Lauren Laverne is the wrong way round. Puffy-eyed, the now-broadcaster, then-frontwoman of 1990s band Kenickie stares dead-eyed and direct into the camera at a 90-degree angle, going full stream-of-consciousness about her current state of mind:
“So now everyone in the band is out of the van except me, because it’s the end of the travelling and everyone’s got to leave, but I’m gonna go to sleep.” She turns the camera around and continues. “That’s my face and it’s very ugly because I’m very tired. Very terribly, terribly, terribly tired.” Then she raises her voice and gets visibly annoyed, as if the harsh reality of the last few months of life in her band has only just occurred to her. “It’s just boring. You have to wait around and it’s crap, and there’s nothing to do. All there is to do is eat food. Nothing’s gonna happen for the next three hours… just waiting around, and maybe I’ll read some Nietzsche.”
Those tuning in to watch Check One, the 1998 documentary from which that footage came, probably weren’t expecting to see this side of Kenickie. Hot on the heels of their second album Get In, whose 20th anniversary this month will likely pass unmarked, fans were probably expecting a band in celebratory mode. Instead, they got a group on the brink of implosion who split up at the end of that tour. “We were Kenickie!” Laverne exclaimed from the London Astoria in that documentary. “A bunch of fuckwits.”
Before then, it had seemed so promising. Barely 18 months earlier, with the release of their debut album At The Club, the four teenagers from Sunderland looked set for something vaguely resembling stardom. With a ringing endorsement from Courtney Love (“They're a big, raw-boned bunch of fucking sex – I hope this record’s huge"), that album’s defiantly working-class, feminine adolescence came as an antidote to the preceding three years of boorish Britpop hurt. It’s an album that’s full of potential, both in terms of the unfuckwithable pop hooks bursting out of each track, and the giddy teenage energy that comes before a night out with your best mates. If nothing else, it was proof enough that the Sunderland group were plenty good already.
Yet, for all their undeniable songwriting talent, all-important marketability, and a perfectly curated image that simultaneously appealed to lad mag culture and railed against it, none of the album’s singles charted higher than number 24. The press, meanwhile, rarely saw beyond the band’s shiny exterior; the Independent’s review of At The Club described the band as “blonde and brassy and up for as much fun as it's possible to have in PVC”. Kenickie were perfect for their time, but also just behind it; indeed, the week after At The Club was released, Radiohead dropped OK Computer, and the landscape was changing.
The Wicked And The Divine author Kieron Gillen, who makes a teenage appearance in the Check One documentary and once ran the band’s official fansite, recently put it to me this way: “When the response to something like Oasis is Radiohead, that’s not a huge aesthetic spectrum. There was a mistaking of solemnity for seriousness, which made things like Kenickie – who were serious, but not solemn – out of place.”
1998 was a year of burnout for the entire Britpop set, most significantly chronicled on Pulp’s This Is Hardcore. In the none-more-ironically titled “Party Hard”, Jarvis Cocker asked himself listlessly “Why do we have to half-kill ourselves just to prove we’re alive?” Barely out of their teens, Lauren Laverne, Marie du Santiago, Emmy-Kate Montrose and Johnny X were asking themselves the same sort of questions, and far too young for that shit.
While on the surface, the second and final Kenickie album promised more of the same heady thrills as At The Club, there’s far more darkness at play on Get In. If At The Club is the soundtrack to the best night out you’ve ever had, Get In is the dark morning after of the soul. The worst thing that happens on Kenickie’s debut is a "lipstick stain on my new dress", the hardest obstacle to overcome having to "dodge the sick stains on the street". But on Get In, the marks and blemishes seem a little more sinister; guitarist Marie du Santiago sings “purple palm print on your thigh” in the woozy electronica-tinged “5am”, you blanche to think how it might have got there.
In their review, the NME described Get In as “audaciously bleak”, and it’s impossible to argue. When Get In is at its lowest, it sounds like it’ll never be able to get up again. “Weeknights” is an almost Mogwai-ishly intense dirge, complete with an orchestra to really ramp up the tension, with Laverne running through the physical symptoms of what sounds like the worst existential dread-inducing hangover known to humanity. She sums it all up in the song’s pithy, rueful chorus: “We didn’t drink on weeknights when we were young”. A little over a year from the excitable excesses of their first album, Kenickie were already in the painful process of sobering up, and feeling nostalgic for a time before they knew it wasn’t worth it.
Then there’s “Magnatron”, written and sung by Santiago, which might sound like a response to the Spice Girls' "Who Do You Think You Are", but trades that song’s brattiness and brashness for the sick terror of catching your reflection in the mirror at 6AM, “when the day breaks and your skin’s all itchy”. Even, the beachside reverie of opening track “Stay in the Sun”, whose video saw the three women in the band sporting sunglasses in the back of a speedboat, is all too quickly broken by the crashing waves of cymbals which kickstart the doom-laden trip-hop beats of “Lunch at Lassiters”. Essentially, unlike Kenickie’s debut album, the moments of giddiness are few and far between.
At The Club might have sounded keen to make friends and influence people, but the only eagerness apparent on Get In is an urge call out the bullshit, the hangers-on, the back-handed compliments. In the Check One documentary, the band make their feelings about the record industry painfully clear. As Emmy-Kate Montrose stands on a venue fire escape, she tells the camera “you have to… be nice to people that you don’t really want to, and that’s fine as long as you know that these people are not really your friends.” Laverne, slumped in front of a Leeds car park with her head in her hands, takes a different approach: “I haven’t felt more exploited than I’ve exploited other people – it’s symbiotic, really… so I don’t really have a problem with it.”
This jadedness rears its head on Get In as well. The mangled pop gem “Run Me Over” starts with a listless catalogue of party observations – “He met a star, he gave him drugs, he says the people we are from are thugs” – before charging into a harmony-laden chorus where Laverne’s tired narrator sounds like she would very much like to be excluded from the narrative, repeating “I hate it when you talk about me”. “Psychic Defence”, the album’s sumptuous Disney soundtrack-like highlight, goes even further, with Laverne playing the role of a record exec keen to give his female charges some “useful” advice: “If you’ve got a smile, then smile it – you’re lucky, ‘cause you can sell.” Ultimately, the rambunctious four-point manifesto laid out in their 1996 single “Come Out 2 Nite" – “Take what you can, eat off the man, wear high heels and get a record deal!” – had given way to a bleaker realisation on the album’s older, wiser lead single “I Would Fix You”: “Life is stressful when you’re successful.”
“Saying Kenickie were the Velvet Underground of Mostly-Girls-90s-indie-pop would be an over-reach,” Gillen says. “But I'd argue it if you got me drunk enough.” Those who love the band would do much the same. I used to gladly insist that it Kenickie’s two albums made up the most perfectly-formed discography in the history of pop purely because of their function at either side of a night out. At The Club was the perfect pre-drinking album, the sound of a never-ending sugar rush coursing through your ears and straight to your veins. Get In doesn’t just sound like the morning after. It practically is the morning after – the end of an era, and the sound of the 90s’ most underrated band going supernova and burning out in real time. Hopefully more people will be able to see the light from it soon enough.
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This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.