Sleeper – The Sugarmill – 15/03/18

Most people will gravitate towards Iggy Pop‘s ‘Lust for Life’ when asked to name the song most synonymous with Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, but it was Sleeper‘s cover of ‘Atomic’ that actually accompanied one of the most memorable scenes in the film. Released in February 1996, the film and its iconic Britpop-themed soundtrack represented one of the many facets of the Cool Britannia era that burned ever so brightly for a few years during the mid-1990s. Sleeper were an intrinsic member of this cultural fraternity that came to manifest the youthful joie de vivre of the nation, but by 1998 the movement’s energy and rebellious spirit was beginning to fizzle out and many of the bands associated with it had called it a day. After relatively disappointing sales of their third album Pleased to Meet You, this included Sleeper.

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The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein made the famous observation that If a lion could talk, we would not understand him and 23 years on from the release of Sleeper’s debut album I’m inclined to think this statement may be true of young people today when faced with lyrics from the Brit Pop era. ‘What on earth is a Penthouse subscription?’ they might say upon listening to 1995 single ‘Inbetweener’, and this may explain why the small club venue in Stoke’s city centre is completely full of forty-something men and women. We’re the only ones who still understand the the cultural references and turns of phrase that made Sleeper such a highlight of this particularly British indie movement.

Coaxed back to the scene in 2017 along with other iconic bands from the genre for the Britpop-themed Star Shaped Festival clearly reawakened the band’s spirit, because they’ve returned for more this spring with an extensive tour across the length and breadth of the UK. This has clearly generated a bit of a buzz because The Sugarmill is rammed tonight! The driving bass lines of ‘Bedhead’ open the show and it quickly becomes apparent how timeless the band’s songs actually are. Although a nostalgic journey through their youth for many in attendance this evening, it does not feel like we’re here because of twee sentimentalism; the songs are still fresh and full of energy. ‘Pyrotechnician’ and the Smiths-infused jangly guitar melodies of ‘Delicious’, all from the 1995 debut album Smart, reminded us all of Louise Wener’s significant songwriting credentials but it was 1996’s The It Girl which really reinforced these qualities – ‘Lie Detector”s culturally savvy lyrics are a joy to hear again in this cynical age.

It is this section of the show where the band really click and Wener looks like she’s having the most fun. Guitarist Jon Stewart can’t seem to lose his giddy grin all evening and drummer Andy Maclure, still demonstrating his energetic ants-in-pants style, also appears to be having a whale of a time as he leads the band in to a thrilling rendition of ‘Nice Guy Eddie’. This track in particular reminds us all of the smoky, vocal qualities of Louise Wener’s voice, and while they may not possess the same seductive qualities of nearly a quarter a century ago, they still manage to thrill the partisan Stoke crowd. When the iconic introduction to ‘Atomic’ kicks in it is a goosebumps-inducing moment. It may be a Blondie song from 1979 but to us Brits, it is redolent of a period in our lives when the world was our oyster, we still had our untainted pre-internet brain and the possibilities were endless. Even England losing to Germany on penalties in the Euros wasn’t going to spoil that in 1996!

Louise Wener informs us that tweets to the band have enquired about stage times on this tour so that babysitters could be arranged, demonstrating the mature levels of responsibility that have naturally emerged by the band’s faithful fans over the last twenty years. This may explain the surprisingly lacklustre response once the band have left the stage. Instead of rewarding the band with chants to return everyone waits quietly, civilized, until Louise returns, somewhat timorously explaining that the band now leave the stage for a rest rather than engaging in the debauched antics of their youth.

They then launch in to a rousing ‘Alice in Vain’, a song which she introduces as closest in form to the grunge that Britpop effectively replaced. ‘Sale of the Century’ is probably the band’s signature single and it is saved until the very end. It is definitely worth the wait. The jaunty, angular guitar rhythms that launch the song prompt the reinvigorated crowd to bounce along merrily before we all rush off home to pay the babysitter in our twenty-first century lives. If the rumours of a new album hinted at by Jon Stewart in 2017 become a reality, it will be fascinating to observe how twenty odd years has changed the band’s gloriously visual and culturally hip insights of the late-twentieth century that have been displayed so entertainingly this evening.

Photos: Iain Fox