So, the cool kids already knew back in 1995 that the answer to the “Oasis or Blur” question was “Pulp.” In 1995, I certainly knew I was supposed to like Sheffield’s underdogs who rose from years of obscurity to deliver “Common People,” which is all the more relevant today as trust-fund kids remove the band’s class consciousness to ape their deadpan sensibility and ironic sartorial statements, which seem to be modeled after what European teenagers were wearing in the 80s according to my high school French textbooks. I did like them, and continued to after their 2002 split.
But if forced to chose one or the other, I’d take Blur without question. Their lyrics were clever, their melodies were interesting, and their influences more varied. Plus, the members looked like a nerdy straight girl’s version of a boy band. I liked frontman Damon Albarn, who had a snaggle tooth and a vaguely simian cuteness that comic artist Jamie Hewlett had to be tapping into when he was designing Gorillaz with Albarn. There’s palpable class tension in my preferences, to be sure. Blur were the London-born mockney art school boys Jarvis Cocker was vituperating in “Common People.”
Oasis, on the other hand, were doggedly working class Mancs. They also had no musical vision past Lennon and McCartney. Their lyrics, absenting principle lyricist Noel Gallagher’s dyslexia, were of the worst variety of rubbish: the purposeful kind. The Gallagher brothers also forged a rivalry with Blur for publicity and that their episode of Behind the Music confirms they’re despicable people. I like “Cigarettes and Alcohol” well enough. I enjoy singing “Morning Glory” at karaoke, but my enjoyment of the song completely resides in shouting the lyrics, a singular joy I also bestow upon Girls’ “Hellhole Ratrace” and Neutral Milk Hotel’s “Song Against Sex.” I have no use for these songs as listening experiences — I merely enjoy shouting along with them, largely to drown out the recorded sound. It’s an icky, selfish joy.
But if you’re angling for true Britpop allegiances, I’m closer to siding with Courtney Love on this one. Apparently some time in the mid-90s (possibly during Lollapalooza ’95?), she said that the future of rock music was “Elastica-r-r.” While history and personal drama unfortunately proved that mantle untenable, Elastica were my Britpop band.
I remember buying the band’s self-titled debut at some big box chain in 1995 because I saw them in Seventeen and heard “Connection” and wanted to be a member. I particularly responded to frontwoman Justine Frischmann’s androgynous look and too-cool persona, later finding out that she co-founded proto-Britpop band Suede and was dating Albarn. I already had the short dark hair and wore loose black clothes. I used dry sarcasm as a defense mechanism for being shy and chubby. In my mind, I was as good as in.
The clerk responded to my purchase with incredulity. Perhaps he found them disposable. I’m not sure if the guy was one of those boorish types who think girls shouldn’t play guitars. Their status at the time as a buzz band could have predicted their short shelf life, as assuredly it did for all-male bands like the Strokes, Franz Ferdinand, Interpol, and countless others. At around this time, shoegazer bands like Ride were aping the Black Crowes. A year later, peer act Lush would release their final album, Lovelife, which attempted to recast the group in a more contemporary image.
Shaking off the record store attendant’s rebuke, I took the record home and discovered a series of short, spiky songs brimming with frank recollections of a nightlife with friends that teems with the possibilities of bad sex and great sex recounted from a distinctly female voice. It was an exciting sound I was just starting to relate to. Revisiting the album this past week, I’m stunned by how fresh it still sounds. But when I was closer to Rory Gilmore’s age, I was just beginning to understand the frisson of sharing closed quarters with a boy you probably shouldn’t be with.
I wonder if the record store clerk and other folks of his station didn’t like Elastica because they knew the band ripped off bands like the Stranglers and Wire, the latter a lauded post-punk band then still pretty obscure in the states. I’d come to discover that the band lifted a riff from the Stranglers’ “No More Heroes” for “Waking Up” and Wire’s “Three Girl Rhumba” for “Connection,” among others.
Frankly, I don’t care. Britpop could be defined as a post-modern response to Great Britian’s pop legacy. A band like Blur pilfered from a variety of influences, eventually branching out to American indie rock. Albarn was particularly influenced by Pavement, whose frontman Stephen Malkmus apparently hooked up with Frischmann at some point. A former acquaintance once referred to Malkmus as indie rock’s Peter Fonda. I only abide by this statement as a counter to Love’s pronouncement that Malkmus was indie rock’s Grace Kelly, which sounds great but makes little sense. However, I do think it’s interesting that Frischmann mentions the actor in “Car Song.” I interpret Malkmus responding to the Anglo interest with “We Dance,” a song that sounds like Suede’s Brett Anderson could have sung it.
Oasis swung for the masses with the Beatles, a safe move because everyone steal from them. Elastica appropriated punk’s terse songcraft and tinny production and was penalized for essentially having the same taste as discerning record store clerks. But if you take out the riff to “Connection,” you still have a good song with smart, funny lyrics. If you take all the reference in “Don’t Look Back In Anger” or “Wonderwall,” you don’t have much else left. This isn’t to say that the members of Wire shouldn’t have been compensated. Just as I think the Rolling Stones deserved to collect every penny from the Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony,” which sampled a classical arrangement of “The Last Time,” so do I think Wire and the Stranglers deserved credit. I just think, in the name of credibility, swiping from Wire is hardly a big deal. Bands with dudes in them do it all the time.
I also think my indifference toward Elastica’s musical plagiarism stems from the ubiquitous presence sampling has in my listening practices. I grew up on hip hop and probably justify the band’s decisions through that lens. Thus I’m also interested in Frischmann’s connection to former roommate Maya Arulpragasm, who would later become M.I.A. Then a filmmaker, Arulpragasm created the cover art for The Menace and directed the music video for “Mad Dog God Dam.”
(BTW, Robert Christgau agrees with me about The Menace being underrated. This is one of the few times we’ve agreed on anything. Even when we have, as with Sleater-Kinney’s output, he fixates on sex and Corin Tucker’s voice as the manifestation of the female orgasm.)
Arulpragasm would later vacation with Frischmann and write “Galang,” the song which catapulted her to pop stardom. If that’s the legacy Frischmann’s known for as she continues to retreat from public life, that’s a nice consolation prize. But I do hope people remember her band’s own limited output, regardless of its source material.
I don’t know what it’s like where you live, but it’s been cooling off and getting overcast in Austin as we head into the fall. I for one, could not be happier. We’ve had months of three-digit temperatures, the heat forming itself into my nifty foot tan and bleaching the plush Garfield on my car window. I celebrated by frequenting Cheapo Discs after work, adding some key titles from Daft Punk, Ariel Pink, Kate Bush, and Black Dice to my collection, along with snagging Air’s 10,000 Hz Legend, one of the funniest albums by a French pop group that boasts one of the prettiest songs Beck ever recorded (“Vagabond”) and my favorite song by the Gallic duo (“Radio #1”).
The electrically depressive weather and investment in discarding and collecting our culture’s trash recalls the late Derek Jarman’s Jubilee, a movie I watched last night with Kristen and Curran (we missed Susan, who also usually watches movies with us). I credit Curran, a future queer punk PhD, for introducing me to the movie in the first place and can’t wait to read about it in his dissertation. Released in 1977, it was Jarman’s second movie, and my first viewing of his feature work. I had a passing familiarity of Jarman, as he also made music videos for acts like Suede, The Smiths, and The Pet Shop Boys. For example:
So, I kinda can’t get over Jubilee. It was kind of amazing, but I don’t think I have a real handle on its plot. I can tell you these things. Queen Elizabeth I is transported to 1977 England, around the time of Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee and the country’s considerable economic downturn. From there, the movie preoccupies itself with mixed-gender group of punks linked in varying degrees to one another. They’re played by real British punks of the era (Jordan, Adam Ant, Toyah Wilcox), real queer British punks of the era (Linda Spurrier, Ian Charleson), and one quintessential American queer punk icon (the inimitable Wayne/Jayne County). They live in squalor. They steal cars. They play board games. They quote from historical tomes. They attempt to have pop careers, if only to destroy The Top of the Pops. They love each other, sometimes; that is, when they aren’t killing or getting killed by police.
As a document of its era, the movie is pretty significant. Brian Eno composed the score. Siouxsie and The Banshees appear on the telly. Adam and the Ants audition for a record company. While a bunch of kids attend a disco orgy, The Slits smash up a car. And Jayne County sings to herself in one amazing green room.
And yet it had a theatrical release in the UK, which I can’t imagine how that happened but can fully believe people’s non-plussed response to it. I mean, how do you process the scene where Amyl Nitrate (Jordan) performs her pop “hit” “Rule Britannia” for record mogul/madman Borgia Ginz, played by the phenomenal Orlando?
That said, I found the movie constructively, at times rapturously, difficult. How else to feel but to gape at all of the strong female punks, many of whom abide by defiantly non-normative beauty standards who take pride in their pock marks, acne, fleshy thighs, and cellulite dimples? Or Adam Ant’s feminine beauty? Or the sculpted, smoothed, Greco-Roman-bodied men who one imagines Jarman cast with a loving eye? Or the romantic impulses of the mixed-gender queer trio — two of whom identify each other as brothers? Or the upsetting deaths of the movie’s queer characters (including a particularly brutal, seemingly pointless murder of County — talk about killing your idols!)? Or the blinding whiteness, which, by absence, brings to mind England’s issues with nationalist, segregational racial politics? Or the fast-and-loose timeline? Or the preoccupation with classic art and literature amid and outside London’s urban decay? Or queering up the interactions in such a way so as to trigger punk’s oft-obscured homophobia (apparently Sex proprietrix/designer Vivienne Westwood issued a homophobic missive in response to the movie).
But if punk taught us anything, messy can be beautiful, good, and constructive. This is a movie that revels in this idea. Do make time for it. Just presume that you’ll need to see it twice.