❉ We review a long-overdue retrospective of the first victims of Britpop.
“Kingmaker arrived in the strange early ‘90s period where indie wasn’t quite genre shorthand for white boys with guitars and bags of enthusiasm, nor were indie bands anything but an irregular feature of the top ten.”
Every good boxset or compilation tells a story. Everything Changed, Cherry Red’s pleasingly chunky compilation of Kingmaker’s output from 1991 to 1995 is a perfect example of this: it tells not only the band’s story but the story of a changing music industry and, indirectly, of the insular, tribal approach that wound up dooming the weekly music press.
Kingmaker arrived in the strange early ‘90s period where indie wasn’t quite genre shorthand for white boys with guitars and bags of enthusiasm, nor were indie bands anything but an irregular feature of the top ten. Where the odd single might graze the top ten, there was nothing wrong with aspiring to be Orange Juice or The Smiths, bands you could fall in love with but for whom the top ten were practically alien territory while they were active. It’s often seen as a fallow period for British guitar bands, caught between the amateur energy of C86 and commercial highpoint of Britpop, and eclipsed by grunge and dance music, where the only interesting moves were Primal Scream’s dalliance with Andrew Wetherall and the skyscraping distortion of shoegaze.
It’s an impression you’d likely get were you strange enough to go back through the music press of the time too: though initially feted Kingmaker were ultimately victims of Steve Sutherland’s populist, commercial approach to the indie press. There’s a reason his infamous ‘Diamonds and Dogshit’ ostensible review of Kingmaker live for Melody Maker is much derided: it’s a snobbish broadside at the band to make a point about Suede and, more broadly, the difference between Melody Maker and the NME. Suede frankly never needed that kind of help and the review itself makes it evident that Sutherland was pushing a line that what he’s describing simply doesn’t match. Kingmaker were unfortunate bystanders caught in an ideological war we were unfortunate Sutherland won when becoming NME’s editor: essentially they were the first victims of Britpop.
Everything Changed is a long overdue retrospective, twenty-three years after the best of compilation that was a full stop to the band’s career. That isn’t to say it’s quite the full story – the band’s opening statement, The Celebrated Working Man EP, is missing, whether by contractual wranglings or for reasons of space, but it’s a relatively minor blemish. Instead it’s straight into Eat Yourself Whole, the band’s debut album. It’s an energetic affair which demonstrates the power of the rhythm section of Myles Howell and John Andrew, and the inventiveness this allows Hardy on guitar.
It’s a standard weakness of many indie bands that they prioritise melody over rhythm, but Kingmaker have clearly drawn from the lessons of the burgeoning alt-rock scene of the likes of Pixies and Dinosaur Jnr. It also illustrates why they found themselves out of place when Britpop came round: their influences stretched beyond their parental record collections and engaged with what was happening elsewhere in the world. Loz’s lyrics tend to the standard frustration of a young man with the world, but were always undercut by a mordant wit and an awareness of wider social issues that often lifted them beyond the petty point scoring of other contemporary indie singers.
At this point the band began hitting the top forty with the Idiots at the Wheel EP going top thirty and the titanic non-album single Eat Yourself Whole making the top 20. Perhaps this raised expectations at record company Chrysalis, but it led to the age-old tale of a record company trying to force a developing band to become something they’re not. Second album Sleepwalking is an odd beast, compromised by the record company’s desire for more commercial songs after lead single Armchair Anarchist, with its call to bomb the House of Lords and the Brit Awards costing it radio play, stalled just inside the top 50.
It’s hard to say the band weren’t successful in doing what was asked of them, but overall it’s the sound of a band who are suddenly not quite sure of where to go and overburdened by the sudden advent of multiple formats for each single. Perhaps the only real disappointment of the boxset is that there’s no reconstruction of the original album – the remnants which appeared on B-sides are rounded up here, but there’s no idea of how the album might have been structured and thus no chance to test the band’s vision for themselves against the record company’s.
It’s clear from the band’s last two albums that something’s changed: gone is the more inventive comic book packaging, and in come plainer photographic covers. To Hell with Humdrum, essentially an EP padded out with live songs, is broken up across the bonus material here, but the uninspired cover and reliance on live songs were an indication that perhaps the band’s hearts were no longer in it. In The Best Possible Taste still has glimmers of what the band had been, Sometimes I Think She Just Takes Me Along For the Ride and Frustrated Gangster, but the band constantly seem reined-in by the usually reliable Stephen Street. Listening to it after the trilogy of live tracks which close the third disc indicates what was missing: after the record company’s demands for more commercial material they couldn’t capture what made them a formidable and exciting live proposition. It indicates that the band perhaps split at the right time, caught between the attempts of a record company to turn them into something they weren’t, and changing fashion.
After writing songs for the second Elastica album and some pornographic soundtracks, Hardy appears to have departed the music business completely, not even giving an interview in twenty years. It’s a shame his voice is missing from the sleevenotes to the compilation, though Myles Howell’s reflective, honest sleevenotes are a perfect companion to the music. For some of us though, the likes of Eat Yourself Whole, Ten Years Asleep and even Queen Jane will always bring back the taste of cheap cider and the strain required to rip your shoes from the sticky dancefloors of early 90s indie clubs, and a brief version of guitar pop perhaps more cosmopolitan than the bands who’d overtake them. And perhaps, hopefully, this box set might help Loz Hardy come to terms with what he achieved rather than the memories of what surrounded it.
❉ Kingmaker – ‘Everything Changed: 1991-1995’, 5CD Boxset (CRCDBOX95) is out now from Cherry Red Records, RRP £21.99. Click here to order directly from Cherry Red Records.
❉ A regular contributor to We Are Cult, Jon Arnold is the author of three volumes of the Black Archive series, and co-editor with We Are Cult’s James Gent of David Bowie charity anthology Me and the Starman (now available by Cult Ink on Amazon)