“Everybody’s got something that they’re trying to get over (yes they do),
And sometimes it shows through.
Everybody’s got something they’ve had to live through (yes they do),
And sometimes for me it’s you!”
Fantastic songs crop up, it seems, when you least expect them to. You might be idly listening to the radio, when something comes on which takes you by surprise: this is exactly what happened recently when BBC 6 Music played The The’s Record Store Day single the day before it was released. I didn’t really know the band, but it immediately piqued my attention and left me desperate to hear it again.
The same thing can also happen when giving an album a casual first listen. As with more of the music I hold dear than I’d like to admit, I first became aware of Spearmint through Andy Lewis when he was Paul Weller’s bassist. A mention in his Twitter bio led me to getting my hands on a couple of inexpensive used CDs of theirs – from before Lewis joined, but at least they would give me a flavour so I could decide whether to explore more.
Perhaps sadly, perhaps not, as many commentators have noted cult heroes Spearmint arrived just slightly too late to become massive. They could have been household names, as big as Oasis, Blur, or Pulp, but their emergence during the tail end of the ‘90s and early 2000s saw them met with a weary public having grown tired of the disintegrated Britpop movement. Cool Britannia had very much warmed up. However, those who made the effort to become acquainted with Spearmint were won over by their cheerful pop melodies and lyrical variation from the light and airy to the hard hitting, sometimes in the space of a single song. They had more control over releases (but perhaps less publicity power) than many of their contemporaries, recording on their own label HitBack.
It was on the second CD I received, A Week Away, that I unearthed an absolute gem that I have been coming back to in the intervening years. The album is Spearmint’s first proper studio LP, and it followed the release of the compilation Songs for the Colour Yellow, which collects the band’s early singles and other work. A Week Away’s fifth track is We’re Going Out, and its four minutes and thirty-six seconds will always be one of my favourite uplifting slices of indie-pop ever.
A Week Away, recorded, released and critically acclaimed in 1999, is a concept record, leading on from its first single of the same name which (spoiler alert!) tracks the progress of a week-long holiday. This theme is mirrored in the album, which on a wider scale contemplates the shortness but also the bright incandescence of life across its thirteen tracks.
The record spans from youthful ebullience in its first half to tired resignation in its second, with the ‘youthful abandon’ aspect exemplified nowhere better than in the anthemic and in places autobiographical Northern Soul sampling Sweeping the Nation. (Dobie Gray’s Out on the Floor, for the curious among you.)
Nonetheless, We’re Going Out was also chosen as a single, to be remixed and released after the album, because despite seamlessly fitting in to the concept – in the first half – it stands head and shoulders above the twelve other excellent indie pop numbers contained in the album.
The group’s lead singer, guitarist and songwriter Shirley Lee has written in the past about his band’s refusal to put the singles destined for A Week Away out on Songs for the Colour Yellow, a decision vindicated by the quality of the album. He wrote: “There is a school of thought that if those singles had been included, [Songs for the Colour Yellow] would have crossed over [to Japan] and sold a decent amount. I have to say that if we had our time again, I would want to do exactly the same thing – the important thing was to try and get A Week Away as right as we could – we now have that album and we are very proud of it, which ultimately is of far more value than selling records.”
And the band had an extra reason to get their proper debut right. The album is tinged with sadness, being dedicated to original bass player Martin Talbot, who had left the band in 1995 and sadly passed away at Christmas 1998, shortly before recording of the main body of the album commenced.
As part of an excellent series of blog posts on Spearmint’s website detailing the entire history of the band, Lee wrote that A Week Away makes him feel “intensely proud”. I would thoroughly recommend reading it all, even if you have little or no knowledge of Spearmint. Click the links from the page about A Week Away which you can read here.
As with any great song, it is hard to put my finger on exactly why I love We’re Going Out so much. Having listened to it so many times, I think part of it is the individual instrumentation. Every track features a musician at the absolute top of his game who sounds like he’s loving what he’s doing. From the simple guitar/bass/kick-drum accompaniment to Lee’s spoken introduction to the multi-crescendoed ending which backs his closing remarks, this song swirls and soars like an upward rollercoaster of emotion.
Lee’s vocals and guitar naturally make the song. His voice errs from the calm and authoritative as he speaks to the joyful, as he sings with just a vague, nearly undetectable hint of tenderness, vulnerability and self-doubt as he goes up a few octaves in the verses and sings as the song progresses. As he said, pure pop with substance if you give it the attention it deserves.
Lee’s simple yet infectious riff, too, screams carefree abandon as it effortlessly switches from the rootsy backing rhythm in places to the driving forefront.
Ronan Larvor’s drums provide another of the highlights of the record. Towards the end, he is the sticksman we all are when air-drumming along to our favourite songs. It seems like it would be physically impossible for him to hit the kit with any greater intensity than he does, but he never stops contributing to the song’s melody in so doing.
Simon Calnan, who later recorded with Lewis on his sublime album You Should Be Hearing Something Now! contributes backing vocals, superbly framing Lee’s lead vocal with a sweet extra layer throughout. Lee’s and Calnan’s voices fit together beautifully. One assumes he was also responsible for the chorus sound effects on keys which only adds to the uplifting mood.
James Parsons completes the song’s lineup on bass. Parsons, who joined the band after an audition which came about as a result of a Melody Maker advert following Talbot’s voluntary departure, is one of the stars of the LP with his superb bass lines. And it is no different here, with Parsons coming to the fore particularly at the beginning and through the first half with his soaring, tuneful track which goes on to underpin the busy ending. Parsons moved to second guitar when Lewis joined the band, and also designed the striking pop art covers for A Week Away and its singles.
Lyrically, too, We’re Going Out’s co-writer Lee’s words are spot on. The spoken parts are thought provoking but never too contrived or twee if you give them anything more than a quick listen. From Lee’s spoken opening, to the closing lines, he is real and honest in character. He perfectly articulates a normal situation, making it into something beautiful. If it is the job of We’re Going Out to provide a healthy dollop of genuine optimism, it performs this impeccably.
However, perhaps the most crucial ingredient to the song’s success is the prevailing mood. Lee elaborated on this more (read on!) and of course his words carry infinitely more weight than mine. But as a lay punter, getting to grips with quite a simple concept album, the sheer vivacity and unbridled joy the song conjures up from such a bleak beginning is the reason it is an undeniable classic.
Lee summarised his musical aims on the band’s online history, which I see having been achieved to the letter on We’re Going Out: “I saw the music we would make as very Poppy, and at first listen, shallow. I loved the idea that we would make fizzing Pop songs that also had levels of meaning within them so that the listener who wanted to could dig deeper into the lyrics and music and get loads of listens out of it.”
Last month I decided to email Shirley Lee, more just to let him know how much I loved it than anything else, and was delighted to receive a very quick reply, answering my request for his memories of writing the song.
He said: “We’re Going Out is really special for us – it still embodies such a burst of naive enthusiastic energy: pure Pop.”
Lee was quick to mention Toby Carter, the song’s other credited co-writer. Although never an official member of Spearmint, Carter was Lee’s bandmate in previous group Laverne and Shirley who met Lee and Calnan when they worked together (with Talbot) at the Lewisham branch of now-defunct record shop Our Price.
“Toby Carter already had the song and I loved it, thought it was a classic. Toby’s the only person I’ve met who can turn out actual ‘classics’. But he tends to write them and then move on to something else. I felt this song was worth more, so I re-wrote the lyrics to be more personal and appropriate for the A Week Away album.”
And it is positioned perfectly on the record, straight before the morning-after comedown of the no less excellent Start Again. It is not known whether a demo exists of Carter’s original lyrics.
Lee continued: “We started playing it live as a duet with Mira Manga [previously the lead singer of late ‘90s glitter pioneers Disco Pistol among others] and then we recorded it with producer JB [John Etkin-Bell]. It fitted perfectly with that album and captured the day-glo explosion of positivity that we were after. We tried to follow that approach with the video too, by which time [Suffolk born guitarist] Dickon Edwards had joined the band.”
Of the song’s legacy, Lee had this to say: “I know that it’s one of the songs of ours that people hold dear and we play it live every so often and it’s always uplifting. We don’t play it every time though – it’s so infernally catchy that it’s best visited at intervals, or you start to go a bit mad!”
Lee summed up: “Definitely one of our favourites though!”
I couldn’t agree more.
Spearmint play London’s Lexington on Monday 12th June, where they will perform their classic album A Different Lifetime in its entirety for the first time. Buy your tickets for a tenner here.
They also have a new album, It’s Time to Vanish, which sees them reunite with John Etkin-Bell, who produced A Week Away. The album is available to order from HitBack’s store here, and you can watch the video for recent single Someone’s at the Door here.
HitBack’s online store is also where you can pick up a bargain expanded reissue of A Week Away with the definitive version of We’re Going Out on it.
Featured Image: single cover designed by James Parsons.
Tony Jopia’s hilarious video featuring the band in character. Note the ancient mobile phones at the start, Shirley and radio DJ Samanthi’s ‘duet’ (who met the band during A Week Away’s promotional trail), the band dressed up as tradespeople watching themselves on TV and the outrageous dance. I should note that musically I believe the album mix (in the first video) to be far superior to this, Stephen Hague’s single remix, and it is that, not this, to which I refer throughout.
A recent live festival performance of the song from Indietracks, showing that it is still a fans’ favourite!
Literally just someone playing the 7”. Again, it’s the inferior quality single release, but nevertheless this might just be the most satisfying video on the internet.