Supergrass – In It for the Money – Classic Music Review – Britpop Series
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 as a 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 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 . . . 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.
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 (“someday 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, “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 solid 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.