The year is 2004. The soon-to-be global social-media powerhouse that is Facebook has just been launched, and is initially exclusively available only for Harvard University students. President George “Dubya” Bush is halfway through his time as President Of The United States, and Tony Blair, leading a fractious Labour party, has just backed the invasion of Iraq. England has been dumped out of the Euro 2004 football championships at the quarter-finals stage by Portugal. The nation – nay, the world – may be in need of a special pick-me-up. (Re-)enter a certain wordsmith by the name of Mike Skinner, and a catchy little song by the name of Fit But You Know It.
Your big advance
Mike Skinner’s debut album, 2002’s Original Pirate Material, reached the Top 10 of the UK charts and was lauded by critics, including Observer Music Monthly, who declared it the best album of the 2000s. So, would “difficult second album” syndrome affect The Streets?
Of course not. Skinner emerged triumphant from the suburban wastage without dropping any of his kebab or spilling his can of Tennent’s Super. He did, however, drop the rowdy but almost universally likeable, power-chord-driven song Fit But You Know It, which, as the first single from his magnum opus, the “rap-opera” concept album A Grand Don’t Come For Free, went on to reach No.4 in the UK charts and stuck around there for almost four months.
I am digressing slightly…
Let’s rewind just for a minute, because this is in complete contrast to how the album begins – against a flourish of classical brass bombast. You’d be forgiven for thinking you’d accidentally strayed onto BBC Radio 3 (no disrespect), as opposed to listening to a UK garage-rap album.
Interestingly, staying “highbrow” for just a moment, Professor John Sutherland of London University listened to A Grand Don’t Come For Free and decided it was “constructed around Christ’s parable of the lost pieces of silver”. That said, he did add, “But to make the point is probably to invite a Skinnerian accusation of generating critical wank.”
… So I’ll continue
Back to the story. Our protagonist – the semi-autobiographical Mike – attempts to return a DVD to the “video shop”. Yes! In the days before online streaming services, namely Netflix or YouTube (YouTube wasn’t launched until a year after A Grand Don’t Come For Free was released), blockbuster films of the day would have to be rented from video shops and returned on time so as not to incur a penalty fine.
In this instance, though, Mike has an absolute nightmare of a day and, in his own words, achieves “absolutely nowt”. He’s failed to return the DVD, hasn’t met his mum for tea, has been left with a dead mobile phone battery and, most importantly, lost “a thousandth of a million squid”. It was supposed to be so easy…
Just take a look at the front cover of the album. It is a snapshot of suburbia, with Mike Skinner leaning on a bus shelter in his hometown of Birmingham, wonderfully captured by British photographer Ewen Spencer, who also worked with The White Stripes, The Charlatans and Massive Attack around this period. It paints a somewhat sorry picture of tarmac, drizzle and boredom, and aligns perfectly with the album’s subject matter, save for that lead single…
What could help 20-something Mike overcome the mundane nature of everyday repetitiveness, then? Flying away to a foreign country with his mates, of course!
This jaunt abroad would ultimately inspire Mike to pen a top chart hit and have it included on FIFA 2005. After all, that’s how you know you have finally “made it”, right?
We’ve had a few, fair play
Fit But You Know It transports us to the alcohol-fuelled haze of a lads’ Ibiza holiday. Mike pictures himself “pulling with bare white-hot wit”, but allows himself to digress slightly – tales of drunken skirmishes and stopping for chips and drinks punctuate his quest for an ultimately fruitless holiday romance.
Some people may argue that the actual music behind this track is slightly repetitive and simple, but it is only there to provide a backdrop – or perhaps a mirror – to Skinner’s dry wit and perfectly succinct vignettes that capture “Britishness” so fantastically, while poking fun at it at the same time.
The guitar sample that takes us through the track is reminiscent of the gritty post-punk sensibilities of The Futureheads’ minor hit from the same year, Decent Days And Nights. It also has all of the “PDC darts crowd”’s beer-fuelled angst but, ultimately, gives over to the camaraderie of The Fratellis’ Chelsea Dagger, while Mike is still trying not to “mug” himself as he narrates this holiday romance as only he can.
Rude as in “good”
We say “narrate” because Skinner isn’t necessarily a rapper per se, rather an extremely skilled modern-day poet. His talents don’t stop at songwriting, either; he had also recorded and produced all of his work throughout his career – including five UK Top 10 studio albums as The Streets, and a plethora of guest appearances and remixes for other artists, including Muse, Bloc Party and Professor Green.
Skinner delivers his social commentary in a deadpan confessional style, à la Ian Dury (of The Blockheads fame) allowing the listener to pay a visit to the very streets from which his stories have emerged.
Yeah, you score high
Fit But You Know It, and the smash hit No.1 single that followed it, Dry Your Eyes, both replicate situations and conversations that anybody could go through. As with so much of The Streets’ music, the song is chock full of understandable and – most importantly – accessible emotion.
At times both frenzied and maudlin, the average “geezer” or “bird”, as Mike puts it, could stomach that, which is why Fit But You Know It was taken to the nation’s hearts. It captured a time before Instagram, Snapchat and selfies – especially in the accompanying music video, in which Mike has to go to a photo shop to get his holiday snaps developed – and it was placed out there by the everyman, for the everyman.
Marks out of ten, then?
“See, I reckon it’s about an eight or a nine. Maybe even nine and a half in four beers’ time.”
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