Gene - Olympian

by Rich Morris Rating:3 Release Date:2014-02-03

The mid-90s now seem almost as distant and eccentric to us the 70s (The majority of people didn’t have a mobile phone and had never even heard of the internet. If they wanted to call someone, they called their house and hoped they were in. If they wanted to know something, they went to the library. Just take a moment to drink in how weird that now seems.) The music of that decade, meanwhile, has undergone the fate of every other era’s, being easy to access and yet stripped of context, thanks to downloads and YouTube. On my iTunes, 50s rock ‘n’ roll slots easily next to 70s socially conscious soul, obscure Afrobeat gems, Italian new wave and modern electronica. And then there’s Britpop.

Britpop’s an odd one. Something about its thoroughly self-conscious classicism means that, unlike those myriad other genres, it just won’t mix well into the decade-spanning pop melting-pot. It stubbornly refuses to be an ingredient in my post-modern hipster emulsion.

With the benefit of hindsight, Gene were Britpop in excelsis, though at the time they seemed like terribly sensitive odd-boys-out, lacking the smarts of Blur, the pervy flash of either Pulp or Suede, or the sheer brute force and nuclear self-belief of Oasis. They weren’t achingly cool or louche like Elastica, nor merely utterly of-the-moment like (shudder) Sleeper or Menswear. If there was one Britpop act perfectly designed to soundtrack to humdrum minutiae of the suburbs, it was Gene.

Olympian, their debut, arrived at Britpop’s triumphalist peak in 1995, reaching number eight in the charts. Today, if a guitar band achieved such a placing with their debut album, you could bet your right bum-cheek the media would be awash with predictions that rock was back on top, while the NME would hail said band as nothing less than the second coming of Christ and Cobain rolled into one, dedicating entire issues to solidly sucking them off. In 1995, however, number eight was no big whoop and, when even this success proved fleeting, Gene’s footnote status was assured.

Coming to Olympian with fresh ears, what immediately strikes you is how mundane it is. Today, we’re used to even the most pedestrian of indie bands plundering the pioneering sounds of post-punk and early 80s synth-pop to tart up their ditties, but Britpop bands generally entertained no such affectations. Gene weren’t trying to make you dance, or feel cool, or sexy. Especially not sexy.

As evidenced fully on opening track ‘Haunted By You’, Gene in full swing were a perfect storm of mediocrity. The band seemed to take their cues from subpar Morrissey songs such as ‘We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful’: guitars chug in workmanlike style, drums plod solidly, the bass knows never to draw attention to itself by being inventive, or melodic, or (heaven forfend!) funky.

Singer Martin Rossiter was, in all ways, a bargain-bin Morrissey, hamming it up at every opportunity, seemingly believing himself charged with providing all the drama so thumpingly lacking in his band’s music. Unfortunately, Rossiter repeatedly proved himself to be possessed of the kind of cloying sentimentality and over-egged showiness which no one was ever likely to describe as ‘Wildean wit’, no matter how mannered he made his unengaging moo of a voice.

Lyrically, clangers drop thick and fast, while a damning lack of originality stinks out the room: “Nature’s hasty/ and lord knows so am I,” Rossiter simpers on ‘Truth, Rest Your Head’ – y’know, like Morrissey might. He then mentions spending six months in Wandsworth Prison, not at all recalling the kind of fetishisation of criminal life which litters umpteen Morrissey lyrics. The song then evolves into a riff-heavy declaration of frustrated love, in way that’s head-slappingly reminiscent of… Ah, fuck it.

Of course, Britpop was a music trend not known for its vivid originality, and you could argue that at least Gene were stealing from a decent reference point while Oasis were ripping off The Beatles and most bands were content to simply rip off Oasis. But to let Gene off the hook in this way, you have to ignore how boring and lazy most of their music really is.

Suede, never a band showered with original ideas, mixed The Smiths with glam rock and, at least for their first five or so singles, managed to create a sound which felt like a valid soundtrack to modern life at the same time as being full of kisses to the past. So how come Gene, following a not-dissimilar musical roadmap, can only manage the pub-rock trudge of ‘Left-Handed’ or the drive-time tedium of ‘London, Can You Wait?’ Answer: a lack of talent, so palpable from this distance.

At their best, Gene sound not like The Smiths at all, but a more rockist version of The Beautiful South, bereft of Paul Heaton’s snide political commentary or perverse observations on relationships. In place of this, all Rossiter has to offer is the overwrought sincerity of a young fool trying too hard to get his arch, artificial pose just right. Wilde surely would have appreciated the irony.

By far and away the album’s best moment is the penultimate title track, which comes wreathed in lovely tinkling piano and those ubiquitous 90s rock strings, delivering push-button grandeur which, for once, feels justified. It’s Gene’s big moment and, a little surprisingly given the rest of the album, they rise fully to the occasion. Rossiter makes a strength of his less-than-impressive vocals by playing the everyman rather than the knowing aesthete, while the band hold back the rock pounding until just the right moment, building to a satisfying coda.

If only they could have pulled this trick off every time, but Gene couldn’t. Any new ‘best of’ for this band could reasonably be called Diminishing Returns, a phrase which, to be fair, could be applied to the output of almost every Britpop act. I should also mention that this re-release comes with a shed-load of live tracks, radio sessions etc… And there we go, I have.

These days, popular opinion seems to have righted itself. Britpop is generally viewed with a mixture of bemusement and embarrassment. The disappointment of the New Labour years is linked in people’s minds with the crushing banality of Oasis’ later output; rightly, since the leaders of both groups cozied up so publically. Now, when we talk about 90s music, we’d rather focus on the otherworldliness, the cool and suss, the easy mixing of cultural styles that came out of Bristol while Britpop was waving a Union Flag and burping up a potent cocktail of caveman values, whiter-than-white reference points and cheap larger.

You can’t blame Gene for any of that, of course, but they were a symptom of it. A feeble echo of great, brave music. We’re better off just forgetting about such dross. 

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