Words by Tony Allen.
“It pains me,” said Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Tom Hansen in (500) Days of Summer, “we live in a world where no-one’s heard of Spearmint.”
Who do you think of when you think of the great British indie bands of the ‘90s Britpop explosion, when synths were elbowed out of the way once more by gritty guitars and cool nonchalance made way for fun and raw passion? Oasis and Blur of course. Pulp definitely. Elastica, Supergrass? You’re cool. Cast, Shed Seven, Dodgy? The Bluetones? Pushing it, but ok.
But one name which regularly gets left off the lists of Britain’s seminal turn-of-the-century indie bands is that of Spearmint.
The reason is simple. Shirley Lee’s band came together and got their breakthrough just that bit too late. Lee had spent the ‘90s working at Our Price records and plugging away in various bands before forming Spearmint and releasing a few under-the-radar singles. Their first proper album, the classic A Week Away, came in 1999, by which time Britpop had well and truly enjoyed its few years in the sun, and the public had moved on.
When Cool Britannia was rapidly melting, Shirley and pals were only getting started.
Make no mistake, though, a quick listen tells you that Spearmint could have been the fourth massive Britpop band if they’d arrived to the party on time and not fashionably late. Not just in the UK either; their minor success in Germany, France and Japan hints at the international appetite they could have enjoyed.
The breadth of their material is superb, with a back catalogue brimming with bright indie-pop earworms full of clever lyrics and dashes of humour alongside deeper, darker album cuts and B-sides investigating the base human condition.
After A Week Away came cult Christmas album Oklahoma!, most fans’ favourite LP after the debut effort. A Different Lifetime followed, with My Missing Days in 2003 being for me the band’s best set of songs to date. 2006’s Paris in a Bottle was the bravest and most experimental of Spearmint’s concept albums but nonetheless included the storming standalone Psycho Magnet. They’ve never undergone a significant creative slump, with most recent effort, last year’s It’s Time to Vanish, containing the band’s best ‘pop’ song ever, Man and the Moon, in an eclectic collection.
Two songs from A Week Away, Sweeping the Nation and We’re Going Out, which Lee called “a burst of naïve enthusiastic energy, pure pop,” could easily have been number one singles had they been released a few years earlier in 1996.
A Different Lifetime, too, contained a couple of short, sharp, chart-ready singles, Julie Christie! and The Flaming Lips, still live favourites, which cried out for airplay but which timing again meant never troubled the UK singles chart at all.
Lee is everything you want in an iconic Britpop frontman. Made from the mould that cast the Gallaghers, Albarn and Cocker, he’s a relatable figure without the edge of arrogance which mired the genre’s top table. The intervening years have proved he’s more sincere and resilient than the others put together.
Spearmint’s rhythm section is funkier than any of the major Britpop bands without any doubt. The presence of Simon Calnan’s keys adds an extra dimension, as do Jim Parsons’ brave, expressive guitar lines since he moved from bass after the first album. Lee is also a superb storyteller, sometimes opting to talk rather than sing to give something different to his honest, evocative lyrics.
Spearmint have arguably aged far better than any of their more famous contemporaries. Paris in a Bottle, released seven years after the first LP, is regarded as one of their best albums, polling several entries in a wide spread of ‘fan favourites’ at a recent gig, the setlist for which was decided by an online vote. For all its undeniable merits, can you honestly say that Oasis’ Heathen Chemistry, released eight years after Definitely Maybe, is in the same league as their legendary debut?
Spearmint have recorded and played continuously since their formation, save for a couple of breaks when Lee decided to record solo material, and remained friends. There’s been no dramatic storming out, no petulant Twitter handbags, no bitching in interviews and comparatively little physical violence, save for some petty playfighting during the Oklahoma! sessions…
Last month the band played their final gig for a few years as Lee plans to record his third ‘solo’ album. His solo act could serve as a good blueprint for some of his contemporaries. He’s clever to manage expectations, a solo album is a very much separate from the band, simply a set of more personal lyrics nevertheless performed by the same personnel. Lee gets a tight, ready-made backing band and doesn’t need to give up Spearmint.
A solo show is Spearmint playing strictly Shirley Lee songs. Everyone knows it. If you don’t like it, you don’t go. No one goes to Shirley Lee shows yelling for Start Again or Left Alone Among the Living. His band’s classics aren’t millstones around his neck and he doesn’t disappoint some by not playing the hits, like Paul Weller would if he didn’t play Town Called Malice or Liam Gallagher if he forewent Wonderwall.
Perhaps Spearmint’s lack of fame has allowed them to maintain integrity and quality, and kept the band going, with something always left to aim for. Perhaps Lee’s fault is being too nice, unwilling to seek the headline-grabbing nastiness of some of his contemporaries. Perhaps the band should be praised for doggedly continuing with their true style and not trying to change to suit the latest trend, despite the fact they were out of fashion before they even started.
Always having released on their own label, Spearmint are a perfect example of how a band can continue plugging away, making music as good as ever, largely under the radar. If ten albums and a mention in a Hollywood blockbuster can’t make them famous, anyone but the wildest optimist must now be resigned to the fact that Lee, Parsons, Calnan, Andy Lewis and Ronan Larvor will never be household names.
But to this day they have retained the respect of critics and a loyal core of fans, some coming, some going. Although they’ll be a mere footnote in the history of great British guitar bands, they’ll still be there. And their straightforward, unassuming brand of indie-pop might just claim the scalps of some of their more illustrious contemporaries in the longevity stakes if, when the band ends for whatever reason, they get the reappraisal they so richly deserve.
Article written by Tony Allen, you can follow Tony on twitter here.