Just What Is It That You Want To Do?
This is an interview about Higher Than The Sun that I did with Creation Records as part of their celebration of twenty five years since the release of Screamadelica. It turned into quite a wide-ranging discussion, touching on attitudes to Britpop, nostalgia for 'compilation tapes', and who the best Evening Session host was. And of course there was plenty about Screamadelica, Foxbase Alpha, Bandwagonesque and Loveless. You can get Higher Than The Sun in paperback, as an eBook, or from the Kindle Store.
1991 was a great year for alternative music in general, what inspired you to write a book about some of the releases?
I’d written about all four albums individually in the past, but the idea for Higher Than The Sun really came about when there was that outbreak of Britpop ‘anniversary’ mania a while back. Which is obviously worth celebrating, but I always felt like we were only getting part of the story. It wasn’t something that just magically appeared from nowhere when Modern Life Is Rubbish came out, there was a whole gradual build-up to it with a lot of false starts along the way, and some bands and even entire scenes that have been written out of history. Not that they had anything to do with Britpop but Carter USM were actual proper pop stars for a good while, and they never get mentioned now. And added to that, on the other side of the coin, there was the sneering from people determined that we should all know how little they cared about Britpop. By the time we got to columnists blaming Elastica for Nigel Farage or something, I was a bit fed up with it all.
I suppose this made me want to look for a fresh ‘angle’ to look at it from, and this started me thinking about that phase just prior to Britpop when there were a lot of bands taking a similar approach but still with that ‘indie’ attitude and lack of interest in playing the ‘fame game’. Almost literally from the release of the C86 compilation to The KLF sabotaging The Brits; and in fact there was a concerted effort by the BPI to take ‘control’ of the independents around then, which I’d entirely forgotten about. As far as I’m concerned, Screamadelica, Foxbase Alpha, Bandwagonesque and Loveless were the greatest achievements to come out of all of that, so it made sense to make them the focus of the ‘story’. And once I started to look into it, it became obvious that there really was a story here, and the four albums were linked in all kinds of surprising ways that went way beyond the fact that they were all released within weeks of each other. Andrew Weatherall was very heavily involved, for example, and there was a shared enthusiasm for the seventies rock band Big Star. Often the production of one album would impact directly on another. They all had direct links to C86. It just got more and more interesting from there, really.
On a more personal level, I’m more known for writing about archive TV and radio and had recently written a book about Radio 1, which had the misfortune to come out just as certain allegations were starting to emerge… so I needed a bit of a change and what better way to do that than with four of my favourite albums!
From the start were you going to just feature those albums or was there a temptation to include some other albums from that era?
I knew from the outset I wanted to concentrate on those four albums, but also put them in their proper context. So there was always going to be quite a bit about Madchester and Shoegazing, and also the early Heavenly bands, who were way more colourful and cartoonish than everything else that was going on at the time – very at odds with the usual view of the early nineties. As it progressed, all kinds of other names started to get drawn into the story, from 808 State and Spirea X to Tin Machine and Sugar. So I talk about a few other albums, but the only one to get any substantial coverage is Back In Denim by Denim, which really was an unofficial ‘fifth’ in many ways.
Which of those four is your favourite?
I’d find it hard to choose between them, to be honest, but if I was pressed on the point I’d have to say Foxbase Alpha. So many ideas and so much potential, and it actually feels like it exists in several different eras of pop music all at once – it’d be as at home on a sixties pirate radio station as on a nineties dance one. Also the reference points are so esoteric and individual – if it’s ‘retro’, then it’s recalling an alternate timeline to the usual fare.
How did you first discover most of those bands and what drew you to them?
I’d had C86 and a couple of earlier singles by most of them, but it really started when Mark Goodier took over The Evening Session in the Summer of 1990. He was right behind all four acts from the outset – more than John Peel ever was – and probably did more than anyone else to get them out to mainstream listeners and into the charts. When you consider that included convincing enough people to push To Here Knows When into the top thirty, that’s quite an achievement. I think he’s been done an enormous disservice by the rock history books and I was really glad to have the opportunity to redress the balance a little. Time was when his was my favourite radio show bar none.
As for what drew me to them, I’d been a massive fan of The Stone Roses, Happy Mondays et al, but by the middle of 1991 they’d all hit a wall for various reasons and it was time to start listening out for something new. In all four cases it was the imagination and the sheer diversity of their influences – and I do include Teenage Fanclub in that – that caught my attention. And all of their singles really, really stood out, at a time when certain more successful acts didn’t even seem to be trying.
That’s really interesting that you talk about Mark Goodier, I know he does the odd stand-in on Radio 2 but he’s pretty forgotten about these days. He’d be more suitable for 6Music perhaps?
I’d certainly like to see him better represented in the endless Britpop ‘retrospectives’. Obviously it’s true that Steve Lamacq and Jo Whiley were presenting The Evening Session right in the thick of it – and I have to say I really enjoyed their recent revival of the show on Radio 2 – but it’s also worth stressing that he did a huge amount of the groundwork. For example he was determined to play Blur when nobody else cared. In fact I’ve a vivid memory of him raving about advance tapes of Modern Life Is Rubbish in very early 1993, and saying that he couldn’t wait to play the new songs on the show. He was a straight-ahead, facts-first DJ who wasn’t too ‘cool’ to enthuse about new discoveries – for the record, I didn’t think that Chris Morris sketch was a very accurate parody even at the time – and yes I do think we need a bit more of that these days.
Back in those days bands ‘breaking through’ seemed a lot more black and white, the press and radio either promoted you or you were unknown. Were you an avid NME, Sounds or Melody Maker reader?
Definitely NME for me! I loved the attitude they had then that you shouldn’t be afraid to poke fun at things that you actually liked, and I was very much a fan of Andrew Collins, Stuart Maconie and David Quantick – in fact I still crack up laughing when I remember stuff they did like the Rock Family Trees parody and the celebration of the Fourteenth Anniversary Of Punk. The others left me a bit cold sometimes, though I obviously still read them occasionally. It’s worth pointing out though that even back then, there was a suspicion of bands that were being backed by the press and radio, and they’d often be derided by the sort of indie fans who’d then go on about some wilfully uncommercial outfit that you stood little chance of actually hearing. I can remember people reacting to the ‘hype’ around Suede as if they were Bad Boys Inc or something. So maybe that even worked against bands sometimes; I’d imagine there was probably some recoiling in horror at the idea of Teenage Fanclub performing on Saturday Night Live.
My first impressions of Screamadelica were that it seemed more of a compilation of previously released material with a few new tracks. It took me a while to get it as a whole. Did it click with you straight away?
Funnily enough, yes I did ‘get’ it straight away, on the very first listen. I think that was probably down to having then recently discovered a lot of the musical reference points; people forget now that pre-Internet, there was that whole tape trading culture. It gets reduced to nostalgia about ‘mixtapes’ now but there was also a huge element of music obsessives making tapes with discoveries they thought each other would like, and in those days that’s how you found out about Francoise Hardy, Neu!, Northern Soul, Bowie’s sixties material and what have you. ‘Home Taping Is Killing Music’ was a bit of a silly slogan when you think about it. So yes, I’d recently been introduced to 13th Floor Elevators, Big Star, Robert Johnson, Pet Sounds etc, and had a nodding acquaintance with ‘rave’ culture – it was hard not to back then admittedly – so it all seemed to make perfect sense.
You mentioned Britpop, I think all four albums you’ve written about (and Ride’s first two albums) have stood the test of time so much better than anything from Britpop. I think you hit the nail on the head when you mentioned the 'fame game' which ultimately lead to less experimentation in music. Should we blame Britpop for the corporate/celebrity culture we suffer today?
Yes and no really. Noel Gallagher was blatantly ambitious but nobody could ever accuse him of following anyone else’s ‘rules’. Blur would have top ten hits but with lead guitar that sounded like it belonged on a Wire record. There were the likes of Elastica and Menswe@r who emerged so fast from the small-time indie scene that they maybe weren’t properly equipped to cope with so much mass mainstream attention. So I think that even then they were trying to find ways of making their ideas commercial, rather than just going straight for the cash register. There were exceptions, but I think they also really just prove that point; Supergrass and Super Furry Animals did whatever they felt like doing but lost that mainstream audience pretty quickly, and the real unfortunate casualty was Luke Haines, who stuck admirably to the ‘old’ attitude but got left behind as a result. That was a real shame. But the problems started when the bands that came in their wake went straight for the money rather than the music so ultimately maybe it did do a lot more harm than good.
You mentioned you’ve written a book about Radio 1. In these days of Spotify and YouTube does it still hold the same influence as it did?
I think it’s starting to again, as they’re now finding ways of engaging with New Media that no longer make everyone cringe. Some of the best new DJs have emerged through YouTube which some people would probably snort at, but is it really any different from finding past presenters on Pirate Radio or Local Radio? The only problem is that there’s now much less distance between the regular shows and the specialist shows – again, maybe a byproduct of Britpop – and you have to go to 1Xtra or Asian Network to hear something really ‘out there’.
There’s obviously been other books that have featured those albums but it's great you’ve focused purely on those four. Have you read David Cavanagh’s and Paolo Hewitt’s books on Creation Records?
Yes and they’re both great books; I especially like that they cover the story of Creation from entirely different approaches. I suppose mine was from the listener’s point of view, which was different again. Which reminds me that I’d like to get a tip of the hat in for Paolo’s Small Faces book The Young Mods’ Forgotten Story, which I really enjoyed and I don’t think has ever got the attention it deserved. I’d imagine they both found, as I did, that nobody’s account of any story quite added up with each other. People interpret artistic situations differently, and while you can have the facts nailed down, the view that the people involved had or have is just as important, and just because they recalled details incorrectly they’re not necessarily ‘wrong’. So it becomes a matter of finding a common ground between how everyone involved, including the audience, saw it… I’d like to think I’ve done a decent job of that, and hopefully others do too!