Monday, May 5, 2014

Jim Patterson: Trainspotting - the best mixtape of the 90's

Our twentieth anniversary of Britpop series of guest posts continues into week two with Jim Patterson looking at an album which was part of the scene in spirit and in content (and introduced Iggy Pop to a generation) - the Trainspotting Soundtrack

Self-defining as good, bad but not evil, Jim tweets at @mrjimpaterson

Britpop's success, and it's eventual downfall, was all tied up in confidence. The confidence of the underdog in their native, initially unfashionable, influences struck a chord, and grew into the confidence to seize the moment and, for a while, the mainstream. But that confidence quickly became arrogance, and led to some odd record deals, a fear of moving forward and Be Here Now.

This tipping point happened in or about 1996, when Trainspotting came out, and in many ways it represents the absolute crescendo of that confidence while still retaining the birth notes of why making British art was important. The film is bloody, bold storytelling and its soundtrack, like the best mixtapes, has oddities, bangers and weird unknowns that would go on to be your favourite song.

This was, for me, a Britpop album in feeling if not in classification, and the bands featured from the scene contribute a set of tracks that are cinematic in their ability to capture mood (Sleeper's identikit cover of 'Atomic' aside). Elastica's unsettling 2:1, Blur's euphorically growing Sing, Mile End by Pulp, providing a snapshot of the protagonists' futureless existence "I guess you have to go right down/Before you understand just how/How low a human being will go". 

There was also Damon Albarn's 'Closet Romantic', a wistful fairground whirligig of a song. And, from one remove to what was considered Britpop, Primal Scream and their song Trainspotting - a sinuous, smoke-laden hint of what was to come in next year's 'Vanishing Point' and a great walking song - essential for mixtapes.

Many of the album's highlights were from older artists - influences in attitude and music on both the Britpop bands and Trainspotting's characters. Iggy Pop, a favourite artist in the novel, appears twice. Opener 'Lust for Life', one of three breakout hits from the album, is a tumbling evil grin of a song, promising adventure, excitement and really wild things. 'Nightclubbing' is a sequel in this context, for when the initial adventure has become something you were not promised. Brian Eno provides the gorgeous, reflective Deep Blue Day - a rare safe, warm space on the soundtrack.

And 'Perfect Day' - like the film so ubiquitous. And so misunderstood (including by me). For me, it was the first solo song I'd heard by Lou Reed that wasn't 'Walk on the Wild Side' and sounded so instantly lush and simultaneously lyrically wrong that I was smitten. And a large part of the rest of the country felt the same, given its upgrade to BBC mega choir fodder just a few years later. But that first time, when it felt like a dark message cloaked in strings...

The energy that holds Trainspotting together though, is dance music. It's a film about heroin addicts, but is cut like a film about ecstasy (which Boyle has acknowledged when talking about editing the film to Underworld's Dubnobasswithmyheadman). New Order's Temptation is the older precursor, while Bedrock's For What You Dream Of and Leftfield's A Final Hit are two sides of a night out - the first forever rising towards a euphoric peak, the latter a sleepy 4am post-club contemplation while the beat carries on in your neighbour's living room.

And then, to finish, there's Born Slippy, the amazing track only your mate knows but now will never leave your life. It seems odd looking back, give the subsequent success of Born Slippy, that it only got on the soundtrack because Boyle found the remix (technically, the version we know is 'Born Slippy NUXX) on a CD single. Trying to imagine it as an unknown quantity is almost impossible, since it now lives beyond the film as shorthand for not just 90's music, but the 90s itself. It takes a propulsive rhythm and a melody caught between melancholy and celebration and wraps them up to force us to face forward, even though we fear what we leave behind.

I listened to Trainspotting again for this blog, 18 years on from being 18, remembering what it was like when I heard (most of) these songs for the first time. I played it on Friday nights, I played it on Sunday afternoons. I walked to work with it. It stayed with me through a year of my life while I got embarrassed, got drunk, laughed a lot, made many mistakes and started to learn to live as an adult. I can't feel the same way about it now as I did then, but I still hear the echoes of those first listens, just as we still feel the echoes of this magnificent mixtape in music today.

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