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.


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.


  © Designed by Mousetrap Marketing from Ourblogtemplates.com

Back to TOP