Saturday, 2 August 2014
Classic Albums No.14: Life On Other Planets
I don’t fully remember the exact point at which I realised that the fourth Supergrass album was a work of genius. When I first bought it, I played it, then filed it away, and that was it. But in the years that have passed, I have returned to it again and again, more so than other Supergrass records. Why? Well, it seems to be one of those records which is catchy enough for some of the album tracks to get into your brain after one play, so that when you go back to it again later, you realise you can remember about half of what the LP sound like - in other words, the singles and those catchy album tracks. So you listen to it again, and then remember that the other album tracks are glorious. Some of them start to get into your brain second time around. So later on, when you revisit it again, you realise you can remember more of it, so you play it again…and so on, and so forth.
It’s not just me. The album received several ecstatic reviews when it came out, with Allmusic mentioning how much fun the record was in comparison to 1999’s self titled predecessor, whilst the band themselves later explained how they approached the record differently after the previous album “lacked urgency”. Even the BBC review at the time claimed it was possibly their finest effort so far.
The history of Supergrass can be traced back to the early 1990s, and the Oxford based band The Jennifers, who included in their ranks singer and guitarist Gaz Coombes and drummer Danny Goffey. After splitting in 1992, Coombes came into contact with Cambridge born Mick Quinn, and the trio formed Supergrass in 1993. They were signed to the local label Backbeat Records, and released a limited edition debut 7”, “Caught By The Fuzz”, in early 1994. Follow up single “Mansize Rooster” was also issued by Backbeat soon after, by which time, they were starting to attract the attention of the major labels. They were signed to Parlophone, who arranged for the two singles to be reissued. This involved slightly remixing both sides of both singles, and issuing them - in the same order - as both 7” singles and CD singles, with an extra track on the CD edition of each. And so it was that “Caught By The Fuzz” appeared as their third single in late 1994, with “Mansize Rooster” turning up in the spring of 95. This was followed by a curious US only release on Sub Pop of a brand new song, “Lose It”, which sold enough copies in the UK to chart just inside the top 75, as a buzz around the band began to build.
The first Parlophone single to feature a completely “new” a-side appeared next, in the form of “Lenny”, which gave the band a top 10 hit. The debut album, “I Should Coco”, was released soon after, and immediately pushed Supergrass into the public eye. Critically acclaimed, and a big seller, the album slotted perfectly into the Britpop genre that was emerging in the UK, albeit in a more relentlessly energetic form than some of their contemporaries, as the album mixed Jam-like power pop with Madness-style English eccentricities. A comical video for next single, the cheeky cockney knees up that was “Alright”, simply made them even more popular, and seemed to suggest Supergrass were a bunch of cartoonish popstars, always up for a laugh and a joke - something which was always in danger of overshadowing their career as they tried to make more grown up records later on. Such was the impact of the video, that Steven Spielberg approached the band with a view to making a Monkees-style TV series, but the group (possibly wisely) refused.
After a stand alone single was issued in early 1996 to capitalise on the band’s ongoing success (“Going Out”, later included on their next album), the band carried on touring, including a high profile slot at Pulp’s outdoor mini festival at Hylands Park in Chelmsford in 1996. Their second album, 1997’s “In It For The Money”, by and large moved away from the hyper bouncy sound of the debut - “It’s Not Me” was a simple, but heartfelt, acoustic strum, “Late In The Day” exhibited an element of song writing maturity mostly absent on the debut, and the title track, with it’s gloriously repetitive guitar driven menace, seemed to exhibit an air of melancholy and grudging cynicism. It still sold by the bucket load.
1999’s self titled effort didn’t fare so well, despite lead single “Pumping On Your Stereo” having a video which seemed like a throwback to the “Alright” days - the band were depicted as cartoon like Muppet-esque characters. It still sold well, and spawned a magnificent 45 in the form of the epic “Moving”, but was regarded by the critics as missing something, lacking the spark of the debut, or the inventiveness of “In It For The Money”. It was seen as being a bit too downbeat and too mellow.
It’s against this backdrop of “difficult third album syndrome” that “Life On Other Planets”, or “LOOP” as it sometimes gets called, was conceived. With long time keyboard player (and brother of Gaz) Rob Coombes now officially on board as a fourth band member, material was debuted during shows in 2001, including their support slot at Radiohead’s homecoming gig in South Park in Oxford in July. Almost as if they knew they had recorded a corker of an album, the first single was issued as a limited edition 7” in the summer of 2002, a rather low key start for what would be a miraculous album. “Never Done Nothing Like That Before” was an astonishing record, a ramshackle punk rock roar, with a slightly psychotic vocal delivery, the noisiest song the band had ever made, and done and dusted within two minutes. It made Blur’s “Song 2” sound like “Stairway To Heaven”.
What makes “LOOP” so special is that it marries the effervescent blast of the debut with the forward thinking, intelligent, music of “In It For The Money” - there are catchy hooks all over the place, heart melting key changes, and numerous “classic rock” references…Genesis style keyboard swirls everywhere and 70s era Pink Floyd guitar solos throughout.
Opening number “Za” sets the stall out straight away. It fades in with a space age style synthy intro, possibly a reference to the UFO-esque album title? Then, it suddenly hits you with it’s rinky dinky piano intro, before lurching straight into a stomping keyboard filled roar, the sound of the entire “Parklife” album being recorded by Roxy Music in one go. An astonishing start. And it simply gets better and better as it goes on.
“Rush Hour Soul” is near perfect, galloping along with it’s catchy “whoo whoo wh-whoo whoo” guitar/keyboard hybrid calling card, before veering into a space rock style chorus, predating the first Secret Machines album by a good two years in doing so. Towards the end, the song breaks down into a manic Sonic Youth style noise excursion, before pausing for breath, and then raucously kicking back into life for it‘s final few seconds. Glorious.
“Seen The Light” sees the band wear the classic rock influences on their sleeve quite explicitly, as Coombes doesn’t so much tip his hat to Marc Bolan with his singing style, as opposed to rather stealing it hook line and sinker. The song itself also exhibits an air of T Rex glam throughout, complete with some marvellous “la la la” backing vocals during the choruses, before ending with an Elvis impersonator style vocal finale, Coombes finishing on the “thankyouverymuch“ line straight out of the Presley songbook. Sublime. And that’s even before we mention the bizarre “sheep baa” noise that appears out of nowhere in the middle section.
“Brecon Beacons” is the great single that never was. It opens with another catchy-as-hell guitar driven opening, then chugs along with a relentless energy whilst borrowing little bits of “Race For The Prize”, all of which masks the rather dark lyrics (“Well, they found the body down on Brecon Beacons”). But it is impossible to not be drawn in by the hooks that lurk throughout this song, nor the subtle key changes that add the air of drama needed in the choruses, to accompany the slightly spooky line “it’s retribution from the supernatural, you better watch out ’cos they’re coming to get you!” - followed by a celebratory “whoo!“ from Coombes. Flawless.
“Can’t Get Up” starts out sounding worryingly like Jon Bon Jovi’s “Dead Or Alive”, and you think to yourself - “OK, fair enough, they couldn’t keep that up for long”. But then you get to the chorus, and bang! It turns into something utterly euphoric, honey dripped hooks everywhere, as multi tracked vocals come out and grab you. It sounds like The Beatles and The Sweet’s “Blockbuster” having a love-in.
“Evening Of The Day” also chugs along a bit like it’s stuck somewhere between 1966 and 1996, a sort of Paul Weller solo track circa “Stanley Road” played by The Kinks. But once again, the choruses tumble out of the speakers with a big smile on their face, as Coombes more or less steals an old Spinal Tap lyric by singing “if she’s not on that 3.15, then I’m gonna know what sorrow means” with utter relish, before some Neil Young & Crazy Horse style guitar licks hover in the background. Just as you think the song has ended, literally crashing to a halt as the sound of musical instruments seem to go careering across the studio, it segues into what sounds like a cross between “Meddle” era Pink Floyd and the end of Genesis’ “Giant Hogweed”. Staggering.
We have already mentioned “Never Done Nothing Like That Before”. Just to remind you again, it is incredible.
“Funniest Thing” takes things down a notch, but retains the melodic pull that runs constantly throughout this album. Genteel verses, that burst into glorious, raucous, hook-laden choruses. The harmonies have probably been stolen straight from Bowie somewhere along the line, but it’s done with such an effortless ease, it’s hard not to be smitten with what you are hearing. Yet again, a subtle key change in the choruses makes you swoon with delight when you hear it. Interestingly, things struggle with hit single “Grace”, which heads back towards the “Alright”-style cockney knees up sound of old, and thus provides arguably the weakest link in the chain. It’s telling that the one song that sounds most like the Supergrass of the past, is thus the least fascinating on the record, a sign of just how far they had come. But it’s still quite charming, especially at the finale as Coombes sings “Monday, Tuesday” in a style that sounds like a character out of Steptoe And Son.
“La Song” opens with a marvellous, slow, sad melodica/keyboard intro, then wham! This could be anything off of “All Mod Cons”, only with added “la la la‘s” and Sparks style glam. The middle eight features the intro again, only this time with backwards Byrds style guitar lines and Kraftwerk synthesizer jabs all over the top. Impressive stuff.
“Prophet 15” is another song that sounds like it has been beamed in from the future, sounding like a bizarre cross between Replicas-era Tubeway Army, George Harrison and the final part of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond“. In the choruses, the album hits it’s most beautiful melodies, and it’s most affecting key changes so far, whilst Coombes lists off a roll call of pop culture references “…and Oscar Wilde and Peter Cook were close by…and Joe The Lion and Marvin Gaye were there, oh yeah”. It’s so perfect, so beautiful, this blog simply cannot do it justice. You just need to hear it to appreciate it in all it’s stunning glory.
“Run” incredibly ups the ante, despite the fact that we are now at the end. It’s basically “Because” by The Beatles updated for the 21st century, before heading off into several minutes of psychedelic, blissful, kaleidoscopic, full blown prog territory, before some “Fashion” style guitar comes screeching in overhead as the finale builds and builds, before calming down and settling into some more Pink Floyd style noodling. It brings the song to a dignified, and relaxing end. Nearly. Because just as you think it’s over, in comes a fairground style waltz instrumental, albeit one that sounds like it’s being played by Yes circa 1972, before the record finally comes to an echoing, shuddering, end.
It is difficult not to feel like you have listened to something approaching a lost classic when hear this LP. Quite how a record this catchy, this beautiful, and ultimately, this much fun is rarely talked about is rather heartbreaking. It certainly outstrips a lot of the landfill indie that sold in big units, bands that Supergrass often got lumped in with (Keane, Snow Patrol, The Kooks), and whilst those bands were turned somehow from also-ran Britpoppers into megastars, Supergrass - and this LP in particular - just seemed to get left behind. It’s a glorious record, almost futuristic and electronic in it’s sound at times, and whilst it may well be a naughty concoction of just about every band who have ever been on the cover of “Mojo”, it all hangs together so perfectly. It’s my favourite Supergrass album, and one of the best so-called “Britpop” albums ever made.
Of course, Supergrass were never able to top this album. 2005’s “Road To Rouen”, despite being a critics’ favourite, was overall a slow, rather quiet, sounding record, one that failed to grab your attention in the same way “LOOP” did. By the time of 2008’s “Diamond Hoo Ha”, the group were in something of a state, with band members suffering near fatal injuries, and Parlophone starting to lose interest in the band. The third single from the album was cancelled, and the band resorted to forming their own label in order to release it as a limited edition mail order release on vinyl only. The group finally threw in the towel whilst working on aborted seventh studio LP, and that was that.
I cannot praise “Life On Other Planets” highly enough. I always think it is difficult to try and describe the sound of music - after all, music is supposed to be listened to, as opposed to being “described” to someone else. But I can only sum up by saying that it is Supergrass’s masterpiece, their own mini “White Album”, a magnificent pop record played by a masterful ‘guitar band’ at the top of their game. Even now, Supergrass are probably still remembered not by this record, but by “Alright”, a situation summed up by somebody called Troy Carpenter, who once claimed they were a “fun loving rock group, whose undeniable musical talent is sometimes overshadowed by the sheer ebullience of it’s music”. “LOOP” was in some respects an attempt to redress the balance, to make a grown up record that could be seen as the older, cleverer, more adult brother to “I Should Coco”. It may not have convinced the general public, who by this point, were gravitating towards the horrors of 50 Cent and The Black Eyed Peas, but it remains a classic - lost in the midsts of time, but one that I hope people will one day discover for themselves. I just can’t say this enough, this is brilliant, brilliant music, and I implore you to track this record down. Best album of 2002? Definitely, maybe.
So, my first Supergrass blog, so an excuse to go for a full blown discography. Fairly simple - “Loop” related material first, then what came before and after. We are generally looking at (nearly all) vinyl and CD pressings, some Grass albums came on Cassette, but none of the singles issued on the same format ever gave you anything the Compact Discs didn’t, so most tapes have been omitted for clarity.
Life On Other Planets (LP + poster, Parlophone 541 8001)
Life On Other Planets (CD, Parlophone 541 8002)
LOOP ERA SINGLES
Never Done Nothing Like That Before (Numbered 1-sided 7”, Parlophone R6583)
Grace/Velvetine (Pink Vinyl 7”, Parlophone R6586)
Grace/Velvetine/Electric Cowboy/Grace (Video) (CD1, Parlophone CDRS6586)
Grace/Tishing In Windows (Kicking Down Doors)/That Old Song (CD2, Parlophone CDR6586, different p/s)
Seen The Light/The Loner (Grey Vinyl 7”, Parlophone R6592)
Seen The Light/The Loner/I Told The Truth (CD, Parlophone CDR6592)
Seen The Light (Video)/Never Done Nothing Like That Before (Live, Oslo John Dee 25.9.2002 - Video)/Brecon Beacons (Shepherds Bush Empire 2002)/Rush Hour Soul (Shepherds Bush Empire 2002) (DVD, Parlophone DVDR6592, black p/s)
Rush Hour Soul/Everytime (Green Vinyl 7”, Parlophone R6612)
Rush Hour Soul/Everytime/Rush Hour Soul (Video)/Everytime (Video) (CD, Parlophone CDR6612)
SELECTED OTHER ALBUMS
I Should Coco (LP + 7”, Parlophone PCSX 7373, 7“ includes exclusive tracks)
I Should Coco (CD, Parlophone CDPCS 7373)
In It For The Money (LP, Parlophone PCS 7388)
In It For The Money (2xCD, Parlophone CDPCS 7388, second disc of selected B-sides, later copies on one disc only)
Supergrass (LP, Parlophone 522 056-1)
Supergrass (Enhanced CD, Parlophone 522 056-0, different sleeve with CD-Rom material, later copies use standard cover and have no enhanced element)
Supergrass / I Should Coco (French Only 2xCD Box Set, Parlophone 541103-2, “Supergrass” is the ’later’ standard pressing)
Supergrass Is 10 (2 x Clear Vinyl 10”, Parlophone 578 994-1)
Supergrass Is 10 (CD, Parlophone 571 160-2)
Road To Rouen (LP, Parlophone 333 334-1)
Road To Rouen (CD, Parlophone 333 334-2)
Diamond Hoo Ha (LP, Parlophone 519 7341)
Diamond Hoo Ha (CD, Parlophone 519 7342)
PRE LOOP SINGLES
Caught By The Fuzz/Strange Ones (7”, Backbeat BEAT 4)
Mansize Rooster/Sitting Up Straight (Green Vinyl 7”, Backbeat BEAT 6)
Caught By The Fuzz/Strange Ones (7”, Parlophone R6396)
Caught By The Fuzz/Strange Ones (Cassette, Parlophone TCR6396)
Caught By The Fuzz/Strange Ones/Caught By The Fuzz (Acoustic) (CD, Parlophone CDR6396, bonus track later released on “Lose It“ 7“)
Mansize Rooster/Sitting Up Straight (Red Vinyl 7”, Parlophone R6402)
Mansize Rooster/Sitting Up Straight/Odd? (CD, Parlophone CDR6402)
Lose It/Caught By The Fuzz (Acoustic) (US Yellow Vinyl 7”, Sub Pop SP 281)
Lenny/Wait For The Sun (Numbered Blue Vinyl 7”, Parlophone RS6410)
Lenny/Wait For The Sun/Sex! (CD, Parlophone CDR6410)
Alright/Time (Yellow Vinyl 7”, Parlophone R6413)
Alright/Time/Condition/Je Suis Votre Papa Sucre (CD, Parlophone CDR6413)
Going Out/Melanie Davis (Red Vinyl 7”, Parlophone R6428)
Going Out/Melanie Davis/Strange Ones (Live) (CD, Parlophone CDR6428)
Richard III/Nothing More’s Gonna Get In My Way (Yellow Vinyl 7”, Parlophone R6461)
Richard III/Sometimes I Make You Sad/Sometimes We’re Very Sad (CD1, Parlophone CDR6461)
Richard III/Nothing More’s Gonna Get In My Way/20ft Halo (CD2, Parlophone CDRS6461, different p/s)
Sun Hits The Sky (Radio Edit)/Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others (Numbered White Vinyl 7”, Parlophone R6469)
Sun Hits the Sky (Radio Edit)/Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others/Sun Hits The Sky (BBC Radio 1 Evening Session Version) (CD, Parlophone CDR6469, with 3 postcards)
Late In The Day/We Still Need More (Than Anyone Can Give) (Gold Vinyl 7”, Parlophone R6484)
Late In The Day/We Still Need More (Than Anyone Can Give)/It’s Not Me (Demo Version) (CD1, Parlophone CDRS6484, with poster)
Late In The Day/Don’t Be Cruel/The Animal (CD2, Parlophone CDR6484, different p/s)
Pumping On Your Stereo (Single Version)/You’ll Never Walk Again (Green Vinyl 7”, Parlophone R6518)
Pumping On Your Stereo (Single Version)/You’ll Never Walk Again/Sick (CD1, Parlophone CDRS6518)
Pumping On Your Stereo (Single Version)/What A Shame/Lucky (No Fear) (CD2, Parlophone CDR6518, different colour p/s)
Moving/Believer (Blue Vinyl 7”, Parlophone R6524)
Moving/You Too Can Play Alright/Pumping On Your Stereo (Video) (CD1, Parlophone CDRS6524)
Moving/Believer/Faraway (Acoustic Version) (CD2, Parlophone CDR6524, different p/s)
Mary (Album Mix)/(Lamacq Live) (Silver Vinyl 7”, Parlophone R6531)
Mary/Pumping On Your Stereo (At Peel Acres)/Strange Ones (At Peel Acres) (CD1, Parlophone CDRS6531)
Mary (Lamacq Live)/Richard III (At Peel Acres)/Sun Hits The Sky (At Peel Acres) (CD2, Parlophone CDR6531, different p/s)
POST LOOP SINGLES
Kiss Of Life/We Dream Of This (Clear Vinyl 7”, Parlophone R6638)
Kiss Of Life/We Dream Of This/Kiss Of Life (Tom Tom Club Full Mix) (CD, Parlophone CDRS6638)
St Petersburg/Kiss Of Life (Live @ Portsmouth Pyramids) (Red Vinyl 7”, Parlophone R6670)
St Petersburg/Kiss Of Life (Live @ Portsmouth Pyramids)/Bullett (Live @ Portsmouth Pyramids) (CD, Parlophone CDR6670)
Low C/Roxy (Live at Ronnie Scotts 2005) (Red Vinyl 7”, Parlophone R6675)
Low C (Album Mix)/(Live, Oxford Playhouse) (CD, Parlophone CDR6675)
Low C/Lady Day And John Coltrane (Live at Ronnie Scotts 2005)/Low C (Video)/St Petersburg (Video) (DVD, Parlophone DVDR6675)
Fin (Album Mix)/(Live on BBC Radio 2 Jonathan Ross Show, 2005) (Red Vinyl 7”, Parlophone R6682)
Diamond Hoo Ha Man/345 (Numbered Brown Vinyl 7” + stickers, Parlophone R6753)
Bad Blood/Rough Knuckles (Brown Vinyl 7”, Parlophone R6755)
Bad Blood/Beat It/Bad Blood (Diamond Hoo Ha Men Version)/(Video) (CD, Parlophone CDR6755)
Rebel In You/Car Crash (Numbered White Vinyl 7”, Supergrass Records PARL001, mail order only, first 200 copies signed)