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.
Alyx, seriously? Today’s post is about an album cover that features the women of Ladytron in bathing suits? Pin-ups for folks who wear cardigans, make library puns, and like skinny girls? Great. I’ll go back to poring over my Tegan and Sarah albums. They look similarly gamine and like streaky make-up but aren’t scantily clad in repose on the grass being shot from above like an American Apparel ad. You keep fighting that fight.
I bring up the cover of Ladytron’s 2003 mix CD entitled Softcore Jukebox for these reasons:
1) The cover is eye-catching, though obviously in a problematic way. It objectifies vocalists Helen Marnie and Mira Aroyo, respectively wearing a sky blue tank and shiny black skull string bikini that I hope came from their own closets (but probably didn’t — do people swim in Liverpool?). In addition, it doesn’t even show the rest of the band, which is also comprised of dudes Reuben Wu and Daniel Hunt.
2) The title seems leering and provocative, but is also jibberish. What the eff is a “softcore jukebox”? Is it different from a “hardcore jukebox” in that it works with a crotch patch and doesn’t do penetration? Or would a cadre of queercore jukeboxes have to create a scene for themselves in response to the homophobic, homoerotic hardcore jukebox scene?
3) The cover is a modest revision of Roxy Music’s Country Life cover, which features Amazonian models in see-through underwear boasting serious 70s ladygarden. Country Life was so controversial upon its release that a revised cover had to be printed with the women taken out of the image.
4) Apparently a German artist named Pia Dehne reconfigured Country Life to address the gendered aspects of camouflage and mimicry.
5) Softcore Jukebox came out during a wave of mix CDs that featured dance songs with electronic instrumentation alongside rockier fare. Critics like citing Kings of Convenience leader Erlend Øye‘s DJ-Kicks compilation, but he was hardly the first to do this, as compilations like the Back to Mine series suggest. Hell, he wasn’t even the first person to make a DJ-Kicks compilation. I’d also like to put in a plug for Annie’s DJ-Kicks compilation, which features ESG’s “My Love For You.” Hot Chip’s gets my approval as well, along with any mix that has songs from both New Order and Positive K.
6) A cover that references an iconic album cover seems relevant, especially because the women in the band are the cover subjects and said band created a mix CD of pre-existing dance songs. Seems camouflage and mimicry may apply here, along with reference. This might be characteristic of the band. After all, Ladytron didn’t just swipe the cover of Country Life for their mix CD. They took their name from a Roxy Music song.
Much of my interest in Ladytron is in Marnie and Aroyo. I like how they try to sound like robots (or ladytrons), mimicking their coldness and just-out-of-date technological make-up while singing songs about the inherent datedness and fickleness of fashion, beauty, and youth (see: “Seventeen,” “Blue Jeans,” and “Beauty No. 2”). This juxtaposes nicely with the band’s reliance on electronic instrumentation.
In their later work — particularly the brooding Witching Hour — more traditionally rock instrumentation like electric guitars spike up their sound on songs like “amTV,” suggesting that Bauhaus and Siouxsie and the Banshees were as much of an influence on the band as Kraftwerk. Also, I can’t help but point out that TV on the Radio’s “Wolf Like Me” features a fuzzed-out bass line very similar to Ladytron’s “International Dateline,” though my hunch is that both bands probably got it from Bauhaus.
This brings me to the mix CD itself, which smashes dance music and rock music against one another, suggesting the band’s influences and approaches. It also unearths a long-obscured truth: dance music has always co-mingled with rock and, later, hip hop. And I’m not talking about The Rolling Stones’ “Miss You,” as their interrelation has a much deeper, storied history. I always hate it when detractors say things like “not another synth pop track” or “I hate disco,” as if rock music and its studied authenticity doesn’t rely on rhythm sections and repetitive passages of catchy melodies too. As if rock is about the truth and dance music is just piffle. C’mon now.
As for the album’s content? Meh. Some songs work better than others, and some of it is fairly forgettable. Oddly enough, the most effective offerings for me are the rock songs that I didn’t know you could dance to. I’ll stand by The Fall, Wire, Shocking Blue, and Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra’s classic “Some Velvet Morning,” which is the compilation’s haunting closer. I already knew you could dance to !!!, Fannypack, and Cristina, so they get a pass. You can kind of jig to My Bloody Valentine’s “Soon,” the intro from which Garbage stole for “My Lover’s Box.” I liked that I also like Ladytron’s cover of Tweet’s “Oops (Oh My)” — an ode to masturbation, a premonition for me that Tweet and producer Missy Elliott might be more than friends, Missy’s first “ping!” on my gaydar, and a cherished memory as the “poem” one of my classmates read aloud with deadpan faux seriousness in a college English class. I like the original much more, but I appreciate the band’s effort to suggest that hip hop and R&B influence them. Let’s listen and compare, shall we?
Thus the cover, like song selection and reinterpretation, becomes a messy process for both band and listener that is guaranteed to leave grass stains.