Britpop. If you were resident in the UK in the mid-1990s and aged between 10-65, it was inescapable. You were either “Blur” or “Oasis” (or occasionally “Pulp”) and for about 18 months, it was almost cool to be British. Almost. Sadly, this short-lived “movement” produced more than its fair share of lacklustre bands. For a while, it seemed all you needed to do to get a major record deal was dress like Pete Townshend in 1965 and pretend you liked the Kinks. Then you’d go to your favourite pub, which was inevitably in Camden and wait for your New Musical Express front page. The best thing about Britpop, was it pulled a few bands along in its wake, who were genuinely great. And that’s where Supergrass came in.
The Strange Ones 1994-2008 is the inevitable compilation, released to coincide with the inevitable reformation tour. The key difference between the return of Supergrass and the return of quite a few other bands who’ve decided to top up their pensions by throwing themselves at the nostalgia market is that Supergrass are genuinely missed. Throughout six albums, they rarely – if ever – put a foot wrong. If you need a pocket-sized sampler of what they sounded like, well, here’s your chance.
In typical Supergrass style, this 22-track anthology (26 on the vinyl version) starts at the end and works backward, which means we begin with polished pop and end up with a beautiful tangle of hyperactive, freewheeling, top drawer juvenilia. If 10CC had children and they spent all their allowance on energy drinks and donuts, the music they make would sound exactly like Supergrass. But before we get to the overactive, overachieving stuff, we get to hear a whole bunch of why-weren’t-they-hits, starting with “Diamond Hoo Ha Man”, an Iggy Pop melody, nailed to a series of riffs that Black Sabbath would have sold their souls to Satan for. And that’s not even the best tune on the record.
Supergrass share an esthetic with the Who in their prime, meaning they could play in almost any style, but somehow, still make it sound like the Who. There are about a dozen different approaches to songwriting used in this retrospective – some songs are played straight, some are played for laughs, some are tongue in cheek, and some are heartfelt. They all sound like Supergrass. And that is an excellent thing.
In the UK, they were originally marketed as a sort of pop-punk Monkees, with lots of gurning at the camera in videos and reviews stressing how “wacky” and “quirky” they were. But even when they were at their most playful, on their debut single “Caught by the Fuzz”, once you get past the Sex Pistols power chords, you reach a gorgeous middle eight that sounds like the Shirelles backed by the New York Dolls. It’s the killer one-two-three punch of dynamite musicianship, great songs, and a fearless approach to songwriting, which sets this band head, shoulders, and most of a torso above their peers. They could navigate their way through the tricky time changes of “Strange Ones”, the prog-pop of “Tales of Endurance (Parts 4, 5 & 6)”, and the Rolling Stonesy swagger of “Pumping on Your Stereo” and still come up smiling. And any band who can come up with a lyric like: “You ate our chips and you drank our Coke, Then you showed me Mars through your telescope” (from “Grace”) is A-OK with me.
Supergrass will always be “that band who did ‘Alright’“. For most of the summer of 1995, it clung to the upper reaches of the UK chart like an over-affectionate grandparent, while the cute video was in permanent heavy rotation on MTV. It wasn’t written to be an anthem of disaffected youth, but it accidentally became one. It’s a great song – not their best song – and it took them to a place that they were never quite able to reach again. Fortunately for us, they never got grumpy and started phoning it in.
If, when your children ask you, “Daddy, what did you do in the Britpop war?” you can answer, “I can’t remember, I was listening to Supergrass,” then you are a good parent. If you need a reminder of what was surfing the zeitgeist in the post-grunge, hangover years, grab a copy of The Strange Ones 1994-2008. It’s more fun than a barrel of Monkees.