Sometime after my fourteenth birthday, a girlfriend of mine came over to hang out and show me pictures of her recent trip to England. The pictures were yawners (she was chaperoned by her parents), consisting of London classics and Canterbury Cathedral, but she did bring one artifact that piqued my curiosity.
“You’re into punk, right? Well, this band is the hottest thing in England right now. They’re kinda punky, so I thought you’d might like it.” She handed me a CD with the cover pictured above.
“Eeew! Creepy! They all look like they’re on meth!”
“No, they’re really cute. I saw them on the telly.” I’ve always found it irritating when Americans return from a trip to the mother country and drop Britishisms to show how cultured they have become. I wisely resisted the urge to slam her ass, remembered my manners, thanked her for the gift and accompanied her to the Mission to satisfy her hankering for a burrito.
Later that evening I remembered the CD and decided to give it a spin. I was just about to place the disc in the machine when Dad walked in.
“What’s on tap?”
“Audrey just got back from London and brought me a CD of the hottest band in England,” I explained.
“I’m all ears,” he replied, stretching himself out on the couch.
“She says it’s kind of punky, so you may not like it.”
“Try me. Who’s the band?”
The cover photo had so distracted me that I hadn’t noticed. “Supergrass. The name of the album is I Should Coco, whatever that means.”
“Give it a whirl.”
We sat and listened to the CD without comment. To me it seemed to be a mixed bag: some songs tickled my libido, some songs left me flat and some songs were fucking irritating. When the disc stopped spinning, Dad asked me what I thought.
“I don’t know. It’s okay, I guess. I liked it when they let it rip but some of it was too . . . too . . . ”
“Teenybopper?” suggested my father, using typically passé Baby Boomer terminology.
“Yeah, I guess that’s it.” At that moment, my father made one of the most prescient, precise, economical and insightful comments on music that ever escaped his lips.
“Sounds to me like they can’t decide if they want to be the Stones or the Monkees.”
The teenybopper tinge of I Should Coco is justified by the anonymous Wikipedia author who made a game attempt to place the album in the larger context of Britpop: “The whole genre was seen as the voice of youth, but Supergrass, still teens themselves when the album was made, addressed the subject with more insight than most.”
The only problem with that argument is not all the band members were teens when the album was made. The songs were recorded in the first half of 1994, so Danny Goffey would have just turned twenty, Mick Quinn was already an ancient twenty-four and unofficial band member Rob Coombes would turn twenty-three. Only frontman Gaz Coombes had legitimate status as an adolescent, turning eighteen during the recording sessions. Supergrass wasn’t The Hansons, whose brother-members were 15, 13, and 12 when their maiden album hit the charts, a production clearly targeted at the teenage demographic.
Maturity and age don’t correlate as well as people tend to believe, and maturity isn’t an all-or-nothing kind of thing. There are adults in their fifties who have the sexual maturity of an adolescent and there are adults in their twenties who exhibit far more emotional intelligence than their more “mature” elders. I Should Coco contains songs that celebrate youthful freedom and independence as well as songs designed to please their mums—a not unpleasant struggle between breaking with the dominant culture and finding comfort in its bourgeois norms. There are times when they move too far up the saccharine scale for my tastes, and there are times they kick ass with confident command. To place them correctly in the larger context of Britpop, Supergrass captured the youthful exuberance but compared to Blur and Pulp, did little in the area of socio-cultural reflection.
While my “mixed bag” label still feels comfortable, I will say I find I Should Coco a more engaging listening experience than the album to which it is most often compared: Please Please Me. The comparison comes from the fact that I Should Coco was the biggest-selling album in the U.K. since Please Please Me AND just happened to be a Parlophone release. Filled with lame cover songs and immature McCartney-Lennon offerings to fill in the album space between three enduring classics (“I Saw Her Standing There,” “Please Please Me” and “Twist and Shout”), Please Please Me is an album of historical value without much in the way of musical value. I Should Coco is 100% original, and some of those original songs are not only musically delightful but graced with occasionally insightful lyrics. There are indeed some turkeys in the mix, but the band’s innate energy serves to overcome many of its flaws. While the album had a significant impact in reinforcing Britpop’s status as a youth movement, The Beatles were obviously far more successful in terms of historical impact because the youth movement they inspired turned into a worldwide phenomenon, whereas Supergrass’s success was largely confined to the British Isles. The Beatles completely conquered America while Supergrass remained a virtual unknown in the States: their first four albums failed to make the Billboard charts.
As it turns out, Supergrass didn’t want to be The Beatles . . . or The Monkees for that matter. But we’re getting ahead of our story . . .
I Should Coco embraces an approach to music composition implied by the album’s title, a cockney rhyming phrase that translates to “I should think so,” but because its intent is sarcasm, the actual meaning is “I should think not!” The opening track, “I’d Like to Know,” appears to be a typical high-speed pop punk bash that sets up the listener to expect a fairly standard chord pattern. In the extended first verse (the only verse that has its own “bridge”), they tease the audience with an unusual break from the E-D chord pattern, moving to A (normal) but following it up with a roundabout path to the E major root: A, C, D, D#. The band returns to the E-D pattern for two verse lines, then makes a dramatic and exciting move to another key (A), also taking an unusual route to get there—instead of the expected E-D-A (5-4-1), we get F-C-A (6-3-1), one chord higher than expected, one chord lower. That particular chord pattern change makes the spot between my legs gush with excitement, but Supergrass isn’t done yet, bless their young, testosterone-filled bodies! Breaking with the expectation communicated by some of their singles that they were a 60’s revival band, they follow the verses with an extended hard rock fade that spans a decade of styles where they change keys multiple times (including a shift to D minor), introduce a 50’s-style guitar solo and somehow manage to piece these disparate parts into a completely satisfying whole. I remember despising the opening verse when I first heard it because of the “la-la-la-la-la-la” vocal frills, but in context, it’s another act of deception that dampens the listener’s hope that they’re going to hear Supergrass kick serious rock ‘n’ roll ass. When they do get to the ass-kicking, the impact is positively orgasmic (well, at least in my case). I love Gaz Coombes’ take-no-prisoners approach to the guitar, and though he would add more subtlety to his style over the years, he would always serve as a reliable source of power. “I’d Like to Know” is a fabulous opening number that gives listeners more than they expect and reveals what will become a common but never boring feature of the band—Supergrass was exceptionally good at creating drama through unexpected chord changes.
“Caught by the Fuzz” relates Gaz Coombes’ real-life story of getting busted for grass at the tender age of fifteen. He captures the essentials in his well-constructed narrative: the shock of capture; the usual manipulative attempts by the police (they call him “son”) to get him to rat out the dealer; the appearance of his equally hysterical mother who makes him feel even worse by telling him, “You’ve blackened our name/Well you, you should be ashamed”; and the threat of the male parent looming in the background ready to dish out even more painful punishment. The aspect of random selection and just plain bad luck is reinforced by the last line of each chorus where he expresses regrets for not staying at home on that particular night. The vocal captures the emotional rollercoaster of the experience fairly well, but I found myself much more moved by the acoustic version that appears on the In It for the Money limited edition bonus CD. The removal of constant guitar distortion allows you to experience the emotional nuance in the vocal.
“Mansize Rooster” is a bouncy-to-bash arrangement that reveals the inner dialogue of a young stud who has come up dry in his search for pussy and has begun to express doubt concerning his another-notch-on-the-dick approach to lovemaking. The song was a Top 20 single (barely), probably due more to the ear-friendly harmonizing in the instrumental passages than the song itself. The video is instructive, for it shows how teenage-gorgeous Gaz Coombes was and briefly highlights his androgynous appeal to all gender variations.
Now we come to the song that made Supergrass a musical staple throughout the Isles, the perfectly crafted pop song, “Alright.” I don’t find the song as irritating as some other pop standards, and I think the chord changes in the bridge are brilliant, I do tire of listening to it pretty quickly, and I had to force myself not to skip it on my third time around. The song relates the classic fun-and-exciting things teenagers do (hang out with friends, take up smoking, sample penises and pussies, drive cars with reckless abandon) and the joys that follow from a complete absence of responsibility. The song became a teenage anthem, and though Supergrass denied that was their intent, the denials were useless–no artist has control over how the populace chooses to interpret a particular work, especially when the critics are trying to stir up the crowds and increase circulation. Supergrass certainly doesn’t look like they’re in denial in the music video, which features them in various wacky settings doing typically wacky teenage things—a video so mass-market that none other than Stephen Spielberg, the king of cinematic sanitization, approached Supergrass about doing what would have essentially been a Monkees remake.
Oh, oh, oh for fuck’s sake.
We exit Disneyland for the edgier sounds of “Lose It,” where Supergrass (and this critic) feel much more comfortable. It’s not the best song on the album by a long shot but serves to clean the Clorox out of the ears left over by “Alright.” It’s followed by their first Top 10 hit, “Lenny,” a limited dramatic monologue (the single verse is repeated three times) about a guy so full of himself that he assures the broad he’s about to dump that she will die of lack-of-Lenny as soon as he exits the scene. Obviously, the lyrics had little to do with making this song a hit, so we look to the music and hear a spirited vocal and solid guitar work from Gaz, acceleration-provoking rhythmic changes, fast-moving bass runs from Mick Quinn and a stunning display of power and finesse from Danny Goffey on the drums. “Lenny” is a great mosh pit number, with plenty of opportunities for slamming and bruising as the tension rises, falls and rises again.
If there’s a theme to I Should Coco, it’s a comparatively modest version of the our-generation-is-different-than-the-old-fart-generation that rises from the grave every ten years or so like clockwork. The Supergrass take on generational differences isn’t direct rebellion (Britpop in general isn’t particularly rebellious), but about fascination with the “strange” (i.e., people who determinedly ignore standard cultural norms and live their lives in a sub-cultural pocket). This fascination with the strange was mentioned in “I’d Like to Know” (what they’d like to know is “where the strange ones go”) and even in “Alright” (“we are strange in our worlds”). The theme gets full treatment in the unsurprisingly titled song, “Strange Ones.” The strange ones are identified as those who inhabit the underground and who “look down from below,” superior and admirable beings that they are. That’s all very nice, but I found the most compelling part of the song in the tempo-shifting bridge where I could swear that Mick Jagger stepped in to handle the vocal for Gaz Coombes. The phrasing and pronunciation are pure Jagger, which is probably where my dad caught hints of a Stones influence. While I couldn’t find any documentary evidence to support the notion that the Stones shaped the Supergrass sound in any way, the aural evidence is pretty compelling.
The Jagger scent is definitely present in the next song, “Sitting Up Straight,” which opens with non-member but loyal brother Rob Coombes providing a piano intro that’s rather refreshing in context. The first verse is sung in the Jagger style, particularly noticeable on the “oh yeah,” but disappears in the more pop-oriented chorus. Gaz avoids Mick altogether in the next piece, displaying his remarkable vocal range over the Latin-flavored chords of “She’s So Loose.” It’s one of the more complex compositions on the album but not particularly well-supported by a vague storyline.
“We’re Not Supposed To” features the boys playing with the tape speed to produce a higher vocal pitch. They don’t quite cross the line into Alvin and the Chipmunks, but they get pretty close. Without the silly trappings, the song is a pretty standard acoustic pop number that touches on the theme of strangeness in a curious and nonsensical matter, introducing a sort of competition about who’s stranger than whom. I chalk this one up to the old saying, “Kids will be kids,” which is why I never fucking want to have any.
Gaz goes full Jagger on “Time,” a song with a sexy mid-tempo rhythm that would have fit nicely anywhere in the Stones’ catalog, a notion reinforced by the touch of harmonica. This was the flip side to the “Alright” single, and despite the echoes of mid-period Stones, turns out to be a well-executed piece with delightfully heavy bass from Mick Quinn. It’s followed by one of the more interesting experiments on the album, the long-form “Sofa of My Lethargy,” with its psychedelically-filtered vocal and “She’s a Rainbow” harmonic touches supported by piano and Hammond organ. The lyrics are as opaque as most songs from the Psychedelic Era, shifting between fuzzy imagery and a cry to be recognized as different in the bridge/chorus. There’s even a long quiet jam that further tightens the links to the mid-60s. I find the song refreshing in reinforcing the band’s desire to expand their sonic range.
Unfortunately it fades into the unbelievably sappy goodbye song, “Time to Go,” and whenever it comes up, I mutter “Yes, I completely agree” and remove the needle from the disc.
I Should Coco owes its stunning success to the band’s infectious energy and to perfect timing, coming out right when summer was about to begin and British teenagers were hungry for new music to support their warm-weather escapades. The mania surrounding the band and the Spielberg offer left this very young band with an existential choice: to continue to explore musical possibilities or to go for the gold.
It is to their everlasting credit that Supergrass decided to reject the offer. Gaz Coombes also rejected offers to model with Calvin Klein and Italian Vogue. “It felt like cheating. Too easy. Short cut. Y’know? If you have to do all that to be the biggest band in the world . . . then what does that say about your music? And all that… [the publicity offers] would have just got in the way of the music. It would have taken so long to get to grips with. We’d have lost years.”
A wise person once said, “Maturity and age don’t correlate as well as people tend to believe.” Oh wait, that was me! Right up there in the third paragraph of the review segment! Way to foreshadow, altrockchick!
We’ll see if they were able to pull it off when I review the hopefully ironically titled In It for the Money . . . right after another round with Blur and our first encounter with Pulp.