For the first half of 1996 I was studying for my imminent A-Level exams (Biology, Chemistry and French in case you were wondering). When I say studying I use the term loosely. I didn’t really start any revision until maybe 3 weeks before my exams. My time was mainly spent hanging around with friends and trying to keep from my mind the looming reality of several things which were going to change life as I knew it.
Firstly, September ’96 was going to be the time that my friends and i would begin University and be scattered across the 4 corners of the U.K. This did not sit well with me. It wasn’t so much the prospect of starting University which bothered me, it was the idea of essentially starting again with my personal relationships. These friendships which i had built up over the past few years felt too valuable to me to be prepared to wipe the slate clean and hit reset. This was dramatic of course but it’s how I felt. The bottom line was, I didn’t want new mates. I had friends who knew me well. Friends who i didn’t have to explain myself to or put work in to find out more about, or worry about making a good first impression.
It felt like something was about to end which I suppose it was. I obviously shouldn’t have worried so much. The friends who meant the most to me I would make the effort to ensure that our term time locations had no effect on our friendship. As would they. We would visit each other and nothing changed. But also more than that, other than my best mate Stuart who I’d known since I was 11, it would be the people who I met after university who would turn out to be my all time friends.
Another curveball which I was thrown in early ’96, just at the time when application forms were being filled in to determine which universities I was hoping to receive course offers from, was the diagnosis of my mum with myeloma, a type of blood cancer. I was obviously terrified. I had no idea what this meant or what was going to happen to her or how soon. Suddenly leaving home and going to live somewhere miles away seemed absolutely out of the question.I had applied to York,Nottingham,Hull and Sheffield universities but i decided that if i got an offer from Hull, which was the closest, then that was the one I would accept. And I would live at home and commute every day. I didn’t want my mum to know the reason so I think I just made up something about not wanting to move away yet.
Anyway, thankfully it turned out that they had caught it in mum very early. She was only 40. They would just take her blood and test it every 3 months to keep a check on it. This turned into every 6 months and now 21 years later she has still never needed any treatment.
Music was my obvious outlet for dealing with all my building insecurities. Listening to, and attempting to play myself.
My guitar prowess was progressing very slowly. The first song I learnt to play all the way through was Green Day’s “Basket Case” closely followed by “Seether” by Veruca Salt. This song had a guitar solo. I had no idea where to begin with lead guitar so i learned it by ear, putting my fingers in the easiest places for my unschooled hands to make a rough approximation of the sound. I was still just one kid playing alone in his bedroom however. I started to experiment with singing and playing chords at the same time, recording myself with a basic tape recorder and playing it back to see how it actually sounded when I wasn’t concentrating on playing it. It was hardly jaw dropping but it roughly sounded like the songs i was trying to play.
Then in April 1996 I went to watch 3 of my friends’ bands play at a pub in my hometown. This was the turning point in me knowing that despite my natural introversion and timid nature, I had to start a band. The Cosmos, Penguin and The James Benedict Arnold Revival were the bands playing that night. They all played a mixture of covers and their own songs as every teenage band does.The fact that they were able to write their own songs blew my mind and gave me a huge amount of admiration for them, particularly The J.B.A Revival who had the whole deal. They played in suits, they swapped instruments, they had a masked dancer on each side of the stage, (named Swifty Ranger and Creation B). Their songs had names like “Get in that Bronco O.J and drive”, “Obi-Wan” and “I Like Dinosaurs” They were brilliant. My friend Dan played guitar for them and wrote the music. Dan whose sister’s music collection we had pillaged for our first grunge explorations.
At the end of final band The Cosmos’s set they played a cover of arguably Nirvana’s best song “Aneurysm” and the J.B.A.R drummer invaded the stage at the end for the “she keeps it pumping straight to my heart bit” and as they rolled around on the stage I realised I wanted a piece of that action.
My best mate Stuart had made tentative steps into learning the drums over the previous few months, receiving pointers from our friend Paul who played in the Cosmos. We decided we would start trying to play covers together. He set his drums up (a borrowed kit from Paul) in his girlfriend’s kitchen extension and I went down there with my little practice amp. We knew we needed some bass so we asked our friend Dave to do it. He bought the cheapest bass he could find and we were away.
I still have a cassette of us trying to play Foo Fighters, Therapy? and Compulsion songs under the ridiculous name of Toilet Duck. It sounds like i had not learnt how to properly tune a guitar yet.
Sadly Toilet Duck would never leave the practice space to play an actual gig before everyone left home for University but it gave me my first experience of playing with other people and the concept of trying to play in time.
So in September everyone scattered for University but before that there would be one final blowout for us college friends. Reading Festival 1996, my first ever music festival. I am aware I have not even addressed this year’s album yet but a lot of stuff went on this year which i feel is important to get down!
Reading ’96 started the annual tradition of Reading or Leeds Festival attendance which finally was ended by me in 2013 when my daughter was born. The line up in 1996 was a mixture of post grunge punk rock, the tail end of britpop, acceptable dance for the indie crowd and a couple of curveballs (Ice T). Rage Against The Machine, Rocket from The Crypt, Garbage, Sonic Youth, The Offspring and Ash were my main draws, but most of all I was excited about seeing Weezer.
Weezer’s first album had been the joint soundtrack to my 1995 along with Rocket from the Crypt. It’s an “alternative” rock classic. No matter what they have become nowadays the Weezer of 1994-1996 song catalogue is solid. I knew there was a new album coming out in September and was excited to hear some of the songs from it played at Reading.
They played 5 songs from Pinkerton which made it obvious they had not lost any of their mojo for songwriting. “Why Bother?” was my favourite new one they played that day but there weren’t any I didn’t like. We were all in agreement that the new album was definitely going to be one to pick up.
In September I started University in Hull and commuted each day from home as i mentioned earlier. I would bike each morning to my Gran’s house about 2 miles away and then leave my bike and walk to the bus stop to get the coach to Hull Bus Station. Once there i would have to take another bus from the city centre to the university. Then repeat the whole process in reverse at the end of the day. It was a massive ballache. On top of that I was still working at Mcdonalds on Fridays and Saturdays so on Friday evenings I would do this ridiculous journey back home and then have to be at Mcdonald’s from 7pm until 12.30 am. That didn’t last long. 2 months later I had bailed on the Mcjob so at least my weekends were my own.
I picked up “Pinkerton” from the now defunct record store chain Andy’s records in Hull City centre one day when i was early for the bus. I walked in for a browse and heard “Why Bother?” playing on the stereo. Annoyingly I had to wait until I got back 2 hours later to play it. Although it is now considered a classic, the album got a critical kicking on it’s release and i just don’t know why. It’s not like it’s even that different to the debut album. I definitely didn’t find it a massive departure in sound and liked it straight away.
It has a definite rawer sound then the Blue Album but the songs are still melodic and hooky despite being a bit darker lyrically. I think it benefits from the lyrics being from a more personal place even though Rivers was embarrassed by them after the panning the album took. It must have been that which resulted in Weezer becoming a much more superficial band over the course of the next few albums with the lyrics taking a massive backseat to just simple catchy power chords. I fluctuate between which is my favourite Weezer album depending on the mood i’m in but today I’m definitely swaying towards “Pinkerton”. It’s got more dynamics, it’s more passionate and honest and it’s still stacked to the rafters with tune after tune.
My favourite song is “Across The Sea”, Rivers’ ode to an 18 year old Japanese fan who wrote to him. It’s got a few painfully honest almost cringey lines that Rivers would regret very soon after, comparing them to spilling your guts while drunk and feeling good but then waking up the next day and thinking “What have I done? I’ve made a total fool of myself”. Taken completely on a musical level it’s a brilliantly written song. A memorable melody, peaks and troughs dynamically, a great solo and a good intro and outro. The lyrics just make Rivers seem like a real person instead of the cartoon character he would become. I felt like I could relate to his nerdy angst, in particular when it came to relationships. All my friends seemed to be getting girlfriends whereas i still felt pretty invisible and like a sidekick to the more vocal characters in my crowd.
So there we have 1996. It was busy year. Lots of things changed. Some things stayed the same. But I still didn’t play in a band.