The conventional wisdom is that it's grinding to a halt; that the Brit-pop boom of the Thatcher years has fizzled out, and terminal fragmentation is setting in. People under 30 are no longer ashamed not to watch Top of the Pops. The younger generation won't look up from its Gameboy. The record industry fights over new formats in the hope of persuading people to buy their record collections again. Tribute bands come over from Australia and are not clapped in irons. KWS and Undercover, two of the worst offenders in a sinister campaign to flood the charts with heinous cover versions, are nominated for Brits awards as Best New Acts.
And yet, among the current Top 10 singles, there are three classics: Duran Duran's 'Ordinary World' (a comeback of transcendent beauty), Faith No More's 'I'm Easy' (a pop-soul landmark plucked from the clutches of advertising by the world's weirdest heavy metal band), and East 17's 'Deep' (a delightful teen-sex anthem).
Elsewhere, new pop champions prepare to hopscotch along the fault-lines of sex and race and class as only pop stars can. What does it matter if fewer people buy their records than once did? The marketplace may be a wreck, but a well-tended stall stands out as never before. At least three new pop groups - Suede, Jamiroquai and Cornershop - stand ready to provoke and delight.
'There's a huge power to pop music that has been untapped for a while,' says Suede's singer Brett Anderson. Indeed, Anderson's languorous sensuality, in tandem with the chunky guitar- playing of his songwriting foil, Bernard Butler, have already set off frenzied reactions. They're going to need a sense of proportion in the coming months if the merits of their debut album - not quite finished, but already hailed as the year's best - are not to be lost in the orgy of anticipation.
The band, Anderson says, 'have always aspired to simple, straightforward, pretty much British pop music - The Beatles, The Jam, The Stones, The Smiths, David Bowie.' Just how simple and straightforward any of these were at their peaks is a moot point, and so it is with Suede. Their songs are shot through with androgyny, and contain dark moments of poverty and sickness, but they never shrug off a certain cheery grandeur.
There are surprising musical undercurrents too. Some people have pegged Suede too easily as a Seventies hangover. But Anderson is confident that the album will see off such misapprehensions. Among several unexpected signposts to an art-rock heritage is a fondness for the music of Robert Wyatt. 'There's a certain fragility that we have in common, and I admire the way his records manage to capture some thing that's impossible to capture through effort - it's just there.'
Suede's forthcoming single, 'Animal Nitrate' (Nude, 22 Feb), is full of whoops and sighs and swirling guitar figures. But a new song on the B-side, 'The Big Time', swaps their characteristic swagger for something more haunting, minimal even, and perhaps points the way to the future.
There is nothing minimal about Jamiroquai. They are a flexible vehicle for the wide-load ego and high-sided talent of Jay Kay: a London-based 22- year-old of daunting precocity. The Sony Corporation has signed him up on the basis of last autumn's dancefloor anthem 'When You Gonna Learn', a song whose vague environmental concerns are memorably backed up with a precise horn, didgeridoo and string arrangements. Jay is going to a lot of trouble not to have his individuality crushed by corporate image-mongers: 'They want to make me into the new Mick Hucknall, but that's not where my heart is.'
Born in Manchester, Jay's accent is now pure London clubland. He still lives in Ealing with his mother, the jazz singer Karen Kay ('Where do you think all those nice brass arrangements come from?'). Kay the younger shares a west London point of departure with fellow Brit-funk heavyweights Young Disciples and Brand New Heavies, but is potentially a bigger star than either. He won't be limited to the Talkin' Loud and Acid Jazz circles he emerged from - 'People refer to it as a stable, but I'm not a horse' - and claims a wide-spectrum of influences, 'from Hendrix to Latin to P-Funk'.
After just a handful of live appearances, he's already at ease in front of a crowd of thousands. The only problem he faces is how to compress his loose- limbed groove into a timespan short enough for mass consumption. His next single, the Curtis Mayfield-
inflected 'Too Young To Die' (Sony, 1 Mar) sounds an awful lot better over eight minutes than it does over three.
Sceptics might claim the reverse is true of Cornershop. But they would be wrong. Tjinder and Avtar Singh, two brothers from Leicester, and their lower profile Caucasian colleagues Ben and David, started out while at college in Preston. They were called General Havoc, and no one noticed them. 'What we were doing was just for fun,' Tjinder admits, 'going out and making a racket'. But then they changed their name to Cornershop, and things started to happen. 'It was taken from a stupid song we did that went 'chip- shop, cornershop anywhere I can'.'
Cornershop's lightness of heart has so far been obscured by polemics. And stunts like burning pictures of Morrissey, and releasing their messily compelling debut single 'In the days of Ford Cortina' on 'curry-coloured' vinyl have served them well. Attacking stereotypes is one thing, but it would be a shame to become a novelty act. 'Initially we are getting through on the colour of our skin,' Tjinder admits, 'but I don't see that as being a bad thing, particularly in the light of the fact that there are hardly any Asians in the music industry. And now I think the attention is focused more on what we actually do.'
A new John Peel session should further this process. 'It's all right for other groups to go in and do four songs in a day, because they're proficient, but we're not,' says Tjinder with disarming modesty, 'so we're pleased to have managed it.' The truth is that this band are improving apace. The discrepancy between the level of interest in Cornershop and their degree of musical competence has sometimes been almost comical, but not now.
It's the roughness and the feeling of something coming together for the first time that makes the Peel Session so exciting. It revs up with a tabla drum hiccup, sitar, guitar fuzz and some Punjabi ranting, and keeps its momentum through a couple of genuine tunes. 'England's Dreaming' takes up Public Enemy's cry of 'Fight The Power' to memorably shambolic effect. From the earliest days of the Velvet Underground and The Beatles, rock bands looked East to expand their sonic armoury. Now Cornershop are coming back the other way.
On the face of it, bands like Suede, Jamiroquai and Cornershop have little in common. But if there is one thing that ties them together, it's the knowledge that rumours of the death of pop have been greatly exaggerated. -
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