Britpop. It’s kind of a bad word now, conjuring up images of Noel fucking Gallagher gallivanting around 10 Downing Street with New Labour in all its pompous glory whilst barrow boy Damon Albarn seeks to distance himself from his dust-men baiting past and seek pastures new in the discordant sounds of Pavement. The covers of GQ and whatever other “hip” magazine of the time allowing Patsy Kensit to sprawl herself within a Union Jack flag (or was that Select Magazine? One can never be too sure these days. Too much cocaine), only to be forestalled by that sprightly popster Geri Halliwell cavorting around in THAT dress. Even Noel fucking Gallagher was at it with THAT guitar. Yeah, Britpop. It’s enough to make you shudder.
Only, it wasn’t really like that. OK, Union Jack shenanigans aside, and lets face it, its Noel fucking Gallagher, but look deeper and what you find is a music scene absolutely bubbling over with artists and bands all brimming with inspiration as they seek to open up new avenues of coolness. It may have reached its epoch at Knebworth, but the seeds were being sown at least ten years earlier as acid house spurred everyone on to dance, and a little old band from Manchester discovered The Byrds (OK, they may have discovered The Byrds a bit earlier than that but dramatic tension innit…). The roots could go back even further to ‘Blue Monday’ by New Order, an era defining record, and then from that through post punk and eventually The Buzzcocks. It stops there though. Everything stops at The Buzzcocks. Well, until Noel fucking Gallagher pops along with his Beatles records. You get the idea though, connecting the dots as they say. Britpop was a remarkable machine for pulling all those bands together from different generations and placing them in a field somewhere in Pilton though.
If we want to get down to the nitty gritty of it though, we really need to head ourselves back to 1993 for what has been heralded as the true start of Britpop and yes, for that pure heady moment of what the fuck, that first Suede album which was a kick up the ass jolt out of the doldrums. Like some resurrected Ziggy Stardust thrusting his suburban crotch into your face, the decadent glamour torn from their mothers dressing table meant that a whole new generation of star spangled kids were adorning feather boas and discovering their androgynous sides. It’s almost as if the previous years Generation Terrorists‘ Manic Street Preachers were cast aside and forgotten for the heroin chic of London. Out were situationist phrases born of too many nights listening to The Clash and Throbbing Gristle. Here was a ground zero, and fuck everyone else. Funny thing is, in two years time The Manics would be one of the biggest bands in the UK.
Pouting and preening aside, and from the decadent shuffle of ‘Animal Nitrate’ Suede bore in a new-found discordant glamour, but they were at odds with the rest of the burgeoning scene, although Elastica would latch on to the angular dystopia of Diamond Dogs and bathe it in Wire, whilst Echobelly would just…well, be Echobelly. They did have one cracking song in ‘I Cant Imagine The World Without Me’ which even Morrissey must have wished he’d written. In Sonya Madan they had a secret weapon as she channelled the spirit of The Smiths into short, sharp pop songs. As full of herself as Echobelly’s debut album title was, she may have espoused that Everyone’s Got One, but in her, that ego raised her and her band into the hearts and minds of a scene about to explode.
Sonya was not alone and keeping it up alongside her was Louise Weiner with her band Sleeper. Oh, those Sleeper blokes, so influential that they became known as…well, Sleeper blokes. A tight band though, and in Louise, a great singer. They never really topped their well named debut Smart though, although further success would follow with The It Girl. A short-lived moment before the later inevitable reunion. Both Echobelly and Sleeper faded away (although arguably Sleeper remained, and still do, in peoples memories), but during that brief moment there seemed to be some parity between boys with guitars and girls with guitars. Unfortunately those “hip” magazines would see fit to label them ladettes, as if it wasn’t enough to respect them for being talented women.
One woman would rise above all this with insouciant charm and style (and no, we’re not talking about Cerys Matthews, who was more likely to be found downing pints in Clwb Ifor Bach than bestowing any charm anywhere). Striking out with their debut album Foxbase Alpha in 1991, by the time of releasing their second, So Tough, they hit the zeitgeist with the rather marvellous ‘You’re In a Bad Way’ single which when debuted on the Steve Lamacq’s Evening Session sent this writer into a complete meltdown. Name-checking Bruce Forsyth and the Generation Game, it was a nostalgic kick in the teeth but wrapped up in this kind of cool pop which had been missing from music. Where everything was plaid and grunge, St Etienne were living in a day-glow world of coffee shops in Kentish Town, London. It sounded so new compared to the fuzzed up guitars of the American scene. The ultimate irony being that this was music inspired by the golden age of the 60’s, and by that, not even the cool stuff such as The Beatles. Here was music which mined lounge music, film soundtracks, and Canterbury prog. That nearly thirty years later they are still delivering music of the same calibre is testament to the endearing quality of their output.
Of course, the shadow of The Smiths still loomed large and shone through in The Auteurs, Longpigs and Gene. Three bands who are long forgotten now, except by their devout followers, but deserving of a redressing of the balance as they each released debut albums which attracted rave reviews and for all the right reasons. Fronted by the kind of fey frontman that was all the rage in indie circles, being from the spawned dregs of the whole Indie Top 20 brigade, a scene which even shoe-gaze couldn’t kill off although the bands in that circle would find themselves feted as champions of new psych years later. Lyrically astute, with an earnestness for working class upbringings, it almost seems Dickensian considered next to those scenes at Downing Street, but it‘s no surprise that Auteurs frontman Luke Haines would find success as an author in later years (ironically dissecting the Britpop scene,…hey, Oasis ripped off The Beatles so this writer can rip off Haines). In the long run it would take Oasis to remove the spectre of The Smiths from the British music scene, although not before Johnny Marr had found his way on to a few support slots and even on one of their songs. Cheeky fucker gets everywhere and even started invaded US bands in the 2000’s.
Returning to those pesky shoe-gaze bands which made up the early part of the 90’s, or at least until The Levellers offered their fans a gram of cheap whizz instead, two outliers managed to make the jump to Britpop status. Both Teenage Fanclub and Boo Radleys had great success bothering the lower ends of the Indie Top 20 until they hit their stride. Granted the Fannies got there first with their impeccable Bandwagon-esque which eschewed the wall of noise for a melodic approach half inched from The Byrds (yes, that band again). It was utterly addictive though, and by the time of Grand Prix in 1993 they may never have risen above B level status but to those in the know, they were easily one of the best bands of the era (and remain rather fantastic). Boo Radleys, on the other hand, seemed to lose their way after the tremendous Giant Steps album, and for proof of the pudding cast your memory back to that moment you stumbled into the second stage field of Glastonbury in 1994 to have the trumpets of ‘Lazarus’ elevate you into the fucking heavens, and place against the droll and winsome premier of ‘Wake Up‘ (their biggest hit) at Blur’s massive Mile End show. They had their moments after Giant Steps, but for that one glorious burning moment of transcendence they could have been the true epiphany of Britpop.
Instead, that epiphany arrived for most people with Parklife. Blur had already been knocking around for a few years and anyone who remembers the insipid pretence of Damon Albarn as him and his band played ‘There’s No Other Way‘ on Top Of The Pops, stating to the nation that they were high on “something”, to then hear the mod inspired ‘Girls And Boys’ was quite frankly a revelation. That said, closer listeners would have been more than impressed by their excellent second album Modern Life Is Rubbish, and whilst Parklife captured the zeitgeist, in retrospect it wasn’t a patch on the Kinksian swagger of that second album. There’s no denying that ‘Girls and Boys‘ and ‘This Is A Low‘ are great songs though, and for all his faults, Albarn is a master song-writer. It just all seemed a little contrived. Sure, go ahead, disagree, and thousands will given the popularity of the band, but even Albarn got bored of the direction that his band were taking with pretty much every album. The nadir being The Great Escape which perversely gained the classic five star review in Q Magazine, whilst fledgeling upstarts Oasis got three stars for (What’s The Story)Morning Glory. It all balanced out though as they endorsed that ultimate albatross of Britpop, Be Here Now, with five stars. Are we just being critical as its easy to dump on the big guys though? Well, possibly, but lets look at the evidence.
So, for Blur there is no evidence. Apart from Modern Life Is Rubbish, they come across as a band just trying to impress the people that matter. A cardinal sin for music as that leads down the path of pretentiousness, and we all know that‘s where Damon fucking Albarn lives. Want further proof? Gorillaz, further Blur albums, plus that God Save The Good, The Bad and The Ugly Queen band (or whatever the fuck they were called). They weren’t all bad though as Modern Life Is Rubbish is a work of unbridled genius, and as a live band Blur remain untouched out of all the Britpop era bands, apart from one…Oasis.
Now, Noel fucking Gallagher aside, Oasis strode in like some blasted saviour from a Manchester estate throwing aside their Smiths albums and thrusting Revolver and Who’s Next straight in your face and telling you, yes, telling you… that THIS is what you should be listening too. Of course, any self respecting music fan had already been listening to this anyway but that’s besides the point, here was a band who looked like your football hooligan mate but had a heart of gold (not that your football hooligan mate didn’t have a heart of gold, but trust me on this, once he heard Oasis he certainly did. This band did more for the third summer of love than any other and it still resonates today). The addictive swagger of Liam Gallagher was to become an iconic part of the landscape but pop cultural events aside, it’s worth remembering the sheer ferocity of that debut Definitely Maybe, and the pure pop smarts of (What‘s The Story)Morning Glory. Even now, all these years later, those two albums are cultural landmarks in any music collection and have inspired countless bands (mostly in the region of landfill indie…what a great term), and that‘s for a reason…because they were damn good albums. The tremors still exist now but back then it was like being in the eye of a storm. Even when the albums got shit, Oasis still knocked it out the park in their live shows. Shame about Noel fucking Gallagher.
That was all post 1994 though and by then Britpop had already reached its climax with those decadent souls Suede who had decided to go full on Diamond Dogs on their second release Dog Man Star, and in doing do losing their talismanic guitarist. What a worthy cause though, for an album which actually drips decadence in every pore. Overblown, pompous, ridiculous… yet completely sublime. Suede would carry on, and get even more successful, with ‘Trash’ and whilst that had its moments it wouldn’t be until their later reunion when they would finally get back to releasing albums of the stature of their debut. We wont say stature of Dog Man Star as that‘s pretty untouchable. There must have been something in the air at the time as those Generation Terrorist Manics had discovered religion on their incomparable Holy Bible album. What a time to be alive (trust me, it was good).
But we can’t leave it there can we, as that’s not the full story. We’re missing out on all those “landfill” bands. But they’ll all have their time in the sun, even Menswear and These Animal Men, although remarkably Bluetones seem to be making a fair comeback of it. Maybe the youngest upstarts of all have weathered the Britpop wars best, and Supergrass continue to bring a big grin to our faces although everywhere you turn there is some obscure band flogging their 25th anniversary tour. Blink and you’ll miss those one hit wonders Bentley Rhythm Ace peddling their debut album yet again. There is one band we need to mention though, and where Suede, Blur and Oasis get all the plaudits, they remain the singularly greatest band of the Britpop era, and with it released the defining song of the Britpop era with their magnificent ‘Common People’. They are so intrinsically linked with the Britpop era that they even defined the end of it with their equally magnificent This Is Hardcore album. The band…Pulp.
Picture the scene…it’s a red hot day at Glastonbury Festival. It’s 2pm on a Saturday afternoon, and Pulp are due on the NME stage at any moment. This writer had already spent a week in Sheffield on the lash and explored all the different places mentioned in Pulp songs, and to be in the presence of Jarvis Cocker was something akin to a religious experience (hey, he might have the same initials…). To hear the throb of ‘She’s A Lady‘, the epicentre of the latest album, emanating from the stage, whilst on it, this character jerked and thrust his arms into impossible places in an almost impossible dream and as that gives way to ‘Do You Remember The First Time‘ you have to wonder quite why this band aren’t massive. Fast forward a year and Saturday night on the Pyramid Stage is the same band, this time leading a massed field of 70,000 people in a chorus of ‘Common People‘. What happened? Well, in the words of Pulp, something changed. A band who had been on the fringes of music since the early 80’s suddenly found themselves thrust to the forefront of everything Britpop. A culmination which would end with Jarvis invading the stage at the Brit Awards as Michael Jackson staged his newest show, and what a cultural moment that was. Overblown pomposity deflated by Northern wit. The common people won.
The thing with Pulp is that they saw right through the charade that exploded around them and makes them prime candidates to examine the resulting blow up from those key Britpop moments (namely 70,000 people singing ‘Common People‘, Blur vs Oasis, and Noel fucking Gallagher). Jarvis may have insulted the king of pop but in reality he was probably more disgusted with the way his music was being appropriated for some kind of cool Britannia. It’s that word again, cool…even Wales had their Cool Cymru moment, headed by our old friends those Generation Terrorist Manics (and before you Welsh jump onboard and attack me, I’m Welsh and proud and a huge Manics fan). Those who went to see Pulp at their gig at Finsbury Park in London after the release of This Is Hardcore would have been faced with the ominous tones of ‘The Fear‘ opening the show as Jarvis threw his familiar shapes, but this time to music which held no promise. Both This Is Hardcore and We Love Life remain the best Pulp albums, yet due to their nature they could never recapture that zeitgeist audience. It remains that audience‘s loss.
Perhaps the lasting legacy of Britpop, aside from its cultural impact which not only affected what was then called “indie music” but also pop music (see Spice Girls), and it’s not entirely invited political moments (yep, Noel fucking Gallagher), is that it’s inclusive nature not only broke the gender divide but also brought together the disparate crowds. Unmentioned in this piece is the impact of electronic music and how it merged club culture with lad culture. Acid House had already broken down the barriers, and the aftermath of Ecstasy fed into the resulting open drug culture which even Noel fucking Gallagher remarked upon as being just like having a cup of tea. From all of this came a burst of activity which resulted in a moment in time of music which is often derided. As with any other period of music it’s always worth checking under the hood and seeking the truth though, and for every Noel fucking Gallagher moment, there is Sarah Cracknell telling us that nothing can stop us now. For every barrow cart boy disparaging dust-men, there is the sublime northern suburbia of Jarvis Cocker, and for every fashioned Menswear, there is the irresistible swagger of Liam Gallagher. Britpop may have reached its peak at Knebworth, but it had laid its legacy in the years preceding. The defence rests its irreverent case.