1992 was something of a confusing year. A new kind of stoned punk called Grunge had swept through the country thanks to the band Nirvana performing on an episode of The Word. 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' was a huge single, its dirty, fuzzy, stop-start, quiet bit-loud bit hitting something of a chord with the bored middle class students of Britain. It was, and is, a perfect 45 to go mental to. It being played would create minor uproar and episodes of 'moshing' in The Fridge. One time a short lad called Steve Barlow was thrown from one end of the dance floor to the waiting arms of a group on the other end, his smile and fist pumping seemingly a signal of his enjoyment of being lobbed around. Oddly, the song whipped up a slightly knuckle dragging machismo that the feminist lyrics where desperate to avoid.
The politics and message of Grunge may have been valuable and important but were all but missed by the youth of Shrewsbury. Things were not helped by the muddled iconory of a certain Kurt Cobain. After breaking out the indie ghetto and finally having his voice heard, he found he had nothing to say. Whilst pushing himself to the limits of despair by trying to prove how 'punk' he was, Cobain appeared to forget the message and power of punk that got him into music in the first place. With a whole youth movement at his feet, the only communications being received by the troops on the ground were that long hair, crappy old jumpers with holes in and getting pissed by drinking out of large bottles was cool. Oh, and to be nice to women. Which, to be fair, was something we worked out for ourselves. In England Grunge was little more than an aesthetic and a chance for the Julian’s and Jemima’s of the world to wear Doctor Martens and tippex little flowers next to the band names on their Sixth form folders. It’s hard to speculate what the point of uprising an army that could barely get out of bed, and when it did just shrugged its shoulders and complained about how misunderstood they were. After a couple of O.D.'s and near misses, Cobain (making more money than he could spend and heavily addicted to smack) shot his brains out with a shot gun. The reaction from The Fridge? To insist the DJ play 'Bullet in the Head' by Rage Against The Machine.
Ah, Rage Against The Machine. Over in England the youth had somewhere along the line had discovered being pious little pillocks and holier than thou pseudo-hippies. The Levellers, a Brighton band old enough to know better, had introduced traveller chic to the Polytechnics and sixth forms of the land. Without warning or reason, all of a sudden dressing like a cross between a tramp and a Dickensian tinker with a ratty looking dog on a lead made of old rope was the height of fashion. Levellers fans frowned upon 'the state' and 'the man' and would for no reason burst into long, tedious lectures about how having a job meant you where part of 'the system' and part of the problem. All this whilst dressed in 'ethnic' clobber charged at three times higher than the going rate and bought with daddy’s dollar. Luckily, these obnoxious little sods made themselves easily identifiable by wearing shitty little beaded beanie hats and braving the storms of Blighty in Moroccan peasant gear. The twats.
Meanwhile, inbetween snogging girls in stripy tights with mouths (which spouting half arsed political views that I nodded along to knowingly) tasted of cider and black and half heartedly revising for my GCSE's, I was discovering new music in the most unlikely of places. A character called Mike Dixon in Brookside was briefly a beacon of musical integrity. In one episode he wore a t-shirt declaring the band name 'Rain'. The next day I bought the 7" of 'Taste of Rain' which rather excitingly came in a sleeve depicting a woman with a face painted blue blowing smoke out of her mouth. Even more thrillingly the 45 was pressed on clear vinyl, leading to a fair few afternoons looking through different angles of my bedroom through the see-through grooves. 'Taste of Rain' came with a gem of a B-side called 'Laughing Man' (I rather hope its named after the JD Salinger story, but after reading the legend 'To women all over the world-we would!' in the sleeve credits, its possible this is not the case), a moody, lamenting ballad about growing old and growing up which weighs itself down in its own sadness and manages to suppress the sense of hope that tries to warm its way through the song. I would listen to it over and over again, laid on my bed staring at the ceiling. That sounds faintly stupid in print, but it really is that kind of song.
Around the same time, I accidentally discovered C86 a few years after its demise and a few years too early to appreciate it properly. 1986 saw a minor movement named after the release of the NME’s legendary C86 cassette tape. Young music fans, bored with the faux glamour say-nothing stylised fuckwits typified by bores like Duran Duran and Wham! Et al, decided to form their own bands and write their own songs. With a Tory assisted 3 million people unemployed, there was plenty of time to practice. But what to do about a chart filled with synthesised poseurs and the unsympathetic ears of Stock, Aitken and Waterman? Easy. Beg, steal, and borrow the cash to release the record yourselves. Labels like Glasgow's Postcard records and Bristol’s Sarah records, released limited runs (usually between 50-100) of brilliantly catchy, cheaply recorded 7” singles.
All the bands and records I got into at the beginning were not 'indie' after all. With Kingmaker and Jesus Jones's labels (Chrysalis and Food respectively) were shoot offs of E.M.I while even the Ned's had signed on the dotted line to Sony. Indie had started off being short for Independent, records independently written, recorded, released and distributed without the hand of major labels. Now it was nothing short of a catch all term for bands with loud guitars and loud fringes. It has even turned into something of a lifestyle choice "See him? He's a bit indie."
The early, true indie records are full of wit, heart, and humour, with a knowing eye towards socialism and a die hard, almost punk, DIY ethic, where records not just to play, but to pull to your chest like badge of honour. At last, here were records you could actually LOVE. Take, for example, Velocity Girl by Primal Scream. Long before their, strutty, stones-y riffing incarnation, they released a single of such pure, sugar rushing perfection; it was almost instantly stolen by Stone Roses for Made of Stone. Almost no-one bought it, but those who did were smitten. Thus, the indie cult of cult over cash, heart over chart ethos was born.
One evening, probably outing of my homework, I found an advertisement in the back of the NME offering free records. This being akin to offering an alcoholic free drink, I sent of my large, stamped, addressed envelope poste haste. What came back was like a dream come true. Free 7" singles and a fanzine. The records had come from a label called Ambition from Brighton and had obviously at one point trying to be the next Sarah or Postcard but didn’t make it and got so sick of having unsold stock growing ever dustier under their beds they decided to give them away for free in the pages of the NME. I was a glad recipient, particularly with a 45 called 'Warm Around You' by a band called Girl of my Best Friend. Little is known about the band, but the single is just magic. A tender, dreamy love song that comes across as almost painfully shy. Amongst a swooning cloud of guitars, the song tells a tale of a girl who dream lover deserts her and comes to "This place to end it all" only for the lover to turn up again. The fade out of "Goodbye, Goodbye" is a chilling one. It’s odd how records stick to your heart. I’ve been playing this seemingly unwanted and unloved record for nearly twenty years. And all for the price of a stamp.
The great beauty of falling in love with pop music is it can come from the unlikeliest source. A snatch of sound half heard on the radio, leading to days of humming the only four bars of music you can remember and trying to recall even a single line if lyric so you can track the said song down. This can be an infuriating practise and can go on for years. Decades even. There's a song I first heard in the Fridge about '92. I can hum part of the bridge and half a chorus in my head but could not sing it to you. The only lyric I could pin to it (Unbelievable smile? Style?) turned about to be wrong. I thought it was Lloyd Cole and I was wrong about that too. If you talk to anyone who has ever worked in a record shop, they will tell you tales about customers coming up to the counter and humming four bars of a song, or explaining about 'the words are about a boat, or maybe a bike' and expecting the poor member of staff to identify the song in an instant.
I think sometimes the song is best left in your head anyway. It's more romantic there, and more times than not, after finally tracking down the song you find it’s either totally different to what you remember or not half as good. The fruit you cannot pick is often the tastiest.
All you have to do is wait around anyway, and music will come into your life by a myriad of ways. One of the best discoveries I’ve ever made is a song called 'Dark of my Moon' by Gene Clark. A demo (A demo!) recorded on an eight track is one of those songs that once heard is never forgotten. The song is a gruff lament to a girl and the way she 'carries on', it's bare to the point of being naked and sounds like a raw nerve put on to compact disc. I lived inside the song for weeks and discovered the gem of genius on a C.D. cover mounted to a magazine.
One winter, a few days before Christmas, I was on a train to Manchester to see Spiritualized with my friend Tim. A bit bored and cold by the journey, we decided to swap Ipod's. I pressed shuffle and the first song that came out was just perfectly time. I don't know if you have ever heard 'A Distant Relation' by John Cooper Clarke, but it's a song that I highly recommend giving a spin somewhere in the Yuletide.
I hate Christmas. The forced jollity, the constant concrete creep of commercialism. I hate the way people bang on about Xmas food and how good it is, despite the fact they only seem to eat it once a year. A dislike the fact that my only two retreats from life, record shops and public houses, are always filled with confused people who only enter them around Xmas and don't know what they are doing. Get out of my way you sods.
But this song, played through earphones on a cold train passing through the snowy North, put it all in perspective. A down to earth, common as muck ode to family life that’s cuts through the cynicism like a knife and goes straight to the heart. "People who care/this is a family affair/family snap shots/we're in it/look there!/we break ornaments/and get them repaired/this is a family affair"
As soon as my feet hit Platform 4 of Piccadilly Station, I phoned my mum to tell her I missed her. It’s that kind of song.
I've discovered a huge amount of music through being made compilation cassettes, but for some reason the only stuff I’ve really taken to my heart have been found at total random. Maybe compilations try to hard to get your attention, like a drunk at a party, and you end up wanting to talk to the quiet one you can't quite place in the corner. Maybe I’m too romantic about all this. Who knows?
But just around the corner, in the most unlikeliest of place, a record waited for me. A record that would change my life forever.