Saturday, March 30, 2019

Sleeper, "Inbetweener"

Because of an episode on one of my favorite music podcasts, I found myself revisiting 90s Britpop this week for the first time in awhile. From about 1995 to 1998 it was the genre of music I listened to the most. By the mid-90s the grunge explosion in America had devolved into corporate radio stations playing hour after hour of the likes of 311, Bush, and Silverchair. While I liked some of the more underground American bands of the time like Pavement, I found that whole scene to be exclusionary and too hip for me to fit in. For that reason even though I was going to college in Omaha at the time I totally missed out on the beginning of a great music scene. I was still a rural dork who wore sweatshirts and baggy light wash jeans.

Instead I gravitated to Britpop, something that only got more powerful after a trip to Ireland for a college debate tournament (told you I was a dork.) I heard the music in all of the pubs, and I picked up a bunch of British music mags. It was here that I learned about groups like Pulp and a pre-"Bittersweet Symphony" Verve. That same year Trainspotting came out and only cemented my obsession with the British Isles. (I'll admit, it's still one of my favorite movies.) I had also been primed for this by having been a huge Smiths fan in high school.

While Britpop's sound owed a lot to Johnny Marr's guitar playing, the songs were usually much more upbeat than what Morrissey and co. had put out. It's easy to understand how Britpop managed to cross over from the margins to the Top of the Pops. It melded catchy hooks with the indie sensibility, and so could appeal to serious rock fans as well as the kind of run of the mill people who care little about music but make the hits once their toes start tapping. However, apart from Oasis none of these groups had hits in America, despite the fact that Blur was a million times cooler than the godawful likes of Seven Mary Three and Toadies.

While some of the Britpop bands were at least known widely among American alternative rock fans, such as Radiohead, Blur, The Verve, Elastica, Pulp, etc., some are almost forgotten. One of these is Sleeper, whom I discovered with the free tape that came with the copy of Q magazine I bought in the Manchester airport on my way home from Ireland. The tape collected a bunch of live TV performances from various groups (including Oasis), but "Inbetweener" by Sleeper was among my favorites (along with a duet on "Waterloo Sunset" with Ray Davies and Damon Albarn.)

It's a tight, bouncy song with a bit of social commentary about bourgeois affectations. Songs about social class tensions are catnip to UK audiences (like Pulp's "Common People"), but that kind of thing is poison in America, where we pretend social class doesn't exist. None of Sleeper's albums are classics, but now that we live in the streaming, post-iTunes world where the single is king once again, their standout songs should be netting Sleeper some recognition. (Check out "Statuesque" and "Nice Guy Eddie" as well.) It's also kind of funny today in the midst of the Brexit fiasco to remember a time when such a phenomenon as "Cool Britannia" was a thing. Time's passage is cruel indeed.

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