Supergrass Is Dead! Long Live Supergrass

So perhaps I'm a touch behind as news goes but then again I'm not actually a journalist, so...but I'm here to talk you folks about a band I love, though now I suppose I'll have to start talking about them in the past tense. For Supergrass is no more. Their blend of Britrock spanned genres and more than a decade but they've called it quits. There is reason to hope that all is not lost, but more on that later. Let's start at the top. Gaz Coombes and Danny Goffey were in a band called the Jennifers in their mid to late teens which fell apart in 92. They left an indelible impression on the few who heard them gigging in Oxfordshire, their hometown. Bassist Mick Quinn, a co-worker of Coombes, joined them in 93 and after messing about with a few named settled on Theodore Supergrass. The prefix would go in the weeks after their first good reviews came in. Their history isn't crucial and to be honest I don't know a good deal about their personal journey but I know their music like the back of my hand. One of the first records I bought and felt like I was on my way to being a proper music aficionado was their 2002 record Life On Other Planets. Frequent guests here will know that it wound up very near the top of my best albums of the decade.
The band's sound is steeped in the history of British popular rock music and indeed their evolution almost uncannily mirrors that of The Who. They started with uber-catchy and very English early material (I Should Coco/The Who Sing My Generation), got a bit bigger and a little more expansive and loud (In It For The Money, Supergrass/A Quick One), way more conceptual and a little less cookie-cutter but with a distinct and beautiful personality (Life On Other Planets, Road To Rouen/The Who Sell Out) and finally a big rock sound that was a little low on the kind of magic that characterized their best records (Diamond Hoo Ha/Tommy, Who's Next). Evidently I wasn't the only one who saw the Who connection. Coombes sang "Bargain" with Pearl Jam at the VH1 Rock Honors celebration of The Who, one of their least interesting songs just before Coombes was to release his least compelling record to date just as The Who would venture into all-too-familiar rock territory after their 60s heyday (the 70s killed off some of our most impressive bands by turning the volume up and the creativity down; Imagine if The Stones had never stopped trying to make records like Second Request). In fact It's also tempting to think that Supergrass might have done a splendid little reversal a la David Bowie, who at first fell pray to the allure of early 70s musical trends but pulled himself out of his glamrock nose dive in time to make a soul record, a kind of indefinable spacy funk record and then define Post-Punk before Punk was in its death throes. The proof: Hot Rats. Springing out of their time alone following Mick Quinn's sleepwalking injury in 2007, Coombes and Goffey released a cover album earlier this year called Turn Ons, produced by Nigel Godrich, he of Radiohead production fame. The record was largely 60s, early 70s rock though there are exceptions (notably a pretty catchy cover of Gang of Four's "Damaged Goods" and the Beastie Boys "Fight For Your Right To Party", which as a reviewer pointed out sounds exactly like The Who's "I Can See For Miles"). Why this leaves me feeling hopeful for the now defunct Supergrass is that they managed to trot out the kind of rock music ruined by the 70s and make it sound both understated and alive. The Velvets, Pink Floyd, The Kinks, The Doors, Roxy Music, Squeeze and David Bowie are given a kind of Devil's Advocate production, alternately turned up and down hinting at what those bands might have done without the times shelling out money on studios. Bowie's "Queen Bitch" for example benefits from a soaring string arrangement over the verses. It's exactly the kind of momentum that the song always needed, though no one would have ever said so. That's why I love the guys in Supergrass, they answer to no one. And they can also make me appreciate The Doors. Their cover of that worthless misogynistic band's "The Crystal Ship" feels weighty and important and fun all at once, something The Doors never managed to convince me of divorced from the images from Apocalypse Now. It was also good to hear Coombes ripping apart his guitar as on recent Grass records he'd taken to big riffs with little virtuosity called for. It didn't used to be that way.
"I'd Like To Know" the first track on their debut record I Should Coco, is all furious muted picking, overdubs and high-flying tone. Coombes, who was barely 19 at the album's release, lets his youthful energy take the track around the block a number of times. He might not be Jimmy Page but he lets his guitar eat up a good deal of the track. Quinn and Goffey are just as impressive. Quinn whose stance hasn't changed much since the band's early gigs, has John Entwistle's stamina, mastery of tone and does just as impressive a job on the backing vocals. Goffey's speed and thunderous sound put him in good company as well though it would be a few albums before their ability would be given its full breath. The youth of the band is evident but there's clearly a maturity to the group's sound, which is astonishing considering their age. The penultimate track, "Sofa (Of My Lethargy)" is a great example of their preternatural skill with a studio. Not only did they get the kind of madcap, Richard Lester style irreverence of 60s British but they also had moments that aped the likes of Floyd and Black Sabbath. The sound wasn't the most unique thing in the world but it was fun and knowing and fleet of finger and besides, the best was yet to come.
In It For The Money, their sophomore record is bigger, louder and a little more fierce. The opening onslaught of the titular opener, "Richard III" and the horn-laden "Tonight" perfect encapsulate their manic energy at its unchained best. Catchy, riddled with distortion and a winking sense of themselves. These are songs to fall in out and of, pulp rock music. It's not hard to imagine Grass in 1997 filling up bonus discs with silly covers of "Hall of the Mountain King" and "The Batman Theme" as The Who did at this point in their career. Though Coombes' depth also began to shine through as on the Golden Agey acoustic led "Late In The Day." Though even as their capacity to take themselves seriously burgeoned, they could still cut themselves down to size on as on the muzak interlude on "Going Out." The album is a bit more of a whole then Coco, and the use of disparate sounds and expansive instrumentation would be put to full use on their best album.

1999 saw their second brush with big time exposure. Coco had spawned a couple of hit singles and for a minute or two the band were on top of the world. Steven Spielberg even approached them about possibly producing a Monkees like TV show which proves both their irreverent and their timeless credentials and when they said no that cemented their reputation as a band that viewed music more seriously than the fame that often accompanies it. They weren't above the odd video (it was the 90s, after all) but ultimately it was the music that drove them. Britain has churned out its fair share of run-of-the-mill pop groups but it has plenty of iconoclastic rock stars to its name as well. For every Paul McCartney or George Michael there are also a few Syd Barretts and John Lydons. Coombes and Co. have the ability to put out something as hooky as The Kinks or any of Britain's New Wave acts but their progression from fun-loving pop group to record label nightmare is important if we are to appreciate them fully. They'd always caused trouble for Parlophone and indeed wound up splitting from them but my guess is that the real trouble started in 1999. With the release of their self-titled third album came the Jim Henson Studio helmed video for "Pumping On Your Stereo" which made them (once again) an overnight sensation. They would never see this level of success again. The album that "Stereo" sprang from is quite a good collection of pop tunes with the swagger of a rock album.
Opening with another indelible string of brilliant songs, "Moving" sets the tone for the record, moving from a floating verse to a stomping chorus. The first time the organ starts creeping through before the chorus kicks in, ooh it's sweet. They unleash a number of awesome choruses on this record making this possibly their best car stereo album. "Your Love" pulls off the same trick but somehow the chorus is even more awesome. The overdubs and harpsichord help distract you sufficiently so that when the chorus comes in it hits you even harder. "What Went Wrong" has an instantly compelling verse if a little less impressive a chorus, but the real meat of the record is for me the next track. "Beautiful People" The pre-chorus and the chorus itself are screaming, gripping bits of pop genius. Tightly constructed and highly satisfying, it's the best the record gets. The rest is good, "Shotover Hill" capturing that sunbaked feel they supply on "Late In The Day", "Eon" a preview of the sort of spacey momentum they would perfect on Life On Other Planets. "Mary" and "Born Again" have a kind of slinky Station to Station feel. "Faraway" and "Pumping on Your Stereo" are instantly catchy. "Mama and Papa" is one of the few songs that seems to have any real personal meaning for Gaz Coombes, songwriter, who slows down and speaks up for the first time.

Supergrass kissed the video/radio play route goodbye with Life On Other Planets. The record spawned a few singles, none of them chart burners, in the states but after making Life On Other Planets, the most conceptual and unique of their albums to date, they went into making grounded and mature rock music that doesn't play well with teens (Diamond Hoo Ha was a bit of a relapse but it was also their downfall apparently). "Grace" the first one that made it's way here, was my first proper introduction to the Oxfordshire natives. I'd heard "Pumping on your Stereo" a dozen or so times but frankly half the record is better than that song, so I wasn't totally won over. "Grace" was different. Short, sweet, charming, effervescent, and catchy as sin. I saw the video, I believe, before I bought the record. It was as cute as the song required and I believe after a week straight singing it to myself I downloaded it and played the hell out of it. Weeks after that I found the host album, Life On Other Planets, at Siren Records, which I remember distinctly being a first of a few different orders. One of the first proper records I bought with my own money, one of the first I played until it was scratched beyond use, one of the first I remember thinking was among the best albums of all time. "Grace" was the window (and for once the single was as good as the rest of the record) and the house I climbed into was lavish beyond compare.

I've already spoken about Life On Other Planets' greatness here so I won't rehash those same points again. I'll simply say that the record is like a fantastical literary and sensory journey, a kind of grand festival that harkens to the highest highs of 60s british music, everything from King Crimson to The Creation. It's ranked among my favorite albums since buying it, which I've had to do several times because I kept damaging the discs. Bookended by meandering organ, Life is all about transporting the listener and bringing to someplace strange and new but still somewhat familiar. The songs are wholly new for the band and there isn't a bit of filler in the lot of them. None of the singles really dented the stateside charts and the band would never see them again.
Their better-than-average best-of followed two years later complete with a live bonus album. The real treat however was the single they recorded to commemorate ten years of being Supergrass. "Kiss of Life" is a bouncy and vibrant song that showcased the expansion of their sound. The next record would realize their more experimental tendencies spectacularly. When the band played "Kiss of Life" on Late Night with Conan O'Brien, I recorded and watched it easily two dozen times before I had that particularly illegal DVD stolen by my then math teacher - I think he liked Pearl Jam's cover of "Masters of War" too much to part with it and told me it'd just been lost. And I think I got a C that year....fucker.

The year after they came out...well, blazing isn't the right word, considering the total lack of fanfare that greeted the could almost sense Parlophone losing confidence in the band as they, like Wilco before them, gravitated away from what had made them consistent sellers in the past. The Supergrass who'd so gleefully played "Caught By The Fuzz" on Later With Jools Holland were no more. Sadly the public didn't respond as well as most critics, and even those reviews often missed the point. I remember buying Road To Rouen like it were yesterday. I was at a Sam Goody that was closing for good and picked it out of the few records worth buying still left (a testament to the album's performance overseas, even with its priced slashed no one had touched it). The quote on the sticker read approximately: "Ry Cooder meets Franz Ferdinand." It's not that that doesn't work (though it's unfairly narrow) but Franz Ferdinand had been around not even a year and already they were being treated as the elder statesmen, as if Supegrass were some bland teenaged brit-pop act like The Kooks or Razorlight, trying to sell you a sound you'd heard a hundred times before and a hundred times better. Granted, to anyone who's heard their influences Supergrass had hardly reinvented the wheel but they brought to it a new vitality and an undying charm and warmth.
Road To Rouen starts with one of their best songs and certainly one of their most interestingly produced. "Tales of Endurance (Parts 4, 5 & 6)" starts with a minor arrangement on the acoustic guitar joined by damp vocals and a slowly building orchestration complete with muted horns, piano and finally the stomping, sneering Grass we've come to expect. Next comes the soft, intriguing "St. Petersburg" that finds Coombes at his most world-weary. He sells his entanglement as wistfully as possible, helped by a heavy dose of vocal reverb that makes it near impossible to tell what the hell he's saying; that you still feel for him makes it that much more effective. "Roxy" is big and has the stature of mid-70s Bowie or early Roy Orbison. When it finally comes to a halt, we're greeted with arguably Supergrass's most fun song. "Coffee In The Pot" is welcome as the band have just spent four songs taking themselves seriously (albeit to great effect) and this is a reminder that their sense of humour hasn't deadened, it's just gotten sophisticated like the rest of their elements. The song's gypsy jazz feel and Rimsky-Korsakov like chorus are a hoot and it's pretty hard to feel down whenever I hear this song. Then it's right back to the rocking. The title track is rock but in a mood closer to "Kiss of Life" than any of their previous efforts. "Coffee" and "Road To Rouen" highlight how inventive a songwriting guitarist Gaz Coombes can be, as well as how hard Goffey and Quinn work at the rhythm. "Low C" is another departure, a little too mellow to be called typical, a little too happy to be called bluesy. "Fin," the album closer, is a spacier riff on "Mama & Papa" with a distinctly "Planet Caravan" vibe. "Sad Girl" and "Kick In The Teeth" are the two classic Grass tracks and would fit in on either In It For The Money or Supergrass, call it a shout-out to the hometown crowd. Take those two out and this may have been even more startling than Life On Other Planets.

It is my strong opinion it was Road To Rouen's performance that paved the way for Diamond Hoo Ha, the band's final official album. Granted the band hadn't ever sounded quite so official, or shiny, but the songwriting went nowhere the band hadn't tread before and though there are catchy moments (the title track is impossible to hate), Diamond is just not the record I expected and wanted after the climb offered on the previous two albums. Like the descent the Decemberists took after their nerd-rock masterpiece The Hazards of Love, the previous Grass records promised something that Diamond Hoo Ha couldn't deliver. For starters it's called fucking Diamond Hoo Ha. Secondly Gaz and Danny went on tour as their alter egos The Diamond Hoo Ha Men playing minimalist versions of the new tunes or covers like "Beat It" while pretending to be drunken idiots. Coco-era grass could have gotten away with that. 14 year old Supergrass seemed a little like older men who'd lost touch with what people wanted. That'd sort of be like David Bowie following up Low and "Heroes" with Diamond Dogs (though some people will tell you that Lodger was an unworthy successor to the other Berlin-era records, I think it holds up ok, but I digress). "Bad Blood" is ok, sparklier late-90s Grass, "Rebel In You" feels like straight T. Rex and the rest of the record rarely strays too far from that. There are saxophone solos and the odd ballad but really it's a pretty predictable album. There's a comfort I suppose in that but I was just not pleased with its lack of ambition. Evidently, I wasn't the only one as the band parted ways over "musical differences" in the wake of the record's mediocre reception.
It's always a bummer when good things end. When bands break-up there is a sense of frustration, of what could have been. The band's final album Release The Drones was slated for a January 2011 release. With a name like that, who can say what the band were up to before they left. A more conceptual album, further adventures in well-worn psychedelia, perhaps a Kid A-like aberrance. Unless they release it will never know whether they peaked with Life On Other Planets. Maybe they needed to stop. Maybe all creative endeavors have a half-life. It begs the question, do all artists have logical stopping points that they can choose to heed? Do we all have those moments. Do we all have a Life On Other Planets in us? I hope so. Until I figure that out for myself I have the output of one of my favourite groups to refer to, find solace in and explore over and over again.

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