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.

Velvet Goldmine – 4/10.

Sex, Drugs and Shit Music.

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On paper a film based on the life of David Bowie complete with an amalgamation of Lou Reed and Iggy Pop played by Ewan Mcgregor sounds fucking brilliant, unfortunately the reality is more Smurfs Go Pop than Dylan Goes Electric.

The problem with Velvet Goldmine is the Thin White Duke himself David Bowie refused to get on board with the project when he learned it was mostly based on his ex wife’s memoirs. So instead of Bowie we have Brian Slade – a kind of shit Bowie pastiche played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers as a forgettable X Factor contestant rather than a seminal artist who reinvented music at least twice. The other great tragedy is this also means no Bowie in the soundtrack either so instead there is some wishy washy general glam rock rubbish, loads of obvious choices we have all heard a million times, a fucking Gary Glitter song (!) and a couple of average if spirited covers from Placebo and Teenage Fanclub (20th Century Boy by T.Rex and Personality Crisis by New York Dolls respectively.)

Another bone of contention with Velvet Goldmine is when you have Christian Bale, Ewan McGregor and Jonathan Rhys fucking Meyers heading up your cast you don’t choose Meyers as your lead. Having said that McGregor is awful in this, speaking in a thousand accents and having no distinguishable character – on a side note he does look strikingly like Kurt Cobain.

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Bale fares a little better and has most of the best scenes but you wouldn’t guess from this performance that he was only two years away from his astonishing turn in American Psycho. In support Toni Collette does her best with a one dimensional character and Eddie Izzard is probably the best thing about the entire flick as the sleazy manager as he at least seems to be having a bit of fun.

It is difficult to place a fictional musical artist in the real music world in film but we have seen it is possible in Almost Famous and Spinal Tap. Velvet Goldmine is just a fucking mess from start to finish. Rock ‘n’ Roll with the volume turned down.

‘Joy Division’ – 8.5/10

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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…

Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives – 8/10.

Documentary following Mark ‘E’ Everett’s attempts to understand his fathers theory of parallel universes.

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Mark ‘E’ Everett is the singer in awesome blues rock band Eels and his father literally invented the theory of parallel universes. This BAFTA winning documentary follows E into a journey of discovery about his elusive father. The Science side of things is explained clearly and E is a funny and self deprecating subject who speaks candidly about his relationship (or lack thereof) with his genius dad. It is a bonus that this one hour documentary is soundtracked by Eels but whether you a fan of the band or not this is a fascinating documentary about the origins of one of the most revolutionary and mind bending Scientific theories to date.

Foo Fighters – A Retrospective (Part 2)

In Your Honour 7/10

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The bold or stupid decision to make a double album concludes the same way for nearly every band – with one great albums worth of songs and lots of stuff that should have been B sides. In Your Honour is no different and the choice to make one album of hard rocking songs and one album of acoustic fare – or ‘the bottle and the hangover’ as Grohl described it – further damages this record. That’s not to say there aren’t lots of great songs on both disks. Album opener and title track In Your Honour is a stirring call to arms dedicated to the legions of Foo’s fans and written specifically to be played in massive arenas. Elsewhere on the first disk classic Foo Fighters single Resolve is perfect for a lazy summer afternoon (doesn’t work as well walking around a grim Doncaster shopping centre it turns out) and The Last Song has a wonderfully sing along chorus. The main event on disk 1 is the monster single and worldwide hit Best of You, still one of the most loved tracks in the Foo’s back catalogue but I prefer second single DOA, by far the most assured song on the album and one of the best of the Foo Fighters latter career.
The acoustic disk is a surprise as Grohl had only ever really hinted at this side of his song writing on Walking After You and a smattering of others and it is a surprise to see just how good some of the softer songs come across. If you took a couple of songs off of side 1 and replaced them with the brilliant What If I Do and Another Round you would have one of the greatest albums this band had ever produced. Another Round also marks the departure from early 2000’s post grunge to classic 70’s rock in Grohl’s song writing.

One impressive thing is that the songs on In Your Honour are designed to be played in front of huge crowds, many bands have succumbed to the pitfalls of writing music specifically for this purpose (KOL, Razorlight, Coldplay to name a few) but Foo Fighters are a band that seem just as comfortable in a tiny bar as they do as festival headliners which is one of the reasons they remain perhaps the biggest rock band on the planet.

Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace 6/10

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So the Foos entered the studio for album number six full of confidence after the huge success of In Your Honour with the intention of pushing the band ‘out of our comfort zone’ which is odd as E, S, P & G sees Foo Fighters settling into what would become their standard sound and what would also provide the blueprint for every album that followed. Grohl stated this album would be an attempt to marry the two different sounds present on In Your Honour into one satisfying whole but in reality there are no real risks taken on the Foo’s sixth album. It opens as strongly as any Foos album since The Colour and the Shape with the brilliant quartet of The Pretender, Let it Die, Erase/Replace and album highlight Long Road to Ruin but from there it all goes a bit middle of the road. Come Alive is totally forgettable Foo’s by numbers, Cheers Up Boys (You’re Make Up is Running) is nothing more than a great song title and Statues is an example of the 70s rock sound the Foo Fighters seemed to have settled into going forward.

Of the more softer efforts Stranger Things Have Happened is definitely a success and would have been one of the stronger songs on the acoustic disk of In Your Honour but But, Honestly and Home are sunny if plain additions to the long list of Foo’s filler album tracks.

It is in the first four songs and particularly mammoth singles The Pretender and Long Road to Ruin where the secret to the Foo Fighters longevity lies. Their ability to produce massive hit singles keeps them relevant in the pop mainstream whilst a reliance on their past classics and the influence of Grohl himself (plus the return of Pat Smear) keep a foot in the door of the underground music scene. Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace is the sound of a band resting on their laurels but when the musicianship is so accomplished it barely matters.

Wasting Light – 8/10

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If Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace was the smug feeling of satisfaction upon eating a particularly nice meal than Wasting Light is the bratty belch that follows. There is an urgency and insistence to Wasting Light not seen since Stacked Actors era Foo Fighters. Brilliant album opener Bridge Burning is more fast paced than anything on the previous two records and is just a really fun track. Obligatory huge single Rope sounds like the better songs from One by One and it is nice to see the Foo’s treating their own back catalogue with the same reverence they clearly hold for the 70s rock they grew up with. Maybe it is the full time return of Pat Smear or the fact they recorded this album entirely in Grohl’s garage but for the first time in a long time there seems to be a real fire in Grohl’s belly as the spiky guitars of Dear Rosemary and heavy riffage of White Limo attest to.

Wasting Light is also the first album since The Colour and The Shape that you can say if it were released by a young up and coming band people would sit up and listen and that is as big a compliment as any for a band seven albums in. It wouldn’t be a Foo’s album without a number of forgettable album tracks (A Matter of Time) but there is definitely more killer than filler on Wasting Light.

Album closer Walk is not only one of the top ten best ever Foo Fighters songs but it is also a testament to how good a songwriter Grohl is. He can marry hard rock songs, alternative post grunge and stadium fillers on the same album in a way that only the very best artists can (REM are another good example of a band with this ability).

Wasting Light is a welcome and passionate addition in a very strong back catalogue and I struggle to think of another band who could say the same thing 7 albums in.

Sonic Highways – 10/10

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After the surprising brilliance of Wasting Light it was difficult to see how Foo Fighters would improve on this. I was initially excited when I heard that Grohl would be recording each song in a different American city as part of a documentary for HBO but I could never have guessed how comprehensive, emotionally charged and just downright fantastic that documentary would be. This was hinted at on the very interesting film Sound City that Grohl made about the famous Los Angelas recording studio but Sonic Highways is a different proposition. The list of artists interviewed is diverse and impressive with everyone from Arctic Monkeys to Dolly Parton having their say on cities such as New York, Austin and Los Angelas. The result is that there really is something for everyone who is a fan of music (so everyone then) to enjoy.

It is almost irrelevant that the album this process begat is actually not as thrilling as the one that preceded it. The album opens in the style we have become accustomed to – with two massive singles. Something from Nothing is fresh and catchy and probably the best thing on the album. Hot on the heels is shouty toe tapper The Feast and The Famine. From there it almost irrelevant that this is the Foo Fighters at their most indebted to Elton John, Cheap Trick, Neil Young et al. It is the story and the documentary behind the album that make this one of the most enjoyable releases of 2014. Sure there is good stuff beyond the first two tracks. Congregation will be yelled back to Grohl by fans for years to come and at only 8 songs I can confidently say there isn’t a bad song on the album but in thirty years’ time it will be the breathtaking documentary that accompanies the album that people will remember and continue to enjoy and it is for that reason that I have awarded this album full marks. For the first time in over ten years I can say I am genuinely really excited to see what Grohl and Co. will do next.

Here is part 1 for anyone that missed it:

https://robwatchesmovies.wordpress.com/2014/12/09/foo-fighters-a-retrospective-part-1/

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┬áthe 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.