It has been decreed that “Britpop” is twenty years old this year and it, therefore, is time for lots of journalists to look back and either fondly reminisce about the time when some genuinely great music, the sort of thing that exists only on the fringe these days, became mainstream or decide that it was a fake, faux-patriotic pile of claptrap that allowed lots of substandard indie bands to jump on the bandwagon. The truth, as always, lies somewhere in-between the two absolutes and it’s all a matter of opinion as to which end of the scale it actually rests. I have read quite a few articles with interest and have been surprised by the harsh tone of some of them, especially Taylor Parkes’ enjoyable assassination, “A British Disaster: Blur’s Parklife, Britpop, Princess Di & the 1990s” for The Quietus, and they have inspired me to commit my thoughts to writing, mainly because that era of music is very close to my heart. Firstly, I have to say that I loathe the term “Britpop”. It is not only a bit of a naff term, it seems to have a huge amount of negative connotations these days, only really representing the most popular and plastic aspect of British musical culture at the time. However, after the domination of primarily American music from the grunge movement in the early nineties (Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden et al), the fact that there was a mainstream shift in popular taste from the US bands (which arguably ended when Kurt Cobain decided to take his own life in April 1994) to up and coming home-grown talent, such as Blur, Suede and, yes, Oasis, all appeared to offer something fresh, new and unashamedly British, all steeped in the legacy of The Beatles, The Kinks, David Bowie, The Buzzcocks and The Jam.
It’s all a bit vague as to when Britpop actually started and it’s pretty much a certainty that there was no cynical attempt to start a movement from any of the bands involved. Oasis and Blur, the two heavyweight contenders of Britpop who the media seemed to mainly concentrate upon, came from two very different places in their career. The rookie Noel Gallagher, with a bunch of songs he wrote whilst being a roadie with Inspiral Carpets together with his brash brother couldn’t have a clue of how successful “Definitely Maybe” was going to be. Blur, working on their third album which was, essentially, their last shot at making it in the music industry, were just trying to write a good album that would finally get them into the big time or, at the very least, get them a new record deal. Both had aspirations, I’m sure, but the origins of the two bands couldn’t be more different. Oasis’ brand of working-class confidence and swagger against Blur’s tales of detachment, alienation and human fragility; the northern salt-of-the-Earth Oasis against the posh art-school mockney Blur were a sensationalist newspaper and music magazine’s wet dream. For people who really knew the music scene, though, there was an awful lot more to it than just Blur and Oasis and those who got caught up in the near football-club polarised rivalry of which tribe you belonged to were missing the bigger picture anyway.
I turned 19 years old in the summer of 1994, still smarting from the death of Kurt Cobain. I had started working in a record store in Coventry and was a fierce advocate of ‘proper’ guitar music, having embraced the grunge scene wholeheartedly, after a childhood of Beatles and Bowie and my formative mid teen years spent listening to Alice Cooper, Guns ‘n’ Roses and Extreme. When I heard Oasis’ “Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” and “Shakermaker” for the first time, I thought they weren’t bad, but they seemed a little basic and cartoonish. That all changed when I heard “Slide Away” and “Live Forever”, usually at top volume at a city centre pub with work colleagues and those songs, together with “Cigarettes & Alcohol”, T-Rex riff and all, turned me into a believer. The first Blur songs I heard, “Girls and Boys” and “Parklife” made me instantly hate them; Damon’s mockney singing voice made it sound as if they were taking the piss. Then, one day, I happened to hear “End Of A Century” and liked it. Really, really liked it, much to my annoyance. I reluctantly spent the pittance I got paid for my part-time job on a copy of “Parklife” and realised what an idiot I had been, as I melted to the sound of “Badhead”, “To The End” and “This Is A Low”.
1994 turned into an incredible year for music with Suede releasing their seminal “Dog Man Star”, Elvis Costello producing the magnificent “Brutal Youth”, Portishead’s trip-hop revelation “Dummy” expanding my musical horizon and the Manic Street Preachers’ life-changing masterpiece “The Holy Bible” also being released; all four albums, I have to say, being way more important to me than both the Blur or Oasis releases at the time, as good as they were. Then, of course, there were still excellent albums coming in from the USA, such as Green Day’s “Dookie”, Grant Lee Buffalo’s “Mighty Joe Moon”, R.E.M.’s “Monster”, Weezer’s self-titled “Blue” album, Jeff Buckley’s sublimely beautiful “Grace” and Soundgarden’s “Superunknown” featuring the huge MTV hit, “Black Hole Sun”. Considering the amount of non-British albums that dominated my trusty portable cassette player (I couldn’t afford a real Sony Walkman), it didn’t exactly feel as if the Brit bands had quite conquered the world. Indeed, one of the most highly anticipated albums of the year, The Stone Roses’ “Second Coming” was a massive disappointment to Stone Roses fans and a bit of a commercial flop compared to what it could have been. It really should have been one of the most important British bands in recent history heading a resurgence in British music, but it turned out to be a bit of a damp squib for many people, with guitarist John Squire seemingly having listened to a lot of Led Zeppelin records prior to making an album jam packed with Jimmy Page-esque blues-rock riffs. Actually, I really quite liked it.
Despite the excitement I felt at discovering some excellent new bands, the rise of Blur and Oasis didn’t particularly feel like a movement at that point, more like a continuation of good, indie music that had been around for a while, but it was the fact that people were sitting up and starting to really notice it, instead of just people like me who religiously bought every music weekly and monthly magazine, that is what had changed. Just like every other popular art-form, it only seemed to become important when the media decided it should and, although the term Britpop had been coined in the late eighties and the melodic indie bands with sixties and seventies classic influences that rose as a counterpoint to the shoegazing band had actually started in around 1992, the media decided that everything was fresh and brand new in 1994 which was, really, not true at all. Suede’s Brett Anderson, for example, had appeared on the April 1993 edition of Select magazine draped in a Union Flag, together with the caption “Yanks Go Home!”. If that isn’t an example of a Britpop icon, then I don’t know what is. However, the mainstream success of big indie bands in 1994 opened the doors to other musicians who had, up to that point, been only modestly successful, as well as making some newcomers to the scene ridiculously popular almost instantly.
1995 saw the release of new albums by Oasis, the massive selling “(What’s The Story) Morning Glory” and Blur, with “The Great Escape”. Although the latter received many rave reviews, history and hindsight hasn’t judged it as kindly, although I, personally, think it has some undeniably excellent tracks and much prefer it to Oasis’ effort. The year also saw emergence of albums by the punky Elastica, Sleeper and Supergrass, who were all catapulted into instant stardom by a press eager for fresh meat on the scene. Some of the more established artists who had been producing good music for quite a while got noticed a lot more because of the spotlight on British music. Teenage Fanclub’s excellent “Grand Prix” got the acclaim it deserved and Paul Weller’s “Stanley Road”, as great as it was, got the praise that its superior predecessor “Wild Wood” should have received. The Charlatans’s self-titled fourth albums meant that many people discovered their existence for the first time and Cast, a band formed by ex-La’s bassist, John Power, were responsible for “All Change”, one of the surprise hits of the year. The Boo Radleys also joined the list of Britpop artists with one of the feel-good hits of the summer, “Wake Up Boo”, and the subsequent album “Wake Up!”, the change of direction on which was met with discontent by many of their existing fan-base.
The biggest comeback kids, of course, were Pulp. I remember lots of people at the time referring to their incredible début album “Different Class”, when Jarvis Cocker and the band had been releasing records since the early eighties. I’m not being too superior, because I’d only ever heard of “His ‘n’ Hers” and that’s only because it had been advertised in Viz and was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize the year before. In fact, when I first heard “Common People”, I instantly dismissed it as terrible because, according to my sage wisdom at the time, “it sounded as if it was being played on a Bontempi keyboard”. Yes, I was an idiot, you don’t have to tell me. “Different Class” was, aptly, in a different class to most records (and won the Mercury Music Prize in 1996). When Blur sang about working-class alienation, it seemed like they were trying to write a clever song about something they didn’t really understand. When Jarvis Cocker sang about working-class alienation, rum and coca-cola and wood-chip on the wall, it felt like he was telling us about his life and a life that most working-class people could relate to, myself included. They remain one of the only bands to escape from Britpop with their reputation in tact.
The whole Blur v Oasis farce rose to its fervent peak in the summer of 1995 when there was a completely manufactured battle for the number one single position between Oasis’ “Roll With It” and Blur’s “Country House”. Neither was either band’s best song by a long way, but Blur emerged as victors of that particular skirmish and the idiotic hype that surrounded the “battle” catapulted Britpop onto the front pages of British tabloids whilst the crisis in the Balkans got relegated to a few column inches within the papers. It was at that point the key-players from Blur got a nasty taste in their mouths, felt as if everybody was being manipulated and retreated from the spotlight to concentrate on the music (well, all apart from Alex James, of course). The music scene rode on this belief in British talent over the next year and 1996 gave an opening for Ocean Colour Scene’s album full of retro anthems “Moseley Shoals” to sell a bucketload, for Shed Seven’s “A Maximum High” to get airplay it probably wouldn’t have a couple of years previously, for the Bernard Butler-less Suede to release “Coming Up”, one of their most jubilant records, and for Sleeper’s “The It Girl” to become the most successful album they were ever going to enjoy. The Boo Radleys amusingly freaked the hell out of all the fickle people who only liked them because of “Wake Up Boo!” by releasing the follow-up, “C’mon Kids”, a purposely loud, challenging record, sabotaging their short-lived Britpop career. Oasis, the biggest band of the whole Britpop movement, arguably reached their pinnacle in the summer of 1996, playing to 250,000 people at Knebworth, a gig of such an immense scale that it seems like an exercise in arrogance and hubris more than a triumph. It all seemed to be downhill from this point.
The fact of the matter is that, to a music fan and at the peak of its success, Britpop seemed like a total hi-jacking of the music I loved, giving it a false sheen and the distasteful glow of showbiz. As the movement put the music that meant so much to me into the hands of the fickle and the shallow, I resented their ownership of it, however temporary. 1997 is the year when it all seemed to go wrong and, although I had loved much of the music over the past couple of years, I was glad when it did. It was the year when the British iconography seemed to matter more than the music, the year that saw Geri Halliwell from The Spice Girls in a Union Flag dress at the Brit Awards, when David Bowie wore the same flag on a jacket on his drum ‘n’ bass experimental album, “Earthling”. Of course, Geri Halliwell and David Bowie had bugger all to do with Britpop, but the lines were really starting to blur (no pun intended). It was also the year when Oasis released the most overblown, indulgent album of their career, “Be Here Now” which, to be fair, had a couple of decent songs under the deafening wall of guitars; the only problem is that every track seemed to go on and on. It committed the worst crime an album could – it was simply boring. However, by the time “Be Here Now” was released in August of that year, it was pretty much all over. In my opinion, the death of Britpop began with the release of Blur’s self-titled album in February of that year; inspired by US lo-fi indie bands Pavement and Sonic Youth, it was an album so different from anything they had done before, it announced that the game had changed. I’ve seen criticism levelled at Blur that this was a cynical move and they simply stole the sound of another band, but the whole tone of the album is fuelled by a meltdown in the band, by Damon Albarn’s heroin use, Alex James’ shallow playboy lifestyle and Graham Coxon’s battle with alcoholism. It has a startling bleakness which turned off some of the band’s more fickle fans, but to others, it was the antidote to a music scene which had started to become a little stale and clichéd.
Some of the best artists of that era seemed to escape the Britpop tag, despite releasing melodic guitar-based indie rock. The Manic Street Preachers, for example, even with their most successful album to date, “Everything Must Go” never seemed to get entangled with the whole Britpop scene. Their fellow Welsh countrymen, Super Furry Animals, released a couple of the most striking albums of the time during the Britpop years and never really seemed to get tarred with the same brush. Teenagers Ash, whose flame burned brightest on their 1996 album, “1977” managed to get lots of column inches in the NME, but very few look back at them and consider them part of the Britpop movement. That, of course, is probably more of a blessing than a curse and is most likely because Britpop was a shamelessly London-centric movement. Artistic groups such as The Divine Comedy and Belle & Sebastian were probably seen as being too “clever” to fit in with the mainstream and Radiohead, despite the quality and success of “The Bends” and the fact that their guitar music met the criteria for Britpop, somehow also escaped that label. Whilst people would select Radiohead tracks on jukeboxes alongside Blur, Oasis and Pulp songs, they always seemed too aloof to be a real part of the popular scene. Indeed, the art-rock brilliance of “OK Computer” was one of the albums that helped signify the end of the popular Britpop movement and told us it was time for us all to grow up and move on.
Britpop faded away rather than suddenly dropping dead. 1997 still saw some really good records being released, such as Supergrass’ second album, “In It For The Money”, “Do It Yourself” by Seahorses (featuring The Stone Roses’ John Squire) and Ocean Colour Scene’s underrated “Marchin’ Already”, but despite a few hangers-on, it seemed quite clear the party was over. The whole “Cool Britannia”, with Noel Gallagher drinking champagne at Downing Street with Tony Blair didn’t help, either. Once Government, put its stamp on something, it ceases to be cool and many bands voiced their dissent about the whole Britpop movement taking on a slightly nationalistic bent. Even England’s presence at the Euro ’96 football tournament had its own excellent, catchy Britpop anthem (written and performed by The Lightning Seeds, with David Baddiel and Frank Skinner) and strengthened the association between national identity and music. It had all started to be a bit too establishment. To be fair to Noel Gallagher, I am of the same generation who grew up with a Conservative government from the age of four until I was twenty-two, so I don’t actually blame him for going to a party held at a place that the sworn enemy had occupied for the past eighteen years and having a triumphant drink with the new Labour Prime Minister. It felt euphoric at the time and the promise of change, however short-lived, was very powerful. Noel wasn’t to know how it was going to turn out; not many of us did, but that’s a subject worthy of a whole other article, so I’ll leave it there.
In essence, Britpop was destroyed by the very thing that created it: the media. Like any fad, it started off as being a fresh, new, exciting celebration of talent and got every single ounce of originality beaten from it by over-exposure and by it becoming part of the establishment that youth culture generally rebels against. It started to crumble when suddenly every guitar act had an instant shot at fame and fell to pieces when the term had been taken over by pop acts like The Spice Girls. By the time the whole hype machine was at its most active, in the summer of 1997, it was already over. What came next in the mainstream was pop blandness, with cyclical interest in rock, indie and whatever the industry decides the kids should be into, led, these days, by Simon Cowell and his never ending X Factor/Pop Idol/Britain’s Got Flatulence type shows. However, it’s not like good indie music has ever gone away, but it is supported by people who love the music rather than by the mainstream. There have been numerous successful post-Britpop indie bands and the death of Britpop didn’t kill the genre completely, but I do feel sorry for the artists who released pretty good albums just when the Britpop genre (if you can call it that) was rapidly falling out of fashion, bands like The Supernaturals, Octopus and Tiger whose début albums are all very worthy and would have probably been successful if they’d all have been released a year earlier than they were.
One of the most annoying characteristics of the multitude of articles looking back at Britpop and the comments about them on Facebook and Twitter is the derision some bands get. “Oh, wasn’t Britpop crap. Menswear! Snigger. Echobelly! Chortle. Marion! Guffaw! Sleeper! Pfft… stop, you’re killing me!”… they’re cheap laughs and they’re unfair. Actually, I can understand people’s reservations about Menswear, seeing as they were pretty much cynically put together by a record company to cash in on the Britpop revolution, but their debut album, “Nuisance”, whilst not a classic, by any means, isn’t the car wreck that people will have you believe. True, there are a handful of wince-worthy moments, but believe it or not, there are a moment or two of greatness; “I’ll Manage Somehow”, for example, stands side-by-side with some of the best indie pop from that era and “Piece Of Me” is a particularly tasteful helping of melancholia. What has to be remembered is that although it’s a hastily cobbled together album, there were at least a couple of talented people in that band, people whose love of music is reflected by what they’re doing today. Naturally, it’s difficult to feel too sorry for them and the reputation of the band, knowing how much they got paid for such a brief career, but that highlights the madness that was the Britpop Camden scene.
Echobelly, for some reason, seem to get their unfair share of snide remarks for a band that certainly weren’t crap. In fact, they were responsible for a couple of enjoyable, more than competent albums that demonstrated good musicianship, wit and ear for a great melody. The same could be said about Sleeper, Shed Seven and many others that people enjoy putting down; these bands are responsible for more than a few really excellent songs. I even bought the first Northern Uproar album for a few pennies last year just to see if it was half as bad as I expected it to be at the time and was almost disappointed to find that it wasn’t actually that terrible (I wouldn’t recommend it, however). Oh, and Marion, as short-lived as they were, were pretty bloody fantastic; their first album is evidence of their energy, ability and creativity. I get the impression that people who take the piss out of these bands have never listened to the albums. Certainly not actually sat down listened to them, twenty years later, and re-appraised just how good they were. Their loss, because the vast majority of the music really stands the test of time and, oddly enough, some albums I loved when they were released have revealed themselves to be even better with time.
It could be argued that Britpop went on beyond 1997, but, realistically, the wind had been taken out of the sails of the genre and the so-called second generation of Britpop artists, such as Rialto, Gay Dad, Theaudience and Snow Patrol met with considerably less enthusiasm and certainly diminished commercial success, although one of those bands obviously persevered and broke though (no prizes for spotting which one). Of course, you could argue that the lack of success was down to their material, but I would bet my next wage packet on the fact that Rialto, if they’d released their début album in 1994 and not 1998, would have been one of the big names of the scene. The artists who made their names during the era carried on, with varying success. Some, like Oasis, struggled to repeat their Britpop success. Others, like Supergrass, made their best albums once they had escaped the shadow of the label and Pulp helped put another nail in the coffin of Britpop with 1998’s brilliant but dark “This Is Hardcore” before splitting a few years later after one final album.
To surmise, I think it’s perfectly fine to hate the Britpop tag and all the idiotic connotations of the term. I certainly do, especially when it’s used by Americans who give the label to bands who had bugger all to do with that era, but to be dismissive and derisive about bands from a beautifully creative few years is foolish, to say the least. There were very few successful bands that got together to cynically exploit the popularity of melodic indie, if any. There was no Britpop band factory spitting out blokes in Parka jackets complete with earnest expression and a ready-tuned guitar trying to get people to part with their money, just lots and lots of individual bands who became very famous and successful within a very short period of time, many of whom had been playing for a good few years with very little success before a freak of fashion catapulted them into the limelight. To put down a genre of music from a period that included all the bands I have mentioned so far, plus superb albums from the likes of Black Grape, Dodgy, Space, Gene, The Bluetones, Heavy Stereo, Longpigs and My Life Story – you either don’t like this kind of music at all or you’re a bit of an idiot. The fact is, the very best music of those three short but prolific years lies a little deeper than “Parklife”, “Don’t Look Back In Anger”, “Wonderwall” and any over-used music clip that Channel 4 will use to illustrate a story based on that period of time. The exception to this, of course, is Pulp’s “Common People”, which is one of the few tracks that gets played regularly and justifies its timeless popularity, despite some clueless bumpkin from Coventry saying that it sounded like it was played on a Bontempi keyboard when he first heard it. He knew nothing, but has hopefully learned a little since then.
Andy Sweeney, April 2014.