Listen to this track by Brit-pop rear guard band and early to mid-nineties music industry case-study Sleeper. It’s “Sale Of The Century”, a top ten hit from 1996’s The It Girl. Even if they never made a record as big or as era-defining as Parklife, let’s say, this album is looked upon as their definitive statement during the height of the Brit-pop period, a bona fide platinum-selling record. This one is my favourite of their singles, of which they had eight in the top twenty during their tenure together before the end of the decade.
Sleeper formed at just the right time, and were active on the local scenes in London just as one era was ticking over into another. A record deal seemed to materialize before their eyes. But, by the time “Sale Of The Century” came around, they’d been on the scene playing the parts of jaded pop stars for a year and a half, touring with Blur, REM, and later with Elvis Costello & The Attractions. “Sale Of The Century” can be viewed in a different way when one considers their trajectory, and the mindset of lead singer Louise Wener as the writer and central figure in the eye of their particular storm.
Wener, who originally hails from just outside of London in Essex formed the band with classmates while at Manchester University during a time when young musicians were emboldened by the recent explosion of domestic talent that swelled in Britain by the early nineties. Naming themselves after the Woody Allen spoof sci-fi movie of the same name, they started off in a sort of Sundays vein, later adding the influences of American bands like the Pixies and Hole to add some guts to their guitar-centric, post-punk-with-a-pop-coating sound.
Despite seeming to be a united front between bands making records, the Brit-pop era was extremely volatile. The music press at the time was something of a boys club, successfully pitting front-women like Louise Wener against each other in print. Same as it ever was, then. The experience of being in a band selling records during a time when it was obvious to everyone that a vital period in British pop music was happening added to the feeling that all modestly successful bands feel at one time or another; that it could all end at any second.
That’s what this song suggests; being in a moment that will soon be over, and trying to enjoy it while it lasts. Set firmly in London where the fists of the music press fly the fastest and hardest, this song concerns itself with an incandescent moment and the knowledge that once the picture is taken to capture it for posterity, the negatives are fit for nothing other than burning. There is a level of self-awareness here in the light of the events surrounding the band that wrote and recorded it that was prescient, with a thing or two to say about the forces that brought them to where they were:
Its never gonna be this good so just climb in
How long till reason makes us small again?
And it feels just like we just got started
There were bigger records and bigger songs coming out of 1996. But, as far as the fleeting and ultimately absurd nature of fame goes, this one was right on the money. The It Girl (a knowing title, surely) would go on to be a top twenty record, the only thing keeping the band on the road and together. It sold in platinum volumes. But it did so during a time of immense competition between bands, especially those fronted by women. Those slipping below that top twenty standard were left in the dirt by their record companies. This song makes a statement on the catch-22 of being in a band making good music in a fertile creative field of those doing the same, needing support to keep going as things became more hard-going, and not getting it when the sales dry up.
In Sleeper’s case, it was like they knew it all along.
Sleeper broke up by the end of the nineties after their final album Pleased To Meet You missed the sales mark. That was in 1997, the last year that the term “Brit-pop” didn’t sound dated, but was beginning to do so. Louise Wener and drummer Andy Maclure, a couple while in the band, the co-authors of this song, and together still today, repaired to the suburbs to start a family. Wener began a second career as a novelist, her time as a Brit-pop It Girl forever cast in amber as a wonderful, kaleidoscopic, absurd, somewhat dubious dream come true.
Sale of the century, indeed.
You can learn more about Sleeper, about the climate in which they made music, and about Louise Wener right here in this piece written by Wener about her time as a Brit-pop pin up who very contentedly became a mum and a writer.