This year's model

Menswear made history before they even made a record. Here, they explain to Nicholas Barber how they played the fame game, and won
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The Independent Culture
IN THE Independent last month, the Radio 1 DJ John Peel wrote: "A substantial number of those who send me tapes imagine that I will be able to furnish them with a checklist of instructions which will, if carefully followed, lead to the main stage at Glastonbury."

If there is such a checklist, Menswear have it. Ignoring the conventional wisdom that a recording deal is less likely and more arbitrary than a Lottery jackpot, they set out to become famous in 15 minutes. They played their first gig under a year ago. Their debut (probably Top 10) album is out tomorrow. To quote the singer of another young band, Skunk Anansie: "You don't say 'very fast' anymore. You say 'Menswear' fast."

Now, in a cafe in Camden, 23-year-old Johnny Dean and 18-year-old Chris Gentry, Menswear's singer and guitarist respectively, tell me how they did it. "Anyone can form a band and get signed. It's easy," says Chris, trying to wake himself up with a gammon steak and a pint of milk. "Very easy," says Johnny. "I'm surprised people don't do it more." Before Menswear existed, Johnny and Chris were seen in all of London's indie places-to- be-seen-in: Club Smashing in Regent Street, and every pub and club in Camden. In the course of drinking like there was no tomorrow, or rather, like there was a tomorrow, but they'd be asleep for most of it, they got to know Blur, Elastica, Shampoo, and Pulp. They appeared in the video of Pulp's single, "Do You Remember the First Time"; and Stuart Black, who would become Menswear's bassist, was hired to play trumpet on tour with Blur.

They also became friends with Club Smashing's manager, Adrian Webb. In the summer of 1994, when Chris asked if his band could play at the club, Webb agreed. He didn't listen to their demo. There was no demo. To all intents and purposes, there was no band. So why let them play? "Because they looked great," says Webb. "Like rock stars." And so Menswear had a gig booked at a fashionable venue. Now all they had to do was make sure the right people were present.

In August, Webb took Chris into the music-industry enclosure at the Reading Festival. The young guitarist had no money, but his clubbing had taught him that charm, looks and self-confidence could bring him most things: food, drink, hotel-room floors to sleep on - and the interest of numerous record-company talent scouts. Chris: "I just knew that with A&R men, if you tell 'em you're good, they'll think you're good. They're weird like that."

Johnny is quick to point out that this tactic is a time-honoured one. "Bowie did it. His manager told him that if he went around acting like a pop star, sooner or later people would think he was; so he'd turn up everywhere in a limousine and got all his mates to start calling him Bowie. So everyone thought he was important. Other people have got this false sense of integrity. They think that if you do that you're a whore. Whereas you're not. You're just ... making sure."

Menswear had made sure of most things. All they needed now was a new drummer, another guitarist - and some songs.

This deficiency worried Adrian Webb more than it worried the band. "A fortnight before the show I asked Chris if they'd been having rehearsals, and he said they'd had one about three weeks ago. So I got them to start rehearsing. Otherwise it would have looked as bad for the club as it would for them." More or less by default, Webb became Menswear's manager and self-confessed "surrogate father".

The band completed their line up and had an entire "two solid weeks" of practice before their first gig, on 21 October 1994. Thirty-seven A&R men attended, most of whom were keen to snap up the band. Menswear played only four songs, so that's getting on for 10 recording-deal offers per song. "It's all quite odd looking back at it," says Johnny, "although at the time it all seemed normal." They signed to the independent Laurel records. Although their first release wouldn't be for months, media interest was unflagging. Not altogether surprisingly, this was thanks to another Camden drinking companion, Polly Birkbeck. She works for Savage & Best, PR company to the indie aristocracy: Pulp, Suede, Elastica and Echobelly included. Chris persuaded her to add Menswear to the list. "I was drunk," admits Birkbeck. "I'd never even heard them."

But she knew what they looked like. Johnny and Chris are both as tall and thin as rock stars should be. Johnny's nose, chin and cheekbones seem to be having a pointiness contest. With a coat of Dulux he'd pass for The Joker in the Batman comics. Chris has boyish good-looks - probably because he is a boy. For most of the interview he has a milk moustache, but it's unlikely that he could grow a real one.

Every magazine wanted to print their picture. They featured in a Vogue photo spread; Chris and Matt, the drummer, appeared in a Levi's ad in Scandinavia. Their PR's job then became to move them from the style press to the music press, to peel off the New Mod label they had been given, and to convince the country at large that there was more to them than sharp suits and sharper cheekbones.

February: Menswear were on the cover of Melody Maker - a publicity coup. A love/hate relationship developed between the band and the weekly music papers, whose staff are divided between those who hate the band because they get so much hype, and those who give the band the hype in the first place.

March: Menswear made televisual history by being the first group to play on Top of the Pops before releasing any records whatsoever. "It's important for the reputation of the show to be on the edge of things and not just rolling along with the charts," says producer Ric Blaxill, "so I thought it would be nice to have a band who looked that good on the show before anyone else did."

April: the first single, "I'll Manage Somehow", a not-bad punky pop stomp, sold out of its limited edition of 5,000 copies. Two months later their second single, "Daydreamer", reached the Top 20 and Menswear were officially Proper Pop Stars. Plain sailing from here, then? No, says Johnny, there's all those photo sessions and interviews and TV appearances and promotions to be done.

"You have to be prepared to grin a lot and bear things and work hard. Which we actually have been doing non-stop. Doing it backwards. Paying our dues now. Getting signed is the easy part."

! 'Nuisance' (Laurel, CD/LP/tape) is released tomorrow.