‘Britpop’ at 20:
Lest We Forget.
It has been twenty years since the music phenonemum called ‘Britpop’ arrived. In a period that saw some of the greatest albums and songs created, I look back at a wonderful era of music- and the legacy that has been left.
QUITE a special birthday party has just happened in the music world.
In fact, it is more of an anniversary as much as anything. ‘Britpop’ is a genre and period of music that has seen some of the greatest music ever witnessed, presented. In terms of sheer quality, I feel that this period was synonymous with music of the highest order. Before I investigate the background of this magical period, I shall give you a quick dictionary definition (of ‘Britpop’) from Wikipedia: “Britpop is a subgenre of alternative rock that originated in the United Kingdom. Britpop emerged from the British independent music scene of the early 1990s and was characterised by bands influenced by British guitar pop music of the 1960s and 1970s. The movement developed as a reaction against various musical and cultural trends in the late 1980s and early 1990s, particularly the grunge phenomenon from the United States In the wake of the musical invasion into the United Kingdom of American grunge bands, new British groups such as Suede and Blur launched the movement by positioning themselves as opposing musical forces, referencing British guitar music of the past and writing about uniquely British topics and concerns“. Before I investigate the bands, moments and influences of ‘Britpop’, I just want to mention a couple of small points. The anniversary (or birthday) is one that brings out mixed emotions in me. On the one hand, it is great to look back at the music, moments and scenes that made up the movement. I still have many terrific albums from the time, and it was tremendous witnessing (first-hand) all of the highs and lows- as well as catfights! As much as anything, this period made Britain a music nation to be reckoned with; more so than during the ’80s, and the energy and combativeness amongst out musicians was incredible. Bands and acts upped their games; rivalries were formed and a unempeachable sense of ‘coolness’ lingered in the air. I am sure that many musicians today are directly influenced by the greatest pioneers of ‘Britpop’ and one cannot help but to smile when looking back. In another sense, it is a little bit sad as well. I think back to the early to mid-’90s and as brilliant as it was, you wonder this: will we ever see the like again? My first inclination is to say no, really, as I guess that the genre came out of a particular time period; as a reaction to a previous musical era- perhaps something that could only have existed when it did. Perhaps, though, music was just different twenty years ago. There is quality to be found, but you do not have the same fervency and excitement in music now, as we did then. The rivalries and Oasis vs. Blur battles were a one-off; the exceptional and definitional albums produced then, have not been replicated, and some of the magic has been lost- music has changed directions somewhat. Of course, it would be foolish to think that something exactly like ‘Britpop’ would ever reoccur- it was a very unique period. I guess I miss the band feuds, the phenomenal output and the spirit that filled the air in the ’90s. If any lessons have been learned and influenced and direction provided, then that is something that is to proud of. I am sure that many new musicians would not have existed were it not for the acts and talent that roamed the scene back then; many coming through will be indebted to the exhilaration, diversity and potency of that wonderful time- I hope that the legacy is never lost. I shall touch more on this in the conclusion, but let me take you back… to the birth of ‘Britpop’.
In the early-’90s, a huge musical transition was taking place. Th 1980s was a bit of a dour and unspectacular decade for music. There were some great U.K. acts such as The Smiths working hard; brilliant U.S. music like Michael Jackson and Prince were setting the times ablaze; yet by the time 1990 rolled into view, a change was required. That change (that started off in the late-’80s) was Grunge. Being a fan of the genre, I was sad to see it die away, and it acts such as Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and Nirvana were masters of the craft. In fact, the death of Kurt Coabin (in 1994) was perhaps the most significant event with regards to the death of Grunge. Nirvana were riding the crest of the wave in 1991-2, following the release of Nevermind; that album was one of the greatest ever produced, and contemporaries were inspired to follow suit. Fantastic movements and creations were released, and the Grunge masters were each making their marks on the music world. It was a distinctly heavy and hard movement, yet one that has softer moments, and in the minds of Kurt Cobain and Chris Cornell (of Soundgarden)- intelligent and stunning songwriters. I suppose each new music wave arrives as a reaction to one past; usually an angry one that necessitates an instant change. Grunge was as a reaction to what came before; ‘Britpop’ was the reaction to Grunge. When Cobain died in 1994, the genre started to die away. It was around this time, that a transition started to occur in music. Whereas Grunge was a distinctly U.S.-led genre, ‘Britpop’- obviously- was ours alone. The U.S. had been enjoying a musical hegemony from the late-’80s through to the first years of the 1990s, and it was their music that was leading the way. In the U.K., our young artists were keen to change this; to introduce a new movement that would blow away the dominant and hard-hitting Grunge cobwebs- and present something more melodic and less forceful. It is hard to say when the ignition was sparked; when the first flame was lit, yet journalist John Harris suggests some insight: “[I]f Britpop started anywhere, it was the deluge of acclaim that greeted Suede’s first records: all of them audacious, successful and very, very British”. Suede were the first of the new crop of guitar-orientated bands to be embraced by the UK music media as Britain’s answer to Seattle’s grunge sound. Their debut album Suede became the fastest-selling debut album in the history of the UK. In April 1993, Select magazine featured Suede’s lead singer Brett Anderson on the cover with a Union Flag in the background and the headline “Yanks go home!”. Other say that the release of Blur’s Popscene (in 1992). Of course, we can see ‘Britpop’ was happening before Cobain’s death, yet the full force and insurgency occurred during 1994- it was the most pivotal year for ‘Britpop’. Whenever the movement truly began is unsure, yet it was clear that the U.K. acts had grown tired of the American scene and way of life. It seems that us Brits had a desire to grab back the limelight and focus, and the combined surge of desire and fresh music started something truly wonderful. I will look at the defining bands, moments and fights of this transitory period, but want to look back at ‘Britpop’s lineage. When the genre was starting out in the early-’90s, the bands and acts that were making modern sounds, were distinctly looking back. Guitar and Pop music of the ’60s and ’70s were key influences, and flavours of The Beatles, The Kinks and The Smiths were all evident. The Indie scene itself was a direct ancestor of ‘Britpop’, and the influence of The Smiths as well as the ‘Madchester‘ wave were forefathers. The early years of ‘Britpop’ (1991/2-1993) were defined more with a shoegazing and lighter sound. Emphasis was placed on good times and joyousness, and albums from that time reflected this. Past masters such as Happy Mondays and The Stone Roses were acting as the templates the bands of this time, and it seemed like a deliberate act. Grunge is synonymous with depression and foreboding heaviness; the direct shift to the other end of the music spectrum showed just how angry and annoyed our musicians were (with Grunge). Clearly a desire for happier and merry music was enforcing the young artists of the U.K. I suppose ‘Britpop’ was more of a band arena, and the music-buying public were looking for vocal/drum/guitar/bass configurations- the solo realm had a minor role during the period. Because of the emphasis on Britain and British-ness, it was difficult for many artists, when trying to get their music appreciated in the U.S. Towards the mid-’90s, there was a commercial shift, yet initially, the ‘Britpop’ movement seemed to be confined to the U.K. Music critic Jon Savage asserted that Britpop was “an outer-suburban, middle-class fantasy of central London streetlife, with exclusively metropolitan models.”
When we think of the defining acts of the ‘Britpop’ regency, inevitably minds go to Blur and Oasis. Their pitched battles and warfare (which I shall elaborate on) was the defining period of the era, and produced some spectacular moments. In a recent poll from N.M.E., the track Common People by Pulp was declared as the greatest ‘Britpop’ anthem- by the magazine’s readers. Pulp was a band whom were natural rivals for the likes of Blur and Oasis. They formed in the late-’70s, but hit a commercial peak in 1995 with their album, A Different Class. That album was infused with fresh and wonderful scenes on modern-life; working-class snippets and aspects of dislocated love. Pulp’s frontman, Jarvis Cocker, has the swagger and effortless cool needed, and his cohorts were responsible for some of the best music of the time. During the era, there were a lot of minor acts and one-off gems that were bustling for attention, including Northern Uproar, The Boo Radleys and Black Grape- whom did not exactly leave permanent marks on music. When you think about some of the bands that can be classified as ‘Britpop’ artists, I am guessing many of them hold spots in your record collection. Ash and Cast were two bands doing battle during this time. Their heavier and more Rock-orientated sounds gained widespread praise and attention, and Ocean Colour Scene and Elastica were also jostling for attention. Between these bands, a great number of iconic songs were created, including The Riverboat Song and Uncle Pat– to my mind Ocean Colour Scene were the best band of that quartet. Their albums such as Ocean Colour Scene and Moseley Shoals were packed with wonders. I suppose there was a lot of short-lived triumph; a great number of acts whom were working away- yet never really poked their head to the summit. Before I focus on the two main players of ‘Britpop’ I will investigate one band. Supergrass is one of my favorite bands, are often overlooked when we look back at this period of music- I am not sure why. Their 1995 album I Should Coco, was one of the greatest albums of the mid-’90s (and the decade as a whole); songs like Alright, Caught by the Fuzz and Richard III will be familiar to most. I suppose Supergrass are synonymous with being laddish and good time purveyors. They may have shared more in common with shoegazing acts such as Kula Shaker (and Blur’s debut album); by 1994/5, the scene was perhaps favouring something less baggy and jocular- and something more Blur-y or Oasis-y. I am not sure, but it seems that Supergrass should have got more credit. Of course, they are regarded as one of the greatest British acts of the last twenty years, yet not a group anything things of when we look at ‘Britpop’. Okay, then, it is probably best that we investigate the two key players of the ‘Britpop’ movement: Blur and Oasis.
Damon Albarn and Noel Gallagher are practical best buds. now, but the tension and rivalries that their bands shared from 1995, is one of the most striking and memorable aspects of ‘Britpop’. It seems that you either had to be a Blur man or an Oasis one. I was- and am- a Blur supporter through, and through. The two groups had their own style and sound. Oasis favoured a more Rock-driven sound, with elements of John Lennon, The Beatles, T-Rex and the like- or ‘real music’ as Gallagher stated. Blur, perhaps more melodic and Pop-driven, had touches of The Kinks in their music. Initially, both bands were respectful of one another, but with some media intervention and spurning, a rivalry and split occurred that saw them engage in fierce battle. To me, 1994 is the year that saew both bands produce their best work. Parklife (from Blur), is one of the defining discs of the era, and contained some of the greatest anthems from the time. Girls & Boys and Parklife are instant classics; This Is a Low and End of a Century terrifically evocative and scneic. Blur had concentrated on shoegazing and baggy sound during Leisure (their debut); and, after Albarn has visited America and got a whiff of the culture there, decide to retrain Blur’s focus. By the time Modern Life Is Rubbish arrived (in 1993), Albarn felt the need to comment on the American cultural influence and effect on music. Parklife took them further away from their past, and the sounds of the album were London, Essex and Britain- there were nods to the U.S. but is quintessentially a British album. Oasis, on the other hand, arrived later than Blur, and their debut came in 1994. Definitely Maybe was the confident and extraordinary debut that rivalled Parklife. The track Live Forever is regarded as one of the greatest songs of all-time; a track that emphasised the mood of the time. Supersonic and Cigarettes & Alcohol are classics that have their hearts very much with the legends of the ’60s and ’70s. I have always found Oasis to be TOO indebted to past masters. Riffs by T-Rex are stolen; vocals and melodies taken straight from John Lennon- there is not enough originality and individualism in their sound. That said, I recognise Definitely Maybe as the defining album of the ‘Britpop’ movement, because not only did it introduce a wild and ambitious new act, but also began a battle that came to a head in 1995. Oasis’ Roll With It was released on the same day as Blur’s Country House- Blur representing the south, Oasis the north. On 14th August, 1995, the nation awaited to see who would win the battle. Of course, Blur won, and some saw it as a victory for the artsy middle-class- as opposed to the honest working-class. It has nothing to do with class or a north-south divide; it was just numbers. The media fuelled the fire, but the fact was that the better song won. Even if Blur won the chart battle, Oasis won a bigger war. In 1995, Blur unleashed The Great Escape (where Country House originated). It is a terrific album, yet some see it is a departure from Parklife; a qualitative step-down perhaps. Charmless Man, Stereotypes and Fade Away were stand-outs, yet one could not ignore Oasis’ dominance. In spite of preferring Blur, (What’s The Story) Morning Glory boasted more emphasis and power. If Oasis had released a different single in August of 1995 they may have won the chart battle; the album is certainly one that pipped Blur. (What’s The Story)’ went on to sell four million copies (making it the third best-selling British album ever). The release of Wonderwall and Champagne Supernova, not only saw them overtake Blur- but also gain a sustained foothold in the U.S. The sounds and sparks from tracks invigorated and grabbed the public- it seems as though tastes were changing. Whereas Blur’s brand of intelligent and melodic Pop-Rock was favoured previously, the public now were favouring modern Rock- with a flair of 1960s elements. Starting on 10 August 1996, Oasis played a two-night set at Knebworth to a combined audience of 250,000 people. The demand for these gigs was and still is the largest ever for a concert on British soil; over 2.6 million people had applied for tickets. Blur would go on to release their self-titled L.P. in 1997; Oasis released Be Here Now (the same year). By then, both bands were a shadow of their 1994-5 selves it seemed; perhaps Blur were a little stronger, but it seemed like the best may have been left behind. The battle between Blur and Oasis, for me, was what made ‘Britpop’ so special. Each band pushed one another and forced a work ethic and ambition that we do not see much of now. There was a lot of pantomime and theatrics, but it was a joy to watch. You cannot deny that both bands produced mesmeric work, and each appealed to a different type of person. Blur may have been more ‘artsy’ and experimental; Oasis more straightforward and Rock-orientated. Each were presenting music that put Britain on the music map; reaffirmed the glory and wonder (that the U.S. perhaps had enjoyed before) and inspired a legion of fresh and hungry bands.
By 1996/7, a change began to occur- with the ‘Britpop’ movement beginning to break down. Bands and acts were seeing the world in a different way. In the same way as Grunge started for a reason, and broke down when it became unviable and tired- ‘Britpop’ went the same way. U.S. culture and music was being re-investigated and appreciated by musicians, and was being assimilated into the motifs of the modern acts. On Blur’s self-titled L.P., the band broke away from Parklife‘s sounds- the jollity and British scenes of life- to be more self-reflective and include influences of bands such as Pavement. Bands began to break up, and another shift was happening. The idea of ‘Cool Britania’ was now being moulded and appropriated by acts such as The Spice Girls, but a greater diversity was being introduced into the scenes. Bands such as Radiohead- whom had released The Bends in 1994- were now being given fuller attention. Radiohead had created some genuinely world-class moments during the ‘Britpop’ era, but attention was being shifted away from them- and onto the ‘cool’ bands of the time. By 1997, I guess the whole notion of ‘Britpop’ has started to die away. There were bands still purveying some of the spirit of the movement, yet the best had passed on. In 1997, Radiohead released OK Computer; acts such as The Verve were making big waves- each of whom presented influences from the ’60s and ’70s. The wave of music that followed on from ‘Britpop’ was not a million miles away from the likes of Pulp and Oasis. These acts were influential to the bands coming through, and Feeder, Stereophonics and Travis kept the flame alive- yet focused less on the London-centric and wholly British concentration. U.S. influences were being mixed with British ones, and there was a greater openness afoot. Gone were the days of concentrating on promoting a distinctly British brand of music (and way of life), and a more global and all-encompassing set of sounds were being projected. There was too, perhaps, less focus on English bands: more of the U.K. was being embraced. Welsh acts Stereophonics and Catatonia were rising through; Scots Travis and The Supernaturals threw their rings into the hat- whilst Northern Ireland’s Snow Patrol were starting out. It is clear that the bands that played and struck between 1993-1997 left their mark on the new generation coming through. Over the last few years, bands such as Kaiser Chiefs and Arctic Monkeys have been seen as pioneers of the “second wave” of ‘Britpop’ acts- those whom invoke some of the spirit of Blur, Oasis and their contemporaries. Although amongst these bands there are fewer nods to the music of the 1960s and ’70s, there are Punk influences and strains of Hardcore music. I suppose that there are always going to be waves of music coming through- new genres and types year-by-year. At the moment, we have some groups that have a semblance of ‘Britpop’, yet by and large the scene is more varied and widespread. It will be interesting to see if- in our life times- we witness anything akin to ‘Britpop’ occur again.
I am a little ambivalent when I think about ‘Britpop’. It would be unrealistic to think that it would have lasted all the way to today. I guess it was a product of a time; there was a need to break out of the Grunge-led U.S. stranglehold- to assert some British identity into music. For that reason, it was no surprise that so many bands came out to play. The output from that time (’93-’97) saw an endemic of bristling and sun-kissed sounds; tableaux of British life and our way of living. You cannot deny that some of the best music we have ever witnessed, was created during this time. If you are a fan of Blur or Oasis; whether you prefer Suede or Pulp; The Bluetones or Supergrass- there was something for everyone. I love Blur because of the range of their music; because there are so many vast and multifarious snippets of British life; love lives and everything in between- Albarn, to me, remains one of the greatest ever songwriters. I cannot deny how vital Oasis were and how brilliant albums such as Definitely Maybe and (What’s The Story Morning Glory)? are- I am listening to Champagne Supernova now. One off tracks such as Slight Return (by The Bluetones), Wide Open Space by Mansun- wow. It was not just the Oasis v. Blur histrionics that made it so exciting. There was a genuine passion and invigoration amongst musicians; keen to topple American-led dominance and Grunge-ness. As much as there was (media-led) divisions, the period- for me- is synonymous with togetherness. Each act and band were vying for top spot: the number 1 record and album spot. As much as there was commercial competitiveness, the overall scene was so wonderful because each band and act was trying to promote one cause- Britain. There was no sense of balkanization and compartmentalization; the overall sound was varied and strong because each of the acts wanted to promote ‘Britpop’. I am not saying music is weaker (now that the moment, as it were, has passed); far from it. My main reason for paying homage to ‘Britpop’ was that it signified a fervent period of music-making that has influenced so many great acts of today. There was a sense of national pride and defiance; a need to change the- U.S.- status quo: it was a rare phenomena. I hope that in the 21st century, something akin to ‘Britpop’ will be realised. Perhaps if mainstream Pop gets a bit too dominant, and too many teenage girls have too much money- we will need to rise up. Join the Rock and Grunge acts; the Acoustic-Pop and Folk artists in unison- and unleash something truly spectacular. We shall see; but for now, I challenge you to revisit the best and brightest from a time- 1993-1997- whom made their marks on music history. Dust off your copies of Definitely Maybe; spend an hour on YouTube sifting through the annals of Blur and Pulp’s career highs- and realise how good things were. I am sure, whether you are a musician or music-lover, you would have been influenced by some of the acts of ‘Britpop’. The British invasion celebrates its 20th birthday this year, and what better excuse than to celebrate a one-off and brilliant music time. It is unny; it is Sunday; it is warm- what better excuse do you need? I am rushing off to replay Champagne Supernova (for the 15th time today), so get right on it. Take heart, take inspiration and earn reflection. Above all, for all reading…
SMILE and remember when a truly magical time ruled our hearts.
Ten Essential ‘Britpop’ Tracks
Girls & Boys– Blur (Parklife, 1994)
Don’t Look Back In Anger– Oasis (What’s The Story) Morning Glory?, 1995)
Parklife– Blur (Parklife, 1994)
Common People– Pulp (Different Class, 1995)
Slight Return– The Bluetones (Expecting To Fly, 1996)
Live Forever (Definitely Maybe, 1994).
Caught By The Fuzz– Supergrass (I Should Coco, 1995)
Disco 2000– Pulp (Different Class, 1995)
Wide Open Space– Mansun (Attack of the Grey Lantern, 1996)
A Design For Life– Manic Street Preachers (Everything Must Go, 1996)
Five Crucial Albums
Oasis- Definitely Maybe (1994)
Blur- Parklife (1994)
Oasis- (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? (1995)
Pulp- Different Class (1995)
Supergrass- I Should Coco (1995)