Following on from my previous blog post, I feel some sort of perspective is needed. It’s all very well for people like myself to condemn the current music scene; but if no high watermark is represented, how can things improve? Things may change, but not necessarily for the better. Whilst the 60s is commonly presented as the decade to which all other decades must aspire, my personal decade of choice is the 1990s; particularly the Britpop era of 1992 to 1997.
Admittedly, I acknowledge in advance that it’s the decade I know most about musically, as I’ve read books on it (a lot of the information in this article has been gleaned from John Harris’s excellent The Last Party; Britpop, Blair and The Downfall of British Rock Music) and hold great pride in the fact that I was born in the week that ‘The Drowners’ by Suede was released, the single that kick-started public opinion on Britpop and British music in general. Despite usually being cast off as a poor man’s duplicate of the British scene of the 1960s (Blur representing the Kinks-esque quintessential Englishness and Oasis providing frequent allusions to The Beatles), in reality the landscape of the 90s was more multi-faceted than the two artists around whom the ‘Battle of Britpop’ centred. All aspects of good music were represented. Suede, who resurrected British indie music after the lean shoegazing period and managed to sneak into the mainstream following a charged performance at the staid 1993 Brit awards, offered a dark and sexually ambiguous glamour along with astonishingly complex guitar solos and lyrics which were akin to a warped poetry, something more reminiscent of a 70s Bowie than anything from the 1960s. The sadly long-forgotten Elastica, whose debut was the fastest-selling of all time in 1995, boasted a three-quarters female line up (incidentally, the last two words were the title of the opening track on Elastica) and therefore were an advertisement for ‘Girl Power’ several years before The Spice Girls made the point explicit. However, let them not be remembered just for the band members’ gender; they specialised in ironic lyrics and short, sharp songs, having been influenced by punk and the underground scene. Pulp meanwhile also dealt in a witty currency, best manifested in the ubiquitous single Common People; but this wit was infused in a camp voyeurism rather than the typical-romantic-lyrics-pastiches that Elastica specialised in. Surely this surpasses The Beatles and their ilk in at least one way; most of their lyrics dealt in requited or unrequited love, and only in their later albums did they have sarcasm or irony (most notably, ‘Back In The USSR’ was written to poke fun at rivals The Beach Boys). Menswear also briefly acted as a personification of the frivolity of pop music, a more indie-ish Blue or JLS who had the advantage of being able to play their instruments and, in some cases, being fairly attractive.
As for Blur and Oasis, who consciously modelled themselves on their spiritual ancestors of the 1960s, they also brought different skills and sounds to the Cool Britannia party. Oasis, whilst their more recent efforts were monotonous and turgid, originally offered an energised, hedonistic promise that the other bands of the decade were less capable of; Suede, Elastica et al were influenced by The Smiths, whose legacy is synonymous with the word ‘cool’ but, due to their deep-seated indie ideals and emphasis on moderation and intellectualism (‘This Charming Man’ featured complicated lexis in order to educate their listeners and bring various words out of obsolescence), they were hardly the most debauched of bands. Oasis, on the other hand, with aims that more resembled those of anyone on The X Factor (to be rich and famous) and a background illustrated not with literature but with lager and cocaine, made Definitely Maybe rich with ambition and confidence. This is probably one of the main assets lacking in today’s bands – they have little desire to leave a lasting impression on popular musical history. Does Plan B want to change British culture to something patriotic or intelligent? Doubtful. Whilst that was Blur’s aim rather than Oasis’s, the latter certainly bought into the Anglocentric angle as time went on. One only need see Noel Gallagher’s Union Jack guitar to ascertain this. Indeed, Blur’s admirable crusade to overturn the greasy-haired grunge onslaught that followed in Kurt Cobain’s wake (pun not intended) gave the era a sense of purpose, which seems unfathomable now we are in a period when the most revolutionary thing to happen in the charts of late was Rage Against The Machine’s prevention of yet another Simon Cowell-soundtracked Christmas. And that was nearly seven months ago.
Blur’s music stands notably for its precise placements in Essex or London, a la The Kinks, its third person narratives and, later on, their archetypal British campness (just watch the video for Country House). Indeed, many of the songs on Parklife and The Great Escape are essentially a musical version of the beloved British institution of Carry On films. And it’s this mash-up of all the wonderful things about music, from exotic lyrics and enviable musical prowess to humour and a venomous swagger, that makes me love the 90s. Sure, I love the 60s (The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks and The Velvet Underground), and the 70s and the 80s, but it’s the 90s that offers the most complete package for me. If modern music can take anything from my home decade, then surely it’s that even the most potent musical force en vogue can be toppled, as Britpop toppled grunge. And although Rage Against The Machine managed it last Christmas, it was an isolated incident – the mundane waves of tepid pop could-bes remain on top, whilst talented acts are flotsam and jetsam in their wake. Until the next Anglocentric revolution, I suppose I’ll just keep rereading my John Harris book, hoping that someone will bring salvation to both my ears and the music industry.