The early summer of 2016 having proved so traumatic in terms of politics, we’re seeking a little light relief, with a series of pieces celebrating some of the less remembered contributions to the 1990s Britpop boom. We began with some selections from Paul Saffer. We continue with Alex Sarll, in his Lion & Unicorn debut.
Kingmaker – ‘In the Best Possible Taste (Part 2)’ (1995)
Kingmaker are remembered, in so far as they’re remembered at all, for ‘Queen Jane’ and ‘Ten Years Asleep’, their indie ‘hits’ from that pre-Britpop era of the early 1990s that is now largely edited out of pop history. Even as someone who considers Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine to be underrated masters of popular song, I find said anthems perilously smug; it’s hard to watch the videos and not come to the conclusion that singer Loz Hardy was one of the most punchable men on Earth.
But that was in 1993. By 1995 they must have felt like dinosaurs in the age of mammals. Although rumour had it that Loz was linked by various tangled skeins to the Brett-Justine-Damon love triangle at Britpop’s heart, Kingmaker were waning in their record company’s affections, and the public couldn’t care less. The end was obviously near. Which produced, as hard times sometimes will, a wonderful ‘fuck you, then’ of a final album.
The single ‘You and I Will Never See Things Eye to Eye’ was a great lovelorn epic, with the lyrics finally as smart as the band always thought they were. But even finer was ‘In the Best Possible Taste (Part 2)’. A wise man once said that spite is an important tool in the songwriter’s arsenal, and this is a perfect illustration; only the pre-cult-figure work of Luke Haines rivals it as a vial of cyanide in the punch of the Britpop party.
Telstarr – ‘Beserk’ (1996)
I know pretty much nothing about Telstarr. Never read an interview, never joined a fan club. My memory of them extends no further than hearing the odd single on the radio, or finding the CD singles lurking in that great 1990s discovery vector, the 99p racks of the unwanted. Even now, with the internet at my fingertips, all I can glean is that they featured (or perhaps were wholly comprised of?) someone called Stuart Troop, and came from Bristol.
Unless that was another band of the same name, of course; the peril of adopting a fairly generic misspelling for a moniker is that one becomes a bastard to identify online (albeit not quite as bad as late-nineties plums .co.uk or A). Worse, somebody else may well have thought of the same joke. Yet if Telstarr’s backstory remains as shadowy as can be (back then a simple lack of channels could make a Burial out of anyone), and the name is thoroughly ‘will this do?’, the music is anything but.
Britpop’s default conversation was Blur versus Oasis, which was very much the Clinton v. Trump dilemma of the day; you sided with the ones you thought were a bit too cynical, not entirely trustworthy, and only intermittently good because the alternative was an entirely unacceptable bunch of thuggish fuckwits. The real answer, the one which could never reach #1 in a fallen creation, was obviously Pulp. Could you get any clearer indication of how this world didn’t deserve Jarvis and co. than the songs which kept them off the top? Simply sodding Red flirting with the sappiest end of drum ‘n’ bass, and Robson and cocking Jerome. Seriously.
Yet where Blur and Oasis each had their camp followers and Mini-Mes, Pulp didn’t really. Until I heard those wonky synths of ‘Berserk’ on either The Evening Session or Mark Radcliffe’s graveyard slot (because where else would it have been?), I never suspected there was someone else who’d come to the same realisations as Pulp. Someone with the same sense of desperation to get out of the mundanity of it all precisely by spinning that mundanity into magic. A way of staying sane; a way to beat the game.
Elcka – ‘Supercharged’ (1997)
Back in the latter half of the 1990s, as Britpop collapsed into ladrock, there were a few graceful lunges in the other direction. Acts like Kenickie, The Divine Comedy and My Life Story may have failed to connect with the public, beyond a minor hit or two, but my word did they have devoted fanbases. And then there were Elcka. I’ve known a handful of other Elcka fans over the years, and the band managed one or two appreciative notices during the dying days of the music press, but even the people who liked weird indie bands barely knew they existed.
In a time when even My Life Story’s final, weakest incarnation could still lure dozens of punters to a certain small Midlands venue, I once saw Elcka play there to an audience of five. And how did their frontman (known only as ‘Harrold’) respond? He hopped off the stage, turned his back to all five of us, and started conducting the band like an orchestra. Somehow it worked.
There was something magnetic about Harrold, the focus for a band whose sound could lurch from super-shiny pop (‘Statuesque’) to queasy growls of post-Imperial decline (‘Roast Beef’). The abiding impression was of young men who’d had a rough night or ten, met in an after-hours drinking den, and decided to form a Roxy Music tribute act, without knowing the songs. Fortunately they came up with some songs of their own along the way. (Well, mostly their own: ‘Nothing To Lose’ was a shameless, and credited, rip-off of the Kinks). To boot, they had harpsichord samples and an abiding suggestion of sexual malfeasance (most fully expressed on the magnificently sleazy ‘Pervert’s Servant’); what more did they need?
Well, quite a lot, as far as the general public was concerned. A major label deal failed to bear fruit, though the album Rubbernecking did eventually turn up, long after any faint momentum had been squandered. There was a follow-up single, ‘Pleasure’, of which I’ve never seen a finished copy; it saw the band replacing their scuzzy glamour with a look seemingly inspired by Mad Max, but it was still pretty good. Stranger still, when the request for this piece led me to check whether Elcka are on Spotify (and they are, though only about the fifth suggestion for their own name), I learned that a couple of years ago they broke 15 years of silence to release a new EP. It’s…not brilliant. But everything up to that one great lost album still sounds urgent, debonair, and heroically doomed.
Echobelly – ‘Insomniac’ (1994)
Britpop had a reputation – not wholly unfair – for being very white and very male. By way of a corrective, consider early Echobelly, who were fronted by an Anglo-Indian woman, Sonya Madan, and at their best also featured queercore and Curve veteran Debbie Smith on guitar.
That ‘best’, by the way, was not reflected in the sales, and came just as Britpop was dawning; by the time ‘Great Things’ was trilling through all the discos, the game was up. ‘I wanna do great things, I don’t wanna compromise’, ran the painfully ironic chorus, hoping none of us would remember how compromised this anonymous jangle sounded compared to those early days.
It seems absurd now, a parody of ‘before they were famous’ indie clichés – as crazy as singing the praises of the first two Sleeper EPs (though those weren’t half bad either) – but Echobelly’s debut album Everyone’s Got One, and pretty much every EP track and B-side of that era, was absolutely vital. I’ve never seen an entire audience take a step back the way they did when Madan belted out the climax of ‘Scream’ live in 1994, and that despite her being physically tiny.
Sometimes impassioned, sometimes effortlessly worldly-wise, once upon a time Echobelly really did do great things. Judging them on what they became is akin to letting the tedious bloat of later Pink Floyd eclipse the agile joy of ‘See Emily Play’.
Britpop part 1 (Cud, Denim, Menswear, Zuno Men)
Britpop part 3 (Sleeper, the Other Two, Helen Love, Kenickie)
Britpop part 4 (Catwalk, Engine Alley, Drugstore, Linoleum)
Britpop part 5 (Eggman, Edward Ball, McAlmont & Butler, Me Me Me)
Britpop part 6 (Anna, 2 Tribes, RPLA, World of Leather)
Alex Sarll’s reflections on Elcka originally appeared at amodelofcontrol.com, albeit in slightly different form. But if pop will eat itself, so must the writing about it. And anyway, the Elcka gospel still needs preaching.