Why it doesn’t bother me that Elastica stole from Wire

Elastica in its Buzz Bin iteration (from left: drummer Justin Welch, lead guitarist Donna Matthews, vocalist/guitarist Justine Frischmann, bassist Annie Holland); image courtesy of indiereview.wordpress.com

So, the cool kids already knew back in 1995 that the answer to the “Oasis or Blur” question was “Pulp.” In 1995, I certainly knew I was supposed to like Sheffield’s underdogs who rose from years of obscurity to deliver “Common People,” which is all the more relevant today as trust-fund kids remove the band’s class consciousness to ape their deadpan sensibility and ironic sartorial statements, which seem to be modeled after what European teenagers were wearing in the 80s according to my high school French textbooks. I did like them, and continued to after their 2002 split.

Jarvis Cocker: the reason twenty-something males in East Austin look like well-read Eurotrash; image courtesy of unrealitytv.co.uk

But if forced to chose one or the other, I’d take Blur without question. Their lyrics were clever, their melodies were interesting, and their influences more varied. Plus, the members looked like a nerdy straight girl’s version of a boy band. I liked frontman Damon Albarn, who had a snaggle tooth and a vaguely simian cuteness that comic artist Jamie Hewlett had to be tapping into when he was designing Gorillaz with Albarn. There’s palpable class tension in my preferences, to be sure. Blur were the London-born mockney art school boys Jarvis Cocker was vituperating in “Common People.”

My kind of boy band: Blur, channeling Blondie (from left: bassist Alex James, guitarist Graham Coxon, vocalist/keyboardist Damon Albarn, drummer Dave Rowntree); image courtesy of flickr.com

Oasis, on the other hand, were doggedly working class Mancs. They also had no musical vision past Lennon and McCartney. Their lyrics, absenting principle lyricist Noel Gallagher’s dyslexia, were of the worst variety of rubbish: the purposeful kind. The Gallagher brothers also forged a rivalry with Blur for publicity and that their episode of Behind the Music confirms they’re despicable people. I like “Cigarettes and Alcohol” well enough. I enjoy singing “Morning Glory” at karaoke, but my enjoyment of the song completely resides in shouting the lyrics, a singular joy I also bestow upon Girls’ “Hellhole Ratrace” and Neutral Milk Hotel’s “Song Against Sex.” I have no use for these songs as listening experiences — I merely enjoy shouting along with them, largely to drown out the recorded sound. It’s an icky, selfish joy.

But if you’re angling for true Britpop allegiances, I’m closer to siding with Courtney Love on this one. Apparently some time in the mid-90s (possibly during Lollapalooza ’95?), she said that the future of rock music was “Elastica-r-r.” While history and personal drama unfortunately proved that mantle untenable, Elastica were my Britpop band.

I remember buying the band’s self-titled debut at some big box chain in 1995 because I saw them in Seventeen and heard “Connection” and wanted to be a member. I particularly responded to frontwoman Justine Frischmann’s androgynous look and too-cool persona, later finding out that she co-founded proto-Britpop band Suede and was dating Albarn. I already had the short dark hair and wore loose black clothes. I used dry sarcasm as a defense mechanism for being shy and chubby. In my mind, I was as good as in.

The clerk responded to my purchase with incredulity. Perhaps he found them disposable. I’m not sure if the guy was one of those boorish types who think girls shouldn’t play guitars. Their status at the time as a buzz band could have predicted their short shelf life, as assuredly it did for all-male bands like the Strokes, Franz Ferdinand, Interpol, and countless others. At around this time, shoegazer bands like Ride were aping the Black Crowes. A year later, peer act Lush would release their final album, Lovelife, which attempted to recast the group in a more contemporary image.

Shaking off the record store attendant’s rebuke, I took the record home and discovered a series of short, spiky songs brimming with frank recollections of a nightlife with friends that teems with the possibilities of bad sex and great sex recounted from a distinctly female voice. It was an exciting sound I was just starting to relate to. Revisiting the album this past week, I’m stunned by how fresh it still sounds. But when I was closer to Rory Gilmore’s age, I was just beginning to understand the frisson of sharing closed quarters with a boy you probably shouldn’t be with.

I wonder if the record store clerk and other folks of his station didn’t like Elastica because they knew the band ripped off bands like the Stranglers and Wire, the latter a lauded post-punk band then still pretty obscure in the states. I’d come to discover that the band lifted a riff from the Stranglers’ “No More Heroes” for “Waking Up” and Wire’s “Three Girl Rhumba” for “Connection,” among others.

Frankly, I don’t care. Britpop could be defined as a post-modern response to Great Britian’s pop legacy. A band like Blur pilfered from a variety of influences, eventually branching out to American indie rock. Albarn was particularly influenced by Pavement, whose frontman Stephen Malkmus apparently hooked up with Frischmann at some point. A former acquaintance once referred to Malkmus as indie rock’s Peter Fonda. I only abide by this statement as a counter to Love’s pronouncement that Malkmus was indie rock’s Grace Kelly, which sounds great but makes little sense. However, I do think it’s interesting that Frischmann mentions the actor in “Car Song.” I interpret Malkmus responding to the Anglo interest with “We Dance,” a song that sounds like Suede’s Brett Anderson could have sung it.

Oasis swung for the masses with the Beatles, a safe move because everyone steal from them. Elastica appropriated punk’s terse songcraft and tinny production and was penalized for essentially having the same taste as discerning record store clerks. But if you take out the riff to “Connection,” you still have a good song with smart, funny lyrics. If you take all the reference in “Don’t Look Back In Anger” or “Wonderwall,” you don’t have much else left. This isn’t to say that the members of Wire shouldn’t have been compensated. Just as I think the Rolling Stones deserved to collect every penny from the Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony,” which sampled a classical arrangement of “The Last Time,” so do I think Wire and the Stranglers deserved credit. I just think, in the name of credibility, swiping from Wire is hardly a big deal. Bands with dudes in them do it all the time.

I also think my indifference toward Elastica’s musical plagiarism stems from the ubiquitous presence sampling has in my listening practices. I grew up on hip hop and probably justify the band’s decisions through that lens. Thus I’m also interested in Frischmann’s connection to former roommate Maya Arulpragasm, who would later become M.I.A. Then a filmmaker, Arulpragasm created the cover art for The Menace and directed the music video for “Mad Dog God Dam.”

(BTW, Robert Christgau agrees with me about The Menace being underrated. This is one of the few times we’ve agreed on anything. Even when we have, as with Sleater-Kinney’s output, he fixates on sex and Corin Tucker’s voice as the manifestation of the female orgasm.)

Arulpragasm would later vacation with Frischmann and write “Galang,” the song which catapulted her to pop stardom. If that’s the legacy Frischmann’s known for as she continues to retreat from public life, that’s a nice consolation prize. But I do hope people remember her band’s own limited output, regardless of its source material.

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8 comments

  1. Snarky's Machine

    Elastica, like Jet, were totally designed to be disposable. It was fairly obvious when they dropped they wouldn’t be around. Their sound was too specific and most of us hipsters were not into them at all. We were into That Dog.

    I have their cd (which I can’t even give away) under my car seat. I use it to scrape snow and ice off my windshield.

    Blur, Oasis, Pulp, even without drugs it all pretty much sounded the same to me. But if forced to choose I’d go with Blur, but only Parklife.

  2. Kathy

    There’s palpable class tension in my preferences, to be sure. Blur were the London-born mockney art school boys Jarvis Cocker was vituperating in “Common People.”

    I always preferred Blur, too. Maybe it’s because I grew up working-class — albeit in the US where we only pretend class distinctions don’t matter — I hated Oasis. (Of course, there’s probably some good old fashioned record snobbery going on: Oasis was far too popular. Blur was still sort of underground at the time.) Blur seemed so inherently “English” to my twenty-year-old self. I prefer the Kinks to the Stones or the Beatles, too. Probably some sort of connection there.

  3. g2-3f293304af385123135aa2a7cedffc49

    Please excuse my weird wordpress username–I seem to have lost my old one in favor of this unchangeable string of gobbledygook. If you can’t tell, this is Susan.

    I’ve heard this class-based discussion of the Blur vs. Oasis thing a lot, but while it may have resonated in the UK at the time (I don’t know, but it might have), for me there was an opposing sort of dynamic at play in the US. The rich, popular kids at my high school knew and loved Oasis, but a few kids like me who had cultural capital but not much actual capital liked Blur. It didn’t help that one of the first things I knew about Oasis was that they had made homophobic remarks about Graham Coxon (which would have made me hate them anyway, but did so all the more since I had a crush on him). In my mind (and my sister’s–we shared similar opinions on just about anything music-related at the time), Oasis was for choads and Blur was for artsy nerds like us.

    Elastica was too buzz band-ish for me at the time. For better or worse, I was at that point where I watched 120 Minutes every week but anything that aired on MTV at other points in the week was suspect. When I heard about the Wire lawsuit it was a handy way of writing off the fact that I found Connection really catchy. Though it was also disappointing, since I was also wishing that Elastica would impress me a bit more so that I’d have another female-fronted band to like. Now I can enjoy the song, but it means more to me as an early clue that I might like Wire (within a year or two as a freshman in college I discovered Chairs Missing and they have been one of my favorite bands ever since) than as an end in itself. Elastica copped ideas from good bands, at least, but if they were going to copy them I would have rather they’d sampled, or referenced them, or somehow pointed to these elements’ provenance instead of performing in exactly the same way they would have if they’d thought it all up themselves.

    • Alyx Vesey

      Ah, I was wondering if one of my resident Wire fan friends was going to weigh in. Glad it was you. And, BTW, I also like Wire. I appreciate your comment.

      Also, let me second your statement that “Oasis was for choads and Blur was for artsy nerds like us” and thank you for mentioning the homophobic remarks the Gallaghers made toward Graham Coxon. Was this before or after they hoped Albarn and bassist Alex James would contract AIDS? Man, what horrible people! It’s also interesting how bands position themselves in terms of class in relation to how they’re received.

  4. TrainCarBike

    I think I have to leave a response, even though this is an old post.
    I have searched and searched, and have yet to find that homophobic remark @ Graham Coxon. I am huge Oasis fan, love Blur too, and am obsessed with Britpop and its history. I think I would have heard about that remark by now. I know he wished AIDS on them, but Noel admitted he felt really ashamed and apologised.
    And its well known that the whole feud was started by Damon Albarn and the editor of NME magazine for publicity. Damon Albarn was a bit of a jackass himself. And also, I think Noel Gallagher had more vision past The Beatles, he stated he loved the Smiths, The Specials, Pink Floyd, the Kinks, the Pistols, even the Bee Gees.
    Thanks for the article, loved Elastica also.

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