Monday, April 19, 2010

Pointed List: Supergrass

It always looked like it would be fun to be in Supergrass. Like they enjoyed it, like they never took it too seriously. They made derivative dadrock music, sure, but it was also, generally, joyous and fun. You felt that they believed in its validity, and that gave it a truth that more original and innovative bands can miss. And, crucially, they had scope and range - they rocked when they wanted to, but they could swing a bit, throw in a ballad and some folk. Over time I think they were the (unlikely) survivors of the Britpop era: Oasis grew rotten and pathetic, Blur imploded, Pulp fell away and only Gaz Coombes and his cheeky-chappy mateys were left, all growned up and serious. Still releasing great - or at least very good - records. Until last week, when they announced their split after 17 years.

Of course, they had good record collections. Thats obvious from what their music sounds like. The Beach Boys, the Stooges, the Beatles, CSNY, T-Rex, Bowie, Dylan - they listened to classic rock and they filtered it through their own songwriting to good effect. I love their second and third albums in particular, but all of the others contain sublime moments, too. Here are five such moments, and some thoughts about them, in memorium, I suppose:

Richard III

A friend of mine always insists that this riff - one of the best of an era admittedly light on great riffs - is a rip-off of one of Black Sabbath's. He may be right, but I doubt that the Sabbath song has the same energy that Richard III has, the same combination of belligerent rock and unabashed pop, the same surfeit of hookiness.
Taken off their second album, In It For The Money, where Supergrass easily surpassed their debut, broadening their scope emotionally and musically without losing sight of why they were popular in teh first place, this was a single. At first, it seems like a newly serious band, those opening bars of riff so deadpan and determined, so grimly fixed on something unseen, something adult, perhaps. Then Gaz goes "Woooo!" to kick it all off, and it gets louder, but its still Supergrass, willing to compromise the hardman rock (Made plain by the menacing lyric: "I know you wanna try and get away/But it's the hardest thing you'll ever know/Tryna get at you, tryna get at you") of such a song to include some lovely falsetto backing vocals.
So while its as heavy and driving a rock song as any they ever did, its always a pop single, too. Which makes it Supergrass, and makes it fantastic.

St Petersberg

Road to Rouen, the fifth album, marked a real and decisive change of style for the band. If their third, Supergrass, had messed with their formula and been a commercial and critical disappointment, they pacified their record company with the more predictable Life On Other Planets. But even that didn't halt their commercial slide. Britpop was over and even something of an embarrassment in the eclectic mp3 era, and its survivors were all in trouble.
So Supergrass changed tack entirely. The new record was folkier, largely acoustic, ruminative, mellow. Its also frequently beautiful and the band's songwriting has clearly benefitted from their new direction. Where Life on Other Planets sounded tired and almost self-parodic, Road to Rouen is fresh and dynamic, the product of a band re-energised and excited by their music.
"St. Petersberg" was the lead-off single for the album. But it doesn't sound remotely like a single. Its subtle and gentle, slowly strummed guitars over tinkling piano and hushed, muted, gorgeous strings towing the melody along. The lyrics are impressionistic, with no obvious narrative or meaning, just some phrases emerging from the mix. The opening lines are "Before the time of the morning sandman/I can find my way around" and it continues in that vein for three minutes or so, going nowhere in particular. This could not be by those lovable scamps who recorded "Alright", could it? Well yes it could, not that anybody wanted to know anymore.


Supergrass, the band's third album, is probably their most "Rock" record. It is jammy, and musically their most complex and interesting release. There are fewer of the numbers that most people would think of back then if asked to think of a typical Supergrass song, and more where they expand and stretch out and let a big, muscular groove build. In that vein, as well as the superb "Eon", there are the equally impressive "Born Again" and "Faraway". But there are also two of their greatest pop singles, in the exhilarating "Moving" and the sleazy stomp of "Mary", and the lovely doodle of "Mama & Papa" to end the album. In short, if In It For The Money is their most obviously accessible, crowd-pleasing record, Supergrass is their best.
This song builds up patiently on long winding lines of electric guitar and a rhythm section that seeps in like cloud, and after it all breaks up into a wash of chiming arpeggios, its almost two minutes before the vocal starts. Then its a blissed out nursery rhyme concerned with astral bodies (I know you're out there/We saw a shooting star/We don't know what you done/You're nearer for a star") composed of three verses and no choruses. It is casually epic and feels longer than it actually is, some sort of tribute to the mastery of dynamics the band display here. The moment at 1:24 when the tempo changes is just breathtaking.


I Should Coco came out in 1995, when Gaz Coombes was 19 years old, Danny Goffey was 21 and Mick Quinn was a prehistoric 26. The chirpy pop single "Alright" - the song the band will be remembered for - was a massive smash, but the album sold 900,000 copies too, making Supergrass one of the biggest bands in the UK just a few months after they had released their first single. "Lenny" was another single off that record. Its a punk-pop gem, cocky and breathless and insistently catchy. I love the first 25 seconds or so - that simple, hesitant drum pattern, then the guitar hammering a dumb one note riff, and then the way Goffey definitively kicks in on the offbeat, his drum fill jumpstarting that elastic bass and the song is suddenly rolling forward. Its a young man's song, all forward momentum, full of the thrill of being alive and young and in a band, the lyrics disposable and so meaningless they're run through three times and you barely notice: "I've been around and around/But I've got nowhere to go now/But the funny thing is/That when I'm gone, I'll kill you/When I tell you/I don't want you-hoo-hoo". And thats it.
In a way, it perfectly encapsulated what Supergrass were then. All energy, brio, and a cocksure stupidity that made them seem invincible. Musically too, with its fuzzy guitar, its simple rhythm, its big harmonies, its soaring vocals on the middle eight, its commitment to being a pop single.
It still sounds great.

The Evening of the Day

This sounds like one of those odds and ends songs the Beatles used to do, combining bits of three separate scraps masterfully into one coherent whole. It comes from Life On Other Planets, a comeback album of sorts which is my least favourite of their records apart from Diamond Hoo Ha, their uninspired final outing. This album is a bit too Supergrass-by-numbers for my liking, but it does contain a handful of great songs, like "Za" and "Brecon Beacons". This is better though. Sung in the main by Quinn, who had handled lead vocals on several numbers on Supergrass, its first section is a folksy shuffle, all energetic strummed acoustics and drawled vocal. Around the one minute mark it shifts gears, electric guitars and organ cut in, and a chorus from a different song emerges, complete with a lyrical reference to Spinal Tap's "All the Way Home" ("If shes not on that 3:15/ Then I'm gonna know what sorrow means"). It reverts for the rest of the verses, accumulating instrumentation as it progresses - horns, piano, more guitars - while the chorus remains shouty and raucous, before a final collapse and a delicate little coda, complete with bongos, lounge piano and whistling.

Labels: , , , ,


Blogger Monsterwork said...

Richard III pisses all over Song 2. It baffled me how Richard III wasn't the summer anthem of that whole scene, and the frankly embarrassing Blur track was.

10:25 am  
Blogger David N said...

I quite like Song 2 - it was written for American fratboys, right? so its deliberately moronic - but you'll get no argument here that its anywhere near Richard III.

I should have said - I love that its bafflingly called Richard III. I don't even want to know why its called that.

10:01 pm  
Blogger built of cornflakes said...

Was listening to Mary after yearrrrs. Did Mick Quinn sing the main vocals and Gaz the second voice?

3:15 pm  

Post a Comment

<< Home