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Telling an age-old tale of hometown love, hedonism and heartbreak, The Streets’ A Grand Don’t Come For Free wove the minutiae of British life into a concept album that felt like a film score, distilling big feelings into an immersive story anyone could step into. On its 20th anniversary, writer and Locked On Records’ Creative Lead Bailey Slater jumps in, spending a week delving into its intricacies whilst listening on repeat.

With A Grand Don’t Come For Free, The Streets proved that sophomore albums can be classics too. Following his turn-of-the-millennium debut, Original Pirate Material, was always going to be a challenge, but the record earned Mike Skinner both his first number-one single and album – the latter the result of a fierce chart battle with Scissor Sisters’ self-titled. Resonating with critics as deeply as it did with three generations of CD buyers, journalists praised A Grand Don’t Come For Free’s absurdist humour and Skinner’s storytelling abilities, with Pitchfork awarding his “endearing intimacy” and “ability to reflect and illuminate life’s detail” a 9.1/10.

It also won him his first Brit award for Best British Male Solo Artist, though Skinner admits in his book, The Story of The Streets, that he found the eyes-on-at-all-times experience of the show so painfully embarrassing that he left the venue before accepting it. (He did make it to the after-party though, snagging a colossal ice sculpture of the Warner Music crest that took 3 days to melt in his bath.)

Of course, this changed everything for Skinner, taking him from an audience of underground chin-strokers to the masses, and if he’d thought about it too much, The Streets’ second record may never have been made. “I was lucky that I’d made such an unconventional debut album and it had done all right, because that gave me the confidence to think that what worked for me was telling it like it was,” he remembers in his book. “I just went ahead and did exactly what I wanted, and it miraculously transpired that this was just what the mass audience was waiting for.”

Fast-approaching five when this album came out, and historically far more indebted to Girls Aloud’s rigorous sonic adventures in Britain’s pop arena at the time, it would only occur later in life that, actually, there might be something in this record for me after all. That’s Skinner’s true gift as a songwriter: his ability to put a candid voice to the tumult of modern living in a way that is truly universal. On A Grand Don’t Come For Free, this involves taking the listener on a lavish quest to redeem his eponymous ‘grand’, lost down the back of his TV, dealing with the headaches, comedowns and lovers’ quarrels that come with it. 

Most of my previous attachment to the record centred around its transcendental art direction, imagined through the melancholy lens of Ewen Spencer (a Newcastle-born photographer and legendary chronicler of London’s then-nascent UKG and grime scenes, who was also the architect behind Skins’ S1 promo). The spectre of youth hangs heavily around A Grand Don’t Come For Free in the way any great album will remind you of the ever-elusive freedoms burning brightly in your past, but there’s an added sense of transiency knowing that the bus stop featured on its cover art, backlit by Spencer in the comforting orange hues of sodium-filled street lights, no longer exists. 

Now working for Locked On Records, the label that gave Skinner his big break over two decades ago, sitting with this record is unique for me. I see his face in various parts of our studio at least thrice a day, and miss dearly the large printed sign of it that was snatched clean off our door last month. Spending a week delving into each track, I revisited the album through big office speakers, nodded along at home to crackling wax, and blasted it through tiny headphones on the Metro on holiday in Spain. Going method in my attempt to follow the album protagonist’s journey down to the letter, I found that, as fuzzy as its early noughties references may seem, A Grand Don’t Come For Free still feels like a cinematic soundtrack for the highs and lows of ordinary life, flitting recklessly between the two as Skinner struggles through the trenches of his early 20s.

It Was Supposed to Be so Easy

Nothing spurs a frenzy of Monday morning work-from-home activity like a burst of trumpets. I’m struck by the chorus, somewhat akin to how the ragtag crew of seminal UK rave mockumentary Human Traffic (1999) will suddenly burst into song while narrating the night’s events. Skinner’s hook: “Today I have achieved absolutely nowt/In just being out of the house, I’ve lost out” has that same brash quality, like it was meant to be bellowed in unison with plenty of mates in tow, boozed up and inhibition-free. We’re off to a good start.

Could Be Well In

You can almost hear the crack of Skinner’s knuckles as he settles into the tale of an early date with album protagonist Simone. The beat is pared-back to a couple of piano keys and a tappy drum, a blank canvas. It’s been well-loved on my monthly playlist and I can totally see where Lily Allen borrowed a flow or two.

Not Addicted

A swarm of ad-libs, thunderclaps and a funky organ. Each bar lands in my ear canal with a purposefully graceless thud while Skinner tries to recover his misplaced grand by gambling on football. I’m captivated most by what I can tease from Skinner’s out-of-key delivery, an affected part of the smug geezer schtick, on the insidiousness of gambling addiction. It’s pretty heartfelt, from a distance anyway, and makes me yearn to scrap William Hill himself when I pass one of his hell holes listening en route to the gym.

Blinded by the Lights

This is surely the most cinematic take on inner-city revelling ever put to sound. A real gut-buster whose stabs always take me back to 2006 cult-classic Kidulthood, scoring a crucial scene as the film’s cast stalks through central London. I worked on releasing the high-octane jungle reimagination of this classic (by the formidable pairing of Pete Cannon and Mixtress) late last year, so I’ll always hear this a little faster, and think of the flickering lights of a North London pool hall when I hear the chorus. When returning to the original, it’s always staggering to hear how pared-back his ensemble really is. Skinner’s delivery is controlled, barely uttered, and that driving, almost echo of a beat is the stuff goosebumps are made of, like if you could huff on a balloon through your ears.

Wouldn’t Have It Any Other Way

Narrating the many mundane things that make coupling up so great, like watching re-runs of Easties (“or The Bill) through hazy eyes, or storing platitudes of love inside your head and hoping they might spread through osmosis, Skinner’s sincerity touches the soul. This sort-of love song, dedicated to Simone, found its way into my queue whilst doing the dishes, and there’s a stoner-ish monotony to the sequence that provides the perfect soundtrack. I bet he’d give a kidney to smoke in pubs again.

Get Out of My House

Sandwiched between old Sky Ferreira cuts and the newest Fabiana Palladino, this one gets off to a jolted start as the album’s protagonist hops on the mic. She sounds more like Skinner’s little sister than his love interest, but off she goes, giving Skinner a total bollocking and relationship ultimatum over rave-ready basslines. Skinner is gripping in character and wrestles with it well, and the tender reference to his epilepsy slips past the juvenile sequence of events almost undetected. 

Fit but You Know It

Most definitely the busiest song of the record, and undoubtedly one of the best-known. You can just picture the scenes of elation in the studio when they got the first master back for this. For me, it conjures images of the sweatiest kinds of hedonism, the stuff of bumbling mosh pit victims and lary geezers. The swirling and vitriolic guitars render the lyrics almost an afterthought, at least until my brain shudders back into action as the chorus rounds. I saved this track for later in the week, listening after leaving London for Spain, having studied its holiday disposables-themed music video countless times. Under the scorching Barcelona sun, it charts instantly at the top of my own personal ‘Brits abroad’ Top 40.

(B-Side) Soaked by the Ale

I queued this B-side of Fit but You Know It from Skinner’s Remixes and B-sides Too album, passing over it in years past in favour of bassline remixes and that incredible version of the song that features Kano and Lady Sovereign. It’s a rare chance to hear an alternative perspective in this story, with Tony Mitchell of The Mitchell Brothers (one of Skinner’s first signings to his short-lived label The Beats) recounting our unreliable narrator’s boozy antics in Ibiza, fuelled by heartache and overpriced ice cream. 

Such A Twat

An instant favourite production-wise that inspires plenty of pensive head-nodding throughout my week with A Grand Don’t Come For Free, as well as some doe-eyed marvelling at Skinner’s most inventive lyrics: “There, preparing spliffs away/As I’m smacking glasses down at George Best’s best session rate”.

What Is He Thinking?

Skinner’s life has shattered into a million pieces after uncovering an affair between Simone and his mate Dan (from JD Sports). Indignant, our MC starts to sow the seeds of one of the greatest explorations of male emotion in recent times. Wayney G’s vocal stylings lend some lightness to the darkening clouds that linger around my headphones, and I can feel the tale’s rife emotional progression move on in real-time.

Dry Your Eyes

Giving his best narration for the album’s conceptual peak, Skinner’s delivery is effortless over searing, Beach Boys-esque violin pangs. They hit hard watching the slow tide froth up at my feet on a Barcelona beach, and harder chasing the sunset on the plane home, wondering if I’ll ever feel the sun on my cheeks again. It speaks to an innate optimism in The Streets’ oeuvre that flirts with the sombre but rarely revels in the grey. What Skinner does with so little – the songs on this album are rarely cluttered bar asides whispered in alternate ears – means that each relisten unearths a new sonic treat. My favourite this time: “We can even have an open relationship if you must”, which feels deliciously ahead of its time, even as a tragic plea to his other half. 

Empty Cans

The aggression here is like a murky temper tantrum, escalating quickly and eventually cured with some good telly. Listening back in London, I imagine this would sound much better without the hum of commuter chat drowning out the lyrics. So I try again on murky red wax. When the clouds clear, Skinner softens and ushers in some light synth work, and most importantly, he finds his grand! The melancholy of retrospection never sounded so good, or hopeful. Perhaps we should bring back the 8-minute magnum opus after all.