My latest novel Heartworm, which takes place in the mid-‘90s is a music-centric affair, the story of a rock critic on the verge of a mental breakdown, so it’s no surprise that I listened to a lot of material from the era to get in character. Here’s a selection, a soundtrack if you will, to what was on the stereo as I wrote the book, usually with a tall glass of red wine next to the keyboard.
The album that inspired the title of my novel, Heartworm, by Dublin’s Whipping Boy plays a huge role in the story. It was an album that saved my life when it needed saving, and it has a similar effect on the protagonist, Drew. Released in October ’95, Heartworm is breathtaking. The combination of haunting music, written by guitarist Paul Page and bass player Myles McDonnell, and singer Fearghal McKee’s dark and blunt lyrics is like nothing I’ve heard before or since. Heartworm is the sonic equivalent of a film noir, the literary equivalent of a James Cain novel. It’s an album about life – the soaring highs and the crashing lows – addressing everything from youthful nostalgia to addiction to crushing depression. Twenty years on and Heartworm is still loved in Ireland, often topping the likes of U2, Van Morrison, and The Undertones in listener and critics polls.
Another Irish band I rate from the era is Into Paradise, who broke up in ’94 but play a minor role in my novel in a flashback scene. Fronted by Dave Long, the group were a post-punk outfit who rightfully garnered comparisons to the likes of Joy Division, Chameleons, and The Sound. The late Adrian Borland produced some of the early Into Paradise material. The best Into Paradise tracks like “I Want You” and “Sister” are emotional juggernauts; you get the feeling that Long is killing you softly with his songs as he bares his soul on wax.
Next up is the single “I Hate Rock ‘n’ Roll” by The Jesus and Mary Chain, perhaps the most extreme attack on the music industry laid down on wax. After making digs at the BBC and MTV, Jim Reid concludes, “I hate rock ‘n’ roll / I hate it cause its fucks with my soul.” The music is equally lethal, the most dangerous the group had sounded since their seminal 1985 debut Psychocandy. I remember playing this song to death when it came out as I grew tired of the increasingly conservative music scenes in the U.S. and UK at the time.
Fronted by Luke Haines, London’s Auteurs released four tremendous albums in 1993-1997. Their first record New Wave was runner-up to Suede’s self-titled debut for the 1993 Mercury Prize, and as great as that record is, my favorite remains 1996’s bleak After Murder Park, produced by the legendary/infamous Steve Albini. It’s a match made in heaven, a brutal lo-fi combination of hard-hitting guitars and Haines’ poignant Ray Davies-like melodies. Like Heartworm, this is a dark album, the songs addressing topics like child murder, child brides and plane crashes (twice!). My favorite is probably the cinematic “Tombstone” that appears to take shots at Britpop and Cool Britannia with its snide dig about taking out the garbage at the Columbia Hotel Baader Meinhof style. Haines would also form a side project called Baader Meinhof, but that’s another story. Haines makes a cameo in my novel in a chapter called “Cool Hand Luke Haines,” which is based on an interview I had with him back in the day and his fantastic Britpop memoir Bad Vibes. Essential stuff.
Speaking of Britpop, while I don’t care much about the vast majority of UK bands that came out post-’95, initially the scene was exciting. Suede’s 1993 self-titled debut was electrifying, a glamorous update to Bowie and The Smiths. Front man Brett Anderson and guitar god Bernard Butler looked the part too, impossibly thin with fantastic hair and fantastic thrift store wardrobes. And how many top-40 singles talk about chasing the dragon?!
I remember being pretty upset when The Verve broke up for the first time in August ’95. I had just seen them on their A Northern Soul tour a few weeks beforehand, and the show was fantastic. I had no idea they would reform again just two years later! A number of my friends prefer the debut A Storm In Heaven and the early EPs, but IMHO A Northern Soul has it all, plenty of trippy space rock and tunes galore. A lot of the broken heart songs on the album hit home with me at the time and offered me some solace as I was going through a pretty rotten time of my own, especially “History,” one of the premier tear jerker ballads of the last century. While not Britpop, The Verve got lumped in the scene when vocalist, Richard Ashcroft, started hobnobbing with the Gallagher brothers.
It might be hard to believe now, but early on Oasis was the real deal. Working class lads from Manchester, brothers Noel and Liam Gallagher soaked in years of hardship before letting it all burst out on their 1994 debut Definitely Maybe. The album is the sonic equivalent of cocaine – songs like the debut single “Supersonic,” the immortal “Live Forever” and “Slide Away” all but burying the listener with shards of guitar that roar like helicopters in Apocalypse Now and Liam’s soaring melodies. I love the follow-up, 1995’s (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? but not much after that. In retrospect, Britpop simultaneously peaked and died when “Wonderwall” became a smash hit. What followed in ’96 was a long line of bland dad rock bands, dubbed Noel Rock by the UK press. Remember Ocean Colour Scene and Kula Shaker? I try hard not to.
As I grew tired of Britpop, two American bands really opened up my eyes, the Dandy Warhols, and, especially, Brian Jonestown Massacre, who released four albums between ’95-‘96. The Dandy Warhols’ 1995 debut on Tim/Kerr Records remains my favorite record by the band, a perfect slice of shoegaze (it can’t be a coincidence that the song “Ride” sounds a lot like the band Ride!) and ‘60s psych. BJM were grittier, more lo-fi, and you got the feeling that they meant it more. Founder and visionary Anton Newcombe has steered the BJM ship for 25 years now with no letup in quality. Now based in Berlin, the last few BJM records are among the best in their storied discography.
Ben Vendetta is the author of the novels Wivenhoe Park (2013) and Heartworm (2015). Signed copies can be purchased from the author at ElephantStoneRecords.com. Copies are also available in ebook and paperback via Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Ben Vendetta has been writing about music for his entire adult life and co-founded independent record label Elephant Stone Records with his wife Arabella Proffer-Vendetta.
Our biggest thank you to Ben for writing this special feature for Step On magazine, a soundtrack to the writing of his new novel, and sharing insights about the bands, albums and gigs that were essential listening to him during those heady 90’s (and as those 90’s changed) and the music that still resonates, inspires and fuels him today. Real music and art are eternal, endless, life saving and essential for those of us who know the score.