Sunday, 8 December 2013
When Britpop began to fall from grace in the late 90s, it came in for a bit of a kicking from the very same people who had championed it only a matter of years before. It was dismissed as a retro sounding, non-forward thinking style of music, “meat and potatoes” indie. Bands either fell off the radar and split up, fell out with each other and split up, and those that survived did so either by being too big to split up initially (Oasis) or reinvented themselves as Pavement obsessed anti-pop guitar manglers (Blur).
But you have to remember, that most of these bands - the good ones at least - had quite good reference points, and were merely emulating their idols. Bowie, The Kinks, The Beatles, the good thing about Britpop was that bands who would otherwise have stayed marginalised broke through into the mainstream. Shows like “Top Of The Pops”, that had started the decade by still featuring the likes of 2 Unlimited, were now more or less being forced into having guitar bands make an appearance, as slowly but surely, the latest wave of indie-poppers began denting the top 40.
Leading the charge, at least as regards the smaller bands of the time, were Sleeper, led by the rent-a-quote indie pin up queen Louise Wener, and her band of anonymous “Sleeperblokes”. They made some quite decent tunes, and for a while, were huge popstars. Wener had formed the band at Manchester Uni, where, inspired by pop acts like Madonna, she figured a female fronted band who weren’t scowling at the top of their lungs, like Hole or L7, might have a chance at the big time. They actually found themselves emerging at the time alongside a whole host of other female fronted bands with a similar approach (see also Salad, Tiny Monroe and Echobelly), and then crashed and burned relatively quickly, although Wener later reinvented herself as a writer, and still makes it into the public eye now and again.
Like most single twenty something indie boys, I was quite obsessed with Wener at the time. She was born in Gants Hill, a bus ride or two away from where I used to live, so she became something of an East London local hero when Sleeper became big news in 1995. I recall going to see them play at some TOTP organised “indie mini festival” at Wembley Arena in 1996, and they were the only band playing who I liked. They had to go to America that night, so asked to open the show because they had to race off to the airport, even though they were deserving of a much higher place on the bill. They came on at about half six, played for 40 odd minutes, and that was it. I left straight away, and remember passing queues of latecomers still waiting to get into the venue, obviously only interested in the sub-Weller dadrock nonsense of Ocean Colour Scene that was due along later that night.
Sleeper emerged in 1993, being signed to RCA offshoot Indolent, an “indie” label being bankrolled by a major. They released their first single, the “Alice” EP, that year, although it was more of a maxi single really, consisting of only three songs, and was the first of several releases that would include, as their lead track, a very early preview of material due to make their debut LP several years later. The relevant track on this EP was the opening “Alive In Vain”. Some copies were exported to North America, where the band were billed as “Sleeper UK” and stickers featuring their US name were placed over their UK moniker. Like many of their early releases, it was issued on both 7” and CD with identical track listings.
Single number 2, “Swallow”, dented the top 100, and featured an alternate version of a song later to be re-recorded for the LP, “Twisted”, as one of the bonus tracks. Catchy-as-hell follow up single “Delicious” appeared in May 1994, which alongside the usual 3 track 7” and CD editions, was also issued on 12” with a bonus track, “Tatty”. This song later got a second lease of life when it appeared on the “For Immediate Use” freebie cassette, given away with a copy of the now defunct music mag Raw.
By now, the band were starting to attract attention - I seem to recall Wener was already starting to fascinate the press with her outspoken quotes and sometimes deliberately provocative behaviour, done really to try and promote the band, even if she didn’t necessarily agree with the actual things she was saying. I also think that “Delicious” b-side “Lady Love Your Countryside” was titled so that the final word could be used to terrify TV execs if the band played it live on a television show, but I could be wrong. With the band’s profile starting to rise, they managed to get "Supermarket Sweep" star Dale Winton to appear in the video for their next single, “Inbetweener”, the band’s first really big hit, and one of the more famous records from the era.
“Smart” was issued in March 95, garnering positive reviews, a decent chart position, with sizeable units shifted. The vinyl edition of the album included a repressing of the original “Alice” 7”, as these were starting to fetch big money on the collectors market. Thanks to the inclusion of material from the earlier singles, much of the album would have been already quite well known to a lot of people when it came out (albeit sometimes in re-recorded form), and even so-called new album track “Bedhead” had appeared before, in live form at the end of 1994, when it appeared on the “Bucket And Spade” mail order/gig freebie 7”.
A re-recorded track from the LP, “Vegas” (featuring Graham Coxon on saxophone), appeared a few weeks later, a quite brilliant piece of indie (power) pop. Showing where their influences were coming from, the B-side was a cover of The Pretenders’ “Hymn To Her”. 7” copies were pressed on blue vinyl, whilst the CD edition added additional bonus tracks. The band later supported REM that summer at one of their two gigs at Milton Keynes Bowl, where Michael Stipe famously sang “Happy Birthday” to Louise mid way through their set. Having spent some 18 months to get from their debut EP to their debut LP, the band were now seemingly on a roll, and brand new material appeared in September, when “What Do I Do Now” turned up as the band’s latest 45. The multi formatting really started in earnest here, with a second CD single featuring live B-sides in a unique sleeve being offered to fans. It became their biggest hit so far.
Several months passed before the band’s second album was ready for release, and the LP was previewed by the “Sale Of The Century” single in April 1996. 7” and Cassette copies included the band’s cover of Blondie’s “Atomic”, originally taped for the “Trainspotting” soundtrack album, and although the band came in for some stick for their (slightly rough) cover, well, let’s face it, even Led Zeppelin couldn’t have improved on the original.
“The It Girl” followed “Smart” into the UK album chart top 10, and was regarded to be an improvement over it’s predecessor, Wener being praised for her strong song writing skills - her lyrics at times were deliberately in-yer-face, whilst the pop influences were noticeable via the hooks and melodies that the songs contained. It was guitar music, but less 'Sonic Youth' and more 'Squeeze' in it's approach. “Nice Guy Eddie” followed “Sale Of The Century” into the top 10, and the likes of Elvis Costello came forward as a fan, inviting them to record a cover of one of his songs for the b-side of a single, whilst also covering one of their songs at a later date. Some formats of “Nice Guy Eddie” featured a comedy cover of “Inbetweener” by Radio 1 DJ’s Mark And Lard, under the title of “Ugly Bleeder”.
“Statuesque” appeared as the next single in late 1996, with the 7” edition coming in a fancy gatefold sleeve, and the aforementioned Costello cover appearing on one of the two CD singles that were released. It should have heralded the next phase of the band, but it was really the turning point, the highpoint before the problems set in. After the US tour (supporting Costello), there was a UK tour in December where the band played a celebratory homecoming (for Louise) show at the Ilford Island, but there was trouble on the horizon. The band were more or less forced into recording a new album almost immediately to keep up with the momentum they had obtained, but the thing was, that the group were starting to burn out.
In late 97, the band released their third album, “Pleased To Meet You”, trailed by the glorious horn driven romp that was “She’s A Good Girl”. By this point, bass player Diid Osman had quit, soon to be replaced by Dan Kauffmann, joining original members Jon Stewart and Andy Maclure. The album was issued in two different sleeves, with the LP version featuring a front cover image of Louise from when she was at school, done I think to show how even a geeky Essex girl could become a popstar. Promo copies came in a third variant sleeve, with all three band members (no Kauffmann - he wasn’t quite in the band just yet) proudly on show - the standard Cassette and CD editions featured a current image of Wener, alone, on the front cover.
And then it all started to unravel. The album had also dented the top 10, but a forthcoming tour was postponed, unofficially I believe, due to poor ticket sales, and was rescheduled for the following spring - enough time to try and shift more tickets I guess. But “She’s A Good Girl” had failed to go top 20, and the band were convinced that the label would withdraw their support. A follow up single, “Romeo Me”, fared even worse, stalling at number 39 despite being multi formatted across two CD editions and an oversized 7” single, which had a unique B-side pressed on clear vinyl, free postcards and a “Marilyn Monroe” cover not used on any of the other formats. Originally, three more singles had been planned by the label, but when the third of these, “Rollercoaster”, got cancelled, it showed that the end was nigh.
Wener mentioned in The Guardian some years later that when they filmed the video for “She’s A Good Girl”, it was on the same day that Princess Diana died, and the band felt that the tide had turned. By the start of 1998, Robbie Williams was turning into a superstar, and with Blur having already started copying the bands they previously claimed to have hated, Wener felt the Britpop bubble was about to burst. I recall seeing the band play what felt, to me, like an underwhelming show at the Cliffs Pavilion in Southend, far from being a sellout, despite the extra time bought from the postponement being a potential opportunity for increased ticket sales. The final gig was at London’s Brixton Academy, which the band did feel was a celebratory affair, so maybe I just didn’t fully enjoy the Southend one, or maybe the crowd were a bit boring, I can’t quite remember. It just felt less euphoric than all the other times I had seen them, the Ilford gig had felt like a big party. Sleeper announced their split soon after, a rather low key ending for a band that had, just three years earlier, been critically acclaimed press darlings.
Given the vogue now for reissuing pretty much anything, no matter how niche the reissue might be, Sleeper have had a few releases in recent years that have revamped the back catalogue, suggesting there is still some interest in the band. Aside from a “Greatest Hits” album (one which included a b-side, so that obviously wasn’t a hit), the band’s first two albums have been reissued in expanded form by Cherry Red, collating most of the rarities from the relevant period, but not all (single versions seemingly absent).
The list below features more or less everything the band released on 45 in the UK, plus details of the three LP’s. The early period singles, as you can see, were sometimes issued on “pointless” formats but are listed on the basis that any missing tracks from these formats are now on the Cherry Red releases. Anything that is missing, is missing for a reason.
Smart (CD, Indolent SLEEP CD 007)
The It Girl (CD, Indolent SLEEP CD 012)
Pleased To Meet You (LP, unique p/s + poster, Indolent SLEEP 016)
Pleased To Meet You (CD, Indolent SLEEP 016 CD)
Alice EP: Alice In Vain/Ha Ha You’re Dead/Big Nurse (7”, Indolent SLEEP 001)
Alice EP: Alice In Vain/Ha Ha You’re Dead/Big Nurse (CD, Indolent SLEEP 001 CD)
Swallow/Twisted/One Girl Dreaming (7“, Indolent SLEEP 002)
Swallow/Twisted/One Girl Dreaming (CD, Indolent SLEEP 002 CD)
Delicious/Lady Love Your Countryside/Bedside Manners (7”, Indolent SLEEP 003)
Delicious/Lady Love Your Countryside/Bedside Manners/Tatty (12“, Indolent SLEEP 003 T)
Delicious/Lady Love Your Countryside/Bedside Manners (CD, Indolent SLEEP 003 CD)
Bucket And Spade EP: Bedhead (Live)/Alice In Vain (Live)/Swallow (Live) (Numbered Mail Order 7” in die cut sleeve, Indolent SLEEP 004, first 500 pressed on green vinyl)
Inbetweener/Little Annie (7”, Indolent SLEEP 006)
Inbetweener/Little Annie (Cassette in “Cereal Box” p/s, Indolent SLEEP 006 MC, with free stickers)
Inbetweener/Little Annie/Disco Duncan/Bank (12“, Indolent SLEEP 006 T)
Inbetweener/Little Annie/Disco Duncan (CD, Indolent SLEEP 006 CD)
Vegas (New Version)/Hymn To Her (Numbered Blue Vinyl 7”, Indolent SLEEP 008, 5000 only)
Vegas (New Version)/Hymn To Her (Cassette, Indolent SLEEP 008 MC)
Vegas (New Version)/Hymn To Her/It’s Wrong Of You To Breed/Close (12” Picture Disc in clear sleeve, Indolent SLEEP 008 T)
Vegas (New Version)/Hymn To Her/It’s Wrong Of You To Breed/Close (CD, Indolent SLEEP 008 CD)
What Do I Do Now?/Paint Me/Room At The Top (Numbered 7” in unique p/s, Indolent SLEEP 010, 2000 only)
What Do I Do Now?/Paint Me (Cassette, Indolent SLEEP 009 MC)
What Do I Do Now?/Paint Me/Room At The Top (CD1, Indolent SLEEP 009 CD1)
What Do I Do Now?/Disco Duncan (Live Cardiff University 3.3.1995)/Vegas (Live London Astoria 9.3.1995)/Amuse (Live Cardiff University 3.3.1995) (CD2 in unique p/s, Indolent SLEEP 009 CD2)
Sale Of The Century/Atomic (Numbered Green Vinyl 7”, Indolent SLEEP 011, 10000 only)
Sale Of The Century/Atomic (Cassette, Indolent SLEEP 011 MC)
Sale Of The Century/Package Holiday/Oh Well (CD, Indolent SLEEP 011 CD)
Nice Guy Eddie/Inbetweener (Live London Shepherds Bush Empire 13.10.1995)/Ugly Bleeder (7” Picture Disc in clear sleeve, Indolent SLEEP 013)
Nice Guy Eddie/Inbetweener (Live London Shepherds Bush Empire 13.10.1995)/Ugly Bleeder (Cassette in “living room” p/s, Indolent SLEEP 013 MC)
Nice Guy Eddie/Pokerface/Blazer Sleeves (CD, Indolent SLEEP 013 CD)
Statuesque/She’s A Sweetheart (Numbered 7” in “board game” p/s with poster, Indolent SLEEP 014, 10000 only)
Statuesque/She’s A Sweetheart/Spies (CD1, Indolent SLEEP 014 CD1)
Statuesque (LP Version)/(The Boxed Off Mix)/The Other End Of The Telescope/Atomic (Wubble U Mix) (CD2, different p/s, SLEEP 014 CD2)
She’s A Good Girl/Come On Come On/I’m A Man (CD, Indolent SLEEP 015 CD)
Romeo Me/Cunt London (Numbered Clear Vinyl 7”, “Monroe” p/s with 3 postcards, Indolent SLEEP 17, supposedly 3000 only but some copies numbered as high as 3500)
Romeo Me/This Is The Sound Of Someone Else/What Do I Get?/Nice Guy Eddie (BBC Radio 1 John Peel Version 11.5.1996) (CD1, Indolent SLEEP 17 CD1)
Romeo Me/When Will You Smile?/What Do I Do Now? (BBC Radio 1 Evening Session Version 20.11.1995)/Motorway Man (Artic Mix) (CD2, Indolent SLEEP 17 CD2)
SELECTED PROMOS/OTHER RARITIES
Inbetweener/Little Annie/Disco Duncan/Bank (Promo 12“ in die cut sleeve, Indolent DOLE 004)
Inbetweener (Live The White Room 11.3.1995) (Cassette, from “The White Room Album”)
Disco Duncan (BBC Radio 1 John Peel Version 25.10.1994) (CD, Melody Maker MM/BBC CD 97-99, from “Hold On”)
Tatty (Cassette, from “Raw - For Immediate Use”)
Nice Guy Eddie/Pokerface/Blazer Sleeves (Promo CD Single, Indolent DOLE 039, unique “titles” p/s)
Sale Of The Century (Live Leeds Town & Country Club 9.4.1996) (CD, Harmless CTYCD 96, from “Radio One Sound City Leeds 1996”)
Statuesque (Promo Acetate CDR, Indolent no cat. No., unique p/s)
She’s A Good Girl (Promo CD Single, Indolent DOLE 074, unique p/s)
Pleased To Meet You (Promo CD Album, Indolent DOLE 076, unique p/s)