The indie tastemaker roots down the back of the Union Jack-emblazoned sofa to uncover some of the decade's forgotten classics
Steve Lamacq wants to counter the prevailing narrative about ‘90s indie. “It wasn’t all about laddish terrace anthems and Blur versus Oasis,” explains the veteran BBC 6 Music DJ. “There were all these other bands that are either forgotten or you have never heard of that were doing really interesting things on the periphery.”
Hence his ‘Lost Alternatives’ compilation, where he’s picked 71 tracks that offer a more nuanced look at a decade many think of as just baggy/Kurt Cobain/Graham Coxon straddling a pig in the ‘Country House’ video. To do this, he imposed rules: America was off-limits, as was the Top 30 or anything that had appeared on a ‘Shine’ compilation – which Lamacq had once provided the advert voiceovers for.
Much of its chronology mirrors his own life: from working at NME to presenting The Evening Session with Jo Whiley.
“In the first NME issue of 1990, I wrote a 600-word piece on Ride – so it was important they opened the compilation because I felt everything started there,” says Steve. “It’s also important because Ride went on to have Creation Records’ first Top 40 hit and that changed our attitude of where independent music could reach.”
“So as much as you had these great records which were inspiring and challenging – like Silverfish’s Big Bad Baby Pig Squeal’ – there was suddenly an opening to push what was considered ‘our music’ that nobody else would be interested in.”
“Once ‘Common People’ goes to number two in the charts, you suddenly realised that although we hadn’t brought down a government, we really had brought down pop music’s old guard. It felt like Jarvis Cocker was standing on the stage of Top of The Pops raising a flag for all of us.”
While big-hitters including Suede, Teenage Fanclub, The Charlatans and Ash (“I still can’t believe we managed to persuade Tim Wheeler to open his school exam results live on The Evening Session,” he laughs) are here, they’re represented by their debut or early singles when they were just indie minnows. As are Elastica – who Lamacq signed to his Deceptive Records label.
“I took Justine Frischmann to one of the worst pubs in Cambridge Circus and ranted away at her about: ‘It’s all very well your major label deals and putting out CDs but vinyl’s where it’s at and we’re going to make a record that sounds like ‘Teenage Kicks’ but it’s going to look like ‘(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais’ by The Clash – just spewing out this indie fanzine manifesto to someone who was leading the hottest unsigned band in the country,” he remembers.
“But she fell for it and we signed a vague one-page agreement – having originally signed on the back of a beer mat in The Good Mixer in Camden.”
In Lost Alternatives, the focus is very much on the decade’s minor characters, such as Helen Love, Geneva, and his 6 Music colleague Lauren Laverne’s old band Kenicke. “I remember reviewing Kenicke and being invited into their van – the walls were decorated with leopard skin carpet. It was like: ‘If we’re going anywhere, it’s with glamour!’,” he laughs.
“This record is really just that night where unfortunately you’re kidnapped by me, made to sit in my office room at home, and I play records at you until you manage to get a number for a cab company and escape,” he adds.
Here, Lammo talks us through some of the overlooked gems of the ’90s you should definitely know about.
The lost pop classic
Rialto, ‘Monday Morning 5:19’
“It’s an astonishing pop song. Looking back, I don’t know how that wasn’t a massive pop hit.
They’d been through the mill once as singer Louis Eliot and guitarist Jonny Bull had been in the band Kinky Machine. But that record is so swish and the self-titled album it comes from has a little bit of Suede about it. It’s a glamorous piece of bedsit pop. The lyrical content is what we used to call ‘drudgery chic’ at NME – it’s talking about how boring life is, but it turns into a song which should have sashayed its way straight onto Top Of The Pops. Rialto are one of those bands that I look back on and think: why weren’t they on The Evening Session every week if they were making records like this?! But I suppose it’s one of those records which was even underrated at the time, let alone some years later.”
The misfits who signed to a major label
“The first time I saw them, I remember thinking that Julie Tiger – the bass player – was a mini Suzi Quatro, but also how quirky and odd they were. They wrote great, really propulsive pop songs with slightly awkward but endearing hook lines to them. Britpop was made up of misfits who we somehow managed to collect together, and then just to prove that there were people slightly weirder than the first wave, along came Tiger. The great thing about the madness of the ’90s was that a band like them walked into a major label deal with Island Records, who had taken a chance with Pulp – who everyone else had passed on. So all of a sudden they were signing groups like Tiger – and ‘Race’ is a top song.”
The ones who started a DIY revolution
Bis, ‘School Disco’
“’School Disco’ is the soundtrack to something else which was happening in the ‘90s. Not only did you have the revival of the bedroom indie record label, but the number of fanzines seemed to double on a weekly basis. Initially, I think a lot of people were inspired by the Manic Street Preachers, and then this next wave of truly DIY independent music comes along and I think that really spoke volumes to a disenfranchised audience who wanted to do something but didn’t know what it was they wanted to do. Bis were the leaders of that. It was: ‘Come on, look, if we can do this, you can too! We’re on Top Of The Pops!’ It was inspiring. Another reason for doing this compilation was to dispel the myth that ‘90s Britpop was purely laddish culture. Bis leads you back to a riot grrrl approach to pop music. That thoroughly independent ‘we’re going to make this record and we don’t care’ attitude was also really interesting.”
The ones who should have been bigger
Salad, ‘Drink The Elixir’
“Salad were one of those bands you thought were going to be bigger than they were at the time. But I suppose Salad weren’t the most straightforward of bands. If you listen to their records, there’s something slightly left-of-centre – there’s often a left-turn in the songs where you don’t expect it to go – and maybe that’s one of the things which held them back. I went to the first night of Blur’s ‘Parklife’ tour, which is when we knew everything was really changing. ‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’ had done okay, but even at their record label there was a feeling they were underachieving, and they had fallen out of favour during the grunge era – it had all gone a bit wrong for them after the first album, ‘Leisure’. But ‘Parklife’ is obviously about to turn everything around and the first night of the tour in Rock City in Nottingham was one of the most celebratory gigs I’ve ever been to. People seemed to turn up full of a new sense of optimism. Sleeper were the opening band and Salad were in the middle – that’s when I knew something was gaining momentum and it’s starting here.”
The ones who worked with Thom Yorke
Drugstore, ‘Solitary Party Groover’
Whenever we bumped into frontwoman Isabel Monteiro – whether she was at the BBC or backstage at a festival – she always seemed to have a bottle of red wine in her hand. I don’t know where she procured it from! Their guitarist Daron Robinson was a friend-of-a-friend. Usually when somebody you know gives you a demo your heart sinks, but this was one of those occasions I went: ‘Actually, they’re really good. And her voice is brilliant’. They had a hit with ‘El President’, a duet with Thom Yorke. With the endorsement of someone like him, it shows they had something going for them.”
The ones shuffling in The Stone Roses’ shadow
New Fast Automatic Daffodils, ‘Big’
“What a massive groove! In the ‘90s, we used to go to club in London called Syndrome on a Thursday night and that was the era of the birth of the proper indie disco. From the Stone Roses onwards, there exists a more rhythmic take on independent music. The great thing about New Fast.. is not only did they have this groove which fitted the indie dancefloor, there was something quite industrial about it. There was probably more Joy Division in them than in any of those bands from the Madchester scene. There was something grey, grim and dry about it but at the same time, they made songs with enough of a skip in their step to dance to.”
The ones you just had to see live
Daisy Chainsaw, ‘Love Your Money’
“Anyone who saw them will simply remember the gigs because frontwoman KatieJane Garside was throwing herself around the stage. This was an era when live music started to become really important again, and Daisy Chainsaw had the sort of extreme stage presence that the early Manics wanted – that thing where we’re just going to burn out by the end of this gig, we don’t care if we survive it, we’re going to impale ourselves on guitars and bump over each other and fall off the stage and get to the end having made this big old racket.”
That one off the Sprite ad
Cable, ‘Freeze The Atlantic’
“This ended up being used for a Sprite advert. Initially, Cable were championed by John Peel, but they signed to Infectious who were building an interesting roster at the time, having already signed Ash. I remember the Cable album and ‘Freeze The Atlantic’; but I don’t remember a lot else about them because they were intentionally slightly anonymous and let the music do everything for them – possibly as a response to the larger than life characters that had come earlier in the decade.”
The ones holding the Scottish scene together
The Delgados, ‘Pull The Wires From The Wall’
You know on MasterChef when they get to the judging at the end and they say: ‘What you really needed was a sauce to pull all this together’? So you’d have all these various ingredients on a plate – all these various Scottish bands like Arab Strap who were a bit out there – what you needed was something to pull all this together and make sense of it. That was The Delgados. They started Chemikal Underground Records, which for the ‘90s is what Postcard was for the ‘80s. It was a great platform for local bands but The Delgados themselves made these terrifically sweet but still ambitious although slightly understated – and genuinely quite touching – pop songs.”
The one that still sounds fresh
Silverfish, ‘Big Bad Baby Pig Squeal’
“As much as this will be bought by people who were there, in the back of my mind I wanted to make it like a ‘Nuggets’ compilation so that future generations might dig a bit deeper into the ‘90s. And I would love somebody to hear ‘Big Bad Baby Pig Squeal’ for the first time and be inspired to pick up a guitar and start a band or have their outlook changed in some way.”
Steve Lamacq: Lost Alternatives is released March 22 through Demon Music Group. His autobiography, ‘Going Deaf For A Living’ is published by Omnibus Press on April 18.