The millennium started badly for Grant Nicholas. Aged 32, the Feeder frontman found himself suddenly single, forced to look on as his departed girlfriend took comfort in the arms of a media high-flyer. “We’d broken up after a long time, and she’d started going out with a guy who made adverts. So there was a bit of jealousy,” he admits. “My only way of dealing with it was to keep writing songs. He was making a car advert at the time, so that’s what inspired the first line of Buck Rogers: ‘He’s got a brand-new car…’ It’s a song about starting again.”
It shouldn’t happen to a rock star. But then in those days Nicholas barely fitted that description. Feeder were critically respected, but if the singer had a pound for every rock press accolade that had been heaped on his early albums – 1997’s Polythene and 1999’s Yesterday Went Too Soon – then he probably wouldn’t have been scraping by in a mortgaged flat in north London. “We weren’t the big, rich pop stars,” he confirms. “It was still pretty tough, but we were surviving.”
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It wasn’t all bad: Nicholas was close to securing the services of Gil Norton, having offered his writing skills to a misfiring US band the producer had under his wing.
“The plan was to help them come up with a single,” he explains. “When I started writing Buck Rogers, I was thinking, ‘I’m quite happy to give this one away.’ I have to admit there are days when I’m embarrassed about writing it.”
Maybe so, but amid the frowns and boiler suits of nu metal, Buck Rogers was a ray of sunshine.
“It was a tough time for rock,” Nicholas recalls of the UK scene circa 2001. “You had bands around like Papa Roach and Limp Bizkit, but the music I’d always liked was the early-90s grunge scene, which had pop elements and was catchy, but also had big, fuck-off guitars and powerful drumming. If I’m being blatantly honest, I was trying to write a song with a Pixies vibe.
“Buck Rogers is so simple it’s ridiculous,” he adds of the rudimentary guitar parts, “but it’s the simple songs that connect with people. Sometimes you hit a formula and it just happens. You don’t always have to like it. You end up thinking: ‘Well, I’ve written much better songs, but nobody gives a shit about those.’”
Buck Rogers’ barmy lyrics, Nicholas protests, were only intended as a guide (presumably explaining such gems as: ‘Buy a house in Devon/Drink cider from a lemon’). “Some people don’t want to be bombarded with philosophical lyrics, they just want to let their hair down. Buck Rogers had very comic-book, throwaway lyrics. When I first started drinking underage with my mates, I’d drink cider, ‘cos it was sweet, whereas most booze tasted like shit. It sounds really lightweight but we used to mix it with lemonade. And when we started out as a band we used to tour down in Devon, building a fanbase. They were all little flashbacks.
“I tried to change the words,” he adds. “I actually rewrote them to make them more serious, because my lyrics tended to be more melancholic anyway. I remember playing it to Gil, and he goes: ‘You’ve ruined it!’ He convinced me to keep the original.”
Nicholas’s bandmates had no such quibbles: “Taka [Hirose, bassist] liked it and Jon [Lee, late drummer] absolutely loved it. I didn’t want to play it live, but he’d say: ‘You’re fucking mad. We’ve got to!’ He didn’t give a shit whether people liked the words or understood the point, he just loved the reaction it got.”
Nicholas has no doubt that Buck Rogers, which stormed to No.5 in the UK in January 2001, was a professional and personal turning point. “It was a big hit for us and helped us continue as a band,” he recalls.
Ask the singer whether he actually rates it, though, and he blows hot and cold. “Gil won’t like me for saying this, but when we originally did Buck Rogers it sounded a lot more garage-y. It still had the same vibe and arrangement, but the vocal was quite distorted, and the guitar and drums were more trashy, more like a Pixies sound. I thought it sounded really cool, and I was hoping Gil would do that even more, but he made it more commercial. Y’know, all credit to him, he probably made it more radio-friendly. But if I was going to record that song now I’d do it very differently. I still think it’d be commercial, because that’s the essence of the song, but I think it’d have more character.
“I’ve loved it and hated it, loved it and hated it,” he muses. “Buck Rogers is what it is – just a catchy little song. And it ended up being this bloody hit that went out of control. But it did put us on the map. And when you see the way people react to it, you can’t complain about that.
“Having that song up your sleeve can turn the set around for you if you’re having a tough gig. But we didn’t play it for a long time – for two years, maybe [in 2008/ 2009]. Some people were disappointed, but I think we’ve got enough singles so that they didn’t complain.”
It speaks volumes that Buck Rogers would ultimately be reinstated to Feeder’s set-list. Resistance is useless.
“I’m sure that Blur aren’t particularly proud of the ‘woo-hoo!’ song [Song 2], but it’s catchy. We toured with REM a few times, and they don’t ever play Shiny Happy People – apparently, Michael Stipe hates it. He hates the lyrics and wishes he’d never written it. Every band has a song like that. I’ve written so many songs over the years, and I just hope I get remembered for a few more when I’m six feet under. And hopefully I won’t have to talk about Buck Rogers again.”
WHAT THE BUCK?
Never mind the cider and lemons, why is Buck Rogers named after a 1920s comic-strip spaceman?
“The title came because I was getting into synths and mixing quirky sounds with heavy guitars,” Nicholas reveals. “I was messing around with 80s synths at [recording studio] The Crypt, and talking to the engineer about space programmes we’d watched on TV as kids, and Buck Rogers came up. The label wanted me to call it We’re Gonna Make It. I told them: ‘Are you mad? It doesn’t have to be so bloody obvious, it can be called anything you want!’ We had a big row, and it stayed as Buck Rogers. It’s hard to hear, but it actually says ‘Buck Rogers’ in the chorus, very low in the mix.”