Gaz and the boys are still alright after all these years
A few years ago, some college radio friends and I took a somewhat spontaneous trip to Montreal; it was one of those weekends (plus) where you’re instantly thrust back into easy camaraderie that descends into decadence, and would not be complete without a smattering of sadness.
Long into a drunken evening, that somber, can’t-turn-back-time (we’d forgotten the concept of time by now) feeling indeed started to creep in. We dipped into the most nondescript of second-floor bars. A few minutes in, I noticed the bartender or the DJ or whoever was playing I Should Coco in its entirety, and it was impossible not to get caught up in the moment, untangled from time, enthralled by this album we’d all played pretty much weekly on our personal shows in 1995.
I Should Coco comes from Cockney rhyming slang, a stand-in for “I should think so!” — a phrase that can only be read in a sort of sarcastic defiance. If anything defines the Supergrass sound in its earliest stage it’s that sort of throwback punk rock attitude, yet there was a sort of refreshment to the Oxford trio’s sound that placed it way out of time, yet gloriously in fashion. Not only did it shamelessly flashback to ‘70s punk rock, it hearkened back to a specific brand of punk that even then was throwback to the similar boundless energy (and three-chord guitar majesty) of the late 1950s, of Bobby Fuller and Eddie Cochran when rock’n’roll was still finding its sea legs and tended to get lost in a swirl of raucous fun.
Gaz Coombes, Danny Goffey, and Mick Quinn (since 2002 a foursome including Gaz’ brother Rob on keyboards) were teenagers who had only played together a year when their debut single “Caught By The Fuzz” started getting airplay in the UK. While the rough edges did peek through the cracks, that only enhanced the sense of bratty punk rebellion which would strike a chord with college radio and alt-rock rebels alike.
They were nothing like the sound that generally comes to an American’s head when they think of the British mini-invasion of the 1990s (rhymes with Schmoasis) — the Britpop label has always been an ambiguous catch-all anyway. It’s not that they were the only ones doing the whole devil may care, we are young, we run free type of sound in this middle of that decade. Elastica, Kenickie, Ash, and quite a few others basking in this sort of rocked-out glory, but they arguably had the most organic feel, while also having a certain pop cleverness that knew the value of an alluring hook.
To call Supergrass’ first effort Buzzcocks without the overwhelming sexual angst or The Clash sans the change-the-world politics is not to insult them. I Should Coco has the vibe of three innocents — but clever ones — who are not lacking intellectual curiosity by any means, but at this point in their lives still just want to go out to the pubs, down pints, and raise hell.
That said, nowhere is the Buzzcocks influence more profound than on the first song the band ever wrote — and second on the record — the aforementioned “Caught By The Fuzz” — the chronicle of an arrest foretold. Between Gaz’ Pete Shelley-esque vocals and the early-days-of-punk-rock urgency. That gives way to the concert piano stomping that opens “Mansize Rooster,” hinting at something out of the Madness playbook before descending into a classic Jam jam. That they wore these influences on their sleeve is not meant to suggest they are derivative.
There’s a telling moment in the video for their UK breakout hit “Alright” — interestingly enough, “Cheapskate,” opening their follow-up album In It For The Money, which would prove the closest thing the act would have to a U.S. hit (reaching #35 on the Modern Rock chart). In the video, the threesome, clad in colorful tee shirts bearing their individual names, Danny, Gaz, and Mick, sport around London — alternately on bicycles and a magical bed. They are having the time of their lives Mick hits Gaz with a pillow, the latter reacts initially with hurt and shock and then smiles and the classic pillow fight is on. They are still essentially kids simply having fun (natural fun) and that’s a big part of why the album immediately resonated.
“Are we like you, I can’t be sure?”
It’s funny, when I first fell for this album, it was the first half of the record, with its fiery anthems — singles piled upon singles — that seemed to define it. However, upon listening a quarter-century later, its the backend of the record that holds up the best. Lyrically, “Sofa of My Lethargy” reflects the slacker ethos popular on alternative radio with its “Longview”-esque lyrics about sitting on the couch, although unlike Green Day, they are not masturbating… just sort of being. I didn’t notice it on that Montreal night either, even if I may have felt it. I do now. One of the greatest aspects of great music is how it’s effect changes at different times of our life — it’s not profound, but that does not make that sort of comfort any less true.
The band has been open about how having a huge UK hit colored their future music and 1997’s In It For The Money boasts a more refined and complex, almost sinister feel. Even the cover for their follow-up record hints at the sea change, with the be-parka’d band busking around a hobo’s trash can as Gaz looks more a world weary Karl Wallinger than carefree punker. It’s got the drenched-in-bittersweet Shakespeare-referencing “Richard III” alongside the Yo La Tengo-esque reflection of “Late in the Day” — and those are the singles. And it works, and they would continue to evolve and find decent success for 15 years, and just reunited last year.
I Should Coco is tailor-made to still resonate a quarter-century later, as it’s a variation on a musical theme that keeps coming back. The same energy would rise up again with the mega-success of the White Stripes and Strokes — and more directly in bands like The Libertines and The Von Bondies.
Like my ceaselessly borne friends and I on that Montreal night, Supergrass would never, could never go back themselves to recreate that album — there’s no way they could. It was a sound that could only be a debut album made by the young. Supergrass’ debut is still an invigorating listen — if maybe more subdued as we age along with them.