It took a long time for the peculiar gloom that followed the surreal conclusion to the summer of 1997 to dissipate. In fact it in some ways it still hasn’t; emotional bullying disguised as ‘plain speaking’, a collective tendency to share way too much and the overall ceaseless concession to media-friendly mob rule are perhaps even more dominant now, while the ridiculous deference to speculatively-defined ‘sensitivity’, stretching all the way from Private Eye being removed from newsagents’ shelves to the line “damn you, paparazzo” being cut from The Simpsons represented the first stirrings of an absurd level of overreaction that we’re only too familiar with today. If you weren’t exactly in tune with the prevailing mindset, and had maybe reacted to the initial newsflash by turning over to watch Lancelot Link Secret Chimp, it was a fairly bleak and fun-deficient time and you had to take your illicit laughs where you found them. And if that meant sniggering for about an hour at a local radio DJ announcing “a song that I think says how we’re all feeling at the moment… REM with Everybody Hurts“, and then somehow managing to play Fall On Me instead by mistake, then so be it.
Recently, I put together a compilation of some of my favourite music from around that time, and was actually surprised to find that it ended up dominated by such moody and downbeat masterpieces as Sylvie by Saint Etienne, Is It Wicked Not To Care? by Belle & Sebastian, La Femme D’Argent by Air, Erase/Rewind by The Cardigans, Ice Hockey Hair by Super Furry Animals and the laugh-a-minute Someone’s Waiting by Velocette. It starts with the theme from This Morning With Richard Not Judy, a Sunday Morning comedy show in which Stewart Lee and Richard Herring did their best to restore the irreverent status quo, but which all the same ended its first run with The Curious Orange singing The Queen Of Hearts’ alleged favourite top pop hit in the entire universe ever, I Am In Love With The World by Chicken Shed Theatre. More to the point, it ends with Chris Morris – who only a couple of months earlier had been pulled off air mid-broadcast for daring to do material that didn’t exactly chime with the public mood – telling a macabre story about being taken for a walk by a talking dog apparently inhabited by the spirit of a duck-hating Patrick Bateman and possessed of a degree of legal training.
Except that isn’t actually the last track. Right at the end, there’s a yodelled “we-he-helllll”, and the absurdly retro riff that kicks off the most brilliantly preposterous pop single in the entire history of pop singles. Influenced by the likes of Eddie Cochran and Tommy Steele and frankly sounding like it, Jimmy Ray was the kind of act who ten years previously would have been the preserve of Janice Long sessions and cover-mounted NME tapes. Rather than the tedious stage musical-friendly crowd-pleasing faux-purism of earlier attempts at rock’n’roll revival, this actually sounded like something that might have come out of Sun Studios in the age of Tamagotchis and platform trainers. Yet here he was being pushed to Just Seventeen readers by The Spice Girls’ manager, with a song chock-full of references that even the majority of studiedly arch NME readers would have struggled to recognise. Quite how and why Jimmy Ray became a short-lived chart star is a question that defies any kind of rational explanation, but, much like the vexing question of whether he was Link Wray, Fay Wray, Johnnie Ray or Stingray, who wants to know?
Are You Jimmy Ray? was a huge hit for the bequiffed bowling shirt-sporter, but follow-up Goin’ To Vegas didn’t do anywhere near as well, and third single I Got Rolled rocked off without trace. All the same, it was about as definitive an example as you’re going to find of the fact that that mainstream chart pop really did get a bit silly and unpredictable for a while. Whether it was a reaction to the fog of frowning faces being pulled by miserable old people, or simply more evidence of the fact that young fans of throwaway pop music aren’t always going to put up with being told that they like ballads performed by immaculately-groomed identikit pullers of sappy faces with no personality and nothing else, the fact remains that it really was the sudden outbreak of pop stars who weren’t taking anything at all seriously who were flying the flag for a return to fun and normality. A flag that most of them metaphorically wore on their sleeves and, in the case of The Spice Girls, literally wore on their pants. The more ‘deep’ and intellectual adherents of the Richard Ashcrofts and Thom Yorkes of this world probably scoffed and bemoaned the entire situation, but it was their loss. Especially as they wouldn’t have seen S Club 7 – Back To The ’50s.
You can find a longer version of this article, with more about my late-night radio listening habits, in my book Can’t Help Thinking About Me, available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.