Back when NME used to leave newspaper print on your fingers, and “Melody Maker” wasn’t the name of an iPhone app, Britain rocked to the sound of one of the last genuine musical movements.
Jealous of being locked out of the older scene – where a single £15 pill would last all weekend – the kids of the 90s picked up their guitars and generated years of a very British music revolution. Call it ‘Britpop’ or ‘indie’, it was the coming together of northern lads borrowing from Merseybeat and southerners taking on the Mod sound, in a gear-shift in cultural attitudes and behaviour. It wasn’t without its low points (ahem, cough, Kula Shaker, aichooo), nor did it end when it should have done (go away, Silver Sun), but don’t we all want to compartmentalise our youth into little packages? Course we do.
And here’s the thing: most retrospectives will stuff their pages chocka with the Union Flag plus Gallagher combo, plastering the memories with posters of blokes and their outgrown fringes. Despite the best efforts of many female-fronted and all female-bands (from Sneaker Pimps through to Lush), the majority male bias to the scene remains the more profitable to recall.
This is a shame, not least because any broadbrush overview ignores the very specific reasons why Britpop was unlike any other modern musical moment. (Why are all contemporary females in pop soloists, whilst men make up the groups? Wasn’t always ever thus…)
Louise Wener’s Sleeper (as they were always called, especially in Select), did not use femininity as a leitmotiv, though female twists to the narrative did appear throughout their time bothering in the charts. It was Wener, to be fair, who sold the band for what they were. Her voice – with the fragile break of Tracy Thorn about it – and indie-chic look (dividing schoolboys between her and fellow pop Louise Nerding from Eternal) were vital pieces in the Sleeper jigsaw. Yes, they had more radio-friendly melodies than many of the other girl-led bands (Elastica, for example, tended to stay away from mainstream radio stations), but that is by no means a crime. Heck, it got Garbage through two albums before the scene finally ended its final come down.
Sleeper stand up today to much critical scrutiny. This is uncommon – Lush turned out too many middling fillers for my liking, and Echobelly had a firework-like career (though check out “Djinn”, if you can, cracking late-late-late-career single). Sleeper have a constituency and maturity which belies the mainstream, readily available nature of their output.
There’s plenty of songs I could highlight, but I’ll go for the couple to which I return the most. “Inbetweener” – the name living on in cult Channel 4 sitcom-land, though not the same meaning – and “She’s a Good Girl”. I hope the unitiated enjoy.