Paranoid and Post Orgasmic
IMAGE CREDIT: Spotify
Twenty-Five Years of the Wonderful Skunk Anansie
MAYBE this is the first time I have been given a music...
IN THIS PHOTO: Skunk Anansie (date unknown)/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
tip from The One Show...but I was watching last night and there was a feature regarding Skunk Anansie. One of their reporters spoke with Skin, their lead singer, and looked back at the band and how they got together. I do not mark every band/artist’s big anniversary but I am struggling to take in the fact it has been twenty-five years! (Make sure you check out their anniversary live album). I remember discovering Skunk Anansie when they first started out and my love for them intensified by 1999 – the year they released the titanic single, Charlie Big Potato. I shall talk about that soon but it seems a lot of modern artists have to give thanks to bands like Skunk Anansie. In the 1990s, there was still this dominance of male bands and we did not hear as many female-fronted acts as we do today – though the number is still smaller than one would like. Groups like Skunk Anansie, Republica and Elastica provided this alternative during a decade that was pretty male-heavy in terms of band sounds. The incredible chemistry comes from Cass (guitar, bass and backing vocals), Ace (guitar and backing vocals) and Mark Richardson (drums and percussion) but, to me, the real power is from Skin. Although the band disbanded in 2001 – and would reform in 2009 – they have produced six studio albums and they have not done talking yet! Skunk Anansie formed on 12th February, 1994 and they picked the most ambitious and quality-filled year of music to join!
I often think of 1994 as being unbeatable and the brilliant albums from that time have inspired countless artists. Think of the best albums from that year and there was very little like Skunk Anansie in there. Apart from a few British treasures like Portishead (Dummy), Blur (Parklife) and Oasis (Definitely Maybe), there was a lot of American influence and power. Green Day gave us Dookie and Weezer brought us their eponymous album (the blue-covered one); there were great records from Madonna, Tori Amos and Pavement and it is clear 1994 was a very eclectic and stunning year. I guess, in terms of force and potency, Hole were fairly close to Skunk Anansie. Led by Courtney Love, one can see some similar strands. At a time when Britpop ruled and we were all watching as these huge British bands brought a very particular style of music, one feels Skunk Anansie were more inspired by the American Alternative and Grunge scenes. Their debut album, Paranoid & Sunburnt came out in 1995 and a very important time for British music. 1995 was a time when Britpop was perhaps at its height and Skunk Anansie brought us this political, charged and quite intense record. Recorded with their original drummer Robbie France, it was a fantastic debut and one that provided something truly different. I have mentioned the American influence and I remember the record coming out and wondering whether there was a British band like them…
Maybe it was the group chemistry or the voice of Skin but I was already hooked and loved how Skunk Anansie could mix anthemic and accessible with something quite dark and gritty. Songs such as Selling Jesus, as you’d guess, had a religious-protest angle whereas I Can Dream, although it did not make the top-forty, is a stunning track that takes their sound in a new direction. Perhaps it is Weak that we associate with Paranoid & Sunburnt. I know Skin performs slower versions of the song at her solo gigs but the fully-charged original is hard to beat. Released in January 1996, many feel it is the band’s defining work and a song that gets into the head. I think I remembered all of the words the first time I heard it (in 1996) and can belt it out when the moment calls. It is a huge track and one that has yet to be equalled in terms of its unique sound and thrilling chorus. What made Skunk Anansie’s introduction so timely and revolutionary was they seemed to sit outside of Britpop and sandwiched between the Grunge of Soundgarden and Pearl Jam and the lighter, more celebratory Britpop scenes. There was this disparate clash and, in some ways, Skunk Anansie drew those worlds together. The fact a lot of those scenes were personal and vague in terms of themes meant the deeper and more political Skunk Anansie took many by surprise.
Andy Langer, when reviewing the debut album in 1995, had this to say:
“If there's yet another British invasion, big money's got to be on Skunk Anansie leading the charge -- if only because crunch, rage, and soul are far more relevant today than Oasis and Supergrass' fab revisionism.Paranoid & Sunburnt's political and racial anthems not only make for one of the angriest British records to make it stateside since the Sex Pistols, but they also create a record where frenzied feedback, resonating riffs, and self-deprecating wit find their own reactive power in that anger's face. Vocalist Skin is the real story here, a true soul singer who's comfortable playing a black Pat Benatar. The fact that Skin can so easily balance slick melodies and churning grooves makes the album both oddly charming and downright revolutionary. And Skin knows it too, requesting "Save me from critical acclaim," on the record's centerpiece, "It Takes Blood and Guts to Be This Cool But I'm Still Just a Cliché," like she knows its already too late”.
Maybe Skin wanted her band to remain under the radar but, with a debut so compelling and original, that was not going to happen! Some predicted a sophomore slump in 1996 but, armed with acclaim and a legion of fans, the band filtered that into another tight and electric record. By 1996, the scene had changed again and one can argue bands like Manic Street Preachers, Rage Against the Machine and Tool were more prominent and popular than the legends of 1994.
IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images
For that reason, Stoosh seemed to have some allies but, again, none quite like this. With excellent production from Garth Richardson, the record is packed with standout moments and big messages. Skin, if anything, seemed more charged and essential on the band’s second outing. All I Want found the band documenting those who hang out with bands and whose religion seems to be money – a new angle not often explored in music at that time. She’s My Heroine proved Skunk Anansie could produce something more melancholic but still grip the listener; Hedonism (Just Because You Feels Good) is an autobiographical record that seems to look at the pressure aimed at the band and how they needed to step back from all the excess and demand. Brazen (Weep) catches you off guard with its demonic laugh and the head-spinning sound but shows how Skunk Anansie were always looking in different directions. I will not include reviews for ALL of their albums but it is clear that, although the music landscape had changed since 1994/1995, Skunk Anansie were able to fit in and stand aside. AllMusic, in a retrospective review, were full of praise for Stoosh:
“Stoosh finds Skunk Anansie still raging for political activism (albeit sometimes through muddy lyrics), and the band makes no bones about that fact (addressed succinctly on "Yes It's F*****g Political." Skin proves herself capable of more personal issues as well on the subtle, moody "Infidelity (Only You)" and the lighter (musically) pop/rocker "Glorious Pop Song." Skunk Anansie's full-frontal charge can be wearing at times, but for a good dose of aggressive, hard rock with better-than-average lyrics, Stoosh succeeds more than it fails”.
Perhaps that observation regarding intensity is a personal view but there were a lot of angry and charged bands around in 1996 – it is unfair to single out Skunk Anansie when Manic Street Preachers’ Everything Must Go was as aggressive and full-on! Post Orgasmic Chill is the first album of theirs I truly digested in full and, again, came at an interesting time. 1999 saw the end to a lot of the popular sounds of the mid-1990s and, with great albums from Eminem, Beck and Red Hot Chili Peppers out, maybe American artists had more to say. It is clear there were no real unifying genres and movements at that time – perhaps Hip-Hop was stealing a bit more focus. There are a few weaker moments on Post Orgasmic Chill but the record is packed with stunners. I bought Charlie Big Potato as a single back in March 1999 and was eager to put it on and listen. Its video is typically odd and Anansie-esque and one can interpret the lyrics how they want. Some say the song’s title is slang referring to testicular fortitude and guts – giving it your all and swaggering out. One would not be shocked to hear that but I would be eager to know how Skin views the song and what she and Len Arran were imagining when putting it together. The band released four singles from their third album and cuts such as Lately and Secretly, to me, define the sound of 1999. All the key components were still in the ranks – the nervous energy and distinct lead vocal – but Post Orgasmic Chill was more accessible and straight-ahead then we were used to – maybe reflecting the sounds defining 1999 and how music had altered; maybe an attempt to remain fresh.
Yes, there are some messy moments on the album but the sheer force and chemistry of the band more than makes up! I love how Skunk Anansie remained political and essential and did not compromise and water down their messages. We Don’t Need Who You Think You Are and The Skank Heads are anti-racism and you can hear the passion and heat in Skin’s voice! Skunk Anansie said goodbye to the 1990s by incorporating more Metal and bigger sounds into their mix and, as such, captivating new audiences who were big into Nu-Metal of that time. We would not see another album from them until 2010 but, when they returned to us, Wonderlustre was worth the wait! Singles like My Ugly Boy showed the band had not exactly got prematurely old and boring and it contained their usual blend of depth and spark. Reviewers noted how the band could have messed their return up but were the same tight and quality unit they always were. The fact they came back was not because of financial lure and the need to recapture the past. They could have produced a record with tracks like Weak on it but that would betray the fact they had matured and, in 2010, the scene was different. Given that, one could forgive them for calming a bit and trying a new direction but Skin’s always-reliable anger and striking words mixed with the band’s intensity, togetherness and kinetic energy.
The reviews were positive and, again, AllMusic were keen to pay tribute:
“The music packs plenty of catchy semi-metallic riffs, while Skin's voice still reverberates with tension while going from quiet vocalizations to commanding shouts -- though now she often sounds composed, not hysterical, in her anger. Most songs share the post-grunge and alterna-rock ethos, and would fit quite well on the radio, but most bands polluting the same airwaves would be left red-faced by Skin's fierceness and power -- and the group is still catchy as hell at that. They are similar to Therapy? in that regard -- the one other band that plays simply, but avoids conformism, delivering a unique, handmade take on a hackneyed style. Wonderlustre sounds streamlined -- in the past, Skunk Anansie were keen to shift from angsty grandeur to heart-wrenching intimacy, but here, they never go overboard emotionally, and most songs only differ in hooks, not vibe or dynamics. But this only makes the record more cohesive and mature, which is precisely what they should be like on an album made after a decade-plus hiatus”
Black Traffic, released in 2012, divided critics but there were still these politically-aimed songs – I Believed in You is the most overt and memorable expression of the band’s disappointment in the leaders of this nation (and the world). Maybe some were looking for a calmer album in a year that was not producing work as heavy and explosive. A lot of great Hip-Hop and Pop was emerging but nothing quite like Skunk Anansie’s latest offering!
IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images
They effortlessly fused hard-ahead rage with softer and more emotional songs such as I Hope You Get to Meet Your Hero. I feel one of the reasons Skunk Anansie retained popularity and appeal was their mixture of textures and the fact they were never one-trick. The contrasts in their material satisfied a wide audience but they always had that distinct and reliable core sound that was not perverted and polluted by record labels and the charts. So many reformed bands rely on their past or attempt to ‘fit in with the kids’. Skunk Anansie had a lot to say and were channelling a lot of anger being felt by the public regarding politicians and the state of events. 2016’s Anarchytecture – with its more colourful cover this time – drew some mediocre reviews but there was still plenty of passion for the band. Some critics felt there were too many weak moments and the band hopped genres a lot but, to me, their current album is among their most ambitious and realised. Drowned in Sound had some positive words to say regarding Anarchytecture:
“There’s a couple of staggeringly good moments here - ‘Without You’ is a tingling ballad, Skin’s “I can’t get by without you” chorus pulling an edge of real desperation, you believe her 100 percent; the understated ‘Death To The Lovers’ would have been a huge hit for them back when the public were paying enough attention, and you could give it to any contemporary balladeer and watch the money roll in. Someone should get Adele on the phone...
The album closes with the cathartic ‘I’ll Let You Down’, which seems the oddest title possible for a Skunk Anansie song - letting you down is the one thing they’ve never really done. Their time closing the Pyramid Stage may be a long way behind them, but this is a band that have learned their craft well, that know exactly how to operate the gears and levers in their machinery to produce the best possible version of themselves. No lives will be changed, nor hearts broken, but it does what it needs to do satisfyingly well”.
I am interested to see what the band have planned and, with issues like Brexit and Trump not going away, there is new fuel and inspiration! There is still racism around the world and corruption so one feels Skin has plenty jotted down for the next album. Maybe they are not the same as they were back in 1994 but one would not expect them to be. The world has moved on and so have the band. They still have the fire and direction of their younger work and, considering many bands their age become bored and lifeless, it is testament to Skunk Anansie they have that fire burning bright. I hope they do furnish us with new material soon because they are an essential voice in music.
IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images
The band want to move in the same direction and want to keep going. In this interview from 2016, they were asked about their past and which moments stand out:
“How do you look back at the success of the band, and the experiences you have from 21 years of performing?
A] It’s amazing really, after playing the festivals we’d walk off stage after playing to like 50,000 people, and I’d turn to Mark (Richardson, Drums) and ask “How are we still getting away with it?!”. I’m actually relearning a lot of old material for our next tour, and its amazing because playing our old stuff reminds me of all the times we performed it: touring America, having fun y’know? It all comes back to you as you play these songs. It’s been an incredible journey and I’m lucky to have done it, and still be doing it, It’s like a dream job that still hasn’t ended!
S] Is it important to you as a band to try new things as a band?
A] It is really important for us to evolve and grow, not just to stay current and up to date, but to stay fresh and do something new, and so it stays exciting for us to do. We’ve always tried new things and developed our sound, even back in the day we tried different sounds, worked with different artists and producers, played with different types of songs and adapted our style. The new material incorporates electronica and punk, our influences are all around us and feed into what we create, keeps us fresh and our material diverse.
S] How do you feel you have developed and changed personally?
A] As you grow older, you don’t fundamentally change, you just have a lot less free time than when you’re younger! You have more time to see friends and go to gigs when you’re younger, which is harder as you have kids and responsibility. But basically I feel I havn’t changed that much, I still am really passionate about music, still have that energy for it and love listening to new stuff. I spend a lot of time with other artists and musicians it it keeps that energy and that love going”.
I love the fact the long-serving Skunk Anansie get to celebrate twenty-five years of formation on 12th February and there will be a lot of people spinning their songs and looking ahead. They arrived as this very exciting and fresh proposition with a debut album that came just as Britpop was dominating here. It would have been easy for many to overlook the band but they had a huge sound and a direction that spoke to those who wanted an alternative and something deeper from the music. To me, they scored my high-school days and, as Charlie Big Potato arrived in my final year at high-school, I felt like they had followed me through a tough period but one filled with great memories. I love the band but feel Skin is one of the most compelling and inspiring voices in music. She has inspired so many other artists and I do not think her lyrics get the credit they deserve. Let’s hope the band has some plans given the fact they have been kicking around for this time and many will be curious to see where they head. It has been a long and successful path for the band and let’s hope, as the world cries out for artists who can articulate the anger and division out there right now, they keep going...
FOR many years to come.