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.
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.
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.