Britpop. At the time it felt pretty naff – and in retrospect looks even sillier – but the zeitgeist had spoken nonetheless. Indie was where it was at; girls and boys with guitars were dusting off their parents’ Kinks records, watching The Italian Job, channelling the spirit of Dick Van Dyke, then arriving on the front page of the NME in time for their début album to fly from supermarket shelves. Acts that had no business affecting a rum gait or mockney swagger suddenly did so, canning any jangly guitars and dreamy, obtuse vocals for cheeky lyrics and a chorus that drunks could sing along to (I’m looking at you, Lush. And Ride, And the Boo Radleys). The consensus was that Champagne Supernova was profound, and everyone was dressing like they were in Quadrophenia or A Clockwork Orange. Everyone was copping off with people from St Martin’s College, hiring brass quartets to pep up that difficult second album, bouncing around Camden Town on Union Jack-themed space-hoppers, holding up the bar in the Good Mixer with Graham Coxon and half of Menswear, or en route to an ironic meeting of the Village Green Preservation Society.
Which is probably an exaggeration – but not by much. Interesting bands were still doing some incredibly interesting things, but very much away from the limelight.
Sleeper were not one of those interesting bands – in fact, they couldn’t have been more Britpop if they’d spent every Wednesday afternoon ferrying Phil Daniels and Patsy Kensit around Belsize Park in a bunting-festooned wheelbarrow. Time has not been particularly kind to Sleeper’s output; from this distance their records sound spectacularly flat and generic. Theirs was a formula that tasted a degree of success, but if you subtract vocalist Louise Wener from the equation – “opinionated” and “ballsy” (apparently), unafraid to feed the music press with “controversial” copy whilst singing about relationships in a manner primed to turn the head of a certain demographic – I doubt they’d have sold a tenth of the records they actually did.
(Witness for the Prosecution: Sleeper – “What Do I Do Now?”)
Sleeper disappeared from the music scene after a few albums… and that should have been the end of the story, except for the arrival of Elvis. Costello – very much my preferred Elvis. He recorded a beautiful song for a fairly obscure compilation album in 1997, a track entitled “What Do I Do Now?” – and lo and behold if it wasn’t a cover version of a Sleeper song. This is a great example of how naff Britpop really was, for stripped of its catchy, up-tempo shallowness the song is transformed into something far darker, loaded with emotion and allocated a far wider spectrum of subtlety – evidence that it isn’t the songwriting that makes the original so anaemic, but rather the Britpop condiments smeared all over both production and performance.
(Witness for the Defence: Elvis Costello – “What Do I Do Now?”)
All of which helps to explain why Elvis Costello is so critically acclaimed. The Sleeper revival, however, is yet to be scheduled.