Friday, 19 April 2019

Pleased To Meet You, Again:
My unexpectedly intense Sleeper reunion

You'll have to forgive me but I'm having one of my Britpop moments. This happens every now and again: the doctor says it's fine and is just a symptom of a) having been at university between 1994 and 1997, and b) subsequently becoming a victim of the nostalgia culture that has characterised the early part of the 21st century. Like many of my peers I have point blank refused to let go of everything I loved from my childhood (even a girl I fancied in the mid-90s is still knocking about in my house, calling herself my wife), and while I am usually able to suppress this condition it does occasionally flare up, as it has in the last few weeks.

This recent bout of Britpopatitis was brought about when, idly browsing the racks of Sister Ray in London's Berwick Street (a road once hip enough to grace the cover an Oasis album, now just waiting for a year-overdue Premier Inn to suck the remaining life out of it), I spotted an album by Sleeper. Now I love Sleeper - or at least I loved their first two albums Smart and The It Girl; I may or may not have taken the third, Pleased To Meet You, to a charity shop about two weeks after its release. So I was surprised that I didn't recognise the LP before me. It was called The Modern Age and contained songs I did not know. I was, in the parlance of, er, the modern age, shook.
It turns out the reason I didn't recognise the record was that behind my back, Sleeper had reformed then recorded and released a fourth album last month without me even noticing. This is what happens when you take your eye off the ball for just 22 years. I was too broadsided to buy the album there and then, so I went home and listened to some of it on YouTube, coming to the conclusion that it was Not That Bad. Within a week I had not only bought that LP, but had also rebought Pleased To Meet You off eBay (quite possibly the same copy I gave away in 1997), found singer Louise Wener's autobiography on the same magical website, and then because nobody was there to stop me I bought tickets for their gig at the Kentish Town Forum last weekend. I have been listening to all four albums on repeat for around a month, to the point where I am actually even beginning to notice the bass lines. Somebody take me to Britpopspital, I need a Britpoperation.
My Sleeper story, such as it is, begins over a quarter of a century ago (Jesus actual CHRIST), one lonely teenage evening in 1993. I went through a period of taping every song Steve Lamacq and Jo Whiley played on Radio 1's The Evening Session: if a song hadn't grabbed me within about 90 seconds I rewound the cassette and taped the next song over it. Any song that had me hooked was granted residency on that strip of worn-out, eighth-inch magnetic tape, and each show yielded maybe a dozen tracks to feed my insatiable hunger for new music. Pretty much the only song I can now remember from this exercise is Sleeper's Alice In Vain, the first release from their 1995 debut Smart.

Alice was a spiky, punchy piece of pop unlike most of what I was listening to at the time, and I was transfixed by Louise's switch from sultry, breathy sexpot to shouty, angry sexpot over the course of three and a half minutes. In retrospect this has been a defining feature of all my favourite female singers: Kristin Hersh, Tanya Donelly, Kim Deal and Divinyls' Chrissy Amphlett to name but a few. (If your experience of the latter only stretches as far as sweaty ode to bean-flicking I Touch Myself, do yourself a humongous favour and dig deeper. Not unlike the narrator of I Touch Myself does, in fact.)

One thing led to another, Smart came out four months into my first year at university, and just over a year later Sleeper released their second album, The It Girl. One of the key records that soundtracked one of the greatest summers of my life, The It Girl is also one of the finest achievements to come out of Britpop. An album of glossy, sleazy, perfect pop, it takes the English suburbia and lager-soaked fag-ends of Smart, squeezes the whole package into a sequinned minidress and Adidas Gazelles and parades its look-but-don't-touch hot mess in front of you like your best mate's big sister. Standout track Nice Guy Eddie is a tale of sugar-daddy sex and death in suspicious circumstances that painted Louise Wener as the black widow spider of Britpop, and I'd have gladly swapped web fluid with her were it not for the fact that she'd have eaten me whole before I'd even shown her my silk gland.

All too quickly it's October 1997. I've left uni and am working at Blockbuster video during an interminable period of compulsory nationwide mourning for Diana when Pleased To Meet You plops out and fails to lighten the mood. Aside from irregular listens to Smart and The It Girl over the next two decades, I more or less forget about Sleeper until I bimble into Sister Ray one sunny afternoon a few weeks ago. My nostalgia circuits are unexpectedly activated, I allow them full access to my bank account with carefree abandon and before I know it I am unconsciously humming the bassline from Inbetweener.

I'm more forgiving towards Pleased To Meet You now that I'm Sleeper's number one fan for as long as this condition grips me, and The Modern Age is a worthy addition to the canon. It sounds like it could have been recorded while I was at university, which is fine by me, and the trademark hooks and irrepressible bounce are still there. There doesn't seem to be as much sex and death as before, and it gives me no pleasure to report that there's a song on there about a baffling new phenomenon called "social media", but everything sounds comfortably familiar after a few listens and lead single Look At You Now is a legit banger.

Louise's autobiography, meanwhile - Just For One Day: Adventures In Britpop, which I read a mere eight and a half years after its release - is glorious. It's like The It Girl in book form: a series of arrogantly short chapters, designed like perfect three-minute blasts of pop, which took me for a breakneck ride through the life of an Essex girl turned pop icon with such conviction that when I finished it (about ten minutes after I started it) I swear I could smell perfume, stale beer and the Top Of The Pops studio. Her disarmingly frank recollections of sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll and her (*checks notes*) "wonderfully erect nipples" paint the highs and lows of mid-level stardom with lovable self-deprecation and zero-fucks-given insouciance.

And then, just as I was about to get the all clear and start listening to James Bond soundtracks again, along came last weekend's concert. I average about one gig a year these days, and more often than not they're by bands that disappeared in the late '90s and have finally started speaking to each other again: last year I saw Belly in Shepherd's Bush and I was so happy I cried through most of it. Expectations were middling for Sleeper, but I, along with roughly 2000 fellow balding, 40-something men, had a ruddy blast. My only regret is that I was a little too far from the stage to satisfactorily confirm or deny Louise's nipple self-assessment.
The band (the famously anonymous Sleeperblokes now enhanced on stage by the addition of Amy, a Sleepergirl) came on to the strains of Nancy Sinatra's theme song for You Only Live Twice, which immediately won me over, before launching into a 75-minute set of all killer, no filler pop gold. Factor 41 - a fine but unremarkable track from The It Girl - was the highlight, rebooted as a growling stomper that allowed Louise to watch with a wicked sense of pride as about three dozen middle-aged backs went into spasm from ill-advised moshing. Pleased To Meet You, sadly, went entirely unrepresented, as if the band were trying to erase it from history.

So I'm still stuck in my temporary Sleeper bubble, and once I've finished writing this I fully intend to pop back to Sister Ray to see if they've got any copies left of the live EP the band released for Record Store Day. I'm aware that my condition will clear up soon but I'm enjoying it while it lasts, and once I'm better, well, I notice there's a new album of Elastica BBC sessions out...

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