Some of my weightier musical thoughts from meaty Popular threads, as its canter through 1997 continued.

Hanson, “MMMBop”, 7 June 1997

This spent nine weeks at the top in Australia, although it was only our fifth highest seller that year. Definitely a key part of the pop soundtrack of its year, and it isn’t hard to see why: it’s a joyful piece of work, full of youthful optimism, even if the lyrics are a little less sunny than the sound.

The preadolescent vibe of the song bugged many at the time, and I remember thinking much the same back then as well. But now that I live with two preadolescents, I’m bothered by my own past reaction. Why should kids on pop songs be a turn-off? I don’t mean nursery songs of the kind that parents of pre-schoolers know all too well, but older kids playing proper pop. There shouldn’t be anything shameful in having a hint of training wheels about your music—everyone has to learn sometime—and there certainly shouldn’t be any shame in singing before your voice has broken.

I wouldn’t even have said that Hanson had a hint of training wheels: they were clearly accomplished musicians by the time they recorded this, and if any early drafts of “MMMBop” lacked sophistication the traces were erased by their adult co-writer (Allee Willis, the writer of the Friends theme, which seems appropriate). Lyrically and musically this is strong enough to convince many listeners who haven’t seen the video that the band were adults, as some comments here attest. If singing “mmmbop, ba duba dop ba doooo bop” makes you a child, then the ghost of Sinatra had better watch out.

I wonder if there’s something particularly galling for more cynical observers in the sort of success that Hanson represented: that sense of being trumped by a bunch of kids who’ve hit it bigger than you ever will. Look at them, they’re not even all teenagers, and already they’re number one! I could have done that! If my childhood had followed an entirely different path. I will get around to it someday. It’s on my to do list. (Even more galling when the band don’t turn out to be one-hit wonders, and actually display some staying power.)

There’s also the hint in any song of this kind of that dread pop and rock phenomenon, the kiddie choir. I can only name a couple of songs off the top of my head that worked well with one—Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall”, which everybody knows, and Mike Oldfield’s “On Horseback”, which everybody doesn’t—and can think of a couple of promising acts who were scuppered by them (Ride on Carnival of Light and Badly Drawn Boy on One Plus One is One, for starters). But there’s something different between a choir singing to an adult band’s ends and a band of kids making music of their own, even if it’s with adult assistance.

I still don’t think I could face watching the nervous under-age performers on Britain’s Got Talent, but that might have more to do with not enjoying any nervous performance, or anything much to do with Simon Cowell. A confident performance, a performance polished in the studio by decent producers, is a different matter. I’m open to it today in a way that I wasn’t when “MMMBop” was number one.

Kids can take pop seriously, both the listening to it and the making of it. And they can take it joyfully, as Hanson did here. 7.

Oasis, “D’You Know What I Mean?”, 19 July 1997

Trust Popular to make me listen to Be Here Now again, for the first time in at least five years and likely many more (I rebuilt my iTunes database five years ago so half my songs show the same Date Added from 2009). And there I was, all ready to slate it on the basis of memory, and... I quite like it. It’s at least twenty minutes and three and a half songs too long, but it has its moments. Some of them even feature on this opener, which is a decent five-minute song stretched to seven—just as the album is a decent 40-50 minutes stretched to seventy.

My own Be Here Now thought-experiment has eight tracks which in their current form total 52 minutes, but which with the fat removed would clock in around 40—now that could have been an album worth loving. It’s tempting to think that with a different producer and a tougher record label it could have happened, coke or no coke. If ever there was an album deserving of a radical remix/remaster it’s Be Here Now, but it’s unlikely ever to happen. What record company exec would green-light it? (So much for my rhetorical question: “To celebrate the twentieth year since the release of their debut album, Oasis are re-releasing their first three studio albums over the course of 2014.” I’ll bet their “meticulous remastering” will be far too scrupulous to rescue Be Here Now, though. It needs mischievous remastering.)

I too helped send Be Here Now to the top of the charts in its week of release, but not my usual charts. At the end of August 1997 I was a few weeks into a three-month visiting fellowship at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand: some of the happiest days of my life, which not even an underachieving Oasis album could dampen. Because I was (for a second time) without my music collection in those pre-mp3-player days, my main listening was to the handful of CDs I took with me or bought there. As a result I listened to Be Here Now far more than I otherwise might have, though not nearly as much as to OK Computer, Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space, and the glorious Take in the Sun by Bike. (Man, they were choice. Andrew Brough seems to have dropped totally out of sight after their one and only album, which is a crying shame.)

So it’s one CD I’d never sell, for nostalgic reasons alone. And it didn’t put me off buying their later albums, although I took my time picking up most of them. I accepted that most of what I liked about Oasis was contained on their first two albums, but was happy enough to take a punt on the later ones for a few quid a time on the off-chance there would be something more to like. Sometimes there was.

Oasis’s subsequent albums reached numbers 6, 4, 5 and 5 in Australia. Their singles didn’t do much there in later years, but they hadn’t in earlier years either. They only ever had the one number one single in Australia (“Wonderwall”), and at number 16 this, yes this, was their second biggest hit there.

Now I have to figure out what to give “D’You Know What I Mean?” while I have Take in the Sun playing through my headphones... [pauses, relistens to first 3:19 of “D’You Know What I Mean?”; that’ll do. Back on yer Bike].


The Verve, “The Drugs Don’t Work”, 13 September 1997

When I listened to “The Drugs Don’t Work” for the first time this decade, it sounded like a Glen Campbell song—certainly one that he could comfortably have covered in his heyday. In fact, after re-listening to his Twenty Golden Greats, I’d say that all the more tuneful moments on Urban Hymns could have been Glen Campbell songs. (This is not a criticism.)

I bought the album on the strength of this song and “Bitter Sweet Symphony”, and found “Lucky Man” and especially “Sonnet” equally strong, but the rest of it seemed fillerish. Working my way through it now, my abridged Urban Hymns would contain tracks 1, 2, 4, 7, 9, 10, 12 and (as token wig-out) 13, without the hidden track, and would clock in at a more respectable 42.14. Then I would erase Richard Ashcroft’s vocals and replace him with Neil Finn.

On “The Drugs Don’t Work”, Ashcroft’s plaintive whine makes some sense—it’s one of the hooks of the song—but on the whole it bugs me. Yet somehow I listened to the Verve fans who persuaded me that A Northern Soul was the bee’s knees, and went out and bought the thing. Probably listened to it twice, if that. I should have known better, as I had a tape somewhere of A Storm in Heaven from a friend, and hadn’t listened to that much either.

So how did I end up with his first three solo albums in my CD collection? I remember paying full price for the first, but the others must have been a fiver each in Fopp. Certainly by the time Forth came out, I wasn’t really interested any more.

That the Verve are part of the bloodline of certain bands considered bloodless by all and sundry doesn’t bother me, as I shall no doubt elaborate when we get to their bloody songs (although that won’t be for bloomin’ ages). Throughout the 2000s, I was often drawn to the more melodic, anthemic, sometimes (but not always) quiet and reflective brand of rock that’s so disparaged today. But at least one kind of music was falling fast in my affections at this point, not that it had ever been high in them: the aimless rock jam, psychedelic or otherwise. Which is why I reckon Be Here Now and Urban Hymns both could have lost half an hour each. It’s why, when I worked my way backwards through the Verve’s catalogue, I found less and less to like, to the point where I’m pretty sure I’ve listened to A Storm in Heaven for the last time; if I want to hear ’90s psychedelia I’d rather listen to the first Dandy Warhols album. It reminds me of my attempt as a teenager to listen to side six of All Things Must Pass. Thanks for the pepperoni, guys, but after the fifteenth slice, gentle reflections on death come as blessed relief.


11 April 2014 · Music