drew all of its energy from celebrated in the tabloids and having drinkies with the government, their longing to be a part of the mainstream and to make loads of money killing off any sense of independence. The result, which continues to stands today, was that British music lost its excitement, experimentalism and artful defiance, in essence the otherness, that had always characterised its greatest moments. And yet I can’t deny that as I trudged on through the tedium of my daily grind, the Britpop effect proved to be a very welcome distraction.
With my eyes to the floor, my back to the wall and my head in the clouds I’d forgotten how as we move down life’s beaten path, on any given day there are maybe ten, maybe a hundred, moments where it’s perfectly possible to be mesmerised by the shock of the here and now, by an event, a person or a sensation that can unexpectedly steer you from life's tedium. In the summer of 1996 I experienced such a moment, one that renewed my strength and purpose to such an extent that it enabled me to put into action a course of events that had been uppermost in my mind for a decade or more.
At a leaving do for a fellow Chargehand in a local pub, I was slightly taken aback when Claire, a recently married girl from work I admired from afar, turned up unexpectedly and spent the evening deep in conversation with me, the envious looks of my comrades letting me know in no uncertain terms that she was way out of my league. In hindsight it’s easy to see how that night changed my life, and yet as besotted as I was with her wit, her kindness, her beauty, indeed everything about her, my sense of self-esteem was so fragile I didn’t dare allow myself to believe that anything more would come of it.
I would be the first to admit that over the years I had gradually submitted to the lack of aspiration and expectation in those around me; at work, at home, even in the pub. No-one in my limited social circle ever spoke about a brighter future, their debilitating mantra of ‘there must be a heaven above because its hell on earth’ gradually sucking out my soul, my spirit and my intelligence until I became just like them; brow beaten and battered and suffering life as if it were to be endured rather than enjoyed. And the really scary thing was that until Claire made her feelings towards me known, I hadn’t even been aware of it.
From the start, despite the number of almost insurmountable barriers we had to overcome, I think we both knew that we would be spending the rest of our lives together. The all-consuming, life affirming feeling loving her making me realise that I’d never really known what love was. To me it had always been a vague almost mystical concept, but when I fell in love with Claire I knew for sure that I had never been in love before.
Despite being painfully aware that I had got married absurdly young, it was only when my involvement in music had come to an end in 1988 that I realised how grim my marriage had become, and by then it was too late because I had two sons to raise. My wife had made the fatal mistake of taking me for granted, her language towards me merging into disrespectful, unflattering nicknames and insulting in jokes, so much so that my friends believed them to be her terms of endearment, yet I could find nothing endearing about being ridiculed in public. After sixteen long years our relationship had shifted into a joyless pantomime of indifference and cutting asides and I’d become so unhappy that at 36 years old it felt like I’d run out of future.
Knowing what I know now, I’m amazed that anyone summons up the courage to leave their spouse and their old world of anaesthetising routine and stifling certainty to head into the unknown. To break those chains is hard which I guess is why so many continue to write off their lives and suffer in silence. But I had spotted a chink of light in the darkness and nothing was going to stop me diving right through it. As the Christmas of 1996 approached, my wife ramped up the tirades and threats in her traditional manner until the day itself when in an uncontrollable fit of rage, with her features contorted and the spittle spraying forth, she screamed ‘the only Christmas present you’re getting off me is a divorce’ an inch from my bemused face. As a couple who had never brought each other presents I had no idea what she was on about but for once decided to take her at her word.
Spurred on by the usual misery of the festive period, a week into the New Year of 1997 I packed a few clothes into a bin bag and departed. Walking out the front door to leave Dan and Rich confused and distraught behind me was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, and yet I was comforted by my belief that no matter what, I would find a way for them to live with me as soon as I possibly could. What I didn’t know was the pandemonium, horror and madness to come before then.
In 1697 English playwright William Congreve wrote ‘Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.’ I don’t know if old Will had been through his own separation but he was spot on because ever since I walked out on my own marriage, I have seen perfectly reasonable wives and husbands turn into seething, rage fuelled Beelzebub’s only too happy to inflict untold mental and physical agony on those who have dared to leave them. My wife didn’t love me. Hell, she didn’t even like me. But that didn’t matter to her; suicide threats, blackmail, going AWOL with the kids, stalking, sexual enticement, random assaults with knives, scissors and boiling water, 999 calls, family liaison officers, children at risk registers, social service conferences, court appearances and exclusion orders, I got the lot as our separation turned really ugly and really messy really fast.
My ex seemed to have the police permanently on speed dial in an attempt to get me arrested, although more often than not she would end up getting arrested herself. They advised me to keep a detailed diary of incidents for use as evidence should it ever be required (it was), but I won’t go on about most of what went on, not through it feeling painful, although I did feel plenty of that emotion at the time, but because over twenty years later I find it wearisome and kind of boring, and as I’ve discovered since, most divorcees have similar tales to tell.
My sons suffered dreadfully but initially I felt powerless to stop such a raging, psycho nut. There were daily dramas of varying intensity and I was no innocent, goaded into behaviour I’m thoroughly ashamed of, but Claire and I managed to get through it by taking solace in each other and copious amounts of drinking, the only way I could ease the physical pain of separation from Dan and Rich. I continued to see them religiously three times a week but with nowhere to go apart from expensive away days I could ill afford or traipsing around town for hours on end that proved problematic in itself. However, following a barely sufferable month of sleeping in hotels or at my parents, Claire found me a small house to rent in Theale, a place I knew well.
As my life swung uncontrollably from the heaven of the new to the hell of the old with alarming regularity, living in an out of the way village of friendly locals suited me fine until one day in June when with all the courage he could muster, Dan informed my ex and the female police officer in attendance at the time that he wished to live with me and she was finally forced to concede to his wishes while once again getting herself arrested into the bargain for mouthing off. With a formidable sense of loyalty and bravery, characteristics that would come to define him as an adult, at just ten years old Rich chose to stick it out with her for a further three months of abject misery, until a fall from a bike resulted in a smashed elbow, three operations and a month off school.
Claiming she had no way of caring for him my ex finally gave Rich up, although the simple truth was that she had no further use for him in her grinding war of attrition, being far more interested in partying hard with anyone who would have her. In fact so interested was she that she refused to see the boys at all for the next nine months. At just thirty years old and with no kids of her own, being presented with an instant family came as a huge shock to Claire who had only recently moved in with me fulltime, but as Dan and then Rich came to live with us, their loyalties confused, their minds fried, she never faltered when most would have fled.
When you get right down to it and you ponder the meaning of life, most folk would accept that their kids are all that matter which is strange when you consider how our lives are so completely dominated by futile consumerism, material possessions and keeping up with the Joneses, the glitterati and the fashionistas? When I left my house and my wife I lost everything I had, all spitefully given away or car booted; my clothes, my books, my magazines, my Technics stereo system and my entire record collection. I didn’t regret the loss of any of it knowing well enough that it was all replaceable except for a box of Criminal Damage vinyl, photos, clippings, press gubbins and memorabilia that was callously binned. Thankfully I did manage to salvage a box of mix tapes and an old cassette player so I wasn’t left completely without music. Despite my Luddite resistance, I also bought a small, portable, compact disc player. Infatuated with audio technology, my old man was horrified it had taken me so long, but I didn’t like CD’s and that was that (I still ended up with thousands of the things). My first CD was The Greatest Punk Album In The World Ever! Obviously it was nothing of the sort!
As Claire and I settled into our new life of domestic bliss, so pre-occupied was I with love, kids and the minutiae of daily living that I barely noticed New Labour’s election victory ridding us of eighteen years of Tory rule. When I did bother to look up, the ever increasing emptiness of their cocaine, socialist, celebrity Britain wasn’t exactly what I’d been expecting. Even more offensive were the new breed of indistinguishable, middle youth, thirty something's taking over the radio and TV. In the face of their cultural dominance, their shit taste and the arrival of lad culture, it was difficult to see how any new youth movement would ever stand a chance.
Not that I was really bothered by such things because real life had a habit of getting in the way. Following eighteen months squeezed into the one down two up of Theale, somehow we secured a mortgage on a beautiful, Tardis like, Edwardian house in the old part of Tilehurst, a move more for Dan and Rich’s sake to be nearer their friends than for ours. Personally I would have been delighted to never set foot in the place again. Nonetheless, deep within our bubble of domestic bliss, 1999 may have been considered the most science fiction of years but for us it became very real when we found out that Claire was expecting an autumn baby. Then suddenly and quite unexpectedly my father died following a triple heart bypass operation at what now seems like a relatively youthful 66 years of age.
The world certainly becomes a surreal place when someone very close to you dies, but as I gazed briefly at my father’s body, I was struck by how his soul, his spirit, his very essence was clearly not there. I had spent plenty of time with him over the years, particularly since he had sold off his share in his engineering firm and retired early. Like a wise old mystic, he had a way of empowering me to work out the answers to my own questions without ever saying much himself. Of course, I knew I would miss him terribly, but in a way he had also given me the strength to accept his death and move on, just as I had seen him do when his own parents died within a year of each other in the late seventies.
Needless to say, as the clock counted down to the new millennium, I couldn’t help but reflect on the final years of the 20th century and how my life had been transformed. For the first time I felt truly happy and contented, a strange feeling I would have to try and get used to. On millennium eve, clinging onto my three month old daughter Charlotte with Claire, Dan and Rich by my side, peering through the drizzle at the celebratory fireworks I could see nothing but sunshine.
LEVITICUS ‘The Burial’ (Single A Side February 1995)
Built around a couple of seventies soul singles, a speeded up Jill Francis song and most recognisable of all, Jigsy King and Tony Curtis's Jamaican hit ‘My Sound a Murder’, ‘The Burial’ was a classic from the glory days of jungle that managed to scrape into the charts and by so doing prove what electronic dance music could be when it met the pop fan halfway and worked within a structured format as opposed to relying on unfathomable micro scenes and regurgitated sonic effects.
TRICKY ‘Ponderosa’ (Maxinquaye LP February 1995)
Maxinquaye was Into The Labyrinth time as Tricky took us through the twists and turns of his psyche as his philosophical ruminations segued into truth attack and brutal self-examination (‘I drink till I'm drunk and I smoke until I'm senseless’), its radicalism matched by its brilliant immediacy. The impact was heightened by the gender fuck of Martina Topley-Bird's gamine voice delivering up his nuggets of apparent autobiography, Tricky himself leaving the exact nature of his revelations up for grabs by not being heard until a third of the way through on ‘Hell is Round the Corner’. I hate to use the word classic but Maxinquaye is just that. At least it is to me and arguing the toss about its greatness won’t make it any less great.
P.J. HARVEY ‘Down By The Water’ (To Bring You My Love LP February 1995)
In seriously macho times when men were lads and women were in Elastica, Polly Harvey was an enticing concoction of sex ballad suffering and earth mother yearning. In her Riot Grrrl frocks she was the one woman embodiment of The Slits, To Bring You My Love the nearest any woman has ever got to releasing a cock rock album, a collection of songs defiantly shouting ‘Gimme it!’ while proclaiming that the basic impulses, desires and needs of men and women aren’t all that different if only we could stop hiding behind all those tiresome Venus and Mars cliché’s.
PULP ‘Common People’ (Single A Side May 1995)
Britpop’s greatest four minutes, as Oasis and Blur fought out their ridiculous class war and the proles dutifully obliged by picking their own side, Jarvis Cocker, being infinitely smarter and wiser, chose to say it with no room for misinterpretation, safe in the knowledge that class friction is just a distraction to keep us firmly in our place.
BLACK GRAPE ‘Shake Your Money’ (It’s Great When You’re Straight Yeah! LP August 1995)
It’s Great When You’re Straight Yeah! was the soundtrack to my summer of 1995. The return of Shaky Shaun proved a brief one but Black Grape were irresistible. However, it wasn’t all a laugh a minute. Beneath the guffaws and giggles there was some serious doom and gloom, a glimpse of Ryder’s demons that had nothing to do with the drugs he chose to hide behind. But the real reason I loved this record was the sleazy vibe oozing from its every groove which sounded like some wasted, dodgy covers band playing funked up versions of the Stones greatest hits.
BJORK ‘Isobel’ [Deodato Mix] (Single B Side August 1995)
With the sheer beauty of her music, Björk helped me understand the truth about love, loss, faith, abandonment and the dark horror of losing myself in a life of suffocating gloom, ‘Isobel’ a glorious thing, written and remixed in the days when she was still interested in defining the rules of a new pop game being informed by electronic dance and technology. Coming on like the hippy love child she is, Björk spoke of mountains, forests, creatures called lust and fairy tales of mystery, a feminine and dreamy contradiction of ancient and modern planting a glimmer of hope for the future.
ROCKET FROM THE CRYPT ‘Born In ’69’ (Scream Dracula Scream! LP December 1995)
I’d forgotten all about gettinabitarockin’ until San Diego’s Rocket From The Crypt arrived and somehow gate crashed the British charts. Pure, smart, dumb rock’n’roll resurrected from the spirits of James Brown, Fat Elvis, The Clash and US hardcore, it stood out like a syphilitic knob in a world ruled by Ocean Colour Scene and Shed Seven, the chorus alone smacking you over the head screaming ‘I want it! I need it! I feel it! Awllllllllright!’ as the horns blew and the guitars came crashing down.
NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS ‘Stagger Lee’ (Murder Ballads LP February 1996)
Art for art’s sake or killing for the sake of, Murder Ballads was a lot more than just another album or Nick Cave’s ninth long player. From beginning to surprisingly cheery end, it sucked me deep inside its hellish world of Old Testament fire and brimstone. The most macabre tale of the lot was Ol’ Nick’s take on the legend of ‘Stagger Lee’. With The Bad Seeds bastardised swamp blues steaming in the background, Stag promised to ‘crawl over fifty good pussies just to get to one fat boys arsehole’ and that wasn’t the half of it. Murder Ballads was a gothic masterpiece so far outside of pop culture that to explain is pointless. You just need to hear it. Be warned though, even when the sweet voiced Kylie takes her turn on ‘Where The Wild Roses Grow’, it’s never pretty.
MANIC STREET PREACHERS ‘A Design For Life’ (Single A Side April 1996)
Following Richey Edwards disappearance on 1st February 1995, ‘A Design For Life’ cleared the way for a future that no-one could have envisaged, least of all James Dean Bradfield, Nicky Wire and Sean Moore. Originally conceived as a riposte to the middle class appropriation of working class culture during the Britpop years, the song was more a celebration of self-empowerment and education, Nicky Wire’s arresting opening line ‘Libraries gave us power’ inspired by a sign reading ‘Knowledge is power’ carved above the door of the former Pillgwenlly Library in Newport. In the mid-nineties the song would become less a reminder of the Manics intelligence, impeccable influences and immense popularity and more a soundtrack to alcoholic obliteration, my own included, but I was never in any doubt as to its magnificence.
UNDERWORLD ‘Born Slippy .NUXX’ (Single A Side July 1996)
It’s entirely fitting that the single that best encapsulated the On The Buses Britlad era wasn’t a Britpop record at all. The only reason Underworld’s euphoric single of pounding techno trance and stream of consciousness vocals made any impact in the first place was the remixed NUXX versions inclusion on Danny Boyles Trainspotting soundtrack, a film about the misery of heroin addiction. How ironic then that alongside ‘Design For Life’ and Chumbawumba’s excretable chart hit ‘Tubthumping’, ‘Born Slippy’ was regarded as one of the nation’s principle drinking anthems.
BECK ‘Devil’s Haircut’ (Odelay LP June 1996)
When Kurt Cobain blew his brains out on 5th April 1994, Beck had the dubious honour of being tagged ‘a generation’s consolation prize’ following the release of his slacker anthem ‘Loser’ on the Mellow Gold album. However, his one true masterpiece Odelay came a couple of years later. Shimmying in and out of various disguises from scruffy folk strummer to techno beat raver, in anyone else’s hands it would have sounded like a cold, calculated art experiment. Luckily Beck had some good shit going for him; a bunch of infectious tunes, an irresistible, slightly strange line in peculiar Beck grooves and a knack for exposing the dread of America amongst all the satire, wit and irony.
SNEAKER PIMPS ‘Six Underground’ (Becoming X LP August 1996)
An engaging by product of trip hop, Sneaker Pimps didn’t have the doomed romanticism of Portishead or the experimental tendencies of Tricky but they did possess a cool sense of pop, making ‘Six Underground’ in particular an entrancing, sexually subversive, post-modernist delight.
APHEX TWIN ‘Milk Man’ (Girl / Boy EP August 1996)
I debated long and hard about including this dollop of weirdness if only because Girl/Boy was one of those revolutionary records that was more important for what it was telling me than for its sonic delivery. And what ‘Milk Man’ told me was that most of the greatest musicians of the coming age would be no better at playing guitar than my kids woeful attempts (‘Smoke On The Water’, ‘Sunshine Of Your Love’ and that’s your lot), but that didn’t matter a bit because if you understood machines and technology you could still be musically creative and have it all.
In effect Richard D. James heralded a serious return to the DIY ideology of a Throbbing Gristle or a Cabaret Voltaire where enthusiastic amateurs with no obvious musical ability but plenty of ideas could still make records. Very much the new pioneer, he was someone who had the wherewithal to do things with computers, drum machines, samplers and sequencers that couldn’t be found in any instruction manual. After numerous recordings of rampant experimentalism he finally arrived at ‘Milk Man’, a bizarre, childlike, nursery crime designed to scare the shit out of the new blank generation and prove once and for all that even introverted boys in their bedrooms could have hit potential. 21st century DIY music culture hasn’t looked back since.
RADIOHEAD ‘Exit Music (For A Film)’ (OK Computer LP June 1997)
The gap between Aphex Twin and Radiohead’s magnum opus was a full ten months, the greater part of a dramatic year when I had so much going on that for once new music became an irrelevance. And yet there was nothing irrelevant about Radiohead as the sheer magnitude of sound, themes and aspiration on OK Computer served notice on Britpop by replacing its laddish anti-intellectualism and vacant hedonism with the secret glamour of intelligence, literacy and angst.
Almost singlehandedly, Radiohead put seriousness back on the agenda, their message being that while progress may be a real bastard, try not to let the machines, their masters, the soul sucking isolation or the enforced routine grind you down. A sort of semi concept album, it was a bold attempt to encapsulate all that was misguided, shallow and spiritually vacant about western society in twelve songs, ‘Exit Music (For A Film)’ being one of the most heart wrenching songs I’d ever heard. The tale of two lovers trying to escape the grim realities of a cruel, cruel world, it chimed absolutely with what Claire and I were trying so hard to do.
SPIRITUALIZED ‘I Think I’m In Love’ (Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space LP June 1997)
Spiritualized were another essential nail in the coffin of unambitious Britpop, although theirs was a completely different kind of seriousness, the kind Thom Yorke would never have indulged in. When Jason Pierce’s girlfriend Kate Radley famously ran off and married The Verve’s Richard Ashcroft, he sank into a dark abyss where there was no salvation or redemption, merely cold life, sudden death and an overwhelming desire to fill the hole in his heart with heroin. Somehow, and to this day I have no idea how he did it, poor, pitiful Jason turned this narcotic fuelled self-pity into the greatest wall of sound of the whole damn nineties.
At once old and new, Ladies And Gentlemen blended layer upon layer of cosmic shimmer, avant-garde obscurism, stadium sized orchestras, wailing gospel choirs, space jazz country and epic pop, a unique recording forged from some profound heartache and some less profound drug taking. Like Radiohead, Spiritualized rewrote the rulebook, ushering in a new literate age that would blow the Gallagher’s bloated, cocaine posturing’s into charity shop bargain bins. As for ‘I Think I’m In Love’. Every time I hear it I replace ‘think’ with ‘know’. And while Jason Pearce’s love was heroin, mine was not, although Claire was and still is like heroin to me.
MASSIVE ATTACK ‘Risingson’ (Single A Side July 1997)
Blue Lines turned Massive Attack into a cause célèbre, a favourite of middle aged hipsters and their terminal wine bar, coffee table, dinner party lives. It was a shame really because the inevitable sanitisation arising from the records immense popularity undermined its singular vision and messages of subversion so much that I stopped listening. And that is why I love the not quite so obvious ‘Rising Son’ a little more. One of Massive Attacks classically glamorous, existential, angst jobs, it’s jammed full of half formed questions, overwhelming dread and a symphonic construction that may well be something of a challenge for the uninitiated. If you’ve not heard it before grab a listen. I guarantee you will be stunned.
CORNERSHOP ‘Brimful Of Asha’ (Single A Side August 1997)
One of the most unlikely triumphs in British pop history, ‘Brimful Of Asha’ was significant on so many levels. Firstly it hit number one on a tiny independent label when every other indie felt the need to prostitute themselves to the major record companies. Secondly, it was bought by a whole bunch of racist proles who presumably hated British Asian’s even though it was clearly referencing a British Asian childhood. Then there were the bases it covered.
By highlighting Bollywood playback singer Asha Bhosle and other Indian stars, movies and contemporary political issues, it gave Asian kids a mainstream shout out for the first time. And by blending Asha with Marc Bolan and Trojan reggae it represented the real Britpop, one that reflected the cultural diversity that is still one of the few great things about this nation. And yeah, I know it would have remained in obscurity without the Fatboy Slim remix, but the original was miles better and you got to hear it whichever version you bought. Strange, great, pop times!
ULTRA NATE ‘Free’ (Single A Side August 1997)
In 1997 I knew enough to know that to stop, to look and to worry was to stop surviving when all I really wanted to do was mark out my own little corner of the world, build the barricades high and hope to God that the gruesome hand of reality didn’t come a knocking too often. I just wanted to be free and Ultra Nate’s pop house anthem said it as well as any.
PHOTEK ‘Ni Ten Ichi Ryu’ [TeeBee Remix] (Single A Side August 1997)
There wasn’t that much going on in the late nineties that was truly fantastical and futuristic. Photek, aka producer Rupert Parkes, was one of the few exceptions, forging a drum ‘n’ bass hybrid, ironically with hardly any bass, that was immediately individual and innovative. Adopting the theme of a meditating samurai, ‘Ni Ten Ichi Ryu’ was a stark, stripped back set of manipulated breakbeats, wilfully arty and experimental in a dislocated, industrial kind of way.
CORNELIUS ‘Star Fruits Surf Rider’ (Fantasma LP September 1997)
Created by Tokyo trendsetter Keigo Oyamada, Fantasma sounded like an animated version of The Beach Boys Pet Sounds, and yet was so hyperactive it was almost impossible to keep up. The representative artefact of Tokyo’s ultra-hip Shibuya district, thankfully nothing got lost in translation, a track like ‘Star Fruits Surf Rider’ spelling exuberant pop joy in any language.
TIMBALAND & MAGOO ‘Up Jumps Da’ Boogie’ (Welcome To Our World LP October 1997)
The most sonically astonishing sounds coming out of America in the late nineties were those spawned in the no man’s land between rap and R&B. Leading the way was Timbaland who was outshining and out funking hip hop itself, its obsession with darkness, tension and paranoia and fetish for ‘keepin’ it real’ suddenly out of step with the good time zeitgeist. Even though his productions for the likes of Aaliyah and Missy Elliott were ground breaking enough, best of all was his own ‘Up Jumps Da Boogie’. The weirdest, contemporary, urban shit I’d ever heard, every nook and cranny was packed to the gills with syncopated beats, eerie loops, grating grooves and cyber funk squiggles; the perfect soundtrack for the 21st century.
ALABAMA 3 ‘Woke Up This Morning’ (Single A Side November 1997)
Coming from Brixton with names like The Very Reverend Dr D. Wayne Love and Rock Freebase, you could say the Alabama 3 and their acid house approximation of Southern country blues wasn’t completely serious. With all the right references in all the right places; rinky dink saloon piano, sleazy harmonica, driving swamp beat and Stonesy gospel choir, ‘Woke Up This Morning’ may have been a bit of a con but it was a mighty fine one.
MADONNA ‘Ray Of Light’ (Single A Side April 1998)
‘Ray Of Light’ was another highpoint for Madonna and one where she successfully reinvented herself for the pop kids. Kicking off with what I swear is the jangly intro from The Cures ‘Boys Don’t Cry’, it was a gem of swooping psychedelic scales, Hi-NRG disco, bubbling sexual joy and a no holds barred freedom that by the end made me believe she could do no wrong.
BOARDS OF CANADA ‘Aquarius’ (Music Has The Right To Children LP April 1998)
We all have bits and pieces of our past that shape our lives, much of it coming from too much time spent in front of the TV as youngsters. Boards of Canada, a couple of Scottish chaps who’s name derives from documentaries produced by Canada’s National Film Board, took these fragments, added just the right amount of crumbly decay and came up with their own take on a sixties/seventies childhood in weird old Britain, digging up a coven of unsettling ghosts from the past to haunt our present and our future.
M.J. COLE ‘Sincere’ (Single A Side May 1998)
When jungle bit the dust I lost interest in electronic dance music as it split into a myriad mess of micro scenes. I only became aware of ‘Sincere’ and the fact that it was UK Garage because Richard and his mates told me so. Each week I would drive them to footy packed illegally in the back of my council van and listen closely as they played the latest dance tunes carefully recorded from pirate radio and patiently explained the subtle differences and infinitesimal genres they came from. It was the type of knowledge only twelve year olds boys have the time, energy or inclination to acquire. Of course, none of them rated ‘Sincere’ but it sounded good to me.
PIANO MAGIC ‘I Am The Sub-Librarian’ (Fun Of The Century EP May 1998)
It’s often the delicate songs that affect me the most so when I heard Piano Magic’s tiny masterpiece for the first time I stopped what I was doing, stopped thinking and let myself sink into its self-contained world of enchantment and terminal introspection that was as fragile as a glass snow globe. Almost too modest to be written about, it was the kind of song best met by chance.
JEFF BUCKLEY ‘Everybody Here Wants You’ (Single A Side May 1998)
Poor Jeff Buckley, forever fated to follow in his father Tim’s footsteps and die young, not of an overdose like his Pa but in the Mississippi with his boots on. Grace, the only official album released in his lifetime, was another game changer, another OK Computer or Ladies And Gentlemen yet totally different. ‘Everybody Here Wants You’, released almost exactly a year after his death, was different again. Produced by Television’s Tom Verlaine, it was recorded as a demo, a precursor to the real thing although the otherworldly soulfulness of Buckley’s voice belies that fact. Evoking a spirit connecting music, God, love and community that makes the injustice, harshness and waste of this world disappear in a way that music and only music can ever do, it is truly breathtaking.
DIVINE COMEDY ‘The Certainty Of Chance’ (Fin De Siele LP August 1998)
The Divine Comedy didn’t fit into the Britpop scheme of things, but hey they rode that opportunity for all it was worth and why not? Thankfully Neil Hannon didn’t end up selling his art for the sake of celebrity, cold hard cash or some of the white stuff. Instead he was able to hang around long enough to give us Fin De Siele, his dazzling worldview on tabloid hell, falling in love on public transport, theories of chaos, the Romans, Northern Ireland, apocalyptic obsessions, Scott Walker and a lust for modern thrill seeking amongst many other things.
COBRA KILLER ‘Six Secs’ (Single A Side September 1998)
A seven inch vinyl release on the Digital Hardcore label, I have no idea how I got to hear the obscure ‘Six Secs’ but I do know that it was very noisy, very James Brown grunty, and if I’d been a DIY sampling, Bill Drummond kind of bloke, my stuff would probably have sounded similarly amateurish and messy and unbelievably brilliant.
OUTKAST ‘Rosa Parks’ (Aquemini LP September 1998)
Hip Hops new future began around here. Once upon a time Outkast were absolutely fearless and exactly what hip hop was meant to be. As avant-garde and revolutionary as Public Enemy, the only difference between them was that whereas the Bomb Squad did it with samples, Andre and Big Boi did it with real instruments.
AFGHAN WHIGS ‘Uptown Again’ (1965 LP October 1998)
A mediocre outfit from the arse end of grunge I’d never been the slightest bit interested in, I was surprised when the Afghan Whigs 1965 turned out to be a minor melodic masterpiece with an underlying theme of being saved by the love and lust of a good woman. I had no idea who songwriter Greg Dulli had in mind, but it didn’t matter because I had the love and lust of my own good woman to save me.
JON SPENCER BLUES EXPLOSION ‘Bernie’ (Acme LP October 1998)
‘Hey diddle diddle / Pussy eat the fiddle / Lick my curds and whey / Along come big daddy / Oh baby, I just got one thing to say’. So Jon Spencer finally got around to writing a song for my old man. I don’t think my Dad got to hear it before he died but no matter because he would certainly have appreciated the sentiment. Cheers Jon!
MERCURY REV ‘Goddess On A Hiway’ (Single A Side November 1998)
When we first got together Claire would drive us all over the south in her dodgy, silver Citroen in a vain attempt to escape the madness in our world. She was the Goddess on the highway, the motorway and the back doubles, even when the brakes failed as they often did.
BLUR ‘Tender’ (Single A Side February 1999)
Even with Graham Coxon's fingerprints all over it the epic ‘Tender’ was Damon Albarn's from start to finish. And like Damon, I’d learnt that while it remained something of a cliché, love really was the greatest thing. Not romantic love or sexual love, although both of those were important, but actual, real, honest to goodness love!
EMINEM ‘Any Man’ (Single A Side May 1999)
Aged twelve Richard and his mates fell in love with the man known as Eminem which caused a surprising amount of sensationalist outrage amongst their parents, something which tends to happen when you live life with The Sun as your bible. I was bemused by the fuss. Even at their tender age those boys understood well enough that Eminem wasn’t telling them anything they didn’t know already, being no more than a cartoon satire of the violence and hate they were exposed to each and everyday in music, TV and on the streets of the town they lived in.
JOHNNY DOWD ‘God Created Woman’ (Pictures From Life’s Other Side LP August 1999)
The extraordinary Johnny Dowd didn’t start recording until he was fifty and when he did he sounded at least double that, an ancient, cowboy visionary eulogising on the futility of relationships: Why do we set ourselves up knowing we’re going to fail? What is it in our childhoods and relationship with our mother’s that makes us want to be with someone so obviously wrong for us? Why are relationships (even the good ones) so full of despair and more to the point why do we cling onto them even when we know it? ‘God Created Woman’? He did indeed, and I say thank fuck for that because when you get right down to it us blokes are fairly useless aren’t we?
LE TIGRE ‘Hot Topic’ (Le Tigre LP October 1999)
In a parallel universe ‘Hot Topic’ would have been a cert number one and we’d all have been chanting its handy list of feminine heroines from Nina Simone to Vaginal Crème Davis. Le Tigre’s sexy, Riot Grrrl punk was a kick up the arse for those spoilt, public school choirboys proliferating like flies round shit at the end of the 20th century, their soft rock melodies hoovering up the cash from total suckers like you and me while pretending their sensitive hearts were bleeding for the world as they got smashed at celeb parties, boned skinny actress’s and bought mansions with big, fuck off moats and devil dogs to keep us out. I think you know who and what I mean.
MOS DEF ‘Rock’n’Roll’ (Black On Both Sides LP October 1999)
I fell so out of love with hip hop in the late nineties I believed it had gone for good. Even so, it was hard to judge what the worst thing about it really was. Was it the rappers themselves, the Mafiosi styled moguls and hangers on, or was it the rap fans and media jerking off all over the bitches, guns and bling bollocks? Then, right at the death, there was a sudden influx of revitalised beats and rhymes, ‘Rock’n’Roll’ being one of them.
It’s not often that you hear an MC relaying his theory on rock’n’roll history, and yet Mos Def mostly got it right in his attempt to reconnect black folks with the music they invented. Rock’n’Roll really was Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Bo Diddly, and it’s an indisputable fact that the Rolling Stones didn’t come up with their shit on their own. And the way it ended, with a snatch of Hendrix and a Bad Brains punk thrash, you could tell that he really did know his stuff.
Q TIP ‘All In’ (Amplified LP November 1999)
When A Tribe Called Quest imploded, Jonathan ‘Q Tip’ Davis looked like a man relieved he no longer had to carry the full weight of hip hops conscience amongst all those nasty, bling wearing, bitch fucking, gun totin’ gangsta’s churning out the same sicko records year after year. So it didn’t come as a complete shock when Amplified appeared sounding like the record of a man released from a life sentence who was free to indulge his passion for women and for getting deep down and dirty inna club without worrying whether it was morally right to do so. No question, the best intelligently empty, hip grinding, party album of its time.
OL’ DIRTY BASTARD & KELIS ‘Got Your Money’ (Single A Side November 1999)
Unlike the troubled Q Tip, Ol’ Dirty Bastard never had to pretend to give a shit, his numerous drug problems, failure to pay child support for his thirteen (yes thirteen) kids, charges for domestic violence, shoplifting and robbery marking him as the stereotypical gangsta rapper you'd struggle to make up if you tried. I should have hated everything about him and I would have too if he hadn’t made such fantastic records. And there was none better than ‘Got Your Money’, so brilliantly put together that as much as I tried all I could do was love it.