A Buyers Guide to Supergrass

Fizzy, fun and yet still possessing surprisingly more depth than their singles would suggest, Supergrass was that rare thing in Britpop, a band that was worth the hype at the time, whose material still stands up to scrutiny today.

I Should CoCo finds the band as callow youths, still juggling style and substance and yet to truly find their way as a band. Yet for all this it also finds them energised, vigorous and somewhat more substantial than the vast majority of their contemporaries. What marked Supergrass apart from their dull peers was the fact that they had a writer with a grasp of great pop song dynamics in Mick Quinn, whereas lesser bands were happy to recycle riffs and remain somewhat one dimensional both on stage and on record.

The singles from I Should CoCo are fun-size explosions of guitar-pop with “Caught by the Fuzz” and “Mansize Rooster” heralding the arrival of an act whose songs were chorus-heavy, punchy and day-glo. “Alright” was the song that saw them explode in popularity with its vaguely annoying ‘look at us, we’re wacky!’ video which remains the casual fans enduring image of the band, with it’s pounding piano motif (Rob Coombes, brother of vocalist Gaz, despite starring in the video and being the bands touring keyboard player wouldn’t become an official member of the band until 2002), sunny disposition and was apparently so eye-catching that there were rumours at the time that Hollywood’s mover and shakers were prepared to give them a Monkee’s style television series which the band sensibly declined.

Elsewhere on the album the sound is somewhat more mature and I Should CoCo as a whole boasts a lot more depth than the singles would suggest, however it’s still prone to moments of silliness, like helium-voices, the odd bit of throw-away filler and you get the feeling than the band were somewhat unfocused compared to the albums that they would release later in their career. What this is then is the sound of a band in celebratory mood, enjoying the signing of record contracts and media hyperbole and getting the silliness out of their collective system.

I Should CoCo is not Supergrass’s best album by any stretch. What it is though is the best album the band could have made in the circumstances and it easily eclipses the debut albums of every other British guitar band of the era with the exception of Fuzzy Logic and Attack of the Grey Lantern. It’s a fine beginning for what would turn out to be an even finer career.

Follow up In It for the Money was the album where the band established themselves as contenders rather than the knock-about fun-seekers of their debut. It’s release was marked by loads of gushing press reviews, but it didn’t sell quite as well as everyone had hoped. No matter, because listening to it now Supergrass managed to avoid the pitfalls in style that have caused so many popular albums of the time to age badly. In It for the Money is not an album created to capture the mood of the times, instead it has a strangely timeless quality which means that it still sounds as fresh as it did when it was released in the 90s.

The title track opener gallops in over the dimly lit horizon, bringing with it the incessant chanting of the title, which in turn is towing behind it a horn section in one of those great moments in popular song, where a band is just celebrating that they survived long enough to record a second album. From here on in it’s enjoyable singles (“Going Out”, “Late In The Day”), sky-scraping guitar tunes (“Richard III”, “Sun Hits The Sky”) and all manner of guitar-pop goodness.

In It for the Money is one of Supergrass’s best album and it’s certainly the album that cemented the band’s career at a time where ‘second album syndrome’ was neutering their less talented contemporaries and other acts were getting hyped beyond all comprehension. Supergrass were playing the long-game and enjoying modest success by playing to their strengths.

The band’s eponymous third album was released at a time when the Britpop bubble had burst and so many second-rate bands were being dropped by their label on the grounds of being all gong and no dinner. No such worries for Supergrass though. The album starts off promisingly enough with “Moving”, a strong single and one of the album’s highpoints, playing to the band’s strengths, while still indicating that they were no longer the jokey youths of their past. As the album progresses though, you start to realise that this was the album where Supergrass perhaps took themselves a little too seriously and decided to try and forge a reputation as serious musicians. Perhaps this was a little too ambitious on their part, as their strengths lie in crunchy guitar pop with massive choruses. In places there are moments of the previous fires still burning, such as the single “Mary” and the great “Jesus Came From Outta Space”, but the gravitas that the band seem to be yearning is only really achieved on the closer, “Mama & Papa”.

While Supergrass is a far stronger album than what most other Britpop survivors were able to achieve at the time, the band perhaps tried too hard to be seen to be developing and it was an album wedged between two far stronger releases.

It’s not all bad news though, as Supergrass is home to perhaps the band’s greatest three minutes and twenty seconds, the genius “Pumping On Your Stereo” which does nothing less than totally justify the existence of power-pop. It’s one of their most brilliantly dumb moments and as such, it towers above the rest of the album in the most formidable fashion imaginable.

By their fourth album it was becoming abundantly clear that Supergrass had a grasp of guitar pop dynamics that allowed their sound to mature and grow along with them without alienating their audience. From the smudgy lithographed artwork, to the sometimes nonsense lyrics, Life on Other Planets does its best to avoid being a big statement, where the likes of Radiohead and Coldplay seem hell-bent on every album they release should be deep and meaningful, Supergrass were happy to aim for their albums to be enjoyable and entertaining.

It’s almost impossible to take titles like “Za” and “La Song” seriously and as such they point the way to thrillingly frothy guitar tunes. Life on Other Planets is not an album that relies on its singles to make an impact either, though “Seen The Light”, “Rush Hour Soul” and “Grace” are up their with “Alright” and “Pumping On Your Stereo” as the band’s best chart hits. “Never Done Nothing Like That Before” is a breakneck and seemingly disposable rocker, but if it wasn’t there you’d miss it and the closing duo of “Prophet 15” and “Run” sound like cheeky / reverential nods to Super Furry Animals.

Having previously been a band noted for their bouncy pop tunes and youthful swagger, Supergrass eventually releasing an album of primarily mature and mellow material was perhaps inevitable as their youth faded and they began to accept that they were no longer the hip young things feted by the music press. They were now plain old Supergrass, one of the few remaining acts from the halcyon days of Britpop that had clung on to their credibility, purveyors of finely tuned pop-rock and (in the nicest possible way) Oxford’s anti-Radiohead. Having survived the late 90s purge on Britpop by way of their talent and being one of the few bands of the era whose ambitions actually didn’t far outweigh their abilities.

It was well publicised how Road to Rouen was deeply influenced by the passing of the Coombes brothers’ mother, so the less celebratory tone of the album is appropriate and underdstandable. It’s also the band’s most considered and delicate release by some distance and while there were no obvious singles, it does possess unity as an album.

While I can appreciate the uniqueness of Road to Rouen in the band’s history and certainly wouldn’t have expected them to record an upbeat album in the circumstances, especially when you also consider the negative press that drummer Danny Goffey was having to weather previous to its release, it is my least favourite release by Supergrass. This is perhaps unfair, as it’s certainly a solid release and it is superior to anything that any of their fellow Britpop survivors were offering up at the time, but the more relaxed vibe that this album possess just doesn’t ignite my enthusiasm.

Much like the similarly paced Love Kraft by Super Furry Animals, Road to Rouen marked the start of a dip in Supergrass’ fortunes, commercially if not creatively but while SFA adapted to their new circumstances, Supergrass had one last hurrah in them.

For all their audience pleasing unflustered approach to success, it did seem that Diamond Hoo Ha is best remembered for showing the signs that the sun was slowly setting on Supergrass’ career. That’s not to say that it doesn’t have great tunes and a sense of the vim and vigour which should be at the core of all great guitar-pop music. It has to be said that when it wants to, Diamond Hoo Ha can rock like a bastard, while it can also boast moments of great sentimentality, however for reasons I struggle to explain, it just didn’t gel together like the best Supergrass albums have over the years. Were this an album by almost any other band, then chances are I’d have been bigging this release up, but when compared to the likes of In It for the Money and the career-best Life on Other Planets, it just doesn’t measure up.

Supergrass eventually called it a day in 2010, having been pretty much the last Britpop band standing in terms of having an established and ongoing successful career. While there were others still staggering on in vastly reduced circumstances (Ash, and Ocean Colour Scene), others had imploded or just simply fizzled out. Supergrass were unique though in the way that, while they never transcended Britpop’s limitations, they nevertheless produced a satisfying and enduring body of work.

The compilation Supergrass Is 10: The Best of 94-04 does exactly what you’d expect it to and is a neat compilation of their most commercial moments, but as yet there is no truly career-spanning compilation available celebrating the output of pretty much the only band who did Britpop right.

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