Although the press has often lumped them together with other so-called Britpop groups of the mid-1990s, Supergrass forged their own identity as they vaulted to the top of the British charts. The group hasn’t yet achieved the same popularity in the United States as their contemporaries and countrymen Oasis, Blur, and Radiohead, but they have become superstars at home, and American reviewers often hold them in higher regard than their British peers. Starting from a base of youthful exuberance influenced by a mix of British classic rock, new wave, and post-punk sounds, Supergrass have matured with each album while maintaining their energy and sense of humor.
Supergrass formed in Oxford, England, in 1993. Guitarist and vocalist Gary Coombes and drummer Danny Goffey had played together in a band called the Jennifers, which broke up after releasing one single. Joining up with bass player Mickey Quirin, they began rehearsing at his home because he was the only one of the trio who no longer lived with his parents. The night before their first performance together, they realized they didn’t have any original material and quickly wrote five songs.
This impromptu approach showed in the performance of their first single, which snuck onto the charts without much planning by the band. Originally, only 250 copies of “Caught by the Fuzz” were released on a small local label in 1994. The song then found its way onto an anthology of music by new bands. Later that year, Supergrass signed with the major British label Parlo-phone, and the single, now on their new label, made its way onto the charts. Though it peaked at just number 42, fans voting for the annual Festive 50 compiled by influential disc jockey John Peel made it the number five single of the year.
After Supergrass’ first single slowly grew in popularity, subsequent releases “Mansize Rooster” and “Lenny” also made the charts. Still, Supergrass had not yet caused a sensation. This may have been due to the fact that their label didn’t push the young band; two members were in fact still in their teens. Parlophone executive Tony Wadsworth told Dominic Pride of Billboard: “[W]e wanted to get it right. We spent time in the studio, allowing them to write songs and to keep the spotlight off them as long as possible.” But the spotlight shined brightly on them with the release of the single “Alright” in 1995. Supported by a video reminiscent of the rock and roll clowning of the Monkees’ television show from the 1960s, including a scene with the band riding down the street in a bed, “Alright” quickly shot up the charts in the United Kingdom.
The British audience was ready for a Supergrass album. I Should Coco, containing all their hit singles so
For the Record…
Members includeGary Coombes (born 1976), vocals, guitar; Danny Gofffey (born c. 1975), drums; Mickey Quinn (born c. 1970), bass.
Group formed in Oxford, England, 1993; first single, “Caught by the Fuzz,” released, 1994; “Alright” reached number one on the British charts, released first album, I Should Coco, 1995; released In It for the Money, 1997; released Supergrass, 1999.
far, debuted in the top ten in 1995. The group’s youthful energy and humor had struck a chord. With lyrics like “We are young/We run green… see our friends/See the sights/Feel alright” from “Alright,” the group developed a reputation as a feel-good band. Still, their skill at making use of their diverse songwriting sources marked Supergrass as talented as well as fun-loving. In the All Music Guide to Rock, reviewer Stephen Thomas Erlewine wrote, “I Should Coco is the sound of adolescence, but performed with a surprising musical versatility that makes the record’s exuberant energy all the more infectious.”
Even though the group received extensive praise, Supergrass faced the danger of being typecast. Because they were young and made peppy music, some called them a bubblegum band and questioned whether they would last. In the States, though, they had a different image to deal with as they were often grouped with other English rock bands as a Britpop act by critics. Supergrass didn’t agree with either characterization, and in fact turned down an opportunity to cash in on their fun-loving image. Having seen some of their videos, famed movie producer and director Steven Spielberg offered to develop a show around them. Although they left that door open, Supergrass chose to concentrate on their music instead.
The mid-1990s saw much talk about Britpop in the rock press, as new bands such as Blur and Oasis, who originally appealed to indie rock fans, broke out to a wider audience in America. Even before I Should Coco came out in the United States, Supergrass had to answer questions about Brit pop a label which Quinn tried to dismiss in an interview with Pride: “Now we’re supposed to be ‘Brit pop.’ We don’t really feel an affinity to that scene at all. It’s just the invention of the press; they have to have something to write about.” Being put in that category didn’t help the group build a large American audience even though “Alright” appeared on the soundtrack for the movie Clueless.
The band expressed their feelings about the hits and hype in the ironic title of their second album, In It for the Money, which they released in 1997. The title also responded to criticism that their first album had received. Quinn told Clare Kleinedler of the web magazine Addicted to Noise, “[P]eople were calling it bubblegum music. So we thought we hadn’t done ourselves any justice. But, after awhile, we decided not to worry about how this record was going to be received….” They need not have worried, because the album achieved commercial success in England and critical success on both sides of the Atlantic.
Many reviewers thought that In It for the Money had a more mature sound. For most of the songs, Supergrass slowed the tempo from the punkish speed of the first album. Besides their songwriting, Coombes’ vocal techniques and the group’s instrumental skills showed growth. Erlewine wrote that the album had “joyful exuberance with subtle songs and remarkably accomplished musicianship,” while Caitlin Moran of the London Times called it “a gem … an old friend on your shelves, pulled out for sunny mornings and parties alike, and never swapped, sold, or allowed to get dusty for too long.” Along with garnering praise from the press, the album did well commercially too, selling even more copies in the United Kingdom than their first outing.
After two hit albums, anticipating Supergrass’ next one became an event in England. In April of 1999, New Musical Express reported that the newest single would be out a month from then and the album would come out in September, still five months away. While their fans eagerly awaited the new releases, Supergrass struggled with a title for the album. They finally settled on Supergrass. While they may have had trouble finding inspiration for the album’s name, they found plenty for the music. Reviewers didn’t seem to buy the stories about the band’s off-the-cuff approach to their songs. Nigel Williamson of the London Times called it “a thrilling record that sees the band expanding their musical horizons in ambitious fashion,” while the London Daily Telegraph’s David Cheal wrote that the group had “emerged as a band with a mature and sophisticated grasp of shape, structure and dynamics.” Their popularity had not lagged either, with the single “Pumping on Your Stereo” having reached the top of the British charts even before the album’s release.
As their success at home continued, so did questions about their inability to have the same impact in the United States. The group’s responses reflected the attitude that being superstars in America didn’t matter all that much. Speaking to Jolie Lash of Rolling Stone about their North American tour in support of Supergrass, Coombes said, “I’d just like to see a lot of people at the shows and see people enthusiastic about it.” Still, the group had some advantages as they started out on their third trip to the United States. Because they were changing labels for the American distribution of their work, the actual release of Supergrass didn’t occur until the spring of 2000, coinciding with the start of the tour. Once again, they produced an eye-catching video that captured their sense of humor. Working with the Jim Henson Creature Shop, best known for creating the Muppets, the video for “Pumping on Your Stereo” featured the band as the heads of giant puppets and earned a spot in MTV’s rotation.
Supergrass even found a positive side to their lack of fame in America. Without the great expectations from fans and media for each of their releases, Coombes * told Kieran Grant of the Toronto Sun, “We’ve been, allowed to get on with it, and critics have tended to take each album on their [sic] own merit.” With their musical maturation from release to release, this perception of a group developing their sound and their skills gives Supergrass an image as real musicians instead of pop idols. And in their typical, unassuming manner, that difference seems all right with them.
I Should Coco, Parlophone (U.K.), Capitol (U.S.), 1995.
(Contributor) Clueless (soundtrack), Capitol, 1995.
In It for the Money, Parlophone (U.K.), Capitol (U.S.), 1997.
Dead Man on Campus (soundtrack), DreamWorks, 1998.
Supergrass, Parlophone (U.K.), 1999, Island (U.S.), 2000.
Erlewine, Michael, editor, All Music Guide to Rock, Miller Freeman, 1997.
Larkin, Colin, editor, The Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Muze, 1998.
Billboard, July 29, 1995, p.1.
Daily Telegraph (London), October 5, 1999, p. 24.
Rolling Stone, April 22, 2000.
Times (London), June 11, 1999; September 25, 1999.
Toronto Sun, May 9, 2000, p. 33.
“High Times with Supergrass,” Addicted to Noise, http://www.addict.com (July 2000).
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