Great Rock n Roll Swindles: Rethinking Justine Frischmann

 

This post was mostly inspired by the complaint of my fellow Bad Reputation member Sarah J that, when the subject of Elastica comes up, the band are frequently dismissed outright as flagrant copyists led by Britpop’s version of Lady Macbeth. In fairness, I spent most of the 90s thinking the same thing. God, I used to hate Elastica. Willfully amateur slack-jawed rip-off merchants whose frontwoman seemed to exist only as a drawly amalgam of her indie boyfriends (hair by Brett, boots by Damon), whose competency in snagging the catchiest bits of post-punk couldn’t disguise how irritatingly thick and bland they were in all other respects. Right? Right. Now that I’m no longer a chippy thirteen-year-old convinced that people with trust-funds can’t make good music, I’ve been reassessing Elastica.

Elastica are a band it’s probably easier to appreciate in retrospect and in isolation from their era, especially if you weren’t actually around for it. They weren’t a great fit with Britpop, their music drawing more on the punk revivalism of New Wave of New Wave, one of several burgeoning movements which Britpop left steamrollered in its wake. This 70s-rooted recycling was also ahead of its time, being more of a piece with the early-2000s bands also inspired by post-punk: like Karen O, or Jack White, Justine Frischmann now just looks like a cool-as-fuck frontperson. I mean, she was posh, of course. If she called her dad, not only could he stop it all but in 1989 he could also buy her a Kensington townhouse. Not that she ever tried to hide this, or to claim any kind of gritty authenticity. (Given that the British music press, and music in general, was and remains riddled with posh girls and boys, I do wonder how much of the media focus on this aspect was some kind of overdefensive deflection on their part, back in the insulting and appropriative days of poor-is-cool.)

Elastica’s potted biography reads like a Britpop potboiler – or, in accounts like John Harris’, an ‘indie soap opera’. Frischmann founded Suede with her fellow UCL student Brett Anderson in 1989, hawking the embryonic group around Camden as their de facto manager before leaving both Suede and Anderson for her iconic power-coupling with chancer extraordinaire, Blur’s Damon Albarn. In 1992 she formed her own group with former Suede drummer Justin Welch, adding enigmatic Brightonian bassist Annie Holland (who ended up with her own theme song) and south Welsh urchin Donna Matthews as Frischmann’s musical foil on guitar. In 1993 they released ‘Stutter’, a crushingly cool eyeroll of a single that, having something to do with male sexual dysfunction and something to do with female sexual frustration, was one of the most playfully frank songs I’d heard since ‘Orgasm Addict’. The next year, as Britpop was decisively yanked into the mainstream, Frischmann’s relationship with Blur’s lead singer gained her lasting notoriety in the music press and beyond as a kind of Britpop Dr Girlfriend.

I’ll come to the fuss made over Justine’s sex life later. The other Thing That Everyone Knows About Elastica is that they stole all their best riffs. Well, yes, Elastica settled out of court with both Wire (‘Line Up’, a song I’m still happy to hate, rips off the chorus of Wire’s ‘I Am the Fly’; the synth in ‘Connection’ rips off the guitar in ‘Three Girl Rhumba’) and the Stranglers (‘Waking Up’ rips off ‘No More Heroes’ pretty much wholesale) – but let’s think about this. Britpop itself was incredibly derivative, backwards-looking, insular and self-referential, as were its exponents. The entire exercise was a cultural and aesthetic rip-off of the late 1960s, and more particularly of the Beatles-Kinks-Jam tradition of white-boy guitar rock. Musical, lyrical and sartorial rip-offs (or ‘tributes’, or ‘homages’, or ‘cheeky nods to’) abounded, as indeed they do in any period and genre. In music as in any art form, it’s what one does with it that counts. I still rate ‘Cigarettes and Alcohol’, for instance, despite its massive musical debt to T-Rex’s ‘Get It On’, and despite Oasis’ massive debt in general to, oh, let’s start with the Beatles, Status Quo, Slade and the Glitter Band.

If it were simply a case of, to misquote an unknown wit, ‘Your album is both good and original. But the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good’, that would be one thing. But there is a reason why 1995’s Elastica became the fastest-selling debut in UK history at the time. Even in the throes of my irritation with Frischmann herself, I found the music slickly derivative, sure, but also annoyingly listenable. The songs on the debut – which it took me about three years to grudgingly buy and listen to in full – are sharp, snarky and unadorned gems strung together by that snide, campy Sprechgesang that was probably Justine’s best musical asset. The songs range from little flash-bangs of sex-positive brilliance (‘Stutter’, ‘All-Nighter’, ‘Blue’, ‘Vaseline’), to vaguely sinister languor (‘S.O.F.T’, ‘2:1’, ‘Waking Up’), to the archly anthemic (‘Car Song’, ‘Line Up’, ‘Connection’). The album’s stripped-down, angular art-punk, its odd, listless mix of sleaze and melancholy, and the band’s Last Gang In Town fronting in photographs and on record sleeves, anticipated the revival (or the ripping-off, perhaps?) of such stylings almost a decade later by the Strokes/Libertines axis of hipster. And when thinking back to the bands who came to be regarded as luminaries towards the tail-end of Britpop – The Bluetones, Shed 7, Northern Uproar, and no doubt I’ve repressed many more – you can only wish they’d ripped off something half as interesting themselves.

 

At a point in the 90s where the dominant female aesthetic revolved around ladette football shirts or twee tea-dresses, Elastica adopted an atypical New Wave uniform: black leather, drainpipe jeans, hair boyishly cropped or bobbed. For Frischmann at least, her androgynous aesthetic was a deliberate choice linked to self-consciousness, a protective effacing or subsuming of femininity which will make sense to anyone who’s tried to negotiate the disputed territory of being socially independent while aware of one’s relative vulnerability. In an interview with Simon Reynolds in 1995, Justine referred to her choice of look as ‘Nineties urban camouflage’, and, interestingly, associated the process of growing up with learning to step away from a conventionally feminine presentation rather than accepting it:

[JF]…When you’re in your twenties you feel more confident about what you are, you don’t feel like you necessarily have to dress up for boys. When I was a teenager I had really long hair and felt like I had to wear make-up. But now I feel a lot more comfortable with short hair. It’s something I discovered with leaving home and going to college. In a way, it’s Nineties urban camoflage. It came about when I was coming back from college really late, getting on the last tube. If you’re wearing long hair and make-up, you’re gonna feel a lot more vulnerable than if you’ve got short hair and big boots…

[SR] So there’s a sense that you sartorially avoid the things that signify vulnerability or ‘availability’?

[JF] It’s just expecting to be treated as one of the lads. You don’t want to deliberately remove yourself from being able to be a good bloke.

Source.

NB I like that interview, and I like Reynolds’ idea of women artists in the 90s ‘taking on played-out male traditions, tweaking and reinventing them’, but I’m not altogether sure how helpful it is to call it ‘stylistic transvestism’, rather than simply problematising ‘feminine’ identity itself. (He’s on steadier ground when he mentions Buzzcocks, who Elastica remind me of especially in songs like ‘Stutter’ and ‘All-Nighter’, with Justine’s nonchalantly transgressive blurring of gender norms suggesting a southern female mirror-image of Pete Shelley, but maybe that’s just me.)

On ‘stylistic transvestism’, she seemed similarly doubtful:

[SR] Drag kings rule: Polly Jean Harvey with her hoary blues-man posturings; Courtney Love as Henry Rollins if he’d only remove his ‘Iron Man’ emotional armature and let his ‘feminine side’ splurge’n’splatter; Liz Phair and her feminised/feminist take on the geeky garage punk of Paul Westerberg of the Replacements. And there’s Justine Frischmann, who’s somehow miraculously found imaginative space for herself in the Stranglers’ gruff, fake-prole belligerence and ‘who wants the world?’ cynicism. That said, Justine’s pretty phazed when I ask if she ever feels like she’s in drag onstage.

[JF] Well, I sometimes feel like Meatloaf, when I’ve got hair all over my face and I’m really sweaty. Which is a bit depressing. But no, I don’t ever feel like a woman in drag, to be honest.

[SR] So there’s no sense in which you play-act a tough-guy?

[JF] I think lots of women do that these days. And there’s always been girly girls and non-girly girls. There’s girls who have really high voices and like wearing dresses, and others who don’t. I don’t think I’m exceptional, it’s just that most of my mates haven’t been very girly. There’s lots of young women in London who look and dress like I do.

Source.

 

Even when I was forcing myself to dislike her on grounds of class chippiness, one of the things I couldn’t help liking about Justine was the casual confidence, the superiority even, in so much of her lyrics and delivery, and their emphasis on female sexual agency. ‘All-Nighter’ is, like ‘Stutter’, a self-assured and playful song about sexual frustration, and there’s an archly objective approach to sex in ‘Car Song’ and ‘Vaseline’ and many more. There’s ‘just’ sex in these songs, little sentiment and less romance, but equally there’s little angst, no judgement and no self-reproach. ‘Never Here’ is a heartfelt, simple and incisive anatomy of a defunct relationship, just as well-crafted and moving as, say, Blur’s ‘Tender’, but terse and economic where the latter is overblown. Frischmann’s protagonists are thinly drawn but invariably assertive and self-possessed, frustrated or impatient with their hapless, thoughtless or less self-assured partners, sure of what they want and feeling no guilt about taking it. They never make a point of being Bad Girls, they just happen to be girls.

Like her fellow Stranglers aficionado Gaye Advert twenty years previously, Frischmann’s drop-dead charisma got in the way of her stated intention to be ‘one of the lads’. Her sexually confident persona and Elastica’s pleasure-centred, borderline-selfish lyrics, despite their matter-of-fact delivery, tended to be treated as ‘naughtily’ deviant departures from feminine convention rather than just another way in which women might happen to view themselves and their sex lives. That the music press and wider media insistently framed Justine in relation to the men she chose to sleep with was part of a wider sexualisation where, in the post-Britpop 90s, female sexual agency had increasingly to be presented within a Lad frame of reference. I remember, specifically, there being a weird concentration by the music press on whether she would or wouldn’t pose for Playboy. It’s tempting to conclude that Frischmann’s ostensibly aloof and independent approach, her chilled assertiveness, her androgyny, and perhaps her background, attracted a reductive emphasis on her sexuality and sex life as a way of rendering her comprehensible, less of a threat and more of a ‘regular’ girl.

Women weren’t absent from 90s indie, but, as I’ve written elsewhere, there is a sense in which they were squeezed to the margins by the elevation of ‘lad bands’, the testosterone-heavy dominance (with some honourable and dishonourable exceptions) of the music press and mens’ magazines, and the focus on male key players and kingmakers, from Anderson, Albarn and the Gallaghers to Alan McGee. The received wisdom of Britpop as a male concern and male preserve obscures how highly-rated Elastica were at the time – notably, they came closer than either Oasis or Blur to cracking the lucrative US market – and it also overlooks the contribution made by Frischmann to Britpop’s originating impulse. Love or hate it, Frischmann’s influence on and creative partnerships with (or, if we’re going with the Lady Macbeth angle, her bewitching and manipulation of) Britpop’s main men was instrumental to the movement but goes more or less unsung. Instead she now gets frequently relegated to a minor player, an accessory or at best a ‘muse’ to the more famous and credible men in her life, and her band are remembered as, in Sarah J’s words, a ‘Blurgirlfriend novelty act’. Her break-up with Albarn in 1997 was partly the result of a reluctance to accept what she perceived as the restrictions of domesticity and motherhood:

“Damon was saying to me, ‘You’ve given me a run for my money, you’ve proved that you’re just as good as I am, you’ve had a hit in America – now settle down and let’s have kids.’ He wanted me to stop being in a group, stop touring and have children. I wasn’t very happy, and he kept saying, ‘The reason you’re unhappy is because you really want children but you don’t know it.’ It did throw me: I thought about it quite seriously.” – Source

After 1996 Elastica were gradually subsumed by smack, angst and inter-band acrimony, with an endless parade of members leaving, being replaced and returning. Their second album, 2000’s The Menace, was more firmly anchored in post-punk experimentalism, but lacklustre, anticlimactic and accordingly less than commercial – although I had by this point got over myself enough to admit that I liked it, an epiphany which I’m sure was a source of extraordinary comfort for the band, who announced their amicable break-up the following year. Since then, Frischmann has been a bit of a Renaissance woman: collaborating with her friend and flatmate M.I.A. on songs including 2003’s ‘Galang’; moving to Colorado to study visual arts and psychology; dipping into a career as an abstract painter; and, as shown above, fronting a BBC series on modern architecture.

Justine Frischmann’s rise against a Britpop backdrop, and her subsequent infamy or dismissal, raises several issues relevant to feminism: the denial or marginalizing of women’s contributions to artistic and creative moments; the relegation of women to the accessory of whichever man they happen to have slept with; the idea that women in bands are automatically amateur or derivative, or just not as good at being amateur and derivative as the boys are. However short-lived Elastica’s fame and drawn-out their dissipated demise, their career remains more edifying than watching the Oasis juggernaut run slowly and embarrassingly out of steam, or indeed whatever Alex James is currently up to.

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