Britpop Piano Man: Adam Unknown Pays Homage to Five Decades of U.K. Music
At Royal Clayton's, a British pub on the bottom level of the Toy Factory Lofts, Adam Unknown leans into a microphone as he tickles piano keys. At times, it seems as though the clang of silverware against glass wants to compete with the performer's subtle croon, but the background noise never quite succeeds in distracting from the song. The man behind the piano, who sits with his back turned towards an oil painting of Henry VIII, is not playing Billy Joel or Journey or anything else that you would expect to hear in this situation. Instead, he's playing The Smiths, and it's not "Bigmouth Strikes Again" or "How Soon Is Now?" or any of the other hits that long ago you had become accustomed to hearing almost hourly on KROQ. It's "Reel Around the Fountain," the first track on the first album, the song that ultimately poised the Manchester foursome as possibly the most depressing, and most amazing, band you had ever heard.
Unknown, one half of the local synthpop duo Cute Phase, has been "tinkering" with the piano since he was a child, but as he is primarily a guitarist and drummer, it wasn't until last summer that he began to study the instrument seriously. He immediately conceived of a night called Adam Unknown and His Guilty Pleasures as a way to play the songs he loved as a child but may not admit to owning today, things like "Silly Love Songs" and "In the Air Tonight." But as he delved further into research and practice, the project expanded into a review of U.K. pop music ranging from the Beatles to current artists like IAMX.
"I'm trying to choose obscure songs that are a little more challenging for me," he explains simply of the set list.
What makes Unknown's standing Wednesday gig most interesting is the influence of '80s and '90s bands on his set. Last night, we heard Soft Cell's bitter breakup number "Say Hello, Wave Goodbye," Radiohead's hit "Fake Plastic Trees" and "Screen Kiss," a Thomas Dolby piece about British ex-pats in L.A. Situated within his repertoire of nearly 100 songs are selections from Catherine Wheel, Swervedriver, Blur and many others. Adam Unknown and His Guilty Pleasures is Britpop for grown-ups.
In the U.K., Britpop referred to a specific, fleeting moment maybe fifteen years ago when Blur and Oasis were hurling insults at each other in print and Suede's lanky frontman Brett Anderson was the prince of Select Magazine pull-out posters. In its U.S. translation, though, Britpop came to mean more than that. It became a bona fide subculture based on certain conventions that were rarely heard in American music-- lyrics written in the style of kitchen-sink dramas that made copious use of slang foreign to us and songs built around go-go beats or the sound of a Rickenbacker guitar-- regardless of the year it was released or whether or not the band was actually British. It developed its own dress code involving miniskirts and chunky heels for the girls, suits for the guys and angular haircuts for all and came to include mod-related hobbies like scooter-riding and record collecting. While the L.A. scene survived the inevitable backlash of the British press, it has since morphed into the network of indie dance clubs that exist today, its influence still felt in DJ sets across the eastern end of the city and in the work of local bands like The Tender Box and The Pacific.
Below is a small sample of Britpop tunes you should know. Feel free to list your favorites in the comment section.
Pulp "Sorted for E's and Wizz"
Despite forming in the midst of the same Sheffield music scene that spawned the Human League, Cabaret Voltaire and ABC, Pulp didn't come to prominence until the mid-1990s peak of Britpop. The band's 1995 album Different Class is a classic of the genre, its slice-of-life lyrics managing to capture the essence of youth culture on both sides of the pond, from Jarvis Cocker's scathing commentary on art school slumming in "Common People" to this gem. "Sorted for E's and Wizz" takes place at a Hampshire rave, but despite the foreign slang, the scene he sets ("I lost my friends, I dance alone/It's 6 o'clock, I want to go home") could just have easily taken place in the Southern California desert.
Saint Etienne "You're in a Bad Way"
Saint Etienne was probably the closest that the American Britpop crowd would ever get to house music. The group, perhaps still best known for its cover of Neil Young's "Only Love Can Break Your Heart," came out of the U.K. dance scene and their early-career track "Cool Kids of Death" is still a favorite amongst house DJs. What made Saint Etienne appealing to the Britpop crowd was a '60s-a-go-go sensibility that made even their four-on-the-floor tracks sound like they could be played in the party scene of a Peter Sellers movie. "You're in a Bad Way" comes from the band's 1993 release, So Tough.
The Housemartins "Happy Hour"
The Housemartins broke up in 1988, several years before the onset of Britpop, but their breakthrough single "Happy Hour" fueled many a night of Newcastle drinking inside L.A.'s clubs. Consider it the precursor to "Tubthumping," a drinking song with a misleadingly perky beat and lyrics that point to the sadness of the nine-to-five world. After the band's split, Paul Heaton and Dave Hemingway went on to form The Beautiful South. Bassist Norman Cook became Fatboy Slim.
The Divine Comedy "Becoming More Like Alfie"
Neil Hannon, the only constant in the long-running group The Divine Comedy, excels at compacting witty tales into a three-and-a-half minute pop song. He accomplishes this with a baroque pop sensibility similar to bands like The Magnetic Fields. On this single from the band's 1996 breakthrough album, Hannon references Michael Caine's infamous character to illustrate a man's transformation from ordinary guy to lothario.
Elastica "Mad Dog"
If you could pinpoint the moment when Britpop evolved into the indie dance scene, it might be with this single from Elastica's second record, The Menace. Released in 2000, five years after the band's debut, The Menace was sorely overlooked, but the songs herein should stand alongside Le Tigre's self-titled debut and The Faint's Blank-Wave Arcade as ushering in the synthpunk sound that has helped identify this decade. The video for "Mad Dog" was directed by the future MIA, Maya Arulpragasam.