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Sunday, 23 January 2011

"We cared as much for Supergrass’s maturity as Aled Jones’s label cared for him after his balls dropped.", 2010

Farewell, Supergrass, creators of Alright and a few other hits that don’t quite spring to mind at this moment in time. Before Monday, when news of their split came appended to the obligatory announcement of a farewell tour, many of us didn’t know that the Oxford quartet were still together. Once we did, however, we paused to reflect upon how we would remember the Britpop veterans fronted by Gaz Coombes. Naturally, our thoughts turned to Alright, and the video that accompanied it: three bezzie mates let loose with three Chopper bikes on the grounds of Prisoner village Portmeirion.

For Supergrass, of course, this was the problem. Alright was released 15 years ago – a gorblimey pop moment so evocative that, try as they might, the group never usurped it in our affections. Over the course of six albums, Supergrass went to great lengths to convince the world that their muso chops transcended the childlike charms of that song. They matured, but ultimately, so what? We cared as much for Supergrass’s maturity as Aled Jones’s record label cared for him after his balls dropped.

Perhaps it felt to Supergrass that their predicament was unique. In fact, they’re far from alone. Steve Harley still kvetches about a music industry that “thinks I’ve only written one song.” Toploader’s inability to rustle up a tune as memorable Dancing In The Moonlight finished them off in no time. Prior to appearing on Celebrity Big Brother, Sisqo was last seen singing Thong Song in a Hitchin nightclub. To varying degrees, the same problem unites all these musicians. However, quite what their attitude is towards it probably depends on the work they have done in coming to terms with their albatross.

In fact, the five stages of dealing with one’s albatross are uncannily similar to the five stages of grief that follow bereavement or news of a terminal illness. These were identified by psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book On Death & Dying. First comes denial. Just as the newly-bereaved often attempt to carry on as if nothing had happened, groups whose massive hit is still fresh in the memory will often place it early in the set, as if it wasn’t the reason that people had bought their tickets in the first place. Unfortunate consequences sometimes ensue when this happens. In 1996, watching Weezer in the wake of their breakout hit Buddy Holly, I saw a Denver concert hall empty out within a minute of the song’s final note.

Once denial proves untenable, that’s when anger – phase two – kicks in. “Why me?” rages the afflicted party. After a year spent having to promote Creep in America, Radiohead were angry too – having privately taken to referring to their then-only hit as “Crap”. But, unless you then go on to do what Radiohead subsequently did – breaking the curse by turning their dilemma into a metaphor on My Iron Lung – your group is then fated to enter phase three.

Referred to by Kübler-Ross as the bargaining stage, this is the bit where the “victim” attempts to strike a deal, often with God, in the hope that they may live longer or that their grief might be made bearable. Bands, of course, have no-one but their audience to turn to for mercy. This explains why The Automatic – authors of 2006’s inescapably catchy Monster – have spent much of the interim dangling the carrot of a Monster-based encore on the end of a stick fashioned almost entirely of new songs.

Both in loss and in dealing with your albatross, the next phase to kick in is depression. It’s at this point that many bands decide to call it a day. Rather than have to sing Sit Down one more time, in 2001, Tim Booth disbanded James to devote his life to teaching a quasi-Shamanic “movement meditation practice” called 5rhythms. So why, when his reformed band play the Royal Albert Hall tonight, are they almost certain to play Sit Down and – furthermore – enjoy doing so?

That’s explainable with reference to phase five – finally accepting your lot. This acceptance is ultimately the reason that so many bands reform. When old-stagers like Chris Farlowe and Procol Harum’s Gary Brooker perform Out of Time and A Whiter Shade of Pale, and find the wherewithal to give those songs their all, they do so in the hard-won realisation that it’s better to be a one-hit wonder than a non-hit non-wonder.

Supergrass, of course, had lots of other hits – and, yes, if pushed, we probably [ital] could [ital] name a few. Are we to seriously believe that they’ll see out their days without playing any of them again? Of course, not. In years to come, the idea of revisiting their most famous albatross may not thrill them to their marrow. But, given time, it should, at the very least, make them, well… feel alright.

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