Was Pulp’s ‘This is Hardcore’ the Death of Britpop?

17 years after This is Hardcore hit number 1 in the album charts, it is time for a reappraisal.

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A lot of people credit Pulp’s penultimate 1998 masterpiece as the end of Britpop. A bleak and frightening death knoll that isn’t even the comedown after the party but the empty nothingness afterwards. That horrifying question, what the fuck happens next?
In truth though, the opinion that This is Hardcore killed Britpop fits too neatly into a convenient narrative to really ring true.

Blur had already released their self titled fifth album a year earlier which was a conscious step out of 60’s Britain and into lo fi Americana. Damon Albarn’s cheeky cockney persona (hard to believe that was ever a thing now) was long gone, replaced by collaborations with Brian Eno, songs about heroin (Beetlebum) and an album full of feedback and hushed vocals.

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PARKLIFE!

Elsewhere in 1997 Oasis had released Be Here Now, another album people have cited as the death of Britpop, again this falls wide of the mark. Be Here Now was definitely (maybe?) the sound of the bubble bursting but it was still a huge critical success and is still adored by legions of Oasis fans the world over.

The truth is there was no one moment or album that killed Britpop. It was an astonishing time for music in Britain that was never going to last. By the time This is Hardcore came out Oasis, Blur, Suede… they all sounded fed up. New Labour had been a lie. The trappings of fame (Blur), the continued weight of expectation and the first chink in the armour (Oasis) and the various addictions (Suede, Blur, Pulp, Oasis… pretty much every Britpop band come to think of it) had taken a huge toll, and some could sense that we were entering a terrible period in British history not just for music but in most aspects of life.

This was captured most memorably on Radiohead’s masterpiece OK Computer but we’ll come back to that later…

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Back to Sheffield’s finest – Pulp’s 1995 classic Different Class was a monster hit and beloved by people in all walks of life. You will still hear ‘Disco 2000’ or ‘Common People’ at wedding disco’s and indie clubs probably forever. It’s safe to say you won’t see your uncle dancing to anything off This is Hardcore with wedding cake stains on his suit jacket however…

Album opener ‘The Fear’ is a paranoid and disturbing slice of mental illness. It is a jarring panic attack in song. “This is our music from a bachelors den, the sound of loneliness turned up to ten” Jarvis gasps. Different Class opened with call to arms and single ‘Mis-Shapes’, it is difficult to think of two more contrasting songs by one band. Guitarist Mark Webber squeezes every trembling note out of his instrument in ‘The Fear’, much in the same way as Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood plays on OK Computer. That is not the only link between the two albums. The paranoia, despair, and alienation of This is Hardcore make it an easy bedfellow to the dark and challenging OK Computer. The difference being that OK Computer sounds like a man falling apart but a band becoming stronger, This is Hardcore has no such redemption.

Even in the more upbeat sounding second half of the album there is no break from the emptiness and ennui:

“Well I learned to drink and I learned to smoke and I learned to tell a dirty joke. If that’s all there is then there’s no point for me” – ‘I’m a Man’

“Oh, he don’t care about your problems. He just wants to show his friends. I guess I’m just the same as him” – ‘Sylvia’

“My face is unappealing and my thoughts are unoriginal” – ‘Glory Days’

It is difficult to think of a more bleak album in modern music. Even Weezer’s Pinkerton, an album that shows a man disgusted and embarrassed by himself, has hints of a willingness to change amidst the frustration.

The truth is that Different Class (deservedly) receives all the plaudits but This is Hardcore is much more affecting and personal. ‘Dishes’ tells the story of a man who is bored and jaded with his life. ‘TV movie’ compares the longing and suffering Cocker feels with grim, made for TV movie:

‘A movie made for TV: bad dialogue, bad acting, no interest.’

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‘A Little Soul’ finds the Sheffield singer stepping into his father’s shoes for a brutally honest look at how Cocker shares most of his negative traits.

Even the three singles are all very odd choices for a commercial release (with the possible exception of ‘Help the Aged’ which was actually written a good two years before anything else on This is Hardcore). The title track is a sleazy and unhinged 6 and half minute opus. If you thought Cocker was dirty on Different Class he lets himself run wild here. ‘This is Hardcore’ drips with lust and danger and again is so far removed from the catchier singles from Different Class it shocked listeners on release. ‘Party Hard’ is the odd song out, a throwaway glam stomp that is by far the weakest song on the album.

This is Hardcore was more the death rattle of an already moribund genre rather than the final nail in the coffin. It deserves to be remembered for so much more than being the end of Britpop.

‘Joy Division’ – 8.5/10

‘Don’t turn away…’
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People often speculate about what a third Joy Division album would have sounded like or how a fourth Nirvana record would have turned out. In both cases people wring their hands about being robbed of what surely would have been an essential piece of work. To yearn for a lost masterpiece from either band though is to miss the point. Both Kurt Cobain and Joy Division singer Ian Curtis were tortured souls and both bands were doomed from the start. The fact that their lights shone so briefly is what makes their frustratingly small musical output so astonishing. No matter how successful both groups became (and arguably because of this) the alienation, loneliness and drug addiction(Cobain)/epilepsy(Curtis) would have got them in the end.

Joy Division is an exhaustive bbc4 documentary taking in the bands humble beginnings as Warsaw after forming at the infamous Sex Pistols gig at the Manchester Free Trade Hall to Curtis’ death on the eve of an America tour.

While it is really interesting to see interviews with Tony Wilson (RIP) and to see and hear archive footage from producer Martin Hannett and Joy Division manager Rob Gretton, it is the interviews with the band themselves as well as the live footage from the shows that leave a lasting impression.

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Hooky, Bernard Sumner and Stephen Morris make for insightful and funny interviewees and while the story of Joy Division and Curtis is a dark one, the three former band mates inject a lot of warmth and poignancy in to what is a brilliant documentary.

Totally essential for any Joy Division/New Order fan, Joy Division would also make a great introduction for anyone interesting in discovering Joy Division for the first time.

Joy Division is unflashy yet full of bravado, visceral yet funny. I get the feeling that Curtis would have approved…

Foo Fighters – A Retrospective (Part 1)

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Foo Fighters 7.5/10
From the ashes of Nirvana came the first Foo Fighters album. Recorded exclusively by Grohl himself (save for a guitar part on ‘X-Static’ provided by Afghan Whigs Greg Dulli) and only six months following the death of Kurt Cobain. Foo Fighters is a focused and upbeat effort which strives for catharsis about Kurt’s tragic suicide by focusing on the music itself rather than reflection. The lyrics throughout this album are pretty meaningless (‘fingernails are pretty, fingernails are good’ Grohl proclaims on opening track ‘This is a Call’) but the songs themselves are well crafted and passionately performed. Despite Grohl playing every instrument on the album, the sparse and raw production somehow makes the Foo’s eponymous debut feel like a band playing live for which Grohl and fellow producer Barrett Jones deserve infinite credit.

The opening three tracks are a statement of intent for Grohl being as they were the three singles released from this album. This is a Call sounds exactly as you would expect a song with that title to sound, I’ll Stick Around comes raring out of the tracks and is the closest we get to Grohl’s previous band and also to the Seattle grunge scene in general. Big Me is the biggest nod to the more melodic, softer band that Foo Fighters would become and is also an album highlight with its Lemonheads jingly jangly guitar. The rest of the album is very solid if a little too similar in style. Good Grief has a brilliantly catchy riff running through it and Oh, George is the most underrated Foo’s song on this album and possibly overall but Foo Fighters runs out of steam a bit towards the end with more nonsense lyrics (For All The Cows) and two forgettable if spirited efforts as album closers (Wattershed, Exhausted). Whilst being a phenomenal debut given the circumstances it is difficult to see how the Foo Fighters became one of the biggest bands on the world on the strength of this record.

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The Colour and the Shape – 9/10
The beauty of any art form is subjectivity. If we all agreed on everything the great pub debates would be a thing of the past. The great thing about subjectivity is sometimes you can find yourself with an opinion that absolutely nobody seems to share. It is with this in mind that I continue my Foo’s retrospective with the admission that The Colour and the Shape contains my favourite Foo Fighters song and it is not My Hero, Monkeywrench or even Everlong.
The pounding drum intro, the earworm of a riff and for me the moment that Grohl took his second most famous band from grunge offshoot to full blown rock & roll band destined for arenas and world domination.

Hey Johnny Park really is a breathtaking and atmospheric moment and in an era when the charts were dominated by boybands and britpop a timely reminder that there will always be a place for rock music. The fact that it wasn’t even a single (Grohl preferred the aforementioned tracks plus the pretty but far inferior Walking After You) shows how strong an album Foo Fighters sophomore record really was.

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Beginning the album with a taste of things to come and indication of quality is the blink and you’ll miss it Doll followed by massive single Monkey Wrench and Hey Johnny Park. It is a struggle to think of an album leading with three stronger songs. Then comes the only stinker on the record My Poor Brain which is so Foo’s by numbers that it could be filler on any of their other albums. From there though it is all killer with the twin epics Everlong and February Stars, the Paul McCartney inspired jaunt See You, the killer bassline running through Enough Space, the brilliantly catchy Up In Arms, the list goes on.
The Colour and the Shape also marks the moment that the Foo Fighters became an actual band with the recruitment of Sunny Day Real Estate’s Nate Mendal on bass and occasional Nirvana guitarist Pat Smear. This, plus Pixies producer Gil Norton, help to flesh out Foo Fighters second outing and along with Grohl actually singing about things happening in his life rather than cows result in a vintage rock & roll album.
When people talk about classic albums of the nineties The Colour and the Shape absolutely deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Automatic for the People, Definitely Maybe and yes even Nevermind. Foo Fighters would never better it and if you only listen to one Foo’s album, make it this one.

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There is Nothing Left to Lose 7/10
Foo Fighters third marks the moment where Grohl & co pretty much stopped experimenting. They had found a winning formulae that would stay as the Foo’s blueprint thereafter. That is not to say There is Nothing Left to Lose is a band resting on their laurels, far from it. Lead single Learn to Fly seems to polarize Foo’s fans due to it veering uncomfortably close to U2 territory but as a thirteen year old who had just been blown away by hearing Nirvana, Learn to Fly was the song that introduced me to the Foo Fighters and I still love it to this day. My personal favourite song from There is Nothing Left to Lose however is furiously heavy opener Stacked Actors (apparently written as an angry response to Courtney Love well… just doing what Courtney Love does) but Learn to Fly runs it close as does other massive singles Breakout and Next Year.

Pat Smear leaving citing exhaustion is significant but even worse is the loss of Grohl on drums. While Taylor Hawkins is a brilliant drummer who definitely enhanced the Foo’s as a live band, pretty much anyone would be a step down from Grohl in the studio.

Producer Adam Kasper brings a mechanical, soulless element to both this and its successor One by One which leads to a polished but heartless sound especially on songs such as Gimme Stitches and Generator. Away from the massive singles though there are some hidden gems on this album. Ain’t it the Life is a song that can only be described as lovely stuff and M.I.A closes the album with nearly as much quality as opener Stacked Actors.

There isn’t really a bad song on There is Nothing Left to Lose but there is also nothing to match the best moments of The Colour and The Shape or the first album. This third record helped to propel Foo Fighters into the heavyweight division of rock music but it should be nobody’s favourite album.

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One by One 5/10
When listening to any artists volume of work back to back there is always one album that you struggle to get through. One by One was that album for me. Despite containing two of Foo’s biggest hits in All My Life and the hugely overrated radio friendly unit shifter Times Like These there is little to get excited about on the Foo’s fourth LP. Grohl himself would later comment ‘four of the songs were good, and the other seven I never played again in my life’.
Alarm bells were ringing when the first version of One by One was scrapped completely after Grohl said the recording sessions ‘sucked the life out of the songs’ and this feels like a record for the sake of it with not much focus or passion at any stage. Disenchanted Lullaby is one of the bands most boring and meandering songs and even the haunting Tired of You outstays it’s welcome running at over five minutes. The fact that I had to listen to closing four tracks Lonely As You, Overdrive, Burn Away and Come Back three times before giving up on finding anything interesting to write about is an indication of the lack of ideas inherent throughout One by One.

This was the moment where loads of people, including myself, stopped caring about Foo Fighters for a while.

Read part 2 here.

24 Hour Party People – 8/10

‘I’m a minor player in my own life story’ – Tony Wilson

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As Steve Coogan’s Tony Wilson states in the film ‘This is a film about the music’ (Primarily Joy Division/New Order and the Happy Mondays) but it is told from Wilson’s point of view.

Coogan plays Wilson as a sort of Partridge lite but it is still a dominant performance. The cream of the crop of British comedy talent at the time are all lurking around somewhere with John Thomson, Peter Kay, Simon Pegg, Rob Brydon and Ralf Little lending support as well as Paddy Considine, an absolutely hilarious Andy Serkis as madcap producer Martin Hannett and a perfectly cast John Simm as Bernard Sumner. On a side note, when asked about the film Bernard Sumner commented ‘A film about the biggest cunt in Manchester, played by the second biggest cunt in Manchester’.

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The first half of 24 Hour Party People can hold it’s head up high with any biopic, musical or otherwise, as it focuses on the rise and tragic fall of Joy Division and the beginnings of Factory Records. The second half, touching on the opening of the Hacienda nightclub and the emergence of The Happy Mondays is not quite as compelling but always funny and visually interesting. 

24 Hour Party People is a film full of charm and laugh out loud humour throughout, plus the soundtrack is predictably wonderful and controversial director Michael Winterbottom has a visual flair that drives the story. If you are interested in the 80’s/90’s Madchester scene then 24HPP is essential viewing.

Nirvana Live At Reading – 10/10

Nirvana play Reading festival at the peak of their powers in 1992.

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If you are looking for a way to celebrate Kurt’s birthday or you just want an excuse to revisit some of the greatest songs ever written then you can’t go wrong with Live at Reading.

Encapsulating everything that Nirvana stood for: rage (Blistering set closer ‘Territorial Pissings’), vulnerability (‘Dumb’), the contradiction of being the biggest band in the world (Tthe definitive version of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’) and also being fiercely committed to the scene that spawned them (covering both Fang’s ‘The Money Will Roll Right In’ and Wipers ‘D-7’) Live at Reading is a revelation. While MTV’s Unplugged in New York takes all the plaudits, Live at Reading sees a band at ease, happy and actually having fun. It also gives a fascinating insight into how the tracks from Nevermind could (should?) have sounded had they not been so overproduced. I have no idea why it has taken me so long to watch this, if you are in any way a Nirvana fan, watch this immediately.

Glastonbury – 4/10.

Distinctly average documentary reinforces all negative stereotypes about Glastonbury…
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Renowned music documentary maker Julien Temple (Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten, The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle) brings us this floating turd about the legendary music festival.
What a missed opportunity Glastonbury is. Anyone who thinks that Glastonbury festival is populated by hippy cunts and 40 year old Levellers fans will feel totally vindicated at watching this documentary. We get extensive and mostly pretty boring interviews with festival organizer Michael Eavis but no interviews with any of the artists who have played there.
Some decent performances from Faithless, David Bowie, and Pulp but other bands are massively overlooked (Radiohead get about the same amount of screen time as Stereo fucking MC’s). There is no real narrative to this sprawling, messy 138 minute documentary, it doesn’t tell the story of Glastonbury as such, it is mostly raw footage of drunken tossers trying to be funny for the camera. Not worth anyone’s time, download a band you likes set from Glasto and watch that instead.