Growing up in Florida during the ’70s, I always understood provincial music. Southern rock was the soundtrack to my childhood. So when I got into punk in the ’80s, the idea of regional scenes made sense—for instance, Naked Raygun’s Chicago and Minor Threat’s Washington D.C. It wasn’t simply about absorbing and reflecting your environment. It was about people celebrating where they came from—and also about how the residents of any given place are the only ones truly qualified to rag on their hometown. Heaven help you if you’re Neil Young condemning Alabama, or Lee Ving dissing New York.
That said, when Britpop appeared in the mid-’90s, it threw me for a loop. It wasn’t that I didn’t love British music; I’d always been an Anglophile in that regard. But the ultra-Englishness of Britpop was so pronounced, so much of a caricature in the eyes of some random dude from Denver like me, that it seemed like some sick form of nationalism. After all, the only American equivalent of Britpop was flag-waving country crap like Lee Greenwood. The leaders of Britpop—Blur, Oasis, Suede, Pulp, and Supergrass—all made great records. But those records were also all over the place, drawing from every previous decade of English rock and mixing it all into some self-congratulatory orgy of anachronism. It sounded fantastic, and I’m sure it made sense to them. For me, though, it was like watching Benny Hill with guitars.
Which is why Elastica became my favorite Britpop band—and its 1995 debut, Elastica, remains my favorite Britpop album. Nervy, sultry, robotic, monochromatic, and full of punk snarl, the band did not have room for a bunch of Union Jacks on its black-and-white uniforms. Nor did it have room for a bunch of penises. Britpop was mostly a lad’s club—more or less a frat—yet Elastica had allowed just one man in the band. And they kept him in the back, dutifully drumming. It made for a spiky, rollicking kind of Britpop that made Suede sound stuffy, as Sex Pistols had with Pink Floyd.
When punk exploded in England in 1977 on the wave of Sex Pistols’ “God Save The Queen,” the movement became staunchly anti-patriotic, even when it wasn’t being overtly political. By the same token, Elastica didn’t sing protest songs; lead singer and guitarist Justine Frischmann wrote lyrics more about rotten romances, domineering sex, and the odd snippet of silly weirdness. If Blur’s members were arch social critics and Oasis’ were corny sentimentalists, Elastica’s members were just plain brats. Case in point: the way Frischmann sneers, taunts, and snaps a wad of virtual bubblegum as she covers the need for lube in the Elastica track “Vaseline.”
By no means, though, was Elastica estranged from the Britpop mainstream. Within that scene, they were royalty—or at least Frischmann was. A founding member of Suede who was, at the time of Elastica’s ascent, in a long-term relationship with Blur frontman Damon Albarn (who also played keyboards on Elastica), Frischmann became Britpop’s alpha female. But as a songwriter, she resisted type. She stripped lyrics and riffs to the bone, then kept going. When she brings Elastica to a whisper, as she does on the snaky, skeletal “Indian Song,” it’s a minimalist antidote to Britpop’s extravagant self-regard.
Elastica wasn’t free of traditionalism, though. Frischmann and crew just drew from a narrower spectrum of bygone English music—perhaps too narrow. Elastica is so indebted to the late-’70s punk of Wire and The Stranglers that the young group ended up being sued by both its elders for plagiarism. Two tracks on Elastica, “Line Up” and “2:1,” borrow blatantly from the same Wire song: 1978’s eerie “I Am The Fly.” But the Wire worship doesn’t stop there. The hit single “Connection” bears more than a passing resemblance to Wire’s “Three Girl Rhumba.” These cases were settled out of court, although Elastica undoubtedly turned a large number of fans onto the bands that leveled the lawsuit.
“Connection” as well as “Stutter” got a lot of play on alternative radio in America in the mid-’90s, and it was part of a mini-insurrection of Britpop (led by Oasis) that fizzled in the States almost as quickly as it began. Only Radiohead, which could only barely be considered Britpop, was able to parlay its hit single, “Creep,” into lasting, widespread appeal on this side of the pond. But Britpop had an ace up its sleeve, even if it didn’t know it. When Trainspotting became a phenomenon in America upon its release in 1996, the film’s soundtrack became equally massive. And alongside fellow Britpop acts Blur, Pulp, and Sleeper, Elastica greatly benefited from inclusion on the soundtrack—in this case, the dark, slinky, oh-so-Wire-like “2:1.”
In Elastica’s defense, Frischmann was a hell of a copycat. Rather than merely stealing, she knew how to appropriate, rework, and make others’ riffs her own. There isn’t a wasted moment or note on Elastica, from the jerky angularity of “Line Up” to the hip-thrusting pulse of “Never Here.” And the disc’s tightly focused dedication to its own sound—or at least its own idiosyncratic batch of influences—makes it stand out from the Britpop pack. Along with the requisite British punk and post-punk influences, there are strong hints of ’70s New York punk and new wave, particularly Blondie and the Ramones, in Elastica’s sound. Not to mention a twinge of guitar-heavy, female-fronted alt-rock, from The Breeders to Veruca Salt.
It’s no surprise, really, that Elastica caught on in America in spite of its Britpop pedigree. Not only was it unafraid to look beyond England for inspiration, the group’s edgy, jittery rock presaged the post-punk and garage revivals that were still a turn of the millennium away. (It didn’t do so as successfully on its second and final album, 2000’s The Menace.) Not only that, Elastica actually synthesized and embodied both of those hallmarks of the ’00s—only way back in 1995, with swagger and sureness, and without a second thought about defying Britpop, even as it defined it.