Two years. Two measly years. That’s all it took for the very course of British rock music to change forever.
In May of 1986, New Musical Express unleashed the legendaryC86 compilation, which grabbed a bevy of jangle-rock, fuzz-pop, and New Romanticism tracks straight from the UK underground and served them to directly to a hungry magazine-reading populace hungry for new sounds and a new scene. C86 provided both, with acts like Primal Scream and the Wedding Present soon becoming the leaders of an aesthetic they didn’t realize was now a subgenre in its own right.
Two years later, the Stone Roses put out their third single, “Elephant Stone”, and it became clear that the shimmering guitar tones of C86 had merged with the upcoming rave scene to create a new style that was heavy on grooves and still had ample room for a full band setup. This was dubbed Madchester, and before long, it exploded, busting down genre doors right as the 1990s were about to start. Soon, anyone with a modicum of taste and a lot of ambition was getting out acetates and cassettes to clubs, with some digging their heels in ground made out of speaker fuzz, while others embraced the full electronic club scene even as their C86 tape gathered dust. Blur dropped “She’s So High” in 1990, Primal Scream starting bending towards dance music in 1991, and Pulp was realizing in 1992 that maybe they were more of a pop band than an electro group. While “Britpop” as most people know it was starting to emerge at this time, the truth of the matter was that no one was following genre confines anymore, which left listeners with thirsty ears bristling with caffeinated excitement.
So leave it to compiler Martin Green to round up the underselling “Junkshop” tracks of this era and put them together in a handsome two-CD compilation called Super Sonics: 40 Junkshop Britpop Greats. Gathering tapes, CDs, and vinyl of the rare and unreleased variety the entire decade (although with a heavy emphasis of 1991-1995), Green presents a litany of songs that may fall under the big umbrella of “Britpop” as a qualifier, but in actuality stretch far, far beyond those genre confines. Oh sure, there’s Beatles knockoffs (Pimlico’s ace gem “Revolve”), and budget-basement Blur dumbshows (Jocasta’s “Change Me”, Speedway’s “Entertainment”) abound. However, Junkshop‘s power comes from its explorations of sounds outside the norm, especially in regards to its numerous electronic and riot grrrl tips, the latter of which is especially refreshing to hear given how male-dominated the Britpop narrative has been for decades.
Throughout Green’s rummaging through bargain bins, there’s a refreshing air to Super Sonics, as many of these bands, per Green’s liner notes, never out more than three or so singles. With the first designated as “Junkshop Britpop” and the second one marked for “Junkshop Brit-Art Pop”, there are different ways to sort through your Britpop cravings, but sometimes the highlights shine through regardless of classification. “Nosebleed” by Chest is a female-fronted guitar rock ballad that wouldn’t sound too out of place on Sleater-Kinney’s 1999 masterpiece The Hot Rock. Similarly, the surf guitar genderplay that is exhibited in Gretschen Hofner’s “Judy Garland Life” is nothing sort of sultry, with singer Paul Hofner’s gruff vocals counterbalancing his feminine lyrics with a seductive intrigue. Unfortunately, as Green’s liners inform us, Hofner passed shortly after the song came out, leaving this track on this compilation one of their last vestiges of being remembered in rock history.
In truth, there’s a hint of sadness that runs through the first disc of Super Sonics, as these spiky, punky bands all have songs capturing their would-be ascents, their enthusiasm for songwriting and recording radiating through your speakers. There’s a desperation to some of the songs, a vulnerability to others, and something that offsets the more electronic-heavy second disc, where the songs don’t have that same sense of this being the artists’ only shot (as who knows what kind of popular remix work they got out of these solo one-offs). There are broken dreams scattered all over the floor of Super Sonics, but hearing these stories untold is a true treat.
Yet as with compilations of this ilk, some quality songs are mixed in with selections that come off as little more than curiosities. Huggy Bear’s raw punk thrasher “Her Jazz” walks familiar tropes (albeit in pumps), just as Urusei Yatsura’s “Plastic Ashtray” is nothing short of a brilliant Pavement knockoff. For every early acid house experiment like Elizabeth Bunny’s “Crawl [Raw Mix]”, there are glorious weird electro experiments like [email protected]’s “[email protected] [Student Union Mix]”. Some tracks are amateurish keyboard bops that sound like they were made in dorm rooms (Earl Brutus’ “On Me Not in Me”). While others (like the Beatlesque acoustic guitar stomp of World of Leather’s “Don’t Turn This Love Into Sorrow”) feel like the results of elaborate studio sessions. Super Songs has a wide aural wingspan, each act’s unifying drive being that they were all striving hard to make it big, no matter what kind of odds were ultimately stacked against them.
Unfortunately, as joyous a detour as Super Sonics is, there is little here to truly call it essential. There are some quality songs and great little stories tucked away for reach act to be found in the liners, but rarely does this compilation yield tracks that feel like unearthed gems. In some ways, it’s clear to see why some of these were forgotten, whether they suffered from unfocused songcraft or shadowed their influences so closely it became difficult to figure out what made them special or even different as a group. Britpop scholar and archivists, however, knows that the story of the genre is something that can be told through the chart-topping hits but is more likely best understood from the trash bins, sweaty clubs, and discounted cassettes that were the backbone of a scene that has long since passed but remains largely loved.