UK album chart peak: #6 / #8
Perhaps it should have been called Engpop, not Britpop. After all, virtually all the bands involved in the movement were English and singing about English things, while those from the other home nations that found similar levels of success between 1993 and 1997—the Manics, Primal Scream etc—kept something of a studious distance from the jamboree. In some parallel universe, though, this week in 1997 might even be being touted as the Battle of Welshpop, with two heavyweight albums from west of Offa’s Dyke released into chart battle on the same day.
In the red corner is salt-of-the-earth Word Gets Around, all practical, populist melodies about small-town life and working men's clubs; in the blue it’s Radiator, an album by ardent psychedelicists seemingly allergically averse to humdrum strum. In the same way that Blur and Oasis two years earlier had captured opposing visions of England, here were two stylistically contrasting portraits of Wales presented side by side, just without the slathering hype.
And in a similar way to that unassuming presentation, this article isn’t an attempt to force comparisons between two records that have drastically different forebears simply on account of their nationality and release date. At the same time, however, the simultaneous arrival of two distinctive and successful Welsh albums less than a week after the symbolic end of Britpop feels significant, and what twenty years ago was surely dismissed as coincidence now seems symbolic: as the Camden elite continued to toast their own reflection, preoccupied by finding new ways to praise Oasis, interest started to shift elsewhere.
However, while Britpop may have lost much of its lustre by the end of the summer of 1997, that didn’t mean that the British music-buying public was no longer interested in honest, straightforward guitar bands. Indeed, as both the wink-wink irony and the grandiose self-mythologising sides of the movement began to grate, a rediscovered no-nonsense sincerity was rather welcome.
That realisation is perhaps Word Gets Around’s most valuable asset, and probably the reason it spent the rest of the century bobbing around the top half of the album charts: never here do Stereophonics satirise their subjects or make lofty statements, but instead they spend the first 40 or so minutes of their recorded career painting vivid, often poignant pictures of everyday life, engaging affectionately with both their audience and their characters in the same way that said audience and characters would do with one another. Songs are keenly observed without being prurient or voyeuristic, affectionate though rarely mawkish, and impressively compact without ever feeling slapdash.
The results are standouts like the rather poetic three-minute portraiture of Goldfish Bowl, the angry/wistful frown of Local Boy In The Photograph, and the disbelieving reportage of A Thousand Trees, each of them unassuming, personal and gently appealing. The lighters-aloft sentimentality of Traffic manages to describe provincial blandness while staying the right side of Rod Stewart-style mush (for now); even Last Of The Big Time Drinkers, a giddy ode to boozing that would normally creak with cliché on a record like this, retains a kindly pep to deliver it from boorishness.
More generally though, Word Gets Around perhaps marks itself as a refreshing knight’s move from a lot of preceding Britpop by the removal of glamour. In much the same way that Eels’ Beautiful Freak from earlier in the year pulled no punches about the downtrodden life of its characters, Kelly Jones is unapologetic here about his surroundings, and after the past three years of increasingly onanistic observationalism, this sort of candour comes as a relief.
Of course, if a slight refresh of a boring game seems overly polite, the other option is always to upturn the entire board. After all, 1997 already had decent precedent there, and if the success of a slew of British guitar records whose ambition was unhidden and intellectualism unabashed pointed towards an escape route from the cloddish retromania of the past four years, then with Radiator, Super Furry Animals took it. While their debut album had flirted with some of Britpop’s tropes (songs about folk heroes; nods towards 70s-era Bowie), their second, by Gruff Rhys’ own admission, was an attempt “to shed any odour” of the movement.
The result now appears as grand a statement as those by Blur and Radiohead earlier in the year. A single work made up of movements that tessellate elegantly, Radiator is visionary, engrossing, and startlingly fresh. It’s also, crucially, a riot. Where, say, Ladies & Gentlemen is an intense journey of sadness, and Vanishing Point demonstrates its ambition through malevolence, Radiator finds the same creative heft through playfulness—arguably a far harder channel. Its technicolor joy, all cartoony genre exercises cavorting with long, winding builds, is proof that albums can be mould-breaking without resorting to undue weight: there are bad puns, uplifting melodies and mariachi breakdowns, and in a year of so much claustrophobia and catharsis, SFA’s creation of something both lighthearted and meaningful is perhaps Radiator’s finest achievement.
That’s not to say, though, that Radiator is frothy. Indeed, for all the musical sight gags, there’s both a narrative and sonic muscle that nourishes here. A sideways sort of outsider political dissent runs through the record’s lyric sheet, simultaneously pricking the pomposity of British authority and poking fun at braindead culture in Play It Cool and She’s Got Spies, elsewhere examining a sort of abstract, rustic-yet-defiant detachment that feels quintessentially Welsh in Mountain People (described by Nicky Wire as “the best exploration of Welshness ever written in song”) and Download. Coming immediately after Britpop’s increasingly thin character sketches, that robustness is, tonally, almost a relief.
The album’s production is also a welcome leap forward from guitar-indie chug, being underpinned by a sort of musical plate tectonics: a bubbling electronica throughout serves mainly to adhere the record, but occasionally, via unexpected violent shifts, it also prompts rather stunning eruptions. Indeed, with that foundation, combined with the rather beatific Rhodes piano that peppers the running order, makes Radiator a rather pleasing hybrid. Sure, tracks like International Language Of Screaming, The Placid Casual and She’s Got Spies are a long way from, say, Mo’Wax Records, but their attendant underlying electronic squiggles also set SFA apart from most of their Creation peers. And when the electronic lava spits above the surface, in particular on the delirious Hermann Loves Pauline and the record’s climactic womp of Mountain People, the band’s mixture of confidence and ambition starts to defy comparison.
The most unequivocally interesting records released up to now in 1997 were those that recontextualised guitar music, mostly did away with it or simply ignored its existence entirely. Word Gets Around isn’t one of those albums; Radiator might be. But what sustains both twenty years after their release is each one’s respective character.
Word Gets Around expresses it through homespun honesty. The vignettes from working-class south Wales still ring true today, and the absence of virtually any fat on the record only augments its authenticity. Sure, there are flickers of the rather bland stadium rock band that the Stereophonics would become, and in the coming 18 months the rise of earnest post-Noelrockers specialising in anthems for cerebral lads will create a scene as cloying as Britpop was smug. For now, though, the album stands as a testament that simple, absorbing and populist guitar music, while clearly affected by the onslaught of Britpop’s bombast, wasn’t quite dead yet.
With Radiator, conversely, what endures twenty years on is what an unusual fit it is—characterful and eccentric, and rejecting of the status quo—acting in a way as a microcosm of 1997’s divergent musical year. Superficially, its wit, eclecticism and general high spirits mark the album as a textbook late-period Britpop blowout, but its depth and sensitivity belie the implied hedonism of that: on its twentieth birthday, Radiator rings more important than ever, even if (or perhaps because) it doesn’t have the gravitas of some of its peers.
Helpfully, too, as autumn beckons, Radiator acts as a good signpost to the more curious final act of 1997 (and, therefore, of this blog): while Britpop limped on with sundry valedictory albums from second-division sides (Sleeper, Northern Uproar, Echobelly etc) the musical consensus was simultaneously thrown wide open. Between now and the end of the year, this blog will visit Japan, Iceland, Asian Britain, America and Scotland, encountering a spectrum as broad musically as it is geographically, the idea of any cohesive “scene” dissolving accordingly.
“Take me, Break me, Any way you fancy,” go the final lines of Radiator. As a new musical day starts to dawn, it’s a slogan that might become instructional.
Also out this week:
Northern Uproar – Yesterday Tomorrow Today (Heavenly). Chart peak #95