Britpop was a bit like the Premier League is now (or EPL for our international viewers). Just like Man U and the big clubs who seem to be guaranteed their spots at the division’s apex each season, at the peak of the movement’s ’90s heyday it was always two names who dominated the Champions League spots: Blur and Oasis.
If you weren’t a Gallagher or an Albarn, life lower down the league was less secure. Echobelly, Sleeper and lesser names like Mantaray or Sussed came and went without threatening the top two’s dominance, while even those like the soon to split Bluetones, who managed to make a lasting impact, are chiefly remembered for one or two shining moments – in Mark Morriss and co’s case, their excellent debut ‘Expecting To Fly’ – rather than glittering careers.
Gene seem to suffer from this more than anyone else in the Britpop crowd. Just like the Everton in the Premiership, they played well and in another era would have been good enough to win the league, but circumstance has confined them to a life as also-rans.
Having been initially lauded after they arose in London in the early 90s, and particularly singled out for aspiring to the perfect indie pop template created by a certain Morrissey and Marr, Gene were roundly beaten up in the NME review of their debut ‘Olympian’ for sounding like, er, The Smiths. “Gene are virtually a Smiths covers band and no amount of brazening it out should forgive that fact,” observed Steve Sutherland on the album’s 1995 release.
Now, in an era when everyone heavily borrowed from some forebear (Oasis – The Beatles, Blur – The Kinks, Elastica – Wire, etc) you can understand a retro fatigue creeping in. However, by the standards of the day to be wearing your influences proudly on your sleeve hardly seems a cardinal sin worthy of a five out of ten review. (To be fair Steve did also observe that “‘Olympian’ is actually a rather fine Smiths LP”, so perhaps he’s already done my A&E work for me).
Gene themselves have to take some blame for this shift in affections towards the Smithsonian qualities of their debut. In an act we’ll ascribe to youthful folly rather than arrogance, they opted to leave off their LP the two very singles that had charmed their initial admirers, and thus the graceful ‘For The Dead’ and rambunctious ‘Be My Light, Be My Guide’ were limited to an appearance on b-sides collection ‘To See The Lights’, rather than making ‘Olympian’ the undoubted world-beater it could have been.
However even bereft of these excellent tracks, Gene’s debut is more of a title contender than it was given credit for. In the first instance, it’s more than just an expression of Smiths influences. Not only can the modish traces of The Jam and The Small Faces be found within its DNA, but the band led by singer Martin Rossiter – who makes his live comeback after six years in May incidentally – filled the record with plenty of themselves. Steve Mason’s guitar buzzes with his jaunty personality throughout the record, while the frontman’s lyrics swoop between seedy London backstreets and heartaching expression of great love.
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Bursting into life with ‘Haunted By You’, a song packed with energetic riffs that set the urgent tone of the record, it’s an album forged by real life, aware of the dangers of standing still, and is full of urgent, constant motion. As a result ‘You Love It Lies’ and ‘Trust, Rest Your Head’ skip on with an irrepressible energy, before both blossom with chest-beating choruses.
‘Left-Handed’ proves a bruiser, proudly subverting several outdated euphemisms for being gay into an expression of strength and sexual freedom, while ‘London Can You Wait’ continues the outsider theme, but this time states its case with a smooth, sophisticated charm. ‘Still Can’t Find The Phone’, meanwhile, has never made unrequited love sound so jaunty, while right from its distinctive opening chords ‘Sleep Well Tonight’ takes an equally positive outlook as it first suffers and then stands up to the small town knuckleheads who lash out at anyone or anything a bit different.
From that self-confident anthem we dive head first into ‘Olympian”s most crushingly beautiful moment, the title track. Delicate and grief-ridden in it verses, ‘Olympian’ swells towards a choking yet warm chorus of love and loss. “You! I could only be normal with you,” sings Rossiter to a dead lover he will not see again until the “next world”. It’s heartbreaking, yet it’s also a positive anthem to be defiantly hollered out. And that is the album’s true charm. Lyrically it faces adversity and suffers yet ‘Olympian’ consistently looks towards the horizon with hope and optimism. It’s for this reason that Gene’s debut is more than a Smiths copyist album, it is a work with a strong and commanding soul all of its own.
In fact it’s for that reason that I would argue that ‘Olympian’ is not so much a good album in need of reputation repair but actually something of a lost classic – although as someone who on rare occasion has played guitar in a Gene ‘tribute’ band I realise you might not believe me…
Album A&E – The Vines, ‘Highly Evolved’
Album A&E – Oasis, ‘Don’t Believe The Truth’
Album A&E – The Stone Roses, ‘Second Coming’
Album A&E – The Strokes, ‘First Impressions Of Earth’
Album A&E – Blur, ‘Leisure’