Saturday, August 17, 2019

My Life Story And The End Of Going Out

Musically, the early '90s kind of passed me by, which is ironic, given it was a tumultuous and immensely significant time for popular cultural in general and popular music in particular. I was still going to see bands regularly but I never went to a rave or a warehouse party or even took Ecstacy.

The closest encounters I had with the acid house and drum'n'bass revolution came from going to parties with Mrs Bhagpuss, who I first met in 1992, I think. Might have been 1991. She was, and still is, a lot more into the dance music of that era than I ever was and so were many of her friends.

I was exposed to plenty of it but nothing really rubbed off on me. Some music you need to be on the right drugs to appreciate. I like a bit of techno in the right setting, and who doesn't like ambient house, but mostly I'll pass.

Luckily for me there was change in the wind. One of the first gigs I remember Mrs Bhagpuss and I going to was Suede, in April '93. They were then just starting to be touted as the harbingers of some as-yet unspecifiied new trend. Within a few months the floodgates opened and the full horror of Britpop was upon us.

Britpop marked the beginning of the end of my association with live music. Mrs Bhagpuss and I saw some of the lesser luminaries, all of whom I preferred to the scene leaders Blur and Oasis. After Britpop crashed and burned my nights at the rock and roll club sputtered out too.

While I was still going out dressed like that, though, among others, we saw Sleeper, who I loved then and still do, Powder, who were superb and would have been something special had the drugs not intervened, and The Auteurs, whose leader and songwriter, Luke Haines was and remains a maverick genius and incipient national treasure. Best of the lot were Pulp, who I saw in a pub just before they blew up.

The band that swept me up and became something of an obsession, though, wasn't really part of the core Britpop scene at all. Yet again it was one of those chance happenings that make life so wonderful and strange.

By the 1990s there was music all over T.V. The days of appointment-to-view for a handful of shows that showcased pop hits were long, long gone. You could channel-hop from video showcase to magazine format to zoo-party and see band after band, most of which you'd never heard of and would never hear of again.

That's how I happened across Fluffy, still one of the most underrated all-female acts of the 90s, whose only album is one of the fiercest, most furious expressions of anger and rage I've ever deafened myself with. But it's not Fluffy I'm talking about.

I came home late one evening, a little the worse for wear from doing who knows what, who knows where, with who knows whom. I switched on the television. The White Room was on, an ironic yet somehow serious showcase for new music, hosted by the estimable, if overly ironic, Mark Radcliffe.

He was introducing a live band and there were hundreds of them. Seemed like it, anyway. In fact there around a dozen. The band was My Life Story and I became somewhat obsessed with them for the next couple of years.

It did help that the first thing I ever saw them do was their best song, 12 Reasons Why. And that they stormed it. They had a full string section, horns, and one of the violinists was feeding the rest of them grapes in a disturbingly orgiastic manner. Then they hit the riff.

Jake Shillingford, the charismatic if not especially good-looking singer and band leader stood stage center in what looked like a blue cagoule, a kiss-curl ludicrously glued to his forehead. Beside him a blonde woman intoned each numbered reason like the clock of doom, holding up a card with the relevant numeral just in case we might not be getting the message.

I went to bed and when I woke up next day I remembered what I'd seen and wondered if I'd dreamed it. Happily, in those days I habitually recorded anything and everything I saw on TV on VHS tape. The evidence was there. My Life Story were real.

Over the next couple of years I bought every record they made and went to see them every chance I got, which sadly wasn't many. They were magnificent live. I still have one of the torn, numbered pages from 12 Reasons Why, thrown into the crowd and caught by me. It's framed, hanging on the wall over the fireplace. And it's #12.

It's hard to keep a band of more than a dozen people in work on what turns out to be only moderate success. After a while MLS diminshed from a spectacle to a mere rock band, losing the strings, the horns and most of the pizazz. I saw them last as a five-piece and it was quite sad.

By then we were into the mid-90s. I carried on going to see live bands for a few more years but as we approached our forties Mrs Bhagpuss began to feel we might be a little out of place. Almost all the bands I wanted to see were little-known, usually very young, playing dive clubs and the back rooms of bars to audiences twenty years younger than either of us. It was begining to feel a little odd although I'm not sure I'd have noticed if it hadn't been pointed out to me.

I guess it would have been fine if we'd stuck with our contemporaries, politely applauding greatest hits and nostalgia sets from the endless round of reformed bands that began to appear at that time. I only ever went to see one of those unfortunate events. My friend Pete had somehow managed to miss seeing The Buzzcocks in their original incarnation. They'd reformed and he wanted to tick them off his list. I somewhat reluctantly went along with him. The Buzzcocks were extremely professional and utterly devoid of everything I'd once loved about them.

Looking back at the decade down the telescope of time, the nineties was an amazing time for music. One of the best ever. I wallowed in what came my way but I missed so much. Other than Britpop and the resurgence of guitar bands, about the only other trend I hit was was trip-hop.

All those seeds that The Pop Group planted in the late '70s, the entwining, subterranean roots that spread and flourished in The Dugout Club (where my band once played the longest set we ever did and got roundly trounced for it in a review in Sounds), watered by The Wild Bunch, flowered spectacularly in Portishead, Massive Attack and Tricky. Bristol, for decades a sleepy joke, found its sound and its place on the musical map, a place it still holds, fiercely and with pride.

Trip-hop, though, was stay-at-home music. I did see Portishead play, once, a brief set at an Ashton Court festival. They were ethereal and magical in the dusk but they weren't Spiritualized. Who is?

And then, in late 1999, I came home with a boxed copy of EverQuest and that was the end of "going out" for the next couple of decades.

Thank god for YouTube.

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