“PLAY FROM YOUR FUCKING HEART!”

The 1990s were a strange time for pop music. Initially wonderful but, ultimately, very sad and with repercussions that have echoed down the years to today. The stuff that seeped through from the late ’80s into the early years of the decade was so exciting: sublime and subversive, beautifully melodic but politically charged. It felt like such an exhilarating time to be young and surrounded by the romance and energy of great music. Some of my favourite memories from the time include: getting my head blown off by The House of Love live at a tiny Essex nightclub called The Pink Toothbrush in 1988; having my doors of perception kicked off their hinges and the parameters of what I wanted out of life changed forever by The Stone Roses at the Alexander Palace in North London in 1989 and again at Spike Island in 1990; playing the small pile of CDs I owned in my first share-flat when I was 17 over and over – Public Enemy’s first few albums, Ice Cube’s The Predator, The Clash’s first album and London Calling; the brilliant, London punk house mentalism of Flowered Up’s  first single, It’s On and the in-your-face joy of their show at Shoreditch Town Hall; being introduced to the writing of William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Albert Camus via quotes on Manic Street Preachers’ life-changing run of confrontational early singles; hearing Happy Mondays’ Squirrel & G-Man album for the first time and realising that punk was far more than a long-dead fashion; Suede’s sensational ‘fuck you’ performance of Animal Nitrate on the Brits; lying on the bed in my share house in Brixton listening to their Dog Man Star album on repeat for hours; being at The Gardening Club in Covent Garden one Thursday night and the DJ ending a night of pounding, exhilarating house music with Shakespeare’s Sister’s Stay With Me; Roger Sanchez building his set at Space in Ibiza to a frantic finale then dropping Edie Brickell and The New Bohemians’ What I Am. Admittedly, refreshments had been taken that night/morning, but it felt as though the sky had cracked open, ideas were everywhere and that all the world’s problems could be solved through love and music. It seems utterly daft now but I remember thinking that if he could play that tune there and then, anything was possible.

In 1994 Oasis released their debut single, Supersonic. The arrogance and anarchy of their debut TV performance, on The Word, felt like my generation’s Sex Pistols moment. Soon after came the album Definitely Maybe which, among the attitude and clichés , included two indisputable stone cold classics. The first time I heard Live Forever, Noel Gallagher’s lyrics about his mum genuinely made me cry; and the guitar sound of Slide Away combined with Liam Gallagher’s voice created a beautiful melancholy which made my soul ache and feel regret for mistakes and I hadn’t even made yet. At that moment, it felt like British music was about to rip the world a new one and rebuild it from the ground up. A few years earlier, aged 17, I’d read Jon Savage’s seminal and inspirational history of punk music, roots and culture, England’s Dreaming. In the early ’90s it felt momentarily as though my generation was creating its own similarly powerful legacy.

But sadly this was a mirage, the beginning of the end. It wasn’t long before all the art and politics had been sucked out of music and all that was left was the pitiful sight of an idiotic Spice Girl in a Union Jack dress, some rubbish bandwagon-jumping wannabe-Britpop chancers and a grim cocktail of depressing sexism, cheap nationalism and apolitical idiocy. By the time Oasis and Blur fought it out for the number one spot in 1995, with two of the most banal songs of the entire decade, that period where it felt as though pop music was the powerful engine for social change was well and truly over.

While I loved Oasis dearly at the time, quality control was a major issue right from the start and, album-on-album, they were harsh subjects to the law of diminishing returns. Songs like Wonderwall had genius singalong melodies but no human insight at their core. Noel was smart and witty in interviews but his lyrics were a combination of cliches and nonsense. And, sadly, the third album was all coked-up misplaced over-confidence – the sound of a band desperately scraping the bottom of the ideas barrel. “Will this do?” they seemed to be saying between toots on the white lines that wiped out the one thing that made them great in the first place: the sense that they were for real. Paul Weller commented at the time that the album felt like that were “treading water” but he was being too kind. I listened to Be Here Now the other day and it was all empty bluster. The words of Macbeth came to mind:“A tale. Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury. Signifying nothing.”

In retrospect it seems as though the whole Britpop thing laid the path for the anodyne apolitical shit that passes for pop music these days. At the risk of sounding like a boring old tosser, I look at current artists like Mumford and Sons, Ed Sheeran and George Ezra and wonder what the fuck happened. The opening ‘REVOLUTION! REVOLUTION! REVOLUTION!’ Public Enemy sample on Manic Street Preachers’ Motown Junk; the bollock-tingling, keyboard-pounding intro to Happy Mondays’ 24 Hour Party People; Leftfield and Lydon’s blistering Open Up; the skinny Sinead O’ Connor strumming an acoustic guitar and singing Black Boys On Mopeds; the confrontational rap explosion of PE, NWA, Ice-T and so on. It all seemed to be the soundtrack to monumental social change, but it all came to nothing. When I turn on the radio today and hear Olly Murrs, One Direction, Kasabian, Scouting For Girls and Take That, when I read about Ed Sheeran dedicating a song to David Cameron, I think back to that first Oasis performance on The Word and remember the infamous words of Johnny Rotten at the Sex Pistols’ final gig, at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco: “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”

Now, I know it’s not all doom and gloom. I’ve loved plenty of bands and artists in the last few years, including The XX, MIA, Fat White Family, Sleaford Mods, Plan B, James Blake and FK Twigs to name a few. But they never seem to really break through, while inoffensive, vanilla acts become enormous. The sense of injustice makes me think back to the ’90s again and reflect on the fate of one of my favourite bands of the era. Taking inspiration from The Small Faces, The Clash and The Smiths, Gene created a sublime blend of poetic lyricism and lush melodies. Forever unfairly written off as a Smiths tribute act by people too lazy to listen closely, they felt to me more like the carriers of The House of Love’s torch of desperate intensity. Their grand dramatisation of everyday life combined their influences to create a body of work that was singularly tender and moving. Sadly, Gene had the misfortune to come along at exactly the wrong time, in ’94, just as lad rock was kicking in, so their intelligence and craft was out of step with the narrow, one dimensional tastes of the times. But, to this day, their debut album remains a monument to truth and beauty, a passionate, awe-inspiring piece that stands head and shoulders above almost everything else from the era. Listen to the title track, above, with headphones and if you’re not deeply moved I suggest you get your doctor to check for a pulse.

Tragically under-rated and under-valued, Gene split up in 2004 after four albums. The singer, Martin Rossiter, did various jobs outside of music before becoming a music teacher. Last year he released a gorgeous and brilliant solo album which included the best song about (disappointing) fathers and sons ever written, Three Points On a Compass and demonstrated that he has more soul in his little finger than  a stadium full of X Factor finalists and more creative ambition than Adele, George Ezra and Sam Smith put together. But right now, as in the mid to late 90s, musicians seem scared and unambitious, just happy to write a sappy love song that can be go on to be the soundtrack of a car ad and make them some money. Urgh. Whenever I pick up a copy of Q magazine and see the latest boring chart drone being celebrated, it makes me fantasise about a world where every teenager is required by law to spend their 14th birthday listening to Spacemen 3’s Revolution over and over on repeat, for 24 hours. As a great man once said, “PLAY FROM YOUR FUCKING HEART!”

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About antmelder
Creative Partner at DDB Sydney; passionate vegetarian; lover of books, boxing and Bruce Springsteen.

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