So much to answer for.
In their twenties Gants Hill girl Louise Wener and philosophy student Jon Stewart found each other in the city that had spawned The Smiths, Joy Division, Factory Records, the Hacienda and so much more besides. Studying at Manchester University they found themselves drawn together by creative similarities and began to make music together, inspired by the bands and artists that had shaped them up to that point. Even at that point in time Louise wanted to take those musical obsessions from her childhood and turn herself into someone elses inspiration and obsession. In Jon she found somebody who could create the soundtrack to the ideas that she had. A match made in rock ‘n’ roll Heaven. After graduating they did what anyone with an ounce of ambition does and moved to London.
It’s easy to lose oneself in London and despite the fact that we all know the streets are paved with gold most of us don’t have the courage to go, instead we are Tom Courtenay at the end of “Billy Liar”; uncomfortably comfortable in the humdrum town we have always lived in, happy when it rains because then we have an excuse not to go out. But for people like Louise Wener and the rest of the gang the humdrum was never going to be enough.
Finding other people to make things whole.
Here come Diid Osman and Andy Maclure.
Things were beginning to take shape, to find form, to become...something.
Louise has brought a bag of records from her childhood and adolescence with her, trapped inside her mind Boney M, Barbara Dickson, Squeeze, Blondie, Irene Cara, Queen, Madness, The Jam...a mess of influences, a wonderful mess of influences. Jon is more interested in The Pixies and the edgier sounds of what is coming out of
America at the start of the nineties. He’s casting his net wider than the things he remembers and wants to find new things to get excited by.
What does it sound like when you put two fiercely intelligent, passionate music lovers in a band and throw all of those peculiarities of pop and rock together? Probably not very good nine times out of ten. It would sound like two people trying to be different. It would sound like four people trying too hard. It would sound muddled and confused.
It may have sounded like that for Sleeper at the beginning too.
But that mixed-up, muddled-up, shook-up stew of influences and differences, along with some other tensions, created something other than the slop that most other groups would have produced from it. It produced, without argument, the finest pop group of the nineties.
Yes it did.
Spare me your fierce defence of the likes of Oasis, The Spice Girls, Blur and the rest. Fine bands one and all but I’m making a case for Sleeper being better because a great pop group is about something more than just the music; its about the way a band looks, the way they talk, the attitude and the things the music says. Oasis may have had “attitude”, Spice Girls may have talked the talk, Blur may have looked great but Sleeper had it all...with some left over.
Alice, Alice, who the Hell is Alice?
You could be Alice.
I was Alice.
“Max in the playground,
He ain’t got a girlfriend,
Oh, oh, that’s a pity,
He’s not even pretty, oh...”
Eighteen months before “Alice” I was standing in the playground of Balwearie High School. Balwearie is a comprehensive school in Kirkcaldy...a coastal town that they forgot to bomb. I was in my fifth year...I was one of the big kids. Slowly, but surely, I had started to metamorphosise from nobody, to geek, to, potentially, somebody. Because Britpop hadn’t arrive yet I was still a freak as far as most of my peers were concerned. Maybe not a freak but certainly I was peculiar...different.
I was aware of how the cool kids viewed someone like me. They all had perfect skin, fashionable haircuts, places on school sports teams, boyfriends and girlfriends. I was tolerated. A shadow figure. Not a shadowy figure. I wasn’t bullied or harassed...I wasn’t a victim. And then as I stood in the playground that day a little girl from the first year came and stood directly in front of me.
She looked at me with...disgust?
“Pizza pus” she shrieked.
“What?” I replied. It was a rhetorical question. I had heard her and I knew what she meant. My face was blotchy with acne, every treatment, every lotion, every potion had been tried and tried again but to no avail. My “pus” did indeed look like a particularly disgusting pizza.
“PIZZA PUS! PIZZA PUS! PIZZA PUS!” she yelled...then kept on yelling it.
Everybody within a five mile radius could hear her.
I felt the rush of shame and embarrassment rise up from my gut before it coloured my already scarlet face an even brighter shade of red.
I started to walk away from her.
She followed me.
It didn’t matter where I went she was behind me.
Morning break lasted for fifteen minutes.
This had been going on for about half of that time.
Finally I took shelter in the boys toilet.
I locked myself in a cubicle and cried.
Then the bell rang, I wiped my face, went to English with Mr Spiers and pretended that nothing had happened.
“She’ll discover, girls don’t hurt each other”
I discovered that day that everybody is capable of hurting everybody else.
It’s June of 1993 and Indolent Records have grabbed Sleeper, put them in a studio and told them to make music. The New Wave of New Wave is still sort of a thing but, thankfully, Sleeper have arrived too late to be lumped in with that. Fortunately something else is brewing in the kitchen of pop and that something is going to help propel Sleeper to places bands like them were never meant to get to.
Bands like them.
There were no bands like them in 1993.
Very nearly there wasn’t any band like them because they might not have existed had it not been for a moment of Malcolm McLaren-esque, Machiavellian genius from Louise. Certain that what she and Jon had could be something...better, she set about securing a review in the NME for their efforts. Sort of. What she actually did was write her own review of her own band and then made it look like it had been culled from the pages of the NME in an effort to persuade Andy Maclure and Diid Osman to join the band. It worked a treat. Sleeper were a thing.
By the time the “Alice EP” was released pop music as we had always known and loved it in Britain had come to be dominated by a synthetic, fake, over-produced, tinny, dim and dumb suite of boy and girl bands whose only real talent was the ability to rise from a stool on the key change in any given song. The sort of pop music The Smiths had taken into the mainstream, that Orange Juice had dragged into the charts, that the baggy boys had bundled onto Top of the Pops had, spectacularly, disappeared or appeared all too fleetingly.
You could have Boyzone or you could have the American howl of Kurt Cobain.
Neither one was pop music.
One was a marketing scheme come to life in a Frankenstein style experiment, the other was metal with worse clothes and hair.
Sleeper may well have found something to charm them in Nirvana, Hole, The Pixies and the rest but, in their hearts, it was pop music that they really believed in. Pop music allowed you to reach into the kitchens of suburbia, to touch and influence the lives of other kids just like you, to change the culture...at least it could when it was done properly.
“Swallow” was the second single from the band and, lyrically, it was the sound of someone who had not only read but had understood Germaine Greer. It was the secret diary of a teenage girl...no, of any girl. Every woman. When Morrissey talked about “The Female Eunuch” that’s all he was doing...talking. He didn’t understand it. Here was someone who not only got it but who lived it. Musically it was what The
Breeders would have sounded like if they had come from Gants Hill. Which is a good thing.
What you don’t understand is quite how “other” Louise Wener was in 1993. Louise Wener was like a tsunami hitting the world of rock, pop and indie at that point. A genuine force. Blasting things like sexism, industry expectations and labels out of her path with wit, verve, guts, guile and style that made her a bona fide icon to thousands of young women, and men, across the country.
When she spoke we listened. Forget the dull whimper of Spice Girls “girl power” which amounted to calling yourself “baby” and simpering in a saucy outfit on Top of the Pops, here was someone with things to say about things that mattered and who said them loudly and without apology. What wasn’t to love?
When she said “We should both go to bed ’til we make each other sore.” on “Delicious”, I didn’t know what to think, or where to look. All I did know was that even though I wasn’t exactly an experienced love maker (fine I was inexperienced to the point of having no actual experience) and I didn’t really know what exactly one could do under the covers to make myself, or anyone else, sore...I wanted to find out. This was also the first record that sounded like Sleeper. The influences had faded into the background and into the foreground came their own sound and style.
Sleeper were about to become more than just a band.
“We have a wit and cleverness that other bands could only dream of having.”
(Louise Wener, Melody Maker, April 13th 1996)
If Louise had made that remark in 1993 she would have been given a pat on the head, a sympathetic sneer from the journalist and then been dismissed as a “gobby bird”. In 1993 Sleeper hadn’t had any top forty singles and nobody outside of my bedroom had ever heard them. By April 1996 though they were a bona fide big deal. No longer a supporting act to the big boys (and they were almost all boys) at the top of the Britpop pyramid but stars in their own right.
The reaction to that comment in 1996 was...a pat on the head, a sympathetic sneer from most everyone and instant dismissal. “Who does she think she is?” you could hear the “blokes” who enjoyed wailing “Wonderwall” at closing time screech.
A female fronted band.
Patronising, ghettoisation of women...tolerated but not accepted.
Sexism for sure but the real reason for this hostility was something simpler... jealousy. Sleeper were not playing the game they way they were supposed to.
Louise was meant to be pretty. Or talented. Not both. Never both. The boys in the band were meant to resent her. Or tolerate her. They didn’t. They loved her. Just like we loved her.
Saying the things that Louise said was meant to be the preserve of people (boys) like Liam Gallagher or Martin Rossitter. Confidence that is the preserve and preference of lads in parkas...not girls. Coming from the mouth of Louise Wener this wasn’t rock star arrogance but a reason to be suspicious or to dismiss her as “gobby”.
Who did she think she was?
Fortunately for British pop music she knew who she was.
The sneering and the sexism, the lasciviousness and the leering didn’t fade with time. Take a look at a 2002 interview Louise did with Ralph Little when, within seconds of the interview beginning, he is happily confessing to having masturbated while thinking of her when he was a teenager. She isn’t a fool, she knows that men, particularly teenage boys, do these sorts of things but can you imagine the same thing happening to a male guest? She was there to discuss her career, her music, her writing, to offer opinions and then she is reduced to an object within moments.
“Delicious” was the moment when I joined the story...albeit from the fringes, a passive participant in the tale.
It is ridiculous to try and pretend that I wasn’t a little bit besotted with Louise...I was a boy in his early twenties who didn’t know who he was or what he wanted to do with his life, I had had one proper girlfriend and she was now living on the opposite side of the country from me. In Louise Wener I found someone who understood my life. She was an inspiration.
With nods to “Get Carter”, the portrayal of sex as something to be enjoyed, not endured, by women and the ferocity of the music with its melding of melody and mania “Delicious” by Sleeper is one of the greatest singles of the nineties.
It had been preceded by the “Alice” EP and a second single, “Swallow”, but really it is the debut single from the band we know and adore.
This was Sleeper as a fully formed entity in their own right...not just another band but a band who sounded like they could become “the” band.
It’s difficult now to imagine quite what a jolt to the system Louise Wener was at this point. She had decided not to play by the rules...she was neither “sexy” girl in a
band or girl in a band playing at being a “bloke” in a band. No high heels and “fashion” shoots in her underwear, no downing pints to show she was one of the boys, no simpering, no proclamations of girl power...in their place was something genuinely radical; her.
No pose, no pretence, no play acting...Louis Wener was, gulp, herself.
On “Delicious” that is made abundantly clear.
This was the fierce stand of a woman Hell bent on taking her seat at the top table and determined to do it on her terms and her terms alone.
It worked...sort of.
The fact that “Delicious” reached number seventy-five in the UK charts suggests that I was almost alone in my belief that Sleeper were a band worthy of love and devotion. True it had gone higher than “Swallow”...but only by one place and that looked like it might be enough to consign the band to the footnotes of the story of British pop in the nineties.
That’s what it would have been.
A bloody tragedy.
Enter Dale Winton.
Like every other student and unemployed person in Britain in 1993 I spent my mornings watching “Supermarket Sweep”. The show saw contestants answer questions like “It comes in a container, is full of vitamins, especially if freshly squeezed...what product am I?”. That is a genuine question from the show. It wasn’t exactly “Only Connect”. The host of the show was Dale Winton...pastel coloured blazers, immaculately coiffured hair, a permanent tan and the sort of high camp that we specialise in in Britain.
Winton was, and we have to be honest here, the star of the video for Sleeper’s fourth single, “Inbetweener” and you can decide for yourself whether it was this fact or the brilliance of the record itself that took a band who had been lurking around the lower ends of the top 100 and blasted them into the top twenty. I know what I think.
“Inbetweener” is the moment that Sleeper became a big deal in places that were not my head.
It’s tale of suburban humdrum existence, wasted opportunities and, most terrifying of all, settling. It is a recognisable tale of life in Britain...like “The Royle Family” but a musical version.
“He’s nothing special, she’s not too smart...”
Everyone has been in that relationship.
You are together and yet utterly apart.
Tolerating one another.
Look at photographs of you from that relationship side by side with your “partner”... the dead look in your eyes, touching but only just, the body language screaming “Help me” and seeping from the image a terrible sadness.
This isn’t a tale of domestic abuse but of the truth of so many relationships...feeling love but not in love, the only passion being felt is for the moments when you are apart, the longing not for one another but for a Kit-Kat and a box-set.
Inbetweeners who have become forevers.
After that came seven more top forty singles...each one the sort of infectious pop song that requires a course of penicillin after you hear them for the first time. Not that you want to be cured...you don’t...but because you need to be able to function.
Each of them was a song of love or the ordinary life or the melding of the two. Each of them clever...too clever for “Supermarket Sweep”. Each of them witty and poignant. Each of them political and personal. Each of them...better than, well, take your pick.
You will have your favourite.
You may even have more than one.
You may be one of “those” people who says they are all your favourite.
You are right no matter which it is.
But there is only one correct choice really.
“What Do I Do Now?” is the bestest and my favouritests.
“She danced ’round the room to the sound of her corduroy flares.”
In one line.
Somebody once told me that they had done something awful to me.
A terrible betrayal.
After they told me what they had done I cried.
After a few impossible days together I found myself at home alone.
I put on a favourite record and danced ’round the room.
When the record ended the room was filled with the sound of the crackle and hiss of the run out grooves and the deafening roar of my own tears hitting the floor...the sound of corduroy flares.
Nothing is said he goes to bed dreaming of her on his own she stays up all week, watching him sleep scared that she’ll wake up alone
This happened years after the song was released but it still serves as a documentary of the worst of times...fortunately that led to the best of times.
All’s well that ends well.
1997 saw a third album and a couple of singles but time was up for Sleeper and they disappeared from view almost as quickly as they had arrived. It felt like a whimper... a reluctant resignation from the only life they had known or wanted. No Gallagher brothers falling out, no Damon-esque desire to write opera’s and discover world music and cartoons...just, the end of the line. After “Smart” and “The IT Girl” and “Pleased to Meet You” it was all finished.
A toe in the water here and there...but never more than that.
It was over.
1997 ended...1998 started...then ended...then another new year...a new era...the millenium...history repeating itself...ten years since Britpop...fifteen years...the twentieth anniversary...documentaries about the era...there is Louise telling us all about it...
Then a whisper.
And a murmur.
Finally came the confirmation.
Sleeper were going to reform for the Star Shaped Festival in 2017.
I bought a ticket.
Can I be honest with you?
I bought it in hope...not expectation.
It seemed too good to be true.
Something would happen to leave me disappointed. My life has been an endless succession, an endless procession, of disappointments and I couldn’t see how this was going to be any different.
But then, at eight ‘o’ clock on August 12th, 2017...they appeared and it was everything I had hoped it would be. No. They were more than I had hoped they would be. This was no exercise in nostalgia, no heritage act giving the mums and
dads a reminder of the good old days before middle-age spread and male pattern baldness took control. This sounded like the first step on a new journey.
Dial-a-cliche but it sounded like they had never been away.
Not really, they had been hibernating. Waiting for the spring to come so they could return. It would have been enough to have had them back just for those few nights in the late summer. Nobody could have complained. It was more than any of us deserved. A blessing from Gods we don’t really believe in.
Then news of a new album.
The first in 22 years.
We had waited a long time. That’s not true. We hadn’t been waiting because it hadn’t crossed any of our minds that such a thing could ever happen. This was a bolt from the blue. The shock of the lightning. Like the children of Israel wandering in the desert we were now about to taste manna from Heaven...our hunger would be satisfied, our faithfulness rewarded.
The first fruits of their labours arrived in the form of “Look at you Now”.
Would it be any good? Could it be any good? More than two decades had passed since their last musical offerings, that is a long time. So much can change. I was excited about new music from a band I loved, of course I was, but what if...what if...it wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be?
It was, in fact, something much better than good.
“A return to form” some might loudly proclaim.
They are wrong, wrong, wrong.
This wasn’t a return to anything.
It was a bold and defiant proclamation of something new.
The dawning of a new era.
Sleeper, ladies and gentlemen, had released their finest work some twenty-one years after we thought they had released their final work.
It starts with a combination of Giorgio Moroder and Patti Smith which, of course, instantly makes it a bona fide classic. There is a hint of “I Feel Love” on Librium before Louise appears begging God to forgive her for her sins; “Lord forgive me, for what I’ve done, I’m the only child of the only Son.” which is reminiscent of Patti Smith and her “Jesus died for somebody’s sins...but not mine” at the start of “Gloria” on “Horses”.
“The land that raised us, was full of wheat, now the fields lay fallow and the blood runs deep”
I don’t think we are in Kansas anymore Toto.
A reminisce of Britain as Albion...a land where the fields were full of wheat but where now “fields lay fallow” and “blood runs deep” manages to invoke the bleak truth of food bank Britain and force us to address a past that includes mainstream politicians talking about “rivers of blood” in relation to race.
This was Britpop in the time of Brexit.
While it might be easy to see the following lines as a bit of gentle poking at past their sell-by date rockers, I think the truth is something much more serious;
“Look at you now, you’re running out of things to wear...still playing all your hits, but that won’t take you anywhere.”
Could it be that the notion of Britain itself trading on past glories is what Wener is really hitting at? A call to be slightly more outward looking? A rejection of the current political climate?
Or it could just be about how daft Mick Jagger is.
Not for me to say really.
“Can you trust a future that never comes?”
“...howls of hate, for so little reason, with so little faith”
These are the sorts of lines that when falling from the pen of a young Morrissey were hailed as evidence of his genius...not that he has written anything as good as this since about 1874. Yet again Louise proves that she isn’t a female fronting a band; she is a writer. A writer with things to say and a knack of saying them in deliciously
clever, witty and provocative ways. It is a wonderful thing to be able to say that nothing had changed....despite the fact that everything had changed.
Then came “The Sun Also Rises” which was every bit as good as “Look at you Now” and which suggested that this “come back” was going to deliver something very special indeed. You should try listening to it once. You won’t be able to. It demands that you listen again...and again...and again.
When “The Modern Age” arrived it managed something that nobody expected, not even the fundamentalist core of their fanbase; their best album. That’s (another) bold declaration and boys in bucket hats with slightly worn Oasis t-shirts will make a lot of noise about “Smart” and “The IT Girl”...and they are right, those are great albums, loaded with some of the sharpest, smartest, sassiest, pop songs of the nineties. No doubt. No argument. But “The Modern Age” is better. It confirmed my assertion that this was never about nostalgia but was, always, about doing something new, about doing things better, about proving their worth.
“She’s like a Goddess, they call her Caesar.” coos Wener on the opening track “Paradise Waiting” and instantly you are transported back to the future. This doesn’t sound like a band who are tied to the nineties; this is the sound of a band reborn, resurrected, restored and revitalised. The moment that you hear Louise sing “We are birds of para-dise waiting” will leave you breathless.
The two singles from the album “Look at you Now” and “The Sun Also Rises” serve to confirm the notion that Sleeper have refused, wilfully, to look to their past or revisit former glories. They are defiantly modern slices of retro chic with melodies so memorable it is difficult to accept that they are not former classics but are instead... future classics. Just you wait.
As a successful novelist as well as one of the best lyricists of the nineties it shouldn’t come as any surprise to discover that “The Modern Age” is an album that is littered with brilliantly observed, poetic, hilarious, poignant, tender, romantic and beautiful lines. “Dig”, a song that is spikier and more angular than a really spikey and angular thing contains one of my favourite lines...”Yes, we have no regrets...we only have debts...and desti-nations”. Told you. Oh it also nods to R. Dean Taylor’s classic “Ghost in my House” which, automatically, elevates this to the status of genius.
After such a long time away it would have been totally fine if Sleeper had managed to drag out two or three moments of loveliness and then filled the album with, well, filler. Nobody would have minded...not really. But something very peculiar happens when you reach the title track “The Modern Age”. You realise that across the opening four tracks you haven’t heard a single song that wasn’t the equal of anything you already loved and that, up to this point, we have been swimming in all killer, no filler, territory. That this album is, already, the best Sleeper have ever made. That’s not the really strange thing though...the really strange thing is that “The Modern Age” is also the single best song they have ever recorded.
I’ll repeat that.
“The Modern Age” is the single best song Sleeper have ever recorded.
I’m not joking.
You know that thing when you get hot in bed at night and so you flip the pillow over because its lovely and cool?
“The Modern Age” is cooler than the other side of the pillow.
Is Louise singing “Solitude is my scene” or “Solitude is my sin” on “Cellophane”?
Either one works for me.
I like being alone.
Which is good news because other people like me being alone too.
Remember a minute ago when I started banging on about how incredible “The Modern Age” was?
I think I might have been wrong.
Don’t get me wrong...it really is great.
But, as I write this, I am listening to “Car into the Sea” and I’m thinking that this might be better than I said “The Modern Age” was.
This is awkward.
Can two songs be the single best song?
Listening to this you are struck by something...this isn’t just about the quality of the songs or the lyrics or the melodies or the whatevers...this is about everything falling into place at the same time.
Everything is right.
Just listen to “Blue Like You” which is, to be crude about things, an absolute banger. I can already hear crowds roaring it back at the band. “I wish that I was someone different...”, we know Louise, we know because we have all felt that way too. Some of us still do.
Or wait until you hear “More Than I Do” which, and I am really not exaggerating this time, is the finest lyric that Wener has ever written. It’s brutal, honest, funny, true and achingly sad. I cried...I can’t say when or why just now but I will at some point.
Things come to an end with “Big Black Sun” which gives us a vocal from Louise that is rich, warm, fragile, tender...the finest moment of her career? If you can listen to this once without your heart breaking and then building itself back together then you are either dead or the sort of person who hasn’t ever been hurt, caused hurt, loved or lost love.
It is so beautiful.
Did you ever imagine it could be like this?
Producer, Stephen Street, had this to say about it all; “I was very happy with the way it turned out, I think they must have been very nervous about it. I know that Louise was, she comes across as a very confident person when you see her being interviewed but we’ve all got our own fears and worries. I could tell that the idea of dropping this thing of being a respected writer of books and a mum and then suddenly going out and thrusting herself behind a microphone and saying “Right, here I am, Louise from Sleeper” it was a big step. But she has carried it off with aplomb, she’s a natural...she’s a star.”
That 22 years after what was supposed to be their last music they would release their best music?
Did you ever really believe that a band you loved so much could be gone for so long and then return and make you love them more than you did before?
Of course you didn’t.
Things like that don’t happen to people like us.
Except now they have.