Handbags and Gladrags: the glittery genius of Kenickie

 

Inspiration can spring from the strangest of places. Kenickie were three girls with guitars and an unassuming boy drummer, a band preoccupied with glitter, Grease and Gary Numan. They began in the north-east lo-fi scene of the early 90s before kicking over the traces and high-tailing it to London in a blur of lipstick and leopardprint, attaining industry fame around the time I was sitting my GCSEs. Two albums and a trail of metropolitan mayhem later, Kenickie split up live onstage with the parting shot ‘We were Kenickie… a bunch of fuckwits’. In this piece, I’ll be speaking against the motion.


Kenickie were, like me, provincial and proletarian, and their descent into London’s major-label maelstrom, followed by their bruised rejection of it all, was the stuff of rocknroll cliché. Critics have often used this to justify their lazy categorisation of the band’s two albums: the debut At the Club as the skyward-soaring up-all-night party and the second, Get In, as the downbeat, dazed and drug-addled morning-after. But what made Kenickie great was their ability to draw on the rapid cycling of these two stages and the tension between them, a dynamic which captures the ups and downs of being young. Their songs are full of the competing impulses of self-belief and self-doubt that blight adolescence, each presented in its respective natural habitat: streetlight-bright, PVC-shiny nights out with no coats on versus shadowy dawns full of shivering sleepless regret.

Kenickie’s lyrics encompassed casual pick-ups, skateboarding, kerb-crawling, Catholic guilt, body dysmorphia, getting drunk in the park and getting off in bus shelters, self-hatred, bad parties, good parties, relationship quandaries and the wipe-clean properties of rubber dresses. The music, like the subject matter, ranged from brash and upfront to achingly romantic to grittily bleak, mixing spiky guitars and shiny blasts of brass with silvery swirls of keyboard and girl-group harmonies and handclaps. The first album balanced the sly and self-assured swagger of ‘Classy’ with ‘Acetone’s despairing sting; the second swung between the Saturday-night snapshots of ‘Magnatron’ (‘the night comes and your skin’s all itchy / so you eat toast in your best friend’s kitchen‘) and the stunningly desolate ‘5am':

So much harder to go home
Came in someone else’s car
Shiver in your nighttime clothes
You don’t know where you are
And if you ask, they’ll know…

Elsewhere, ‘PVC’ rocked like a grunge remake of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, and ‘Weeknights’ howled into the teenage abyss like Jeremy Kyle scripted by Radiohead.

Kenickie made the everyday dramatic, comic and poetic by drawing on the escapist power of music. Their songs expressed the idea of becoming your own superhero, harnessing the power of the Big Night Out to transcend the grime and gloom in which you found yourself immured. ‘People We Want’ yearns to defy the rules of admission and the laws of closing time (‘If we go home, what happens now? / If we stay on – could we be the people we want?’). ‘Come Out 2nite’ – the final scene of Grease transplanted to the first episode of Our Friends in the North – is a life-affirming manifesto of both social solidarity and individual empowerment, acknowledging the world’s horrors but beckoning you on regardless:

Come out tonight –
You’ve got to grab it if you want to have it
You’ve got to become what you can
It’s dark and savage but it’s only in neon…

Kenickie had the London music press all but tripping over their own tongues, hymning the band to the skies as though the capacity of regional-accented girls for wit and articulacy came as some surprise. Interviews with them read as if your mates, the ones who reduced you to breathless giggling or desperate agreement around the pub table, had suddenly formed a band. Like the Clash and the Manic Street Preachers before them, and the Libertines after them, Kenickie oozed last-gang-in-town glamour, but theirs was a distinctly girl gang: sticky cocktails and stick-on spangles rather than spilled pints and regrettable tattoos. And let’s face it, Kenickie were gorgeous. The girls had a rough-edged, earthy, cartoon-glam aesthetic: half 1940s starlets, half explosion in Claire’s Accessories. They weren’t unnaturally skinny. They weren’t naturally blonde. Their high heels and lashings of makeup were worn on their own terms, a Pink Ladies inspired protective covering rather than a puppeteered provocation. And they were as unapologetically sharp, witty and smart as they were sexy. In a teenage world stuck for role models between the Spice Girls’ sham sisterhood and Sleeper’s smug potshots at suburban cliché, I found this no end of inspiring.

Courtney Love, back in the day, gave Kenickie her seal of approval, which makes sense if you consider how they extended the lessons of Riot Grrl beyond that scene’s demographic. Kenickie excelled at anatomising female self-loathing in its biological and social forms (‘How I Was Made’, ‘And That’s Why’, ‘Robot Song’), and at fashioning sleek, fierce paeans to a poised and self-possessed female independence (‘Nightlife’, ‘Classy’, ‘Something’s Got to Give’). Their protagonists are never passive, always self-aware, fragile but resilient and wise beyond their years. ‘In Your Car’ shimmers with the jubilant sexual agency of its arch and knowing narrator who pinpoints herself as ‘too young to feel this old’. Growing up, Kenickie’s attitude and aesthetic, as well as their music, did as much to outline my potential agency and autonomy as any feminist tome or broadsheet editorial I read. They remain one of a handful of bands who inspired me to analyse and articulate my own experience, and listening to them these days still feels like being disco-lit with righteous glittery magic.

*

[written for Heaven is Whenever]

Both Kenickie albums are on Spotify (http://open.spotify.com/search/kenickie) and a live set from 1997 is here.

12 comments

  1. Mr S. Pill

    Ahh this is brilliant. Kenickie were fantastic, I’ll dust off my copy of At The Club right away! I reckon only The Long Blondes have come close in recent times.

  2. glenn

    Thank you. It was awfully lonely being an obsessive Kenickie fan in America in 1997.

    Yes, the Long Blondes were good but they lacked the wit of Kenickie, though they did have the other attributes the article describes.

    Kenickie’s flipside “Lights Out in a Provincial Town” is the perfect summation of the band’s greatness: poignancy, humour, a cracking tune, great vocals, wistfulness, and on and on.

    Everything I liked in Elastica, Sleeper, The Primitives only Northern and better, ha!

    • Rhian Jones

      Thanks for commenting. How did you discover them in the US?

      God, yeah, I love ‘Lights Out in a Provincial Town’. I only talked about the albums in this piece, but Kenickie were an excellent band for b-sides too – ‘Rough Boys and Modern Girls’, ‘Eat the Angel’, ‘Skateboard Song’…

  3. glenn

    I worked at a few good record stores in the 1980s and started following NME and Melody Maker. And, while the Brit music press was not always right, when they were right and the hype was deserved (Stone Roses, The Sundays), it was so much fun to finally hear something new that felt like it was pushing pop music forward. (I did a blog post about playing the first Sundays single a good year early in the shop and the Roses I got on cassette from an RCA rep in NYC; he taped the LP and that tape was on heavy rotation for us way before the album dropped in ’89). So I read a lot about Kenickie in late 1996 and I worked for a British company in America and I asked a friend in the UK about Kenickie based on the press and he said “like T.Rex and The Primitives” or something and I was just primed. Got ATC and the first Linoleum (!) the day of release and that was it. (Poor Linoleum; the 2nd CD is actually a lot better).

    You didn’t mention how a lot of us Kenickie fans sort of ambled towards Cataonia and theaudience around the time of the split. I like both bands but neither one could quite do it for me in the same way.

  4. Jim

    Excellent stuff. I try to make a point of giving Kenickie a listen reasonably regularly, just in case I ever forget how much I loved them. They are about the only band from around that time that I can say that about.

    • Rhian Jones

      Me too. Out of all 90s indie, they were a band I really needed, and yes, one of a very few I go back to these days.

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  6. Actress

    You didn’t mention how a lot of us Kenickie fans sort of ambled towards Catatonia and theaudience around the time of the split.

    Funny you should mention Theaudience – after Marie finally retired from Rosita in 2001 to concentrate on the day job and Lauren decided to go full time with TV presenting, I got into Sophie Ellis Bextor’s solo proper pop career big time. She even wore the eye glitter!

    Murder On The Dancefloor was the moment when I finally came out of mourning for my beloved Marie.

    P.S. – funny thing is, theaudience actually played their last ever gig about 2 weeks earlier than Kenickie. They then spent a year recording the post-Billy Theaudience album (17 of the 33 demos tracks currently up on Youtube for the pillaging on various peoples’ channels), getting it rejected by Mercury and finally splitting in late ’99.

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