1 The Verve – Bitter Sweet Symphony
2 The Levellers – Dog Train
3 James – Tomorrow
4 Supergrass – Richard III
5 Echo And The Bunnymen – Nothing Lasts Forever
6 Depeche Mode – Barrel Of A Gun
7 Spiritualized – Electricity
8 Monaco – Blue
9 Republica – Ready To Go
10 Manic Street Preachers – Australia
11 Blur – You’re So Great
12 Kenickie – Acetone
13 Bjork – Joga
14 Pet Shop Boys – Somewhere
15 Primal Scream – Kowalski
16 The Chemical Brothers – The Private Psychedelic Reel
17 Radiohead – Exit Music (For A Film)
1 Manic Street Preachers – Motorcycle Emptiness (Stealth Sonic Orchestra Remix)
2 Bjork – Bachelorette
3 Blur – On Your Own
4 The Levellers – Celebrate
5 The Verve – Lucky Man
6 Supergrass – Cheapskate
7 Radiohead – Electioneering
8 James – Go To The Bank
9 Kenickie – Classy
10 Primal Scream – Motorhead
11 The Prodigy – Fuel My Fire
12 Dario G – Sunchyme
13 Alisha’s Attic – The Air We Breathe
14 Oasis – All Around The World
15 Embrace – All You Good Good People
16 2K – Fuck The Millennium
So, 16 years and 580 songs kick off with perhaps the most familiar of all of them. ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ is a song that’s become a little blunted in time with over-exposure – through that video and being licensed everywhere against the band’s wishes – but I remember the first time I heard it, on the top 40 countdown, entering the charts at number two, and hearing that now-famous intro. Here it appears in its extended version, all eight minutes of it. The only real difference with this version is the section in the middle which emphasises just how much the Verve pilfered from the Andrew Loog Oldham’s version of ‘The Last Time’ by the Rolling Stones, and why, in hindsight, it’s way more of a Jagger/Richards song than it appeared at first glance – and in fact, makes it as much of a rip-off as the song that stopped it from getting to number one, the Police-sampling ‘I’ll Be Missing You’ by Puff Daddy. But for a good few years, it was my favourite song ever, ever, ever.
This disc does sound very, very 90s in places, and at no greater point than ‘Ready To Go’ by Republica. I loved this when it came out, I’m a bit ashamed to say. Another song that’s been licensed to death. And the industrial grind of Depeche Mode’s ‘Barrel Of A Gun’ – their first release after Dave Gahan’s near-death-by-speedballing incident – is a little undermined by a programmed drumbeat that sounds like it could have come off any Backstreet Boys or ‘N Sync song of the era. And the Pet Shop Boys covering doing a Hi-NRG gay disco version of ‘Somewhere’ from West Side Story – I’m not quite sure what they were thinking there, nor do I know what I was thinking including it here (I don’t think I’d ever heard the original at that point). Monaco was Peter Hook’s side project during New Order’s eight-year hiatus – although because his hired hand singer sounded exactly like Barney Sumner, it felt like a New Order album in all but name. Music For Pleasure wasn’t a terrible album, but I made a bad pick with ‘Blue’, I think chosen because it was quite short. And the appearance of Kenickie’s ‘Acetone’ is a reminder that Lauren Laverne once had a music career before becoming a DJ/TV presenter/all-round-good-media-egg. Kenickie’s debut album At The Club is probably the album I associate most powerfully with the summer of ’97 – and everyone remembers the summer you were 18. However, ‘Acetone’ was the album’s closing ballad, totally unrepresentative of what came before it, and in hindsight, I wish I’d picked the timeless, peerless ‘Come Out 2Nite’ (however there is a better pick on disc two, out next week).
Other strong memories of the year are provoked by the Manics’ ‘Australia’, the final single from their mega-selling Everything Must Go album – the lyrics reflecting the time when I realised that all of a sudden the world could become my oyster, but I still didn’t have the means to explore it. Sixteen years later, I’ve still never been to Australia, though my first year working at summer camp in America would be just 12 months away. The song now? Meh. Not one of the Manics’ finest. And the so-so Echo & The Bunnymen track ‘Nothing Lasts Forever’, their first single in nine years, was the first song on my soundtracks to directly refer to getting older. It would not be the last.
So what do I still love here? Against all the odds, the song I find myself humming after listening to it back is ‘Dog Train’, by Brighton ex-crusties The Levellers. Parent album Mouth To Mouth was their last commercial success before fading into a sort of obscurity – it was the one with ‘What A Beautiful Day’ on it – but changing musical fashions be damned, I still really like this. The James album Whiplash was my introduction to James – half-a-dozen years too late, my sister would say – and ‘Tomorrow’ was its stunning lead-off track. Spiritualized and Blur released what many (though not me) consider to be their strongest albums in 1997, and they would be the two bands that would have the longevity to appear both here and on my 2012 CDs.
Bjork and Primal Scream are still going too, and their 1997 albums would be my first real dips into the avant-garde. If real pop genius is to mix the really popular with the really weird, then Primal Scream getting the dub-inflected dirge of ‘Kowalski’ to number eight in the charts is right up there (though Kate Moss’ appearance in the promo video probably helped a bit). ‘Kowalski’ is the first of a trio of belters to end this disc. Second is the Chemical Brothers’ nine-minute tour de force ‘The Private Psychedelic Reel’. Although the big beat scene came and went pretty quickly, this was unquestionably their finest moment. And rounding off disc one, we have Radiohead’s ‘Exit Music (For A Film)’, originally written as the end-credits music for Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo & Juliet and one of the high points of OK Computer, one of the most recent albums to still regularly get voted towards the top of best-album-ever lists. So my music tastes weren’t completely awry. But I was 18, after all.
I did know exactly what I was getting myself into when I started this blog, but there’ll be times in the course of this year when I’m just at a loss to explain some of the choices.
Listening to disc 2 is one of those times. To be honest, it feels like a completely different person put together this compilation.
Still, shall we start with the good stuff? This disc certainly did. The remix of ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’ by the Manics opens proceedings. This was actually the first version of the song I heard – the 1992 original not registering with me at the time – but re-arranged for a synthesised orchestra (by Apollo 440, who would make their own mark on the charts in the late ’90s) is surprisingly touching, and doesn’t really fall down that much compared to the original, which is probably now the Richey Edwards-era Manics’ signature tune. It was a B-side to ‘Australia’ which featured on disc one – but when I say B-side, remember this was the era of record companies releasing multiple CDs for singles so you had to purchase them all to get the different discs – this record company greed was one direct cause of the downloading revolution that was about to explode. That’s something that should be remembered in the week that HMV – where much of the music contained here was purchased – went into administration.
And following that up, there’s no let-up on the beats and strings, with Bjork producing one of her very finest pieces. It hasn’t aged a day.
In the middle, there’s ‘Classy’, a far better indicator of the Kenickie sound than ‘Acetone’ on disc one. I still love it, and I don’t care who knows. Primal Scream’s cover of Motorhead’s own eponymous song begins with Bobby Gillespie singing the first verse through a Darth Vader mask and ends with an explosion and feedback. When I included A Place To Bury Strangers on my 2012 mix, I noted that more songs need to end with explosions.
Most of the first half here is not so much held back by bad music, but by bad choices – the songs here are pleasant enough but there are better examples of each artist’s work from the time. I loved Blur’s ‘On Your Own’ at the time, and still like it, but given that the self-titled album gave us the finest of Damon Albarn’s many ‘Ghost Town’ rewrites, ‘Death Of A Party’, I made a dodgy call. Likewise with Supergrass, whose ‘Cheapskate’ doesn’t match up to single ‘Sun Hits The Sky’, and Radiohead, whose ‘Electioneering’ is considered by many to be OK Computer’s weakest track. I remember having the choice to make when I put this together in 2000 – I would rather ‘Let Down’ was on this disc instead, but made a conscious decision to pick what I was playing on repeat when the album came out. Bah.
The same goes for the James’ ‘Go To The Bank’, a very good track and some sonic experimentation by their standards. But as time has gone on, the inconsequential-at-the-time album track near the end of Whiplash, ‘Homeboy’, has gone from nothing to being one of my all-time favourite songs even now. I’m at a bit of a loss to explain why, but it’s one of the few songs to never, ever get skipped when it comes on on iPod shuffle. Maybe this is one occasion where a song being left off a soundtrack did my love of it some good.
An overly-hyped album from the year was The Verve’s Urban Hymns, from which I include ‘Lucky Man’ here to add to ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ on disc 1. It’s a pleasant enough song, but it also sort-of signposts the exact moment when Richard Ashcroft started to move away from the druggy soundscapes of A Northern Soul – still a fine album – and into a domestic bliss that begat a deathly-dull solo career and the risible RPA & The United Nations Of Sound project. The year had a bit of aThe Prodigy album The Fat Of The Land is the one and only album that I ever queued outside a record store to buy at midnight on its release day (the long-defunct Sam Goody in Ashford, by the way). I was a bit disappointed by the album, truth be told, as I was a big fan of its predecessor – and on this compilation I picked the song that’s dated worst of all, the L7 cover ‘Fuel My Fire’ (featuring Saffron from Republica again! Could this track be any more 1997?). I think I chose it because it was short, unlike the far-superior ‘Narayan’ which is probably the only song in recorded history to be vastly improved by a vocal track from Kula Shaker’s Crispian Mills.
My only excuse for the tracks near the end is my age at the time, I’m afraid. Prior to my musical spending spree brought about by my nightclub job, I was a big fan of Alanis Morisette’s Jagged Little Pill album (as were 33 million others). That brand of AOR brought about an appreciation of the similarly mid-paced ‘Torn’ by Natalie Imbruglia and the poppier Alisha’s Attic. Listening to ‘Air We Breathe’ as I wrote this piece made me cringe all over. As did ‘Sunchyme’ by Dario G to a slightly lesser extent, though this reminds me of those long nights spent in Cales nightclub in Ashford which is where I first heard it.
My first love at the time was Britpop though, a genre that by 1997 was in the process of consuming itself whole, as evidenced by the presence of Oasis and Embrace’s two gargantuan, bloated singles. It’s hard to believe some of the fuss that surrounded the release of Be Here Now – well documented in David Cavanagh’s outstanding book on the rise and fall of Creation Records, highly recommended by myself – but boy, was August 21 an exciting day. I remember choosing to buy the album in Sainsbury’s, so to avoid the chances of accidentally listening to some of it ahead of time by going to a proper record shop. That’s how excited I was. I loved it when it first came out, playing it to death for about two months – until I suddenly started to realise it wasn’t all that. The complete opposite of a grower. ‘All Around The World’ summed it all up – nonsense lyrics, ‘na na na’ choruses, a couple of dozen guitar tracks, two key changes… and nine minutes. I’m sure if you listened hard enough, you could hear the band and everyone involved snorting lines of cocaine the length of the mixing desk. Someone, somewhere, thought it would be a good idea to release this as a single, with a suitably pompous video. Seriously, make it stop.
And the other effect of the bloat of Britpop was the rise of the landfill indie band, signed by major labels to capitalise on the success of other, more worthy guitar bands. Maybe it’s a little unfair to throw Embrace in that category, but there must definitely been a target market in mind when they released ‘All You Good Good People’ as the six-minute opening single from their debut album. It fitted the same template as ‘All Around The World’ – nonsense lyrics, big universal sentiments, and a lot of bloat. I haven’t even mentioned Danny McNamara’s voice. Urgh.
I think what we need after all that is something really preposterous to end things, and for that, we can rely on the KLF. I simply don’t have enough time to go into detail about the origins of this track – the track’s Wikipedia page is a delightful read, as is anything on Wikipedia related to the KLF – but basically, they came out of retirement for 23 minutes to perform this remix of their old hit ‘What Time Is Love?’ with chants of ‘fuck the millennium!’ over the top. Bear in mind that back then, pre-millennial tension was a very real thing, and my job at the time was actually directly related to the millennium bug (for NatWest Bank, auditing branches to see which equipment would work post-Y2K and what wouldn’t). The 14-minute single is edited down to a more modest 6:48 here. The second half of said 6:48 really does have to be heard to be believed – a rendition of the Naval hymn ‘Eternal Father, Strong To Save’ with Mark Manning (aka Zodiac Mindwarp) breathlessly narrating over the top. If the Titanic went down to the sound of the house band playing ‘Abide With Me’, this is what I sort-of pictured the end of the world sounding like if midnight on January 1, 2000 setting off global nuclear arsenals as some hysterical doom-mongers predicted. By the way, I still like the track, for my sins.
And that was my 1997 soundtrack. Thirty-one of the 33 tracks here were by British artists (the two inclusions of Icelander Bjork being the exceptions), showing just now narrow my musical world-view was at the time. It wouldn’t stay that way for long; the next year would see me jetting off for my first summer in America.