Secret Meeting score: 86
by Phil Scarisbrick
After disbanding in 2011, it felt like the right time for Mike Skinner to put The Streets to bed. Their later albums, despite the odd good song, paled in comparison to the first two records. This week in a rainy Berlin, The Streets made a triumphant return to stage, playing a set lifted heavily from those first two albums. Original Pirate Material is now rightfully considered a modern British classic. A genre-warping guide to the life of working-class young people in early 2000s Britain, it read like a manifesto to the disenfranchised youth of the day. Its follow-up looked at the same world, but where Original Pirate Material gave provided the overview, this record took an in-depth look at one of its stories. That record was A Grand Don’t Come For Free.
It follows our narrator as he tries to recover the eponymous ‘grand’, mysteriously missing from his house, while tracking his star crossed relationship with Simone. A concept album in the truest sense, this ambitious project flexed both Skinner’s storytelling ability, as well as his knack for creating interesting beats to provide the backdrop.
It Was Supposed To Be So Easy sets the scene as our narrator spends the day trying to get his life in order, but he seems to fail at every step. After returning home, he finds that not only has his TV broken, but the £1000 he left there had gone missing. Layered over a rich, horn-laden beat, it creates a cinematic introduction for the story we are about to hear transpire.
Documenting the start of his relationship with Simone, Could Well Be In is a first person account as our narrator’s date unfolds – sometimes second guessing himself or letting his neuroses get the better of him. The visually rich lyrics make it hard not to picture the scene as he “Looks at the ashtray, then looked back up/Spinning it away on the tabletop”. While its refrained hook offers an opportunity to empathise with Skinner as he questions whether his date is interested- “I saw this thing on ITV the other week, said, that if she played with her hair, she’s probably keen/She’s playing with her hair, well regularly, so I reckon I could well be in.” Singing in the vernacular may not be a choice for Skinner, but it certainly helps you connect with this character more acutely.
Not Addicted finds him tying to recover his grand by gambling on football. After several wins, he needs to get to the bookmakers in time to throw all his winnings on one final all-or-nothing bet. He doesn’t make it and his frustration starts to spill over before seeing that, fortuitously, his prediction was wrong and he dodged a bullet. Obviously nowadays, with online and in-play betting, he would have put the bet on and lost it all. Despite the dated detail, there is a universal truth to the way it describes a vice slowly creeping in and taking over.
Set in a nightclub, Blinded By The Lights tells the tale of Skinner taking ecstasy while waiting for Simone. He is stood up but, before he can dwell on it, the pills kick in and his state of euphoria takes over. Usually songs about drugs either have to be written metaphorically or carry an air of tedium. Here though, Skinner is very matter-of-fact about using the substance use. He doesn’t sugarcoat it or try any sort of grandstanding – instead offering an minute by minute account of his experience. As is often the case throughout the record, his ability to paint vivid pictures with his words is on full display, backed only by beats and minimal synths that ebb and flow metronomically.
Wouldn’t Have It Any Other Way adds emphasis to the romantic side of this concept album. He focuses on the epiphany that spending time in Simone’s house is better than hanging out with his mates. But things start to decline in Get Out of My House. After a row, Simone (voiced by C-Mone) kicks him out in this satirical look at petty arguments between couples.
Lead single Fit But You Know It is probably The Streets’ most recognisable song. The Parklife-evoking beat underpins this tale of Skinner contemplating trying to pull a girl in a kebab shop queue while on a lads’ holiday, before deciding that while she is ‘fit,’ she knows it- emphasised through her aloof manner. This, the album’s answer to Don’t Mug Yourself on Original Pirate Material, saw The Streets crossover into the mainstream, reaching number four in the UK Singles Chart (when that was a detail that was still relevant).
Such a Twat’s guilt is metaphorically backed by heavy horns, with the beat adding to the ludicrous drama. What Is He Thinking?, in true soap opera style, feels like the dark soundtrack that was written for the ‘boss’ level on a 90’s video game, as Skinner’s tension continues to build towards breaking point.
Dry Your Eyes moves the narrative on, with the narrator trying to cope with the betrayal of Simone, as well as with his own conflicting guilt. The lush strings that kick off the song make way for a two-chord acoustic guitar part, before returning to lift the chorus. Evocative, emotional words make your heart break for this flawed character as his world falls apart- ‘Dry your eyes, mate. I know it’s hard to take but her mind has been made up. There’s plenty more fish in the sea’ – as it plays on the empty cliches that friends offer in the hope that they’ll be of comfort after a loss. This is an incredibly mature and accomplished piece of songwriting- one which gave Skinner his first number one single.
Empty Cans is a bittersweet tale that utilises two parallel story arcs, with both a bitter and happy ending to the story. In the former, our narrator gets in a fight with the TV repairman over the his fee, and in the latter he reconciles with his mates and finds the £1000 that had fallen down the back of the TV. As the soundtrack changes during the second half, you can visualise the light flooding in as the weight disperses from his shoulders and he’s right back where he started.
Bringing down the curtain on this tale of love, loss, friends and British nightlife also feels bittersweet for other reasons. There is only so long you can successfully write about these subjects without it feeling contrived. Sellout tours and platinum albums mean that your problems change. Skinner was acutely aware of this and his subsequent records focused on issues that he now faced. At this point though, it felt like a moment had passed. He no longer connected with his audience in the same way because they had fewer shared experiences. It is to Skinner’s credit that he didn’t try carry on writing in a way that would have felt contrived given his success. Arctic Monkeys are another act who had to change their lyrical content once they became successful as they became disconnected from the social commentary of their first LP. They, however, were able to develop their sound also and find a new audience, whereas Skinner could not.
Let none of this take away from the fact that he created two albums that perfectly captured the zeitgeist of a period which saw huge changes in the world. The internet’s effects on the music industry were just starting to be felt as technology took over our lives. Since the birth of the iPod around this time, we have continually fallen deeper into a dystopian lifestyle, where technology is deciding the outcome of elections and always to hand. Music in this period was starting to come to grips with this new world. Few captured this transition like The Streets. Original Pirate Material may rightfully be considered a classic album, but A Grand Don’t Come For Free is sinfully overlooked by many, despite being every bit as good.
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