Tag Archives: The Wedding Present

Here we are now, entertain us

23. Smells Like Teen Spirit – Nirvana (The Spam Ducks / Brian Clough)

I know, I know. Too obvious, right ? Well, I kind of agree but it’s not on the list, not entirely at least, for the obvious reasons. It’s here as much for the, ahem, spirited cover version of it that I was once involved in as it is for kicking in the door to the mainstream for a slew of US alternative bands in the early 90s.

There’s a whole host of musical “scenes” that I could lay claim to have been part of. Part of in the sense of associating with, using as a badge of identity, rather than literally being part of obviously – there isn’t about to be a big reveal wherein I announce that I was actually the bassist in Buffalo Tom. Any of the following would have just about fallen into my later formative years:  Madchester, acid house, the tail end of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (sort of), glam / hair metal, and stretching it a bit, C86 if I’d started early and Britpop if I’d started late. Whilst there were bits in all of those that I loved at various stages, including a long infatuation with Def Leppard’s “Hysteria” which baffles me now, I never really felt like I belonged to any of them. For me it was all about the explosion of primarily American bands that emerged in the late 80s and early 90s playing, for want of a better term, alternative rock. Key reference points would include Pixies, Throwing Muses, Belly, Mudhoney, Dinosaur Jr, Sonic Youth, Buffalo Tom, and Pavement, as well as people like Teenage Fanclub, Ride, and The Wedding Present from the UK.

At around the same time – 1990 to be precise – I began to learn to play the guitar. Play probably isn’t the right verb. Work would be closer, for both me and anyone unfortunate enough to be listening. I learned – in those heady days before any of us had the internet – via correspondence with a friend who used to send me little chord diagrams in the post, gradually progressing to a sort of rudimentary tablature. He’d gone on to University, along with most of my school friends, whilst I waited another year to do fun things like retake a couple of exams and have knee surgery. That year did give me the time and inclination to pick up the guitar though so perhaps these things happen for a reason.

I think the first song I could vaguely bash my way through was “My Favourite Dress” by The Wedding Present but playing guitar also meant that I could begin to relieve myself of vocal duties in the finest band ever to emerge from the villages of the South Gloucestershire area. I’ve relived the glory days of The Muppets elsewhere in this blog but they were not the first band I was a part of. No, that honour belongs to The Spam Ducks who later morphed into Brian Clough. Not literally.

The Ducks / Clough had various line ups over a period of a couple of years but was principally the result of the friendship between three of us – Ian, Russ and myself. Those are their real names. I feel they should shoulder as much responsibility for this as me. The band was an excuse for us to mess around and entertain our friends – we would periodically put on a show at a local village hall. On very, very rare occasions we convinced ourselves that we sounded okay. We had a certain ramshackle charm perhaps, often depending on who we’d persuaded to play drums (never underestimate the power of a good drummer to make a bad band sound okay). I think we mainly did it to make each other laugh and, on that score, we were the greatest band in rock history.

As none of us could really play that well we ended up having more of our own songs than covers; we usually couldn’t play the covers. Song writing involved someone coming up with three chords – some variation on D C G proving especially popular – and someone else turning up with a set of lyrics. I say lyrics… Quite often I think a good idea for a song title arising from something we found funny was then stretched out beyond the point of absurdity. So our set typically included: “Washing Machine On My Mind” (it’s tough on dirt, it’s not kind), “Soap On A Rope” (sitting in my bathtub, it’s not a tin one), “Fishfinger” (genuinely with no adolescent sex-gag connotations – it was about fishfingers that you, you know, eat), and “Alan” (Alan, I’d rather drink a gallon… of beer… than have you near…). “Soap On A Rope” was actually a pretty good little punk song.

When we did venture into cover versions it was typically something by The Wedding Present which was helpful in that a) most of the songs were three chords, b) the vocals don’t require much by way of singing ability, and c) no one in the audience really knew the songs anyway. That all changed when we decided to take on “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, one of the biggest songs of 1991 and so called anthem for Generation X. So how did we approach Kurt Cobain’s sarcastic, contradictory call for teenage revolution ?

We did it sat in large, high backed armchairs with Ian reciting the lyrics in a bluff Northern accent (part Mark E Smith, part Python Four Yorkshireman sketch). There may have been an odd call and response element to the “hello” “hello” bit leading into the chorus involving waving. It is fair to say that we made the song our own. I think Kurt would have approved. If Bill Drummond had done it people would have called it art.

That was one of our last performances and who knows what we might have gone on to accomplish ? We were definitely branching out into experimental territory – we had supported ourselves at that gig as The Living Carpets (stolen entirely from Vic Reeves & Bob Mortimer) and performed the theme song to children’s TV show “Heathcliff” with large pieces of carpet taped around our heads. I guess to an outsider it would have looked like kids making a godawful racket, full of in jokes and nonsense but for us it was just hugely fun. Part of the point, as well, was to provide some entertainment for our friends – even if sometimes they got to laugh at us rather than with us – and hopefully we managed a little of that too.

I don’t listen to “Teen Spirit” very often anymore. Don’t listen to “Nevermind” much to be honest – time hasn’t been kind to the production and I think “In Utero” is a far superior record. For a long time though Nirvana were really important to me. It sounds kind of sad but I can strongly recall hearing the news about Cobain’s death and I was affected by it. That was still no excuse for spending a couple of years trying unsuccessfully to ape his hairstyle though. To everyone that witnessed it: I am truly sorry.

When I do listen to “Teen Spirit” now I tend to remember Russ struggling to switch his distortion pedal off, hear Ian bellowing “hello hello” like he’s Graham Chapman at the start of the Spanish Inquisition skit, and see a group of old school friends staring at us in a mixture of amusement and bemusement. It makes me smile.

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Underneath a thousand blankets, just to find a place

18. Dream All Day – The Posies                                                                                        1996

The legendary 1996 Reading Festival… Legendary for me, that is. Not particularly for anyone else I suspect – nothing special about the line up, nothing remarkable happened (beyond, maybe, the shambolic demise of the Stone Roses)… and yet. And yet it remains frozen in my  memory as one of my favourite weekends and, in hindsight, seemed to mark an important transition in my life. I hesitate to say that it drew a direct line between adolescence and adulthood but it does feel a little that way. I was 24 at the time; something of a late developer.

Don’t misunderstand. This is not, probably, going to turn into a lachrymose lament to my lost youth – I haven’t forgotten the mud, the hassle, the people, the hangovers, the Supernaturals, the puking, the dizziness, the traffic, the piss, the toilets and all the rest of it – but I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a part of me that missed it. For a variety of reasons music has progressively become a less communal experience for me as I’ve gotten older. There was always a balance between the private, listening on my own at home, and the shared, out at a club or, as in this case, a festival. The balance has steadily tipped towards the private over the years and I regret that I’ve let that happen as there’s a whole range of things music can do beyond helping you sit around feeling sorry for yourself…

Surfing various other blogs I came across a brilliant event / idea that some people run down in Devon. The blog’s called Devon Record Club and the basic premise is that they get together on a regular basis, each bringing along a record, and they listen to ’em, discuss, and share their thoughts via the blog. Not complicated, bit like a book club. Bet it’s a lot of fun. Exactly the sort of thing that I, and friends, used to do informally – it was just a natural part of our lives to sit around and talk about why “Verdi Cries” by 10,000 Maniacs should always be in any top 5 best records list… So, if you’re in the Bucks area or fancy doing something virtually – must be a way for that work – then drop me a comment below…

Back at that festival there were inauspicious beginnings in 1996. I was working in Nottingham at the time and didn’t have a car which meant a meandering train journey through the midlands in the rain. Changing trains at a rain sodden Coventry station was just the thing to evoke the festival spirit; “sent to Coventry” indeed. Connection. The train to Reading picked its way down the country, the skies opened and it poured. I was listening to a compilation of old Kandi Klub (my old club haunt in Bristol) favourites during the journey, watching the rain splatter incessantly against the window, and thinking of old flames. Or, in some cases, old flickers. In the movie-of-my-life playing in my head (more of a straight to DVD cult classic than blockbuster success) this made me feel romantically nostalgic, melancholy, deep and imbued with the soul of a poet. To the untrained eye I may have appeared as a mildly sulky young man in need of a hair cut.

On arrival the rain stopped but the break in the weather was short lived and by the time I’d reached the festival site it was pelting down again and the ground had turned to mush. At this point the local Holiday Inn probably looked strangely alluring… Avoiding its charms I met up with I. and R. and we shuffled away to our tent, joining the slow procession past purveyors of, variously, bootleg tee-shirts, posters, beer and drugs. Perhaps it was the weather, or perhaps it was just experience, but the sense of anticipation from previous festivals (we must have been veterans of at least 10 by this point) was conspicuously absent this time out. It all felt almost routine. Fortunately that feeling didn’t last.

Friday. In the morning we trekked into Reading to buy provisions and a water proof coat. Weather noticeably improved after I’d spent £30 on said coat; I should have stuck with the strategically torn bin liner. Managed a quick pint in a pub on the way back and I guess that started it all off as we proceeded to drink for the rest of the day which obviously meant that we got drunk. Really drunk. I should mention bands that we saw that day but none of any note spring to mind. For much of the weekend the bands played a secondary part to our drunken letting down of hair, which is perhaps how it should have always been.

It’s not possible to try and recount a daily version of events from here on in. I doubt I could have recounted it later in 1996, let alone in 2013. Things passed too hazily, too drunkenly. The only constant was booze, each day building on the last to the, frankly, ridiculous events of the Sunday when I think we may have kicked off with vodka at breakfast. I don’t really know what it was about this year that was different to previous festivals in terms of drinking. We’d always had a drink before but we’d never really gone all out and just relentlessly gotten hammered.

Through the fog of time and alcohol there are still memories that loom large. They won’t make any sense – I think the point was that they weren’t supposed to – but they loom large. From beating each other about the arse with some discarded pipe lagging, to the straw fight by the main stage whilst The Posies were playing, to waiting for Billy Bragg in a torrential downpour… just small details that will mean very little if you weren’t there but never fail to raise a wry smile if you were. And then, of course, there was the lemon. At some juncture – may even have been as late as the Sunday (when the wheels really fell off) – someone found the aforementioned fruit. Nothing unusual in that. However, for reasons that even at the time made little sense, we decided to worship it for the rest of the day. Worship quite actively. Largely this involved chanting “lemon” a lot, passing it round to be fondled and kissed, and occasionally encouraging other people to temporarily join our little cult. That’s cult. Journeying round the site we proceeded in single file, usually running, with the leader holding the lemon aloft and the rest of us trailing in its wake; shouting our mantra in a bizarre call and response.

I think it was also the first time I was particular aware that I was getting older – that there was another generation coming up behind. Obviously now it happens all the time (usually in terrible circumstances – 22 year old newly qualified doctor having to check your prostate, that kind of thing). We ended up sat round our camp fire one night with a load of people from neighbouring tents who were all a good few years younger than us – I think they were 16 and 17 as I’m sure we had an astonished conversation about sitting with people born in 1980. They, in turn, were equally astonished that we’d been “lucky” enough to witness Ned’s Atomic Dustbin first hand: in their pomp no less. We were 24ish at the time and incredulous that anyone at a festival couldn’t have been born in the 70s…

Somewhere amid the drink, lemons, lagging, rain and sheer glee of it all, some bands played. Instead of appearing front and centre in my memory they seem to just provide the soundtrack – it was maybe the only festival I’ve been to where seeing the bands wasn’t the main reason for being there. I remember seeing Catatonia – I think Cerys came on stage wearing a big pair of boxing gloves – as we spent much of that day singing “You’ve Got A Lot To Answer For“, apropos of nothing. Otherwise ? The Roses headlined and were awful: lifeless, leaden and topped off by Ian Brown’s atonal apology of a voice. Experience the horror for yourself here if you’re curious. This should have been a massive disappointment as we were (are) all huge fans but, at the time, I think we just found it funny. Black Grape and The Prodigy were the other day’s headliners – the former were good fun, the latter were touting a set that was heard at pretty much every festival in Europe for three years. Beyond that, and the previously mentioned Billy Bragg and The Posies, I’m struggling. Looking at who played I could guess that we would have seen Rage Against The Machine, Drugstore, Super Furry Animals, Ash, The Wedding Present… but I have no memory of any of them. Did I get drunk because the line up was so poor or can’t I remember the line up because I got so drunk ?

Here it is, anyway, for posterity:

reading96

For me the weekend acted as some sort of pressure valve – releasing the pent up stress of a transitory period in my life. The friends that I had in Nottingham were leaving and I had long been looking for a way to move down to London – it took me another 18 months or so but I eventually made it. I’d left University a couple of years prior to this but I think this was the weekend that drew a line under that phase of my life before I moved on to the next – a last outpouring of childish glee before settling in to the serious business of careers and houses and relationships and being a grown up.

So The Posies make the list. Not particularly because I think it’s a great song – it’s a decent slab of power pop but there’s lots of stuff in that genre that I’d ordinarily pick ahead of this (for starters I’d have to dig out the short lived, under appreciated Silver Sun). It’s here simply because I can’t hear it without being back in a field, jumping around, chucking straw (only down due to the mud) at my friends having pretty much as much fun as it’s humanly possible to have.

Anyone up for a 20th anniversary reunion in 2016 ?