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Tome On The Range

Louise Wener's Different for Girls Reviewed By A Fellow Britpop Survivor
Stephen Dalton , August 11th, 2010 06:38

"Her real transgression against the unwritten rock-hack rulebook was far more serious: she did not have a penis," says Stephen Dalton, as he reviews Different For Girls: My True-Life Adventures In Pop by Sleeper singer Louise Wener

Britpop? What the fuck was that all about then? While previous generations had planet-shaking youthquakes like hippie, punk and acid house, my peers and I saw out our twenties during one of the most wilfully conservative and backward-looking musical movements ever. A moronic inferno. A bonfire of inanity. (and while we’re using eighties book titles, how about White Noise?- Ed)

Yeah yeah, I know. The march of rock history was never a clean linear narrative, but at least before Britpop it appeared to have a generally forward momentum. For the sake of argument, let’s assume the "indie" ethic once stood for something of genuine cultural worth: oppositional politics, perhaps, or plain creative waywardness. But during the Orwellian rebranding exercise of Cool Britannia, "indie" rock became far too marketable a commodity to be left to the outsider fuck-ups and original thinkers who invented it.

Britpop was the skinny-jeaned, union-jacked, mockney-accented epitaph for indie. In the words of the late, great Steven Wells, it became a byword for "unchallenging guitar music played by white suburban males." And, to a lesser extent, white suburban females too.

From reading this bittersweet memoir of her brief Britpop career, I discovered the former Sleeper singer Louise Wener and I were born just weeks apart, shared similar suburban upbringings in humdrum towns, and even attended the same 1983 David Bowie concert in Milton Keynes. She became a second-division pop star. I became a third-rate rock journalist. I’m still not sure which of us got the short straw.

The lightweight early chapters of Different For Girls slip too easily into generic fortysomething nostalgia mode. Wener skips breezily through the black comedy of losing her virginity on a kibbutz in Israel, and pays brisk tribute to her father’s untimely death from cancer. But nothing too dark is allowed to taint the whimsical flashbacks to uncool suburbia, teenage crushes, classroom bullies and 1970s pop culture.

The tone hardens and the insights deepen in the second half, when Wener finds herself perfectly placed to jump aboard the latest bandwagon of British guitar bands with a self-consciously local, conversational, neo-retro accent. Sleeper were always a lesser Britpop act, lacking the fierce ambition or art-school intelligence of Blur or Pulp. To her credit, Wener acknowledges this, rightly predicting her band would go down with the "steerage class" acts when the Britpop Titanic began sinking around 1997.

Writing for NME all through the Britpop-bloated ‘90s, I recall Wener was loathed by many of my fellow hacks to an almost pathological degree. Her reputation as Ilford’s answer to Courtney Love seemed faintly absurd then, and feels wholly surreal now. I interviewed her twice, and found her to be a perfectly charming, fairly conventional girl-next-door. If anything, she was disappointingly sweet and inoffensive, but also smarter and funnier than most of her puffed-up boyrock peers.

In Different For Girls, Wener deconstructs her "whorish" and "controversial" media image with baffled bemusement. She points out, rightly, that press darlings like the Manics could wish AIDS on Michael Stipe, or hang out with the murderous dictator Fidel Castro, and still dodge the vitriolic press brickbats that she regularly attracted. She also laughs off the Groundhog Day grind of her interviews, forever "discussing masturbation with cross little bald men from the NME".

Wener’s cynical line on the hypocrisy of her Britpop peers, frantically tracking their chart positions while affecting to loathe commercial success, has only been proven right by history. "I am dying to sell out," she admits, winningly. Considering the wife-beaters, thugs and homophobes regularly lauded in the music press, the Sleeper singer’s crime of being mildly opinionated barely merits a mention. But, of course, her real transgression against the unwritten rock-hack rulebook was far more serious: she did not have a penis.

Wener does not gloss over the decadent side of pop fame, but nor does she revel in it. Sleeper come across as boringly sensible lightweights, indulging in nothing more debauched than the obligatory tour diet of cocaine and booze. Even the band’s central bizarre love triangle, with Wener first dating guitarist Jon Stewart, then drummer Andy Maclure, is handled with minimal melodrama. Fans of rock-filth biographies, be warned: Different For Girls is more Last of the Summer Wine than Hammer of the Gods.

Even so, there are some enjoyably dissolute snapshots. Wener fondly recalls the foreskin-bumping antics of Scandi-rockers The Wannadies and their Viking friends, who get wasted by poking vodka-soaked tampons up their arses. Nice. She also paints a less-than-flattering picture of Blur at their snorting-and-shagging imperial peak. The depressingly funny dressing-down Sleeper receive after pilfering from Damon and co’s deluxe cheese selection tells you more than you ever wanted to know about the Spinal Tap reality of rock success. For Britpop’s grandes fromages it seems it was always about the cheese. "Fame," Wener concludes, "is a fiefdom of wank."

But Wener does not entirely shatter the romantic pop-star fantasy in Different For Girls. Playing Top of the Pops for the first time, being serenaded on a stadium stage by Michael Stipe (I don’t remember that - Ed), having one of her songs covered by Elvis Costello, arriving wasted at the Trainspotting premiere: all these thrilling landmarks are recorded with warm hindsight. Teenage dreams are still hard to beat, even if their appeal soon fades. However minor their achievements, Sleeper really did taste real pop stardom, then gracefully disbanded before the machine chewed them to pieces. They were simply not hungry, lucky or talented enough to outlast the Britpop crash.

Almost 15 years after Britpop, the music industry has changed irrevocably, in ways both good and bad. NME has its first female editor, and the whole pop-gender playing field is arguably a little more level. Wener is now a novelist and mother, still living with Maclure, almost certainly in English suburbia somewhere. Success is said to be the best revenge, so it is a shame Sleeper did not leave any immortal jukebox classics behind, just a handful of brittle and unremarkable singles.

Different For Girls is an easy read, an amusing insight into the banality of band life, and a cautionary tale about the cost of getting what you always wanted. Reading this book as a fellow Britpop survivor, it struck many familiar chords. Far too many.

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