Never here: the forgotten brilliance of Elastica

Posted: February 28, 2015 in culture, music
Tags: , , , , , ,

Want to feel old? The first Elastica album was released twenty years ago this month. Twenty years!

It’s a bit of a shock to realise that two full decades have passed since I first heard them, but I remain as convinced today as I was at the time that Elastica were the best band of the 90s. Here’s why.

Connection

I didn’t watch the Brit Awards this week. I gave up on award shows years ago – not because they reward the wrong people (who cares) or that they seek to rank artistic endeavours that should be viewed as autonomous and self-justifying (who cares) but because everyone tries to invest their work with deep seriousness. From the great (Kanye) to the crap (Ed Sheerin) it sounds like everyone at this year’s ceremony felt compelled to make an Important Statement, reflecting the import of their work. All this at a corporate awards show about pop music!

But while second- and third-rate musicians have always made the business of creating artworks seem heavy and difficult, once in a while a proper first-rate band comes along and makes everything seem really easy. And no one has made it look as easy as Elastica did in their glorious early phase.

My first encounter with Elastica was on 4th February 1995, when they played Waking Up on Top Of The Pops. I know the details because someone has kindly uploaded the performance onto YouTube. You can watch it here. When you listen back now to the indie records that suddenly became hugely popular in the mid-nineties, they almost always sound terrible; flat, thin and, frankly, annoying. Reacquaint yourself with Echobelly, say, or Sleeper, and you’ll be shocked; they’re so much worse than you remember. But the footage of Elastica’s TOTP appearance still positively crackles with energy and brilliance.

I didn’t have long to wait for their debut album, which was reviewed ecstatically in the first copy of Select Magazine I ever bought (alongside Wake Up by the Boo Radleys, Clear by Bomb The Bass, Ritual by Jane’s Addiction and To Bring You My Love by PJ Harvey; now that’s a bumper crop). With everything that happened afterwards it’s easy to forget just how popular they were at the time – I had forgotten, for example, that the album went to number one in the charts. Looking back, they were probably one single away from going supernova; but where Oasis unleashed the magnificent Some Might Say EP at just the right time, Elastica fell spectacularly to bits. But more of that later.

Elastica’s debut album has many qualities, not least that it is so concise. Justine Frischmann, the group’s sort-of leader, once said that she couldn’t understand why bands let songs outstay their welcome. “I want the best bits – verse-chorus, verse-chorus, that’s it. The whole thing of playing middle eights and triple choruses to finish isn’t music, it’s brainwashing. If you want to hear the chorus again, rewind it.”  This ethos runs through the whole record such that its sixteen songs are over in under 40 minutes, as all albums should be.

Justine became the public face of Elastica, willingly or otherwise, after her coronation as one half of the first couple of Britpop. But one of the things that made Elastica special was that, like Blur themselves, they were a proper band. Just as the creative tension between Damon Albarn and Graham Coxon gives Blur so much of their impetus, Elastica’s early magic was conjured between Justine and Donna Matthews.

I totally fancied Donna, as did seemingly everyone else in the world at the time. She was so cool – just watch her in that TOTP video from earlier. That’s a pop star.

I prefer not to speculate on exactly how they wrote their songs – I’m not a pervert – but you get the impression that Justine brought the band’s perfect melodies and Donna constructed the music around them. And at this point in the band’s trajectory when they were happy and relatively healthy people, the combination was glorious – Donna’s guitar lines dance around in ecstatic circles while Justine rolls her eyes and acknowledges how much cooler she is than you.

The final song, Stutter, epitomises their early sound. It fair rattles along, propelled by typically gleeful drums and a runaway bassline. The hints of sarcasm and superiority in Justine’s unusual half-speaking half-singing voice found their ideal material in this song, as she archly notes her beau’s brewer’s droop. The song leaps from a perfect pop verse into a perfect pop chorus and the whole thing is done inside 150 seconds, which, unlike the scenario described in the lyrics, is an entirely satisfying experience. And then you can rewind it and listen to it all again.

In between brisk, breezy tunes like Stutter, Annie, Blue and All-Nighter were songs that reflected a broader sonic palate; Donna’s songs, perhaps. SOFT, 2:1 and album highlight Never Here in particular were more structurally ambitious than anything they’d released before, featuring extended instrumental passages and spoken word sections (somehow without being shit). I can’t find footage of it but I distinctly remember their gigantic, towering performance of SOFT from Glastonbury in 1995 prompted John Peel to declare Elastica his second-favourite band after The Fall. Donna in particular looked absolutely indestructible that day, and it seemed inevitable that Elastica would then take themselves off to develop the more complex and abstract sound hinted at in the darker corners of the album, with irresistible results.

But it didn’t quite turn out like that.

Never Here

Elastica went to America in 1996. When they came back they’d lost their bass player and their mojo.

Annie Holland had the best cheekbones in Elastica, which was quite some feat, and her pulsating basslines gave their sound its velocity. Her departure from the band was explained at the time as the result of exhaustion and homesickness, but it later emerged that she was suffering from heroin dependency. Sadly she wouldn’t be the band’s only such casualty in the years ahead.

Annie’s withdrawal was the beginning of the end, but this wasn’t appreciated at the time, for two reasons. Firstly, a re-jigged line-up recorded four new songs for a Radio One session in July, and they were all amazing. One of them, The Other Side, was never released. It’s better than almost every other group’s best song.

Secondly, Annie’s replacement, the intriguing and effervescent Sheila Chipperfield, seemed to give the band even more energy. Sheila was part of the Chipperfield circus family, and a natural performer. By all accounts she was the only band member to remain healthy throughout their lifespan, so it’s perhaps typical of Elastica that she was edged out of the group a couple of years later to let Annie back in.

And then…nothing. Well, nothing constructive, anyway. This website details the order of events over that lost period as sessions were abandoned, Sheila was edged out and, crucially, Donna left. It was an open secret that Donna was seriously ill around the time she left the band. As Britpop’s premier beauty, Donna had always been photographed in the music press when she was out and about in Camden. Sadly, by 1999 she was almost unrecognisable. Happily she has by all accounts found peace in her life and lives a spiritual life in the English countryside. Whatever she is doing now is surely better for her than life as a hedonistic guitarist, but it’s a shame that we’ll (presumably) never hear her play again. For me, she was the biggest talent of the lot.

Then out of nowhere they were announced as headliners for the second stage at the 1999 Reading and Leeds Festivals. And I was going to Leeds! And even more excitingly, they were going to do an autograph session for their fans, assuming there still were some. And unmistakeably, there still were plenty.

That was the first time I saw Elastica and it was everything I could have hoped for. Justine was funny and charismatic on stage, the band (with another completely different line-up by this stage) sounded as good as ever and the crowd went absolutely batshit for them. It was genuinely heart-warming, and seemed to usher in a new and happy phase in their strange career.

Earlier that day I had nervously joined the queue to meet the band. The first thing that struck me was that Justine’s teeth were basically black: I’ve never seen anyone in more urgent need of a dental intervention. The second thing that struck me was that you could probably open a beer bottle with Annie’s cheekbones. I hadn’t realised just how beautiful she was until I met her in real life. But I was struck above all by how unexpectedly lovely they were. Really, really lovely. I had half-expected them to be aloof and stand-offish, but they seemed genuinely delighted that people wanted to meet them.

Annie complimented my Chemical Brothers t-shirt and I asked her if she wanted to come to see them with me. She declined with admirable grace, before the group all signed my album. I still have that signed album sleeve and you can’t have it.

No More Heroes

Around the time of their Reading and Leeds gigs, Elastica released 6 Track EP, a collection of six half-finished songs from their various attempts at recording a new album. It was presented as a toe dipped back in the water rather than a fully-fledged release, but it was brilliant, and formed the basis for their proper comeback album the following year. As with the 1996 Radio One session, they tossed away another absolute classic on this EP, this time Donna’s Operate, while on Generator they sounded as free and easy as they had done back in ’94. Best of all was Donna’s other contribution, the clear-eyed, sad sigh of Nothing Stays The Same: their greatest ever song.

Then in 2000 came their real second album, The Menace. The album featured most of the songs from the earlier EP alongside some noodly instrumentals Justine made in her bedroom, reworked versions of songs from the 1996 Radio One session and a couple of singles. It doesn’t hang together very well, as you might expect of a record with such a long and troubled gestation period, but there isn’t a bad song on it (I don’t think Elastica could write a bad song if they tried). But while they could still write a chorus, the change in the band since 1995 was unmistakeable from the very different tone of the new recordings. Where the debut album fizzed with excitement and adrenaline, the second album is heavy with foreboding and guilt. It really doesn’t sound like the work of happy, healthy people, and it wasn’t.

They toured the album and I went to see them in Glasgow. I had got really pissed the night before with my dad and my uncle so I was a bit fragile, which you might expect would have put me in the perfect frame of mind to appreciate music made by fragile people. Sadly the gig more or less passed me by; it was quite boring, and there was no atmosphere. It was finished, and the band eventually called it a day.

It’s striking how little attention has been afforded to Elastica in the years since they split up; they were barely mentioned in the recent torrent of articles revisiting Britpop, beyond the inevitable references to Justine and Damon’s relationship. But they made brilliant records. They were insanely cool. They looked amazing. Most of them were women. And their story had a dramatic arc unrivalled by any of their peers. They should be up there with the Slits and My Bloody Valentine.

Dig out your Elastica CD and give it another whirl, and remember Justine, Donna, Annie, Justin and the various others as the last great British guitar band.   

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