TV Cream

Cream over Britain


Early on Saturday 9th September 1995, TV Cream hurried down to its local record shop to be sure of buying a new album released that day and predicted to sell out by lunchtime.

Help album cover

It’s hard to recapture the sense of non-cynical responsibility that hung in the air that day. The only information about the album in question had been in the papers and on the radio. It wasn’t even guaranteed that it would be available right across the country.

Buoyed by a mixture of excitement and earnestness, TV Cream ended up buying not one, not two but three copies, before going round to a mate’s flat for an afternoon spent listening and attempting to determine the precise running order of tracks and artists. There was no information on the album as to its performers or songs; simply a paragraph of text with a few names and “apologies to others still to be confirmed”.

The Help album was one of the high points of the 1990s. It had been ages since a decent charity album had come along. It had been ages since a decent charity had come along. Up till then the only attempt at fusing music with modern life (which was Rubbish) had been the woeful anti-Criminal Justice Bill campaign: a bunch of protests and singalongs that could only ever succeed in simply hurrying up the passage of legislation as MPs got up close with the sorts of people who really did live up trees and down tunnels and spent a week dancing to disco beats in a cowshed.

Anyway, the mystery and hype surrounding the project ensured its success (it was indeed sold out by lunchtime) and the generation of a significant amount of money for the War Child charity. Its hasty production (one week from recording to release) fuelled coverage in the press as well as the uncertainty regarding its contents.

It wasn’t until the following week’s NME that definite details emerged. Select magazine printed a cut-out-and-keep CD sleeve, but that was the following month. With no internet, facts were thin on the ground. Consequently, the fun was all the greater at hearing the thing for the first time and trying to work out who sang what. 

Help sleeve notes: back cover

It begins, as even the news bulletins did in 1995, with Oasis, or rather Noel Gallagher and various session-ites including, apparently, Johnny Depp and Kate Moss. This was back when all those Oasis cliches (singing one line and having the backing vocals repeat exactly the same line a few beats later; harmonies moving in step with the lead vocal but a major third higher; the song title repeated endlessly at the end) felt fresh and, well, charming. It sounds decent enough today, half a world away (ho fucking ho) from all of Oasis’s bombastic crap that was round the corner.

Getting second place are The Boo Radleys, a nod to their-then Chris Evans-aided pomp, albeit with a nursery rhyme-esque reel exhorting “brother brother hold on!” TV Cream remembers liking this at the time, but the passing of the years has taken its toll on songs with airy vocals and busker guitars.

Then things take a huge dive on track 3 with a version of Love Spreads by The Stone Roses that is note-for-note identical to the original, save for the presence of a badly-played piano. Brown’s vocals sound even more wretched than before, and Squire’s guitar is preposterous. It’s amusing to think that, a year previously, this song served as a “taster” for the band’s “comeback” album. Although in a way it was ideal, by virtue of lowering everyone’s expectations ten storeys (do you see?).

The first real gem is track 4, Radiohead‘s Lucky, which would get rather shamelessly bundled out on OK Computer a year and a half later. Was this really, as all tracks were supposed to be, recorded in one day? Track 5 is Orbital, with a load of samples and pleasant electronic noodles. This was the first one that, on that Saturday afternoon, TV Cream and its mate were unable to identify.

The Portishead song on track 6 now sounds quaintly formulaic, with Beth purring “Did I…?”, all that heavily-compressed guitar tinkering and a rather clod-hopping bass.

Then there’s a version of Massive Attack‘s Karmacoma, already a year old, called Fake The Aroma, which is good but not really that different. It’s followed, however, by Suede’s version of Shipbuilding, which is, unfortunately, diabolical. Brett emotes like a maiden aunt and the band simper through the arrangement as if trying to replicate the original like-for-like.

The Charlatans do a decent job on  Time For Livin, then it’s the – gasp! – Stereo MCs. The who? Come 1995 they’d not done a single bloody thing since their debut album years ago, so this was trailed as their first “new material”. They needn’t have bothered, though nowadays it’s a cautionary reminder of how a) they could never really sing and b) they could never really play.

Sinead O’Connor‘s version of Ode to Billie Joe, a last minute addition to the album, still sounds great. Unlike The Levellers with their fuck-you finger-pointing ranting. “I see fences where there was no fence before” – fuck off.

A picture from the Help album artwork

Then it’s the Manic Street Preachers with an ace version of Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head. This was a big deal for TV Cream at the time, being the band’s first official thing since Richey disappeared. TVC would see them later in the year supporting – *supporting* – Oasis, whose love affair with The Beatles had by that point reached the extent of Noel Gallagher treating the audience to a version of Octopus’s Garden on his acoustic guitar. From Revol to revolting in the course of one evening.

Terrorvision, another Evans-eulogised act, grind out some polite and decent enough funk before the KLF rustle up a rather half-arsed version of the Magnificent Seven theme, done entirely on synths with more samples and what sounds like a child playing a bassline on a Casio keyboard.

Much better stuff lies ahead, in the shape of the Planet 4 Folk Quartet. Even now TV Cream is unsure as to who, or what, this is. Was this Brian Eno’s contribution? It’s one of the best bits of the album: jaunty (but not whimsical) electronica. And it’s followed by the delightful version of Dream A Little Dream by Terry Hall and – ooh – Salad, with the lovely Marijine van der Vlugt (sic). Stephen Street produced this, and it’s his voice that’s heard introducing it. This was what the mid-90s was all about, not Keith Allen rubbing cocaine into Damon Albarn’s hair.

Speaking of which, after Neneh Cherry does something called 1,2,3,4,5 (“Once I caught a fish alive”), there’s Blur’s AWFUL contribution: an instrumental with a fucking clever-clever name (Eine Kleine LiftMusik) involving a tuneless piano and Damon going doo-wah doo-wah like a girl. Considering they were kings of Britain in 1995, you’d have thought they’d have put in a bit more effort.

The finale was the big publicity thing: Paul Weller, Noel Gallagher and Macca doing Come Together at Abbey Road. This was where the defining image of the whole Help project came from, the three of them in the studio, with Macca looking at least 10 years younger than Weller and telling everyone how “I wrote a new song on the way down, have we got time to record it?” (they didn’t). It’s an OK version, perhaps not the spectacular climax it should have been, but the novelty carries it safely home.

On the day of its release, the men in suits at Gallup decided the Help album wasn’t a proper album and therefore couldn’t be included in the following day’s charts. It got a mention in passing by whoever was doing the Top 40  – Goodier, presumably – but that was it. There have been follow-ups, but none have had the buzz and the guess-the-artist potency of the original.

TV Cream still thinks it’s one of the finest albums of the decade. It captured the best and worst of those best and worst of times.

The back of the Help album



  1. David Pascoe

    May 9, 2009 at 8:57 pm

    I know its fashionable now to look back on the Britpop era and sneer. But at the time, we were all having too much fun to notice. And at 19 years old (which I was in 1995), you couldn’t ask for more.

  2. Lolsworth

    May 11, 2009 at 11:27 am

    Oh no! A pun!

  3. Five-Centres

    May 11, 2009 at 3:50 pm

    Interestingly, this is the first I’ve ever heard of it.

    Does it now fetch loads on eBay?

  4. Glenn Aylett

    July 19, 2009 at 5:26 pm

    Britpop at least got people interested in guitars and bands after the nightmarish rave era and it was preferable to hear a conventional group with a singer than a one line dance song with a faceless singer. However, only Oasis seem to be around now as all the other groups fizzled out in 1998 to be replaced by ironically more faceless dance acts.

  5. richardpd

    July 19, 2020 at 12:21 am

    I’ve not heard of this before, but then again I wasn’t paying much attention to what was happening to contemporary music at the time. I was still recovering from the 1991-3 pop malaise and busy with college work.

    As great as Britpop was, it seemed to get too po-faced around 1997 and lost many fans who had latched on to the fun side of it.

    Radiohead seemed to stay around ploughing their own musical furrow.

    Blur also managed to keep releasing stuff between Damon’s Gorillaz duties, Graham going AWOL, Alex making organic cheeses and Dave trying to break into politics.

  6. Droogie

    July 19, 2020 at 12:30 pm

    I loved Britpop and was lucky to have moved to North London in 1994 just as it was all kicking off. After a few wonderful years It all seemed to nosedive in 1998. I was working in an Our Price at the time and remember all the disappointing albums released by the main bands. Blur and Pulp in particular both released 2 very dark albums that just seemed one long moan about the perils of success. Both records also hinted at heroin use as a way of coping with the pressure. It’s quite shocking how much heroin featured in the last years of Britpop, replacing the champagne and cocaine of the earlier times. The band Elastica especially got obliterated by the drug. At the peak of their success they moved to a flat in grubby old Kings Cross just so they could always be near heroin dealers . The whole sad story is told in the brilliant Britpop history The Last Party by John Harris.

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