Once again, Youth Groups’ dearest friend John Hart provides this tribute to a band that largely passed me by, but meant a great deal to him. Follow him on Twitter, won’t you?
Kenickie, then. The indie Spice Girls, weren’t they? A giggly blur of Malibu and fake fur. Inconsequential, lightweight three chord teenage thrashing about snogging, shopping for mascara and Saturday nights in some place called “Sunderland”. Shampoo with guitars, right?
Everything you know about Kenickie is wrong.
I mean, for starters let’s just look at some of the cheerful lyrics to be found on debut album “At the Club”.
“Now her kisses - full at first - ache like blisters waiting to be burst. She is alone” (Millionaire Sweeper)
“I’m too young to feel so old” (In Your Car)
“The good Lord filled my veins up with silt from the river, that’s how my blood runs cold…. stretched my skin across a frame like canvas, that’s how my sense is numb…. drain my colour, leave me grey, there are too many moths around when I shine” (How I Was Made)
“I think that everyone looks better when they’re sad. It’s ok to be sad” (Brother John)
Well, that was profoundly depressing. And that’s before we get to “Robot Song”, which I’ve always taken to be about staying in an abusive relationship because you lack the self worth to leave. And that was their upbeat album.
Let’s declare an interest: Kenickie are probably the most important thing to have ever happened to me.
Picture the scene: It’s 1998 and having set my heart on the London School of Economics, I’m just filling up my university application form with any old rubbish, and can afford to include the University of Durham, just because one of my favourite bands – Kenickie - appear as alumnus in the prospectus (drummer Johnny X was studying there at the time, while singer Lauren Laverne had deferred a place to be a pop star).
When it later transpired the London School of Economics did not have its heart set on me and I actually do have to go to Durham. Where I meet many important people in my life, including my wife and the mother of my child (who until reading this were unaware of each other’s existence), start an accidental career in words and for a time even live in this “Sunderland” place.
In fact, the decision to move to Sunderland at all was taken when X walked past me as I wandered around the city centre weighing up pros like “close to Newcastle” and cons like “not actually Newcastle”, inevitably interpreted by me as fate.
In a way which sounds quaint in 2012, I actually fell in love with Kenickie before I heard a note of their music, during in an interview in a magazine. Vox magazine! They were smart, they were irreverent, they were fearless, they were funny. They had more style, wit and verve than all the rest of the post-Britpop bloke rock landfill put together. They were kinda hot. It was love.
Between them - Laverne, guitarist Marie DuSantiago and bassist Emmy-Kate Montrose - they were a hilarious, unstoppable six-legged force of nature – which sadly it’s only really possible to showcase in this clip of them introducing the beyond-terrible video to the brilliant Motown-punk of Nightlife.
It was this charisma which gave the band a profile way in excess of their actual commercial success.
I mean, comedy show Smack the Pony even parodied their videos, which is a pretty odd thing to happen to a band whose biggest-selling single peaked at #24.
They were all over the place – every TV show, every radio show, every magazine, even the Daily Star, wanted them to come on and be riotously hilarious, and if they had to, even to play on of their songs. “We’ve got our gang, I know we’ll always be friends” roared “Come out 2nite” (which by the way amnesiac snobs, topped John Peel’s Festive Fifty in 1996) and Kenickie were the coolest gang in down. And you wanted to be in that gang.
It’s not to say this endearing silliness which made their name and defined their image is totally absent from the band’s actual music - “PVC IS MY FAVORUTIE PLASTIC! COS IT’S NICE AND SHINY! AND COMPLETELY WATERPROOF!” runs the chorus to ‘PVC’ while b-side ‘Drag Race’ namechecks Gordon the Gopher before concluding “Tim from Ash is foxy!” – it’s just often overshadowed everything else they had to offer.
Despite its curiously flat production, debut album “At the Club” has stood the rest of time pretty well. Songs like ‘Nightlife’, ‘In Your Car’ and ‘Punka’ - a magnificent two-fingered salute to the puritans who ostracized the band for daring to sign to a major label - were and remain absolute belters, melding pop hooks, girl group vocals, buzzsaw guitars and deceptively thoughtful lyrics to impressive effect, while reflective moments like ‘Acetone’ are undeniably affecting.
It went top 10. And most of them were still only 19. What could possibly go wrong?
“Worst thing that could happen to us? We stop making records and hate each other” (Emmy-Kate Montrose, 1997)
“‘Oh Kenickie, the bargain bins, why were they never successful?’ - No one fucking says that about Mogwai or Arab Strap. We were only judged that way because we were girls. We had a Top Ten album, all our singles went in the charts, we recouped - but it was like, ‘You’re girls, you’re like the Honeyz’” (Lauren Laverne, 2000)
I’d love to know what happened next. Certainly Kenickie have never said.
“If I was a Kenickie fan I’d want to know what happened, but I just feel, well… fuck off, really. I’m not a Spice Girl; I don’t have to say anything I don’t want to” bristled Laverne uncharacteristically shortly afterwards.
Whatever it was, it was messy.
As a tour video at the time shows, the band were by this time a very long way from the indestructible unit of old. They’re at best exhausted, and at worst downright dysfunctional.
Between albums, DuSantiago moved to second guitar to allow X to come out from the drum kit and take over lead. He, not her, was now joint principle songwriter alongside Laverne. Doubtless as a consequence, second album “Get In” isn’t just different from its predecessor - to all intents and purposes, it’s the work of an entirely different band. On the plus side, its attempt to redefine the group as a sophisticated pop group in the vein of St Etienne or Stereolab is the sound of a group refusing to be pigeon-holed as the band you think they are, a concerted attempt to make Kenickie into something more than “those daft girls from up North”.
On the down side, it was commercial suicide.
If you’re going to be quite so drastic, you’re going to have to do something pretty bloody spectacular to avoid your fanbase just going “huh?” and giving their money instead of shite like Suede and Mansun, and to win over people who think “Kenickie, fuck off, they’re just those daft girls from up North”.
Which is exactly what happened.
As X himself said in the aftermath of the inevitable split, “If this was about selling records, ‘Get In’ would sound like ‘At The Club’, only more refined and with bigger choruses. Maybe then the people who like shite like Suede and Mansun would have bought it, as they did the first album”
This doesn’t mean that soungs like, “I Would Fix You” and “Weeknights” aren’t brilliant, because they are - in fact the former is probably one of the greatest things anyone has ever done with sound – with the weird disco of ‘Magnatron’ and the plaintive ‘Lunch at Lassiters’ not far behind. But regrettably, ‘Get In’ is not pretty bloody spectacular.
The album peaked at 32. Second single “Stay in the Sun” died a death. And that’s all folks. How often have we heard that around here?
A decade or more on, Johnny X continues to do all sorts across the North East music scene working with the likes of Field Music and Frankie and the Heartstrings as both a musician and producer, albeit under his real name; Emmy-Kate Montrose is in academia, and Marie DuSantiago is quite high up in the arts. In a weird continuation of Kenickie’s bewildering impact on my life, our paths used to cross professionally on the odd occasion and in my most pathetic ever boast we’re even connected on LinkedIn.