As a teenager in the 1990s I was a huge Supergrass fan. I bought their first single Caught By The Fuzz’on cassette and played both it and the excellent b-side Strange Ones repeatedly. Caught by the Fuzz reminded me of my relationship with my older brother Sean and I could relate to the protagonist’s lament: ‘If only my brother could be here now, he’d get me out, he’d sort me out alright…’
At school I played in a band called Dot Dash with my friends Quil and Tim and we played two Supergrass songs in our set: Caught by the Fuzz and Alright. I saw Supergrass at Leeds Town and Country Club in 1996, a month after Going Out, the lead single from their second album In It for the Money entered the UK charts at number 5. Going Out signalled a departure from the Undertones/Only Ones-esque material of Supergrass’ debut album I Should Coco and propelled singer Gaz’s older brother Rob to centre stage.
According to Drowned in Sound:
Driven by Rob Coombes’ inspired organ riff, and unashamedly retro, ‘Going Out’ displays a depth of song structure the trio had only previously hinted at with the incredible ‘Lenny’ b-side ‘Wait For The Sun’.
I was 16 years old when I saw Supergrass in Leeds and I clearly remember the visual and sonic impact that Rob’s brooding presence had on the band. Supergrass seemed harder and darker. The band now resembled The Doors as much as they did The Kinks.
Fast forward 20 years and I am living in Oxford where I find myself on the Cowley Road. It is Spring 2016 and I am introduced to Rob Coombes by a mutual friend. We bond over a coffee in Costa and strike up a friendship. We go to see The Coral at the O2 in March 2016. Afterwards Rob kindly invites me to his house in the Oxfordshire countryside and plays me some song sketches that he has been working on. They are very good indeed and remind me of John Lennon’s work on Double Fantasy. I learn that Rob is fond of music from the 1970s.
I play Rob one of my songs and he begins to play the piano. I experience that same feeling of euphoria that must be familiar to every songwriter when they hear their work transformed by a master musician. The song in question is called I’m Not The Man. Beforehand it had been a well-crafted acoustic song but Rob’s umbilical connection to the 1970s transformed it into a Heartland Rock piece that could have sat neatly on Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. Rob’s playing was simply incredible. It was like I was sat there with my very own David Sancious or Roy Bittan or Rick Wakeman. Literally everything that Rob played sounded amazing. I had not experienced such a feeling of joy or connection since I last played with my dear friend, the late, great guitarist Phil Pattullo.
I was a regular fixture at Open Mic Nights in Oxford but Rob had not played live since Supergrass’ farewell show at La Cigale in Paris in 2010. After a few informal rehearsals, Rob accepted my invitation to join him onstage at the Harcourt Arms Open Mic night in Jericho and we played two of my songs songs: Time to Climb the Mountain and the aforementioned I’m Not the Man. Playing with a musician of Rob’s calibre was an absolute thrill and I remember sending a text message to my high-school bandmates Tim and Quil saying: ‘My 15 year old self would be pretty chuffed about this’. They replied saying: ‘Your 36 year old self should be pretty chuffed about it!’
Rob and I performed at a number of open mic nights in Oxford. As well as the Harcourt Arms we played at The Mad Hatter and James Street Tavern. We also played at a charity festival that took place at Hill End Centre in the Oxfordshire countryside. We opened the festival and got a great reception from the handful of people in attendance. Our set concluded with a version of Bruce Springsteen’s Hungry Heart. Often when I play songs live I abandon middle eights/solos in favour of bland repetition of the verse and chorus. During rehearsals, when I informed Rob of my plan to eliminate the solo he was aghast: I had forgotten that I was playing with a world-class musician who was capable of recreating the most complex parts of recorded music. I need run nor hide no more from the middle eight or solo!
I had a fantastic time playing with Rob – and learned a great deal in the process. I really hope that some of his unreleased songs will see the light of day as he has written some absolute gems.