I don’t really get 90s music, and I think it might be down to context more than anything, a context I can’t appreciate, or relate to. The esteemed head of this fair site has on more than one occasion told me the reason I don’t dig The Stone Roses or Oasis is because I wasn’t there. He’s probably right. However, one 90s band holds a place in my heart, and one 90s album: Stereophonics’ “Word Gets Around”, a precocious terrier of a record and, hear me out on this one, as good a concept album as has ever been made.
I was 8 years old when Word Gets Around came out, so, not old enough to go to any of the dive-bar gigs the Phonics must have played in various Welsh shitholes up and down God’s own country, but old enough to know that a) they were Welsh and b) they were doing well, so I should probably like them. When you’re 8 and you live in a little town, you’ll take what you can get in terms of success stories, and the Phonics all looked like my cousin’s mates, and came from a town half the size of mine.
The album opens with the anthemic A Thousand Trees, which sets the tone for the rest of the record, musically and thematically. “Standing at the bus stop with my shopping in my hand, as I’m overhearing older ladies, as the rumours start to fly...” – that’s it. That’s small town life. Rumour. Gossip. Scandal. In this case, a pillar of a community accused of being a paedophile, his reputation left in tatters by the end of the song. It’s the nuances of the story that make it such a great song though – there’s clearly reverence for the character, “they all honoured his name / he did a lot for the game”, almost a willingness from an older generation not to accept that their friend, colleague, teacher could be guilty of this terrible thing. Even by the end of the song, his picture gathers dust in the bar. It’s still up in the bar though. Deceptively tragic.
Continuing the tragic theme, Local Boy In The Photograph , which deals with the aftermath of a boy’s death, is another highlight from the record. It’s a really simple song but says so much with so few words. You really get the sense of how one event can send shockwaves through a town, and how though life goes back to normal, it’s a strange, muted kind of reality. The central image is one of stasis, of being trapped in time. When people talk you never really escape the big events, they never stop being talked about, and so you never move on.
Which brings me to the final song of the record – Billy Davey’s Daughter – which ties the album together. I love that this is the first name you hear on the record. Billy Davey could be any of the characters referred to so far, he could be the bloke from A Thousand Trees, or the titular daughter could be the schoolgirl running home. I love that she’s named in relation to her family, even in death she’s being talked about, gossiped about. “I remember when they found her” – man, what a heartbreaking line that is.
Funny, fully-formed characters pepper each and every song on this album. They’re in every car in Traffic, shopping for cauliflowers in More Life In A Tramp’s Vest, all making fools of themselves in Too Many Sandwiches, going about their business quietly and unglamorously in Goldfish Bowl. They’re the kind of characters I used to see around town, who my Mum used to teach, who would chuck rugby balls around on the Lant and go swimming in the river, who’d neck pints at the White Horse and fight in the car park after. Stereophonics might be a fairly naff band nowadays, they won’t get nominated for the Mercury and nobody will consider anything they do “important”, but Word Gets Around is as cinematic a record as I can imagine, a phenomenal piece of work, and well worth rediscovering.