As Gene’s entire studio catalogue is reissued in a set of deluxe editions, Clash takes some time to consider a band that never quite got the recognition it deserved. These double-CD sets gather together B-sides, session tracks and live performances along with reflections on each period of the band’s career. Having split 10 years ago, read on to discover what makes the London-based Britpop act worthy of investigation today.
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Following two wonderful standalone singles and a few months riding the wave of emphatic music press hype, this gloriously realised debut melded the melismatic vocals of Martin Rossiter to the ambitious guitar work of Steve Mason. These 11 songs were awash with melancholy melodies along with a rhythm section of Kevin Miles (bass) and Matt James (drums) that was none too shabby either. Whether reflecting on the loss of a friend or highlighting homophobic attitudes, the songs were able to live up to the expectations put upon them by the weekly music papers, one of whom immediately set about knocking them right back down again. Such criticisms hinged on the notion of the band as Smiths copyists, many likening Rossiter’s delivery to that of one bequiffed gladioli waver. While that band clearly had an influence, there was plenty on show here to highlight Gene’s own already impressive identity.
‘Olympian’ (1995, reached 18 on the UK singles chart)
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‘To See The Lights’ (1996)
Their ‘Hatful Of Hollow’, if we are to persist with those references to Manchester’s finest, this substantial collection mopped up all of those early tracks which had been left off ‘Olympian’, including the beautiful ‘For The Dead’, which the band now openly acknowledge owes a debt to The Faces’ ‘Debris’, and ‘Be My Light, Be My Guide’. Matt James explains that Kev Miles instigated the writing of that second single and was “trying to do a Teenage Fanclub riff”, which explains its irresistible jangle. Add in an oddly endearing live cover of ‘I Say A Little Prayer’, an aching reading of ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ and some fizzing early live performances and ‘To See The Lights’ functions as a fine album in its own right. The bonus material tacks on a performance at the long-defunct Phoenix Festival, but there are enough treasures in the original 21 tracks to merit investigation.
‘For The Dead’, as performed on Top Of The Pops (1996, reached number 14)
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‘Drawn To The Deep End’ (1997)
A tale of excess, success and depression, this second studio album proper cost the best part of £300,000 to make but failed to have the impact hoped for by a hitherto enthusiastic label. Pushed by Polydor into having Tears For Fears producer Chris Hughes behind the desk, the band’s sound ballooned and, says Matt James, they “probably lost sight of who we were”. Despite applying grandiose production and trying to tick the box marked anthemic, there’s still plenty here to enjoy. Singles ‘Where Are They Now?’ and ‘Speak To Me Someone’ possess a sweeping, vintage elegance, while ‘Fighting Fit’ belied a fondness more for Weller’s old band than Moz’s. The record gets darker as it progresses and the tension of its gestation made its way into the songs. Steve Mason recalls that period: “We had the head of Polydor rocking up, waving his big cigar around, and saying ‘Show me the hits.’ It was all a bit strange; I kept thinking, ‘Am I reading a book? Is this really happening?’” The pressure to produce a notional smash led to endless tinkering and they still feel that they never quite nailed a number of these songs.
‘Where Are They Now?’ (1997, reached number 22)
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An intriguing collection, of leaner lineage than its predecessor after Polydor pulled the purse strings tight, the band’s third album failed to regain their foothold in the nation’s affections. While their star may have faded, this contains several of their very finest songs. ‘Little Child’ rather beautifully captures Rossiter’s anxiety ahead of the arrival of his firstborn, while ‘You’ll Never Walk Again’ is a brooding, building epic that rises to an emphatic conclusion without ever being bloated. The band is split on the record’s merits, with Mason saying, “It was too fragmented for me. It went from country to indie rock to something else, and just didn’t hang together as an album,” while James asserts, “It’s a great collection of songs, and perfectly sums up who we were back then.” Awful cover aside, ‘Revelations’ is a raw record peppered with Rossiter’s disillusionment at New Labour’s approach to power and delivered with a rough-edged ferocity borne of the tighter budget and restricted recording time. It lacks polish to perhaps the same extent that ‘Drawn To The Deep End’ was heavy with it, but it has aged rather well.
‘As Good As It Gets’ (1999, reached number 23)
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Polydor lost interest with ‘Revelations’ barely in the racks, Rossiter observing soon after: “Only when we got to Gretna Green did we realise that Polydor had disembarked at Crewe”. Deciding to go it alone, having tested the waters with a self-released live album, the band returned with what was to be their final studio offering, featuring some of the best playing of their career. Inspired by the self-contained soulful completeness of Marvin Gaye’s ‘What's Going On’, this is a warm, rhythmic record that soars above their Britpop origins. There’s no sense here that the band is striving for hit singles, preferring instead to craft a cohesive collection of songs that glisten and enthral. ‘Is It Over?’ is a funereal lament to lost love that slowly mutates into a vitriolic assertion of power, resolving to move on with head held high. It is a long way from the effervescent jangle of the mid-‘90s and still features in Rossiter’s solo sets to this day. Next to it sits ‘O Lover’, a gloriously languid track that sashays around following a tibbly organ motif. The songwriting is as strong as it ever was during Gene’s lifetime and consequently ‘Libertine’ provides the best of the bonus discs, containing a number of unreleased gems like single-that-never-was ‘Rising For Sunset’ and the shamelessly poppy ‘Baby I’m Sorry’. Of all of these albums, it is the most deserving of rediscovery, for it ensured the band went out on quite some high.
‘Is It Over? (2001, did not chart)
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Words: Gareth James
These deluxe editions are available now.
Read a previous The Complete Guide, on the work of Suede.