Sub Sub's miraculous escape from the 90s [April 18, 1993]
Plus: East 17, Dr Alban, and The Afghan Whigs
Greetings, Time Travellers! 👋
It’s April 18, 1993 again
📰 Stephen Lawrence is murdered in a racist attack, a shocking incident that has long-term effects on British society.📽️ Cinemagoers get to enjoy Richard Gere gaslighting Jodie Foster in period drama Sommersby.
🎶 Number One song in the UK Top 40 is ‘Young At Heart’ by The Bluebells, so let’s talk about this week’s Number 3...
‘Ain’t No Love (Ain’t No Use)’—Sub Sub
It’s a Saturday morning in 2002 and I’m lying face-down in my bed. I’m hungover, I’m cold, and I want to sleep more, but my thin windows are rattling to the ceaseless rhythm of South London traffic.
I had arrived in London a year previously, hoping for an early-20s big-city adventure, the start of something exciting. It didn’t happen. Instead, I got caught in a grim grind of temp work and dive bars, living a life that could happen anywhere and that wasn’t any better just because it was happening in London.
The truth began slowly creeping into my thick head. I wouldn’t be here much longer. This was only a pit stop in my life.
Right now though, it’s still a Saturday morning in London and I’m still hungover. I turn on the radio (we still had radios in 2002), which is tuned to XFM, which was London-only at the time and one of the few things I still loved about the city.
XFM have been pushing a new-ish band called Doves, who sound a bit like Coldplay/Elbow/Snow Patrol, but before Coldplay/Elbow/Snow Patrol became uncool Dad Rock.
Doves have a new single called ‘Pounding’ that sounds like this:
A lyric catches my ear (I always notice lyrics before melodies). It goes:
Let’s leave at sunrise
Let’s live by the ocean
I don’t mind if we never come home at all
And in my third-floor London box room, which is always freezing even in summer, in an apartment with flatmates with whom I’m now feuding, surrounded by insane Russian neighbours that party until 5am every night, near the tube station that fills my nose and mouth with black soot as I travel to the job I hate, in a city that’s so big and yet weirdly claustrophobic, I think to myself, “I would love to leave and go live by the ocean”.
One of those moments in life where you’re ready to take the next step, but you have no idea how.
That’s when the DJ cuts in and banters a bit about Doves and their new album, The Last Broadcast, and he says something like, “The members of Doves used to be in a band called Sub Sub. If you’re an old geezer like myself, you might remember them having a hit in the 90s with ‘Ain’t No Love (Ain’t No Use’.”
This pop trivia jolts me awake. It’s strangely shocking, like when you see a teacher outside of school, or when you glimpse a mirror and briefly fail to recognise your own reflection.
Gimme the one thing I’m asking you for
Sub Sub were three working-class kids from Manchester: twin brothers Jez and Andy Williams, plus school friend Jimi Goodwin. The trio began their music career as teenagers, and they had one very specific goal: become just famous enough to be able to skip the queue at The Hacienda.
Everything seemed to be going well when they signed with a major label, Virgin Records. Their first single, the sci-fi techno epic ‘Space Face’, appeared in 1991.
‘Space Face’ was a flop, and Virgin dropped them like a hot potato. This disaster might have meant the end for other bands, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Sub Sub.
(This will be a recurring theme in this story.)
They met Rob Gretton, manager of Joy Division and then New Order, who signed them on the usual Factory Records terms: no contract, 50/50 profit split, artist owns everything. Factory Records was gone at this stage, having finally sunk under the disaster of the last Happy Mondays album, so Gretton released them on his own label, Rob’s Records.
In one of those “An oral history of…” interviews in the Guardian, Andy Williams explains what happened next:
“Me and my twin brother Jez used to go to this fair when we were 13. One day I won a prize – a record – and we were chased back to the train station by some locals who didn’t like us being there. I played it when I got home, thought it was crap and stuck it at the back of my collection, never to be seen again. It was a version of Hair – not the official soundtrack but music inspired by the film of the musical. It was pretty dreadful.”
In 1992, the guys found the record and stuck it on for a laugh. It was still dreadful, but this time they noticed the excellent disco rhythm of ‘Good Morning Starshine’:
They built a track around that sample and took it to their friend Melanie Williams. Melanie’s band, Temper Temper, had once made it to Number 92 in the singles charts, which isn’t much—but better than anything Sub Sub had ever done.
Melanie wrote some additional lyrics and laid down a vocal, and the song took off almost overnight. They were booked on The Word before the single had even been released. A few days later, they were dragged in to appear on Top Of The Pops as the week’s highest new entry.
‘Ain’t No Love (Ain’t No Use)’ sold 700,000 copies. If the band had stayed with Virgin, most of the profits would have gone into Richard Branson’s pocket, but the generous Rob’s Records agreement meant the band got paid.
Sub Sub were now—quite unexpectedly—rich.
Let it all out, get it all out
Most of the ‘Ain’t No Love’ money went on booze and drugs, which is understandable. They were only 23—roughly the same age I was during my London adventure.
Fortunately, they had enough sense to invest some money into their careers. The trio built a studio in Northern Manchester and got to work on their debut album, Full Fathom Five.
Which flopped as miserably as ‘Space Face’.
I haven’t heard the record, but one online reviewer gave this quietly devastating analysis:
“There are some strong and enjoyable moments amidst the cliches and anachronisms, but if you never hear it [the album], you’ll survive.”
The band pushed on. Most of the 90s were spent touring, boozing, making records, and failing to crack the Top 40. It seemed like they were heading for permanent one-hit-wonder-dom.
In 1996, something truly terrible happened. A devastating fire ripped through their studio, destroying everything, including most of their instruments.
Sub Sub were back to square one.
You lie and you cheat and you fall on your feet
But they weren’t finished. In 1997, they released a single with New Order frontman Bernard Sumner called, ‘This Time I’m Not Wrong’.
Again, it flopped, but the dozen people who bought a copy might have noticed a shift in Sub Sub’s musical direction. The club anthem vibe had given way to a more organic inside sound.
A year later, Sub Sub officially broke up and immediately reformed as a new band called Doves.
Bernard Sumner gave Doves access to a small studio he owned in Cheetham, one of the more lively Manchester neighbours. They worked on their new album while under constant threat from feral locals, who pounded on the door and walked on the studio’s ceiling.
At one stage, the band were so nervous about a break-in that they installed their own external CCTV cameras. Almost immediately, someone nicked the cameras.
Early 2000 saw the release of Doves’ official debut album. Lost Souls was quite successful, making the charts and finishing 11th in the last-ever Melody Maker Albums of the Year poll.
The next album, The Last Broadcast, was a smash. Lead single ‘There Goes The Fear’ reached Number 3, while the album made it all the way to Number One. It also contained ‘Pounding’, the song that made me think about leaving London and living by the ocean.
Walk on by, gonna walk on through
The moral of the Sub Sub/Doves story is: keep going, because disaster might just be the prologue to success.
Sub Sub were kids when they got dropped by Virgin, which must have been hurtful and scary. Watching their studio burn down must have been devastating, They didn’t just lose their space and their instrument—they also lost the surprise cash windfall from ‘Ain’t No Love (Ain’t No Use)’.
But they persisted, and they figured everything out.
I persisted too. I actually enacted that lyric from ‘Pounding’ a few years later: I got up at sunrise one day, and I went to live by the ocean. But that’s a story for another day.
Post script: Andy hinted in that Guardian piece that the song contains a small, uncleared, non-musical sample.
My guess is that it’s the “what’s happening?” vocal clip and that it’s lifted from Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On?’ Any other guesses?
Elsewhere in the charts
Number 13 (↑ from 15): ‘Slow It Down’—East 17
Just me, or is there something weirdly disjointed about this song? The verse is okay, even if Tony’s r’n’b-infused rapping is not likely to earn him a call-up to the Wu-Tang Clan.
But then it gets to the chorus and… I don’t know a lot about music theory, but it seems to go downwards when it should go up, and all the energy falls out of it. Weird song, weird choice for a single, and one of the reasons Take That emerged as boyband champions.
Number 20 (↑ from 22): ‘Sing Hallelujah’—Dr Alban
Speaking of career changes, here is dentist-turned-dance legend Dr. Alban. We talked about his twisty path to success when we covered ‘It’s My Life’ last year.
Number 23 (New Entry): Gimme Shelter EP—Various Artists
The Gimme Shelter project was an initiative to raise money for the homeless charity Shelter. A bunch of people collaborated on multiple versions of the classic Stones song, giving us bizarre team-ups like:
Jimmy Sommerville and Voice of the Beehive (as seen on Top of the Pops)
They are all terrible. The EP didn’t raise much money, and the whole event was utterly bizarre.
Number 25 (New Entry): ‘Power of American Natives’—Dance 2 Trance
In our day, we didn’t have naive influencers wearing Native American headdresses to Coachella and getting roasted on Instagram for cultural appropriation.
We had this. And we liked it!
Number 64 (New Entry): ‘Johnny Mathis’s Feet’—American Music Club
Breaking out of the Top 40 for a moment to include one of my favourite bands/people. I think we can all agree that this should have been a hit. It should have been Number One for 16 weeks.
Album of the Week
Gentlemen—The Afghan Whigs
Folks, we have a guest. The amazingis joining us with a knockout story about The Afghan Whigs and much more…
It’s 1993. I am 21.
I’m at a club dancing to House of Pain’s “Jump.” I look out past the dance floor and see my ex circling with his fiancé trailing behind him. Music stops and starts in my head. I leave the dance floor, get a drink, I was drinking Cosmos that night, I remember, and contemplate my next move. The ex stands a bit away from me and I decide I need to talk to him.
Words are said. “I’ve got the ring,” the fiancé says, shoving it in my face. I take deep breaths and walk away. As I do, his fiance calls me a whore. She seems to ignore that he cheated on me with her. I return to her, we’re on the floor, and bouncers escort me out of the building.
I never see my ex again but I hear he and the fiancé, now wife, have moved to Detroit and had kids.
In 1993, The Afghan Whig’s seminal—and often considered best album—“Gentlemen” was released. The album, a song cycle about the end of a toxic relationship, mirrored so much of my ex and I’s relationship that now 30 years on, Gentlemen is our story no matter how much I want it not to be
Gentlemen begins with ‘If I Were Going’, a song of gaslighting by the anonymous narrator cheating on his lover and convincing her what she thinks is happening, is not:
What should I tell her?
She's going to ask
If I ignore it
It gets uncomfortable
She'll want to argue about the past
Still I think she believes me
Every word I say
I think I'm starting to believe it all myself
Go ask the gentlemen
Who play it but hate to pay
I found out my ex was cheating on me from one of his friends. I don’t recall the specifics or who actually broke up with who, but for another six months we played a game of cat and mouse. He would pursue, I would stand up and then relent. He would walk away, I would beg and then reject him. He would pursue, I would stand up, and then relent. On and on for months.
From ‘When We Two Parted’:
Baby, I see you've made yourself all sick again
Didn't I do a good job of pretending?
You're saying that the victim doesn't want it to end
I get to dress up and play the assassin again
Six months after we break up, he is at a show, The Judybats (again so clearly in my mind), and we see each other. Later that night, he sneaks into my parents house, creeps up to my room, puts his hand over my mouth. I awake and let him lead me down to the living room. Someone closes the door and we have sex on the carpet.
This, I thought, was love.
Other than the incident at the club a month or so later, after months of sneaking around on the woman he snuck around on me with, I never saw him again.
From ‘Now You Know’:
Since you're aware of the consequences
I can pimp what's left of this wreck on you
Bit into a rotten one
Now didn't you?
And they watch you chew
The term “toxic” in reference to relationships was not common vernacular in 1993. I thought he was the good one. Everyone loved him; friends and relations alike. That he cheated on me, and left me, seemed so unfathomable. We talked of marriage. We talked about kids. When you’re 21, everything seems possible.
The internet explodes and I find him a few years later. “I wonder what happened to you,” he says in an email. I write back and he never responds.
Every five or so years, I’ll look for him online. I find bits and pieces. Still in Detroit. Playing golf now. Still married to her. Will I stop? Probably not. His imprint has lasted for 30 years and I’ll never stop thinking of him, no matter how minute.
I recently found a picture of us together. Our smiles are so big.
I put the picture in a box and I don’t know where it is.
Brother Woodrow lead us in a closing prayer.
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ALSO! Much love on the preamble to my essay. You are also one of my favorite writers.
Dad rock? DAD ROCK!? Ugh, Bernard, how dare you. When doves released their Ireland/UK tour for this year, I bought tickets for Dublin, Belfast, Cardiff, and Glasgow. The tour, as you're aware, did not happen. But would I do my own tour to follow them again? Dad rock, indeed.