Author of "The Birth And Impact Of Britpop: Mis-Shapes, Scenesters And Insatiable Ones"
It wasn’t all about observing. Everywhere you turned in the nineties saw you confronted by boys and girls who were in a band. I wasn’t any different...except for the fact that I didn’t have any actual talent.
Here, now is so very different to there and then. The past is in the past.
And yet...and yet...I can’t help thinking about it and us.
There were four of us.
But it was only ever really the two of us.
It was always you and me.
You and me always.
Until it wasn’t.
The Citrus Club in Edinburgh is an institution, if by “institution” you mean; “shithole indie club where past their best 30-somethings bump and grind to “Groovy Train” by The Farm. It’s an ugly building on the outside and, just like me, it’s even uglier on the inside...dark, grey and miserable. It’s the sort of place where one could imagine a Soviet era drama filming the murder of a covert agent by KGB operatives. Honestly, it’s horrid. I once overheard a girl say to a boy, in an attempt to woo him, “You can’t beat a bit of Tight Fit.” while “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” played.
At some point in 1997 I organised a The Smiths tribute night there. I don’t know how I managed that...I had no experience of DJ-ing, I didn’t know how to run a club night and I certainly had no idea if anyone would come. People did come though. Just the sort of people I had hoped would come along; boys with quiffs and girls who liked boys with quiffs. People danced as I played The Smiths and Morrissey records as well as Morrissey approved artists like Sandie Shaw and The New York Dolls. At the end of the night I got two telephone numbers; one from a very pretty girl from Malta who was studying at Edinburgh University and the other from one of the boys with a quiff.
A few nights later I called both numbers. The girl from Malta answered and we arranged to meet in town the following weekend. The boy was from Dalkeith. We had chatted at the club about music and
Morrissey...there had been some suggestion of doing something together. There had also been chat with the girl from Malta about doing something too. The boy from Dalkeith and I didn’t want to do that. We wanted to be in a band. He had told me he could play guitar and that he wrote songs...I told him I could sing.
I can’t sing.
As we talked on the ‘phone I decided to prove that by singing the classic Morrissey track “Suedehead”. I wasn’t serenading him...not really. I was serenading him. A bit. I wanted him to like me. I wanted him to say “You can sing a bit you know”. I wanted this to be like the moment Morrissey met Johnny Marr. I wanted to do something and to be someone. This boy, this stranger, this quiffed up Dalkeither was my chance to achieve both of those things. Never have so many hopes and dreams been so closely linked to the approval of someone from Dalkeith.
“You can sing a bit you know” he said.
“I love you.” I thought.
Like a lot of young people I felt sure that an “ordinary” life wasn’t really for me. I was absolutely convinced that there was something unique about me and that one day everyone else would notice and then I would be elevated to the position of “someone”. Of course that didn’t ever happen because, in truth, there was nothing unique about me and I certainly didn’t (don’t) possess anything that even remotely resembles a talent. An ordinary life is exactly what an ordinary person should have...lives less ordinary are for the truly exceptional like Dylan and Patti Smith or the exceptionally lucky like anyone in Coldplay22. At that point in my life though I was sure that I could mask how ordinary I was by doing a very good impersonation of Morrissey...I had the hair, I had the absolute commitment to high camp and low opinions of anyone who wasn’t me and, crucially, I now had someone who could drag me to where I felt sure I should be. The only difference was that I wasn’t a lyrical genius waiting to be discovered. My little brother had a friend who could play bass. We had tried to start a band together a few months earlier...Britpop-lite; “The Persuaders”. I’m not joking. “The Persuaders”. That was my idea. Somebody should have said something but nobody did and so it stuck. The band crumbled without ever playing a gig. I told Matt, the bass player, that I had met someone who could play guitar and who wrote songs...did he want to be part of this new entity? I had no idea if the boy from Dalkeith could actually play guitar or write songs...at this point all I knew was his name and where he lived. Sometimes you just know. Matt said he was in and so the three of us arranged to meet up and see how things went.
I had the keys to a local church hall and so we met there one cold Saturday morning around two weeks after the first ‘phone call. By that point I had also found us a drummer called Andy. There we were, four young bucks, a guitar, a bass, a drum kit, a microphone, some great hair and a lot of, possibly, misplaced belief in one another’s abilities. The boy from Dalkeith picked up his guitar, tuned it and then started to play something for us. He could play.
He could write songs.
This was going to be...special.
His name was Keith.
After a morning of playing together we had two or three of this Midlothian Marrs songs down. They were a brilliant mix of The Smiths miserablism, T-Rex glam and Suede style. That’s how they sounded to me...to other people they probably sounded a bit, well, “meh”. It’s a rare thing for a new band to be anything other than “meh” at least to the ears and eyes of anyone outside of their own circle of friends. I whooped, warbled and wibbled my way through each of the songs while Matt and Andy took their guidance from Keith. He was the ringleader. The musical maestro. He had a vision for this band...it was my vision too but, unlike him, I didn’t have the talent to make the dream real. I felt good about having met him and about having called him.
It soon became clear that Andy wasn’t up to scratch. The first musical difference was upon us. Unlike Andy Rourke23 and his heroin use there was no need for me to leave a postcard on the windshield of our Andy informing him he was no longer in... we just told him it wasn’t working out and that was that. Very undramatic.
I was very disappointed. I had already begun to cast myself in the role of Morrissey-lite and had been looking forward to some drama but instead everything had been very amicable. At this point we were still a band with no name. Keith wanted us to be called “Diesel”. He may well deny this now but it’s true. His argument was that it had a slightly industrial, urban and gritty feel to it. My argument was that it
was a terrible name for a band24. Admittedly it was a better name than “Arctic Monkeys” but it was still awful. I suggested “This Years Model”. It was a headline on the front page of the Face magazine in 1993 ( a front cover that also featured an article on Suede) and it was also a reference to the work of Elvis Costello. It was perfect...the glamour of Kate Moss, fashion, classic British songwriting and we would never be dated. Slowly, surely the rest of the gang were won over and so here we were...This Years Model.
We had a name. We had songs. We had the sort of delusional belief in our own brilliance that only those destined for greatness possess. We had no drummer. We needed a drummer. Somehow Keith presented us with Alex.
Alex was a boy.
Mind, body and soul.
A boy drummer.
Little drummer boy.
Goodness only knows where Keith found him but despite his lack of years and the fact that his voice hadn’t broken he could drum and so he was in. We managed to overlook the fact that he arrived at rehearsal in his school uniform by focusing on the fact that Suede had replaced Bernard Butler with the still adolescent Richard Oakes. There is something very un-rock ‘n’ roll about having a drummer who is playing in his blazer. At times it looked like we were on the slightly creepy old Channel 4 show “Minipops” where children would mimic adult performers. Post-Saville that show is even more disturbing than it was at the time.
Still, we were now a band again and the fact that we occasionally had to help little Alex with his geometry homework and get him home before 8 didn’t seem that important in the grand scheme of things. We had a voice, we had a songsmith and we had a rhythm section. This was a band. This was our time. This was it. Or at least that’s what we all thought. Like every group of magpie eyed young boys in bands all across the world we were hungry for the prize. We didn’t really pause to think about the possibility of our not being very, or any, good. We were all convinced that our position as the sons and heirs to The Smiths was only a gig or two away. Oh, nervous juveniles...what became of you?
For our first live appearance we herded together every friend, former friend, girlfriend, friend of a friend and wandering minstrel we could and encouraged, begged and demanded that they come along to offer their love and support. What that really meant was that we were all terrified that our first live experience would be played out in front of the proverbial one man and his dog. We did maintain some dignity by not inviting parents.
Is there anything more horrific than the sight of young bands playing to their screeching post- menopausal mothers? The answer is; no. Nothing.
The venue we were playing in was The Attic in Edinburgh’s Cowgate and it had played host to some truly memorable live events...not the least of which was that now legendary evening when Coldplay and Bellatrix shared the bill. Can you imagine what it would have been like to have witnessed that? People who were there still talk about it in Edinburgh bars...sat in the darkest corners of the room, surrounded by young people who want to know what it was like to be so close to the man who would later become famous for being a slightly less Bono-y Bono. The answer to that question is, of course, “underwhelming”. The headline act were Johnny Panic. In Ben Gunstone they had a lead singer who was so incredibly attractive that even if he hadn’t been able to sing, play guitar and write songs he would still have amassed legions of followers desperate to be close to him. Honestly, he was so good looking he may actually have been too good looking. I’m no Brad Pitt, more arm pit, but I’m not u.g.l.y either but my own modest, moderate level of attractiveness (then...not now, age has not been kind) was several leagues below that where Gunstone reigned as champion. The music?
Who cares about the music? We all know that nothing is more important in life than looking good and being good looking.
They were the very best elements of Britpop without any of the worst elements of Britpop. Melodies, wit, charm, nods to the past but gloriously rooted in the present.
As we took to the stage that night I was suddenly very aware of the fact that I was, in truth, not any sort of singer and that in a few seconds everyone in the room was going to be very aware of that fact too. What was I doing? What if people laughed? What if people jeered? Why hadn’t someone stopped this before now? Where was the toilet? Then Keith played the opening chords of our first song “Life on a Ferris Wheel” and we were off.
The next thing I remember is the sound of applause. Not polite clapping but real, honest, heartfelt applause. A bit of cheering and no jeering. A quick scan of the crowd revealed that people we didn’t know were clapping too. We were a band who were playing our songs to people we didn’t know and those people were enjoying them. A triumph.
A Brit award for best new band could only be a formality now surely? We played some more songs there was a bit more clapping and cheering and then we were off. I felt...a bit funny. I wanted to cry. I had spent a lot of time in my bedroom singing along to favourite records in front of the mirror. I had dreamt of a life less ordinary. I felt sure that I was meant to be...someone. On that stage that night I felt anything but ordinary and I was sure, at last, that I was someone. That sounds ridiculous to you I am sure...it may even sound a touch delusional. I understand that.
Looking back it is ridiculous and I was delusional.
I was younger. I was more hopeful. I was also a bit hopeless.
Give me that one night.
The boys from Johnny Panic liked us. We liked them. A bond of trust was forged. When next they dragged themselves North of the border we organised another gig for both bands. It was a big
one. Goodbye to The Attic, farewell to the small time and say hello to...the Rothes Halls.
Yes, the Rothes Halls. Second only to the Alhambra Theatre in the list of top venues in Fife for rock and pop. Don’t ask me how I did it, just know that you are reading the thoughts and remembrances of a man who once secured a co- headline gig for This Years Model and Johnny Panic in the Rothes Halls in Glenrothes.
Despite my now near militant vegetarianism at that point in time I was working, and eating, in McMurder. Underneath the golden arches I was “lobby host”. I was responsible for giving balloons to small children, emptying bins, cleaning toilets and sweeping the floors. What I actually did was to wander around the dining room looking for attractive girls that I could try and impress with my neatly pressed uniform and full quota of stars on my badge. Shortly before the Rothes Halls gigs I overheard two teenage girls in the restaurant discussing the music that was being played over the speaker system...they liked it. I liked it too. It was my music.
In a small rehearsal room in Leith, in the shadows of Easter Road we would gather on Saturday mornings and spend hours ploughing our way through Keiths latest compositions. Over and over again. We really wanted to be good. We really thought we could be. We even harboured the dangerous idea that we might be better than good.
Eventually we had recorded four songs as a demo. They were soon transferred onto cassettes (ask your parents) and we crafted a suitably Smithsy front cover for them. None of those tapes have survived...I have the original CD recordings and they are all that remains as evidence of a band ever having existed outside of my own half- remembered memories. When I overheard those two girls talking about the fact that they liked it and how they didn’t know who it was I became positively giddy with pride and excitement. I told them who that I was the singer in the band they were listening to (something which may well have been slightly cooler coming from somebody who wasn’t dressed in a McDonald’s uniform...even if I did have all five gold stars) and invited them to come along to the gig...I told them I would put them on the guest list. The guest list! Seriously. I was now slipping over the line from overly confident to genuinely delusional.
When we arrived at the venue Ben (the too good looking lead singer of Johnny Panic, remember?) took me to one side. He had something to tell me. “So, our band has an additional member tonight.” he said. I couldn’t imagine why he thought I would care but I nodded in a manner that I hoped conveyed whatever response he was looking for. “It’s Alain Whyte.” he carried on. “Sorry? It’s who?” I said. I thought he had said Alain Whyte but I knew that couldn’t be right because Alain Whyte was the man who played lead guitar for Morrissey and who had written more songs for him than anyone, including Johnny Marr. It couldn’t be that Alain Whyte. Not here. In Glenrothes.
Playing second fiddle to my merry band of The Smiths wannabesbutnevercouldbes.
It was that Alain Whyte.
It might not mean much to you but to those of us touched by the hand of Moz this was...everything.
In his book “Alma Coogan” Gordon Burn describes how Alma would be amazed by the way in which men would drape an arm around her for a photograph, acting as if it was the most natural thing in the world, trying desperately to appear nonchalant but as they touched her Alma could feel the truth...feel the shiver running through their bodies. That was me with Alain...all stillness and forced cool while my heart skipped several beats. He was lovely...warm and genuine. He liked what we were doing and despite the fact that he had played at Wembley and Madison Square Gardens he seemed totally at home in a venue that come curtain up was filled with...two paying customers; the girls from McMurder. Both bands played as if the hall was full, giving it everything they had. This was what you had to do to get to the top...empty, soul crushingly empty, venues in terrible nowhere towns.
After the gig my parents agreed to play host to two of the band; Alain and Ben. As they lay in my little brothers bedroom I could hear Alain talking to Ben...” Ben...Ben...I can feel God in this house man. These people are lovely. Ben? Ben?” Ben was already close to being asleep and the prospect of entertaining Al and his spiritual insight into my family home didn’t appeal. I lay grinning in the darkness of my own room, delighted that a man who was responsible for writing the music to the songs that made up the soundtrack to my life liked me and liked my family. It was a good night. That was the last time we played with Johnny Panic. They released a single27, they were played on real radio but not on Real Radio, they played some more gigs, there was a bit of buzz and then...it was over before it really began. What followed was the stuff of legend...prison, betrayal, hurt and broken hearts. Alain carried on, at least for a bit, with Morrissey and Ben released two fabulous solo albums filled to the brim with melody, lyrical brilliance and raw emotion. He should have had it all. That though is the essence of the music business...even with good looks, charm, wit and more talent than an arena full of Ed bloody Sheerins it wasn’t enough. So what chance did I have?
When I was a young boy my parents took me to Blackpool. The Pleasure Beach. As I sat next to my dad on the Big Wheel I yelped with delight and when it was time to clamber out I refused. The bloke running
the Wheel told my dad I could stay on because my screams of joy were good for business. Round and round we went until, eventually, my dad managed to persuade me to clamber off and return to our bed and breakfast. Keith had a song called “Life on a Ferris Wheel” and that little anecdote about my Blackpool experience was how I chose to introduce it at our next gig at a club called, incredibly, Jaffa Cake. I thought I was being very Jarvis Cocker when, in reality, I was probably being a bit of a cock.
Honestly. Never mind, as I looked out at the crowd I could see familiar faces but, amazingly, they were not the faces of friends...these were people who had seen us before and wanted to see us again. They were, oh God thank you, fans.
That is obviously stretching things a little...or possibly a lot...but up there on the stage that’s how it felt. As I blabbered on with my Ferris Wheel introduction Keith grew weary and struck up the band. I laughed and grinned at him. This was ace, me the fey, winsome, fop at the front being kept in check by the gritty, driven, devil on guitar.
We had roles and we were playing them to perfection. What I didn’t know, what I couldn’t have known, was that Keith wasn’t playing a role...he was erasing me.
A few weeks after that gig I had accepted a job with a soft drinks company. It paid a decent wage and came with a company van. The only reason I took the job was because of the van. I saw the van as a means for This Years Model to move forward. We could get places and go places. It was, in my mind, a logical thing to do and, frankly, a stroke of genius...I would be able to fund us and ferry us. Perfect.
Unfortunately Keith didn’t see it like that. Through Matt I was told that the decision to take a job was, in effect, a clipping of the wings of the band.
A band meeting was called. I drove Matt to see Keith in Dalkeith. The fact that this journey was taken in the very van my new job had given me didn’t seem to register with Matt. Once we were tucked up in Keiths bedroom the future of the band was discussed. I presented my argument, which was simply that a van must be a good thing, with force. After a bit of discussion we agreed to carry on, at least for a bit, and see how things worked out.
That “for a bit” turned out to be 72 hours. The following Saturday morning Matt called me and informed me that I was out. Keith would be taking over as lead singer. My time as Morrissey to his Marr was over before it ever really begun. I was angry. I left Matt in no doubt about how angry I was. I stopped shy of issuing a fatwa but the promise of ugly violence being visited on him was certainly mentioned. I don’t think I’d ever known betrayal. Here were people that I had brought together, people who had been united by my drive and desperation, people who would never have known one another but for my efforts and here they were telling me that I wasn’t needed. It was made worse, of course, because I loved them. That’s not true. I loved Keith. I thought he was beyond talented and I knew that with him by my side I could reach my goal of a life less ordinary.
He didn’t love me. He didn’t need me. He now set about forgetting all about me.
Days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months and then on into years. My anger and hurt solidified into a real hatred. I didn’t speak to anyone from the band again. Until one day I happened to be in a bar in London and spotted Keith, he was working as the bar manager. We exchanged pleasantries but inside I was seething. I had been dismissed from the band because my decision to take a job suggested a lack of commitment...here he was working in a bar. I wanted to drive my fist into his face. This was the insult that the initial injury had been missing. There were a couple of other chance encounters but never any attempt to heal the wounds. What had promised to be the best experience of my life was now a trail of bad memories soaked in loathing.
Of course it wasn’t as black and white as I’m painting it. I wasn’t a great singer. I was barely a singer at all. I didn’t write lyrics. I couldn’t play an instrument. Sure I looked good and I did a neat turn in Morrisseyisms but I didn’t bring much else to the party. Had I been possessed of a great voice or a Dylanesque lyrical brilliance then things would have been different.
Keiths decision was motivated by these things not by the fact I had a job. It also wasn’t a big deal for him...these things never are for people with talent. He didn’t, couldn’t, understand how desperate it feels to want to be someone when deep in your heart you know that you are no-one. He has gone on to forge a career in music, he plays and records with a band and even manages to sell his songs to people outside his immediate circle of friends.
You’ve done well.
It’s not an unusual story. Lots of boys with guitars play in bands that never go anywhere. If they are being honest with themselves they all believed they were going somewhere. They might tell you that it was “just a laugh” or “something to do” but the truth isn’t that pure or that simple. The sort of boys who start bands are driven by a desire to get out and get on. They might talk about the band being a vehicle for sex or drugs but that’s not true either. It’s about being something bigger and better. Up on that stage, a room filled with people looking at you, listening to you...you become someone and you can leave the small town, the bruises of the bullies or the barking of the black dog behind you. Nothing comes close.
Nothing comes close.
Some things go further.
Finding someone who loves you without the benefit of an amplifier.
A career, a job, a way to earn money that brings real hope into your own life and the lives of others. Friends who care.
This Years Model.