Welcome once again to The Story of Pop: 1999, our weekly series where we set the musical Wayback machine to 1999, and revisit the stars and the hits that were making the UK charts. And this week – if you’ve been waiting for some good old, honest rock music from the Valleys, then boy you’re in for a treat…
Sometimes a band can be around for years before they get their first big hit. Just ask Welsh wonders Catatonia. Fronted by the charismatic and ever outspoken Cerys Matthews, who was, it’s fair to say, to the Valleys what Dolores O’Riordan from The Cranberries was to the Emerald isle, singing full tilt with her native accent, they had formed in 1992 and had released a series of EPs to small fanfare, and the same was initially met for their first album ‘Way Beyond Blue’ in 1996.
That only produced one top 40 hit of note – ‘You’ve Got A Lot To Answer For’ – but it was eighteen months later in January 1998 that they went crashing into the UK top 10 with their X Files referencing post-Britpop stormer, ‘Mulder & Scully’, and thus became the trendy music press’ new darlings, with a string of hit singles to their name and a million selling second album, ‘International Velvet’.
All eyes were on them in the spring of 1999 to see if they could repeat the success with their third album, ‘Equally Cursed & Blessed’. First out the blocks was something totally unexpected but really quite brilliant in its own way. Far from being the crunching, angsty rock of ‘Road Rage’ or ‘Mulder & Scully’, ‘Dead From The Waist Down’ was the most lushly orchestrated and beautiful ballad that one felt Burt Bacharach never produced.
Cerys’ wistful and moving vocal delivery suited it down to the ground, and the song’s chorus of ‘Make hay, not war’ was almost tailor made for festival audiences to chant along with that summer. In a year of some truly inspired contemporary music, it’s a shame that this one seems to be a forgotten gem now, as all the signs pointed to it being a track that would be both a future classic and cement their position of greatness.
And at first, it seemed like it did – it shot into the top 10 at #7 on this very week twenty years ago, and the ‘Equally Cursed & Blessed’ album quickly followed it to the top of the album chart, and such was its popularity that both their first two albums were also inside the top 75 the week it went to number one.
But despite going platinum, success for subsequent singles was much harder to come by, with ‘Londinium’ and ‘Karaoke Queen’ failing to make the top 10 or even top 20 in some cases, the latter in particular owing to the band being at war with their record label over ‘Londinium’ having been a single as Cerys didn’t cite it as a favourite of hers.
Over two years later in August 2001, their fourth album, ‘Paper Scissors Stone’, released after a difficult period of inter-band tensions – and subsequent entry into rehab for exhaustion and anxiety problems for Cerys – was a critical and commercial flop, and spelled the end of one of Wales’ finest musical exports.
For now though, we commemorate this lost gem of a track from Catatonia, remember their brilliance at their peak, and wonder what might have been had this done better than it truly deserved to.
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