If I Was Sixteen
When I was nineteen I used to catch the train from Glasgow Central to Troon pretty much every day. Troon is a strange place but I'm not going to dwell on that, nor on the fact that I no longer know anyone that I grew up with, and I'm not going to tell you how happy and sad that makes me in somewhat unequal measures. But I am going to tell you that one night when I was nineteen and getting on my train I bumped into someone that I used to share classes with in school. We sat together in Math and drew big PiL logos on our books, and when we were really young we would go to each other's birthday parties and eat ice cream.
So anyway, this day on the train, I was holding a record bag, and it held a bunch of 7" singles, and I think they were things like Jesse Garon And The Desperadoes and maybe McCarthy or Wolfhounds or something, and he was telling me he was listening to lots of Van Morrison, and how did I know about these funny obscure bands anyway? And I thought about that and you know what? I couldn't really explain it. I kind of muttered something about fanzines and writing to people but not listening to Peel, which probably helped most people, but not me and╔
It's something like a disease, an obsession, an addiction, this Pop thing. I'm sure you know what I mean; the desperate need to find something new (though not necessarily New) every so often, to stop yourself and your life from getting stale and mired in nostalgia. Or maybe not so much trying to avoid the scent of nostalgia, but certainly not just trying to relive old moments through old sounds and sights, but perhaps trying to recapture, or capture anew the feelings of excitement and desperate euphoria that Pop has come to mean, certainly for me.
So it was that when I was feeling a little low, with the new Belle & Sebastian record leaving me cold, thinking that although Free Jazz is fine (which of course is unfair, because a great deal of Free Jazz is actually amazingly good╔) I would really rather like some good old fashioned Pop music to lift me to the heavens, well, a chance conversation in a New York noodle house led me to Stars who, this week at the very least, have been my Pop Saviours.
Listen to Stars' MP3:
I kind of don't really know what to say about Stars, partly because no-one really seems to know very much, or if they do they aren't telling. Starry Sarah says she got to write their biography and that she made it all up, which of course if great Popism and has to be applauded. There are rumours of them being child actors and baseball stars, but grown up now of course, so they are ex-child stars, but still Stars. Naturally. Some words that are probably true are that essentially Stars are a duo with a bunch of folks who come and play with them when the need arises, and that duo have been living out of Brooklyn, which according to Felony Bob means they aren't American, although in this instance Felony Bob would be right because in fact the Stars come originally from Canada.
I think it's fair to say that Canadian Pop is pretty rare╔ who can we list? We can list BAD rock artists, like Bryan Adams and Rush, but then wasn't Leonard Cohen Canadian? He was the king of miserable folk rock way back in the mists of time, or so I keep hearing. I have to say I never really got Leonard Cohen, and the only song of his I really like is 'So Long Marianne' which sounds best covered by Straitjacket Fits, who were a bunch of mad psychedelic New Zealand kids. And of course Joni Mitchell was Canadian. Everyone knows HER, especially for the 'Big Yellow Taxi' song, which Janet Jackson sampled ('they've paved paradise, put up a parking lot'╔ you know the one) and she can be horribly grating but she has one record called Blue and it is amazing and has some of my very favourite lines EVER that go 'all romantics meet the same fate someday; cynical and drunk and boring someone in some dark cafÄ.' Which is just so╔ SO. And I keep repeating that fact every so often because I think it's important.
Stars have great lines too. 'Going Going Gone' is an empty ache of a song and goes 'killing time with gin and lime, each second numbs the pain, love's just another rum╔' Which sounds much better in the flesh as it were. I promise. And they do the most perfect cover version of the Smiths' 'This Charming Man', which is a song I grew up and into unrequited teenage affairs of the heart to, and which I dearly love, and which Stars make all the greater for the new century and if I was 16 now I'd be lounging madly in love with Stars and caring not one jot that it's a cover version. I'd also not be driven to suggesting that it makes Stars seem like the result of a clandestine union of St Etienne and New Order.
'Counting Stars On The Ceiling' is all about falling in love with the feeling of falling in love, which is to say it understands the very essence of the Pop Moment, and besides has some terrific beats driving it along, which you could also say for 'When' which in a fairer world would be a massive POP HIT. I can just see them on TOTP doing some daft dance routine. Stars are the Steps of indiepop╔ ahem. There's a great sample in the middle that sounds like Andie from Dawsons Creek saying 'I've got a great new boyfriend. He's fictional, but you can't have everything.'
Some people of course would argue the toss about Stars being the Steps of indiepop and would rather give the title to the much lauded Baxendale, and I think that's just fine. My opinions on Baxendale are still in flux; they are the band that I desperately want to love but can't quite manage, and I think it's solely a question of age and my lack of ability to suspend belief. It's like I was saying if I was 16 again I'd love Stars doing 'This Charming Man' and I wouldn't care about The Smiths much, well Baxendale are like that in as much as if I were 16 I wouldn't hear the amalgam of Pet Shop Boys, Bis, Pulp and generic Hi-NRG disco that makes up the Baxendale sound, instead I would be hearing only great unadulterated Pop which would make the whole world fine and dandy. If I was 16 I also wouldn't be bothering about the fact that their really rather wonderful anthemic 'Music For Girls' should really be titled 'Music for a certain type of Girl, and Boy come to think of it╔ so shouldn't we just say 'Music For A Certain Type Of Person'? And actually I don't think that now for more than a few minutes because it's just Baxendale showing an implicit understanding for the need of Pop to make gross generalisations and that in Pop, the snappy slogan is not an optional extra. Manic Street Preachers used to understand this a long time ago, and like them, Baxendale gather as much ridicule from some quarters. I have little doubt too that the Bax will be just as huge, although clearly not as desolate and dull. And there's something about a line that goes 'keep your Bittersweet Symphonies, I'll break your legs if you stop me dancing' that you just have to applaud, whatever your age.
I suspect though too that if I were 16 now I'd still be a little reticent to embrace the Bax (as it seems the youngsters refer to them╔ possibly. It's always possible that it's just an amusing ruse to fool the oldsters into looking like idiots, in which case I plead guilty as charged) simply because I'd find their resolutely UPbeat sound too much to take in one sitting, as in album or live shows. If they played for only fifteen minutes I'd be much more willing to embrace their Pop vision, and if they insisted on releasing only singles, ditto, and although I've not heard the album yet, I have my doubts about its cohesion. Which I can't really believe I'm saying because as those youngsters would probably (rightly) counter; who needs cohesion when you've got sexy Pop? And I'm probably talking complete rubbish because if I was 16 again I'd be stuck in my bedroom seeking out something a whole lot more desolate and world weary. Because I was, and I am.
I love and loathe Baxendale because they embody everything that I am not, or was not, and never will be, but would secretly love to be. Sometimes. You know: popular and sexy and full of life and energy and with gaggles of girls/boys screaming in front of me. And pushing Barbie dolls in my face. And I think, oh really, wouldn't that just be so fine? But end up knowing I'll only ever be ending up sitting in the corner reading some phony esoteric novel, listening to Free Jazz, scowling at the world and being accused of being contrary. And rightly so, probably.
© Alistair Fitchett 2000
Stars debut EP 'A Lot Of Little Lies For The Sake Of One Big Truth' is released on Le Grand Magistery.