Trends change, fashions leap around, forever leaving millions of reviewers and bloggers to catch them. Sometimes, however, it isn’t up to us to catch these trends, but to catch up with them. In the case of Bis, a band whose magpie musical styles made them impossible to categorise outside of ‘pop’ (a whole universe in a small word) and even then it was difficult to get a grip on their sound, which forever leapt around, dizzying and brilliant. Bis were too strange to tightly grab the mainstream, yet almost made it there despite the barriers placed on them – some by themselves, most by the music press. Sometimes, even the easy answer is difficult. In reality, Bis are the perfect pop group for everyone. They’re lo-fi enough to appeal to the indienistas. They make mind-warpingly catchy songs that could soundtrack a cartoon for the bairns. They have zany names that look good in print, giving the sort of feeling to musos of the ’90s that Gaye Advert, Rat Scabies, Faye Fife, and Poly Styrene blessed the ’70s equivelents with. Manda Rin, Sci-Fi Steven, and John Disco didn’t just create music, they made their own world, hermetically sealed and only a precious few could look in through the window. For years, they put out singles, EPs, and albums. In the UK, they shared a label with Cornershop. In the US, Beat Happening were on the same roster. The fact that John Peel was a fan makes complete sense. Of course he was. They’re the kind of band that appealed to his outsider sensibilities, because Bis were outsiders. Sometimes, I reckon the only place they might have felt at home was in Scotland’s music scene, but even then they sounded nothing like their hometown bands.
By the time Social Dancing arrived, Bis were being openly attacked by the bloggers you would have expected to support them. Pitchfork talked more about Deee-Lite than Bis, both bands bashed for having imagination. Imagine coming for Deee-Lite. The writer probably heard Groove Is In The Heart once and decided to hate it for being too amazing. Likewise, NME’s Steven Wells put the pathetic into unsympathetic, writing a scathing hit-job on Bis. In this environment, Bis put out an album that also happened to be their best. Social Dancing took everything we knew of Bis and poppified it even further, glossing up the guitars, drums, synths, and songwriting. It was their BIG POP MOMENT. The advertising campaign had the band on buses, no expense spared. Somehow, I felt more at home in Glesga whenever I saw Social Dancing on the side of the 240 to Parkhead.
The album sounded like Bis, no matter what style they tackled. The trademark shouting, shrieking to and fro vocals, the heckled psychotic cheerleading chanting were still there where they belonged. This time a little bit more polished, but fabulous nonetheless. The band had the tunes too. They’d always had tunes, but now they had TUNES. Shopaholic. Action And Drama. Am I Loud Enough? Goodness, even Lois Maffeo (!) contributed vocals. An icon so underground she’s practically invisible these days, undeservedly so. But Bis had something else. A secret weapon. A hit single. Eurodisco was a glossy glitter doused dancefloor destroyer that had all the indie DJs under it’s glimmering heel. Finally, after years of grafting away, Bis had achieved the success they richly deserved.
And how do you follow up the biggest hit of your career? With Action And Drama, which I love, but it isn’t as majestic as Eurodisco. Then what did they do? They released a song featuring Lois Maffeo, an underground legend without any hits of her own. I love Lois Maffeo and treasure her records, but Action And Drama or Detour are not the follow up to your biggest success. Just like The Stranglers releasing La Folie after megasmash Golden Brown (because a French pop song is going to continue an ascent), Bis were buggered. But somehow I always found this side of them charming and hindsight is an easy position to take. Years later, I saw James McMahon of NME claim Bis invented Nu-Rave, his attempt at lauding their contribution to uncategorical pop. Bis were too punk to be fully pop, and too pop to be fully punk. But for a few months, a brief bit of 1999, they were almost given their dues, the kind only success grants.