Category Archives: Music

“Patriotism is not enough”: Depictions of Englishness in Late 20th Century Fiction and ‘Cool Britannia’ Rhetoric

Introduction

 

In 2002, English novelist Hilary Mantel opined that “The English sense of identity is beginning to fracture” (104). Following a turbulent century in which the British Empire disintegrated, widespread immigration to the UK saw a newly multicultural society rocked by racial tensions, and the British Parliament devolved powers to independent Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish regional parliaments, a drastic shift in perceptions of national identity was inevitable. Critics, as a result, have widely agreed with Mantel.

Despite this alleged fragmentation, a cultural movement espousing a nationalist agenda emerged during the 1990s. Referred to as ‘Cool Britannia’ in the press from 1996 onwards, it celebrated homegrown successes in the arts. Several of the scenes under the ‘Cool Britannia’ banner accrued distinct genre tags prefixed with ‘Brit-’ to highlight their nationality; ‘Britpop’, the rock music scene of the time, and ‘Britart’, work by the period’s clique of artists that rose to prominence as a result of Charles Saatchi’s ‘Young British Artists’ exhibitions, are two of the most well-known examples. Such was the influence of this movement that New Labour, following their landslide General Election victory in 1997, sought to rebrand Britain on the strength of it.[1]  This initiative sought to reinvent Britain’s image overseas by rejecting outdated, heritage-based signifiers of British identity in favour of a more modern depiction of what Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, described as “a dynamic, self-confident, outward-looking society, proud of its place as a leading partner in Europe and a pivotal nation in the world” (Ward).

However, in spite of the movement’s support for British contributions to popular culture – almost exclusively English contributions, a confusion to be critiqued in due course – contemporary English literature was alienated from the movement. Accordingly, it has largely been overlooked in literary scholarship thus far. Yet the movement’s promotion of an Anglocentric agenda brought discussion of contemporary English identity to the fore, making it relevant to ongoing critical debates about national identity. As critics of both contemporary literature and ‘Cool Britannia’ agree on several key issues – including the aforementioned confusion of ‘Britishness’ with ‘Englishness,’ thereby reinforcing English domination of British identity, and the problem of exclusivity posed by the existence of a homogenous ‘English’ identity – there is clearly scope to fuse these debates and consider the two fields in tandem.

This paper will attempt to bridge the gap between these two areas of scholarship by examining London Fields by Martin Amis and England, England by Julian Barnes alongside key works from the ‘Cool Britannia’ era and contemporary journalism. In doing so, I will compare the ‘Cool Britannia’ depictions of England and English identity with those portrayed in late twentieth century literature. I will argue that literature was alienated from ‘Cool Britannia’ rhetoric because the latter’s proliferation of reductive forms of English identity sought to promote a coherent, reified English identity, whereas Barnes and Amis used postmodern theories and techniques to challenge both established signifiers of Englishness and the notion of national identity itself. These two ideologies were therefore not only disparate, but incompatible.

Neither author was aligned with the ‘Cool Britannia’ movement; indeed, London Fields was published in 1989, long before ‘Cool Britannia’ emerged. Nevertheless, its appropriation as a major inspiration for the Britpop band Blur’s 1994 album Parklife – the first ‘Britpop’ album to push a coherent English agenda into wider public consciousness – proved that Amis’s ideas on national identity were as relevant in the mid-1990s as they were at the tail-end of the 1980s.However, the distance maintained from these ideas allowed them to use satire to exploit and undermine flaws in the traditional English identities, such as those advocated by the movement. These flaws include the lingering taint of Imperialism, the tendency to marginalise communities outside of London, and the tendency to reduce English identity to lists of disparate signifiers.

My argument will be developed over three sections. The first section will establish the ‘Cool Britannia’ depiction of English identity using political, journalistic and musical rhetoric from the 1990s, as I believe they were the three most influential sectors to proliferate the myth of ‘Cool Britannia’. The following sections will focus on outlining the ways in which late 20th century English fiction questions the English identity projected by ‘Cool Britannia’. The second will examine how Martin Amis’s London Fields distorts established tropes of English identity, particularly class-based stereotypes and the centralisation of London, using an unreliable narrator and narrative fragmentation. In this section, Parklife is used to illustrate how the ‘Cool Britannia’ celebration of London, which endorses its centralisation, is at odds with Amis’s vision of the city. In the third section, England, England by Julian Barnes will be scrutinised in tandem with Mark Leonard’s 1997 pamphlet Britain™: Renewing Our Identity, the primary inspiration behind New Labour’s ‘rebranding of Britain’ policy. This section discusses the notion of English identity as a global brand, replication and authenticity, using Jean Baudrillard’s theory of simulacra and simulation to argue that the replication of stereotypes associated with Englishness projects a depiction of English identity with no basis in reality.

It is important to clarify my definitions of ‘Cool Britannia’ and ‘Britpop’ in advance. The Oxford English Dictionary Online defines ‘Cool Britannia’ as a cultural movement associated with the perception of “Britain… as a stylish and fashionable place, esp. (in the late 1990s) as represented by the international success of and interest in contemporary British art, popular music, film, and fashion” (‘Cool Britannia’).[2] While I largely agree with this definition, I will challenge one detail of it. I would suggest that the time span specified be widened to include the early and mid-1990s, as the different scenes that comprised ‘Cool Britannia’ developed at different rates. ‘Britart’, for example, gained popular momentum from 1992 onwards as a result of the ‘Young British Artists’ exhibitions – the very name of which suggests a collective British identity. ‘Britpop’, on the other hand, had originated in the patriotic manifesto originally embraced by the bands Suede and Blur in 1992 as a reaction against the pervasive American ‘grunge’ culture, but did not reach mainstream public consciousness until August 1995.[3] The early 1990s are, therefore, crucial to the accumulation of patriotic sentiment that resulted in the construction of an overarching ‘Cool Britannia’ rhetoric.

While ‘Britpop’ has sometimes been used to describe British pop music generally, it will here describe the 1990s rock music scene that, despite its name suggesting a scene encompassing Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish artists, consisted entirely of English bands. The bands who most vociferously endorsed an Anglocentric ethos in the press and their lyrics were Suede, Pulp, and Blur, whose support for the English cause manifested itself in a trilogy of albums from 1993 to 1995 whose lyrics consistently centred on the minutiae and absurdity of English life. However, the most successful of these was Mancunian quintet Oasis, whose 1995 album (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? is, at the time of writing, the fourth biggest-selling British album in UK history (Lane).

With the exception of Pulp, preeminent Britpop bands invariably featured all-male line-ups. Yet women were not necessarily excluded from the Britpop narrative. Several successful bands, including Sleeper, Echobelly and Elastica, had line-ups that were either female-led or female-dominated. Yet ‘Cool Britannia’ became associated with ‘lad culture’ – a phenomenon fuelled by the popularity of ‘lad’ magazine Loaded magazine, launched in 1994. Sheila Whiteley suggests that:

The media focused more on the regional rivalry between Oasis and Blur, stressing a musical family tree which was rooted in territorial fraternalism. As such, its female bands, Elastica, Echobelly and Sleeper could only be relegated to second-division players if Britpop was to retain its identity. (271)

She also points out that the objectification or overlooking of women in ‘Cool Britannia’ was “partially rescued by the Spice Girls’ girl-power fun feminism” (271), although the band’s divergence from the Britpop sound – that of “guitar-led groups… drawing on specifically British influences… such as the Beatles, mod [and] glam rock” (‘Britpop’) – would arguably prevent them from being considered a Britpop band.

While Minister for Culture, Media and Sport Tessa Jowell’s dismissal of the ‘Cool Britannia’ in 2001 explicitly marked the end of New Labour’s exploitation of it (Laughlin), the movement had fizzled out long before this. John Harris suggests that Britpop had collapsed by late 1997, as Blur had abandoned their support of both New Labour and a pro-English schema, while alternative music journalism began to focus on more musically iconoclastic bands such as Radiohead and Spiritualized (Harris 347-8). Both this and the post-General Election disillusionment felt by the pop cultural press with Tony Blair by 1998 (Harris 358), whose administration had been bound up in ‘Cool Britannia’ discourse by its propaganda efforts, resulted in celebrations of nationality in the press beginning to wane. Following the failure of New Labour projects intended to help ‘rebrand’ Britain, such as the Millennium Dome, Tessa Jowell summarised that Cool Britannia “failed because it did not realise that ‘our national culture is something amorphous, something changing, and something complex’ defined by and open to external influences” (Laughlin) – a statement that, I believe, fairly reflects the limitations of attempting to comprehensively define national identity in a tumultuous period of history.


[1] Prior to the election, the party associated themselves with some of Britpop’s leading figureheads to appeal to younger voters. Examples of this, such as Damon Albarn of Blur meeting with Tony Blair at the Houses of Parliament in 1995 so he could be cajoled into supporting the party in the media (Harris 196-200), are outlined in more detail in John Harris’s comprehensive guide to Britpop, The Last Party: Britpop, Blair and the Demise of English Rock.

[2] This is not necessarily an exhaustive list. At times, national success in sport also contributed to patriotic rhetoric, particularly during the England-based UEFA European Football Championship in 1996.

[3] In 1995, rival Britpop bands Blur and Oasis released singles on the same day in what became known as the ‘Battle of Britpop’. The polemic potential of the bands’ disparate backgrounds, satirised by Pat Kane as “North against South, middle against working class, fops against thugs” (15), sparked a media frenzy.

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Bands of the Week, Round-Up #3

Previous Bands of the Week round-ups: 1, 2
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BOTW has been on hiatus recently – numbers 9-11 were posted in June, number 12 was posted this morning. MLIR is fashionably unpredictable like that (apart from appearing to be predictable by starting sentences with acronyms, FYI). With no further delay, here are the last four Chosen Ones…
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Band of the Week, #9: Psycosis/Neutral Bling Hotel.
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Do you enjoy Neutral Milk Hotel’s modern classic ‘In The Aeroplane Over The Sea’? Then prepare to be thrilled or disgusted by the hip-hop reworking of it by video game producer and mash-up master Psycosis, billed as Neutral Bling Hotel on ‘In My G4 Over Da Sea’. Once you’ve got over the novelty, it actually works with and builds on the original to surprising effect. You can find the full album on his Band Camp website, and download it for however much you want.
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Bandcamp

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Band of the Week, #10: The Boo

With Green Day’s forthcoming album ‘Uno’ due out later this month, it seems fitting to introduce Billie Joe Armstrong’s family band, The Boo. Green Day haters, don’t run – it sounds far more like 60s-flavoured GD side project Foxboro Hot Tubs than anything on ‘American Idiot’.

With wife Adie on vocals, sons Joey on drums and Jakob on guitar, and Armstrong commandeering the bass, their economical, lo-fi punk channels a playful, female-vocalled version of The Ramones. Unfortunately, only a handful of their EPs have graced the buying public, so probably not coming to a record store near you.

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Other tracks on YouTube:
Wallflower, I Want Revenge, Little Silent Boy

Band of the Week, #11: Trailer Trash Tracys

The name conjures up visions of rednecks peddling a tame ‘n’ terrible brand of Kings of Leon/diluted Black Keys guitar music, but it’s really a London quartet dabbling with ethereal, dreamy-voiced shoegaze. Debut album ‘Ester’, released in January to a slew of good reviews, is full of gorgeously strung-out gems with the full reverb-drenched works. Singles You Wish You Were Red, Candy Girl and Strangling Good Guys, deserve to be lavished upon your ears immediately.


Website, Spotify, Facebook, Wikipedia, Record company page

Band of the Week, #12: The Waves of Fury.

Most appositely described as a Motown-tinged Jesus & Mary Chain (thanks Paul Lester), they’ve somehow managed to not only mash but mesh together the splenetic, fuzzy guitars and anguished howl of East Kilbride’s finest with the most celebratory horn section heard on a record for… well, a while. Their debut album, ‘Thirst’, is due out on October 29th.


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Website, Spotify, Facebook, Soundcloud (unused as of now, but could be useful in the future), Twitter (barely used), Record company page

Bands of the Week, Round-Up #2

.     The beginning of a new month now signals one thing and one thing only in MLIR Land, and that’s the compilation of a Bands of the Week round-up. Whilst this mostly requires copy ‘n’ pasting, it also takes supreme effort to hunt down pictures and finding the URLs of every website they’ve ever set up across the web –  With no further ado, here are the latest four bands I found myself listening to, getting excited about, and promoting as a Band of the Week during May (and, technically, June)…

Band of the Week, #5: These Kings.


Birmingham-based band These Kings emailed me out of the blue, asking if I’d listen to their single, ‘Home’, and its B-side ‘There’s A Light In That Pile Of Snow‘. Although originally worried about how I’d respond to them if it wasn’t great, my pessimism was misplaced. In its four-and-a-half minutes, the A-side builds from a skeletal drumstick solo to a soaring soundscape reminiscent of Bon Iver’s ‘Perth‘, before adding vocals and a show-stealing bassline. Really rather good – and with them supporting big local bands, recording in the studio right now and having a debut song this promising, the rest of the blogosphere will soon be singing their praises too.

Twitter, YouTubeBand Camp, SoundCloud


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Band of the Week, #6: The Yellow Melodies.

A Spanish band of 16 years who really deserve more success than they’ve had thus far. Their trippy cover of The Auteurs’ ‘Showgirl‘ from 2000’s High put them on my radar 18 months ago, as it jazzes up the original with violins, lo-fi production and a gorgeously spidery guitar part on 1:48 – all to devastating effect. Their newest EP, ‘How Television Personalities Learned To Love‘, was released last month and has more of a synth influence (on ‘Look Back In Anger’, my favourite from it, and ’14th Floor’) than their usual material; as with all their catalogue, it’s utterly endearing.

Website (parts of it look like they’re solely in Spanish, but scroll down for an English translation), Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, BandCamp, Spotify, Wikipedia


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Band of the Week, #7: PINS.

Enigmatic, dramatic, shadowy… but enough about the monochrome ‘Eleventh Hour’ video. PINS are a quartet of Mancunian females whose eerie, fuzz-soaked debut single got music bloggers salivating back in April. Second song ‘Shoot You‘ is more upbeat, but retains everything that makes ‘Eleventh Hour’ so marvellous. Given the strength of both singles, their debut album should be eagerly awaited by any self-respecting fan of new music.

Website, Twitter, YouTube, SoundCloud



Band of the Week, #8: Shinies.

Imagine Yuck mixed with a between-his-first-two-albums Wavves, and you’ve basically summed up the sound of Shinies, another lo-fi Mancunian band who are yet to release a full album. Beneath an enormous dollop of fuzz, though, are some chaotically gorgeous tunes – as you’d expect from music that’s the love-child of noise-pop and shoegaze. My favourite of their three songs thus far is ‘Spent Youth‘, but ‘Shola‘ and ‘Pillow Talk‘ are also pretty good.

Twitter, Facebook, BandCamp, SoundCloud

You May Not Like Justin Bieber, But He’s Not The Antichrist

.     Isn’t it great how social networking sites and blogs give platforms to anyone and everyone’s opinion? It’s forced people to educate themselves into having an opinion – or, at least, reading someone else’s opinion to carry it off as your own. The problem here lies in the latter, as people have increasingly ceased to formulate their own opinion, instead jumping on righteously outraged bandwagons left, right and centre. Twitter especially boasts something of a gang mentality against certain singers, who receive intense amounts of adoration from fan girls, but also equal measures of ire from their detractors.
.     While I’m not a fan of Justin Bieber’s music, I feel that as the anti-Bieber brigade becomes increasingly rabid/sadistic, it becomes more akin to bullying, which is apparently justified because Bieber is rich, famous, has millions of pubescent girls fawning over him, and spawns deeply unimaginative pop music. These are not reasons that should excuse or justify bullying. Universal revulsion should be reserved for cases where justice needs to be brought against horrific acts that contravene others’ human rights. You’d be forgiven for forgetting, amid all the articles besmirching him, that Bieber isn’t an operator of mass genocide, a serial rapist or the head of a brutal sex-trafficking ring – he’s a slightly bland, seemingly undereducated pop star. (And no, much as you’d like to exaggerate, listening to ‘Baby’ doesn’t actually violate your human rights.)
.     Yes, it’s a shame that more creative music is routinely ignored by radio stations, music television stations and large swathes of the record-buying public. Yes, it’s almost as worrying that millions of teenage and tweenage girls deify a young man who, living his entire life in the spotlight and under the control of his record company’s management, probably has his entire image, sense of self and interview answers constructed by other people, and definitely has aired dubious views on abortion following rape – though it’s been stated that these comments were taken out of context. Yes, it’s just plain annoying when his fans, the self-styled ‘Beliebers’, make him trend daily on Twitter – and verges on chilling when they consider his cold to be more important than the death of a child with leukaemia.
.     But let’s get things in perspective here. If frenzied loathing Bieber has elicited from the public were instead used to rally against serious human rights abuses, what damage could be done there? Are the repetitive, soulless lyrics of “Baby, baby, baby, oh” (…because “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah” is so much more poetic…) really more pressing an issue than the fact that homosexual activities in 8 holiday-worthy Caribbean nations are still punishable by prison sentences of over 10 years (in Barbados, it entails life imprisonment), or the fact that rape victims in the US army – where an alleged 19,000 incidents of rape are recorded annually – are denied abortions? Is it, indeed, not more worrying that Bieber, among others, has been the victim of a death hoax which, apart from being desperately irresponsible, is upsetting to the star, friends, family and fans, and downright cruel?
.     Evidently not. The crime that tops all crimes these days is writing a pop song without lyrical nous or creative orchestration. Rebecca Black’s ‘Friday’ became a joke and its singer a figure of fun last March. Not a problem – the video to ‘Friday’ was absurd, unintentionally parodic and amusing as a result. What was unacceptable was the way that the responses to its 13-year-old chanteuse – who didn’t even write the song, conceive the video or its non-sequiturs, or choose to Autotune her voice into oblivion – became more poisonous and personal as its YouTube views spiralled into the millions. The most vicious trolls told her to cut herself and “get an eating disorder so [she]’ll be pretty” [revealed here]. Less extreme, but very common, responses were that she was smug for smiling during the video and was ugly, with many responses taking a violent tone. Surely it’s infinitely more disturbing that adults judged – and criticised – how a 13-year-old girl looked on a sexualised scale, or were threatening violence towards her for enjoying an experience her parents had paid for her to have, than the fact the lyrics and video were stupid? So many people were casually saying they’d like to punch her that others did too; as it became normalised, it became acceptable. With bullying a more pressing issue than ever, now cyber-bullying has the power to attack behind closed doors, it seems irresponsible to promote and normalise it.
.     You don’t have to like rubbish pop music. By all means, dislike it. Dislike what it stands for, dislike the AutoTune, dislike the lyrics, generic beats and the artist’s management-constructed, conservative interview answers. But know that jumping on an anti-artist bandwagon is often the ultimate hypocrisy – by constantly squawking about how bland and boring Justin Bieber is, does that not make you bland and boring as well? More importantly, at the end of the day, Bieber’s music might be crap, but he’s not a woman-beater who wallows in his own martyrdom and makes young girls think that domestic violence is OK. The anti-Chris Brown bandwagon, at least, has something important to say.

Eurovision Liveblog

Click Here

Click the link above to go to the Modern Life Is Rubbish Eurovision Liveblog. I can’t work out how to embed it in this post, but if you click on the link that’ll bring it up.

Bands of the Week, Round-Up #1

.     There are several excellent things about becoming a fan of unknown bands. One is that they often give away songs for free, and their EPs are usually available for only a few pounds from their website (or, in many of the cases here, Band Camp websites); another is that they’re usually incredibly friendly and grateful online. Most importantly, it proves once and for all that there is good music being produced at the moment, behind the dirgey dubstep and bland ballads in the charts.
.     Inspired by these factors, I’ve recently started doing a ‘Band of the Week’ feature on my Facebook page. This mainly constitutes finding brand new bands – be it through Spotify, the Guardian’s ‘New Band of the Day’ feature (though I try not to pilfer from it too much), or through gigs – and promoting them through writing a short paragraph and linking people to their music via YouTube. Here are the four bands of the week so far with the original paragraphs largely unchanged. Hopefully you’ll enjoy them as much as I do…
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Band of the Week, #1: Friends. 

Brought together over a bedbug infestation, this quintet started a band whose music is, in their own words, “One moment… indie-pop, the next… mutant funk, then disco”. The hype around them is such that they’ve even got their own section on acid-tongued, ttly ironik website/online bitchfest Hipster Runoff, most famous for obsessively slating Lana Del Rey before it was popular.  Their first album, Manifest!, is released on June 4th by Rough Trade.

Website, Facebook, YouTube, Wikipedia

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Band of the Week, #2: The Hall Of Mirrors.

Named The Guardian’s 1254th Band of the Day last month, they boast a haunting Gothic/Victorian sound by way of 60s pop production, chiming piano parts and the delicate vocals of Jessica Winter. The absolutely stunning ‘Love Child’ from their EP of the same name is available as a free download from their website.

Website, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Band Camp


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Band of the Week, #3: Summer Heart.

Swedish pop music is never a bad thing, and Summer Heart – the alias of David Alexander – only strengthens that view. He’s currently one of the ’emerging artists’ on the We Are Hunted app on Spotify (which, if you have Spotify and like obscure music, you should definitely get). ‘Please Stay’ is my favourite example of his delightful, summery chillwave, best listened to with bass-heavy headphones and a gorgeous sunset on view.

Website, Twitter, Facebook, Band Camp, Spotify

 
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Band of the Week, #4: Shade of Red. 

(Pint-sized drummer not in shot.)

Graham Coxon’s support act when he played Falmouth on April 30th, this Cornish quintet are young but already utterly assured in their craft, and wrong-footed anyone in the crowd who thought they looked like One Direction with instruments. (Guilty as charged.) Boasting an organist/melodica-ist, a drummer whose age may not have yet reached double figures, and originality beyond their years, they could be the best artists to come out of Cornwall since Aphex Twin.

Website, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Band Camp

10 Ways To Maintain A Music Obsession On A Budget

.            If, like me, you’re a poor student but love music, it’s sometimes difficult to balance the books when on one hand you need something to make your undercooked pasta palatable, but on the other really need Graham Coxon’s new album. You could go and illegally download it all, but that could hypothetically get you in a lot of trouble, plus by stealing from your favourite artists you’re compromising your position as a true music fan. (Puts away soapbox.) Fortunately, there are ways around a music obsession that are either free or fairly cheap and, best of all, 100% legal. Some, like using free websites to listen to music or buying albums second-hand, are pretty obvious; others, like downloading free record company samplers or signing up to mailing lists, may not have occurred to you.

I couldn't have made this if I'd spent your average HMV-priced £12.99 on all of them. (photo from April 2011)

Free Listening
1. Making use of
Spotify, YouTube, SoundCloud etc. This mostly depends on your ethics as a listener. If you believe that the artist should get the best deal, Spotify is probably not for you; its dodgy financial scheme for the artists is well documented, with some estimates saying that it takes 90,000 plays for an artist to earn £8 from it. However, through listening to the thousands of albums on there, you may discover an obscure artist, love them and decide to buy their entire back catalogue, every piece of merchandise they’ve ever made and tickets to every leg of their autumn university tour, which’ll earn them a lot more than £8… well, before the taxman and record companies get to it, anyway. Should you decide to subscribe, then Spotify is way better value  and cheaper per month than Netflix – you pay for the privilege of bonus tracks, (some) brand new albums, listening to songs more than five times and, most importantly, not having to hear those unbearable ‘sign up to vote!’ adverts every three songs. Money well spent.

2.    Early streaming of albums on the Guardian, NME, Soundcloud etc. Patience is a virtue that has all but disappeared in the Internet age, especially when it comes to entertainment. Victims of leaked albums recently include the Queen of Pop, Madonna, and indie heavyweight Jack White. To satiate fans’ eagerness to hear new material, some artists grant websites permission to stream their new albums – the Guardian (Graham Coxon) and NME (Orbital) springing to mind in particular. Others, like Santigold, ally themselves with no particular media outlet and prefer to upload it to Soundcloud for fans to listen to [here]. It’s a great way not only to evade the moral guilt of ripping artists off, but also to check whether their new material is worth buying. After all, you may not be supporting them financially, but a) you’re on a budget, and b) they should’ve made a better album. Think of all those people who’d have saved money, time and effort if Soundcloud had existed in 1975 and Lou Reed had put Metal Machine Music on it.

Owning
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Free (legal) owning: Signing up to artists’ mailing lists for free tracks. Artists always want you to be on their mailing list so they can spam you silly with details of new releases, tours and other money-spinners. One of their favourite ways of doing this is to promise free tracks to those that sign up. With the likes of Marina and the Diamonds and Beady Eye sending their mailing list new tracks ahead of their physical/iTunes release, and the Pixies rewarding their mailing list with a free live EP, it’s a great way not only to get up to date on their newest tracks, but find out things before anyone else courtesy of the spam. Although it’s more SUPER USEFUL INFORMATION than spam if you’re a fan.

4.     Free (legal) owning: Downloading free record company samplers. Amazon’s spam emails turned out to be the useful ones as far as instructing me in this goes. Turns out that loads of independent labels release free sampler albums through Amazon – a sampler album basically being a compilation album of songs by bands on their roster. Although the majority of these are by obscure artists (Chadwick Stokes, anyone?), some of the names are either established stars, such as the Arctic Monkeys on the Domino sampler, or names you’ll hear bandied about on Pitchfork (Anna Calvi, The Kills, Ladytron). My favourite samplers to date have been the Nettwerk and Domino samplers. Admittedly there aren’t many decent-looking ones around at the moment, unless you love worship music or award-winning classical stuff, but the Mr Bongo one sounds promising and could open you up to the work of a record label you’d never have heard of otherwise.

5. Free (legal) owning: iTunes’ free Song of the Week. In between helping to beat up physical music formats and monopolise the download market, iTunes has time to feature a Song of the Week for free – only free for a week, mind you. Bands who’ve had this vital exposure include Cage the Elephant (‘Around My Head’), Jen’s favourite duo Best Coast (‘Boyfriend’), and them wot done the original version of ‘Heartbeats’, The Knife (‘We Share Our Mothers’ Health’). Occasionally featured songs have been known to snowball in popularity, with ex-Song of the Week ‘Fireflies’ by Owl City going on to top the chart in seven different countries, including both the UK and USA. So it’s not only great for slowly boosting your music library, but you could own a sleeper hit for free, months before it gets boosted to the lofty heights of £0.99.

6.    Free (legal) owning: self-leaking – bands releasing their albums for free through newspapers or on their website. Radiohead started the trend for bizarre marketing strategies with the ‘pay what you want’ scheme for seventh studio album In Rainbows. Although it’s estimated a third of fans paid nothing, the average price paid for the download version in the three-month ‘pay what you want’ window was £3.88, and the pre-order sales of the physical copy apparently outstripped the total sales figures for predecessor Hail to the Thief – so it’s not even ripping off the band. Prince altered the strategy, instead releasing 2007 album Planet Earth through The Mail on Sunday, sparking artists including Jen’s serial not-even-guilty pleasure McFly and Prince again (this time with the Daily Mirror) to follow in his footsteps with a pared-down edition of Radio:active and 20TEN respectively. Even if it means buying a really crap newspaper, free music! And you can draw comedy facial hair/eyebrows/tattoos on David Cameron, which is always a bonus in my opinion.

7. Free (legal) owning: For deluxe albums or boxsets, entering Superdeluxeedition’s competitions to win the latest remastered or deluxe editions of classic albums. If you, like me, prefer having a tangible copy of an album as opposed to owning it in MP3 format, you can still get those for free without leaving your chair… maybe. Just enter one of Superdeluxeedition’s frequent competitions and you could be a winner. Recent competitions have had prizes of David Bowie, The Jesus & Mary Chain, Suede and Pink Floyd’s remastered/deluxe albums for lucky winners. All that’s usually required for entry is to follow them on Facebook or Twitter and answer a question or retweet. Unlike those famous ‘YOU ARE THE 10,000TH VISITOR!! CLICK HERE TO RECLAIM YOUR PRIZE OF LANA DEL REY BALANCING NAKED UPON A PINK UNICORN!!’ adverts on dubious websites, you will actually get your prize if you’re a winner.

8. Cheap owning: Utilise any of the following: Amazon, eBay, charity shops, HMV’s famous 2 for £10 sales… I don’t think this needs any explanation… If you’re looking for second-hand CD singles or cassettes, check the charity shops in your area rigorously before committing to the £2.50 rip-offs on Amazon or eBay – charity shops will frequently be hiding these gems behind the copies of Sugababes’ Three album, which seems to be the most popular album on charity shop shelves from several years’ experience. Incidentally, if you want a copy of Suede’s eponymous debut album on cassette, let me know and I can get one for you for 50p from Acorn Records in Truro. I just want it to go to a good home, ok? Ok??

Live Music
9.
Free gigs in pubs, bars and cafes. Bands tour on what is known as the ‘pub circuit’ for good reason – it involves lots of pubs. If you’re just going for a quiet drink on a Saturday evening, bands are a major nuisance, but if you’re missing your live fix while also missing a positive bank balance, this’ll have to do. You probably won’t find the next Bowie in your local offy, but you might find a decent enough singer. It’s slightly friendlier than camping outside your local music festival, straining to hear what Morrissey’s singing over the crowd screaming (a similarly free way to listen to gigs), and you may even make friends with the drunk, slightly sweaty bloke next to you in the Van Halen t-shirt!

10. Befriend musicians, or encourage your friends to start a band. Free entry to all gigs with none of the cost of instruments, and an inimitable chat-up line – “I’m with the band”. Groupies, get in line…

Mixed Doubles: A Guide to Indiedom’s Best Current Boy/Girl Duos

[Edited version published on Flex Online, here]

            Band trends come and go. Sometimes all the uber-hyped bands in NME will look like they haven’t showered since 1998 and borrowed their clothes/hairstyles from tramps, sometimes they’ll all have endorsed a particular brand of theatrical, futuristic weirdness (hey MGMT, Klaxons and Empire of the Sun), and sometimes you won’t be able to move for all the instrument-toting Scottish band members in a room (Belle & Sebastian, Camera Obscura). The 2010s have thus far chiefly nurtured a batch of upsettingly photogenic boy/girl duos, more slick than The White Stripes but less sickly than Sonny and Cher. Admittedly, the latter’s not saying much – the cake Bruce Bogtrotter ate in Matilda was less sickly than them.

.     While the 10 acts featured all have similarities among themselves, they’ve all got differences enough to make them worthy of inclusion here. Many have released or are releasing albums in 2012, and those who haven’t/aren’t released albums last year. Despite this, none have really ‘crossed over’ yet, with She & Him the nearest to doing so in terms of chart success. However, many critics consider Best Coast, Beach House and Sleigh Bells among the crème de la crème of alternative music. Perhaps it’s time to get them to cross over; with your help, maybe it could happen! Maybe we could kickstart a musical revolution, dethroning Olly Murs and Rihanna in the process! Like how Rage Against The Machine cockblocked Joe McElderry from getting together with the #1 Christmas slot in 2009!! …Err, sorry, got carried away there. Onto the guide. In no particular order:


Best Coast

Who?: Bethany Cosentino (vocalist, guitarist), Bobb Bruno (bassist)

Sounds like: The Beach Boys-meets-The Shangri La’s, if they’d both been lo-fi and fronted by a girl who loves cannabis and cats. First single from their second album, ‘The Only Place’, has country influences as well and drops the lo-fi.

Back catalogue: Make You Mine EP (2010), Crazy For You (2010), The Only Place (due 14th May 2012)

Couple?: Nope, she’s dating Wavves’s Nathan Williams. Plus BB was formerly her babysitter, which might make a relationship awkward. Though not as awkward as Woody Allen’s marriage.

USP: I’ve never been to California, but they make it sound sunnier and more appealing than The Beach Boys. Bethany Cosentino’s voice is stronger than many of her rivals’, plus they absolutely make the California sound their own.

ULP [Unique Lame Point]: I’d be hard-pressed to find any aspect of them lame, personally, but their ‘angsty, obsessive teen girl’ lyrics have seen them dubbed ‘clingy-core’ by LastFM users. Not necessarily in an endearing way.

The critics say: “Musically, the idea is to recreate the Beach Boys’ aura 50 years later. Thematically, it’s to prove that she’s a postmodern girl who knows better. The catch is that through all her generalizations it soon becomes clear that she needs that guy much more than a postmodern girl is supposed to.” – Robert Christgau

Jen says: After Suede and Blur, they’re probably my favourite band. Crazy For You was virtually perfect; languid, summery and incessantly catchy. I also love the new single, which progresses their old sound without losing any of the warmth or charm. They’re contemporary canon for any self-respecting surf-pop/alt-pop fan.


Tennis


Who?: Alaina Moore (vocalist, sometime keyboardist), Patrick Riley (guitarist)

Sounds like:
A less languid, cleaner-sounding, East-Coast-based Best Coast who’ve replaced marijuana and errant males with nautical adventures.

Back catalogue:
Cape Dory (2011), Young & Old (2012)

Couple?:
Yep, married and all.

USP:
The storyline behind their first album, of selling up and living on a sailing boat for the best part of a year, informs their first album, while the novelty of that story caught the internet’s attention and brought them to semi-prominence online.

ULP [Unique Lame Point]:
The overt saccharine-ness can grow tiring, certain tracks are indistinctive and immemorable, and while they’re very nice, they’re a bit uninspiring.

The critics say:
“Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley [have] a real knack for breezy, deceptively simple beach-pop that could get lodged in your head and inspire your own seafaring daydreams. Or at least make you jealous.” – Pitchfork

Jen says:
Love the first album, especially tracks ‘Take Me Somewhere’, ‘Marathon’ and ‘Seafaring’, but the Patrick-Carney-from-The-Black-Keys-produced new album is – eek – eminently forgettable. Utterly inoffensive, but forgettable. If Best Coast personify summer, Tennis are more of a breezy spring day.


Cults

Who?: Madeline Follin (vocalist), Brian Oblivion* (guitarist, backing vocalist) [*Strangely enough, not his real name – which is Ryan Mattos.]

Sounds like: Jangly pop with the odd UFO-esque synth thrown in. Don’t let the fact that they’re signed to Lily Allen’s label put you off.

Back catalogue: Cults (2011)

Couple?: Yes.

USP: There’s a sense of eeriness underneath the cheeriness. It’s the lyrics; though dealing with the girl-group standard theme of love and break-ups, they include ghoulish angles on the subject such as break-ups resulting from divine retribution (‘The Curse’), comparing falling in love to kidnapping (‘Abducted’) and neuroticism induced by love (‘You Know What I Mean’). Scary.

ULP [Unique Lame Point]: Follin’s voice is so girly that, like a 7-year-old playing recorder in a school concert, it may drive you mad after the first five endearing minutes.

The critics say: “Unsettling and charming is a hard combination to pull off, but Cults have managed just fine.” – The Guardian

Jen says: Not the best of the bunch, but enjoyable songs nonetheless and good enough to get me looking out for news of future records of theirs. And, while this is really lame as a point of appreciation, I love the action shot they’ve used as a front cover for their album. Couldn’t be more Tumblr-worthy if it tried, though.

 


Big Deal

Who?: Alice Costelloe (vocalist, guitarist), Kacey Underwood (guitarist, backing vocalist)

Sounds like: Fey acoustic stuff, just like- oh wait! Like a margarita, it has a bit of a kick to it after the pleasant first taste. Unlike a margarita, the kick livens things up for the better, and doesn’t taste of urine. (I’ve only ever tried one margarita, but that’s what the aftertaste was like. Tonbridge Wetherspoons – sort it out.)

Back catalogue: Lights Out (2011)

Couple?: No-one’s really sure… Except them, presumably.

USP: The angst is far more mature and thoughtful than your average teen-years-riffing band. (Yeah, you, Summer Camp.) They also surprise, at times; the acoustic-backed opening of ‘Chair’ is sweet, but nothing to write home about, and then the electric guitar kicks in. Changing tack or adding instruments is in itself nothing new, but they seem so unassuming, almost amateur, at first listen that it genuinely is unexpected.

ULP [Unique Lame Point]: If your teenage kicks were hard to beat, you’ll have difficulty empathising with the pains of adolescence. Even if they’re quite rational pains in comparison with their peers. (Still looking at you, Summer Camp.) Additionally, the non-uriney kick may not be enough to save them from floundering in relative blandness. I mean, they’re not exactly M.I.A., are they?

The critics say: “Big Deal… could be mistaken for just another wimpy acoustic band at first glance: their debut has plenty of fragile guitars and schoolgirl subject matter. But their songs are more grungy than gooey: super lo-fi recordings that sound equal parts Sonic Youth and The Moldy Peaches.” – NME

Jen says: From seeing them at Reading, having never heard of them before: “[E]asy on the ear, wispy on the eye and totally inoffensive, but probably not going to set the world alight.” [link to requisite article]




Summer Camp

 

Who?: Elizabeth Sankey (vocalist and hilarious blogger – her Dawson’s Creek episode guides are worth a peek even if you’ve never come within 10 feet of a boxset of it in HMV), Jeremy Warmsley (vocals, guitarist)

Sounds like: 60s girl bands meets 80s synths meets John Hughes films. I think that’s a paraphrase of something from their website, but that’s pretty appropriate as far as descriptions go.

Back catalogue: Young EP (2010), Welcome To Condale (2011) [review here]. They’ve said to crowds on their tour that an EP is forthcoming later this year; the songs they’ve showcased in their live set put more of an emphasis on bass-heavy, dance-lite background music.

Couple?: Yes.

USP: They’re pretty much the only band on this list you could play (certain tracks by) in a club and get away with it. The divergence of styles they’ve emulated both between their first EP and full album, along with those presented on the album itself, range from bouncy no-holds-barred pop to anthems that touch on punk-pop to stonkingly atmospheric chillwave floorfillers. And that’s within three tracks. Pitchfork decried this as messy, but there’s enough of a unifying sound to hold it together while also allowing them to explore different sounds; none of the aforementioned artists can be said to have done the same.

ULP [Unique Lame Point]: If you got bored of 80s-riffing artists a few years ago when it was all the rage, you’ll probably hate this. Some tunes take longer than others to get stuck in your head, and the lyrics are very teen-angst.

The critics say: “A sincere, wryly appealing turning point in the art of romanticised retrospection.” – BBC Music

Jen says: I love them, as evidenced by me travelling 400 miles from Falmouth to Norwich to see one of their gigs. They’re catchy as hell, fun and simultaneously sweet and sour. Also, ‘Veronica Sawyer’ from their EP is the ultimate ‘feeling existential at a party’ anthem. Fact.


 


Beach House

Who?: Victoria Legrand (vocalist, organist), Alex Scully (multi-instrumentalist)

Sounds like: Dream-pop, which here is the homo sapiens sapiens to shoegaze’s apes – if the apes mated with organs, Fleetwood Mac, Mazzy Star and French singers. Legrand’s voice varies from softly mellifluous on their first two albums to powerfully husky on Teen Dream; it’s frequently been compared to Nico (of Velvet Underground and Nico fame)’s vocals.

Back catalogue: Beach House (2006), Devotion (2008), Teen Dream (2010), Bloom (due 15th May 2012)

Couple?: No.

USP: They’re easily more sonically sophisticated than their competitors. Teen Dream is lushly orchestrated and mixed, making them more a ‘credible’ prospect to the SRS MUSIC LOVER WHO LIKES GRIMES* AND OTHER SRS ARTISTS WHO YOU’VE NEVER HEARD OF. (*Up-and-coming, makes-the-music-press-salivate female artist who uses international sounds, including throat singing, to make rather good, interesting music. Possible inheritor to Bjork’s throne.)

ULP [Unique Lame Point]: Because it favours craft over catchiness, those who prefer short, snappy songs will be disappointed. Basically, if you love punk/rock, you’ll probably find this really boring.

The critics say: “Brilliantly dreamy without being pretentious” – HearYa.com

Jen says: The construction is strangely wintry, to continue the ‘bands = seasons’ theme, but Legrand’s voice is warm and, sod it, a lot more pleasant than Nico’s.

Sleigh Bells

 

Who?: Alexis Krauss (vocals), Derek E. Miller (guitar)

Sounds like: The music that Veronica Sawyer from Heathers* or A from Easy A** would make if she were a cheerleader and listened to a combination of cock rock, hair metal, experimental noise pop and shoegaze. (*Late 80s black teen comedy that’s basically a murder-heavy prototype of Mean Girls. **2010 teen film about an outcast girl who pretends she’s promiscuous, partly to evade spending time with her friend’s weird family and partly to make uncool men seem cooler, which inadvertently blows up and ruins her reputation. ***You should watch both of these films.)

Back catalogue: Sleigh Bells EP (2009), Treats (2010), Reign Of Terror (2012)

Couple?: No.

USP: They’ve got, like, hair metal influences! Dude! *does Gene Simmons impersonation* As a result, THEIR NEW STUFF IS LOUDER THAN ANYTHING ELSE HERE AND THEREFORE THEY ARE TOTES RAWK GAWDS. PUMP UP THE VOLUME. (I DON’T KNOW WHY I’M SHOUTING.)

ULP [Unique Lame Point]: If you’re not into LOUD MUSIC you may find this abrasive, possibly even obnoxious. They’re so much like an in-your-face alt-loving cheerleader on their current album that you may find yourself wondering if you’re in an American high school. (Not necessarily a criticism – I like it – but the more sensitive among you may not.)

The critics say: “Guitarist Derek Miller and vocalist Alexis Krauss are the kind of music geeks who had their formative-crush experiences soundtracked to My Bloody Valentine and Slayer records.” – Rolling Stone

Jen says: I thought Treats was ok, but hugely overhyped and a wee bit dull, if I’m honest. Reign of Terror is far more solid, memorable and peppy for me. As I said, I like the confrontationalness (which is now a word) of it, but will it wear thin after several more listens? Rhetorical question time.


 


Slow Club

 

Who?: Rebecca Taylor (vocals, guitar, percussion), Charles Watson (vocals, guitar)

Sounds like: If Juno had been made several years later, they would’ve featured emphatically on its soundtrack – softly-sung acoustic songs with cutesy-but-perceptive/quirky lyrics. Sort of like a 2-person, less saccharine version of Noah and the Whale.

Back catalogue: Let’s Fall Back In Love EP (2008), Yeah So (2009), Christmas, Thanks For Nothing EP (2009), Paradise (2011)

Couple?: Nope, it’s been emphatically denied by Rebecca.

USP: Latest album Paradise is a powerful fusion of Beach House-esque atmosphere and their debut’s She & Him-esque understated folkiness, but they’re darker than the latter and lighter than the former. NME dubbed Taylor the ‘funniest woman in indie’ in a review of their live show, which adds further personality to a live show which has been critically praised for its ramshackle, jokey quality (in their early days, they used to start gigs in the middle of the audience and end up on the street – which sounds reminiscent of the Pixies’ gig in-jokes like playing their set lists in alphabetical order).

ULP [Unique Lame Point]: Although they bring their own mark to the genre, they’re still in many ways just another folky, cutesy act to add to an already saturated market.

The critics say: “Slow Club display remarkable skill in tugging at heartstrings, but they do it without being particularly manipulative or overly saccharine.” – Pitchfork

Jen says: I advise starting with Yeah So before moving on to Paradise. It’s quite easy to let the latter wash over you without giving it the respect it deserves; Yeah So won’t blow you away, but it’s a more instantly likable album, which then paves the way for you to appreciate Paradise’s more subtle charms. It’s kind of like putting primer on before eyeshadow. You can put eyeshadow on without primer and be fine, but it looks better with the primer. (And here endeth the somewhat abstract simile.)

 
 


She & Him

 

Who?: Zooey Deschanel (vocalist and Hollywood indie pin-up), M Ward (guitar)

Sounds like: If the girl in 500 Days of Summer had had a band then this is what it’d sound li- oh, wait. Basically, a less lyrically interesting, more syrupy country version of Slow Club.

Back catalogue: Volume One (2008), Volume Two (2010), A Very She & Him Christmas (2011)

Couple?: Nope, though she’s in the process of divorcing Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, so who knows if an interband relationship may spring up? (Sorry, that’s my two years’ worth of reading Heat magazine experience in the throes of adolescence coming through.)

USP: Their lead singer’s notoriety on the celebrity scene has brought them the closest act on the list to crossing over into the mainstream. Their second album got to #6 in the Billboard 200, so you could argue they have crossed over already. They’re clearly striking a chord with listeners, and while the US charts are usually a ‘lowest common denominator’ yardstick, She & Him scaling the heights in charts usually filled with Rihanna’s tiresome, attention-starved, idiotic nymphomaniac act is a joyous moment indeed for purveyors of ‘proper music’. #hipsterrant

ULP [Unique Lame Point]: They’re pretty bland, and sometimes verge into the ‘sugary to the point of cloying’ territory. There’s a reason you feel ill if you eat too much sugar, and that’s because it’s sickly. If you don’t like Deschanel’s big-eyed actress schtick, you’re probably not going to find much to enjoy here.

The critics say: “If Deschanel’s occasionally off-putting intonation isn’t too much for you, this sweet romp through a warm, largely carefree universe should nestle naturally into your listening rotation.” – Now Toronto

Jen says: Like Ed Sheeran, they walk the line between ‘pleasant, fluffy background music’ and ‘plain boring’ that has crossed into ‘liked by the vaguely musically aware, and thus derided by THE SRS MUSIC LOVER WHO LOVES GRIMES AND OTHER SRS ARTISTS WHO YOU’VE NEVER HEARD OF’ territory. Affable, but being brutally honest, I’d rather watch 500 Days of Summer again and cry at the Expectations/Reality scene instead. Again. For about the sixth time.


Blood Red Shoes

 

Who?: Laura-Mary Carter (vocals, guitar), Steven Ansell (vocals, drums)

Sounds like: “What shall we bring back into vogue? Hmm, I know, Nirvana loud-quiet rock dynamics and lots of them!”

Back catalogue: Box Of Secrets (2008), Fire Like This (2010), In Time To Voices (2012)

Couple?: Nothing seems to suggest they are, so I’ll go with ‘no’.

USP: The most straight-up rock band of the lot. Sure, Sleigh Bells muck around with heavy metal influences to be kind of ironic, but these guys just seem a lot more authentic about it all. In the age of Lana-Del-Rey-Authenticitygate, this is terribly important. This isn’t to say they’re hiding behind ‘authentic rock’ as an excuse to be boring and refuse to try anything out that isn’t a 3-chord pub anthem, like Oasis, they’re far more creative than that. Just, in comparison with the far wispier other acts on the list…

ULP [Unique Lame Point]: Their guitar riffs, more of a centrepiece than most of the duos’, aren’t particularly inventive. Plus, being totally rawk and all, they don’t use harmonies but shout along together instead – fits their sound, sure, but it’s difficult to argue that this sounds nicer than the other couples’ harmonies.

The critics say: “Blood Red Shoes are the band The Kills think they are.” – The Independent on Sunday

Jen says: I first heard of them from the ‘Scott Pilgrim’ soundtrack… their inclusion on which (with ‘It’s Getting Boring By The Sea’) speaks very highly of them. The video for IGBBTS, incidentally, features Laura-Mary looking more like a dark-haired Debbie Harry circa 1978 than anyone else in the history of the universe has ever done. Just thought this needed mentioning.


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*

The Brits 2012 (Or, Death By Boredom)

If you genuinely like music, chances are you probably hate the Brits. Despite occasional moments of brilliance (KLF in 1992, Suede in 1993, Jarvis Cocker invading Michael Jackson’s set in 1996), minor altercations (any time Liam Gallagher has been there) and deserved awards (Blur’s unsurpassed four gongs in 1995), it’s usually a lacklustre affair that prompts as much joy from the non-deaf as castration without an anaesthetic. Last year’s ceremony saw an upset as Laura Marling beat walking wardrobe Cheryl Cole to Best British Female, which in itself was enough to save it from disgrace, but could this year better it? With Blur winning the Outstanding Contribution to Music award and warranting a 3-song set at the end, things were looking promising… that is, until the show started.

A lot of hype from alternative music sectors had surrounded this year’s competition, with the likes of Bon Iver, PJ Harvey, Anna Calvi, Laura Marling (again) and Florence + The Machine up for prizes, but needless to say, the sea of Heart FM-playlist-filling dirge washed them away awardless. Adele and Ed Sheeran dominated proceedings, winning two each (Best British Female and Album of the Year/Best British Male and British Breakthrough Act respectively), while those old favourites of mine* Bruno Mars and Coldplay also had a delightfully* tacky statuette to take home (*sarcasm). It’s difficult to argue with these on a sales volume level, if not an originality or musical quality level – although, having said that, Adele’s performance of ‘Rolling In The Deep’ was musically spot on and arguably better than her critically-fapped-over Grammys set – but the lack of surprises meant that even the meatball korma meal that accompanied my Brits viewing had more flavour than the show did. The closest there was to a shock victory was for One Direction’s ‘What Makes You Beautiful’ winning Song of the Year over Adele’s ‘Someone Like You’ – that I think the right song won this category gives you an indication of quite how appalling its contenders were**. The only other shocks were the fact that someone didn’t tell Jessie J her dress was disgusting before she went out in it and that the event organisers managed to resist the temptation to turn Rihanna’s microphone off mid-performance. Her vocals were the sort that make you long for miming. (**…This song definitely isn’t a guilty pleasure for me. Definitely.)

Naturally the Righteously Indignant Police, otherwise known as the bulk of social networking sites’ users, found cause for scandal when Adele’s Best Album acceptance speech was cut short in favour of Blur’s Outstanding Contribution set. Quelle dommage! It’s not like she’d already thanked half the universe in her first acceptance speech. It’s also not like she’s been overexposed in the last year to the point where her screechy Cockney accent doesn’t induce homicide in anyone with a pair of ears. Who the hell are Blur, screeched the Righteously Indignant Police, (average age 13, average IQ negligible). Why are we letting a bunch of granddads run around shouting when we could have Adele squawking like the lovechild of Phil Daniels and a female parrot? Having said that, Blur weren’t exactly brilliant; Damon sounded incredibly hoarse and I’d have liked their performance of ‘This Is A Low’ to have made the ITV1 show instead of being relegated to ITV2. But their energy and enthusiasm defibrillated the show, even if it was too little, too late. Ah well lads, there’s always the Olympics Closing Ceremony.

So there we are. 1992’s Brits was notable for machine gun blanks being fired into the crowd and a dead sheep being left at the aftershow party, 1993’s was memorable for Brett Anderson misappropriating the microphone as a spanking device, 2000’s for an impending fracas between Liam Gallagher and Robbie Williams. 2012’s Brits will be remembered for very little, except Adele’s-Winning-Speech-Being-Cut-Shortgate™, Jessie J’s quite hideous bloodstained lace tablecloth dress and Blur having a fluorescent kebab spit in their set design. But I’m sure I’ll be back in front of this insipid snoozefest again in a year’s time, moaning to my heart’s content and wondering why I wasn’t born 20 years earlier.