Quick, which band held the record for the fastest-selling debut album of all time for six years (1995 – 2001) before Hear’Say? Time’s up and no-one got it; the answer is Elastica, with their imaginatively-titled first album Elastica. You may have guessed that this was the answer, but only due to this article being about them. Yet despite this record, they’ve been largely forgotten not only by the public, but by critics as well. I know a grand total of three people who had heard of Elastica prior to hearing me rave about them; the first of these was a poor, unsuspecting boy on the till in Winchester’s branch of Oxfam, and my reaction to hearing him laud them was to blurt out something about him being my soulmate. If you needed proof of the effect of Elastica, there you have it – they make me propose to strangers.
On a more serious and less egotistical note, Justine Frischmann has gone down in history as being that bitch who cheated on Brett Anderson with Damon Albarn and broke his heart irrevocably, being Damon Albarn’s girlfriend during the Cool Britannia phase of the 1990s, and being that bitch who dumped Damon Albarn and broke his heart irrevocably (incidentally, she apparently cheated on Albarn with Anderson, to add a nice circularity to proceedings – not that Albarn was exactly Mr Fidelity himself). This isn’t particularly likely to endear her to Suede or Blur fans, but her questionable morals and fidelity proved important catalysts for the creation of Suede and 13, both of which debuted at the top of the album charts – she is the muse for the likes of ‘Pantomime Horse’, ‘Tender’ and ‘1992’. Suede’s ‘Animal Lover’ was written and so named after Frischmann returned to Anderson one evening with scratches down her back after a cheeky tryst with Albarn. But this is all irrelevant when we’re focusing on Elastica’s contribution to the 1990s.
In a decade when lad culture and Loaded were at the forefront of British life, an image reinforced by the music, Elastica’s line-up was one of the period’s few concessions to the existence of independent women. Although other bands such as Echobelly, Sleeper and Powder featured female vocalists, none were as female-dominated as Elastica. Three-quarters of its members were women, and all of them wielded instruments – Frischmann and Donna Matthews on guitar and Annie Holland playing the bass. However, this is where the band’s femininity ends; image-wise and musically, they were androgynous.
Frischmann drummed an agenda of deadpan wit and concision into her bandmates, spurred on by the influence of Wire, The Stranglers and The Fall – betrayed in duet with Mark E. Smith, ‘How He Wrote Elastica, Man’, whose title was a play on The Fall’s ‘How I Wrote Elastic Man’. The majority of their debut album’s songs are under three minutes, with several under the two minute mark, following Frischmann’s ethos of a song needing nothing more than verses and a chorus. Although in thrall to the influences already mentioned – enough to be sued for royalties due to ‘Connection’’s similarity to the opening of Wire’s ‘Three Girl Rhumba’ and ‘Waking Up’ to The Stranglers’ ‘No More Heroes’ – this was also partially the result of Frischmann’s backlash against her ex-band Suede’s increasingly lengthy, ornate and humourless songs, with ‘Stay Together’ breaching the eight-minute mark and ‘The Asphalt World’ the nine. This backlash created two things; firstly, brief punk songs about rarely-broached topics like premature ejaculation (‘Stutter’) and copulation in automobiles (‘Car Song’), all sung emotionlessly, detachedly and with palpable amusement by Frischmann – who to quote from Blur’s autobiography 3862 Days, had ‘the voice of a grumpy angel’. The second was several pointed songs about her relationship with Anderson – one of these was ‘Spastica’, a B-side to highest-charting single ‘Connection’, whose lyrics were a bitchy treatise on Anderson’s overwrought [Ed: BUT STILL BRILLIANT] lyrics (“Monsters of the present are the monsters of the past/Take a look in your lyric book, your head’s right up your arse”) and bemoaning his success (“It’s unbelievable, the way you’ve got it all/It seems improbable”). The other overtly-Anderson-themed song was ‘Never Here’; standing at a four and a half minutes, it’s by far the longest song on their debut album, and is also the most emotional as it charts the demise of their relationship – which she attributes to over-familiarity and youth (“Then I started to worry/I thought of our lives left on the shelves/Too much TV and curry/Too much time spent on ourselves”). She did the same for Albarn after their split, writing a song called ‘My Sex’ on second album The Menace about him.
But these are Frischmann’s only acknowledgments of her own vulnerability, and the majority of Elastica’s songs are delivered with too-cool-to-care confidence and an arched eyebrow. If you need evidence of this, ‘Vaseline’ is a throwaway 1:13 paean to… well, presumably, it’s a euphemism for bonking. Her interview soundbites also fitted in with the laddish inclinations of contemporary society – “I can’t think of anything better than sixteen-year-old boys wanking and looking at a poster of me” is a corking example of this – and coupled with this confidence and vocal delivery, she became the era’s poster-girl for cool. This was added to by the fact that Elastica consciously pursued a no-frills aesthetic; aside from the minimalism of an eponymous album title, their videos were no more than videos of the band miming, their Elastica’s cover is a black-and-white photograph of the band against a wall, and – unlike their contemporaries – they had no real agenda apart from having fun.
Unfortunately, hedonism was to take a toll on them; all four members of the band became addicted to heroin (Blur’s ‘Beetlebum’, their second chart-topping single, was written about Frischmann’s addiction to the drug), amongst other drugs. Their second and last album was five years in the making as a result, and involved the recruitment of three new members, including Dave Bush, an ex-member of The Fall, and the expulsion of Donna Matthews (who weaned herself off of drugs and is now a practising vicar – yes, really). Although their intent is less defined here, it’s still a good album; traces of Elastica’s ‘Hold Me Now’ are evident in the lyrics of album opener ‘Mad Dog’, both providing a tongue-in-cheek opposition to romance songs – “Hold me now, I need assistance/I’d pick somebody else if I could” is the clinical, self-aware antidote to the syrupy ‘love-making’ soundtracks of someone like Bruno Mars. Half of the tracks are similar to those on Elastica; essentially, catchy punk ditties. ‘How He Wrote Elastica, Man’, ‘Generator’, ‘Your Arse My Place’ and ‘Da Da Da’ fit into this category. The other half are Brian Eno-influenced, favouring a building atmosphere of sound over lyrics, brevity or avenging Suede – by this time, Frischmann had rebuilt her bridges with Brett Anderson, so far as to provide backing vocals for Suede at the Reading Festival in 1997 for ‘Implement Yeah!’, a song written in 1990 when she was still in the band. ‘Love Like Ours’ and ‘Human’ brim with barely-suppressed sexual tension, whereas ‘Image Change’ and ‘KB’ sound like the love-children of Aphex Twin and a cocktail of shoegaze bands, with a strangely underwater feeling. It’s an album that split critical opinion, partly due to the album’s inaccessibility compared to its predecessor and partly due to the wait between albums.
It’s important to note that, for a band who didn’t breach the top 10 singles chart with their singles, they still managed to have that #1 album and, more importantly, were one of two Britpop bands to (sort of) break America. Considering that Suede and Pulp remain totally anonymous over the pond, Blur only broke the States after ‘Song 2’ became an advertisement soundtrack goldmine (and Gorillaz remain far more lucrative in America for Damon Albarn), and Oasis only managed to sneak some success following the release of ‘Wonderwall’, Elastica’s debut managing to chart at #66 on the Billboard Albums Chart, therefore, is no mean feat. Aside from the fact that it’s rare for British bands to break the States any way, especially a band that sings about male impotence and back-seat romps, it’s evidence of Britpop’s wider influence beyond Britain; proof that it wasn’t merely a self-congratulating movement.
To recap, then; it’s a real shame that they’ve been neglected of press since their split in 2001. Their music hasn’t dated, especially their singles. They brought ‘girl power’ to the forefront before The Spice Girls started shimmying around in Union Flag dresses, and unlike Posh, Baby et al., they also brought credibility to it. It’s a travesty that they’ve been forgotten by the vast majority of people, especially when they exploded into public consciousness so quickly. So make it right by listening to their two albums, and maybe I’ll propose to you. Maybe.*
*DISCLAIMER: But I probably won’t. If you’d like me to, please send me your Love CV and I’ll consider you. Those over the age of 30, under the age of 19, in possession of a beard/moustache/woolly back/ugly face/vagina, with an allergy to non-league football/Britpop/gerbils, or a fondness for burger sauce/ice-skating/dogs need not apply. Thank you!