Remember the nineties?
There was thunder and lightning, it was all very frightening.
Alternatively there was sunshiiiine and those funny shoes…wallabees? You know the ones. Hideously ugly. I think Richard Ashcroft had a pair in the video for “Bittersweet Symphony”?
Some of us, despite our very best efforts, remain tied to the nineties.
We know that the popular narrative about the era is flawed.
We know that Britpop lasted for about fifteen minutes before it was hijacked by the most trad of trad rock…certainly that was what happened to the moment in the wider popular culture. All of the art and artifice disappeared and in their place arrived terrace (anti) culture and pleasant, but not terribly exciting, music.
The fifteenth of May 1995 provides a wonderful case study for this theory.
It’s a big Britpop anniversary day…”Yes” by McAlmont & Butler which is the second best single of the era (number one is, obviously, “Disappointed” by the Flamingoes), the dizzy thrills of Supergrass and their debut album “I Should Coco”, were both celebrate their birthdays on this day for starters.
But the real “battle of Britpop” (not the one that made it onto the news) also took place on this day.
In the blue corner was Paul Weller’s “Stanley Road”, and in the red corner “Drink Me” by Salad.
“Stanley Road” is a masterclass in classic songwriting. It may be the best work of Weller’s solo career…although my preference is always for “Wild Wood”. The artwork from the legendary Peter Blake is iconic, with nods to Weller’s childhood, Mod iconography, and pop art. There are guest appearances from the likes of Steve Winwood and Noel Gallagher. The production from Brendan Lynch, and Weller himself, is warm and clean. It is difficult not to doff your cap to what Weller achieved here… but it is difficult to argue with Ted Kessler (NME) who said at the time of the album's release, that it was an “old fart rockin’ blues record”.
Weller’s disciples can dismiss that as sour grapes, or of the NME being “out to get” Weller if they like…but it is true that this was an album that could easily have been released by several other rockers including the likes of Noel Gallagher or, as Kessler suggested, Eric Clapton.
It’s a classic rock album from a classic rock musician.
The angry young man of The Jam, the Modernist of The Style Council, the folk singer of “Wild Wood”, was dead and in his place was a new, mature, songwriter.
I like “Stanley Road”…and compared to what would follow it, it is a masterpiece…but it isn’t a Britpop record.
Britpop bands had youth on their side, some clobber from a stall in Camden Market, stars in their eyes, and they were wired for sound. Things were angular, spiky, sharp, a bit peculiar and, crucially, absolutely disinterested in classic rock. They were young, they ran free, they kept their teeth nice and clean…
The album from the fifteenth of May that best captures the spirit of the moment wasn’t “Stanley Road”, it was “Drink Me” by Salad.
There is a wonderful record by King Curtis from 1971 called "Memphis Soul Stew" where the ingredients for a Memphis soul song are recited before the whole becomes something greater than the sum of its parts. You could do something similar for a Britpop record;
- A pinch of The Kinks
- A teaspoon of The Beatles
- One half-teaspoon of Slade
- A hint of The Smiths
- One quart of The Jam
- A drizzle of Bowie
Voila! The entire Britpop era in one tasty recipe!
Of course that is overly simplistic, the range of influences on so many of the Britpop bands was much wider than critics of the scene like to acknowledge. Despite that I don't think anyone from Northern Uproar would come up with this list of influences for their sound...
"At the beginning it was Queen for me, I was 11 or 12, then came Adam and The Ants, followed by The Cure, Au Pairs. The Rocky Picture Show spoke volumes to me, I was 17 and had just performed in it at the end of school production. By the time Paul and I met it was all Fall, Pixies, Beatles, Severed Heads, Beefheart, Velvets, Bowie and PJ Harvey....where are all the other female influences in that list I hear you ask? Well I enjoyed the first Evita soundtrack Album immensely too, but I suspect being quite tomboyish I felt more of an affinity with the male performers, I was also very influenced in the early days while forming my musical tastes, by the boys that I was going out with and their record collections. So there was Sly Stone, Marvin Gaye too, alongside Madonna (my own informed choice), but it was Paul’s taste in music that stuck with me and has never left me..." says Marijne Van der Vlugt of the sounds that formed her. And what about those records that have never left her thanks to Paul Kennedy? "Beatles, Fall, Stranglers, Pixies, Chic, Pink Floyd." These responses are the reason why Salad are a band who defied labels and who always seemed to be separate from the Britpop crowd.
Marijne Van der Vlugt was a former model and VJ for MTV Europe. Paul Kennedy was a musician, "I had been making cassettes of my music since the age of 11 and had been in various bands from my teenage years." Before they became Salad they were The Merry Babes, Marijne remembers the genesis of the band as being; "The usual story...boy meets girl, they fall in love and form a band. What was immediately apparent was how Paul and I shared a musical language." she says. "One day" Paul recalls "I was playing one of my solo cassettes to Marijne when my song "Horace Miller Sings Country" came on, featuring backing vocals from my ex-girlfriend Miranda. Marijne saw green and said "Who's that!? I could do that!" and a band was born." Praise be to the green eyed monster, for without his intervention we may never have been treated to Salad.
What about the names?
"Well, those early tracks were merry and we were babes! As for Salad, well, what can I say...our music had gotten a little grittier so "Salad" seemed to make sense. Who doesn't love a bit of Sandy Spinach?" says Marijne, delivering an answer so enigmatic and eccentric that it leaves me equal parts discombobulated and elated. There is a real joy to be found in bands who refuse to play by the rules and that's certainly true of Salad.
The "Kent" E.P and "Diminished Clothes" were both released on your own label in 1993...that was a time before Britpop became Britpop. Were you aware of a scene at that time and did you feel a part of it?
“I wasn’t aware of the "Britpop" movement so much as the movement just before, the female fronted Indie Bands Party. That was cool to be part of. It never hurts to be part of a gang, and it was fun for a while, ‘til it got all serious and competitive. But the fact that we were deemed part of the Britpop movement only became apparent much later." says Marijne. "We were in our own
bubble" says Paul "I was influenced by the bands I mentioned earlier. In my opinion guitar music had become boring, then The Pixies and Blur came along which helped energise things. The music scene became more interesting and it was great to be involved with it."
The "Kent" E.P is a key moment in the development of Britpop. It seems to bridge the previous New Wave of New Wave with its slightly harder sound with the more melodic and pop aesthetics of what was to come. Significantly while you can hear the influence of the likes of The Pixies and The Fall in the music it still sounds like something new. Perhaps because of the fact that Marijne hails from the Netherlands she brings something genuinely "other" to the party with her vocals. No mockney knees up muvver brahn for her...more like Nico fronting the Velvet Underground without the heroin.
My first exposure to Salad came when I purchased "On a Leash" which is still one of my favourite singles from the time. It's a dark little tale and musically it is a long way away from their peers. I've often wondered about that song and about the writers who influenced it.
"First of all thank you for taking the punt on buying a single by an MTV presenter." says Marijne "That was a pretty dangerous thing at the time! Paul wrote this, so over to him. What I will say is that as soon as he wrote it I knew it emanated a new sort of cool & groove that summed up our need for something a bit different. I think the video for it helped to hit that home too."
"Marijne and I were at hers." remembers Paul "I was pretty out of it, I picked up a guitar and started singing ‘On a Leash’...Marijne grabbed a cassette recorder and pressed record, and I wrote the whole song, as an improvisation. There’s maybe a touch of the Beatles "Day in the Life" in there, possibly a hint of 10cc, “I’m not in Love’, perhaps a dash of Bob Marley’s "Exodus". Lyrically it’s one of my paranoid love songs. I’ve done a few of those. Ownership, Jealousy, Insecurity, Alcoholism, and John Mortimer's "Voyage Round my Father". Fucked up, Furious and Fun." I'm not sure you would get an answer like that if you asked certain other Britpoppers what their songs were inspired by!
Were Salad ever really Britpop? Did you feel any affinity with the other bands at that time?
Marijne certainly feels so; "Yes certainly, and also some real non affinity, but let’s not go down that route. Blur and Elastica spoke to us the most. We started the decade worshipping The Pixies, so anything a bit too bland just didn't get a look in." Paul has a slightly different take on things; "Not really. It was very competitive. I never felt we were Britpop. Marijne’s Dutch for a start. These umbrella terms are useful though, so I don’t resent it. When we see or play with any of those bands, now, we get on just fine."
"Drink Me" was a huge hit, reaching number 16 in the album charts, which would have been impossible just a few years earlier because the music scene was not interested in the sort of music Salad were making.
What did it feel like to come in from the outside and be a part of the mainstream in that way? "It didn't feel like we’d come in from the outside." Marijne recalls "We’d been playing live and recording for 6 odd years, so it felt like we’d paid our dues. By the time we got signed by Island, bands started getting signed on hype alone, but Blur had paid their dues too, so touring with them in 1993 felt right. That was the moment we felt that we could play a role in the mainstream. A proper, but well-earned privilege."
Despite that success Salad came to an end in 1998. Why? Paul tells me..."We were coming down the other side of the mountain, and it was time to bail out... before we reached base camp. I’d started writing with Donald, producer of Ice Cream, ex Julian Cope guitarist, and now Salad drummer and producer of the soon to be released Salad Undressed Album ‘Good Love Bad Love’, on which some of those songs have ended up." Marijne remembers it like this; "After some success, we’d also had a proper bashing from the ‘Salad Sceptics’. It didn't help our cause, we were tired of the fight. We’d lost our deal and missed the momentum we’d initially created with ‘Drink Me’ and took too long to get ‘Ice Cream’ out. Time to move on. Not a happy time by any stretch of the imagination, which makes this return so sweet, très pleased by the love that is still out there for our music."
Anyone who cares about pop music that is clever, passionate and beautifully crafted should be glad that it's Salad and not the "Salad Sceptics" who have stayed the course. When I saw Salad live for the first time in over twenty years, undressed, back in 2019 it was so obvious that both Paul and Marijne loved what they do, the sound they have is still, utterly their own and Marijne’s voice is, possibly, even better now.
Since those heady days of the nineties Salad have continued to be entirely true to themselves, they continue to play live, to record new music, and to do both things in ways that only they could manage.
You’ve heard “Stanley Road” and all the records that sound exactly like it so many, too many, times already in your life. Do yourself a favour, listen to “Drink Me” today, and discover what the real heart of Britpop was all about.