It is the late 90s, the Britpop bubble has just burst, New Labour has started to settle in to governing the UK and I find myself studying in Wigan, birth place of Stuart Maconie, Uncle Joe’s Mint Balls and George Formby. In terms of popular music, girl groups, boy bands and annoying dance-pop have started to hold sway over the singles charts, Radiohead have started taking themselves far too seriously and The Verve have started to believe their own hype.
About this time the British music press were starting to get themselves in a lather about a Welsh power-trio called The Stereophonics who had been peddling a harder-rocking style of Britpop. As retro-obsessed as any British guitar act of the 90s, The Stereophonics’ saving grace is their lyrics which tell tales of small town life, lending their material a considerably more unique, if somewhat provincial air, than the other guitar acts that were in the process of imploding around them. While no one could mistake it for high art, their debut album Word Gets Around is a solid and enjoyable release, a little more raw and rocking than the majority of NME endorsed releases from the era. At the time I listened to it a lot, thoroughly immersing myself in its charms as I listened to it during my daily walk between Wigan College and the draughty and basic little two up two down I was renting two miles out of town.
Okay, so The Stereophonics were not exactly the most engaging of rock stars, or at least the two blokes up front weren’t. Instead rock and roll charisma was provided by drummer Stuart Cable, who provided sound bites, general rock and roll tomfoolery and briefly even had his own chat show on BBC Wales. Sadly when the other two realised that Cable’s antics meant he was monopolising the column inches whenever they were interviewed and following a series of personal problems their most charismatic band member was shown the door, only to sadly pass away a few years later.
I enjoyed the immediacy of Word Gets Around. The tunes were catchy, it had nice little lyrical hooks throughout and Kelly Jones’ voice was considerably better than most of his peers. Despite being a meat and potatoes rock band singing songs of life in their little home town, the music already had an in-built anthemic quality which leant itself to packed concert venues the length and breadth of the land. The songs here are, to my ears at least, the band’s finest as they became less interesting as they diversified away from their observations of small town life and as a result became a prime example of rock ordinaire. Sure, the mega-selling follow up, Performance and Cocktails, would boast a clutch of great singles, but it just wasn’t as cohesive as an album, yet their sales went through the roof. Since that point they steadily became less and less interesting musically to the point where they became the dictionary definition of a vanilla ice cream rock band.
It rapidly became painfully obvious that The Stereophonics would never recapture the glory days when Jones was capable of penning great little songs like “The Last of the Big Time Drinkers”, “More Life in a Tramps Vest”, “The Local Boy in the Photograph”, “A Thousand Trees” and the slow burning “Traffic”. Sometimes you just can’t go back. I’ve barely played this album over the last decade, because so much of what happened to me in the late 90s seems insignificant now.
At the time of Word Gets Around’s release in 1997, The Stereophonics were at risk of overflowing with potential, however instead of delivering on their initial promise, they ditched their drummer and mutated into a very ordinary, very safe, very plain rock band. It’s not as if they were bad at what they did, it’s just that they started well and just became very uninspiring.