Super Special Guest writer Neil Peacock goes back to the era of Britpop to rediscover a gem of a track that broke free of the tired dandyism and retroism of Britain’s last truly popular genre and became ensconsed in everyone’s ears. Here, Neil relives the heady days of the song, and looks at why it succeeded nearly a year after it flopped.
Following the break-up of Orange Juice in early 1985, Edwyn Collins drifted out of public view. What news surfaced would be odd tales of a bittersweet nature, such as the mention in a Go Betweens interview of Edwyn being found drunk underneath the table at their gigs. So, it was with much excitement and a certain amount of relief that, in 1987, the astute Alan McGee signed the man who Polydor were all too happy to see the back off a couple of years earlier.
The first sign of his return was the powerful single, Don’t Shilly Shally, which I bought on 12″ from Penny Lane Records in Liverpool, in the autumn of ’87. But for some ropey production, it would have been a hit, instead it hovered just outside the Top 75 of Britain’s pop charts.
At the time I would buy the (now-defunct) Record Mirror, mainly for the weekly Top 100 charts double page spread, which you could spend hours analysing and guessing which of your favourite releases would be up or down the charts the following week. I recall a Friday afternoon taking my lunch break from stacking shelves with cheap baked beans at Kwik Save on the Youth Training Scheme and rifling through the magazine, to see if Edwyn’s comeback single had made an entrance into the Top 75. These things seemed important then, confirmation that the record buying public hadn’t completely forgotten about Edwyn after his near three year exile, and that yes, there were others out there with good taste.
I did the same when My Beloved Girl, his next single on McGee’s Elevation label, was issued a few months later. But by then I was doing Media Studies in Liverpool, and in a much happier frame of mind, so it was easier to come to terms with the fact that Edwyn was not going to have his big hit.
But deep down, it still rankled with me that in some quarters of the music press, Edwyn was seen as a one-hit wonder, all washed up after Orange Juice, who’s last album didn’t even make the Top 100. Towards the end of Orange Juice, Edwyn and Zeke Manyika, mainly through their own funding, produced a TV advert, including what were openly described as the chart-avoiding singles What Prescence?! and Lean Period, with the word FLOP flashing on and off the screen.
Rip It Up and Start Again
It would be eight years after his solo debut that Edwyn would have his second big hit. I first heard it in my folk’s kitchen from the Steve Lamacq Evening Session on Radio One. I initially thought I was listening to an old northern soul classic, and yet I detected a familiarity in the vocals. Could it be? And of course it was, it was Edwyn’s new single issued in the autumn of 1994, which I bought on the worst format available, the cassingle, with only one extra track, a remix version. I tried to convince Porky that this song was a genuine classic, and that I was not merely being biased. However, the song struggled just outside The Top 40.
And then the album, Gorgeous George, came out, which was Edwyn’s best solo work at that point, and which I bought on vinyl in Hull. I was surprised to gain praise from the young woman behind the counter for being an Edwyn fan, something which seemed to be a rare sighting back then.
The album sounded like Collins had something to prove: there was the righteous anger at the ’90s music scene of Campaign For Real Rock; classic pop storytelling in Make Me Feel Again, and an acoustic tale of disillusion in Low Expectations. And which Edwyn fan could not feel a shiver flicker down the spine, as he spat out the lines “Some mother’s son, talking about Guns ‘n’ Roses, as if I give a fuck, at best I think they suck” from North of Heaven. It was a big return to form, after the patchy predecessor, Hellbent On Compromise. Some reviews, however, suggested that Edwyn could do with lightening up a bit. But after years of record company and mass public rejection, there was obviously a lot of bitterness.
Alas, A Girl Like You disappeared out of the charts after a few weeks, and If You Could Love Me, which had a passing resemblance to OJ’s Flesh Of My Flesh also passed without a great deal of notice. At this point I felt that was that for this stage of Edwyn’s career, and that he would have to wait till the next album for deserved mainstream success.
Thank Goodness for the Germans
And then came miracle in the summer of ’95, when A Girl Like You started to become a big hit around Europe; suddenly the song was everywhere, one could hardly have a day without hearing it at least once on the radio. And then, the bigger miracle, when it started storming up the UK charts. There was a feeling for old Edwyn fans, of having to pinch oneself, gasp, and take in what was actually happening.
So what happened in the meantime? Toward the end of 2004, radio stations, particularly in Europe and Australia began to pick up on the song, even though it hadn’t even been released then outside the UK.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why A Girl Like You became such a big hit second time around, though in the simplest terms, it’s a fantastic song, with a theme that appeals to a wider audience. It was ubiquitous, it wasn’t limited to one group or a country. Whereas some Pulp, Blur and Menswear tracks have very much British themes, Edwyn’s music is something that audiences beyond the white cliffs of Dover could digest.
And so Edwyn was back on Top of The Pops, on Saturday night light-fare such as the Steve Wright Show, and even on the housewives and unemployed’s staple, This Morning. It’s not surprising, therefore, that by the end of the summer, some fans tired of hearing the song being played from every other car radio, cafe, or club. A Girl Like You took a year out of Edwyn’s life promoting it around the world. It reached No.1 in Belgium; No.3 in Germany; No.6 in Australia; top five in the UK and was also popular in the United States.
For years after, when I would listen to the Gorgeous George album, I would tend to skip the big hit, for songs that I convinced myself I liked even more. However, now all these years removed, if A Girl Like You, does come on the radio, the volume is turned up, and I suppose like any Edwyn fan, who followed him through his ‘lean period’, there’s a sense of justification, one that great songwriters and characters such as he will come through and win in the end. The song, which has been featured on numerous films, TV programmes and adverts, since its chart days has made Collins a mint, and rightfully so.