Britpop always was a strange old beast, a label of convenience that meant different things to different people. Obviously Blur, Elastica, Suede, and Sleeper were Britpop. Then there was the Northern contingent - Pulp, Shed Seven, Oasis. But what about others - The Manics, Radiohead, the Charlatans, the Stone Roses? And what about the band who arguably produced the finest album of the Britpop era - Black Grape?
Actually, scrap that. Whether they were or weren’t "Britpop" is as irrelevant as whether the words Baggy and Madchester can be used interchangeably (they can’t by the way), but there's no debate about one thing - Black Grape didn’t produce “arguably” the finest album of the Britpop era, their debut album “It's Great When You're Straight... Yeah” WAS the finest album of the Britpop era.
In a period where plenty of records were getting 9/10's from the reviewers, Black Grape scored a 10/10, bettering Definitely Maybe, Dog Man Star, Parklife, Holy Bible. It was in a different class to, well, Different Class. Shaun Ryder and associates had created a stoned-out stone-cold classic. Where Primal Scream and the Stone Roses had belatedly come back several years after their Baggy-best with poorly received homages to the music of the Stones and Led Zeppelin, “It's Great...” was a party from the first blast on the Reverend's trumpet to Shaun's fade-out backward speaking on Little Bob.
Let’s begin at the beginning. For those of you who don’t own the album get hold of a copy now. CD, vinyl, cassette, take your pick. Go on, we’ll wait.
Ok, now study the cover in front of you. The Monday's album covers were always important. Bright and brash, like the corridor displays in a primary school, they personified the band's vibe and reflected the music - nick a bit here, drop that there, keep it all nice and colorful. The Monday’s legacy was continued on “It’s Great...” via the bright yellow image of a sunglasses-clad Carlos the Jackal on the cover. It exuded the kind of cool you normally only get in a French cop movie.
Ok, so we’ve examined the cover. Now for the music.
First out is Reverend Black Grape. In the video for Reverend Black Grape Shaun appeared as a Preacher-man, black circular hat perched atop his head. The first half of the album has that feel; a preacher returned from lands unknown to convert the locals to his twisted Church. A pie-eyed piper leading the children into his magical cave of chemical delights.
The track opens with bongos and a harmonica, the funkiest harmonica you’ll ever hear – this ain’t no Bob Dylan revival. Next in comes Kermit, loudly proclaiming that the Preacherman is about to take the stage. Finally Shaun Ryder steps into the limelight hollering about Reeboks, tennis, and singing a version of “Oh Come all ye Faithful” that you wouldn’t find on Songs of Praise. It’s a remarkably confident number from a band led by a man who was considered a washed-up junkie when he was last seen on TV dancing with Zippy off Rainbow. It’s a song with bollocks.
Big, swaggering, Salfordian bollocks.
Next up it’s “In the Name of the Father”, its Christian title giving no clues to the song itself, filled as it is with Indian sitars and ragga-talk about butt-squeezing. This is one prayer Cliff won’t be releasing at Christmas. Two tracks in and the Preacherman has got the village bouncing.
“Tramazi Party” doesn’t see any let up in the good vibes, but Shaun’s starting to weave his malevolent magic. Having won their trust he’s now doling out the sweeties - Temazepam all round… “welcome to your nightmare”. He’s showing a different side - less Preacher, more old time Witch-Doctor - but any doubts the congregation might be feeling are assuaged by the next track,
“Kelly’s Heroes”, which goes back to the same celebratory vibe as the first two songs.
The side closes with “Yeah Yeah Brother”. This time the mood switches. We’re in the Preacherman’s private quarters now, the public mask drops. And he’s in menacing mood. It’s the Last Supper, only Judas has been invited and this time Jesus is going to fuck him over.
The same vaguely threatening vibe starts Side Two. I’ll be honest – I haven’t a clue what he’s on about with “A Big Day in the North”. But “sticks and stones break your bones”, “love will always hurt ya”, and “bloodshot eyes scan the skies”. A bad deal going down?
The next three tracks are straight out of Goodfellas. There’s drugs, money, debt, violence. It’s Great When You’re Straight…Yeah. It’s still funky, it’s still got tunes, but there’s trouble. Even “Submarine” (the most upbeat of the three songs) contains a character who smokes steroids and puts people in headlocks, whilst in “Shake Your Money” Shaun urges someone to “put down your fists and hit him with a shovel”.
And finally there’s “Little Bob”. Then that’s it. Album over.
In summary I’ll just refer back to the NME review at the time. 10/10.