FOR THE RECORD – Elastica ‘The Menace’ (2000)

Have you had enough of the endless re-appraisals of ‘Sgt. Pepper’s…’ or ‘The Velvet Underground & Nico’? Well, we have, so you can forget all that! In this brand spanking new feature Gigslutz will be looking back on some of the best albums that you love that have been previously given short shrift. We focus our critical eye on the difficult second albums, efforts from long-forgotten bands, overlooked classics and more underappreciated gems from the past. Read on, this time it could be your favourite!

In this first instalment of For the Record, the album selected for your reconsideration is one close to my heart and sorely in need of re-evaluation (and also because it’s Justine Frischmann’s birthday this week): Elastica’s ‘The Menace’. The very definition of the difficult second album, ‘The Menace’ arrived five long years on from their 1995 self-titled LP, ice cold on the heels of the success the group had experienced in the glory days of Britpop. At just short of 39 minutes it is a brief, somewhat inglorious but vital epitaph to both Elastica’s career and the last great era of British music. To best understand why the album sank without a trace is to examine the historical context surrounding the release of ‘The Menace’, a soap opera which could just as well be subtitled, to paraphrase Edward Gibbon, ‘The History of the Decline and Fall of Britpop.’


It was 1995 and Justine Frischmann and Damon Albarn were Britpop’s golden couple, Camden’s darlings, and Frischmann’s band, Elastica have just made their second appearance on ‘Top of the Pops’, performing their latest single ‘Waking Up’. It peaked inside the top 20 on the eve of their debut full-length’s release, just as their breakthrough single ‘Connection’ had done six months prior. They were joined on keyboards for the song by Albarn, who had just played ‘Parklife’ album track ‘Jubilee’ with Blur on the same show. It was a friendly gesture from one partner to another but the implication was far greater: here was the leader of the anointed kings of Britpop pointing at the next band to follow in their footsteps. Elastica’s arrival signalled the moment that girls made it to the Britpop party. Fashionably late as ever and sporting chunky Dr. Marten’s and Alex James-style floppy fringes, women like Lush’s Miki Berenyi and Sleeper’s Louise Wener were suddenly mixing it with the boys. For this writer, seeing a woman holding a guitar to young, inexperienced eyes looked strange but to equally young, inexperienced ears, sounded just right. Girl power indeed.

Throughout the mid-Nineties the fortunes of Blur and Elastica would be constantly intertwined. Both bands broke the U.S. at a similar time, their hits were ubiquitous, they were seemingly always on the covers of the nation’s music mags and they featured together on the soundtrack to the era’s great cinematic achievement, ‘Trainspotting’. Then in 1998, Albarn and Frischmann split up. And there’s the rub. Elastica’s place in the pantheon of Britpop bands is confused, somewhere between vanguards and also-rans principally because Justine Frischmann is today best known to casual fans as Damon Albarn’s former girlfriend, the inspiration behind Blur’s heartbroken ‘No Distance Left to Run’. It’s easy to forget but ‘Elastica’ went straight to number one with better first week sales than ‘Definitely Maybe’ and when they weren’t ripping off Wire, they were a quality act. Albarn and Frischmann’s break up would be a powerful muse to both on Blur’s 1999 album ‘13’ and its mirror ‘The Menace’. In fact the list of great songs from that period inspired by their pairing is staggering, including the petulant jibes from Suede’s Brett Anderson, their song ‘Animal Lover’ written about the Blur frontman from the position of jilted ex and Albarn’s retort, ‘Charmless Man’. Looking back, we’re lucky Frischmann never studied sculpture at St. Martin’s College, otherwise just about all the best Britpop records would be about one woman.


There’s plenty of evidence of Frischmann’s way with a tune on ‘The Menace’, yet the key song on the record wasn’t written by her but surprisingly Stephan Remmler and Gert Krawinkel of German one-hit wonders Trio. At the end of the album and considered a throwaway cover, the lyrics of their song ‘Da Da Da’ contribute to one of the most compelling romantic dialogues in music history. “I know why you went away, understand you couldn’t stay… After all is said and done it was right for you to run” sings Frischmann in response to “When you see me please turn your back and walk away. I don’t want to see you… I got no distance left to run.” Though the words were not written by Frischmann the consistency in meaning is telling. Also significant is despite being all over ‘Elastica’, Albarn only contributes to this one track on their second album. The spiky, caustic ‘Da Da Da’ is nowhere near as sublime as ‘No Distance Left to Run’ because that’s kind of the point. Choosing a cover to tell her side of the story is archetypal of Frischmann’s approach to airing dirty laundry, she told The Observer in 2002 after Elastica had called it a day: “I don’t feel any kind of need to bare myself in public. I’m not into angst.” It also made it clear that, for her, as with the rest of us, the self-indulgent days of Britpop were over.

‘The Menace’ is a record defined by Albarn and Frischmann’s break up but crucially it isn’t consumed by it. Although Frischmann was the undoubted primary creative force, Elastica were a band and ‘The Menace’ is fractured and ill-at-ease because the band making it were in a similar position. Elastica actually broke up in the years between their first and second albums. As was pointed out by Stephen Thomas Erlewine is his review for AllMusic, had this album been released in 1996 or 1997 it would have represented “a simple step forward” for the band, yet Elastica were in no fit state to complete recording the album, with members struggling through varying states of drug addiction and exhaustion. Tracks like ‘Nothing Stays the Same’ and ‘KB’ could have easily slotted into ‘Elastica’. The intervening ‘6 Track EP’ released in 1999 contains early versions of both tracks as well as ‘Generator’ which repurposes the ‘Eeny, Meeny’ children’s rhyme well before Sean Kingston and Justin Bieber made it creepy.

It’s strange to think but in the same time that Radiohead travelled light years from ‘The Bends’ to ‘Kid A’, Elastica too progessed. ‘The Menace’ is a record in flux, presenting the band growing as well as standing still artistically. Welcome contributions from departed original guitarist Donna Matthews turn songs like ‘Love Like Ours’ and ‘Image Change’ into essential Elastica, however plundering Wire’s back catalogue again as they did for ‘Human’ smacks of desperation. The greatest evolution the album shows is during Frischmann’s collaborations with Kingmaker’s Loz Hardy which are intriguing but ultimately a bit of a mixed bag. The minimal and lush ‘My Sex’ has all the atmosphere and barely restrained emotion of a Nine Inch Nails record, ‘Miami Nice’ on the other hand a disappointing brooding, dark instrumental that, like most instrumentals, goes nowhere.


Let’s be clear, ‘The Menace’ is not a great album. It’s not even the best Elastica album. What it is is an important artifact of a time of great change in British music. Fans pretend it doesn’t exist, like a reverse of the Beach Boys’ ‘Smile’, even the band’s Wikipedia page lists the line-up as the ‘classic’ four-piece of 1995 rather than acknowledge those who kept the Elastica name alive. The album has been deleted by Steve Lamacq’s Deceptive Records, which folded not long after its release. You can’t even buy ‘The Menace’ on iTunes; you have to track down a CD, surely an indication in these modern times of a genuine relic. History has tried to sweep this record under the rug but just think, without it Justine Frischmann may never have met a young M.I.A., then Maya Arulpragasam, who photographed the cover for ‘The Menace’ and become an early mentor to her in the music business and Damon Albarn may never have shared a flat with Jamie Hewlett and begun sowing the seeds for Gorillaz. Without ‘The Menace’ British pop may never have grown up at all.


Elliott Homer
Elliott Homer is an undisputed master of understatement, a black belt holder in mixed metaphors and long-time deserving of some such award for length of time spent chatting rubbish about music down the pub. Studies show prolonged exposure to his scribblings can cause migraines, hysterical pregnancy, night terrors and/or acne, yet seldom encourages readers to agree with the author, in fact quite the reverse, much to his eternal frustration.