Tales of Johnny: ‘The Menswe@r Collection’

❉ Johnny Dean chats with We Are Cult about the ‘swear’s rise, fall and return via box set.

“I hardly listened to any contemporary guitar bands. Other than Pulp, Suede and Blur. I was far more interested in Bowie, The Beatles, The Byrds, The Sex Pistols and so on. When it came to modern stuff I was more concerned with dance music, electronic music, hip hop and sample based stuff like Big Beat. I’m still that way inclined.” – Johnny Dean.

There’s a mildly dis-honourable tradition in pop of faking it until you make it: willing yourself to become what you want in an almost Situationist prank. All it needs is an idea, a little cheek and the ability to sell yourself before anyone else realizes what you’re up too. Menswe@r didn’t have a Malcolm McLaren or a Paul Morley to give a lofty intellectual patina to their story, but they had everything else: the looks, the style (and substances) and the ability to brazen out almost any situation. In an era when record companies were throwing money at guitar bands, they were in the perfect place to make it. Before they’d released a single note of music, they’d made the front pages of the inkies and appeared on Top of the Pops: the kind of notoriety McLaren would’ve given his testicles for.

“It helped and hindered.” says singer Johnny Dean of their Top of the Pops debut. “It was a big moment. A real coup. BBC history. But as much as it was an awesome accomplishment, and something I’m proud of to this day, it was always going to put a lot of people’s noses out of joint… if it hadn’t been us it would have been someone else they could hate.” That resentment at the speed of their ascent, and the music press turning on them relatively quickly, has dogged the band’s reputation since. Demon’s new boxset, The Menswe@r Collection, is a chance to tell the band’s story with the benefit of hindsight: where more casual listeners might have thought this would consist of a deluxe edition of debut album Nuisance, the real joy of this set is in everything else: the B-sides, ephemera and a belated first release in the UK for second album ¡Hay Tiempo!

Nuisance itself remains a lightning in a bottle thrill: you can hear the joy of a band having the time of their lives and getting away with it. The band’s first demos, included on the fourth disc here, demonstrate why Menswe@r were pursued so ardently by record companies, and why they were able to demand such high royalty rates and publishing fees: I’ll Manage Somehow, Daydreamer and Stardust are impossibly thrilling and packed with the pop tricks the band would make such good use of on the album itself: the handclaps and backing vocals that other, loftier bands might have been too proud to use. They capture the charisma and excitement of the band’s live sets in a way the more polished production of the album perhaps can’t.

Nuisance itself a cocaine rush of an album that neatly sums up what it was to be young and at the centre of an emerging music scene, mixing the observational eye of the likes of Damon Albarn with a magpie ear for an influence beyond the usual Sixties London reference points – Sleeping In has a very Monkees flavour, presaging the eventual direction of ¡Hay Tiempo!, Little Miss Pinpoint Eyes borrows its opening line straight from Johnny Rotten, Stardust is the kind of glam racket beloved of Suede and Daydreamer’s one chord chug is very much Wire via Elastica. Being Brave, the song that cracked the top ten is practically a confessional admission of what the band were doing, Dean ahead of his time with the self-doubt of his lyrics.

Not that the scene itself was helpful to the band, aside from perhaps gaining them attention. “No one wanted to be a part of Britpop at the time. No one.” says Dean. “It was seen as very lame by pretty much everyone who was lumped under it’s banner. At the time I thought it was very much a media creation, and I still maintain that opinion. Nobody I knew in bands thought it was cool at all. It was viewed as a bit of a joke. It is much more of a thing now than it was then. I actually think it is a shit word. Being an aesthete it bothers me far more than the jingoistic side of it. And that can do one too.”

Dean’s also clear as to why the movement wasn’t designed to last. “In regards to the competitive nature of that scene, it’s no secret that it went on. Blur v Oasis being the obvious example. But it was all showboating. It was about headlines. Although there was a lot of very real enmity which was a shame. It was very different to the swinging sixties scene where everyone encouraged everyone else. The polar opposite in fact. And I think the reason is drugs. I think cannabis use in the sixties induced a feeling of brotherhood? The nineties was about cocaine and later heroin. Neither of those drugs make you a nice person.”

In that sense, Menswe@r’s exploitation can perhaps be seen as an act of protest at the music industry of the time. Indeed, there were relatively few mutual influences musically: “I hardly listened to any contemporary guitar bands. Other than Pulp, Suede and Blur. I was far more interested in the past when it came to guitar based music. Bowie, The Beatles, The Byrds, The Sex Pistols and so on. When it came to modern stuff I was more concerned with dance music, electronic music, hip hop and sample based stuff like Big Beat. I’m still that way inclined.” Dean’s more eclectic influences are audible in his more recent F**k Explosion project.

The trouble with a swift rise is that it leaves you without firm foundations: again, it’s a lesson John Lydon had learned by the time of the Pistols’ Winterland gig. The band have been candid about their downfall – the indulgences of the time are well documented in John Harris’s The Last Party and Dean is quite candid about the drug use of the time and the problems caused. It certainly hindered the band when, with guitar pop falling out of fashion, London Records suddenly got cold feet about releasing ¡Hay Tiempo!

“They didn’t want to release it anywhere. We had a terrible relationship with them by that point.” says Dean “They wanted Daydreamer v2.0. We wanted to move into other musical territories. So we left that label by mutual consent. Polydor released it in Japan. We hawked it around to other British labels but nobody was interested. There seemed to be a certain amount of spite involved, one record company bigwig pretty much admitting that because we didn’t sign to his label the first time around, and because he thought we were rude, he wouldn’t give us a deal. Real petty shit. That’s coke for you. Nothing to do with the music. It felt a little anticlimactic to be honest. We’d spent sooooo much time, energy and money on that second album. For me the sessions were just awful, the whole situation felt like a wet fart. It killed us. That and the prevailing attitude of the music press who had become extremely stabby about us. It all seems so unnecessary now.”

¡Hay Tiempo! might not be the photocopy of the first album that the record company wanted, but it’s a pleasant revelation of a band beginning to blossom, largely looking to the Sixties West Coast sounds of the Byrds rather than the Beatles and the mods, a sound only Super Furry Animals of their contemporaries were looking to. Every Sound’s A Melody sets the tone: adding a countryish element to the band’s repertoire; Wait for the Sun parallels Supergrass’ experimenting with a heavier sound on In It For the Money and Lower Loveday is perhaps the only song to kiss central Birmingham with a psychedelic swirl. Shine and Coming Home are tilts at the epic the band only really nodded at with Being Brave on Nuisance. Yet the sense of the band’s fragility at this point is there in the lyrics, the sense that they can’t quite will themselves to success a second time present throughout: “I’ll go down in history…”, “I will fly someday/ I will rise like Lazarus”. The music suggests the band might have interesting places to go but the lyrics betray the band’s weariness with the administrative side of the music business at this point.

The companion discs to the albums round out the band’s story pleasingly: Nuisance’s companion disc contains non-album single We Love You and the mandated obscene amount of B-sides bands had to record for the record industry’s obsession with multiple single formats. The final CD of rarities is the treasure trove though: the aforementioned initial demos, the touchingly sincere rendition of Barry Manilow’s Can’t Smile Without You that the band refused to release as a double A side with Pulp’s Whisky in the Jar; Smashing DJ Martin Green’s ‘student union remix’ of Daydreamer which strings Dean’s vocals over a blissed-out Nineties beat, and the fruits of the ¡Hay Tiempo! sessions. The latter are particularly fascinating, with the rough cuts of the album’s songs mixed with those that didn’t quite make it.

Dean found the experience of listening to those songs an unexpected highlight of putting the boxset together: “We recorded a lot of music for the second album, and I thought it was all gone. Rotting in an attic somewhere in Camden. But London Records had kept it all. I think there’s a few songs from those ¡Hay Tiempo! sessions which didn’t make the album that are our finest moments. Really worth your time. Even if you hate Menswe@r… or think you do.”

❉ Menswe@r: ‘The Menswe@r Collection’ 4 CD box set was released by Demon Records on 23 October 2020. Order here.

❉ Menswe@r: ‘¡Hay Tiempo!’ (180g Clear Vinyl) will be released on 30 October, 2020. Pre-order now.

❉ A regular contributor to We Are Cult, Jon Arnold is the author of three volumes of the Black Archive series and co-editor of Me and the Starman, (now available by Cult Ink on Amazon)

We Are Cult thanks Johnny Dean and Polly Birkbeck for their input & assistance in this article.

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