A lot has changed in the aspirations of young guitar bands in the twenty-odd years since ‘Life’ came out in 1990. Back then, there was a chance you could pick up a guitar, find a bunch of like-minded musicians, cobble together a few gigs and EPs, and somehow find yourself in the top 20, playing to 8000 fans in your hometown, and headlining the Reading Festival within two years of settling on a line-up. This, more or less, is the story of Inspiral Carpets. ‘Life’ was the record that both announced the milieu of the Inspiral Carpets and in a way became their defining moment: it distilled their sound, their politics and their scope. It’s a garage record, a pop record, and in many ways the ultimate indie record of its time, if you remember that back then, ‘indie’ could still actually stand for independence. Having set up their own label to release a couple of EPs, the Inspirals had signed with Mute, a force for independent music throughout the 80s, and had their own Oldham-based cottage industry distributing their iconic ‘Cool As Fuck’ t-shirts, which reportedly sold in more numbers than their records.
Seen in context, the Inspirals were not an anomaly. The patter and tinkle of their playing had much to do with Manchester’s past as well as its future. In the plucky plod of Martyn Walsh’s bassline halfway through ‘Directing Traffic’, you can hear a line connecting back to Peter Hook and Magazine’s Barry Adamson, although one which breaks into glorious major chords instead of the darker tones that Manchester was known for a decade before. The future was accessible again. While the front-loaded retro crunch of Clint Boon’s Farfisa organ, by far the most recognisable element of their sound, dominated the mood and bounce of their songs, in ‘Life’, its counterpart began to take shape: Graham Lambert’s at times jangly, at times poignant, guitar lines, which he’d later refine to even more moving effect on the more expansive songs of their second record, like ‘Further Away’ and ‘Niagara’. The songs of ‘Life’, pieced together in part with original singer Steve Holt, but bellowed on to record by Tom Hingley, marked a shift from the garage-band blast of their earlier EPs towards something more forward-looking.
Of course the more visionary voices and more intuitive players from Manchester at the time are well-documented. The Carpets’ rhythm section didn’t have the swing or swagger of Mounfield and Wren, nor would their lyrics crawl the drugged depths or surreal heights of Shaun Ryder and Mark E. Smith. But if anything there are moments of real pathos on ‘Life’ that better describe real life, the struggles of the man in the street, than their peers quite could. That mighty line, “there’s a funeral in the town, some guy from the top estate” sums up the bleakness of daily struggle, the distance between man and neighbour, like no other lyric from the time really does. ‘Song For A Family’ reflects this even more plainly, as character after character “prays each night that his family’s alright and he’s got work”. The Inspiral Carpets were your mates’ band, your brother’s band, the band you wanted to form yourself on rainy evenings as the pubs were closing. You had something in common with them: they had no airs to be adored or to straddle over your heads like Gods. They were you. In club music, in Ecstasy, and in the sense of hope in a country emerging from years of recession and strike, 1988 had become another year zero for guitar music, a punk mark two. The spirit of the possible appeared again, a line in the sand allowing musicians to trash the past and start again. This spirit ran through housing estates, factories, playgrounds and sixth-form common-rooms the length of the land, and the fact that you came from somewhere as far off the cultural map as Oldham was no obstacle, since fans were eager to consume seven-inch vinyl singles wherever they came from, to sport the baggy t-shirts that spoke of their generation, to embrace the possible. The Inspirals sang about what they knew, in a way that gave hope for what lay beyond. “There’s not a thing that I can do about it,” Hingley sings in response to the scenes of prostitution in ‘Sackville’, but he can see a release at least: “I guess I’ll just go home and write a song about it”.
I asked my friend John, who was easily the biggest Inspiral Carpets fan I knew, and who for a while would, and perhaps still does, claim them as his favourite band, what it was about them that connected with him. “I’d been swimming in the river with mates one summer afternoon,” he told me, “and my pal banged on the twelve-inch of ‘She Comes In The Fall’ at full volume. That was the life-changing song man..” And so those were the times. We were 16. How could something like that not affect you, reach into your heart? Don’t take his word for it: John Peel, a harbinger of taste and champion of the genuine in music for generations, was a fan from hearing the band’s early EPs, and by the release of ‘Life’ had already booked them for three sessions. So the Inspirals aspired to pop music, the cheesy rattle of 60s garage ram-a-lang, the psychedelic plonk of mop-topped nostalgia, but they brought to it a simple sensibility that reflected their roots and marked the shift in fortunes for guitar music to come. There was an insouciance, an upraised middle-finger in the way they appropriated those ideas and fused them to ’90s indie values. Unlike some of their peers, the Inspirals recognised that their audience wanted to be included, identified with, not preached at. There were other bands that took this blueprint in the mid-90s and turned it into something even more marketable, with even more mass appeal, but the seeds were sown in what the Inspiral Carpets were able to do in 1990, on record and at the G-Mex.
In this sense, and in so many more, ‘Life’ goes on.
Written for the sleeve notes of the expanded edition release of ‘Life’, November 2012