The “new Smiths". It was a badge frequently dished out after 1987, when the original thing ended. The Wedding Present were tagged “The Smiths fans’ second favourite band”. James had some legitimate claim, having supported the band and even been covered by them (The Smiths’ released a rather marvellous live cover of What’s The World, from James' first EP). The Stone Roses were even hailed as the second coming (as opposed to the dreadful The Second Coming, which they would release in 1994).
Suede were close – again, Moz was covering them (he regularly dropped the b-side from their debut single, My Insatiable One, into his live set from July – November 1992). Brett had Moz’s campness, arch lyrics and posturing down, whilst Bernard was the demon guitarist, his glam rock stylings a natural heir to songs like I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish. But Suede were too "sex and drugs" to really be the new Smiths.
But the first band that really hit the mark for me was Gene. Their debut single, For The Dead, was only released on vinyl and a ludicrously limited number of copies were issued (1,994 copies which sold out in two days - I would pick up the reissued single much later). Martin Rossiter, their besuited, stylish, camp, physical singer, snarled the lyrics in such a Moz style, you feared he’d be sued. Don't get me wrong, Martin was his own man, but there were similarities in their Englishness, their stagecraft and their way with words.
Second single, Be My Light, Be My Guide, was more widely available in August 1994 and I rushed out and bought the CD. Three tracks, each of them brilliant - this was the first band since The Smiths where the b-side was as important as the a-side. They were stylish, cool, they looked like a gang - exactly as The Smiths did. I am sure they hated the constant comparison, but it was, at least for me, a huge compliment. I had loved The Smiths - Gene were the first band that seemed to really measure up.
Be My Light, Be My Guide was a mission statement - "oh, I've been waiting a long time" and "tonight, let it be my night" all sounded to me like the proclamation of a band claiming their place on the stage. I Can't Help Myself was the loveliest ballad, whilst This Is Not My Crime was a powerful and angry ("As I picked him from the line, this time he'll surely do time").
I played it endlessly in my bedsit room, in a lovely house in Devon. I had planned to move back to London, but then got offered a job in Exeter. Having given up my place in my shared house, I took a room with a lovely woman called Liz, and her teenage son Ben. It was a Victorian style house and seemed very grand after 4 years of student living. I was making new friends through work and fortunately, my new colleagues were music fans. I remember hitting The Cavern regularly with workmates Helen and Nicola and their partners, seeing up and coming Britpop indie bands. I raved to them about Gene and they too were hooked.
I rushed out about bought its successor, Sleep Well Tonight - again, the b-sides were as great as the lead song. By November '94, they played a gig at The Cavern in Exeter. The tiny venue was RAMMED and they were staggeringly good. I knew it must be good, as the student unions ents managers had blagged tickets to go to the gig - I had never seen them at a gig just as punters before. The music press hype around the band had them interested.
Rossiter prowled the stage, microphone lead swirling in the air like a whip, as his whip-smart lyrics were sung back to him by an excited, enthralled crowd. Guitarist Steve Mason looked and played like Paul Weller at his most muscular. Kevin and Matt were less showy, but solid - the best kind of rhythm section, holding it all together and keeping the beat as we moshed away. Martin frequently used the monitors on stage to propel himself in the air - I was smitten. They played early versions of songs like Olympian and future single Haunted By You, but it was opener Be My Light, Be My Guide that set the tone.
I saw them numerous times after that - apparently, I saw them at the Royal Albert Hall with my friend Gill, but I have absolutely no memory of that (she insists I was there). Their 1995 gig at the Astoria with The Divine Comedy was amazing, as was a gig in Southend with my friend Vicki - Martin recounting an imagined meeting with Freddie Mercury, now a reincarnated ice-cream vendor, before kicking off a spirited cover of Queen's You're My Best Friend. Their albums are still massively important to me and The Smiths comparison faded away after time. The fourth, and last album, Libertine, didn't click with me, and they called it a day not long after.
They never reformed, though Martin played a couple of stunning retirement shows in 2021 (see Martin Rossiter, The Forum, Kentish Town, 20th November 2021). And if I play Be My Light, Be My Guide, I am transported back to my little room, to my first real, grown up job after university, and starting to work out what I wanted to do with my life after the bubble of university and working at the student union had finally burst. It's a soundtrack to change and happy memories.
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