Britpop: Supergrass and I Should Coco at 20

Supergrass I Should Coco

It couldn’t be a worse time of year, I Should Coco is all about the summer of ’95 right? But no. It’s alright. After all, Caught by the Fuzz was originally released in autumn 2004. And today’s ‘wear your old band t-shirt to work’ day. And the now sadly dis- band have chosen today to release the remastered 20th anniversary special edition of their seminal debut. So that makes this the perfect day for Jokerside to salute Supergrass’ debut! Alright?

I DON’T KNOW WHEN I RELALISED JUST HOW GOOD I SHOULD COCO IS. I REMEMBER THE SUMMER LIGHT WAS FADING. AND THOUGH I CAN’T QUITE REMEMBER THE METHOD –WALKMAN SEEMS LIKELY – I DO VAGUELY REMEMBER THE STRETCH OF A PARTICULAR PARK. NEAR A COLLEGE CAMPUS, NOT MINE. Unfortunately that memory wouldn’t place it in 1995. No, I fully switched on to Supergrass with the release of their second album In It for the Money – or the release of the first single from that follow up, 1996’s Going Out.

I remember hearing the band interviewed by Steve Lamacq during or just before those In It For the Money recording sessions. I suppose backstage at the ’96 Mercury Music Prize, when they promised a more mature sound… And for once, that wasn’t a deflecting description. I didn’t really have the comparison beyond its predecessor’s singles at the time, but every part of In it for the Money dripped quality and confidence – it had a huge, solid sound that as it happened perfectly extended their bombastic debut while sparking it off in a myriad new directions. As I soon found out.

While In it for the Money had a slight melancholy, there it is on the cover of what’s their autumn album (released in the spring), I Should Coco was their defiantly summer LP. Although of course, that was recorded in the cold of the preceding winter in Cornwall.

“We honed the songs so they were short and full of energy and life”

That’s how Danny Goffey described it. It was some times before I took in the scrappier, more joyful, more vital and generally more pop punk I Should Coco. The moment it hit, that late afternoon, walking that path. Singles. Single after single. It was dripping in them. As much as the sun, as much as Britpop, as much as growing up, as much as sideburns.

Gaz Coombes recently declared there to be only a few great Britpop bands, and that much has been clear for a long time. But amid the heavyweight scrapping and flash in the pan chancers, wasters, lapsed shoe gazer and label hangers, Supergrass still stick out as the buzzing three piece from 95’s Summer of Britpop. In that leaner year than the fuller market of ‘96, they were the freshest and most alive during the fleeting movement that was always obtusely dipping in dolefulness. Oh, there are rock, riffs and darkness in I Should Coco, but also great peaks of vitality that brought the band crashing to widespread attention. It’s at the punk end of the spectrum – fast, three chord, break-neck – but that can’t disguise countless nods to an extraordinary number of other styles and English bands, from the rock pop of the Kinks to the ska infusion of Madness.

I Should Coco by the numbers

“1, 2… 1, 2, 3, 4”

I’d Like to know, the album opener sets the agenda, almost by accident. It’s Gaz Coombes’ extraordinary and distinctive voice that steals the show, against thundering high tempo rock, with high pass backing vocals and a tendency to reach ear-piercing peaks and then surpass them. There’s a huge amount going on in this record. In a peculiar way, before the androgyny of glam and Bowie had fully swept into to fill out Britpop’s sixties fixation, it’s not genderless but it’s rather sexless – there’s nothing that sums the band up as a macho three-piece. As the long chords hang and tempos shift up and down with incredible speed, there’s the mantra – the call to arms to follow the strange right there.

I’d Like to know break, brings the instrumental of blistering chords and percussion that really shows what Supergrass could do. It’s the third longest song on the album thanks to that long and anthemic coda. And it ends on a sample of crashing waves, percussion thumping away… Until it hits the chord wall called Caught By the Fuzz. The single that was originally intended to have I’d Like to Know as its b‑side to. On the album, the difference is instant, as if this is the point where the album begins proper. The themes of the first song will be picked up later, but now’s there’s an even more singular tune, again first person and arguably the bands most daring – all based on an incident from young Coombes’ real-life. There’s the distorted vocals until the almost unbearable, reaching chorus. It’s frenetic and immediate. This is what arrived in 1994, a little presumptuously controversial than Supergrass would prove to be. It’s what caught their first attention. From bikers, as bassist Mick Quinn once said. Alright is mildy more reserved in its sortie through teenage life, but then it’s the carefree romp that comes before the claustrophobic rock of Caught by the Fuzz. And Alright’s video did much to create Supergrass’ New Monkees image. It was the hair right? Must be the hair. Because Supergrass were far more distinctive, talented and original than that comparison or Spielberg’s pitch of a television series suggests.

Alright?

Piano led, instantly melodic and mostly a showcase of Gaz coombe’s vocals, few other songs captured the summer of ‘95 like Alright. It arrived on 3rd July, unbelievably the albums fifth and final single. Highly catchy, reckless, laddish. Other Britpop bands like Cast couldn’t quite capture the exuberance. If Pulp’s Different Class took many of the same cues in capturing and defining Britpop, it was from a Northern English and older perspective (Jarvis Cocker was 32 compared to Coombes’ 19). Alright truly fulfilled the exuberance of the Britpop youngsters. As Quinn described it, it was the “Creative Millstone” that forced them into broad, mainstream appeal. Breaking to such a degree on their final single, released with album track Time (truly this is an album dripping with singles), is what indirectly led to the early release of Going Out the next year, and me being sucked into the Supergrass vortex.

Strangely, Alright is one of I Should Coco’s most musically constrained songs, no doubt part of the reason it fell as their last single. It’s got the frenetic pace, but not the variety – in the same way that it dilutes some of the evident punk aesthetic that’s far stronger elsewhere on the album.

Not losing it

Third single Lose it, is a strong precursor to the wider sound of In It for the Money. Exemplary playing with an extraordinary rhythm. “I don’t want anybody, any way I know too much to say, all over again” is both a call to hold on to independence but also the first of the album’s handful of love songs. It’s really made by the final minute and a wonderful break that concludes with feedback and hollow sign-off: “Did you call my name?” Perhaps the least and most obvious single on the long player.

A blinding start introduces fourth single Lenny, a great accompaniment to Lose It if not almost an instant retelling. The tone has fallen as Coombes warns “But the funny thing is, that when I’m gone, I’ll kill you”. Near the album’s mid-point, it’s the best showcase of the three members as musicians since the climax of the album opener, particularly Coombes’ bursting guitar.

Rooster

Supergrass Mansize RoosterIt’s almost pointless to call any of these tracks pounding when Danny Goffey’s let off the leash. Mansize Rooster at the album’s third slot is another call to a disaffected generation “What do you wanna see now? What do you wanna be” – the “las” have become melodic screams within three songs. It’s all a bit more robot rock, a little more mature, but that classic gives way to another more hi-octane classic in Strange Ones. Picking up the open question from the first track, the varispeed start that looks back to the Hunky Dory era sodding around of David Bowie but also forward to We’re Not Supposed to. That song steals the comedy crown, with varispeed voices, even higher harmonies and crisp production. Unbelievably catchy that’s a perfect little pop song of quirk nonsense – and apparently some of its throwaway dialogue is what Coombes finds most embarrassing about the debut.

The answer to the question that swamps the album is apparently the strange magnet of Cowley Row in Oxford. An image is set in Strange Ones, particularly when it turns western ballad. For all the Escher impossibility of looking down from the underground, it shows a band who really know how to build song bridges.

This eclectic album doesn’t pair songs, but Strange Ones also has a companion piece in the burning, string propelled She’s So Loose. The increased orchestration with filling strings adds depth and Coombes’ vocals are just as great to match. Most importantly, Goffey doesn’t slow down on the rhythm. Another song touching on love, this time the lyrics are more elongated and metaphor packed.

In between those Strange Ones and She’s So Loose, is a real album highlight. While Strange Ones closes with the bells of Oxford’s Carfax Tower they call time right at the start of album changer Sitting Up Straight. Back on the piano, reminiscent of the second half of Derek and the Domino’s Layla. When the song kicks in, all zinging guitar it’s one of the albums catchiest. And that’s saying something. There’s a discordant, zingy bridge that almost breaks it, and it’s all the better for it. It’s all part of an Oxford commute, with a distinct tone of comradeship.

“He’s like me, he’d do anything to get away,

I know, can you be there every day? I know I can believe in you,

It means everything and every power to me.”

Closing trio

The last three songs of the album signal little of where Supergrass would head. Coombes has expressed surprise that anyone thought that the flavour and style of I Should Coco could or would be continued and that’s all the hint any one needs.

The hard riff return’s with Time, another Love song and double A-side with Alright. Perhaps the most lyrically obscure song, although Coombes’ vocals stretch and lilting across the riff on an affecting heavy echo. Harmonica creeps in later with a quiet hypnotism before the obligatory jam at the two and a half minute mark. By now a lot of “you’s” have flipped the first person emphasis of the opening songs.

A real shift comes with Sofa (Of my Lethargy), one of Coombes’ favourites thanks to the everyone in, all out jam, instrument-a-thon during recording. Coombes voice is the most disguised here, on what’s probably the album’s fairy tale on its slow dream-like walk out the door. Wandering from a bridge to standing at the harbour, selling trees… And then again a break that threatens to wake everyone up:

“Hold on now, all I wanna do is see you

But everybody is here just sitting round staring at the ceiling

What you gonna find in your mixed up minds when you’re dreaming?

Could be we’re not like you at all”

For all the one take urgency that captured the spontaneity the huge ending of the longest song, it’s probably the one that best marries the albums’ many themes. It collapses into more of the Clapton jam, with drum blips and the evidence of crucial fourth member of Supergrass Rob Coombes on keyboard. On the way the references pile up even more, with little nods to Northern Soul, Madchester and even the Hammond infused pretension of the Doors. It’s a dream sequence in the fine tradition of the Revolver closer. And its long send-off maintains the dream as the soft strumming finds the three-piece bidding us goodbye. Time to Go is another later Beatles trick, albeit with less of the Ringo. “Who could ask for more?” Coombes asks. Pretty well defined hubris as debut album closers go, but it’s well earned.

A vital album in every sense, when they returned with a different but equal second album, they would have grown up just that little bit more and Britpop was dismantling. Supergrass had burned one of the brightest, but Gaz Coombes’ disbelief is well-founded. There was no allusion in the many layers of I Should Coco that Supergrass would stay in one place for long.

Read more Britpop on Jokerside, including Parklife‘s 20th anniversary.

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