Supergrass – The Strange Ones: 1994-2008

Bells-and-whistles boxset polishes overlooked treasures from the Oxford group

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In late 1994, soon after signing to Parlophone, Supergrass attended an EMI event in Brighton. At the corporate soirée, fellow Oxford boys Radiohead introduced the group to Cliff Richard, telling the former Mr Webb that the young group had a single out and that the singer was only 18; Cliff explained that he’d released his first single when he was aged just 17. In Melody Maker a year later, Gaz Coombes recalled his response to the soon-to-be-Sir: “Yeah, but I bet it wasn’t about snorting coke.”

Apocryphal or not, the story tells us a lot about Supergrass: that they had youth on their side, copious charm and cutting wit, and everything in place to enable them to be a genuine sensation. They were that too, for a time, when debut album I Should Coco hit No 1 in summer 1995, their “Alright”/“Time” single reached No 2 and Steven Spielberg wanted to turn them into the next Monkees.

Yet with fame, as it goes, what you get is no tomorrow, and so Supergrass have been saddled with their youth, their wit, their cheeky Britpop charms ever since – at least in the eyes of the wider public. This new voluminous boxset, charting their career from 1994 to their last new music in 2008, provides an excellent way for the band to set the story straight, if it’s needed; to shine a light on their impressive evolution, and the sheer variety of musical moods and styles they mastered over their 14 years as a functioning band. Inside the box are all six of their studio albums on picture-disc vinyl and CD, four CDs of unheard live material and a further three CDs of B-sides, rarities, unearthed demos and ‘oddities’ (also included: a book, posters, badges and a seven-inch of new remixes of “Caught By The Fuzz” and “Richard III”).

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Of course, even on their debut album, Supergrass were doing things differently to many of their peers in the mid-’90s. I Should Coco remains a brave and diverse album, beginning with a clutch of raging post-punk hurricanes, such as “I’d Like To Know” and “Mansize Rooster”, and gradually transitioning into a more contemplative second half, including the Kevin Ayers-like drift of the six-minute “Sofa (Of My Lethargy)”. Even louder numbers such as “Lose It” 
have hidden depths, its guitar solo ending in a bar of clattering drums and feedback before its fantastic chorus seems to meld a sour jazz harmony into its spiky rush; “Caught By The Fuzz”, too, for all its velocity, is built around a fairly sophisticated chord sequence involving a prominent major-seventh.

1997’s In It For The Money is traditionally, and deservedly, a fan and band favourite, with the group’s outlook darkening on “Richard III”, the bizarrely structured title track and hallucinatory ballad “It’s Not Me”. The band were experimenting more too, with “Cheapskate” influenced by funk, “Hollow Little Reign” a jazzy piano ballad and the closing “Sometimes I Make You Sad” ending the record on a trippy note, its mouth percussion, see-sawing fairground organ and sped-up guitar solo evoking Pepper-era Beatles.

Their 1999 self-titled LP widened the gap between the two poles, with “Pumping On Your Stereo” and “Mary” sniggering pop and the likes of “Faraway”, “Mama & Papa” and “Moving” more measured and mature; the latter, experimental in form and rhythm, has even become one of their best-loved songs, and demonstrated a growing influence in their music: David Bowie. The Dame’s impact was even more potent on 2002’s underrated Life On Other Planets, which embraced glam on the bovver-booted Bolan boogie of “Za”, “Grace” and “See The Light”. Meanwhile, “Never Done Nothing Like That Before” and “Rush Hour Soul” were more ferocious than anything since I Should Coco, and the closing brace of “Prophet 15” and “Run” were swathed in drifts of electronics, Mellotron and lush Beach Boys harmonies.

Supergrass switched gear on the hushed, folky Road To Rouen (2005) and then again for 2008’s Diamond Hoo Ha, a raucous set faintly smelling of Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy. There are some great songs on these LPs, especially the orchestral frenzy of “Roxy” on Road… and the enigmatic, disco-inflected “Butterfly” on its follow-up, but slipping chart positions and intra-band personal issues soon did for the band until their current 
live-only reunion in 2019.

Of course, the real incentives for splashing out on The Strange Ones lie in the extra tracks; there are stunning B-sides that rank among the group’s most magical songs, such as “Wait For The Sun”, “Odd?” and “We Still Need More (Than Anyone Can Give)”, and illuminating rarities: wild full-band demos, a John Peel piss-take, assorted studio outtakes, aborted singles, a cover of The Police’s “Next To You” and experiments deemed unsuitable for their albums. You can even hear Gaz Coombes and bassist/vocalist Mick Quinn deconstructing “Sun Hits The Sky” during a Belgian radio session. Perhaps the most important track is a monitor mix of “Out Of The Blue”, which was planned as a single but ultimately never released; it’s possible to imagine its swinging bounce proving as popular as “Alright”.

The clear highlights of the box, however, are on the four CDs of unreleased live material, where Supergrass are revealed to be some hyper mix of The Who, The Jam and Blue Cheer – at times, such as their 1996 gig at Dublin’s RDS Arena, they’re perhaps better than any of those. That Blur support slot is a manic set, with the quartet powering through 14 songs in 50 minutes. Drummer Danny Goffey lifts the tempos like a more driving Keith Moon, spraying out ridiculous fills every few bars, Mick Quinn fiddles like Paul McCartney and Jean-Jacques Burnel rolled into one, while keyboardist Rob Coombes keeps the whole glorious onslaught tethered to Earth; Gaz Coombes’ guitar breaks on “Lenny” or “I’d Like To Know” are truly Hendrix-esque, permanently on that thrilling edge of feedback. They bring out a horn section to augment “Alright” and a closing “Going Out”, but they barely register beneath the sea of noise the quartet produce. Their sets at 1997’s Glastonbury, 1998’s Reading and 2000’s T In The Park are nearly as unhinged and almost as exciting.

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The live discs showcase the ’Grass’s other side too, with a bunch of stripped-down acoustic performances from the Road To Rouen era. 
“Roxy” at Ronnie Scott’s, just Mellotron flutes, Rhodes piano and vintage rhythm box, is about as far from “Mansize Rooster” as one could get, and “Tales Of Endurance (Parts 4, 5 & 6)”, from the same show, suggests a world where Pink Floyd recruited Ennio Morricone for “Atom Heart Mother” instead of Ron Geesin.

Whether the group can recapture their two live extremes at their 2020 shows remains to be seen, but their chops, charm and sense of experimentation are still intact, and still much underrated, so it’s a good bet. While casual listeners might continue to associate Supergrass with Chopper bikes, adolescent abandon and teeth “nice and clean”, this fantastic boxset instead reveals the full story of one of the best British bands of the last 30 years. Strange in their worlds, for sure, but much more than just alright.

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