Back in Denim
he two records which, for better or worse, signal the direction British rock would take in the nineties begin by throwing us back to a world as yet untouched by punk. Released in 1992, Suede’s The Drowners EP and Denim’s Back in Denim open to the camp goose-step of the glitter beat; both records have been pinpointed as the moment when Britpop escaped the daydreams of Melody Maker sub-editors and became something tangible. It’s only with the gloss of hindsight that such generalizations seem plausible but, at the very least, both records feel like attempts to cut free from the ideological binds of both ’76 and (C)’86. Alongside contemporary works by the parochial (if underestimated) likes of Kingmaker, Ride, or even The Family Cat, both seem like attempts to reengage with the world beyond: not quite Damon Albarn’s ambition of making songs for the milk man to whistle, but something like that. Whilst Suede’s invigorating revival saw them go supernova, supping rather too fulsomely at Nick Kent’s “dark stuff,” Denim were, along with The Auteurs and Saint Etienne, merely a prelude. Simply a curio thrown up by a seismic shifting of pop’s tectonic plates, Back in Denim has long been deleted.
Only now, a mere 14 years later, has one of the most bafflingly brilliant records of the nineties become available again. In 2006 it feels even more essential in its mix of intelligence, unsentimental nostalgia, and optimism. Yet it is also weighed down by its failure to curtail the ultimate impotence of Britpop—the re-embracing of every lumpen dogma and cliché. Denim’s leader Lawrence (Hayward, though like Madonna and Morrissey one name is deemed sufficient) had steered an idiosyncratic path through the 80s with Felt, a band who even at their most accessible spoke a language of high romance and poetic abstraction. Channeling Dylan, Television, and on occasions lounge jazz through the bed-sit hinterland, they were a glorious soundtrack to withdrawal. As about turns go Back in Denim gives even Metal Machine Music a run for its money. Lawrence billed the outfit as “novelty protest” and with their near perfect marriage of pointed pastiche and socio-political comment it’s as apt a summation of his new metier as one could hope for.
The key track is “Middle of the Road” in which over a minimal backing of tight riffing and primitively burbling synthesisers Lawrence declaims: “I hate the Stones and I hate blues.” Systematically he dispatches the clichés of a moribund culture; “riffs and guitar licks,” “coke and spliffs.” But what is hate without hope? Around a minute and a half in the song bursts to life with cooing backing vocals and the simple manifesto:
Don’t be told who to likeAnd with that, Lawrence sets the controls for the middle of the road. The record single-handedly attempts to re-write the history of “rock ‘n’ roll,” imagining a world where the Beatles and blues canon is replaced by Lieutenant Pigeon, Hurricane Smith, and The Osmonds. Often the music is hard to describe in relational terms because this is a kaleidoscopic assemblage of ‘70s popular music’s secret history; the stuff that has escaped the music media’s selective memory. Critics and the talking head nostalgia show cycle may attempt to rewrite history, to systemize it into hierarchies; masterpieces, guilty pleasures, and all the rest. Back in Denim is a vision of a world where “rock ‘n’ roll” takes on a very different meaning, shorn of trite binaries and strutting machismo.
It’s your choice;
It’s your right to choose who you listen to
Occasionally the effect is almost autistic; Lawrence may as well be speaking a private language, so personal and idiosyncratic are his reference points. Though the record is filled with the sounds of signifiers of the pre-punk 70s, it never falls to the self-congratulatory sneers of those half arsed clip shows where z-list comedians “reminisce” about chopper bikes or “the laws of the playground.” Back in Denim is a purge. Amongst the glitter and spangles there are nail bombs. Lawrence delights in the innocence and optimism of his formative years on the epic eight minutes of “The Osmonds,” but the harrowing, confusing realties of the IRA’s bombing of his hometown lurks just beneath the surface. You could condemn it all as kitsch, a mere art project, yet the sheer desire to re-describe, to re-conceptualize, to find new musical languages steers it all a long way from archness.
It was a wise person indeed who declared that you can’t beat an enemy by singing their song. It’s fair to say Lawrence has clocked this. He was proved right; most of the Britpop groups became normalized and naturalized, losing their novelty and appeal under the scrutiny of “rock’s” pernicious historicism. (OK: heroin, The Spice Girls, and Princess Di may have also been involved.) That’s not to say that “The Drowners” is not a great, breathlessly exciting piece of music, but it is incredibly easy to say “Bowie x The Smiths” and stick it neatly into the carefully contrived story of “rock ‘n roll.” In an era where music criticism is often reduced to the mere observation of similarities to something the listener has heard before, Lawrence’s commercially suicidal crusade into pop’s unremembered past is all the more impressive. The closing “I’m Against the Eighties” is full of hope, shedding the disappointments of the previous decade and embracing the still-fresh 90s. If one knows what came next—mental problems, heavy drugs, and “The Great Pub Rock Revival”—it’s heartbreaking. Yet through it all shines a hopefulness; a belief in the redemptive power of pop. He’s got a girl and a copy of “Ravesignal III,” he’s sick of the Duran Duran (“fake make up boys”) and the “Mary Chain debris,” but he’s in love with modern world. Therein lies the lesson: the past can the fuel the present instead of overshadowing it; listen to the fantastic Pick of the Pops with Dale but keep your ears open.