Stereophonics

In honour of Stuart Cable and in defence of his former band, I dug this out, written a couple of years ago.  It is n attempt at a semi-articulate defence of a band I loved when I was 13, so much so that I dragged my parents to the wrong end of the country to see them.  Thanks for the memories, Stuart; I hope the Great Gig in the Sky is everything it’s cracked up to be.

There is, or was during the height of their fame, an established way to write about Stereophonics, and it tends to utilise cliches like “stodgy”, “pub-rock”, “unsophisticated”, “well-loved by the public but derided by critics”.  For those too young/old/prone to living under rocks to recall, it is worth remembering that for a few years either side of 2000, three lads from a small village near Abedare could sell out arena tours at the drop of a hat and filled the Millennium Stadium several times.  Undoubtedly, the band responsible for “Mr Writer”, exhorting the journalists to “tell it like it really is”, didn’t do themselves any favours with the NME.  Indeed, it is difficult to think of a band that polarised the public/press divide so obviously around that time.  Almost to a man, the music press wheeled out tired one-liners and derisory reviews while down the road a queue of paying punters lined up to buy the next album or fill venue after venue.  It is, then, easy to say that Stereophonics made popular but ultimately ungainly music that pleased many without ever really achieving anything of artistic merit.  However, I’d like to put the case that once upon a time, back in the bright, optimistic late nineties, Stereophonics made a Good Record.  This is commonly considered heresy in the music press, but bear with me.

Their debut, Word Gets Around, is a story-song album, full of tales of what it’s like to be an angry young man in the Welsh valleys, miles from anywhere, an album full of tales of love, death and boredom.  Musically raw, it owes as much of a debt to the Pistols as it does to the more obvious Faces and AC/DC, influences that Kelly Jones wore on his sleeve.  Their third album, Just Enough Education to Perform, and everything after that, is the music that generated the clichés listed above; it really is over-the-top, over-produced and under-cooked bloat-rock.  Performance and Cocktails represents the point where these two are perfectly balanced; Kelly Jones still has enough innocence to write songs about how amazing this new-found world of fame and record sales is, tempered with bitterness and cynicism at times.  The music is more complex than the ultra-basic Word Gets Around but is yet to descend into the saccharine mediocrity of JEEP.  It is, if you will, Stereophonics’ Goldilocks Moment.

“Roll Up and Shine” hits you like the proverbial ton of bricks (how many working-class-male cliches can I use in discussing Stereophonics, I wonder?), the introductory noises deliberately quiet, enticing you to turn up the volume only to have your head blown off by guitars a second later.  The band rocks; the tight-if-occasionally-uninteresting Stuart Cable and Richard “no relation” Jones hold down a powerful sound and Kelly’s “gargling-with-razor-blades” voice, inevitably compared to a young, Faces-era Rod Stewart by the press, scythes through the mix and delivers wry, intelligent lyrics about excess, bravado and the sound of three young men high on success.  The satisfaction factor is maintained for “Bartender and the Thief”, gloriously slamming into the listener in the same key as track one; the album barely pauses for breath.  Upping the pace, this sub-three-minute discussion of lesbian bartenders escaping to the Spanish Costas takes no prisoners.

The hits were “Pick a Part That’s New”, a jaded look at the deja-vu experience of a Brit in New York realising he’s seen it on Friends so much it’s familiar, and “Just Looking”.  Nice enough, and representative of the post-Britpop sound, but hardly revolutionary.  This album is best when it’s rocking; “Half of the Lies You Tell Ain’t True” is fuzzed up with fast-riffing verses that betray the boys’ fascination with classic Metallica.  “T-Shirt Suntan” is a clever little narrative held together with some just-different-enough chords.

The other thing that Performance has that everything since has lacked is shape, structure; there’s a real arc here, with the lull of “Is Yesterday, Tomorrow, Today?”, “A Minute Longer” and “She Takes Her Clothes Off” all weaving wordy tales around slow, grungy arrangements.  “Plastic California” is filler, but “I Stopped To Fill My Car Up” finishes the record in style, a delightfully self-aware storyteller.  Throughout there’s a pleasant lyrical mix of clever observational work and staring-out-the-window-of-a-plane philosophy-lite (“They say the more you fly the more you risk your life”) and a plethora of classy production touches; from the ultra-satisfying, ringing snare sound on “Hurry Up and Wait” to the Beach Boys-esque doo-doo-doo backing vocals on “Bartender” or the countless well-placed guitar layers,  Performance and Cocktails is easy on the ears even at its most raucous.

Stereophonics would never top this, never even get reasonably close.  JEEP could have been something had they not insisted on going acoustic and trying to sound like Neil Young; place the four rocking B-sides (“Piano for a Stripper”, “Surprise”, “Maritim Belle Vue in Kiel” and “An Audience with Mr Nice”, completists take note) in place of the likes of “Have a Nice Day” and you have a make-your-own successor to P&C, essentially by filling the troughs with very loud peaks instead.  Descent into mediocre stoner rock (You Gotta Go There To Come Back…we’re still waiting) and synth-pop (Language.Sex.Violence.Other?) were inadvisable (the irrepressible pop smash “Dakota” aside), and I don’t know anyone who bought Pull The Pin.  But, for a brief moment in 1999, they were gloriously good.

Amazon UK

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