1 The Dandy Warhols – Be-In
2 Ian Brown – My Star
3 The Charlatans – Sproston Green
4 Asian Dub Foundation – Buzzin’
5 Lo-Fidelity Allstars feat Pigeonhed – Battleflag
6 Bis – Eurodisco
7 The Jesus And Mary Chain – Cracking Up
8 Bran Van 3000 – Drinking In LA
9 Pulp – This Is Hardcore
10 Massive Attack – Teardrop
11 Drugstore – El President
12 Babybird – If You’ll Be Mine
13 Kenickie – I Would Fix You
14 The Divine Comedy – I’ve Been To A Marvellous Party
15 Semisonic – Closing Time
16 Eels – Last Stop: This Town
17 Embrace – Now You’re Nobody
1 Primal Scream – If They Move, Kill ‘Em (MBV Arkestra)
2 The Jesus And Mary Chain – Virtually Unreal
3 The Boo Radleys – Free Huey
4 Ash – Jesus Says
5 Madonna – Ray Of Light
6 Asian Dub Foundation – Assassin
7 Ian Brown – Can’t See Me
8 PJ Harvey – A Perfect Day Elise
9 Gomez – Whippin’ Piccadilly
10 Embrace – Come Back To What You Know
11 The Smashing Pumpkins – Ava Adore
12 Shola Ama – Someday I’ll Find You
13 DJ Rap – Good To Be Alive
14 The Dandy Warhols – Every Day Should Be A Holiday
15 Belle And Sebastian – Lazy Line Painter Jane
16 Manic Street Preachers – Black Dog On My Shoulder
17 Pulp – Glory Days
18 The Divine Comedy – The Certainty Of Chance
‘Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end’
So it was time to expand my horizons a bit. Farewell, dreary Ashford, hello, bright shiny lights of America. I spent three months over the summer working at Camp Thunderbird, a YMCA camp on Lake Wylie, about 20 minutes from Charlotte, North Carolina. After experiencing a couple of weeks of severe homesickness and coming close to jacking it in, it turned into a summer that completely changed my outlook on life, and I spent much of the next seven years trying to recreate the rush of that first time leaving home – not that I ever could. You can only get that feeling once. But the Summer Camp Years of 1998 to 2005 were a hell of a fun ride.
And my musical tastes were shifting too. Rather than just pay attention to established bands, I started to take the reviews in the NME a bit more seriously (for better or worse) and take punts on albums by bands that I had never heard of but got good reviews. In the days before I would listen to lots of radio, and before Napster and Audiogalaxy made everyone a musical collector, I thought it was quite brave.
But the one musical discovery I made trumps them all, and doesn’t appear here: The Stone Roses. I remember where I picked up their debut album – in an HMV store in Norwich for £6.99. For months after, certainly through my time at camp, I was obsessed. I was too young to properly appreciate the Roses the first time round, but within weeks I had picked up all of their (admittedly limited) back catalogue and was spinning it relentlessly. I still remember their song ‘Elephant Stone’ being the first song I listened to after arriving in America – sitting alone for a few minutes in my temporary digs in Columbia University in New York City, before heading out to discover the bright lights of Times Square (and then catching the Greyhound down to Charlotte the next day). It’s a moment that I’ll always hold close to my heart and it’s a shame I didn’t include it here, but I made this compilation before I changed my own rule on only including music from the year of release. I did change my rule a few years later, so to include ‘wildcards’, but as it is, ‘Elephant Stone’ misses out.
But what you do get is Ian Brown’s debut solo single, ‘My Star’ – seeing this on MTV, and on a strange Top Of The Pops appearance with the percussionist playing on eggs instead of drums, prompted me to buy the charming-yet-amateur Unfinished Monkey Business album and then on to the delights of his former band. I’m not sure where I stand on the Stone Roses reunion by the way. Ten years ago I would have been all about it, but that ship has sailed – if they keep good on their promise to release new material though, good or bad, it would be impossible to ignore.
So given why I left off ‘Elephant Stone’, why did I include the US version of ‘Sproston Green’ by the Charlatans (originally released in 1990)? It was included on the Charlatans’ best-of compilation, Melting Pot, which came out shortly before heading off to America. It was this sort of twisted logic in the early soundtracks that led me to introduce the ‘wildcards’ idea in the first place. But anyway, ‘Sproston Green’ appears here because 1) it’s a brilliant, exhuberant track, and 2) I listened to it on the morning that I took in my first intake of summer camp kids, on the porch of cabin 8 at Camp Thunderbird. For some reason, it became a tradition of mine to play ‘Sproston Green’ on every opening day of a session at whatever summer camp I worked at for the next seven years.
Just before ‘My Star’, we have the first-ever American band making its appearance on my soundtracks. Given just how rich my pickings from the US have been since, it’s a sort-of shame it’s the Dandy Warhols, but for a few short years I thought they were very cool indeed, and ‘Be-In’, with that interminable intro and single-chord drone, makes for the perfect first track. Like Mark Everett of Eels, whose ‘Last Stop: This Town’ appears here, they seemed to be artists appreciated more in England than in their home country. The only American band on this disc are Semisonic – a band known for one song and one song only*. ‘Closing Time’ was absolutely all over US radio in 1998 and didn’t really leave for many years after. It’s definitely one of those tracks that have become weary through over-familiarity, but tie it in with the memories of that summer (and subsequent summers working at camp, where it has become something of a closing-campfire staple), it’s made it hard to dislike. North America also gets representation here via Montreal’s Bran Van 3000 – another track that MTV really liked but didn’t get particularly wide coverage in the UK until it featured in a beer advert a year later. (MTV – another growing influence in my musical tastes – would also help me discover the Lo-Fidelity Allstars’ ‘Battleflag’ and Bis’ ‘Eurodisco’). Great trivia fact: the person responsible for clearing all of Bran Van 3000’s samples was none other than Celine Dion.
The best albums to come out in 1998 were Pulp and Massive Attack – two bands whose back catalogues I would become obsessed with that year, and also two bands that I would see live at the Brighton Centre (the Pulp gig in particular was one of the best gigs that I’ve ever seen, even now). Both bands had taken a much darker route with their ’98 releases. I include the title track of the This Is Hardcore album here, the video of which is one of the last great big-budget indie videos. Massive Attack’s ‘Teardrop’ would also be memorable for its video, featuring an unborn baby singing Liz Fraser’s words. Fifteen years of hindsight suggest that ‘Teardrop’ is a track that seems to have reached timeless classic status, much like Mezzanine, the album it was taken from (though I wish advertisers would stop flogging opening track ‘Angel’ to death).
After ‘Teardop’, you get a run of plaintive, melancholy singles – suggesting I was beginning to get the art of sequencing down quite well. Drugstore’s ‘El President’ would have been a beautiful track without its guest star, but this was a time when I’d have probably bought anything if it had Thom Yorke singing the chorus on it. Stephen Jones of Babybird’s ‘If You’ll Be Mine’ is not one of his best-known singles but arguably one of his best melodies (even if he couldn’t be bothered to write a proper chorus), and Kenickie’s ‘I Will Fix You’ is that particular band’s last great single, coming from a fairly unlovable parent album. To lighten things up, at the end of that little suite is The Divine Comedy’s take on Noel Coward’s ‘I’ve Been To A Marvellous Party’, given an Underworld-style makeover in a seeming attempt to trash Neil Hannon’s burgeoning reputation as a sort of heir-apparent to Coward (musically speaking, anyway). The song was lifted from a charity compilation album of Coward covers, which would prove inspiration to me in other ways a few years later.
Unlike the 1997 soundtrack, there’s very little here I would have changed retrospectively (apart from a Stone Roses inclusion as mentioned) – listening to this back in the gym the other day, I was amazed by how good all this music sounds even now. And the one track you may have thought I would have done away with – the closing ballad ‘Now You’re Nobody’ by Embrace – actually just brings back memories strong enough to overpower whatever I think about that band now. It involves laying on a hammock at the back of Camp Thunderbird’s East Camp (the older boys’ village) during a break between sessions, listening to this song, staring at the trees and sky above and being utterly at peace with the world for once. And for that reason alone, I’ll forgive Danny McNamara and co for whatever musical sins they’ve committed.
Aside from Camp Thunderbird dominating my 1998, there was the small matter of what was going on either side of that summer. My work was in NatWest bank – the spring in London, and the autumn in Canterbury, working in a call centre. Not bad work at all for a 19-year-old, but particularly after the summer exhilaration, a massive comedown. And I’d put off going to university for a couple of years to work in America, so there was a lot of bleak, late-teenage angst spent in Ashford. To overcome that a little, I visited my friend Neil a few times at the UEA in Norwich, and lived the student life without having to worry about such trivial matters as actual coursework.
Those Norwich trips, as well as my continued obsession with late-night MTV and chancing my arm on NME reviews, can be heard writ large on this disc, and the opening five-song run here is as good a 25-minute energy rush as I’ve ever put on a soundtrack – the gift that keeps on giving.
We start off with comfortably the weirdest track I’ve blogged about so far, a remix of ‘If They Move Kill ‘Em’ by Primal Scream by My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields, a track that brings back memories of the sensational all-nighter at Brixton Academy I went to around the time of its release, starring Primal Scream, Spiritualized and Alabama 3 at a time when I’d barely been to any gigs at all. While the original ‘Kill ‘Em’ sounds like the opening credits of a great lost blaxploitation film (and which I used as backing music on a couple of Camp Thunderbird talent show skits), the remix is mangled almost beyond recognition by Shields – buzzsaw sounds mixing with free jazz for the first couple of minutes, the beats kicking in to establish a rhythm above the queasy sounds, and finishing with a mind-blowing section where every instrument sounds louder than everything else. It still sounds utterly incredible. With a lot of talk this week of My Bloody Valentine finally releasing a new album, it’s sobering to think that this track broke a long period of silence from Shields and got everyone’s hopes up about a full MBV return. 15 years after this remix, and 22 years after Loveless, we’re still waiting. How much longer?**
Eardrums duly primed, we get a burst of Jesus And Mary Chain next. ‘Virtually Unreal’ is a prime cut from their underrated final album, Munki. That album also gave us ‘Supertramp’ which is a staple of my very rare DJ sets, and I could have easily chosen that here instead. Then it’s the Boo Radleys. But this is emphatically not the Boo Radleys that gave us Britpop standard ‘Wake Up Boo!’, but the darker, more experimental band of later. Q Magazine rather brilliantly gave them the title ‘Liverpool’s answer to the Beatles’ in a review of their album Kingsize (also their final album), a phrase that always stuck with me. I’m not a big Beatles fan at all but I quite like the idea in a parallel universe where John Lennon lived, and the Beatles reformed suddenly around 1990, releasing a brutal shouty indie-dance track such as ‘Free Huey’ as their comeback single.
After Ash’s ‘Jesus Says’, their best song from their least-loved album, we move on to Madonna. I’d never been a big fan of Madonna as a kid, though I picked up a copy of ‘Like A Prayer’ at the same time as picking up that Stone Roses debut album. I knew that she was going to make an imminent comeback but didn’t hold up much hope of it being much good, as her ’90s output was best remembered for the Erotica stage and warbling through Evita. So what a massive surprise that the Ray Of Light album was so good – I could have chosen any one of a number of songs from the album, but I went with the title track, due to memories of summer weekends spent in Charleston, South Carolina with my friend Carrie, and the video which seemed to capture the song’s euphoria so well, even if it does look a bit ‘hey, I’m Madonna but I still associate with you mere mortals’ in hindsight. The other effect of Ray Of Light was to make William Orbit my favourite producer for a while – this marked the start of his imperial period, when he really couldn’t do anything wrong for a couple of years.
Hanging out so much with students gave me a chance to experience PJ Harvey and Gomez for the first time (as well as Lo-Fidelity Allstars, on disc 1). It would be the start of a bit of a Polly Harvey obsession that continues to this day. Gomez didn’t have nearly as much lasting appeal to me, but I’d forgotten what an enjoyable song ‘Whippin’ Piccadilly’ was until listening back to it here. Asian Dub Foundation was probably my first introduction to overtly political music, guaranteed to have me shouting ‘Mohammad Singh Assad Zindabad!’ even if I had no clue what the song was actually about.
There’s not a lot here I would have changed. Embrace appear again, for the third time in four discs. I can assure you this is the last you will hear of them here, but listening to ‘Come Back To What You Know’ now, it’s weird to think that they were considered the New Verve back then. Hindsight tells us that they were the proto-Coldplay (There will be quite a bit of shameless Coldplay love to come in future episodes – forewarned is forearmed). Shola Ama is a long-forgotten R&B songstress who certainly wasn’t best known for her cover of Noel Coward’s ‘Someday I’ll Find You’, but this track is raised above the ordinary by Craig Armstrong’s beautiful string arrangement. Strings – very much the late ’90s fixer for any bog-standard tune – make ‘Good To Be Alive’ by page-3-girl-turned-drum’n’bass-producer DJ Rap sound a lot better than the song probably deserves.
With not a lot of social life to speak of in Ashford, I watched a hell of a lot of late-night MTV, discovering the programme ‘Alternative Nation’ before MTV decided to spin off all the actual alternative music on to MTV2. ‘Alternative Nation’s influence is more apparent on the 1999 soundtrack (which I’ll post in a couple of weeks), but the inclusion here of Belle & Sebastian’s utterly awesome ‘Lazy Line Painter Jane’ is the one track here that appears directly as a result of that show (and I know it came out in ’97 – I didn’t know it at the time). It’s the earliest track that points the way to my John Peel-influenced music tastes of the early 2000s – but incredibly, it’s the only Belle & Sebastian track to appear on my soundtracks in 16 years. You’d have thought I’d have put on a handful by now, but I was never the biggest B&S fan (although I’ll give a big shout-out to ‘Dirty Dream Number Two‘ which has since become one of my all-time favourite songs). I also have MTV to thank for somewhat belatedly introducing me to the Smashing Pumpkins, with the near-title track of the mournful, forlorn Adore album. I still think this album is better than Siamese Dream or Mellon Collie, but I don’t think many people will agree. A reissue of Adore is due this year and I hope it gets given the love it deserves. It’s nice to be reminded of time when Billy Corgan released records worth listening to – this was pretty much the last of them.
After ‘Black Dog On My Shoulder’, one of only a few decent songs from the Manics’ underwhelming This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours, we have ‘Glory Days’ by Pulp, the song that was dismissed as the ‘Common People’ soundalike from This Is Hardcore, but reminds me of a cycle ride I took round Ashford the night before flying to America for the first time, realising (correctly) that life would never be the same after that point.
My tour through the music of ’98 ends on a bit of a bum note. The Divine Comedy’s ‘The Certainty Of Chance’ deals with pre-millennial tension similar to 2K’s ‘Fuck The Millennium’ which rounded off my ’97 soundtrack, but this is a far more stately and elegaic take on the issue, sounded like a cross between ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ and Blur’s ‘The Universal’ without being as good as either, before fading away with a poem by Neil Hannon against a soaring orchestral background. A decent song, but probably not a great one to close proceedings on.
And that, my friends, was my 1998 in musical form. I would be counting down the months, weeks and days before returning to Camp Thunderbird for my second summer in 1999. The soundtrack to that particular year will appear in a couple of weeks, once I’ve dealt with the very 2013 concern of moving flat.
*Edit: A reader – thanks, Callum – has pointed out that Semisonic’s ‘Secret Smile’ was a big UK hit as well (I think while I was out of the country). So yeah, they’re well known for two songs.
**The day after talking at length about the KLF when posting 1997 disc 2, the KLF seemingly re-issued their entire back catalogue, deleted for 20 years, on iTunes and Spotify – though it subsequently turned out to be an elaborate hoax. Can this blog have a similar effect on My Bloody Valentine? Though I’m so done with their hoaxes about a new album.