Antique footage of Supergrass in their teenage prime flickers across the stage-back screens; larking about in canoes, naked drumming sessions, toy guns waggled around photo sessions, festival adulation.
If Blur were Britpop’s artsy masterminds, Oasis the attitude, Suede the style, Pulp the perverse and permissive wit and Sleeper the sound of the 1990s suburbs, Supergrass represented the core exuberance of the age – young, cheeky and utterly carefree. And, 26 years after they first played Alexandra Palace as part of Blur’s culture-defining Parklife jamboree, they return with just the same happy-go-lucky vivacity that no global pandemic could quench.
“During this next song,” drummer Danny Goffey declares before ‘Rebel In You’, “I want you to turn to the person next to you and touch their face, hold their hand, maybe lick their ears…”
We’re very lucky that/placed in mortal danger because (delete depending on test results in 14 days’ time) this grand culmination of 2020’s most celebratory Britpop reunion is happening at all. Not only has the show fallen just the right side of all gatherings larger than the average hokey-cokey being banned, but this morning, Goffey explains, singer Gaz Coombes was told to cancel the gig due to neck problems. However, he’s soldiering on regardless thanks to a cocktail of prescription drugs. “He’s perfectly sedated,” Goffey says, warning that Coombes might come out with some pretty wild shit over the next 90 minutes.
Wild is right. And heady, and manic, and mind expanding, and occasionally surreal. Tonight, with decades of experience gilding a set built largely around the youthful overdrive of their debut ‘I Should Coco’, Supergrass turn one of Britpop’s more impressive canons into the explosive display of arena power it only threatened to become when it was made.
Their wry glint has survived their 12 year absence too – they open with a knowing, glowering ‘In It For The Money’, as pointed a parody of reunion culture today as it was of Britpop bandwagon jumpers back in 1997. From there, they strap in for an initial charge through their early Oxford-cockney wobble punk tunes, with Mick Quinn snarling his way through relentless bass barrages and Coombes adding the kind of 1970s rock bombast to his riffs that would make Pete Townshend wish he’d died before he got old.
‘I’d Like To Know’ crests like a rollercoaster; ‘Mansize Rooster’ takes off like a fairground catapult ride capable of pinging you into international air lanes. Even as they venture into the country terrain of their self-titled third album, the pulse remains feverish. ‘Mary’’s roadhouse shuffle kicks up into a real southern dust-storm, and ‘Moving’ comes on like a blast of rolling riff thunder, even with a middle eight that sounds like the theme to a 1980s sex-and-shoulderpads soap opera set on an ocean liner.
If the ‘I Should Coco’ tracks act as regular shots of adrenalin straight through the breastplate of the set – there’s a fantastic bit halfway through a frantic ‘Sitting Up Straight’ where the song seems to have a fight with itself – the more recent tracks are reminders of just how stylistically inclusive Britpop was. ‘Seen The Light’ mimics Oasis on a rare cheerful day, ‘Late In The Day’ is a lament for the lonesome cockney. ‘Grace’ is joyous gospel, ‘Richard III’ the sort of power rock that could blow your coronavirus clean out of your eyeballs.
It reflects how Britpop was the first open-source musical movement, with bands feeling free to nip and nab from their contemporaries as well as rock history; witness how ‘Pumping On Your Stereo’ is an even more entendre-laced rewrite of Bowie’s ‘The Jean Genie’. But tonight illuminates how history under-estimates the scene’s influence and adaptability, too. ‘St Petersburg’ might date from 2005 but it’s akin to the austere, epic folk of Arcade Fire; the magnificent carnival whirl of ‘Going Out’ might be about the 1990s Primrose Hill set, but it predicted much of today’s psych pop miasma.
Ally Pally hasn’t shelled out top babysitting dollar for a lesson in cultural studies though; it’s putting its questionable immune system on the line for the hits. And with no new album to push (as yet) and a firm grasp on the fact that their earlier tunes have a unique ability to make their fans shed decades and forget knee issues in seconds, Supergrass deliver.
They race for the encore with a devil-may-care ‘Alright’ – “Wash our hands, nice and clean!” Gaz grins – the pre-Biffy Clyro riot rocker ‘Lenny’ and a psych-splashed ‘Sun Hits The Sky’.
A kooky, spooky ‘Strange Ones’ encapsulates the cranky energy of the 1990s generation and, bar a bizarre jazz breakdown, they could have been ‘Caught By The Fuzz’ last week. This is reunion at its best; no cranked-out payola throwback, but a beefed-up blast from the past. Alright.