Although the exact date has been forgotten, I first heard Sleeper on a John Peel radio show on a Saturday night sometime in early 1994. On that same evening, he also played tracks by other relatively unknown bands Ash and Hopper. I knew that night that at least one of those bands would become fairly big. I was right on two counts. It never really happened for French band Hopper in the UK; their first album, ‘A Tea With D’ can be found occasionally in bargain bins, but frankly, they never sounded anywhere near as appealing as they had when Peely played them on his radio show. Ash, of course, became big starts with their pop-punk influenced brand of indie rock, while Sleeper became one of the most popular bands associated with the Britpop scene.
Sleeper’s debut album ‘Smart’ appeared in early 1995, following on the coat-tails of three earlier singles (‘Alice EP’, ‘Swallow’ and ‘Delicious’). A great combination of indie rock jangle, attitude and a curious sexiness – courtesy of Louise Wener’s breathy vocals – made it one of the must-have albums of the era. Granted, it’s unlikely to be remembered as fondly as Blur’s ‘Parklife’ (a strong contender for being the Britpop generation’s ‘Sergeant Pepper’) or those early Oasis discs, but with its relative simplicity and Buzzcocks-meets-Blondie sassiness, ‘Smart’ hits the listener square on from the start.
The opening track – and breakthrough single, peaking at number 16 on the UK chart – ‘Inbetweener’ combines Sleeper’s two guitar sound (Wener on jangly rhythms, Jon Stewart on lead) with enough bounce to get things moving. Stewart’s discordant lead guitar parts linking the verses provide the ideal contrast to the pop sheen lurking throughout the song. Lyrically, the song regards a boyfriend who’ll clearly “do for now”, laying the foundations for the themes of relationships and sexual undercurrent found within a number of the album’s songs. A video featuring Dale Winton (then the host of a crappy morning quiz, ‘Supermarket Sweep’, popular with skiving students) helped the song get extra exposure. That sexual undercurrent becomes more of a raging torrent of grubby feelings during ‘Swallow’ – a tale of conscience, adult relationships and ex-boyfriends, to which Wener’s vocal style adds weight to its seediness. The rest of the band (faceless to most of the world) settles into a jangly groove, which on the surface sounds like the standard indie-rock of the times. If you listen more closely, the guitars are severely multi-tracked: behind the main slightly heavy-handed jangle, there’s a counter-melody with sharp edges. By the song’s end, it’s like a mini wall of sound.
‘Delicious’ – the album’s edgiest number (previously issued as a single, though only just breaking the chart with a peak position of #75) – offers enough sexuality and sneering to grab the attention. Musically, its lead guitar riff is one of the album’s sunniest, and instantly perks up something which could have easily been quite ordinary. A closing section changes pace entirely to a slow stomp, which allows Wener to stretch her vocal just that little further. By the end of the three minutes, the band sounds like they’re fit to burst.
‘Poor Flying Man’ focuses on the nineties phenomenon of the LOUDquietLOUD technique of song construction, used to great effect throughout work by Pixies at the beginning of the decade. The verses feature a good use of Diid Osman’s quietly rumbling bass, overlaid by Wener’s hushed tones. The chorus is a crashing contrast, and while Stewart’s guitars add volume, the end result is somewhat predictable; unsurprisingly, this is one of the album’s more overlooked numbers. ‘Alice In Vain’ doesn’t veer too far from this tried-and-tested formula, but has greater strength due to a more impassioned vocal, slightly edgy solo and muted guitar strings on the verses. Looking at it in terms of a single release, it may not have quite the commercial edge over ‘Inbetweener’ or ‘Delicious’, but there’s enough enthusiasm on board to carry it off. Like ‘Poor Flying Man’, the LOUDquietLOUD approach drives the lyrically oddball ‘Hunch’. A story of a man who “looks like a frog” and “has six arms” and a hunched old woman “the size of a child”, there’s a feeling of guide vocal lyrics, as none of it really hangs together. The crunch on the chorus is enough to lend it charm, but it’s certainly ‘Smart’s most skippable track.
With its lighter quality on the verses and greater use of harmony vocals on the chorus, ‘Vegas’ looks ahead to the slightly modified sound Sleeper would employ on their follow-up album. While lacking the punch of ‘Smart’s best moments, it’s slightly refined tone allows the pop nature of much of Sleeper’s songcraft to shine. A re-recording of ‘Vegas’, featuring a fuller arrangement and Blur’s Graham Coxon guesting on sax (though credited under a pseudonym) was released as the album’s final single, eventually only reaching #33. The more the single version gets exposure, the more the album cut sounds unfinished… A sly humour runs through ‘Lady Love Your Countryside’ – its title making fun of a Germaine Greer essay – with tongue firmly in cheek. This story some teens’ day in the country (spent drinking, smoking and spray-painting paradise) provides little variety on the album’s other material. The studio version is fine, though perhaps a touch formulaic; this number would come into its own in the live set, especially for Andy McClure, given an opportunity to approach his drum kit in a more interesting and rhythmic fashion than usual. The rocky ‘Pyrotechnician’ ensures the album closes with an energetic, positive number. Wener’s vocals have a sense of urgency as they compete against a wall of guitars, topped with McClure’s cymbals. A perfect finish, Sleeper take the soon-to-be-dubbed Britpop into trashy almost punk-pop territory, showing off a flammable energy. While ‘Imbetweener’ is the pinnacle of Sleeper’s ability to write commercial, slightly alternative pop (at least on this debut release), ‘Pyrotechnician’ ranks alongside ‘Delicious’ as one of the greatest examples of Sleeper at their most vibrant.
‘Smart’ climbed to #5 on the UK album chart. It’s success led to Sleeper gaining a great deal of television exposure over the following year and Louse Wener became the closest the Britpop scene had to a pin-up girl (though, I suspect, after various appearances sporting a school uniform, fans of Echobelly’s Sonya Aurore Madan would like to argue). With nearly all the press attention focus on Wener, the three men in the band became faceless (a fate that had also been the cause of much of Blondie’s internal turmoil a decade and a half earlier). NME, in particular were a little harsh, coining the briefly popular term “Sleeperbloke”, used to describe any men who happened to be in a band where the front-person garnered all the attention.
Sleeper’s second album, ‘The It Girl’ (a title presumably chosen as a tongue-in-cheek response to Wener’s poster-girl status) enjoyed similar success and displayed a slightly more polished sound. By the release of Sleeper’s third album, ‘Pleased To Meet You’, the song writing may have matured, but with the last gasps of Britpop, things would never be the same… ‘Smart’, meanwhile, sounds as good as it ever did; an album loaded with great songs and, for people of a certain age, memories of an important musical movement. No record collection should be without one.
[A 2CD reissue of ‘Smart’ adds all of the non-album cuts, bar the single version of ‘Vegas’. A 2CD deluxe reissue of ‘The It Girl’ was also released].
August 2010/October 2010