In Simon Reynolds’ splendidly comprehensive discussion of pop culture’s obsession with its own backstory Retromania, he states that “every generation as it ages will want to see its musical youth mythologised and memorialised.” Looking at the eras currently being eagerly painted with the nostalgia brush, one decides Reynolds can only be right. Particularly in the realm of indie, where the contemporary-to-vintage transition period is now so short, big hits need never bother leaving the alternative radio playlists anymore: Radio X and their ilk can continue to play Bloc Party, The Libertines, and Red Hot Chili Peppers – everyone’s favourite alternative rock landfill – onwards unto eternity. Vintage pop music is no longer limited to Hard-Rock-Café-o-rama; in the grand church of historical rock, you’re now just as likely to worship Alex Chilton, Ian Curtis, Jonathan Richman, Patti Smith or Shaun Ryder as you are the Eric Claptons, Stings and Led Zeppelins of this world.
Or are you? There exist a few supermassive black holes in the indie universe which exhibit such strong gravitational effects not even Ride can escape. To generalise wildly: if your band hailed from south of Nottingham and your heyday fell between 1989 and 1993, chances are your band are only cool to herds of uncool balding people (like me) and Steve Lamacq. I have become such a premium-strength bore on this topic that a few years ago I even wrote a novel about it, The Alternative Hero. In it, a colouring-book version of myself has a chance encounter with his all-time indie hero Lance Webster – an amalgam of about four non-fictional T-shirt-band heroes of mine – and befriends him to try and figure out why he and his band have been erased from the rock history books. A story of alcohol-fuelled bitterness ensues but, this being 2007/8 kinda time, Lance Webster himself is still wandering around suburban London, living off dwindling savings, occasionally being stopped for an autograph but generally becoming rather depressed and considering a move to the southern hemisphere. Oh, if only he had existed in 2016, there’s an 150% chance that he would be playing the Gigantic Indie All Dayer Vol 3 this Saturday night in Manchester.
Truly, this festival is an opportunity to relive some wonderfully unpretentious glory days. I may sound like I’m denigrating the experience when I say this, but anyone familiar with my knockabout blog will know I mean it with the warmest of sincerity: there is no one playing this bill who is in any danger of having an in-depth feature in Q Magazine or being given their own retrospective BBC Maida Vale gig, and gawd bless every single one of them for that. These bands represent the corners of indie that the travel guides don’t mention: the fleeting but uproariously passionate fads, the unpigeonholeable mashups, the tricky blighters, the enemies of the music press, the crazes that never quite caught fire. But each act had their glorious moment in the alternative rock sunshine, some moments more momentary or momentous than others. Their accomplishments, seeing as they almost universally emerged from damp British rehearsal rooms, were surprisingly lofty: Jesus Jones, for example, had a smacker of a US top-five single (Right Here, Right Now); The Wonder Stuff rocked Glastonbury’s Pyramid stage, headlined Reading and scored four top-ten UK hits, even including the dizzy heights of a number one; and the BMX Bandits once moved Kurt Cobain to utter, “if I could be in any other band, it would be BMX Bandits”.
Each group possesses at least one song that gives me an instant rush of youthful memories: The House Of Love’s Shine On transports me back to the edge of the indie disco, wondering whether to risk chatting up the tie-dye-T-shirted beauty; The Frank and Walters’ After All was my university household’s anthem; the indie-funk of Cud’sPurple Love Balloon for some reason reminds me of heading to Kings Cross to prematurely acquire the latest issue of Melody Maker; Credit To The Nation’s Call It What You Want captures the time I realised the UK could do hip-hop too (not to mention those hilarious occasions when grungeheads on the dancefloor mistakenly thought it was gonna be Teen Spirit); and Bentley Rhythm Ace’s Bentley’s Gonna Sort You Out is when it hit me that there was life beyond Pop Will Eat Itself. All key moments for me, and now all brought scintillatingly back to life on a stage in Manchester this very weekend. There is only one problem. As a musician, the thing that keeps my enthusiasm going is playing fresh material. But at Gigantic 3 if one of the singers announces, “hey, who fancies hearing a new song?”, he or she might as well be saying “hey, who fancies going to the bar for a drink?” So – is this gonna be a issue?
“Not at all,” says The Darling Buds’ Matt Gray. “People will always want to hear their favourites, plus we’ve more than enough old songs to keep it fresh and interesting for us.” Well, that’s good, then. How about some of the spikier guys in town: The Wonder Stuff’s Miles Hunt, for example? He surely must get bored banging out A Wish Away and The Size of A Cow. “No. I can sit on my couch and amuse myself endlessly by playing new songs, and the band can set up and rehearse any time we like to work on our future jazz odyssey. For me the stage is about giving an audience something to enjoy.” Blimey. Interestingly, the only voice of slight doubt comes from self-confessed winners of “nicest band in indie pop” title five years running, The Frank and Walters. “If we just had to play the old stuff we’d crack up,” they sigh. Well, that’s a bit more like it.
It’s not all indie meat’n’potatoes at this alternative banquet. The aforementioned Credit To The Nation and Bentley Rhythm Ace, plus staples of the anarcho/crustie world Back To The Planet, all provide an invigorating bit of variety to the proceedings, blazing the trail for a distinctly 1990s brand of eclecto-post-punk and mashup dance that only fully found its feet in the 2000s. Back To The Planet, particularly, voiced political bugbears with a Crass-esque anti-establishment rage that seems sadly thin on the ground these days, at a time when we could certainly use it.
But the fury, generally speaking, has died down to the point where the backstage area will probably abound with musical mateyness. Again, I’d half-hoped that old rivalries would be reignited: “There’s that fucker who stole our entire booze rider at the Phoenix festival in ’95.” “Yeah, that’s him – he tripped me up on the way to the stage at the Reading After Dark club in 1988.” Sadly not. “I think we managed to stay friends with everyone,” say The Frank and Walters. “Inter-band feuding is a bit pathetic really when you think about it,” add The Darling Buds. “We love to meet and chat with anyone.” Aw, really? Miles from the Wonder Stuff – surely there’ll be a bitter enemy lurking behind a flightcase somewhere? “Unusually for me, no.” Drat!
And what of the performances themselves? Can we expect an enhanced musicianship, honed to virtuoso-perfection by years of noodling and chin-stroking? “No,” says the Buds’ Matt Gray. “We’re still not that technically gifted. We’re never going to be Steely Dan.” The Frank and Walters, similarly, show little enthusiasm for this improving-with-age business. “Sometimes not knowing what to do can take you to some weird and wonderful places.”
Speaking of weird and wonderful places, I find it slightly incongruous that, for a 90s festival that so assiduously avoids anything baggy, Gigantic 3 takes place in Manchester. But then, with bands coming from such far-flung locales as Wiltshire, Cork and Glasgow, Manchester is kind of in the middle. Oh, and just in case you’re missing any small amount of Mancunian influence, DJing afterwards is everyone’s favourite musical-courtcase victor, Mike Joyce from The Smiths. I myself can feel my hangover brewing even as we speak, born from a mixture of snakebite & black, leaping about the place to S*M*A*S*H in the afternoon, and a dodgy Wilmslow Road curry afterwards. Bring it on.
Gigantic Indie All Dayer Vol 3 takes place this Saturday, 28 May, in and around the Manchester Academy
Follow Tim Thornton on Twitter: www.twitter.com/timwthornton