1941: Pearl Harbour is bombed, Leningrad besieged. Virginia Woolf and James Joyce write their final full stops. And somewhere in the USA, the teenager is born. Look up that word in the OED and you’ll find the first citation; tentative, hyphenated, but undeniably the beginning of a cultural phenomenon that would define the immediate post-war decades. It’s hard to imagine it being so recent; adolescence has always been, of course. But teenager – identity, demography, pathology – it’s only just hit puberty, in the grand scheme of things.
Being a teenager in the mid 1990s was, to quote Supergrass (one of the few genuinely brilliant pop bands of the era), alright. Indeed, if you revisit that video now – Gaz, Danny and Micky racing their choppers through Portmeirion – you might remember the time as all sunshine and smiles. We did have a couple of very hot summers; I spent one of them in the Lake District, imagining it was Peru. But otherwise I was hardly skipping around in the shine, shade-hogger that I was. I just remember long evenings after school, white shirt unbuttoned to the waist, hypnotised by the sound of Pete Sampras’ Wimbledon rallies on BBC2. Despite the surge of hormones, the growth spurt, and the sudden spike in appetites (gastronomic, sexual or otherwise), adolescence is mostly a time of boredom and torpor. There are huge crises, granted, and at the time everything seems almost unutterably dramatic, but these are just sporadic points punctuating long periods of watching the clock and perfecting the art of the lie-in and the snacking session. I had my share of turbulence, most of it sexual. The nineties were a reasonable time to grow up gay; attitudes were shifting quite rapidly, and there were a few role models popping up here and there. At the same time, I think pop music and pop culture were friendlier to gayness in the 1980s. It wasn’t just your Jimmy Somervilles and Boy Georges and Marc Almonds; there was a lot of ambiguous, unlabelled bisexuality (Morrissey, Billy Mackenzie, Pete Shelley) and a general turn towards the marginalia of sexual identity. Nineties queerness, by contrast, was straight – Brett Anderson flopping his wrists, Brian Molko singing a lot about leather – or else crushed in the rush to keep it real. The youth culture of the nineties was all about faking a prolier-than-thou ‘authenticity’ that left little room for the slightly off-piste among us. Hilarious really, when you think of what a narcissistic diva Liam Gallagher actually was. But even the art-school bands (hello Blur) briefly felt they had to squeeze into the football shorts and do a bit of dribbling for the cameras. We’re sniffy about this time now – ‘laddism’, lager, Loaded – and naturally, that’s not even half the story. But even I bought Four Four Two for a while. It appealed to the statistics geek within me, though I suspect my real interest wasn’t too dissimilar to my compadres’ fondness for FHM. Don’t mention Les Ferdinand’s legs! Shit, I just did.
On balance, I should have been born twenty years earlier. I’m sure 1976 would have passed me by up in County Durham – all my parents remembered was drought alerts and Showaddywaddy – but I’d have sat with my NME in the library and daydreamed. To be seventeen in the late seventies or early eighties was to identify with Feargal Sharkey complaining about his cousin Kevin beating him at Subbuteo; it was to answer Pete Shelley’s rhetorical question, ‘ever fallen in love with someone you shouldn’t have fallen in love with?’, with a resounding affirmative. The Undertones and the Buzzcocks were particularly adept at bottling the sweaty, greasy essence of adolescence; the dizzy swings from tedium to euphoria and back again. The Buzzcocks’ brilliant first single, ‘Boredom’, says it all, Howard Devoto sneering his way through a comically affected disaffection. ‘I’m already a has-been!’ he exclaims, before delivering the killer punchline: ‘You know me, I’m acting dumb, / And the scene is very humdrum’.
I knew these lines at sixteen, but not from The Buzzcocks. I hadn’t yet heard that seminal piece of spit (there’s a double entendre the boys would no doubt have approved of). But I had heard and loved ‘Rip it up’, one of the greatest British pop singles of the 1980s, and, rather shockingly, the sole top forty hit for Glaswegian indie legends Orange Juice. ‘Rip it up’ is the epitome of the ‘new pop’ as the pomo poseurs at the NME of the time liked to call it (and which Jess Harvell dissects excellently here), a pop which took delight in referring to nothing but itself, a pop which drily commented on its own processes while loving their quirks. Take the title of a classic Chuck Berry track, then intone it in a whimsical, slightly effete baritone; add a squelchy Roland TB-303 bass synth and watch your song wobble into life. Then sketch some meta-lyrics about the process of writing pop songs – ‘there are times I’d take my pen and feel obliged to start again / I do profess that there are things in life that one can’t quite express’ – before admitting defeat, citing the Buzzcocks wholesale and announcing with a wink, ‘My favourite song’s entitled ‘Boredom’’. The song knows that originality is impossible. You can’t really ever rip it up and start again. It’s as if Edwyn Collins were saying, ‘those kids in 1976 thought they were resetting the clock. Now we can reference them in order to make the point that you can’t’. It should be so arch, so mean-spirited, but it’s quite the opposite. In ‘Rip it up’, originality is achieved; by giving up any claim to it, Orange Juice do indeed tear up the rulebook and dance gleefully among the snowstorm of paper. It should be clever-clever, but it just can’t be, because it’s a joyful, uncoiling spring of wonky Brit-funk in love with pop and all its possibilities.
It was years before I realised that this band had form. I’d wrongly assumed them to be one-hit wonders, though my own nineties (them again) did register Collins’s mega-hit ‘A girl like you’. Hearing ‘Falling and laughing’ for the first time was a bit of a blood-rush. In fact, I felt sixteen again; and I found myself falling (in love) and laughing (at the exuberant loveliness of it). It’s a knowing song, but it never sneers. This is what adolescence is like if you read Baudelaire instead of FHM, self-absorbed and prone to the morbidly poetic, lovelorn and careworn, yet with a welcome sense of absurdity.
It has one of the best opening lines of all time. Collins muses, in his uniquely off-brown timbre, ‘You must think me very naive’; the way he mispronounces that last word, emphasising the first syllable rather than the second, suggests he does indeed have a lot to learn, though it may be a nice double bluff. ‘Avoid eye contact at all costs’, he reminds himself, but then he has to throw in a little compliment about her teeth. He’s trying to be Werther, all tragic and grand (‘only my tears satisfy the real need of my heart’) but every time he plays the tortured artist, he breaks into a grin. As he says, he wants to take the pleasure with the pain: ‘what can I do but learn to laugh at myself?’ If only I’d had that gift at his age! Despite the valiant attempts at Romanticism, the giggles are everywhere. David McClymont’s bass bubbles up and down, fluttering like the heart of a besotted teen, and the whole thing zips along with the unlikely funkiness of a gawky fifth former whose feet are too big for his frame. Sunshine is everywhere, so much so that you realise how much it’s absent in most evocations of adolescence. Yes, you become obsessed with a different person every month and it’s terrible, but just perving on them in assembly can keep you happy for hours, and you’re not yet too old for a hug from Mum and a hot dinner at the end of the school day. It’s all there in this song. Collins’ aspirations run earnestly up their E minor scale, but they’re always checked by the home chord of D major; flights of fancy are grounded soon enough. I hear lots of Glasgow in this – a city both rich in artsiness and earthed in honest toil – but I also hear myself, reciting Keats in my bedroom while the other kids run amok outside.
Of course, this wouldn’t have been my interpretation of the song if I had been sixteen in 1980, rather than in the womb. As I get older, I realise the clichés are almost certainly true; youth is wasted on the young. But it’s rather wonderful that you can instantly relive the good bits at the flick of the needle or the touch of a shuffle button. Edwyn’s been through some trauma more recently, a nasty stroke that left him half-paralysed; music, and his wife Grace, have rescued him, and I was moved to see him performing at All Tomorrow’s Parties last year. There he sat, performing ‘Falling and laughing’, its lyrics now resonant in so many ways that would have been inconceivable back when it was first released. You see, we ignore our past at our peril; as another great poet once wrote, the child is father to the man. We can laugh at our younger selves – the gaucheness, the folly – while accepting them as us nevertheless. In that light, ‘Falling and laughing’ is a piece of true wisdom. Cherish it.