- The first thing to say is probably that when I’m writing about music and its extended universe in 1993, I’m really writing just as much about 1992, plus about 1991, and 1990, and 1989, and maybe even 1988. And about 1994 (but not about 1995, because everything had palpably shifted by then). In 1993, and the second half of 1992, I was catching up, frantically, ecstatically, on the songs I’d missed during the previous half decade: the years of my Sports Nerd phase, when I was so deeply submerged in outdoor physical pursuits that for the most part only the lowest pop culture reached down and grazed my head. During those years, I was made of a smattering of the earthier, folkier and jazzier records of my parents’ generation, plus the keyboard anthems of my Smash Hits-obsessed pre-pubescence, with a big potentially humiliating void tacked on after that. I met up with my friend Matt recently and it transpired that he had a memory of me as being fairly musically knowledgeable when we first met, on our BTEC course, in September 1992. That memory is nice but false. I was a blank canvas. I walked into that BTEC armed only with cassettes of a couple of Talking Heads albums, Neil Young’s Ragged Glory, an indie hits comp I’d borrowed from the library and a plaid shirt from the factory reject shop, but keen as mustard to learn and atone for the last few years, much of which had been spent in an inverted form of teenage rebellion on a golf course four miles away. It was Matt – exactly a year younger than me, but already with enough cool rock and roll life behind him to have been in a band who’d broken up – who told me about Pavement’s Slanted And Enchanted, Sonic Youth’s Dirty, the Misfits, the first Soundgarden LP. It was our even more clued-up friend Karina (black lipstick, ever-present Nine Inch Nails t-shirt, intimidatingly cool older brother) who told us about the early Lemonheads records, the Breeders, Fugazi, Surfer Rosa by the Pixies. I guzzled it all down, skipped lunch and put the money towards CDs, hung out at all of the three (three!) fantastic Selectadisc shops on Market Street in Nottingham in a self-elongated gap between bus journeys, pestered and got told off by and eventually befriended some of the staff. Things changed very quickly, as they tend to when you’re 17. By 1993 – which my friends and I saw in by dancing to The Fall’s cover of Mr Pharmacist then, because all the taxis were booked and even if they hadn’t been we couldn’t afford one because we’d spent all our money on blank cassettes and watered-down lager, walking 5 miles home through a part of town my dad had warned me not to walk through at night, where empty bottles came hurtling out of the fog and smashed at our feet – I was just about normal. Which is to say just about weird. Which is to say just about as normal as the other weird people who I’d looked at in spellbound admiration four months earlier. I knew who Sebadoh and The Violent Femmes and Babes In Toyland and Julian Cope were. I owned the Palace Brothers’ debut single and an off-the-shoulder bootleg Dinosaur Jr t-shirt and could tell you exactly why the final three Husker Du albums were better than the first Sugar album. But there was still catching up to do. So much. There always is. Still is, even now, and always will be.
- That’s not the whole truth. There was a brief period, in late autumn 1991, when I went to a club called The Irish down near the canal in central Nottingham with my golf mate Ollie and danced to some of the indie hits of the day and pretended I knew who more than 2% of them were sung by. I had not long since messed up my GCSEs and had a job as a waiter at a hotel in the city centre where my adult workmates talked a lot about how sweet and quiet I was, as if I was a baby woodland creature they had found far from his home, and asked me why I wasn’t happier to be doing the job and why I didn’t accompany them on the work night out, which ended up with them stealing numerous shoes from a shop that had been looted earlier in the evening. I became a smoker for the only two weeks in my life, forgot momentarily about golf. Ollie was always chaotically late for everything and we never got to the Irish until close to closing time but I did not mind, since Ollie, older than me, was in a post-driving test flush of enthusiasm for pushing the limits of his beat-up Ford Fiesta and therefore didn’t mind travelling to pick me up from my house, which was in a wholly inconvenient direction, if you were heading to The Irish from Ollie’s. On a sharp bend, directly below my nan’s old house, near a park where I had been assured that at least a couple of boys from my school had experienced their first handjobs I took the wheel while Ollie dipped his head beneath the dashboard, cigarette in one hand, and fumbled extensively amongst empty McDonald’s wrappers, extra long wooden tee pegs, dried up golf gloves and Embassy Number One packets for his cassette singles (“You can buy cassette singles!?” I thought) of Move Any Mountain by The Shamen and Insanity by Oceanic. At the bar, he talked about raves to a couple of gangly older lads in shiny tee shirts and I strived not to seem too golf or out of place and nodded a lot and tried to piece to together what a rave might be, picturing large outdoor pay-and-display car parks and some Paracetamol. The Only One I Know by the Charlatans came on: a song that cut through everything else, promised a kind of rare bliss. I think of this as a quite exciting time in British music now, this period that I mostly missed, just before I started to industriously catch up. But you only have to watch the recent reruns of Top The Pops to realise that the transcendental moments that brushed the mainstream were rare: The Only One I Know, Wrote For Luck, Fools Gold and every golden second of the first LP by The Stone Roses, Bandwagonesque, Screamadelica maybe. But from these and some stuff just outside of the mainstream that is sounding even more psychedelic now than it did then – Sun Dial, Spacemen 3, Loop, My Bloody Valentine – you no doubt could have made a pretty phenomenal little Middle English second 1960s of your very own. No doubt some parallel version of me – perhaps a version who went to a less shit secondary school and didn’t move house as often as a kid – and his mates did just that. I am bit envious of his mid-adolescence. But have no particular desire to be him. Not now.
- The Senseless Things were a band I was almost a fan of when I was 17. I was definitely thrilled by their energy and hair for a brief time. They were, in all honesty, not so much a band I wanted to listen to or witness play live as a band whose moshpit I desired to be part of. They had a t-shirt with a multicoloured triangular print and “Pop Kid” written on it which, at one point, it seemed like every third person at Nottingham Rock City Student Night wore, and was perhaps all the cooler for the fact that it didn’t say on it which band it was connected to, which made wearing it probably feel like being part of a highly coded cult, even though the highly coded cult included one in every three people you walked past on your way from the upstairs bar to Disco 2. Recently I saw a rerun of Top Of The Pops in which the Senseless Things performed their Easy To Smile single, where the bassist is wearing the Pop Kid t-shirt and most of the band look about 15. I never met their singer, Mark Keds, but there is something instantly familiar about him in this performance: he’s every cooler older brother I knew of, every boy whose hair and shabby cardigans I’d wished I’d had, leaning in a doorway in Rock City surrounded by girls in Doc Martens and massive tie-dye tops. Afterwards, I looked him up to find out what he’d been doing in the years since then and discovered that he died, last year, aged just 50. A huge sadness hit me when I found this out and, even though the sadness was very real and quite engulfing, I got a bit dubious about the potential reason for the sadness, and told myself to snap out of my sentimentality, speculating that it was potentially connected to the fact I’m only a few years off the age Keds was when he died and me listening to them at 17 is further in the past now than Beatlemania was when the Senseless Things were on Top Of The Pops. But then I realised that wasn’t quite it. What made Keds’ death hit hard was the lovely innocence and hope in that Top Of The Pops footage: the strong “It’s the school punk band! And they’re on national TV!” feel of it. That, perhaps, combined with a sense of denial in me. I accept that it is no longer 1995, no longer 2000, no longer 2010, even that it’s no longer 2015, but part of me never quite fully accepts that it’s no longer 1992 and slightly ethereal and untouchable characters like Keds aren’t hiding under their fringes in my regular haunts, no longer fully accepts that I’m not growing my hair, forming a band, arranging to meet Matt by the left lion in the Market Square then heading up the hill to Rock City, hoping to talk to the punk group in their 20s who we met last week, hoping that the DJ will be playing Debaser or Touch Me I’m Sick or Add It Up or – failing any of those and a few more – Easy To Smile by The Senseless Things.
- After Matt and I finally did form a band, it wasn’t long until the police took the singer and the rhythm section in for questioning. It happened on the A453, just outside of the Clifton estate in Nottingham, where Matt lived and whose front room the band often rehearsed in. This would have been late 1993, perhaps early 1994. Typically, being the one driver in the band I would head to Clifton from my house several miles north of the city to Matt’s house, via the more well-heeled suburbs of Wollaton and Bramcote, from which, in my rusty 17 year-old car, I would pick up our bassist Joe and drummer John. On the second or third occasion of doing this, we were surprised to be chased up the hill into Clifton by a fleet of four – the stickler for accuracy in me calls it “four” but in the image in my mind from the day itself it’s eight or nine – police cars, with their sirens blaring, then blocked in by them at the side of the road. I assumed it was me they must be after, but what had I done? I ransacked my brain to remember something but all I could come up with was the time I was nine and had put a Mars Bar in my pocket by mistake in the newsagent near my nan’s house or some milk bottles I’d smashed on a drunken walk home with a golf mate a couple of years ago. As for Joe and the truly angelic John, it was hard to imagine either of them having done anything even that shady. But in the minds of officers who bundled us each into separate cars our guilt was clear. As they saw it, no young lads with hair as long as ours, loading up a car with instruments in a nice neighbourhood then driving to an allegedly disreputable one in such an unsightly vehicle could be engaged in any other activity than burglary. After the policemen realised their mistake – but not before one of them had either accidentally or deliberately slammed a door on John’s leg – and, by extension, the mistake of the one of Joe’s neighbours who’d seen us and immediately called “999”, my guy started to nitpick: “Ok, so perhaps you didn’t rob your bassist’s house, but you did go through a red light back there.” I told him the light was amber. He said they were the same thing. I said if they were the same thing, why did light inventors invent a red light and an amber light. After a minute or two more of thrashing out the semantics, he set me free, and we went on to meet Matt and have one of our better rehearsals. My and Matt’s songwriting collaboration, T-Shirt, was really coming on apace and we were already being hailed (by my girlfriend, anyway) as the East Midlands answer to Sebadoh. And maybe we could have gone on to be that, had the college refectory not flooded just before our one and only planned gig. But maybe not. A demo still exists, somewhere. Sometimes I think I’d like to hear it. But probably not in a room containing other humans with ears.
- I have relistened to a lot of records made between 1992 and 1994 recently, plus a few that I played a lot during that period but were made in the years immediately preceding it. Some sound different to my memory of them and the difference is often the same: it’s as if someone has thrown a sheet of heavy tarpaulin over it then stamped on the sheet until it’s extremely flat. There are lots of exceptions, though. The first Sun Dial LP sounds outside of time, outside of this galaxy. It’s a phenomenal record, a firework display lit in the brain, and my signed first pressing of it is one of my most cherished possessions. Spacemen 3 sound similarly amazing, similarly outside of everything mundane and trend-driven, and I suspect they’ll go on sounding better and better until the world ends: an event their music might even just be timeless enough to withstand. I can still see why Pavement’s Slanted And Enchanted was, in the late months of 1992, my favourite record on the planet. It still sounds great. I’m slightly less keen on the follow up, Crooked Rain Crooked Rain, now than I was when it came out, and that’s not just because it once almost got me sacked from my job in the music and video department at WH Smith. Downstairs in Smiths on Lister Gate employees lower on the food chain were permitted to put on a maximum of one CD of their choice per day, on the condition lyrics did not include swearing. For this reason I avoided playing the Dead Kennedys or the rap records I was just starting to open my mind to but I’d forgotten about the lazy “f” word Stephen Malkmus slurs on that second Pavement album. My boss gave me a stern talking to and told me I was on thin ice, especially because she’d heard me trying to talk a customer out of buying Eternal’s Always And Forever CD a few days earlier. Soon afterwards she exercised her hierarchical privileges by playing A Good Heart by Feargal Sharkey five times in a row, with no intervals – or was it six – and I fantasised what life was like upstairs, in the free world, where actual people lived and existed.
- As one story goes, I abandoned my ambitions to be a pro golfer because the discovery of grunge, girls and lager turned my head the other way. The other equally – if not more – true version is that I abandoned my ambitions to be a pro golfer because I realised I wasn’t good enough. It’s not dissimilar to the story about the break up of the band. I quit, in 1994, because I wanted more time to work on the fanzine I’d just started. No less truthfully, I quit because I realised Matt, Joe and John were good musicians deserving of a more talented frontman, maybe one who could actually sing. By this point, golf – or at least my very serious relationship with it – was starting to feel like a strange fever dream from my past, yet, without me being close to self-aware enough to know it at the time, it still had a strong Vardon grip on my future. If you’ve been very determined to be good at a sport, dedicated yourself quite single-mindedly and one-dimensionally to it, some of that discipline inevitably stays with you. When I began to publish my writing about music in a fanzine I put together myself – at first using some Pritt Stick and some old A4 graph paper I found in a drawer at home – I immediately went about it in quite an obsessive, workaholic sort of way, and this went on, with a few gaps, and some help from friends and girlfriends, for over two years, all the way until I sent the final issue to some editors at the NME and was offered a job freelancing for them the very next day. Enthusiasm and dedication can compensate for many technical defects and that’s why I look back on my writing in the fanzine far more fondly than the more grammatically disciplined stuff I did in my early days as a paid music writer, which was reliably nervous and stilted, terrified to be itself, mostly due to the raging impostor syndrome I felt at the time. At the first gig I took the zine to – The Archers Of Loaf and Small 23 at The Old Vic, where, as well as the much-mourned Narrowboat, the brilliant Lynda Bowen from Selectadisc put on many gigs by interesting American lo-fi bands, making Nottingham a doubly interesting place to be a music lover in the process – I instantly sold all 18 copies I had with me. I wonder if somebody still has one. I doubt it. My own last remaining copy of that issue got eaten by mice in a stone shed in my mum and dad’s garden in 1999: a year of many indie losses, including the dozen or more classic grunge, punk and lo-fi band t-shirts I sold for £2 a piece on a stall I ran with my mum at Arnold Flea Market (what I’d do to have that Replacements one back).
- Here, then, is one version of a story: a football-, golf-, snooker- and table tennis-loving rock and roll ignoramus from a working class family rediscovers music, spends a year obsessively reading about it, studying it, dreaming about it, listening to every new thing he can get his hands on. After that year, he is comfortable enough in his lo-fi terrain to write and produce his own DIY music magazine. A year after that, with the help of the photocopiers at Prontaprint on Mansfield Road, which are slightly higher quality than the ones at the school around the corner from there where his mum works, he’s selling the zine in Virgin Megastore. John Peel talks about it on telly. A year after that, the ignoramus gets a job as a freelance rock journalist. Three years after that, he’s the Music Critic for a national newspaper. He’s got no degree, no A levels, five GCSEs (all Cs) after a Maths retake, an underwhelming BTEC. He’s from the one of the less respectable parts of Nottinghamshire, a bit of a nowhere county according to many, not quite northern enough to have a swagger to it. His parents grew up poor and very poor. He’s worked hard. He’s self-made, some might say. Or is he? Is anyone? Would any of this have happened if he didn’t grow up in a house full of music and books, with an imaginative and loving – if occasionally harsh – mum and dad? And what about his mentor, in those early fanzine days? Would my fanzine have happened – or happened in the way it did – if I hadn’t met the Archdeacon Of Pop? That was in 1993 too. Me: helping my friend Surreal Steve look for his imaginary dog under the tables in the refectory of the college where we were doing our BTECs, curtain-haired, dressed in cut off golf trousers and a particular t-shirt because I liked the band in the t-shirt (although if I was honest I was already starting to find their lyrics a bit adolescent) and because I thought it was cool to wear a t-shirt of a band who only about 12 people in Britain had heard of at that point and who – as Matt and I repeatedly reassured each other – would NEVER EVER sell out and sign to a major label, a shirt which, I felt sure, might prompt someone else with similarly obscure taste in music, one day, come up and befriend you. The Archdeacon Of Pop: descending the stairs from the radio studio and arriving in the college refectory in a Sarah Records t-shirt, cool in an effortless, straightforward sort of way, shorter haired than all my friends apart from the golf ones, spotting me and asking, in a Glaswegian accent like perfectly warm freshly buttered toast, “Is that a Green Day t-shirt you’re wearing?” Within a fortnight he was introducing me to it all: the gigs beneath the gigs, the bands beneath the bands. Velvet Crush, Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend and Altered Beast albums, the Tindersticks. He was the first person around my age I’d met with a record collection. A real record collection. “How do you know where everything is?” I asked, gazing at all three magnificent storeys of it. “It’s all stored in my mind, permanently,” he replied. I knew about fanzines before I met The Archdeacon Of Pop – or Brian Price, or Jock, as he was and is still known to most of his friends – but he was the one who really educated me on their culture, passing on what he’d learned from editing his own, which – at the absolute apex of the CD era – had the prescient title of Long Live Vinyl. The free albums and singles and gigs, the coins taped to cards, the swapsies, the creativity, the camaraderie. Just as I find it hard to picture how someone like me would have ended up writing for the national music press if my fanzine hadn’t just happened to land on the desk of the right editor at the right time, I find it hard to picture just how I’d have had the confidence to go about producing that fanzine without the inspiration provided by The Archdeacon Of Pop.
- Another great band The Archdeacon Of Pop introduced me to – perhaps the greatest of them all – was Madder Rose. Their first album, Bring It Down, still sounds otherworldly now, still feels like rolling around half-asleep in the finest William Morris fabric for 49 minutes 53 seconds. It’s a record with a high thread count, utterly untethered from most of the production issues of its time, no tarpaulin in earshot. They were five exceptionally assured and mellow individuals from New York: should-have-been inheritors of The Velvet Underground’s throne, or at least the most plush, soft part of it. Some people watched the Velvets play live at Andy Warhol’s Factory in 1966. Some went to see Madder Rose at Derby Wherehouse in 1993. Who is to say for sure who was more fortunate? As we interviewed the band, drummer Johnny Kick fed The Archdeacon Of Pop nips of whiskey straight from the bottle (I was in my customary role of designated driver). The gig was the best of my life to that point and, unlike almost all the other gigs I’d been to, you could actually hear all the sounds the band made. The DJ who came on afterwards played Jumpin’ Jack Flash and Cream’s The White Room. I fell in love at first sight with at least three strangers. Nobody in this crowd looked like they were in the Senseless Things. They looked like they were in Cher’s backing band circa 1969. What was I doing spending all my time hanging out in Nottingham? Derby was patently where it was at.
- I saw Madder Rose live again in April the following year, at the London Astoria. It was the part of 1994 that still felt like 1993, the gig being in the six day gap between Kurt Cobain’s suicide and the release of the first Oasis single. Madder Rose performed a spine-tingling cover of Sonic Youth’s Star Power in tribute to Cobain. My friend Ellie – who I’d met at a Tindersticks gig The Archdeacon Of Pop had taken me to the previous autumn – helped me to interview the support band, Monsterland, and we wished we’d got an interview with Lotion, the other support, who were also great (debut LP still sounding pretty stellar now, though some tarpaulin in evidence). I also remember meeting Madder Rose in a pub beforehand and their guitarist Billy assuring me that the early ZZ Top LP I’d bought that day, Tres Hombres, was the correct one to begin with, and us drooling over its gatefold enchilada sleeve together, but I think that might be a memory repurposed from another meeting, a year or so later, since I know for a fact that in spring 1994 I’d yet to hurtle down the early 70s/late 60s rabbit hole which became my escape from Britpop and, subsequently, my full-time long term home. After the gig, Ellie and I had to leg it to get the National Express coach back to Notts from Victoria Station. I remember us sitting in a seat one row from the back: not quite cool. We’d made it with seconds to spare, which is more than could be said for Maddo, the friend of the three thoroughly wankered football fans who threw themselves in the seats behind us after hammering on the door to be let in just as the coach was edging out of the station. The trio fell asleep instantly, and we heard nothing from them besides the occasional snore or fart until we hit the M1 motorway, when one of them, sitting bolt upright, yelled, “‘KINELL WHERE THE FUCK’S MADDO?” Over the panicked ensuing minutes, many questions were asked, and a full survey of the vehicle was undertaken, but Maddo’s whereabouts were not established. By the time we reached Leicester Forest East Services, we knew so much about Maddo he had become more three dimensional than many people we had actually met. He, like his cohorts, was from Mansfield: a town not far from where I grew up, most significant in my mind as being the place where Ollie’s Ford Fiesta finally gave up the ghost and burst into flames and where my mate Jason sometimes went at weekends to have fights with fascists. Earlier that night, Maddo had, according to his friends, imbibed more hard booze than any creature since evolution’s dawn and headbutted at least two buildings, a taxi and a dinner plate, amongst various other solid objects. But, as hard as they tried, none of Maddo’s gang could remember where exactly they had last seen him. Ellie and I chatted too – about some whiney nondescript song called Supersonic we’d heard on the BBC1 Evening Session that week, about the novels Thom from Monsterland had recommended to us, about all the impossible excitement of the day, about Ellie’s plans to go to university in Manchester, about how Pulp were probably the only properly good British band now – but we were more enthralled by the story going on behind us, until, for the last half an hour of the journey, the three men fell back to sleep, one of them waking every few minutes to ask, again, the big question of the night: “I wonder where Maddo is now.” It was a question Ellie and I continued to vocally ponder for months afterwards. Soon, the months turned into years. “Have you heard from Maddo?” “Who is coming to the party tomorrow? I heard Maddo is definitely going to be there. I can’t wait to find out what he’s been up to.” A mixtape, ‘Maddo Rose’, inevitably followed. On the way out of Nottingham to a gig in Leicester, routes would be potentially discussed: whether to go via Lenton, or the Meadows. “I think we should go via the Maddos!” it would be decided. I still sometimes think of Maddo now and wonder what became of him. Was he finally successful in his infamous drunken attempt to climb Nelson’s Column? Perhaps he never made it back to Mansfield at all and now lives in Hampstead, with a wife and three kids and his own bespoke kitchenware company. Or maybe he remained in 1994 – that part of it that was still quite a bit like 1993 – forever. If so, I reckon there are many far worse places to spend eternity.
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(Main photo is of me and my nan in 1993 – the part that was still a tiny bit like 1994.)