What IS Britpop?

.     My mother asked me this question last week, squeezing a word in edgeways as I babbled on about my Britpop-related dissertation ideas. I was gobsmacked – how could she not know what Britpop was when she lived through it? (Answer: Concentrating on having and looking after children, apparently.) Seeing as it’s not the first time I’ve been asked this question, and having quite a few articles on here about it, I’ll try to explain it. Possibly in too much detail, for which I apologise; it’s difficult to condense one’s favourite topic…
.     Having said that, if you’ve got a spare few days, more than a few pounds and are actually interested enough to spend both of those on enlightening yourself about Britpop, buy John Harris’s ‘The Last Party: Britpop, Blair and the Demise of English Rock’. This is the book that turned me from being interested-enough-to-write-a-novel-about-the-era-but-who-are-Suede? to I-WILL-BUY-A-PARTICULAR-ISSUE-OF-NME-FOR-FIVE-TIMES-ITS-ORIGINAL-PRICE-ON-EBAY-AND-TOUR-LONDON-LOOKING-FOR-THE-PLACE-WHERE-SUEDE-HAD-THEIR-FIRST-GIG*. It’s well-written, ceaselessly entertaining and, in many places, proof that real life is truly stranger than fiction. Honestly, who needs Dickens and his obese prose when you can have a Mercury Music Prize-winning band recruiting a 17-year-old schoolboy from Poole to replace their erstwhile guitarist? (Or you could read this very good blog article by someone who was actually around when Britpop was. I don’t count being in playschool as being around when Britpop was.)
.     Onwards…

Music weekly Select championing Suede, the first important Britpop band.

When?: [Tl;dr rough answer: Spring 1992 – summer 1997.]
.     As with any movement, there’s no concrete beginning or end. Most estimates consider the release of Blur’s ‘Popscene’ as the advent of Britpop, so technically the 30th March 1992 – but of course Britpop didn’t just spring out of the woodwork fully formed. It had been percolating in response to a lacklustre British music scene at the time, which celebrated ‘shoegaze’ bands, and as a result of the explosion of Nirvana’s Nevermind with the music press’s resultant focus on American grunge. Personally, I regard Suede’s ‘The Drowners’ [11th May 1992] as a more important release than ‘Popscene’ in terms of garnering media attention, as it began a hype-snowball around Suede which brought the focus away from Seattle and back to new homegrown talent.
.     For your average Joe, who listened to the charts but didn’t read NME or Melody Maker – well, Britpop could’ve begun for him at various points. Public consciousness was originally invaded by Britpop at the 1993 Brit Awards [16th February 1993], when Suede caused a furore by performing ‘Animal Nitrate’, an ode to violent, gay sex and drugs (the name is a play on the drug ‘amyl nitrate’), then more prominently at the 1995 Brits [20th February 1995] when Blur won four awards as a result of chart-topping album Parklife. If average Joe really hadn’t been paying attention to the music scene, its most defining moment, the ‘Battle of Britpop’ [14th – 20th August 1995], took the British press (both tabloid and broadsheet) and even the po-faced TV news by storm. [The Battle of Britpop is explained here.]
.     The end point, again, varies. Commonly held views are that the release of Blur’s angular, Pavement-inspired self-titled album [10th February 1997], Oasis’s plodding misfire Be Here Now [21st August 1997], Radiohead’s OK Computer [21st May 1997] and, weirdly, Labour winning the 1997 General Election [1st May 1997] can all be seen as Britpop’s denouement. If you couldn’t bear to leave the party until the last fag-end had burnt out and shrivelled up, perhaps you’d consider Pulp’s album of angst and paranoia This Is Hardcore [30th March 1998] the very end of the movement. I’d say it ended with Be Here Now, largely because it was über-hyped, misguidedly, which warranted a mass-buying session from the British public before they realised it was kind of rubbish. Oasis were no longer the template for new bands to model themselves on, the other major bands had moved onto new styles, and the minor bands were cleared from labels’ rostra to make way for either more commercial bands, or more creative ones.

The infamous picture of Noel Gallagher hobnobbing with Tony Blair at 10 Downing Street in 1997.

.     Who?: The tag of Britpop has been applied to the likes of Coldplay, Travis and Keane (though they’re more like ‘borepop’, if you ask me). In those instances, ‘Britpop’ refers to the far more vague notion of British pop music. Acts synonymous with the Britpop movement, however, are Blur and Oasis, usually seen as its main players. Other key bands of the time included Pulp, Suede, Sleeper, Echobelly, Elastica and butt-of-Britpop-jokes Menswear. Or ‘Menswe@r’, if you want to get technical about it. (You can tell it was the 90s, can’t you?) Although many of these have receded from public consciousness – including one-time ‘fastest-selling UK debut album of all time’ record holders Elastica – all enjoyed some amount of chart success and media attention, not to mention (in the cases of Blur and Menswear, anyway) a near-religious fervour from Smash Hits-reading teenage girls. As a joke from the time suggests (“What’s 40 foot long, has no pubes and goes “Aaaaaaah!”? The front row of a Blur concert”).
.     On the other hand, not all British bands of the mid-90s tapped into the Britpop market. Some, like Take That, were just your generic dancing-puppet boyband troupe, the sort that makes you forget there was a time before The X Factor; others, like Radiohead, shunned the pervasive sense of ‘Britishness’ (or, it’s been asserted, Englishness masquerading as Britishness) and the prevalent nostalgia for the ‘golden age’ of the 1960s. The espousing of ‘Englishness’ resulted in British-but-not-English bands feeling alienated from the scene and developing their own sound, aspects of which opposed Britpop values – among them, Mogwai in Scotland (who sold ‘Blur are shite’ t-shirts in 1999, post-Britpop), the Manic Street Preachers in Wales and Ash in Northern Ireland.
.     Other important, non-musical figures of the time included Alan McGee, founder of the Creation record label which signed Oasis, and future Prime Minister Tony Blair. Blair’s past as the lead singer in a rock band (Ugly Rumours) and fondness for rock and roll made him a VIP at various music awards, while his aides attempted to secure the support of Blur and Oasis to appeal to the younger electorate – leading to the famous ‘Noel Gallagher at 10 Downing Street’ pictures.

Noel Gallagher's iconic Union Flag guitar. Britpop is about more than just Noel Gallagher, but he's in a lot of useful Britpop-related images...

.     What/why?: I’ve already mentioned that it was a reaction to and against grunge and, to a lesser extent, shoegazing. The Britpop rhetoric centres on the promotion of a quintessentially English ideal that defines itself in opposition to the self-loathing of grunge, combined with a sense of nostalgia for Britain’s musical progeny. It doesn’t have to be the lyrics that reflect this; some bands used regional accents to steep themselves in Anglocentrism, while others used the prevalent imagery of the Union Flag in pictures or on their guitars (Noel Gallagher, cough cough). The nostalgia’s discussed in the ‘Influences’ section below.
.     There was also an espousal of the commercialisation of indie. Chart placings began to matter in the wake of the Battle of Britpop, with record companies becoming increasingly ruthless towards artists who hadn’t had a top 20 hit. In order to hit the mass market that was required for that yardstick of success, many artists compromised the experimental tendencies that would mark them out of the chart game. They instead sought ‘tunes the milkman could whistle’ (The Boo Radleys’ ‘Wake Up Boo!’ being a prime example) to ensure that Top of the Pops performance that would get them further recognition by the public.
.     Britpop has often been associated with the rise of lad culture and creation of ‘the lager-eater’, a bullish young male who enjoys stereotypically masculine pursuits like drinking beer and going to the football. As such, it’s become associated with rampant misogyny, although this is not necessarily true. Elastica were three-quarters female, while Lush and Echobelly were not only half female, but Echobelly’s singer and guitarist were rare examples of black women in rock, with their guitarist Debbie Smith upping the rarity factor by also being a lesbian. Justine Frischmann, lead singer of Elastica, also championed women’s choice to appear in lad’s magazines if they wanted to, seeing potential for women to empower themselves through it rather than adopting the raging-feminists-with-pitchforks discourse that it’s misogynist pressures that drive women to become involved in the adult magazine industry. It’s also been noted that Britpop’s female lyricists (Frischmann, Sonya Madan in Echobelly, Louise Wener in Sleeper) imbued their lyrics with more wit than many of their male counterparts, a forebearer of the ‘girl power’ that the Spice Girls would promote as Britpop derailed.

The Good Mixer, a Camden pub that was frequented by various Britpop band members during the 90s, as it is today.

Where?: London was the epicentre of Cool Britannia. Many of the places that became synonymous with Britpop were in or around Camden (The Good Mixer, The Dublin Castle), while various clubs housed Britpop’s key players at different stages of its life, from Syndrome in its gestation period to The Groucho Club as the bands and their entourages became more famous (Alex James, Damien Hirst and Keith Allen in particular became part of their furniture in 1995-6). Plenty of bands embraced Mockney accents or referenced areas of London in their lyrics.
.     Obviously, not everyone was London-based. Manchester, still clinging onto its Acid House-era [see below] ‘cool’ status, of course spawned Oasis, who made no attempt to hide their origins in either interviews or vocal style. Similarly, Jarvis Cocker’s strong Sheffield accent distinguished Pulp from the legions of Laaaahndaaahn-based bands, and the band never relocated from their native city. Liverpool, whose influence held strong in the shape of quasi-music gods The Beatles, produced fringe players Cast and proto-Britpop band The La’s, best known for classic ‘There She Goes’.

Brett Anderson with his icon, David Bowie. (There weren't any good quality pics of Damon Albarn with Ray Davies, so I went with this instead.)

Influences: The most obvious point of reference for Britpop artists was the British Invasion of the 1960s. The Beatles, Kinks, Small Faces and Rolling Stones were all mentioned time and time again by the artists and the press (The Beatles/Stones myth particularly being applied to Blur/Oasis during the Battle of Britpop). Oasis in particular pilfered from The Beatles and their respective members’ solo careers – ever noticed how much the opening of ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’ sounds like John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’?
Closer in years to the 90s, David Bowie influenced Britpop’s forefathers, Suede, immeasurably – both in sound and style. (At 3:10 in their debut video, Brett Anderson looks exactly like Bowie.) Later, Suede’s more populist third album, Coming Up, sounded markedly more like 70s glam rock pin-ups T Rex. The Smiths were also a common port of call for influence, with most of the most important bands being inspired by Morrissey’n’Marr in their youth. This worked both ways, with Morrissey attending several early Suede gigs and including a cover of Suede B-side ‘My Insatiable One’ in his 1992 live shows.
.     Britpop can in some ways be seen as a reappropriation of the ‘acid house’, or baggy, scene, spearheaded by the Happy Mondays and Stone Roses. Centred in Manchester (the movement sometimes being called ‘Madchester’) and rising at the end of the 80s before being blown away by grunge, ‘baggy’ saw, ideals-wise, a move away from the threadbare indie ideal of the early 80s and a move towards capitalist mores. Musically, it was mostly a celebration of hedonistic excess and braggadocio, though The Stone Roses were far less dance-y and more soft-spoken than the Mondays. Oasis were especially influenced by the scene, though Brett Anderson was an unlikely Mondays disciple, while Jarvis Cocker recounts a rave-gone-wrong scenario in Pulp single ‘Sorted For E’s And Whizz’. Blur, on the other hand, were latecomers to the baggy party, with their debut album Leisure being released towards the tail-end of the period and hugely indebted to its indie-dance sound.
.     More obscure influences included Scott Walker, an idol for Pulp (he later went onto produce their swansong album We Love Life in 2001), while Blur’s Anglocentric ‘Life’ trilogy – Modern Life Is Rubbish, Parklife and, analogously, The Great Escape – drew on ‘quintessentially English’ music hall traditions of the late 19th and early 20th century with B-sides like ‘Daisy Bell’ and ‘Let’s All Go Down The Strand’. Elastica referenced Adam and the Ants, Wire and The Stranglers as references, settling in court with the latter two due to blatant musical plagiarism from each. Indie legends The Fall were Albarn-, Anderson- and Frischmann-beloved, with Damon Albarn revisiting his love for Mark E Smith by collaborating with him on Gorillaz track ‘Glitter Freeze’ in 2010 and one of Suede’s earliest tracks, ‘Implement Yeah’, written while Justine Frischmann was still a member, being written about him (incorporating an anecdote about Smith calling Suede’s label’s manager, Saul Galpern, a ‘Scotch homo’). Finally, Graham Coxon’s well-documented love of independent ideals meant that some of his early influences included barely-heard-of indie acts like Talulah Gosh, The Cardiacs and The Pastels.

Spot the Acid House/Britpop artists on the V Festival line-up! BRITPOP LIVES YET!

Consequences: The aftermath of Britpop saw a move away from the ‘Oasis-by-numbers’ everyman music that 1996 had nurtured, and towards more intellectual bands like Radiohead and the Manic Street Preachers. (Not to be elitist, but can you imagine Oasis singing a lyric like “Libraries give us power”?) The commercialisation of alternative music continues to affect perceptions of success; although independent artists are flourishing in the age of the internet, you can’t read NME these days without at least one band bemoaning the ‘death of rock’ based on the lack of singles chart influence that rock bands have. Several long-running music publications, such as Select and Melody Maker, closed after Britpop’s heyday due to falling sales, and even now, indie harbinger NME is reportedly facing crisis for the same reason.
.     As for its legacy, a second wave of Britpop emerged in the mid-00’s, with the Kaiser Chiefs, Franz Ferdinand and the Arctic Monkeys becoming incredibly successful. Attempted Britpop revivalists, Viva Brother, weren’t as lucky last year and ended up being reviled by, well, pretty much everyone, leading to their split earlier this month. The current trend for reunions means that many of the original Britpop bands – Suede, Blur, Pulp, Shed Seven, Dodgy – are riding high on festival line-ups again this year. Yet, even as a Britpop-lover, I’ve found myself wondering if this nostalgia is strangling opportunities for new artists to get themselves heard. How many people are going to festivals this year so they can watch The Inspiral Carpets?
That said, the finest albums from the period continue to do well in ‘Greatest Albums Ever’ lists in magazines, especially Definitely Maybe, Dog Man Star, Parklife and Different Class. Oasis’s seminal sophomore album (What’s The Story) Morning Glory, meanwhile, remains the third biggest-selling album in the UK of all time (though, given Adele’s 21’s glory, for how much longer…).
.     You may not agree with the overt patriotism or the accusations of sexism within the movement. But as someone writing in the 2010s, when soulless dance tracks wind round the singles chart like poison ivy, the thought of a bygone era where people got seriously het up over which rock song would top the chart is a pleasant daydream indeed. It’s only been relived in recent memory by Rage Against The Machine’s Christmas #1 victory over Joe McElderry in 2009, and wasn’t that bloody exciting?

*Tragically, I did just that earlier this month. It involved going up to Hampstead Heath and wandering around for ages, either because Google Maps’ instructions are over-complicated or because I’m a terrible navigator. (You decide.) Incidentally, here is the place in question. It was called The Sausage Machine at the time:

SUEDE PLAYED THEIR FIRST GIG HERE. *fangirlgasm*

Advertisements

7 responses

  1. Caroline Steadman | Reply

    Coldplay = borepop!!! Yes, definitely. Suggest Chris Martin starts eating (red) meat and living it up.
    Repeat my verbal comment Brett Anderson MUCH too good looking for his own good – when born with looks to die for one should decry as much as possible, even if everyone knows it’s true. Narcissists rule in their own narrow world.

  2. I also read John Harris’s book. Quite enjoyable and filled in quite a few blanks for me. I still love so many albums from that era.

  3. Britpop was named after the event, thats why your Mother wouldn’t know what it was.
    For all of us who lived through it, it didn’t seem like an extraordinary time and wasn’t.
    The phrase was coined well after the event by the media to ‘big up’ the era

    1. Actually, Britpop as a term was first applied to the music in May 1994 (about Blur, in long-defunct magazine The Face), and was attributed to the era by The Guardian in September 1994 – not to mention that NME ran a ‘Ten Great Britpop Moments’ feature in January 1995. So the term actually WAS applied to the era during it – even before it had reached its apogee.

  4. Hey love the blog, doing loads of Brit pop/90’s research for my own blog http://www.gwenlove76.wordpress.com. and stumbled across you. Amazing!

  5. That was a really good read. I remember feeling that This is Hardcore was the final end of it all, at the time; most of the other Britpop bands simply ran out of steam, whereas Pulp seemed to be aware that it was ending. They could have repeated Different Class but chose not to, but the next step would not be Britpop any more. Pulp were an odd fit in the Britpop world, they had a vague retro-80s quality to them at a time when Britpop was channelling the 1960s.

    I’d also count Goldie’s relatively unsuccessful Saturnz Return as a Britpop boundary, because there was a concurrent explosion of interest in drum’n’bass that seemed to go through a similar lifecycle – obscurity, a commercial blip, and then decadence and a dearth of new ideas. There was a certain amount of cross-pollination between the two fields. Noel Gallagher worked with the Chemical Brothers, and Bowie’s Earthling was a kind of britpop/Bowie/drum’n’bass hybrid. Ultimately the kind of complex, challenging music that the best drum’n’bass artists put out became commercial poison and the market turned to UK garage instead.

    I’ve always thought of OK Computer and Spiritualised’s Ladies and Gentleman Etc pointed the way to a post-Britpop era of better records but much less mainstream appeal. The female-fronted “Sleeperbloke” bands were another strand but they seem to have died with Britpop. You could probably draw parallels with the music scene in the late 1970s; a batch of interesting new talent appeared that seemed to simultaneously pay tribute to the best of the past whilst pointing to a fantastic new future, but ultimately it just led to yet more slick pop music.

    At the time I remember wondering if Britpop was the last gasp of the white hegemony; the last attempt to produce an exclusively white or white-dominated pop movement that wasn’t overtly racist but nonetheless excluded non-whites. The combination of white person’s rock and nostalgia for a white past, the emphasis on drinking white person’s lager in white pubs – in a white way – seemed like a covert attempt to have one final exclusivel white person’s get-together before the barbarians tore down the gates. There was an almost eggshell-like delicacy to the race issue and Britpop went out of its way to ignore it. No-one wanted to admit it and now people try to forget it.

    1. Thanks! I ended up doing my dissertation on English identity in Britpop, the media, politics and late 20th century literature, and looked briefly at race in Britpop – I’ve C&P’d the paragraph for you if you’re interested:

      “Issues of English dominance also came to the fore with the entanglement of ‘Cool Britannia’ and the taint of empire over discourses surrounding connotations of the Union Jack, a ubiquitous symbol of ‘Cool Britannia’. The movement did, superficially, help to liberate the flag from some of its associations with far-right politics, who had adopted it on account of its imperialist subtext. It was first reappropriated for the cover of Select’s ‘Yanks Go Home!’ edition, and soon became synonymous with the movement – perhaps most notably when Geri Halliwell wore a Union Jack minidress for the Spice Girls’ performance at the 1997 Brit Awards. As a result, it became representative of little more than a kitsch nod to the 1960s. Yet even this had dubious implications: Sheila Whiteley cites the influx of immigrants, their subsequent poverty in concentrated communities and marginalisation by authorities, and Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in 1968 as issues that implied racism in 1960s Britain (268-9). While the editor of Select at the time of the ‘Yanks Go Home!’ issue criticised those who condemned the flag’s use as “dogma from the gurus of right-on”, claiming that “they never could understand that you can be proud to be British without wanting a return to the days of the Raj” (Harrison 67), this overlooked the fact that lingering notions of imperial grandeur still permeated public consciousness. Liam Gallagher, vocalist with Oasis, objected to an early band demo’s cover featuring the flag appearing to be sucked down a plughole, saying “It’s the greatest flag in the world and it’s going down the shitter” (Harris 130). Claims of ‘greatness’, however naively made, seem to go beyond mere ‘Cool Britannia’ jingoism and suggest that imperialism was still engrained in national consciousness.
      Imperialism and exclusivism were incompatible with the increasingly multicultural 1990s England. Mark Leonard claimed in 1997 that “over 3 million people (5.5 per cent) [described] themselves as belonging to a ‘non-white’ group” (52), yet this chunk of the population was barely included in ‘Cool Britannia’ discourse. Whiteley references the fact that lead singer of Echobelly, Sonya Aurora Madan – whose family had emigrated from India when she was two years old – was “known to wear a Union Jack T-shirt with “My Country Too” scrawled across it” (271), suggesting a pointed awareness by these groups that they were excluded from this period of both literal and figurative flag-waving. She goes on to speculate that, troublingly, “by selectively invoking the sounds and sensibility of English popular culture of earlier eras, Britpop managed to erase the troubling reminder that Britain is a multi-ethnic society” (271), concluding that Britpop “constructed a version of Englishness that was rooted in a thoughtless and hedonistic imperialism” (272).”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: