Friday Jukebox: Underwhelmed
In my early teens there were still plenty of local record shops. There were the usual chains, and the shops that sold other stuff but had a record section, but there were independent stores too. Not independent in the sense of just selling indie music, but genuine small businesses making money out of selling all kinds of music. Remember those days?
I’d often head out on a Saturday making the most of my bus pass I had for school and would explore all the record shops. I didn’t have much money, so I tended to spend most of my time scouring the bargain bins.
Sometimes I was looking for singles that had been out a few weeks back, but was hoping had now been reduced now they were out of the charts (or had never made the charts in the first place). I’d also keep an eye out for songs or bands I might have read about but had never actually heard. Sometimes I’d just like the look of a record cover, or a title, and take a punt. At 50p or a pound it was worth the risk.
Underwhelmed by Sloan was one of those punts. I was still very much in Nirvana Admiration Mode and so would always have half an eye out for other North American guitar bands. I’m not sure I was that fussy, and to be fair, neither were the record companies post-Nevermind. I was at that age when you just want to hear everything, but was part of the last generation where, pre-internet, that really wasn’t possible.
I played Underwhelmed over and over. I don’t think it was what I had expected from the sleeve, but it was funny and catchy and weird. And most importantly, mine. This was my own little obscurity. That’s kind of important at that age too, right?
The other day I thought again about Underwhelmed and listened to it for the first time in a long time. I listened on that internet place. I’m not sure where my record is now.
I still love it. Sure, that is partly down to that nostalgic kick, the ol’ Proustian rush sending me back to those funny old record shops with their bargain bins, and my teenage bedroom and my old record player.
But there is more than that. The song is the perfect amalgam of the classic College Rock sound of the era, along with the fuzziness of the shoegazing bands and the self-awareness of the early 90s.
There is a pop heart to the song, but a wonky one. There’s that strange feedback at the start that cranks up in pitch before the guitar kicks in. There’s a shimmer to the song, a funny sheen that recalls old tape decks and half-tuned radios. It is of a time, sure, but it isn’t weighed down by it.
The lyrics are funny, knowing, true, almost an early 90s college kid version of Valley Girl, and I say that as a good thing. The narrator relays conversations that in their conscious banality sound directly lifted from life then. There’s a charming awkwardness, we aren’t always profound, not always articulate, that as the song says, you have to read between the lines.
The song articulates that general difficulty in communication we all have, but also the particular sensibility of the time, where everyone was steeped in irony and only half-said what they half-thought.
This song captures a time that in hindsight was pretty innocent, post-Cold War, pre-War on Terror, when we could be as cynical as we pleased, where we could enjoy our solipsism yet pretend we cared about the big issues and where every detail of our lives really mattered and didn’t matter at all, all at the same time.
Thinking about it, maybe nothing has really changed at all.
Virtually all of those have gone now, I used to work in one in the late 1970s, but it got taken over by a national chain, jobs went an so did the soul of the place. Oddly, I was thinking about this earlier in the week as there was on old style indie record shop opposite where I was staying in Paris – it was closed, but I guess just for August.
There definitely was a big difference between the independent shops and the chain stores. While the latter were sometimes more reliable, the independent shops tended to be great places to chance upon something unusual.
The chain stores seemed to put a lot of the indies out of business one way or another, then made a real hash of dealing with the growth of online shopping. I sometimes wonder if the independent shops might have dealt with the threat of Amazon better, as they were all about a personal service and pointing you in the direction of something you’d never heard, where the chain stores tended to just flog the most popular stuff – a doomed business model once the savings of internet shopping kicked in.
Paris in August is a funny old place, isn’t it? I liked it, a bit quieter in places, although frustrating when an interesting shop was closed.
I do miss the old record shops. There used to be both an independent and an Our Price within walking distance of us, and I used to go up to Oxford Street every now and then to wander around HMV and Virgin. These days all my purchasing is done online. It’s convenient but it’s a purely transactional experience which is entirely planned and lacking in serendipity. Progress, eh?
That lack of serendipity is a huge shame, but I guess we also all reach an age where we value convenience above everything else!
I spent hours in the record shops on Oxford Street and down in Soho. I really miss those days, but I very much doubt I’d have the time (or disposable income) now for such an endeavour.
But internet shopping really isn’t the same – I like to buy something and have it right away, to be able to spend ages looking over the liner notes on my way home on the bus or train, like the old days!
[…] week I looked at an old song and the experience of buying records twenty years ago. Pretty soon after I hit ‘publish’ I thought it might be fun to this week look at a new […]