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Super Sonics – 40 Junkshop Britpop Greats
Various Ned Raggett , August 18th, 2020 08:37

A compilation of "junkshop Britpop" – from Bis and Shampoo to Menswear and Rialto – has Ned Raggett feeling wistful

Logically, an American is writing this review. I mention this by context because a scene celebrated by the outsiders should be written about by someone who was so outside I wrote a piece for tQ years ago explaining the frustrating annoyance of being a Suede fan thousands of miles away. My comments there about swapped and converted videotapes and lo-res scans of articles - or simply typed out, really - was the context by which I learned about a lot of UK acts, or at least London-based or connected ones, thanks to getting Melody Maker weekly for a three year run from 1991 to 1994, as well as occasionally snagging issues of the CD/magazine combination Volume. I couldn't do much more than that, being a literal pennypinching grad student at the time, so when the word of this collection came out earlier this year, followed by a tracklist, my reaction was a full-on "Oh yeah, THESE bands, at last!" It's not like I'd not heard any of them directly, but the vast majority? If I had been in London for sure I would have been a target audience, but otherwise, man, before listening to this, you got the hell out of me. Chest? Pimlico? Sweetie? I'd be at a loss.

Similarly there's also a justice in the fact that Super Sonics, compiled by and with liner notes from Martin Green, cofounder of the famed Smashing club night, is apparently the final release of the RPM label, which like so many other reissue efforts lived to provide context for scenes and moments long since gone, an approach so well established that this comp documents a scene looking back on other scenes as well, only (literally) smashing them together to create this amazing slumgullion. Ever since the tracklisting was announced I've seen people arguing "Wait, they don't belong there!" or "Is Romo part of this?" or the like (me, I'm mildly surprised there's no 'Johnny Chrome and Silver' by Nancy Boy but I'm sure this is heavily up for debate), and of course the heavy-hitters as such don't feature at all, no Brett/Damon/Justine/Jarvis/Liam/etc. except by way of passing mention in the liner notes. But like the junkshop glam comps it obviously nods to on several levels, that's the point: that even in the seemingly more well-documented and easier access years of the early 90s compared to two decades prior, it just meant that in that last fully flush decade of physical product above all else, there was that much more of a chance for things to get forgotten about, whether in the junkshop or in the virtual equivalent.

Arguing for a unifying aesthetic isn't really possible with this collection, and I don't mean that in the sense of the narcissism of small differences sense so much as the fact that, again, it's a slumgullion. Some clever sequencing choices aside, sonically this is a random mix, with songs that aren't all from the same place except by this kind of retrospection, so fully going in on an approach of "Are you SURE this song is Britpop?" track for track is going to just lead to grief. (That said, more than once, you hear one song following another and you go "Are you sure these are different bands?") There are arguably some clear limits, but not always the best – there's more than one mention in the liner notes saying that clubgoers were looking to avoid constant house music. While there's some great and weird electronic experimentation by the second CD with songs from Pram, Scala and Add N to X among others (the latter's 'Inevitable Fast Access' almost completely derails the idea that there's one true sonic throughline throughout the compilation, and Pram's 'Chrysalis' in its spooky fragility underscores that further) there's only the occasional sense that techno, Europop or perhaps above all else hip-hop was a part of anything going on. Given the enough-is-enough cultural and political explosions of 2020 in particular, the consequence of decades and centuries of exclusion, it's useful to remember that this was a scene and a very ill-defined one at that, not the whole thing and never could be. This is something to enjoy in context and with recognition.

But that all said, are there joys to be had? Absolutely - while it's by default uneven, I loved the hell out of this thing. First off, it's very notable, and appropriate, that whereas a comp that, say, focused on all the Oasis knockoffs - as I half suspected when the title was first announced - would have been lads lads lads all the time, women are all over Super Sonics as bandleaders, musicians and/or singers. The opening 1-2-3 of Powder's 'Afrodisiac,' Linoleum's 'Marquis' and Posh's 'Rough Lover' are all spiky energy and claiming space in the spotlight with irony and pointed targets as necessary, and honestly I don't think I've heard many comps that aren't specifically featuring women throughout take this sequencing approach, instead of a dude-by-default approach. That Kenickie get a pride of place with the handclap-crazy 'Come Out 2Nite' isn't a surprise, neither is the riff, shoutalong and electronic squelch combo of Shampoo's 'We Don't Care,' but that there's a ton of great songs like the early Bis track 'Keroleen,' Velocette's easy 60s electropop swing on 'Strip Polka' or Mambo Taxi's brilliantly titled hyperactive charger 'Do You Always Dress Like That in Front of Other People's Girlfriends.' Then of course there's the gang-shout strut of 'Her Jazz' by Huggy Bear, giving no shits and taking none, closing off the first disc with a hell of a run leading into the swinging kick of Heavenly's 'Trophy Girlfriend' and Voodoo Queens's still vivid blast of beauty industry disaffection 'Supermodel-Superficial.' (This is also an excuse for me to again celebrate my favorite one-album-and-done band of the decade, Minxus, featured here with the wonderful 'Steal Steal Steal.')

There's a strong argument in Green's liners for, if not sonic unity, then at least the real spark of recombination that results in something distinct and new across all the bands featured. Yet the truth of it is that there's also a lot on here that's simply variations of well-established paths from the then recent past, if slightly redressed or rearranged. Given the presence of a lot of already-established veterans in new guises throughout, such as Stephen Duffy, Candy Flip or the Soup Dragons' Sean Dickson, not entirely a surprise – and Duffy's 'London Girls' absolutely gets it almost too on the nose with the line about a 'hotshot Britpop poet,' for a start, but Dickson's bit of dreamy low-key beats and singing as the High Fidelity hit the nail on the head better by being called 'Sometimes The Kids Are Not Alright.' Pimlico's 'Revolve' is the kind of jangle-indie that could have easily been from 1989 or 1990 on either side of the Atlantic, maybe with smoother vocals. Perhaps it's more notable that the actual song 'Pimlico' by David Devant And His Spirit Wife is the greater success, a slow sway of arch ridiculousness in the best end-of-the-night singalong way.

Indeed, the archer the delivery the more I'm taken by things, I admit. The Weekenders' 'Inelegantly Wasted in Papa's Penthouse Pad in Belgravia' had me from the title alone but thankfully the song itself lived up to it thanks to Paul Tunkin's singing. Sexton Ming and Steady's 'Conker Fight in Wendy's House' has an even more none-more-English raspily voiced tale of said fight and then giving the police as good as they get when they finally show up, all backed by a sweet, strange shuffle of an arrangement. Sometimes it's all about a moment, and more than one band takes a simple enough trick - starting out a little more calmly and finding a way to build into a sharp chorus, as with Spearmint's 'Goldmine' or just making the song end on a big dramatic note like Chest does with 'Nosebleed' - and makes it work pretty darn well.

Of course, there's songs that are simply pleasant rather than anything else, often bands showing that they certainly knew their roots young and old, with a bit of a galumphing glam stomp or crisp and clipped guitar riffs or tremulous balladry or the like. But that makes other outliers even better than they already are, with Urusei Yatsura's 'Plastic Ashtray' transmogrifying Sonic Youth guitar chaos and slacker drawls into a truly of-its-moment anthemic crunch, Add N to X’s alternate guise as VA6's moody understated drawl set against a sharp electrorock fusion on 'Pit Stop' providing some real grubby spy movie chase vibes in the best way, and Scala's aggro sample stomp and cool vocals on 'VDT' feeling almost like a shocking intrusion of other sonic sources and possibilities in context. The more extreme the juxtapositions the more amazing the results - that Earl Brutus could produce a quiet, softly sung electropop number in 'On Me Not In Me' that has a five second or so complete epic rock out section right in the middle just because they could just shows how amazing they were.

It's appropriate that the compilation ends with Rialto, a band that in ways encapsulated a lot of what I've discussed. Louis Eliot had already had one band under his belt with Kinky Machine, aimed for the kind of moody theatricality that any number of other groups were starting to really pursue by the mid-90s following the successes large and small of plenty of other acts (and more to follow in their wake), and logically they had their greatest successes over in South Korea rather than anywhere near home. 'The Underdogs' is absolutely aiming for classic anthem status, string-swept and with stinging guitars, another arrangement that gets bigger as it goes, it's exactly what it wants to be. Yet for me the fondest memory comes via a rarity from my absolute favorite of the bands featured on this collection, from the time they started through to the present. Menswear were the absolute incarnation of the scene as such in some eyes, 'just' another white guy rock band in others, but the sense of style alone did the trick, and the songs matched it. Hearing a radically different dance mix, murky but involving, of their 'Daydreamer' - done at the time in part by Green himself as a member of the duo Student Union - reminds me that they were the one actual group of the forty featured here I saw at the time, when they toured America opening for the Charlatans in late 1995. I couldn't have been the only person in the Los Angeles crowd who was as excited to see them as the headliner, I'm sure, but even if we were outnumbered, it was a treat just TO see them, and get a sense, however secondhand, of whatever was happening over there in the UK, all that distance away.