The Anniversary

Elastica Turns 20

It’s oddly appropriate that Elastica’s self-titled debut came out on the same day as The Bends, Radiohead’s classic sophomore album. Those two records represent opposite sides of British rock in the mid-’90s. The Radiohead of The Bends was a sober band, one that took itself seriously. They played big, longing, starry-eyed melodies over layered guitars, and their sound was vast and layered and complex. They were still very much a rock band at the time, but they were drawing on prog and postpunk and shoegaze and dream-rock — the most elliptical sounds rock had to offer, basically. You could never be quite sure what Thom Yorke was singing about. And the band held themselves somewhat aloof from the Britpop explosion that was happening far away from their Oxford hometown. Elastica, meanwhile, were the opposite in just about every way. They were hard and pointed and just mercilessly hooky. Their songs were short, sharp shocks. They used guitars and keyboards as stabbing instruments. They probably owned a lot of the same postpunk records as Radiohead owned, but they took different things away from them. It wasn’t that hard to tell what Justine Frischmann was singing about; “Car Song,” for example, was about fucking in a car. And they were all up in the Britpop scene; Frischmann and drummer Justin Welch were defectors from Suede, and Frischmann, at the time, was dating Blur’s Damon Albarn, who played keyboards, under an alias, on the Elastica album. They were a beautiful, gleaming hook machine. And, sure, The Bends is a better album. But it’s closer than you think.

Elastica, amazingly enough, has not aged at all since it came out 20 years ago, possibly because it already seemed perfectly out-of-time the moment it arrived. There was a bit of dance-pop in the synths on the album, especially on the big single “Connection,” but they were mostly utterly uninterested in sounding like they belonged in 1995. Instead, they were a streamlined, weaponized version of a British band from that circa-1979 era where postpunk was turning into new wave. The sounds all come, sometimes directly, from that era, but they’re not weighed down with political struggle or cultural angst. Even at the band’s most psychedelic and furthest-out — the half-acoustic murmur “Company,” say — everything exists to serve the hook. Elastica is one of those albums that sounds like a greatest-hits collection right out of the gate — which is appropriate enough, since the band wouldn’t do much after its release. It’s a giddy 38-minute burst of wound-up guitars and dizzy melody and ice-cold snarl. And right now, off the top of my head, I can’t think of a big major-label alt-rock record that’s been as purely fun.

Elastica were rip-off artists, of course, and they had to pay piles of cash in out-of-court settlements as a result. Wire pointed out, quite rightly, that the central riff in “Connection” was a bald and direct bite from their own 1977 song “Three Girl Rumba,” while “Line Up” has a suspiciously similar chorus to Wire’s 1978 single “I Am The Fly.” The Stranglers got in on it, too, noting that “Waking Up” was distinctly similar to their 1977 single “No More Heroes.” This wasn’t a “Blurred Lines”/Marvin Gaye situation; these songs were direct and provable bites. But in every one of those situations, Elastica improved on their source material. They stole melodic elements, but they made those melodic elements harder and meaner and more direct. They aimed those melodic elements straight at the pop-music jugular. “Three Girl Rhumba” and “I Am The Fly” are great songs, but even peak-era Wire couldn’t take those riffs and hooks the places that Elastica could. For example, word got around in my high school that you could play the “Connection” riff on a touchtone phone: 3-233-3-233-3-233-6-322. (Try it! It sort of works!) Nobody was saying that about the “Three Girl Rhumba” riff, even though it’s the exact same riff. And none of the bands from the Wire/Stranglers era could work up a shimmy as sprightly as the one on “Hold Me Now,” the Elastica song that was a crush-mixtape staple of mine for years.

If Elastica had gone away forever after Elastica, it would’ve been one of the all-time great pop-history one-and-dones. They almost did. They made videos for five of the album’s 15 songs, and they served as token Brits on that summer’s Lollapalooza tour. (I saw their set, but I don’t remember anything about it, possibly because I was preoccupied with the urgent need to get high before Cypress Hill came on.) As soon as they got home from that tour, they went through a chaotic years-long series of lineup changes and personal issues and false-start recording sessions. In 2000, they finally got around to releasing their flop of a sophomore album, The Menace, which flirted with electroclash and which was pretty good but nowhere near as good as their debut. A year later, they broke up forever. These days, Frischmann is an abstract painter in the Bay Area. It’s hard to say they had any direct influence on the music that followed, since their own music was a distillation of its own influences. Savages has a similar visual aesthetic and set of influences, but they mine those influences for confrontational power, not for hooks. And even though SPIN called the Is This It-era Strokes the “male Elastica” in 2001, the comparison doesn’t really do justice to either band. (At their best, the Strokes were closer to being the male Go-Go’s, anyway.)

But Elastica’s influence does linger in some weird, indirect ways. For one thing, 13, one of Blur’s best albums, is entirely about Albarn’s painful breakup with Frischmann. As it happens, Albarn stopped trying to write punchy guitar-pop anthems at pretty much the exact time that he and Albarn split, and that can’t be a coincidence. Meanwhile, when Elastica toured North America behind The Menace, they brought along a young videographer named Maya Arulpragasam to document the tour. As this great Pitchfork piece points out, Frischmann would go onto become a sort of mentor to Arulpragasam, and together they made the squiggly bare-bones beat to what would become “Galang,” M.I.A.’ first single. There may not be a direct line of influence between Elastica and Arular, but the band did set in motion a few things that are still reverberating around pop music today. More importantly, though, they made one of the great mercenary guitar-pop albums of all time. Radiohead can claim a lot of victories, but they can’t claim that.

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