A secret soundtrack of the Britpop Years

While Britpop's beginnings can be traced to the spring of 1992 and the release of Blur's "Pop Scene" and Suede's "The Drowners," the genre peaked in 1995 when the English music press went into a full-on frenzy, reporting about Blur vs. Oasis, the new Battle of Britain. While Blur won the initial battle -- "Country House" outsold "Roll With It" the week they were released -- Oasis were full-on victors in the war as What's The Story (Morning Glory?) buried The Great Escape, commercially and artistically.


That said, this isn't intended to be another nostalgia-filed anniversary puff piece, but rather a look at some of the bands and records that define my second novel Heartworm, a dark, music-centric book set in the Britpop years. During this time, Blur, Oasis, Pulp, and Elastica were all over the UK press and tabloids, but far more interesting music was being swept under the carpet. 

First up is Dublin's Whipping Boy and their second album Heartworm, released on November 1, 1995. This record is so important to me that I named the book after it; members of the band even make appearances as real-life characters in fictitious settings.

Whipping Boy rose out of a late '80s Dublin postpunk scene that also spawned the likes of Into Paradise and Blue in Heaven. Their early EPs and 1992 debut album Submarine blend Isn't Anything-era My Bloody Valentine with the artsy noise rock of early Sonic Youth. Though acclaimed, the records didn't sell as much as they deserved, and the group retreated to a dingy, Dublin rehearsal room to create the best Irish rock 'n' roll record of all-time. Two decades later, many Irish radio, critic, and fan polls agree with my assessment. 


The singer Fearghal McKee once called Heartworm a 'male' record and while true that one can see parallels to the likes of the Afghan Whigs' Gentlemen, Heartworm is much more vulnerable and complex. It's a soundtrack with odes to nostalgia and despair, full of references to alcoholism and drug abuse, and on their most famous song "We Don't Need Nobody Else," domestic violence. The interplay between McKee's poetic, at-times Bukowski-like, lyrics and the musical interplay of guitarist Paul Page and bass player Myles McDonnell is staggering. If I could only take two records to a desert island, they would be Psychocandy and Heartworm

While The Auteurs scrapped the UK Top Forty a few times, they were overshadowed by lesser talents like Blur, Oasis, Pulp, and Elastica. A crying shame, because Luke Haines was the most talented songwriter of the bunch. His group released four albums between 1993-1998, the best being 1996's After Murder Park. Produced by American indie legend Steve Albini, After Murder Park is a bleak, stripped down affair with references to child murders, child brides, and fallen aircraft. The best song, "Tombstone" contains a line about taking out the garbage at the Columbia Hotel, no doubt a dig at the then trendy London hangout immortalized by Oasis on their 1994 track "Columbia."


Haines' Britpop years memoir Bad Vibes and an interview I conducted with Haines for my old fanzine Vendetta back in the day helped shape some of the content of Heartworm the novel -- there's even a chapter called "Cool Hand Luke Haines" where the protagonist meets Luke! 

The Jesus and Mary Chain were the musical heroes of my first novel Wivenhoe Park, set in 1984-86, but by '95, the JAMC were almost forgotten in the UK. Their fourth album, the phenomenal Honeys' Dead came out in '92 and not a peep was heard after until the band crawled out of hiatus three years later with the vitriolic smash single "I Hate Rock 'n' Roll," perhaps the most brutal attack ever made on the music industry. Sadly the single only peaked at #61 in the UK charts during a summer dominated by vomit inducing trite like The Boo Radleys' "Wake Up Boo!" and Blur's "Country House." 


Dublin's Into Paradise called it quits in 1994, one of the most criminally underrated bands of all-time. Simply put, they were Interpol ten years ahead of their time with one hundred times the talent. Into Paradise paid their dues in the same Dublin clubs that Whipping Boy frequented and, for a brief moment, had major label backing before getting dropped. They were the right band at the wrong time, playing edgy postpunk music that brought to mind the likes of Joy Division and The Sound in an era dominated by Madchester and shoegaze. 


I started my fanzine Vendetta in early 1995. Britpop was in full swing and, initially, I championed some of the bands and records, but by '96 the scene started to sour on me as bland groups like Ocean Colour Scene and Kula Shaker experienced massive success. Recently I stumbled across a back issue of Vendetta from early '96 where I mentioned my favorite records of the moment were Heartworm and After Murder Park. My opinion hasn't changed one bit! It was at this time that I started to listen to the Brian Jonestown Massacre


I came across BJM when a friend who worked at Newbury Comics in Cambridge, Mass. sold me on their debut full-length Methodrone. It was an impossibly cool record that totally spoke my language. I could hear traces of everything I loved: shoegaze, postpunk, '60s psych and garage. They seemed larger than life with their impossibly cool band name. The next year, BJM released three more albums. A lot of my indie friends were gushing over Guided By Voices, who had a similar work ethic back then, but IMHO, BJM were tons better, my secret. I would get to know the group' s main man, Anton Newcombe, when I moved to Los Angeles at the end of the decade and we've stayed friends to this day. I'm incredibly proud that he's stuck to his guns and continued to make fantastic music. His group's most recent effort Revelation is one of his best yet, and the brand new collaboration with Tess Parks I Declare Nothing is my favorite record of the moment. BJM get name checked a few times in Heartworm as well; there's even a chapter called "Mushrooms and Methrodone"! 

So there you have it, five under the radar bands that meant the world to me (and still do) during the era of 'Cool Britannia'. 

Ben Vendetta is the author of Wivenhoe Park (2013) and Heartworm (October 15, 2015). Wivenhoe Park is available on Kindle and paperback via Amazon. Signed paperbacks can be purchased from Elephant Stone Records.

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Record Collecting With Purpose

When I lived in Boston in the mid-nineties I did a lot of record shopping with my friend Frank, who was just as obsessed with music as I am. One day while we were poking through stacks of CDs at a store called Disc Diggers he turned to me and said, "You know, I liked music a lot more back in high school when my collection was smaller but every record I owned was really important to me." Those words struck a chord with me, but it wasn't until I stopped writing for music magazines and started my own label that I tackled my out of control record collection and started honing it down to what was really important to me, instead of worrying about what records/genres I needed in order to have a 'proper' collection.

Writing my first novel, Wivenhoe Park, rekindled my love affair with music and gave me a creative spark that was missing after I discontinued Elephant Stone. The book is about a young man who immerses himself in the eighties English music scene and naturally I played a lot of my old records a ton to inspire the writing process. I remembered what Frank said to me and took it to heart, remembering a  time when everything I owned was Gold -- Bunnymen, Cure, Smiths, Jesus and Mary Chain. I remembered how fantastic it felt to hear records like Low-Life and Psychocandy for the first time. I wanted to feel that excited about music every time I stepped into my music room.



I have always been good with managing clutter with the exception of music. Even after several moves, I had boxes of CDs and records in storage that I hadn't listened to in ages -- hell, half of the stuff on my shelves in my music room hadn't been played in years. In the same way that you're supposed to donate clothes you haven't worn in a year or two, I started going through boxes of CDs and records and tried to remember the last time I listened to some of them. I realized that I was keeping a lot around for that one good song, or because I might need it for DJing (never mind that I haven't DJed since like 2005!).



Long story short, my music room is finally looking good and clutter free and I've set up a Discogs Store to sell stuff that I don't want anymore.






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Heartworm Book Trailer and Galley


Heartworm is almost here. We just got the galley and it looks great. Just a couple of minor formatting tweaks and we should be good to go! Publication date of October 15 seems on target.



We also have a book trailer.




Ben Vendetta is the author of Wivenhoe Park (2013) and Heartworm (October 2015). Wivenhoe Park is available on Kindle and paperback via Amazon. Signed paperbacks can be purchased from Elephant Stone Records.

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Jesus and Mary Chain & Primal Scream: Full Circle

About a year ago I wrote an entry called Psychocandy and Me, where I talked about how much that record and the Jesus and Mary Chain, in general, changed the course of my life. I moved to England in 1985 to 'study' at the University of Essex and ended up soaking in a scene that continues to inspire countless fans and bands to this day. My novel Wivenhoe Park is a testimonial to what what down, or at least what I remember going down. It's pretty safe to say that I probably would not have become a music writer, and definitely not have written a novel about mid-'80s England, had I not decided to fill out an application to study abroad just a few days before the deadline. "Fate up against your will" or something like that.

Fast forward 30 years to 2015 and I returned to my old stomping grounds of Detroit, where my rock 'n' roll journey began, to see my favorite band of all-time perform my favorite record of all-time. With me was wife, Arabella, celebrating our 14th wedding anniversary. What better way to celebtare than to see a  loud rock show in the rock and roll capital of the world, home to the Stooges, MC5, and Motown Records. Our first date in 2000 was to see Jim Reid's then post-JAMC band Freeheat, so in addition to this being a full circle moment in our relationship, it felt like a full-circle moment in my 30-year 'relationship' with the Jesus and Mary Chain.

The last time I saw JAMC was in Boston in '98 on the Munki tour, just before they broke up. The show, given the fragile state of the band back then, was a little hit and mess. I do remember "Reverence" being amazing that night, however.

The Detroit concert in May 2015 was beyond compare, one of the best performances I've ever seen. My emotions were on overdrive. The band was all dressed head to toe in black and I was too. At one point during the Psychocandy set I closed my eyes and felt like I had time traveled. As I soaked in the sounds, I remembered old friends -- some I'm still in touch with, some I'm not -- and teared up. It was that powerful.

JAMC @ St. Andrew's, Detroit Rock City, May 2015



Ben and Bella post-gig. 



To understand my obsession with JAMC, I've decided to thrown in an excerpt from Wivenhoe Park when Psychocandy came out and the protagonist, Drew, decides to skip class to purchase it.

On my way to a lecture I stop at the shop to buy this week’s NME and Melody Maker. The Jesus and Mary Chain are on the front cover of both. Their debut album is in the shops today. I won’t be going to class after all. I’ll be going to Andy’s Records in Colchester to buy Psychocandy.  

On the bus ride to town I skim through the magazines. My favorite scribe, Nick Danger, reviews Psychocandy for Melody Maker. He’s passionate and over-the-top as usual, telling his readers that it’s Year Zero and that The Jesus and Mary Chain have drawn the line in the sand. They are the future of rock ‘n’ roll, he says, and if you don’t like it you can fuck off and listen to Frankie Goes To Hollywood. I want to buy him a drink. Normally I like to have a bit of a walk around Colchester. It’s a beautiful little town with cobblestone streets, old churches, and Roman and Medieval ruins, but today I just want to buy Psychocandy and get back to my room to listen to it.  

It’s as good as Nick says. In fact, it’s the best record I’ve ever heard. I bought the “Never Understand,” “You Trip Me Up,” and “Just Like Honey” singles at Schoolkids’, but it’s an entirely different experience hearing those songs and eleven more as a full body of work. The album is catchy like all of the best punk pop groups, such as The Buzzcocks and Undertones, but there’s so much more going on. The combination of screeching noise and heavenly melodies is intoxicating. The lyrics are dark and menacing, too. Most of the songs appear to be about girls screwing the Reid brothers over, but Jim and William live to tell the tale, in fact they seem to relish it. “The Living End” is the perfect fuck off to everything, an Easy Rider-like ode to finding freedom on a motorcycle. Full of swagger Jim declares, “My mood is black when my jacket’s on and I’m in love with myself... and an empty road and a cool, cool wind and it makes me feel so good.” I punch the air as if I’m headbanging to Judas Priest.  

“Taste of Cindy” reminds me of Christine, perhaps too much. “Knife in the back when I think of Cindy,” sings Jim. “Knife in the back when I think of Christine,” I sing back to Jim. “Just Like Honey” is a sober reality check. I hate how much power Christine has over me, and I hate myself for knowing that I’d probably crawl back to her if given the chance. Like that song’s protagonist, I want to be her “plastic toy.” I wanna be her dog. 

An essential part of the early Jesus and Mary Chain is their drummer Bobby Gillespie,who played a minimal kit just like Mo Tucker had done for the Velvet Underground. I would learn that Bobby fronted a group of his own called Primal Scream. One of their early B-sides "Velocity Girl" would later become the lead track on the NME's famous C86 compilation. The early Primal Scream were strongly influenced by American '60s legends, such as Love and the Byrds, and would have a huge impact on the Stone Roses and the Manchester scene that broke in '88/'89. Bobby was also somewhat of a fashion icon, an idol to all the indie boys and girls. Here's a segment from Wivenhoe Park where Drew meets Bobby and witnesses an early gig.

I’m a bit star struck when I shake Bobby Gillespie’s hand. He’s wearing tight black leather trousers and a floral dress shirt. I tell him how much I like Psychocandy, and he somewhat coldly says, “I hope you like us as much, mate.” He seems to be over the Mary Chain. His shaggy haircut is really cool, pretty much what mine could be if I didn’t tease it so much with spray and gel. I make a mental note to use less hair product after seeing how many cute girls come by to say hello. 

Primal Scream is fantastic. Though I haven’t heard anything by them, the songs are instantly catchy. Bobby pours his heart and soul into it and the kids are eating it up. The guitarist, Jim, is incredible. His lines are striking without succumbing to any guitar hero antics, a kindred spirit to Johnny Marr. No flash, no excess, just pure and beautiful rock ‘n’ roll. One song in particular floors me. Bobby tells the audience it’s a new one called “Velocity Girl.” It begins with the line, “Here she comes again with vodka in her veins,” which is about all I manage to catch. The track is much too short, barely a minute long, ending with Bobby repeating the line, “leave me alone” over and over as the music fades out. It’s timeless, melancholic and beautiful, reminiscent of my favorite Rolling Stones songs like “Paint it Black,” “Heart of Stone,” and “Play With Fire.” Primal Scream is cut from the same cloth.  


Primal Scream, Pittsburgh May 2015




Fast forward to 2015 and Arabella and I get to see (and hangout) with Primal Scream in Pittsburgh. Everyone reading this knows that Primal Scream are now legends, albums like Screamadelica and XTRMNTR rated amongst the most influential rock 'n' roll albums of all-time. Like the Mary Chain, Primal Scream are still godlike on stage -- true rock 'n' roll heroes. In an alternate universe someone like Bobby or Jim would take the place of Bono. But maybe it's all for the best.


Ben and Bobby May 2015



Finally got my copy of "Velocity Girl" signed by Bobby -- full circle! 



Ben Vendetta is the author of Wivenhoe Park (2013) and Heartworm (forthcoming 2015). Wivenhoe Park is available on Kindle and paperback via Amazon. Signed paperbacks can be purchased from Elephant Stone Records.

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Long overdue running update

I've been neglecting the running portion of this blog for too long, so here's a long overdue update. My training has been solid since early March, averaging 25-30 miles on 4 workouts per week with a decided, dare I say Bannister-like specific focus on the 5K. A typical week now is one easy 60 minute run, one easy 30 minute run and two hard efforts. Workout A is a track session -- my favorite at the moment is 10 x 400 w/ brief 100 meter jog recoveries. I learned about this workout from an article by renowned Portuguese coach Antonio Cabral. I find this to be a perfect 5K simulation. In fact, it adds up to exactly 5K on the track. On paper ten 400's doesn't look too difficult but if you do the first few reps too fast, you'll suffer due to the brief recoveries. It really teaches even pacing. Workout B is either a short, hard tempo run of 3-4 miles or a 5K race. Speaking of, I've done two in the past few weeks. On April 18 I ran 18:51 (6:04 pace) and found it to be a good rustbuster. Today I ran far better, hitting 18:18 (5:53 pace) with some solid negative splits (last mile was 5:48). My goal for the Spring is to get as close to 18:00 as I can before ramping it up again for some fast races in the fall. A long shot goal is 17:40 which is the USATF All-American standard for the 50-54 age group. Next up are 5Ks on May 23 and June 6; both on flat, fast courses, so we'll see what I can do.

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Los Angeles Book Reading

Just got back from two weeks in Los Angeles and Palm Springs. Arabella and I had a blast catching up with old friends, making new friends, seeing a couple of concerts, and just enjoying the weather. God, do I miss nice weather.

The book signing event at La Luz De Jesus was a lot of fun. Arabella took some great photos.

Not from the reading, but this one of me and Dan from the excellent LA band Flaamingos is taken at our friends Charity and Hunters house.


Mingling before the reading.


The reading was puppy friendly, too.


On stage.

One more. They let me take a bottle of wine to the podium! 


Photo shoot in Joshua Tree!


Palm Springs, at the Parker.


Pioneer Town in the high desert


More Palm Springs


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