May 1, 2014
We were a bit more transatlantic than the Fred Perry and Adidas brigade. We never asked to become part of the Britpop club, all that Cool Britannia shit: Noel Gallagher shaking hands with Tony Blair. I thought: “It’s not meant to be cosy!”
I was going to write a long post about Britpop, but the musical equivalent of Blair really isn’t that interesting. So, in a nutshell, Britpop was either wonderful or dreadful; take your pick.
Will Hodgkinson in The Times recalls a time when he listened to “songs that rejected the alienation of alternative rock for a celebration of the everyday”.
“Britpop, with its songs about getting nicked for smoking a joint and dressing in ill-fitting clothes was for and about people like me,” he says. “Kitsch, irony, disco dancing, kitchen-sink observation and beery hedonism.”
The Guardian’s Michael Hann remembers “a cultural abomination that set music back”.
Britpop’s imperial period, which began 20 years ago—with the release of Blur’s Parklife on 25 April 1994—and lasted until the release of Oasis’s Be Here Now in August 1997, saw the quashing of the sense that outsiderdom was the defining feature of what was known as “indie” music. It wasn’t enough to plough your own furrow: instead ruthless ambition became the order of the day, as scores of unrelentingly pedestrian bands followed Oasis’s lead and pronounced themselves determined to conquer the world.
Smithsocksimon recalls gigs by Echobelly, Supergrass and Shed Seven that were a lot of fun, while an uninspiring Oasis at the Astoria was an early indication that the music did not quite live up to the hype. Listening again to Britpop’s defining LPs, you might wonder what all the fuss was about.
Blur’s Britpop breakthrough LP, Parklife, was hit-and-miss, a lesser successor to 1993’s Modern Life is Rubbish. Similarly Oasis’s 1994 debut, Definitely Maybe, has its moments, but for every Supersonic there’s a Shakermaker. Neither is dreadful, as the following excerpts show, but I can’t help but feel that without the swagger they feel a little empty.
Blur :: Bank Holiday ⬇
Oasis :: Columbia ⬇
The Oasis LP sold millions, as did its stratospheric follow-up, (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?, by which stage the cocaine- and champagne-fuelled rot had set in, as had musical stasis. Blur meanwhile won the battle of the bands and promptly turned their back on Britpop.
But did Britpop really “set music back”; yes it spawned a host of lame imitators, but so did the Beatles. You can’t blame Lennon and McCartney for Freddie and the Dreamers. And if Britpop was all you were listening to in the mid-90s, you were missing out on so much.
Looking back to 1994, it’s Pavement’s Crooked Rain Crooked Rain and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ magnificent Let Love In that endure, while the finest singles of the year were records that barely troubled the charts and were “Britpop” only by lazy association. Pulp crept up to number 33 with the outstanding Do You Remember the First Time? while 75 was the best Sleeper’s debut could do. Louise Wener would go on to be a successful author, but I bet she never wrote sentences as good as these.
Sleeper :: Delicious
Both lack the necessary laddish singalongability, or the self-conscious evocation of its musical heritage to be truly Britpop.
While the latter isn’t necessarily true of the one great Britpop LP, Pulp’s Different Class certainly doesn’t lack for the former. It’s not often that a great record is also a huge commercial success, but you couldn’t switch on any radio in 1994 without hearing Common People or Disco 2000 or go to any decent club (the kind with glitterballs and no-name DJs) and hear hundreds shouting tunelessly along to the same songs. In fact, any number of the 12 tracks could have been hits and indeed four were. This wasn’t, but it should have been.
Pulp :: F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E ⬇
Different Class vies with two decidedly un-Britpop records for the year’s best long player accolade. 1995 also gave us Portishead’s Dummy and the first studio album by electronica musicians Paul Daley and Neil Barnes, who would later gain greater success on the back of a Guinness ad, but would never make another LP as good as Leftism.
Portishead :: Numb
Leftfield :: Space Shanty ⬇
Oasis, Blur, Suede, Supergrass, Cast, Gene, the Bluetones, Ocean Colour Scene (if you must): whether or not you consider them Britpop or not, they all have one thing in common. It was John Peel who said that Britpop really should have been called Engpop. Scotland, in particular, was doing its own thing. In 1996 Glaswegians Belle and Sebastian released their first two LPs within months of each other. Track one, side one of LP one was this five minutes of genius.
Belle and Sebastian :: The State I Am In ⬇
Just down the road in Motherwell, the cycling-inspired Delgados released their debut, Domestiques, and the following year travelled down to London to record a Peel session that included this track. At the same time Oasis’s lumpen Be Here Now was on its way to being the best-selling record of the year. The contrast could not have been more pronounced.
The Delgados :: Pull the Wires from the Wall
As for the best pop record of 1997. Aqua’s Barbie Girl or this, from the Glaswegian trio whose name rhymes with “this”.
Bis :: Sweetshop Avengerz
Meanwhile, back in England, an anglo-asian record that would be a huge post-Britpop smash when remixed a year later scarcely troubled the clubs, radio stations or hit parade, but was a deserved number one in that year’s truncated [Festive Fifty])http://peel.wikia.com/wiki/1997_Festive_Fifty). Now that’s a chart.
Cornershop :: Brimful of Asha
British pop, you see, was so much better than Britpop.
The opening quotation comes from a recent interview with Mark Morriss, singer with the Bluetones. Indiscriminately lumped in with the Menswears and Ocean Colour Scenes, they at least enjoyed three top 10 LPs and left us with one of the most memorable number two singles of the time.
Bluetones :: Slight Return
Photo: Greyhound racing turn from Wikimedia Commons.