Members of Skunk Anansie sat in a room overlooking the sea

DO BELIEVE THE HYPE: Skunk Anansie

In many ways, the Picky Bastards writers are on a never-ending quest to enforce their music tastes upon each other.

Do Believe The Hype continues this theme. It’s a series where one writer introduces a beloved artist to another who has yet to be convinced by their legend.

This time it’s 11 tracks from 90s alt-rockers Skunk Anansie carefully selected by Fran Slater for Tom Burrows’ listening pleasure…

You’re getting a 2-for-1 here readers, because this doubles up as a Blind Taste Test of sorts; I have no idea what Skunk Anansie sound like. All I remember from their 90s heyday is a fleeting glimpse of them on Top of the Pops. This memory doesn’t come with sound though. I do seem to recall them being too heavy for my childish sensibilities at the time (I was probably waiting for Westlife to perform their latest no.1). And I do also remember that Skin was their frontwoman. Of course I do. A Black woman with a shaved head on primetime BBC One. I’m going to take a wild guess that a few people had a problem with that.

Playlist

Fran has gone with these 11 tracks:

  • ‘Yes It’s Fucking Political’
  • ‘Charity’
  • ‘Charlie Big Potato’
  • ‘Little Baby Swastika’
  • ‘Pickin On Me’
  • ‘All I Want’
  • ‘Weak’
  • ‘Twisted (Everyday Hurts)’
  • ‘You’ll Follow Me Down’
  • ‘Intellectualise My Blackness’
  • ‘Hedonism (Just Because You Feel Good)’

Early listens

Just from the tracklist alone, I’m excited for this. I mean, some of those titles!

Opener ‘Yes It’s Fucking Political’ is as confrontational as it appears. There’s a twinge of recognition in the recesses of my mind when the song properly (and loudly) kicks in after 30 seconds. I’m not surprised that Skunk Anansie sound like this, and I feel that somewhere, probably a long time ago, I’ve heard one or two of their songs. Of course I’m speculating here, but this opener feels like a response to the typical media backlash that meets any vaguely diverse act that challenges the status quo. And what a response this is. A bit of searching informs me that this was the first track on their second album, Stoosh, in 1996, and by hearing this as the first song on the playlist, I’m getting an idea as to how this landed back then. It’s gloriously assertive and uncompromising, whacking me around the head with its force. A hell of a start.

But oh man, if I thought I was just in for 11 punky bangers, second song ‘Charity’ corrects that thinking. With the tempo slowed down slightly and Skin dialling back the loudness for a soulful falsetto in the verses, this is a tender and beautiful highlight. It reminds me of something off The Bends and just sounds so deliciously 90s. After finishing this playlist the first time, I instantly played this one again. It surely can’t carry on this strongly – if so, how haven’t I heard more about this band?

I won’t go through every track on these early listens, but ‘Charlie Big Potato’, from third album Post Orgasmic Chill, is the first one that doesn’t instantly land on the first few plays. I like the breakbeats that it begins with, but it just sort of meanders over a quite-long five minutes. Maybe it’ll have an impact later. The same goes for two of the other eye-catching titles. ‘Little Baby Swastika’ and ‘Intellectualise My Blackness’ feel a little bit message-over-music, with the former sounding a little dated, and the latter just feeling a bit clunky lyrically. It’s other more conventional songs that feel more immediately successful – like the acoustic ‘Pickin On Me’ and the quiet storm of ‘You’ll Follow Me Down’ – the latter disproving the theory that maybe they had a difficult third album.

So far, lots of good stuff. But what sticks when the surprise factor has rubbed off?

Later listens

I’m a master procrastinator, and sometimes when I know I’ve got to write about something, I’ll just put off listening to it. But I’ve had no problem returning to this playlist.

It certainly helps that it starts with two belters, but so much has stuck now. Most significantly, I’ve really come around to ‘Little Baby Swastika’. Initially I found the chant-along musical style quite off putting. It seemed designed to be sung by big crowds at 90s music festivals. But although that may have been the case (they did headline Glastonbury in 1999 after all), the anger and incredulity of the repeated line “you rope them in young” has really hit me on repeated listens. I hate the word ‘important’ when it comes to music, but this song has such a bold, impactful message (not to mention that they released it as their first single!) that it’s impossible not to love.

Kudos to Fran that the sequencing of this playlist really brings out the quiet/loud dynamic of the band. Their music seems as effective when they yell as it is when they whisper. And these songs slot together like an album. I love the way the playlist ends on ‘Hedonism’, which has become one of my favourite songs on it – so much so that I can’t believe this isn’t the closing song on Stoosh (it’s really going to weird me out when I listen to the album). Elsewhere, the post-Nirvana sound of ‘Weak’ sits nicely in the middle of the list, and it’s another highlight that somehow sounds familiar, but still catchy and effective. And relistening to ‘Pickin On Me’, I realise that that amazing instrumental outro is just part of the same song and not the intro to ‘All I Want’, even though it seems to form a seamless segue. This all makes me want to listen to their 90s album output.

Unsurprisingly, not every song lands. My initial impressions of ‘Intellectualise My Blackness’ didn’t change. To me, those sentiments would make a great article or poem, but don’t work as much as a song. There are a couple of tunes that just sound like middling album tracks as well: ‘Twisted (Everyday Hurts)’ drifted past almost unnoticed each time I played it, and ‘All I Want’ left little impression. And maybe ‘Charlie Big Potato’ works better in context with its album, but here it was a bit of a dud sandwiched in between four great songs. But hey, it wasn’t all going to be gold right?

So, do I believe the hype?

100% yes. This playlist was an unqualified success. 4 absolute gems in the opening 5 tracks. From then on I really liked every other song. That’s a 7 out of 11 hit rate on this playlist alone. When you get that on an album, you’re talking about an album of the year.

Searing, authority-challenging songs with hooks in abundance. So where the hell is the acclaim for Skunk Anansie in 2021? When publications highlight great UK bands of the 1990s, where is their place in the conversation? I feel like my journey with this band has begun very late. But hey, better late than never. Maybe I’ll find out that they literally had no other good songs, but I find that hard to believe. I’m going away to listen to Paranoid & Sunburnt, Stoosh and Post Orgasmic Chill to make up for more than 20 years of Skunk Anansie existing outside of my consciousness. Good work Fran – I love it when a plan comes together.

Words by Tom Burrows.

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