Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Anyone Can Play Guitar and the best of the Oxford music scene

Joe writes: Anyone Can Play Guitar, a film by Jon Spira, is possibly the definitive document of a local music scene, with all its passion, small-mindedness, resentment, jealousy, good fortune, ill fortune, stupidity... and some truly great music.

Ed O'Brien and Colin Greenwood from Radiohead, one of the biggest and best bands in the world, appear alongside people who are unknown in the wider world, but were legends in a world of their own creation - the Oxford music scene. The film's thesis is that Radiohead and the rest might not have happened without the scene from which they came; Ed and Colin seem to agree with this thesis.

The film features a series of reverential anecdotes about Mac, one-time booker at key Oxford venue the Jericho Tavern, but he refused to be interviewed, which makes him the star of the piece by giving him an air of mystique and leaves the viewer with the lurking suspicion that he has died (the truth is here).

The minute bands become successful - as Ride, Radiohead and Supergrass all did - they disappear from the film's narrative and we return to the stories of those left behind, who provide several moments of wince-inducing pathos. The Unbelievable Truth were hamstrung by their singer Andy Yorke's fundamental dislike of being in a band, and were almost inevitably overshadowed by his brother Thom (on the other hand, they released an album on a major label; would they even have had their shot without the connection to Thom?). The iconic Zodiac venue eventually sold out, literally, and became a Carling Academy. The town's great white hopes Dustball came within a whisker of signing a big record deal but instead stayed with local label Shifty Disco and were never heard of outside Oxford (the same fate might have awaited them on a major label, but at least they'd have had an advance to show for it).

Then there were The Candyskins, who signed to Geffen Records at the start of the nineties. When they began their first US tour, British bands EMF and Jesus Jones were topping the US charts and the climate seemed great for them. By the time the tour finished, their Geffen labelmates Nirvana had released an album called Nevermind, and suddenly no-one was interested in British indie pop bands.

They then signed to UK label Ultimate Records, just before Ultimate's major label funding came to an end. Nonetheless, Ultimate released several Candyskins singles, one of which, Monday Morning, crept into the UK top 40 after a rare moment of good fortune - a record audience saw them on TFI Friday because its presenter Chris Evans had just been fired from Radio 1.

Geffen capitalised on this mini-hit by putting out their previously unreleased second album and marketing it as the new Candyskins album, the week before their actual new album came out (the film offers no hint that The Candyskins' manager and lawyer might have been complicit in this series of failures and ill fortune).

Car Crash was their glorious ballad and live favourite; I was one of the people who had been lobbying for Ultimate to release it as a single. Then Princess Diana died in a car crash, and with her died all hope of getting media exposure for a song called Car Crash. What the film doesn't say is that the follow-up to Monday Morning was the not-quite-good-enough Hang Myself On You. This was released before Diana had died, and it charted at 65. So there was a window of opportunity in which to release Car Crash, and it was missed. This is a lesson that has always stuck with me - if you have one great, standout, breakthrough song, release it as quickly as possible, because you never know how circumstances may conspire to prevent it being successful later.

The Candyskins - Car Crash:

Next, The Candyskins signed to Walter Yetnikoff's new label, only for Walter to shut it down when he contracted cancer, at which point The Candyskins gave up.

Gaz Coombes from Supergrass appears in the film and displays the star quality that Mark and Nick Cope from The Candyskins sadly lack, but sometimes artists develop charisma as a by-product of experiencing success, and success never truly came for The Candyskins.

Supergrass - Alright:

Could Radiohead have ended up in the same boat as The Candyskins? They were on the verge of being dropped by Parlophone when Creep became a surprise hit in Israel, then San Francisco, then across the USA, until finally it was re-released in the UK, becoming their first top ten hit. But still they were seen as grunge copyist hacks in some quarters (not mine - my brother bought Creep on cassette single first time around, and we went to see them supporting James; I still have the Pop Is Dead t-shirt I bought on that tour). They weren't truly established until their outstanding second album The Bends.

Radiohead - High and Dry on Later with Jools Holland:

Incidentally, the track that opens the film is one of the best pieces of music in it, the 1977 hit Romeo by Mr Big, which pre-dates the era when Oxford had a "scene":

Finally, Dustball's best song was It's Not My Day, a sort of anthem for all those Oxford bands who didn't make it:

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