While you could make the case that both Blur’s shift to a distinctively American sound on Blur and the much-anticipated but ultimately horrid Oasis production Be Here Now should earn serious consideration as “the album that killed Britpop,” I have to go with Pulp’s This Is Hardcore as the coup de grâce.
To be fair, Britpop had pretty much run its course anyway. If you define the Beatlemania era as the period between “Please Please Me” and the last concert at Candlestick Park (The Beatles had already moved on, but the fans hadn’t), you’re talking about a little more than three-and-a-half years. Assuming Britpop covered the period between the first Suede album and the second Supergrass album, the phenomenon endured for about four years (and no, I don’t consider The Verve a Britpop band). Britpop had lasted longer than the psychedelic era and the original British punk movement, so it really was time for a change.
My selection of This Is Hardcore for this symbolic honor-of-sorts is based on a combination of factors. While Britpop was full of trenchant social criticism and black humor, it rarely crossed the line into dark and depressing. This Is Hardcore was described by its lyricist as “Songs about panic attacks, pornography, fear of death and getting old.” The music feels more like a film noir soundtrack, and Jarvis Cocker’s self-portrayal echoes the seedy loser archetype of noir films, someone like the hapless, hopeless Walter Neff in Double Indemnity.
I never thought I’d compare Jarvis Cocker to Fred MacMurray, but the shoe fits.
As he did in Different Class, Cocker wrote about what he knew: his own life. The difference is that he wasn’t a Britpop superstar when he crafted the lyrics to Different Class, and the experience he writes about in This Is Hardcore is of a man traumatized by fame, addicted to coke and desperately trying to find a piece of solid ground somewhere in the universe. If The Cure hadn’t already used the title, Pulp could have titled the album Disintegration and no one would have thought it inappropriate.
It didn’t help matters that Russell Senior had left the band, taking his first-class musicianship and artistic discipline with him. While This Is Hardcore has its moments, the album is marked by some very poor arrangements, some really bad ideas and occasionally sloppy execution that makes one miss the tightness of the band on His & Hers and Different Class. Senior’s absence is most strongly felt when Pulp attempts to compensate for his violin by increasing the use of electric guitar. Not only does the shift compromise Pulp’s signature sound, but the guitar tones on the album are frequently annoying.
The performance issues extend to Jarvis Cocker’s meandering vocal performances. Sometimes he finds the right tone, but every now and then he sounds like he’s suffering from a very bad cold (or maybe too much snow up the nose), and on a couple of occasions you’d think David Bowie had popped into the studio to do a guest turn at the mike. Oddly enough, the instability of his voice adds to the general pathos of the album, so in a curious way it successfully reinforces the disintegrative mood.
The lyrics also fall well short of the standards established by Different Class. There isn’t much in the way of wit on This Is Hardcore, nor are there many memorable lines. As for those who might excuse the lyricist on the basis that Cocker’s dark mood hampered his facility with the English language, I would point out that the best lines in Shakespeare come from the tragedies—especially Macbeth, the darkest of the lot. Somewhere in the midst of his wild ride through stardom, Jarvis Cocker lost his negative capability—the perspective of detachment Keats accurately identified as an essential factor in the creation of high-quality poetry. When Cocker wrote about his life experience on Different Class, he wrote with self-deprecating detachment. On This Is Hardcore, it becomes obvious fairly quickly that he is still too immersed in the experience and trappings of sudden fame to make any sense of it, often crossing the line into self-confessional melodrama that would have been more appropriately shared with his therapist.
This Is Hardcore doesn’t entirely lack value. If you listen to it through a film noir lens, the experience becomes more engaging and (for the most part) tolerable. A more informative angle is to view the album as a documentary detailing the impact of fame on the artist and the art. Through that perspective (and by considering the narratives of most of the other Britpop bands), we realize that Britpop died out for the same reasons that caused nearly every rock era to meet its demise: the unreality of celebrity, the disconnection from everyday life and the people who live that life, and the hopeless attempt to cope with the surrounding madness by turning to drugs.
I will give Pulp credit for making a clear statement of intent with the opening passage of “The Fear,” an ominous, funereal segment that represents a clean break from the energetic presentation of Different Class. Jarvis takes the stage as the character of man-falling-apart, alternating between short bursts of self-awareness and an apology to fans hoping for Different Class II:
This is our “Music from A Bachelor’s Den”
The sound of loneliness turned up to ten
A horror soundtrack from a stagnant waterbed
And it sounds just like this.
This is the sound of someone losing the plot
Making out that they’re okay when they’re not
You’re gonna like it but not a lot
The exposure of pretense (“making out that they’re okay when they’re not) is the most powerful message, an enduring indictment of the stigma attached to mental health and addiction problems—a stigma that makes it difficult to address those problems with any reasonable possibility of success. I cringe at the first two lines, though, which send a signal to the listener to expect a whole lot of self-pity to come into play.
Up to this point, Pulp is appropriately working in a minor key (A minor), a reliable means of communicating unpleasant emotions. After introducing the chorus with pure lyrical filler (“and the chorus goes like this”), they manage to ruin both mood and continuity by shifting to a major key, as if to say, “Hooray! We’re scared, lonely and temporarily celibate!” They make it even worse by adding a trio of female background vocalists singing their hearts out as if the heavens have burst open and the angelic hosts are proclaiming their asses off in the blinding light and ecstatic joy of The Resurrection. Let me correct Mr. Cocker here: THIS is the sound of someone losing the plot. I lose all interest at this point, easily tuning out the embarrassingly uninteresting lyrics, waking up only to feel quite annoyed at the superfluous introduction of weird electronic noises that must have seemed okay to the band but they’re not.
Jarvis then goes full nasal and seriously off-key in the male-as-masochist-in-a-dying-relationship tune, “Dishes.” Though he doesn’t exactly compare himself to Jesus, he uses the fact that “I have the same initials” as a basis for the Christ-related metaphor of the miraculous transformation of turning water into wine. It’s a torturous connection at best, and the mention of the crucifixion in the last verse is a serious stretch:
And I’m, I’m not worried that I will never touch the stars
‘Cause stars belong up in heaven
And the earth is where we are
And aren’t you happy just to be alive?
You’ve got no cross to bear tonight
It’s really difficult to believe that the man who wrote “Common People” could have come up with such empty lines, but there’s the evidence, right there, in plain view.
The rough start continues with “Party Hard,” where Jarvis does a second-rate disco-era Bowie imitation accompanied by intensely grating guitar tones. He makes a bad vocal even worse by applying a vodocoder to his voice to the randomly-appearing line, “Baby, you’re driving me crazy,” which also describes the way I feel when listening to this piece of crap. The only couplet that hints at a possible method behind the madness is “I was having a whale of a time until your uncle Psychosis arrived/Why do we have to half-kill ourselves just to prove we’re alive,” the poetic equivalent of using a sledgehammer to drive home the obvious.
Things do get better on the next track, but in the interests of balancing my evaluation, I’ll share a divergent opinion. Here’s Russell Senior’s recollection of what led to his departure:
For years, we spent a lot of time in Transit vans. But suddenly it was all gold discs, condos, famous mates and people whose reality comes from cocaine, telling you you’re great, night after night. I felt a revulsion for it. We were doing songs about common people and it was, “Jarvis, Prada’s on the phone, they’ve got your outfit.”
The last concert I did with Pulp was a corporate gig for a lager company in Barcelona. We were put up in a fantastic hotel, there were supermodels hanging around, but we were playing for bored executives. I felt myself backing away.
There were other things, such as awards ceremonies where somebody’s coke dealer has nicked your limo and you have to walk home because the record company are looking after Jarvis. We had become his backing band. Previously, the music always came collectively, from creative clashes, but I think Jarvis believed his own press and suddenly he was coming in with his own tunes. I didn’t think “Help the Aged” was worthy of following “Common People,” so I sabotaged it by playing blues guitar in the studio.
The Guardian, “The Ones that Got Away,” June 1, 2009
I agree that “Help the Aged” falls short of the standard set by “Common People,” but that song was the ultimate impossible act to follow. One of Jarvis Cocker’s most admirable qualities is the willingness to write songs about taboo topics, and in our youth-obsessed culture, getting old is one of the worst crimes a person can commit. Though sometimes the lyrics drift into Public Service Announcement territory, the empathy he expresses on behalf of these often-forgotten people is admirable:
Help the aged
‘Cause one day you’ll be older too
You might need someone who can pull you through
And if you look very hard
Behind those lines upon their face
You may see where you are headed
And it’s such a lonely place
I also whole-heartedly endorse the lines, “It’s time you took an older lover, baby/Teach you stuff, although he’s looking rough.” The couple who trained me in BDSM were twice my age (in their late 40’s at the time), and one of my favorite fucks is a guy in his 60’s.
Now that is a Public Service Announcement!
This is the one song on the album that demands I heap praise on Mark Webber’s guitar work, which alternates between sweet-and-lovely on the quiet verses and kicking ass on the Pixie-esque choruses. Though I wish they’d completely dispensed with the sore thumb bridge with Jarvis’ superfluous stutter, I consider “Help the Aged” one of the stronger arrangements on the album.
The title track is an even stronger musical composition, though credit for that goes to Peter Thomas, whose 1966 composition “Bolero on the Moon Rocks” was used as the central theme. Thomas is still with us at the age of 93, and while the bulk of his work involved sci-fi and horror soundtracks for television and film, this piece has a late-noir feel that would have been a good fit for 60’s noir films like Shoot the Piano Player or The Naked Kiss (most apt in this context, as the film is about a traumatized prostitute). Borrowing this remarkable piece of music could be considered a Pulp masterstroke; on the flip side, it shows that the band was running out of ideas and inspiration (or, as noted by Mr. Senior above, the band was no longer a collaborative enterprise).
The mood of the piece is smoky, reeking of debauched sexuality. As it turns out, Jarvis Cocker was watching a lot of porn in hotel rooms during Pulp’s commercial peak—oh, the glamorous life of a pop star!
‘This Is Hardcore’ is a bit about fame, actually… I ended up watching a lot of porn – hah! – on tour. If you get back to the hotel and you’ve got nothing to do, you put the adult channel on and have a look… It’s the way that people get used up in it. You’d see the same people in films, and they’d seem to be quite alive, and then you’d see a film from a year later and there’s something gone in their eyes. You can see it, that they’ve done it all and there’s nowhere else to go. There seemed to be something really poignant about that to me. (Q magazine 2012 interview)
Nice spin, but there’s scarcely a whiff of poignancy in the lyrics. There is an emphasis on the mechanical, impersonal production of porn (“then that goes in there/then that goes in there/then that goes in there/and then it’s over”), but really very little about what is “gone in their eyes.” Truth be told, Cocker sounds like your typically lonely lecher who watches these badly-acted, phony sex shows and fantasizes about someday directing a porn film himself:
You are hardcore, you make me hard
You name the drama and I’ll play the part
It seems I saw you in some teenage wet dream
I like your get-up, if you know what I mean . . .
I’ve seen all the pictures, I’ve studied them forever
I want to make a movie, so let’s star in it together
Don’t make a move till I say “action”
Oh, here comes the hardcore life
Bottom line: wake me up when the instrumental-only soundtrack version comes out—I’d buy it in a heartbeat. As for the rest, it’s obvious that Jarvis Cocker learned nothing while watching adult entertainment, so I hope he at least got his rocks off.
The “we’re all in this video together” theme continues, with “TV Movie,” a lost-love song with lyrics summarized quite nicely within the song itself: “All I know is I can’t even think/I can’t even think of anything clever to say.” I’ll second that motion! The arrangement is quite odd, featuring an acoustic guitar with unpleasant electronic residue on both channels for intro and first verse, followed by a leisurely build that never quite reaches a climax. Once the song vanishes into no one’s memory (except for the guy on Stereogum who thought it was the best thing Pulp ever did), we get “A Little Soul,” where Jarvis Cocker calls up the father who abandoned him in childhood and has him deliver a dramatic monologue to his now-adult son. This song has been singled out for praise by some reviewers; what I hear are clichés (you look like me, don’t grow up like me) and a son’s understandable resentment about abandonment that unfortunately negates any effort to understand the father’s motivations or circumstances. As Cocker was way too close to the subject matter to provide anything in the way of insight (such as filling us in on what he learned from the experience of abandonment), the song falls short in terms of emotional impact (unless you were abandoned by a parent in your childhood and can fill in the gaps). The pleasantly dull music is an exceptionally poor fit for what should have been a more thoughtfully constructed composition.
One could say that the moral of the story in “A Little Soul” is actually played out in the following song, “I’m a Man.” While it’s not the most original title, the song does capture Cocker’s thorough disgust with the cultural definition of maleness:
With your advertising sliding past my eyes
Like cartoons from other people’s lives
I start to wonder
What it takes to be a man
Well, I learned to drink
And I learned to smoke
And I learned to tell
A dirty joke
Oh, if that’s all there is then there’s no point for me
All very well and understood, but as in so many songs on This Is Hardcore, Cocker doesn’t dig any deeper, listing these most superficial characteristics as if he were filling out the grocery list. The question he poses—“So please can we ask why we’re still alive?”—is a throwaway, broad-brush question that ignores the truth that despite cultural programming, many men pay little or no attention to the all-powerful he-man image propagated by myth and modern advertising. I have few problems with the music, and from a structural perspective, “I’m a Man” is a solid piece of work. But what the hell is that noise that appears initially in the first chorus—is that a badly-distorted guitar or an electric kazoo? Whatever it is, it makes the song feel like more of a joke than a credible statement on masculinity.
If you’ve got eight-and-a-half minutes to kill and want to experience what it’s like to truly piss away your time, have I got a song for you! “Seductive Barry” is as complete an embarrassment as one can imagine, with Cocker playing off singer/rapper Neneh Cherry’s stereotypically seductive vocalizations as he embraces the role of egomaniacal lecher. If this is supposed to be satire, it lacks the bite; if it’s supposed to be an attempt to set the sexual experience to music, it’s fucking pathetic. I hereby nominate “I will light your cigarette with a star that has fallen from the sky” for the most ridiculous line in history, and tell you that when I’m done listening to this song, I want to run away from Jarvis Cocker as speedily as possible and take a long shower to cleanse myself of his disgusting aroma. Worst. Pulp. Song. Ever.
Jarvis Cocker’s strongest vocal on the album can be heard on “Sylvia,” an intriguing story of latent yearning for the unattainable beauty of a young man’s adolescence. The image of that long-lost Helen causes the narrator to insult a prospective partner (“You look just like Sylvia/Well, you look like her to me”), add injury to insult by launching into an extensive monologue about Sylvia’s likely whereabouts, and wrap things up by engaging the invisible Sylvia in a conversation (by this time, the prospective partner has probably left the table to call the police). What’s intriguing about what seems a narrative disaster is the hint that Sylvia was the victim of sexual abuse on the part of her father, an interpretation based on this sequence:
Her father’s living with some girl
Who’s a year younger than her
She’s living in the country now
Oh, she’s trying to get better
Her beauty was her only crime
The narrator then reveals that it isn’t only the lingering attraction that draws him to Sylvia but also the guilt that comes from the awareness that he too had questionable motives in his pursuit of the girl (though not of the predatory kind):
Who’s this man you’re talking to?
Can’t you see what he wants to do?
He thinks if he stands near enough then he will look as good as you
Oh, he don’t care about your problems
He just wants to show his friends
I guess I’m just the same as him
Oh, I just didn’t know it then
With genuine passion, Cocker sings the words he wishes he could say to Sylvia if she really were there, attempting to alleviate her misplaced sense of guilt and validate her self-worth:
I can’t help you but I know things are gonna get better
And please stop asking what it’s got to do with you
Oh, keep believing ’cause you know that you deserve better
The arrangement features strong build, good old-fashioned Pulp tightness and a very effective guitar solo in just the right tone (hooray!). While I think the lyrics could have been a bit more explicit, “Sylvia” is a definite plus, allowing Jarvis Cocker to explore one of those taboo topics where he is at his best.
“Glory Days” is probably the song that captures how I feel about most of This Is Hardcore: there are off-putting moments, occasionally brilliant lyrics, and promising possibilities that end with a thud. Cocker gives us Bowie AND the snow nose guy on the first verse, making me want to leap from my seat and rip the needle from the disc . . . but the line “and learn the meaning of existence in fortnightly installments” gets stuck in my head . . . so I press on to discover the best lyrics on the album:
Oh, my face is unappealing and my thoughts are unoriginal
I did experiments with substances
But all it did was make me ill
I used to do the I Ching
But then I had to feed the meter
Now I can’t see into the future
But at least I can use the heater
Oh, it doesn’t get much better than this
‘Cause this is how we live our glory days
And I could be a genius if I just put my mind to it
And I—I could do anything if only I could get round to it
Oh, we were brought up on the space race
Now they expect you to clean toilets
When you’ve seen how big the world is
How can you make do with this?
If you want me, I’ll be sleeping in
Sleeping in throughout these glory days
That is an excellent exposition of how the generation in power fills youthful heads with the unlimited possibilities that await them, then offers little in the way of help or real-world education to make any of those possibilities real. When your life is pure drudgery, what’s the fucking point? This is great stuff!
Unfortunately, the great stuff morphs into gibberish in the closing verse:
Yeah we’d love to hear your story
Just as long as it tells us where we are
That where we are is where we’re meant to be
Oh, come on, make it up yourself
You don’t need anybody else
And I promise I won’t sell these days to anybody else in the world but you
No-one but you (4)
Geez. I count at least three detours from the main narrative in seven lines. Foreplay without the orgasm really, really sucks.
And speaking of sucks—and we’re talking Yoko Ono-level sucks here—Pulp ends the program with “The Day After the Revolution,” fourteen minutes and fifty-eight seconds of sheer torture that leave me in a state of frothing madness. The song proper is a bloody mess, featuring noisy guitar, a frantic vocal and a barrage of disconnected lines mingling utter meaninglessness (“the revolution begins and ends with you”) with pathetic attempts at establishing artistic cred (“Bergman is over, irony is over”). Then, at the 4:52 mark, the band noise vanishes into background and we’re treated to a shimmery, synthesized organ sound for ten fucking minutes and six fucking seconds, interrupted only by Jarvis Cocker intoning the words, “Bye, bye” at the 9:56 mark. To pass the time, I started counting the overtones, grew bored with that after about a minute, and spent the rest of my time gnashing my teeth, wishing desperately to be transported to a more pleasant environment—something like Siberia in January or the Sahara in the summer.
Look. I don’t mind dark. It’s half the yin-yang of life, a valid approach to exploring the human experience. What I resent is dark done badly. And I firmly believe that Pulp simply had to follow Different Class with something that bore little resemblance. Had they tried to reproduce that experience, they would have essentially committed themselves to an artistically-limited formula. I support the attempt but bemoan the execution.
Pulp would return in 2001 with the far more coherent and satisfying album We Love Life, ending their run on a positive note. From a historical perspective, Pulp’s contributions definitely qualify as significant impactful, and I find it oddly fitting and curiously satisfying that the band that gave us the masterpiece of the era should be the band that symbolically laid that era to rest.
In the previous episode, our heroic young lads had emphatically declined Steven Spielberg’s offer to become the 90’s version of The Monkees, making the preternaturally wise decision to head to the studio and record their second album. Prior to the recording, the darlings of Britpop had toured for eighteen months, during which time I am quite certain they purported themselves with the utmost propriety and decorum.
Funny things happen when people hang out together in close quarters for too long, and sure enough, Supergrass entered the studio bickering with each other over the usual silly shit bands bicker over—girlfriends, loyalties, the label, the album title, ya-da-ya-da-ya-da. Having only come into the studio with two songs, they had a lot of work to do, and really didn’t need all the interpersonal noise.
Meanwhile, questions abounded! Would the sudden stardom, long months of touring with the utmost propriety and decorum and the desperate cries of fans who wanted to hear I Should Coco, Part Two break the spirit of our dear boys, rendering them klutzes in the studio and making them regret blowing off that lucrative deal with Spielberg? Or could our heroes overcome the self-imposed difficulties, the enormous weight of expectations from their label masters and the listening public as well as the dreaded jinx of the sophomore slump to produce a work worthy of the name Supergrass?
Fuck yes! In It for the Money is WAY better than I Should Coco. Supergrass lets it rip on In It for the Money, combining hard, punk and melodic rock in a power-packed lo-fi extravaganza slightly softened with the occasional acoustic arrangement and a touch of soft jazz. While it doesn’t have the relentlessness or social consciousness of Rancid’s And Out Come the Wolves, In It from the Money certainly qualifies as one of the stronger rock records of the decade. Cute was completely abandoned for an edgier, sexier feel, a shift confirmed by two vitally important data points: I have zero songs from I Should Coco on my fuck playlists, and four from In It for the Money. The best rock ‘n’ roll puts you in the mood to grind, and In It for the Money hits the sweet spot.
On the flip slide, there aren’t too many quality records that begin and end as weakly as In It for the Money—it’s a custard-filled maple bar with all the good stuff in the middle. The title track opens the album, a piece that comes across as three fragments rudely patched together—the first almost gothic, the second a rather unimaginative attempt at a build and the third a harmonic rock segment that plays more to their strengths but doesn’t fit lyrically or musically with the other two parts. The closing track, “Sometimes I Make You Sad,” is an experimental disaster, featuring a heavily filtered Gaz Coombes vocal that sounds like he’s singing from the bottom of a toilet. I fully understand and respect their desire to do a 180º and distance themselves from their status as the band responsible for “Alright,” but they could have achieved that more effectively by deleting those two tracks, placing “Richard III” in the pole position and closing with “Hollow Little Reign.”
“Richard III” has nothing to do with the king whose death at Bosworth Field ended the silly Wars of the Roses . . . or with the fact that he wasn’t really a hunchback . . . or with the fact that he did some good for the common people . . . or even with the high likelihood that he was a scheming, murderous asshole. The sparse lyrics seem to address the futility of escape from the humdrum of daily life, but really, the music is what matters, and opening with the dissonant chord combination and punk sensibility of “Richard III” certainly dispelled any notion that the boys wanted to hang out in adolescence beyond their years.
That dissonant chord combination begins by alternating the root chord with the flatted fifth chord (A to D#), creating an edgy, delightfully evil sound. They double-down on the odd chord strategy early by using a C-D-D#-F rise as the lead-in to the all-out bash rhythm of the verse, inserting a non-sensical off-key minor scale into the mix. The effect of this unexpected sequence is equivalent to the excitement of rough foreplay, as in “Don’t fiddle with the buttons, baby, I’ll just rip it off,” and following it with relentless drive tells me these fuckers (figuratively speaking) mean business. If Supergrass had chosen to continue the song in the same vein, “Richard III” would be remembered solid punk song with a little flair, but they change positions (again, figuratively) for the chorus, moving to a C-G#-G combination where Gaz bends the blue notes in his vocal like a man in heat.
I know you wanna try and get away,
But it’s the hardest thing you’ll ever know.
Read those lines in the context of sex and try to tell me there isn’t some serious double entendre going on here! I don’t make this shit up, people! When Gaz Coombes repeats the line, “Trying to get atcha, tryin’ to get atcha,” my diddle goes all a-flutter—so much so that the appearance of a Theramin in the instrumental break fails to register until well after the song is over and “Good Vibrations” comes to mind during the post-fuck cigarette. No one in the band slacks off for this one—Danny Goffey beats the crap out of those drums, Mick Quinn fills the ground with penetrating bass and Gaz cranks out hot guitar and an even hotter vocal, navigating the strange scales with cocky passion (double entendre intended).
We leave the sweaty mosh pit for the sweaty dance floor as soon as we hear the clever opening guitar riff of “Tonight.” Gaz opens with a Keith Richards-like guitar attack, making things more interesting by avoiding the flatted third of the blues scale until he shifts from A to D. The chorus involves yet another unusual key change to F major; and the bridge gives us another with its D-A-C-G pattern. As mentioned in my review of I Should Coco, Supergrass was one of the best when it came to making unusual chord changes, and this skill is on full display throughout the album. As the song heads towards the fade, the band pulls back and allows a horn section with supporting to piano to add some texture and give any dancers in the audience time to recharge the batteries for the high-speed sock-hop style finish. “Tonight” is probably more suited for the grind of a rock club environment than the heavy bruising in the mosh pit, but hey, I’m always ready to rock to whatever you’ve got!
Even the heartiest rockers need to shake it up from time to time, but what we don’t need is light and cheerful (aka “Alright”) . . . we need something with a little soul in it. “Late in the Day” fits the bill, starting as an acoustic love song and ending more along the lines of a rock ballad. The chord changes are again magnificent and off-the-norm, with the main pattern taking a roundabout path through a set of on-and-off-key major seventh and basic chords to find its way back to the root. The beat picks up in the chorus, and the alternating tempos and keys somehow combine to form a holistic composition. The lyrics aren’t much to write home about (except for the tantalizing line, “We’d slip off down the oily way,” which is probably only tantalizing to a filthy mind like mine), but Gaz takes control with an appropriately moody vocal and brings this one home a winner.
“G-Song” brings back a little oomph to the party in the form of a bouncy rocker enhanced with rhythmic variation and a key change in the break. Early-stage Supergrass seemed to suffer from some kind of phobia when it came to song and album titles: “G-Song” is named after the song’s key; “Richard III” reflects their habit of applying common names to songs (Richard, Fred, Brunhilde, whatever); and the album’s title was selected by the record company after getting fed up with the band’s procrastination in the matter. It’s more of a quirk than anything seriously disturbing (a far cry from Keith Moon driving a Rolls into a Holiday Inn swimming pool), but does tend to echo their relative indifference to lyrics at this stage in their career.
“Sun Hits the Sky” features a simpler chord pattern in the verses (F-Eb, G-F), placing the emphasis on the driving beat instead of the chords. Yet another brilliant chord change occurs in the chorus where the band shifts to D major, offsetting the D-A dominant pattern with an extended stay in G minor. The lyrics are typically opaque but I love the way the words sound, especially in the chorus:
I am a doctor, I’ll be your doctor,
I’m on my way, you won’t come down today,
Live for the right things, be with the right ones,
Or they’ll hold you down, they’ll turn your world around.
The Beatles were particularly strong in that skill, and since Supergrass music at this point in their careers was message-light, coming up with euphonious lyrics was critical to their success. Early Supergrass songs are easy to sing along with, especially if you don’t mind that the words don’t add up to much.
“Going Out” is a mid-tempo rocker integrating organ and a horn section with close harmonies that are quite Beatle-esque. This is the song that led to a spat between Gaz and Danny, with the latter accusing the former of writing lyrics designed to exploit the tabloids’ exploitation of Danny’s romantic goings-on with Pearl Lowe (who eventually became his wife). Danny must have been hypersensitive about the whole thing, for the lyrics are pretty much a nothingburger, a mild warning that the paparazzi will catch up with you sooner or later, at home or on the club circuit. Compared to Ray Davies’ “Other People’s Lives,” it’s not much of a diatribe. Putting all that noise behind, “Going Out” is a pleasant experience, a catchy tune with a strong beat, suggesting that Danny therapeutically took out most of his anger on the drum skins.
Supergrass dials it down for “It’s Not Me,” a reflective song dominated by acoustic guitar strumming supported by piano and a horribly annoying synthesizer that comes close to ruining the entire piece. From a melodic perspective, I find “It’s Not Me” the loveliest song on the album, with Gaz revealing impressive range and sufficient command of the emotional content in the lyrics. It’s a classic coming-of-age story where one learns that expanding awareness of the surrounding culture engenders feelings of separation and isolation—the differentiation between self and expectation. There have been a gazillion songs written on this topic, but I get the sense that this one didn’t come out of the pop formula playbook but reflects Gaz Coombes’ sincere feelings during a time of life transition—a transition made more difficult by his presence in the public eye.
Another great chord sequence accompanied by a rhythmic shift awaits us in “Cheapskate,” one of a more subtle variety involving the simple difference in tone between minor and major chords. The verses consist entirely of A minor variants, and minor chords always feel a bit “off,” communicating sadness, wistfulness, edginess or unrequited desire. The lyrics in the verses are therefore entirely appropriate, as they describe a tension shared by Gaz and his companion, both of whom feel a bit “off” in relation to society:
Lift me up, and move a bit closer,
Holding on to what I know
She’s the one who plays with fire,
I see a side you’ll never know
The chorus marks a shift to the A major chord, and as major chords tend to be uplifting, we goddamn better get some uplifting lyrics—and we do:
I need someone to be around,
‘Cause I’m breaking into life,
Somebody stop me,
‘Cause I’m looking for my, looking for my high
That rise in spirit is intensified by a rhythmic change from loping to driving and the emphatic appearance of electric guitar in distortion mode. Often the simplest moves are the most effective (she insists for about the hundredth time, thank you Count Basie), and the excitement that results from that tiny change from the flatted third to the major third is palpable—it’s hard not to want to stand up, jump in and sing along.
While this attention to a single note change in a chord may seem excessive, its importance will be underscored when we get to Pulp’s This Is Hardcore and hear an example of a songwriter completely blowing it.
The next two songs foretell a mellower, moodier future for Supergrass, songs that serve as precursors to Supergrass and Road to Rouen. “You Can See Me” is a melancholy minor key piece about the disconnection between public figure and real person, and the corresponding insistence among fans that the public figure is the real person and therefore both knowable and available for purchase. “If you like me, you can buy me, and take me home,” Gaz writes, as if his person is embodied in Supergrass merchandise. While he tries to remind the fanatics, “You can’t see me, I’m not really there,” his tone indicates he knows he has embarked on an exercise in futility. “You Can See Me” wasn’t a single and doesn’t generate much discussion today, but from a lyrical perspective, it’s the strongest piece on the album.
“Hollow Little Reign,” which should have closed the album, has also unfortunately languished in obscurity. It’s a mellow piece with jazz and funk overtones emanating from the Gm/Am11 pairing, wah-wah guitar and piano backing from Rob Coombes. This piece also uses a minor to major transition to highlight the hope in the one-line chorus (“some day when I can”), a hope immediately tempered by following the C major chord with an F minor. Danny does a fabulous job with the drum builds, and though I would have liked to hear a bit more in the way of innovation from the horn section, the extended instrumental passages are a net positive.
In referring to In It for the Money during an interview with Q magazine, Gaz commented thusly: “The fact that it has sold more worldwide than I Should Coco means we can sleep at night.” Going harder and grittier risked alienating the fan base, but the album’s success proved that what originally attracted fans to Supergrass wasn’t their cuteness but their irrepressible energy. That energy allowed them to overcome the bad vibes and noise, move their music forward and produce what would turn out to be one of the last great albums of the Britpop era.
With Blur having already moved on and Suede preparing to do the same, Britpop would die a horrible death within a year thanks to a combination of the Gallagher Brothers, Jarvis Cocker and a whole lot of cocaine.