At the height of Britpop, Menswear seemed to be its ultimate band. They hyped themselves into the press before they even formed, blagging their way into a signing frenzy and £750,000 record deal, promptly becoming the first band ever to play on Top Of The Pops before releasing any music.
‘Daydreamer’ became an instant classic, Pulp loved them and Menswear’s 1995 album ‘Nuisance’ lived up to the hype. But the inevitable backlash saw the band lost in a blizzard of drugs and in-fighting. All the while, singer Johnny Dean was battling undiagnosed mental health issues.
Radically different country-rock second album ‘¡Hay Tiempo!’ was only released in Japan and Menswear ended in 1998. Johnny was able to find calm when he was eventually diagnosed as autistic in 2008. Guitarists Chris Gentry and Simon White now manage Phoenix, The Lemon Twigs and Hudson Mohawke together, while drummer Matt Everitt is the familiar voice of music news on BBC 6 Music.
As Menswear’s brilliant crash-and-burn career is collected in new 4CD boxset ‘The Menswear Collection’ and they share the lost single ‘Wait For The Sun’, Johnny tells NME of the “endemic darkness” at Britpop’s heart and his pride at Menswear’s none-more-punk spirit.
How does it feel to see Menswear’s career collected in a boxset?
Johnny: “Strange, as I wouldn’t have put the words ‘Menswear’ and ‘boxset’ together. But I’m happy about it, because it’ll surprise people how much music we actually recorded. I thought all those demos for ‘¡Hay Tiempo!’ were lost in an attic in Camden somewhere, but London Records had kept them all, even though they belonged to us.”
‘¡Hay Tiempo!’ is finally being released as part of the boxset. How do you feel about the album now?
“It’s a really good record that people should hear, but you can hear how lost we were. We were a punk/indie band, suddenly making five-minute acid-tinged country-rock pieces. It was career suicide. We recorded it up the road from The Charlatans and Tim Burgess said it was like we’d jumped from our first album to our fourth. At the time, I thought that was great, but it’ll lose you not just your record company but a load of fans too.”
How much pressure did you feel once you signed to London Records for £750,000?
“Everything happened far too easily for us. The three songs on our demo are very strong – if I’d been in A&R, I’d have signed us. But that pressure didn’t help us develop. London expected us to be the next Blur straight away, forgetting Blur needed to make ‘Leisure’ before they got to ‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’.
You became the first act to ever be on Top Of The Pops before you’d even released any music…
“I’m proud of that, it was such a major moment. We did our first single ‘I’ll Manage Somehow’ and loads of people phoned the BBC to complain, because I threw the mic stand into the audience at the end in my excitement. If anyone reading this has still got it, I’d love to have that stand back.”
What’s your proudest achievement with Menswear?
“Getting away with it. What we did was incredible. We basically walked out of the audience onto the stage and made a go of it. And, for a few years, it worked. Then we tried to get too serious and it fell apart. There’s the warning for young bands: don’t take it too seriously.”
How do you feel about Britpop now?
“All Britpop was, was indie bands – and a lot of them had nothing in common with each other. Matt once accurately said ‘You’re not Britpop until you’ve denied being Britpop’. The term horrified us. Everyone looks at it as this laddish notion of having a beer on your head and watching the football, when one of the few common threads in the bands at the start was going to art school. That quickly mutated into this horrible laddism, where girls were only seen as cool if they behaved like boys – the ladette phenomenon. It was totally out of order, but people didn’t think twice about it then. It was a very white, male scene. Garage, trip-hop, dance music, they all sold far more singles than the guitar bands did. From the beginning, I sensed it was dodgy that the black music being made wasn’t being recognised. There were a lot of problems, but at the same time it was exciting for young kids outside of the major cities and I do get that.
When did it start to go wrong for Menswear?
“Not taking so many drugs would have helped. At 22, I was the oldest when Menswear started – Chris was just 17. I felt responsible for everybody, but I was off my tits most of the time and permanently confused. I was diagnosed with autism 12 years ago, and it didn’t help matters that nobody knew it then. That would have obviously made a massive difference to me then, but I don’t think it would have made any difference to Menswear.
“One of my biggest regrets is that was Matt was forced out after ‘Nuisance’. The wheels fell off very quickly after he left. Matt was always the sensible one, and it was the first sign to the record company that we were beginning to lose it, which I agree with. Matt left due to differences in personality with other band members. ‘Being Brave’ had just gone Top 10 and, in the middle of that, you do whatever you can to keep it going. Looking back, it would have been funny if we’d split up then, as we’d have done what the Manics always said they’d do: make one record and piss off.”
How hard was it to get over the split and try to find normality after such intensity?
“It was massively hard for all of us. By the end, every other band stood as far away from us as possible, because we were out of control and everyone else collectively went, ‘We don’t want to see this happening’. We pissed everyone off with our exuberance. Pulp had been encouraging at the start, but they had their own problems by then, as did so many bands – they fell into the darkness that was endemic to that whole scene. For me, it was a hell of a journey from thinking I was absolutely loopy to finally being diagnosed with autism and getting some kind of closure. For so long, I’d felt I didn’t belong on this planet.”
What made you briefly revive Menswear with a totally new line-up in 2013?
“Oh God! I was manipulated into something I wasn’t comfortable with by people who were being opportunistic. I thought it’d be fun, but it looked weird, as I’m not that same person.”
Could Menswear ever properly reform?
“I can’t see it happening. Everyone else has proper jobs. Simon is great at planning ahead and Chris was incredible at networking, so it’s not a surprise they’re managers. Matt’s job in music news is perfect for him, as he was always the one aiming for the quote that’d end up in big letters. Stuart was a builder before the band, and he now runs a building company, playing trumpet in a brass band. We’re all friends again, we’re all happy in relationships. But that first Menswear album was about sounding like a teenage meltdown. It looks very different doing that in your ’40s.”
Menswear’s new single ‘Wait For The Sun’ from ‘¡Hay Tiempo!’ is out now. ‘Nuisance’ is reissued on vinyl for Record Store Day on October 24. ‘The Menswear Collection’ 4CD boxset is released on October 23.