I recently watched the (not new) documentary Upside Down: The Creation Records Story. While not a perfect doc by any stretch (too static in the pacing, unnecessary fake grain on the film), it did manage to collect most of the main tellers of this story for interviews, recollections, grievances and such. Front-and-centre was label mastermind Alan McGee, who tends to get interviewed a lot but somehow never comes off as being self-congratulatory and/or attention-starved. Good for him!
A worthy watch for anybody into the UK indie of the 1980s and 1990s, here are five questions (some rhetorical) that this doc posed:
1. Musicians like drugs. Why won’t they admit it?
This documentary has some refreshingly honest accounts of “musicians on drugs” that we don’t often see in this kind of setting. In documentaries, most drug “adventures” are either recounted in terms of annoying burnouts waxing about “the good old days” or the flipside: heavy-handed warnings about the dangers of coke or heroin and how they mess up lives and will ruin your family and will kill you. The drug memories in Upside Down, in addition to being oddly lucid, were shared in a very matter-of-fact fashion, often with a slight grin and a shrug. The general takeaway from the Creation crew? Drugs are fun but ultimately, counterproductive. Something most drug addicts (with the possible exception of Shaun Ryder) are aware of but also something most never admit.
2. Is it possible that Oasis were undervalued as a band?
The Gallaghers’ brand of “big, dumb rock” made Creation a lot of cash but after watching this doc, one is very much reminded of the band’s indie roots. Not only were they well aware of the exploits of more critically-acclaimed Creation acts such as My Bloody Valentine and Primal Scream, the Oasis lads slotted fairly easily as “next steps” for the label once they played this gig. It made sense at the time and it REALLY makes sense now that there’s a bit of distance to reflect.
Because Oasis became so massive, I don’t think Noel Gallagher ever got his due sonically for his “guitar exploits” in a broader sense. He certainly didn’t have the obsessive craftsmanship of Kevin Shields and yet Oasis’ more interesting sonic moments did seem to somehow blend the sounds of more-austere Creation faves with completely-mainstream outfits like the Beatles, T-Rex and tons of others. The approach clearly worked as Oasis became the biggest Brit band of the 1990s while somehow not completely alienating fans of BMX Bandits and the Pastels. Strangely, the best example of this “everything into the pot” approach may be the band’s bloated 1997 effort Be Here Now. The album sold a ton of copies, spent years getting spat on by haters and now, is started to get some belated appreciation as a sorta fascinating byproduct of studio excess and (yes) drugs. Be Here Now is exactly the album that you’d expect for a band at that place at that time. Tons of misguided ambition abound as nine of the 12 tracks clock in at more than 5:00. Hell, the lead single “D’You Know What I Mean?” alone runs 7:22!!! It’s a mess but at its core, Be Here Now has a ton of (non-obvious) quality songwriting that is completely washed out by the dual impact of guitar overdubs and mountains of cocaine.
The fantastic shoulda-been single “My Big Mouth” is the perfect example of this. This song is an obvious companion piece (in the self-referential arena) to 1995’s “Acquiesce” and it’s largely Noel Gallagher calling shit upon himself, using tons of noisy guitar licks to kick his id’s ass. Oasis were really overexposed when Be Here Now was released so at the time, the song just seemed like a variation of tabloid fodder. Now, it’s a sprawling snapshot of how Noel was living in 1996. Better still, the opening features a massive squall of feedback, not unlike Teenage Fanclub’s “The Concept” (a doubtful tip-of-the-hat). It smooths out (slightly) and the song churns in a fashion the band would revisit a decade later with “The Shock of Lightning”. Sonically, I think it’s far more memorable than anything bands like Sonic Youth were “doing” in that era, especially considering Oasis wrote THIS from the penthouse while Sonic Youth wrote THAT from the fake underground. And I even sorta liked A Thousand Leaves!!
3. Do we remember the Jesus and Mary Chain completely differently if they had never released “Upside Down” and Psychocandy?
This doc prompted me to go back and listen to the Jesus and Mary Chain’s (non-Creation) debut LP Psychocandy a few times. The experience re-hammered home why that album has a been a mainstay in my all-time Top 10 list for most of the past two decades. Interestingly, without that album and their manic debut single “Upside Down”, JAMC are a completely different band. Namely, maybe a slightly less-interesting version of Love and Rockets or a perhaps a slightly cuter version of Echo and the Bunnymen?
Personally, I find pretty much every other JAMC full-length to rank somewhere between “OK” and “sorta good”. It’s the kind of music that is completely fine in a lot of respects and memorable in no respects. Too many drum machines, repetitive guitar work and whereas on Psychocandy, they sounded so bored, it was cool… on everything else, they sounded so bored, it was boring. For what its worth, my favourite post-Psychocandy tune is likely “Teenage Lust” which always seemed like a reworking of Depeche Mode’s “Never Let Me Down Again” fed through effects pedals and dusted with feedback squalls. It was a nice balance between the more New Wave-y JAMC and the noisier version that split in 1986. And yet that was a 1990s tune.
4. Would Ride have been more popular if they had a different name?
Ride were a pretty solid, pretty noisy indie outfit from Oxford. They released some fun EPs in 1990 and then four full-lengths later in the decade, the finest of which (1990’s Nowhere) features some awesome cover art. They had a fan base no doubt but due to their proximity to My Bloody Valentine (in label, sound, hair), they often were regarded as a companion piece rather than a separate entity. I always got the sense that people who listened to Ride (especially those who defended their last two albums) were perhaps just biding their time until the new My Bloody Valentine disc came out (uh… more than two decades later). You know what didn’t help? Their name! Ride is a really weak band name and the word “Ride” doesn’t evoke much of anything which is unfortunate because Ride had a bunch of awesome moments. Like this.
It probably didn’t help that there were two other shoegazer-ish bands from that era (Curve and Lush) with not-dissimilar names and not-dissimilar sounds. Granted, both those outfits were fronted by females although Ride frontman Mark Gardener was arguably every bit as pretty/handsome as Miki Berenyi and/or Toni Halliday. In short, solid band but personally, I think Ride could’ve used a rebrand in spite of the Brits brief obsession with single-syllabel band names (in addition to Ride/Curve/Lush, you had Pulp, Suede, Moose, Cranes, Gene, Space, etc.)
5. Did the Lemonheads kill Teenage Fanclub’s momentum in North America?
Here is a theory: if the Lemonheads hadn’t broken in 1992 vis-a-vis It’s a Shame about Ray (which is quite plausible, given Evan Dando’s “habits” during those days), Teenage Fanclub would’ve been far more popular in North American.
The band had some serious momentum going circa 1991/early 1992:
– They had graduated from a cool indie label (Matador) to a semi-cool fake indie-ish label (DGC) where they slotted alongside Sonic Youth and Nirvana.
– Spin Magazine absolutely loved Teenage Fanclub. Semi-obsessively so. For a few months, anyway. They named the band’s Bandwagonesque its 1991 album of the year (over Nevermind and Loveless!!!) and spilled a ton of ink over the outfit, slotting them on their Class of ’92 list of hot young bands that ultimately nobody ended up caring about.
– Teenage Fanclub played Saturday Night Live in February 1992 where they played four Bandwagonesque tracks and were introduced by Jason Priestley, who wore a t-shirt tucked into jeans. Needless to say, a UK indie outfit playing SNL in 1992 was unheard of.
By spring 1992, Teenage Fanclub stood alone in the “cute, sorta mainstream power-pop band” arena. However, once the Lemonheads re-emerged that summer and Dando started flashing his doe eyes on MTV and Sassy Magazine, “the Fannies” days were numbered, resigned to power pop’s second division alongside Sloan and the Posies (both, ironically, also on the DGC roster).
Small aside: here is a list of outfits with “UK indie” roots (in a loose sense) that have been booked on Saturday Night Live since Teenage Fanclub’s appearance. Given the collective mainstream appeal of these outfits, it makes the booking of Teenage Fanclub seem even more perplexing in hindsight!
– February 15, 1992: Teenage Fanclub
– November 14, 1992: Morrissey
– October 4, 1997: Oasis
– January 17, 1998: Portishead
– October 14, 2000: Radiohead
– April 7, 2001: Coldplay
– February 5, 2005: Keane
– May 21, 2005: Coldplay
– October 22, 2005: Franz Ferdinand
– March 11, 2006: Arctic Monkeys
– March 17, 2007: Snow Patrol
– October 25, 2008: Coldplay
– December 19, 2009: Muse
– September 24, 2011: Radiohead
– October 6, 2012: Muse