❉ Two stuffed CDs’ worth of bangers and belters from Britpop underdogs.
RPM’s Supersonics, subtitled ’40 Junkshop Britpop Greats’ is compiled by Martin Green, who was very much at the centre of Britpop’s beginnings, behind the decks at retro club night Smashing (Green was also responsible for an adjacent music trend, the rediscovery of tunes from library music outfits such as KPM, compiling EMI’s The Sound Gallery and Pye’s The Sound Spectrum – but that’s another story for another day).
Supersonics’ subtitle – ’40 Junkshop Britpop Greats’ – firmly places this collection in the same ballpark, if not genre, as the ‘charity shop glam’ compilations of the 2000s (Glitterbest, Velvet Tinmine, Boobs) that dusted off forgotten singles by almost-rans and Ziggy-come-latelys (including proto-Ultravox outfit Tiger Lily and future Derek Jarman collaborator Simon [Fisher] Turner) to present a kind of ‘shadow history’ of the scene, and a welcome corrective to generic comps stacked with all the usual RAK and Bell suspects, as well as plugging the gap between glam stomp and punk shock’n’awe.
By the same notion, and with the same crate-digging spirit of ‘Never mind those guys, have you heard THIS?’, Supersonics brings together two stuffed CDs’ worth of bangers and belters whose heyday came and went like an English summer (Powder, David Devant, Bis, Shampoo, Jocasta, Rialto), bands not strictly Britpop per se but could be heard in student unions and indie discos of the era (former Soup Dragon ‘Hi-Fi’ Sean Dickson’s brilliant glam-psych-electro misfits The High Fidelity, Son-of-C86ers like The Delgados, feminist rockers Voodoo Queens and Huggy Bear), truly esoteric cult acts still awaiting reappraisal like Earl Brutus, Add N To X and Gretschen Hofner. Oh, and Kenickie, the Geordie punk-poppers fronted by Lauren Laverne. Whatever happened to her?
It’s now twenty-five years this summer since Britpop was the word on everyone’s lips, as Blur and Oasis’ battle for the number one single spot reached tabloid front pages and was a leading story on the national news bulletins. For spotty, greasy, lanky youths like your correspondent’s junior self, on the doorstep of starting University life and ready to blow his grant (Whatever happened to them?) on records (NOT vinyls!), gigs, Red Bull & vodka and cheap speed, it was a good time to be young and stupid and filling one’s ears with new sounds, as Britpop provided a ready-made soundtrack to those three years of play before getting on the rollercoaster of real life.
In retrospect, that summer was really the beginning of the end of Britpop – the Blur v Oasis was a totally contrived publicity stunt, drawn along crude battle-lines (the arty Southern fops vs the mad-for-it Manc uber-lads) and a transparent attempt to recreate the much-storied pop rivalries of yesteryear. It’s the sort of unimaginative, tribalist, populist-pleasing playing field that’s become the English way and has had an ugly resurgence in the country’s discourse ever since a certain divisive Referendum… (Little bit of politics). More immediately, although Blur won the battle for Number 1 that Summer, Oasis arguably won the conversation and Britpop would lose what made it colourful and refreshing when it first emerged under the unwieldy moniker The New Wave Of New Wave – commodified as part of ‘New Lad’ culture along with Men Behaving Badly, Loaded magazine, TFI Friday and Fantasy Football League, a homogenous, heteronormative hellmouth. Britpop was becoming more like Alfie.
This, of course, is the story of every musical movement and fad from rock’n’roll to punk to Emo, with the misfits and innovators squeezed out back to the margins as the essence is shaved of its rough edges to be served up as something palatable to the mass market – and Britpop had less to offer in the originality stakes to start with, owing much of its birth to bands rediscovering homegrown acts ripe for reappraisal from Bowie and Adam and the Ants to Wire and XTC. Britpop’s original pitch was claimed by effete aesthetes like Brett Anderson and Jarvis Cocker, artful dodgers like Saint Etienne and The Auteurs, and bands such as Echobelly, Catatonia, Salad, Elastica and Sleeper had a refreshingly mixed-gender, multi-ethnic makeup, fronted by Indian, Welsh, Dutch and Anglo-Jewish women respectively, and despite the scene’s inarguably parochial moniker, mainland European bands like Cardigans and Wannadies were welcomed into the fold through their shared love of ‘60s lounge and guitar pop.
Supersonics compiler Martin Green was there from the start and the inner sleeve liner notes reinstates that forgotten aspect of Britpop’s naïve, idealistic beginnings, as he writes of the crowds Smashing attracted when it was still a scene with no name; “…the club attracted people who didn’t fit in elsewhere, who weren’t defined by being straight or gay or even male or female, but had their own sense of self in whatever form that took.”
Supersonics is a mixed bag, as you’d expect, but its selection of acts and tracks presents a whole side of Britpop and its offshoots that’s been whitewashed from the popular consciousness: Kicking off in style with Powder’s edgy, jagged dancefloor cracker Afrodisiac (one of the most memorable performances on BBC2’s 1995 bandwagon-jumping showcase Britpop Now), half of the first disc’s twenty tracks are from female-fronted bands, ranging from the much-maligned Shampoo’s snotty We Don’t Care and the ragged Riot Grrl invective of Voodoo Queens’ Supermodel-Superficial, to latecomers Posh’s Siouxsie-meets-Toyah Rough Lover and Linoleum’s propulsive Marquis where you can almost smell the whiff of poppers and Pernod in a dingy indie club loo.
Doleful ballads like Chest’s Nosebleed (should’ve been a bigger hit!) and Mantaray’s fey Sad have aged much better than I anticipated, and Change Me, by Tim Arnold’s band Jocasta, still sounds truly anthemic, while Kenickie’s Come Out 2Nite has lost none of its youthful effervescence. Peepshow’s Charlotte’s Party is probably the most disposable track on the album, but earns its place as a Jilted John-esque sad boy lament that doesn’t outstay its welcome.
Disc one clocks in at twenty tracks without so much a sniff of boorish, beery blokishness and retro pop revival accents are limited to the janglepop of Pimlico’s Revolve (which, weirdly, sounds like ‘70s queer LA punks The Mumps more than anything from these isles), Showgirls’ So Small (shades of The Primitives), World of Leather’s ‘Sgt Pepper’s Electric Light Orchestra’ Don’t Turn This Love Into Sorrow (this band clearly took a few cues from My Life Story) and some mellotron magic on the Weekenders’ wonderfully titled Inelegantly Wasted In Papa’s Penthouse Pad In Belgravia – it’s all quite a distance from the knowing irony of Mike Flowers Pops and the usual well-worn reference points that have come to define this era’s antecedents.
If Disc 1 is the ‘school’s out for summer’ sound of lairy girls and dreamy boys getting their keys, money and fags to hit the town, Disc 2 is a more eclectic, electric range of cuts, and interestingly it kicks off with a one-two punch of bands led by musicians who had already been there and done it: The second disc opens with London Girls from the pen of Stephen ‘Tintin’ Duffy, who’d already had two spins on the pop roundabout, as former Durannie turned solo dreamboat with Kiss Me and then fronting the winsome Lilac Time, and as such London Girls is a slyly cynical checklist of Britpop scenester clichés. Guitar pop is eschewed completely with track two’s Sometimes The Kids Are Not Alright, a welcome appearance from The High Fidelity, the band Sean Dickson formed after Soup Dragons – a breath of fresh air when they appeared on the scene in ’97, Sean ported over into this band his love of T. Rex’s dirtysweet swagger and techno & electronica that was already discernible on the Soups’ Hotwired, one of the great lost albums of the 1990s, and turned it up a notch. As Hi-Fi Sean, Mr Dickson is still staying true to his muse, and under this new moniker, has enjoyed fruitful collaborations with David McAlmont, Fred Schneider, Yoko Ono and the late Alan Vega.
Disc 2 undulates further and further from the indie rock guitar pop template of Disc 1, with a mixed bag of grooves from names as diverse and worthy of rediscovery as Add N To X, the Suicide-esque VA6, Earl Brutus’ Kraftwerk homage On Me Not In Me and the deconstructed industrial glam of Scala’s VDT. Those dapper chaps Menswe@r turn up in almost unrecognisable form, with a trancey remix of their signature hit, Daydreamer, and living cartoon band Bis are represented with Keroleen (“She’s got a mind of her own. Not fake like the rest. Doesn’t give a fuck. She’s passed the test.”). Wiija’s Velocette are also a welcome inclusion, while the bouncy, daft fun of Edit Life Form from Sound 5 and Sweetie’s Cut Up is a reminder that Big Beat and Britpop shared elbow room in those halcyon days of making an absolute twat of yourself at the dancefloor. Female-fronted guitar rock/pop is reprised towards the tail end of the 2CD with Elizabeth Bunny, Mambo Taxi and Minxus, bringing the set full circle.
The highlights of this disc are the welcome reminders of the offbeat whimsy and kitsch that demonstrated Britpop was, in part and at its best, a continuation of the music hall humour, everyday eccentricity and quirkiness that runs through British pop music like a stick of rock: David Devant And His Spirit Wife channeling the spirit of the Bonzo Dog (Doo-Dah) Band and Anthony Newley with Pimlico, the delightful Conker Fight In Wendy’s House from Billy Childish collaborator Sexton Ming’s Rogue Male, and most thrillingly for this correspondent, My Judy Garland Life by Gretschen Hofner. The brainchild of songwriter/guitarist Paul Hofner, Gretschen Hofner’s first album Maria Callous blew my mind: A compelling, queer, trashy, world of rockabilly, orchestral pop and drive-in B Movies that sounds like The Cramps, Marc Almond and Link Wray having a bare knuckle punch-up while Criswell and Betty Page cheer from the sidelines; so it’s great to see a truly representative track from this immersive and well-realised album receive a showcase on this comp.
Britpop, eh? As the old TV Times ads used to say, I never knew there was so much in it. Bring on Volume 2!
❉ Martin Green Presents: Super Sonics – 40 Junkshop Britpop Greats (RPMD552) is out now from RPM Records, RRP £11.99. Order now directly from Cherry Red Records.
❉ James Gent is the Editor of We Are Cult, and co-editor of ‘Me And The Starman’, out now from Cult Ink and is available to buy from Amazon, RRP £11.99. UK: https://amzn.to/30ZE8KE | US: bit.ly/starmanUSA ISBN: 9798664990546.