Forgotten late 90s Indie Pop

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A little while ago, there was a thing on Twitter where people used the #indieamnesty tag to tell funny or embarrassing stories about their involvement with the whole Landfill Indie and Nu Rave thing in the mid 2000s (there’s also a surprisingly intelligent and self-perceptive interview with Johnny Borrell (!!) here). As the Guardian article I’ve linked to said, “Indie amnesty brings together thousands of relatively banal anecdotes about unglamorous people doing slightly idiotic things into something quite majestic” and most of the people were writing about being foolish and easily impressed in their teenage years.

It was funny, but the whole thing made me feel weirdly old, because that wasn’t my era for being an impressionable teen. It’s strange when you realise that people you mentally categorised as peers actually grew up in a different era to you, or that people you think of as dramatically younger are also adults. My oldest nephew was born in 1996, and is now a university student with a driving licence, which is just wrong really. It shouldn’t be allowed. Time shouldn’t have moved that fast. Adults are not born in the 90s. The correct time to be born is clearly the early 80s, or the late 70s at a push. I will persist in this delusion for as long as allowed.

I think the prime age for wholeheartedly signing yourself over to whatever musical movement that easily presents itself is 13-14. You start to be aware of different genres of music, want to associate yourself with a tribe of people, have some pocket money to spend, and might even be allowed to go gigs if you have lax parents. The people writing those anecdotes had been that age in the 2000s. I was a teenager in the mid to late 90s. When the Rakes did 22 Grand Job, I actually did have a 22k dull office job (although not in the City, in an office park just outside Reading for full glamour!). Sadly my income hasn’t gone anywhere since then.

I met Pete Doherty a few times way back circa 2001/02, before he was successful or had a serious drug habit, and I thought he was a total knob even then. He was irritating and attention seeking, and sleazed on teenaged girls when he was in his early twenties. If you were 13 or 14 he probably seemed like this mysterious poet, I just remembered him as that skeezy guy I met at the pub.

In the mid 2000s my housemates worked DJing at the After Dark, Reading’s premier sticky-floored, £2 a drink indie disco (the day I saw the walls and floor in proper daylight was horrifying). Sometimes I saved myself some money and got free entrance in return for fending off the drunkest people asking for incoherent or totally inappropriate requests (guy who increasingly belligerently asked for Bon Jovi at a 60s night, I’m looking at you). My friends had to buy/download/scrounge the landfill indie stuff for work because they were songs people wanted to hear, so it was even round the house, but it’s not what we listened to by choice.

So I started to think about what era I was the age in question, which was round about 1997-98. It’s weird to think that this era is now as far away from the present as the 1970s were then. It was the time when grunge was on its last legs, Britpop was on its way out, but Nu Metal hadn’t reared its ugly head yet, and the Strokes, White Stripes et al were a long way off. It was a strange lull. So I’ve picked out some indiepop songs from that era that don’t get so much love these days.

Of course this isn’t the only stuff I listened to. In the late 90s I was a huge fan of Nirvana and the standard 80s/90s american alternative stuff like Hole, the Pixies, Smashing Pumpkins, Weezer, NIN, Beck, Mercury Rev, Hüsker Dü and Sonic Youth. Around the turn of the century I got into stuff like Mogwai, the Beta Band, Le Tigre, Boards of Canada etc as they came out and also the late 90s emo/post-hardcore (a radically different proposition to what it became later) like At The Drive In, the Promise Ring, Rival Schools etc,  I might do a 6th form playlist some time.

A major factor in discovering and listening to music in those days of course was that it was totally pre-internet. Even when the internet did appear, it wasn’t up to playing music yet. To discover new things you had to hear it on the radio, borrow your friend’s copy to tape, or scour interviews or reviews in the music press for recommendations that you’d have to buy blind in the record shop (interviews where musicians recommended their favourites were the best). CDs were expensive (and even still had value second hand), and buying a new one felt like a commitment because you’d given up the possibility of other albums to afford that one, so you really did give it a good listen from start to finish. I spent a lot of time hovering over the record button of the tape player listening to John Peel or Steve Lamacq on the radio waiting for things that caught my ear. You were used to being surrounded by music that didn’t interest you and then leaping on anything that did, because the opportunities were rare.

1) A Life Less Ordinary- Ash 1997

Even though they were born in 1977 (hence the album title) and me and my friends at school were between 82 and 85, it felt like they were some kids close in age, perhaps because there had been so much attention drawn to their young age at the beginning of their career, and articles never really bothered to mention that they actually hadn’t been teenagers for quite a while.

I had a Now! compilation I’d been given that had this on it, along with Radiohead. I couldn’t remember what else was on it, so I looked it up just now, and it’s pretty uninspiring. I kept it though and regularly listened to the handful of songs on it I liked. CDs were expensive in those days, and you took any chance you could to get to listen to the songs you wanted. I didn’t get my own CD player until 1998, and even after then the majority of my CDs came from French supermarkets, as they were a lot cheaper over there. (That probably sounds ridiculously fancy if you’re not familiar with the geography of where I grew up “oh la di da, swanning off to France to buy CDs” – I should add that France is right next door, in fact easier to get to from Kent than anywhere in the Midlands or the North of England, and the exchange rate was mostly in our favour)

I had a friend at school (hi Esterina!) who has a brother who’s about 4-5 years older. When we were about 12 he was studying at the local art college, which seemed awe inspiring. He had an extensive cd collection and being a nice older brother, was happy to share things and make recommendations (thanks Rob!). It was very convenient, as like I’ve already said, CDs were about £15 in those days, and you didn’t have instant access to songs on the internet.

E was also a big fan of both Ash and Ewan McGregor, so this was really the ideal film for her. Our school was near a decrepit cinema, and they used to do really cheap school showings. I think they were £2 or £3 or so. However, because the age certificate for films suitable for teenagers is 12, and the youngest kids at the school were 11, this mean we always had to watch family films. We went to see the first new Star Wars film with school, and I think she was one of the few people who actually enjoyed it, mainly because she got to stare at Ewan McGregor for a long time.

2) 36 Degrees- Placebo 1997

Placebo were huge with teenage girls at this point. I think I had a tape of their first album probably copied off Rob’s cd collection again until I obtained my own copy. I rushed out and bought their second album as soon as I could (again probably from some giant branch of Auchan or Carrefour somewhere in Normandy or Nord-Pas-de-Calais)

When we got internet at home at home in 1998, I downloaded the video for this song, in the days before YouTube. It came in three parts, was grainy and about the size of a postage stamp and took hours to download. I honestly felt like I was living in the future though. There used to be this tv ad for MTV with Nancy Boy in the background (we didn’t have MTV at home, I had to make do with UK Play), and it used to be exciting every time they played it, no matter how often it had been repeated.

3) Animal Nitrate- Suede 1994

Suede were also huge then. For the Sixth former who wanted to try to give an air of slightly sleazy sophistication.

4) Only Happy When It Rains- Garbage 1995

I used to babysit for my older sister a lot, and she had satellite tv, which we didn’t at home. When my nephew was in bed, I’d sit and carefully make mixtapes of videos I liked from the music channels, which needed lightning reflexes and took a long time to fill up a video (which is probably good, as blank videos weren’t particularly cheap either). I’d then take them home and watch them again and again. I even lent them to friends from time to time. That seems absolutely ridiculous now in the context of YouTube, but it really was the only way.

Shirley Manson was a real fashion icon at the time. This aesthetic of making video look like cross-processed slide film (when you process slide film in print film chemicals to get surreal blown out colours and high contrast) was the thing in the mid 90s. I still like this look. I wonder when it’s going to come back. The early 90s revival is in full flow now, so I wonder when the mid 90s revival is going to start.

5) Ladykillers- Lush 1996

“Telling me that women are superior to men
Most guys just don’t appreciate this…
… So he talks for hours about his sensitive soul…

When he’s nice to me, he’s just nice to himself,
Watching his reflection”

Hah, that one, the approach of sleazy guys trying to use being “sensitive” as a chat up tactic hasn’t changed. Miki Berenyi was also another fashion icon. So many girls wanted her bright red hair. You need a perfect base of even bleached blonde hair, the right choice of red colour for your skin tone (much like with bright red lipstick), and the time and effort to maintain it to stop it going patchy. There were a lot of girls at school with patchy orange bits (myself included, first attempt- learning to bleach hair is a sink or swim experience)

6) Punka- Kenickie 1997

Being a punk is a weighty business. Progressing through the ranks and accruing enough punk points for the others to respect you is a gruelling process, and should really not be treated so lightly by Lauren Laverne. She doesn’t even have a back patch.

I used to have the picture disc of this that I bought when it came out, but I have no idea what’s happened to it over the years. It was pink with yellow stars on.

7) This is Fake DIY- Bis 1996

I still have loads of Bis 7″s though. Magic Discs, my local second hand record shop had loads of them. I miss that place. I used to go in there so regularly that the owners started pre-emptively reserving things for me and giving me a discount. The shop also had a lovely dog.

(Bis also provided my entrance to zines)

8) When I Argue I See Shapes- Idlewild 1998

I still hold that Idlewild were best when they were rolling around on the floor, but I suppose everyone gets older and their back hurts.

When 100 Broken Windows came out in 1999 it was one of my all-time favourite albums. It was also interesting over the years as Roddy’s scottish accent became stronger, and his american one receded (he’s a scot who spent a lot of time growing up in the US and then returned to Scotland). There’s not many singers whose accent morphs over the years in the same way.

I also collected the Idlewild 7″s, which had a consistent look with monochrome photographs of the Scottish highlands on the front of each, which I still have. Some of the b-sides lik Victory at Sea and Meet Me At the Harbour were better than plenty of bands’ a-sides.

9) Hermann Loves Pauline- Super Furry Animals 1997

I first came across this song on the Chart Show. It was a tv show on a Sunday morning that simply showed the music videos for the music chart that week, with no presenter. There were often slim pickings, you’d sit through possibly an hour of songs you weren’t interested in to catch some you were.

I’ve just looked up what was in the charts that week- there’s Lovefool by the Cardigans (at the point where you were almost sick of that song), I Believe I Can Fly by R.Kelly, the Friends theme tune, Placebo, One in a Million by Aaliyah, and Susan’s House by the Eels. I don’t know if they would have played those videos in full, for a lot of the songs they played a clip. That time however, they played the whole Super Furry Animals video, and it immediately drew me in with its surreal petrol station setting. You didn’t see much stuff like that, so it really caught your attention when it did.

10) Porchlight- Seafood 1998

Seafood were never a big band, but the people who liked them have really fond memories of their songs, and it was sad when David Line had to stop singing because of his collapsed lung, as his distinctive voice was part of the charm. I used to clip out the mean burn reviews in the NME and Melody maker for my own personal amusement, and I still have one stuck in a scrapbook from 2002 that reads “the Seafood songs sound like Seafood songs always do (Sonic Youth falling asleep)” that was meant as an insult. I’ve written next to it “what’s the problem? I enjoy both Sonic Youth and naps”.

Seafood were also obliging in playing Medway several times, which saved me the travel into London.

Check out Kevin from the band’s record shop Tome Records in London, which has an excellent selection of stock (and Kev is a very nice guy).

11) Lazy Line Painter Jane – Belle and Sebastian 1997

I haven’t kept track much of what Belle and Sebastian have done in years- really, they’re one of those bands I think should just call it quits. Treading a line of childlike/slightly sleazy works better when it’s people in their early 20s doing it than when it’s middle aged people (also, they were a lot better when Stuart Murdoch wrote all the songs).

The first few albums are great though, with their careful musical arrangements, storytelling and Velvet Underground influences. Again, I collected all the 7″ eps over the late 90s from the local second hand record shop, and still have them.

Amongst the people I knew, enjoying both Belle & Sebastian and Shellac was totally normal, and I find it odd now when you meet people who only listen to one genre (ie hardcore mostly) and see everything else as ignorable/only to be listened to ironically.

12) Akumulator- The Delgados 1996

Scotland is pretty over-represented on this list. I think the Delgados have been forgotten about a bit these days, which is a real pity. They were well-known and successful at the time, and all their albums are really worth a listen.

13) Connection- Elastica 1994

Elastica were also a big name at the time. I’ve picked this song in particular though, because it was the theme tune of a daytime music show on UK Play- the free channel that showed a mix of music shows and old BBC comedy shows (we didn’t have cable at home, which was the only way to get the MTV channels). Each song had a connection to the previous one you had to guess, and then a caption would reveal it later. It was a real low budget operation, and whoever chose the videos seemed to be given free reign, so they’d dig out all sorts of things from the archives that I hadn’t seen before, and introduced me to a lot of new music.

14) Disco 2000- Pulp 1995

I still have my old tape of Different Class, which still works. Pulp were really the only ones out of the big Britpop bands who had much political commentary in their songs (Blur tried, but err…).

15) Being a Girl- Mansun 1998

At the time, I never realised what a dedicated and downright odd group of fans Mansun had- you had to answer the right small ad in the back of the music papers to receive the right zine in the post to even know about their whole little cult. To me, they just were a band I liked who occasionally turned up on the radio or Top of the Pops, with strange but catchy songs. In 2014 someone organised a conference about them (without the band even playing). I can’t say that kind of thing has ever really appealed to me personally. I just enjoy their strange songs.

Maybe about five years ago I saw a copy of Six on vinyl in a charity shop in Seaford in Sussex. I didn’t have enough cash on me, they didn’t take cards, and the shop was closing, so I didn’t buy it, and wasn’t heading back that way for a little while. Later on I thought, oh maybe I can get that on ebay. Turned out to be seventy quid, so I wish I’d bought it in the charity shop when I saw it now.

Mansun are probably the band from this playlist that I still listen to the most.

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  1. I was born in 78, and 92-96 (my GCSE & A-Level years) were absolutely formative in terms of music for me, so this brought back LOTS of memories. When #indieamnesty appeared, all of my stories were about the Britpop bands I’d met through writing a zine in the 90s – Mark from Ash drawing me a cartoon of the band (I still have – and treasure – that piece of paper!), hanging out with Placebo backstage and giving Brian a lollipop, borrowing Lauren Laverne’s lipstick in the loos at the same Placebo gig (Kenickie supported them – dream line-up). Ah now I want to make a zine about my zine years, haha!

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