“Patriotism is not enough”: Depictions of Englishness in Late 20th Century Fiction and ‘Cool Britannia’ Rhetoric
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. This initiative sought to reinvent Britain’s image overseas by rejecting outdated, heritage-based signifiers of British identity in favour of a more modern depiction of what Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, described as “a dynamic,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’). 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. 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
. 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.)
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.
. 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.
. 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.
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’.
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.
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:
Quick, which band held the record for the fastest-selling debut album of all time for six years (1995 – 2001) before Hear’Say? Time’s up and no-one got it; the answer is Elastica, with their imaginatively-titled first album Elastica. You may have guessed that this was the answer, but only due to this article being about them. Yet despite this record, they’ve been largely forgotten not only by the public, but by critics as well. I know a grand total of three people who had heard of Elastica prior to hearing me rave about them; the first of these was a poor, unsuspecting boy on the till in Winchester’s branch of Oxfam, and my reaction to hearing him laud them was to blurt out something about him being my soulmate. If you needed proof of the effect of Elastica, there you have it – they make me propose to strangers.
On a more serious and less egotistical note, Justine Frischmann has gone down in history as being that bitch who cheated on Brett Anderson with Damon Albarn and broke his heart irrevocably, being Damon Albarn’s girlfriend during the Cool Britannia phase of the 1990s, and being that bitch who dumped Damon Albarn and broke his heart irrevocably (incidentally, she apparently cheated on Albarn with Anderson, to add a nice circularity to proceedings – not that Albarn was exactly Mr Fidelity himself). This isn’t particularly likely to endear her to Suede or Blur fans, but her questionable morals and fidelity proved important catalysts for the creation of Suede and 13, both of which debuted at the top of the album charts – she is the muse for the likes of ‘Pantomime Horse’, ‘Tender’ and ‘1992’. Suede’s ‘Animal Lover’ was written and so named after Frischmann returned to Anderson one evening with scratches down her back after a cheeky tryst with Albarn. But this is all irrelevant when we’re focusing on Elastica’s contribution to the 1990s.
In a decade when lad culture and Loaded were at the forefront of British life, an image reinforced by the music, Elastica’s line-up was one of the period’s few concessions to the existence of independent women. Although other bands such as Echobelly, Sleeper and Powder featured female vocalists, none were as female-dominated as Elastica. Three-quarters of its members were women, and all of them wielded instruments – Frischmann and Donna Matthews on guitar and Annie Holland playing the bass. However, this is where the band’s femininity ends; image-wise and musically, they were androgynous.
Frischmann drummed an agenda of deadpan wit and concision into her bandmates, spurred on by the influence of Wire, The Stranglers and The Fall – betrayed in duet with Mark E. Smith, ‘How He Wrote Elastica, Man’, whose title was a play on The Fall’s ‘How I Wrote Elastic Man’. The majority of their debut album’s songs are under three minutes, with several under the two minute mark, following Frischmann’s ethos of a song needing nothing more than verses and a chorus. Although in thrall to the influences already mentioned – enough to be sued for royalties due to ‘Connection’’s similarity to the opening of Wire’s ‘Three Girl Rhumba’ and ‘Waking Up’ to The Stranglers’ ‘No More Heroes’ – this was also partially the result of Frischmann’s backlash against her ex-band Suede’s increasingly lengthy, ornate and humourless songs, with ‘Stay Together’ breaching the eight-minute mark and ‘The Asphalt World’ the nine. This backlash created two things; firstly, brief punk songs about rarely-broached topics like premature ejaculation (‘Stutter’) and copulation in automobiles (‘Car Song’), all sung emotionlessly, detachedly and with palpable amusement by Frischmann – who to quote from Blur’s autobiography 3862 Days, had ‘the voice of a grumpy angel’. The second was several pointed songs about her relationship with Anderson – one of these was ‘Spastica’, a B-side to highest-charting single ‘Connection’, whose lyrics were a bitchy treatise on Anderson’s overwrought [Ed: BUT STILL BRILLIANT] lyrics (“Monsters of the present are the monsters of the past/Take a look in your lyric book, your head’s right up your arse”) and bemoaning his success (“It’s unbelievable, the way you’ve got it all/It seems improbable”). The other overtly-Anderson-themed song was ‘Never Here’; standing at a four and a half minutes, it’s by far the longest song on their debut album, and is also the most emotional as it charts the demise of their relationship – which she attributes to over-familiarity and youth (“Then I started to worry/I thought of our lives left on the shelves/Too much TV and curry/Too much time spent on ourselves”). She did the same for Albarn after their split, writing a song called ‘My Sex’ on second album The Menace about him.
But these are Frischmann’s only acknowledgments of her own vulnerability, and the majority of Elastica’s songs are delivered with too-cool-to-care confidence and an arched eyebrow. If you need evidence of this, ‘Vaseline’ is a throwaway 1:13 paean to… well, presumably, it’s a euphemism for bonking. Her interview soundbites also fitted in with the laddish inclinations of contemporary society – “I can’t think of anything better than sixteen-year-old boys wanking and looking at a poster of me” is a corking example of this – and coupled with this confidence and vocal delivery, she became the era’s poster-girl for cool. This was added to by the fact that Elastica consciously pursued a no-frills aesthetic; aside from the minimalism of an eponymous album title, their videos were no more than videos of the band miming, their Elastica’s cover is a black-and-white photograph of the band against a wall, and – unlike their contemporaries – they had no real agenda apart from having fun.
Unfortunately, hedonism was to take a toll on them; all four members of the band became addicted to heroin (Blur’s ‘Beetlebum’, their second chart-topping single, was written about Frischmann’s addiction to the drug), amongst other drugs. Their second and last album was five years in the making as a result, and involved the recruitment of three new members, including Dave Bush, an ex-member of The Fall, and the expulsion of Donna Matthews (who weaned herself off of drugs and is now a practising vicar – yes, really). Although their intent is less defined here, it’s still a good album; traces of Elastica’s ‘Hold Me Now’ are evident in the lyrics of album opener ‘Mad Dog’, both providing a tongue-in-cheek opposition to romance songs – “Hold me now, I need assistance/I’d pick somebody else if I could” is the clinical, self-aware antidote to the syrupy ‘love-making’ soundtracks of someone like Bruno Mars. Half of the tracks are similar to those on Elastica; essentially, catchy punk ditties. ‘How He Wrote Elastica, Man’, ‘Generator’, ‘Your Arse My Place’ and ‘Da Da Da’ fit into this category. The other half are Brian Eno-influenced, favouring a building atmosphere of sound over lyrics, brevity or avenging Suede – by this time, Frischmann had rebuilt her bridges with Brett Anderson, so far as to provide backing vocals for Suede at the Reading Festival in 1997 for ‘Implement Yeah!’, a song written in 1990 when she was still in the band. ‘Love Like Ours’ and ‘Human’ brim with barely-suppressed sexual tension, whereas ‘Image Change’ and ‘KB’ sound like the love-children of Aphex Twin and a cocktail of shoegaze bands, with a strangely underwater feeling. It’s an album that split critical opinion, partly due to the album’s inaccessibility compared to its predecessor and partly due to the wait between albums.
It’s important to note that, for a band who didn’t breach the top 10 singles chart with their singles, they still managed to have that #1 album and, more importantly, were one of two Britpop bands to (sort of) break America. Considering that Suede and Pulp remain totally anonymous over the pond, Blur only broke the States after ‘Song 2’ became an advertisement soundtrack goldmine (and Gorillaz remain far more lucrative in America for Damon Albarn), and Oasis only managed to sneak some success following the release of ‘Wonderwall’, Elastica’s debut managing to chart at #66 on the Billboard Albums Chart, therefore, is no mean feat. Aside from the fact that it’s rare for British bands to break the States any way, especially a band that sings about male impotence and back-seat romps, it’s evidence of Britpop’s wider influence beyond Britain; proof that it wasn’t merely a self-congratulating movement.
To recap, then; it’s a real shame that they’ve been neglected of press since their split in 2001. Their music hasn’t dated, especially their singles. They brought ‘girl power’ to the forefront before The Spice Girls started shimmying around in Union Flag dresses, and unlike Posh, Baby et al., they also brought credibility to it. It’s a travesty that they’ve been forgotten by the vast majority of people, especially when they exploded into public consciousness so quickly. So make it right by listening to their two albums, and maybe I’ll propose to you. Maybe.*
*DISCLAIMER: But I probably won’t. If you’d like me to, please send me your Love CV and I’ll consider you. Those over the age of 30, under the age of 19, in possession of a beard/moustache/woolly back/ugly face/vagina, with an allergy to non-league football/Britpop/gerbils, or a fondness for burger sauce/ice-skating/dogs need not apply. Thank you!
Ludicrous, pompous, outspoken, groundbreaking and brilliant. No, I’m not talking about Morrissey*. These are all words that describe Suede, the band who paved the way for British music’s mid-90s apogee. They may have undergone something of a critical renaissance of late, having released remastered and deluxe editions of their five studio albums in the spring, but they remain agonisingly anonymous to a large number of music fans. So, allow me to introduce you to them.
It’s not for want of trying that they’re not as canonised as they should be. The first band to be put on the cover of the now extinct music publication Melody Maker before they released a song, they then went on to win the 1993 Mercury Music Prize with their eponymous debut (and, philanthropically, donated the £100,000 reward to charity); this also reached #1 and sold over 100,000 copies in its first week. Having performed a nihilistic rendition of then forthcoming single ‘Animal Nitrate’ at the 1993 Brit Awards, they managed to break the top 10 of the singles chart – impressive considering the song’s lyrics deal with violent gay sex and drugs. Two more of their albums reached #1, with their third, Coming Up also producing 5 top ten singles, and produced a top-10 B-sides compilation, Sci-Fi Lullabies – rare for any band**. Their second album, Dog Man Star, which reached #3 in 1994, is widely regarded amongst music critics as a classic album. Despite dire album sales for their last album, A New Morning, they still managed to sell out the O2 Arena last December following their reunion. They still have a cult following, and journalists have been quick to praise the remastered editions of their albums, as they were when the originals came out back in the 90s. That’s not even delving into their apparent absurdity in hiring a 17-year-old schoolboy to replace guitarist Bernard Butler after his fraught departure during the recording of Dog Man Star. Aforementioned schoolboy, Richard Oakes, went on to co-write all of Coming Up’s singles – not bad for a boy whose previous band was called ‘The Poole Grammar Stompers’ and whose written talents had previously been plied in Classics, History and French.
Number-crunching and fact-churning aside, they played a role whose importance cannot be stressed enough. Although Blur experienced fleeting fame off the back of Leisure’s money single ‘There’s No Other Way’ in 1991, their following efforts ‘Bang’ and ‘Popscene’ failed to trouble the top 20 as their commercial impact was wiped out by an American grunge invasion courtesy of Nirvana. Suede were the first British band since The Stone Roses to excite the music press, hence Melody Maker’s keenness to advertise them before debut single ‘The Drowners’ came out [Ed: In the week I was born, no less! Two excellent things released in one week]. Although ‘Popscene’ is usually considered the first Britpop single, ‘The Drowners’ was the first to get people talking, buoyed by fantastic B-sides ‘To The Birds’ and ‘My Insatiable One’. From here on, public interest snowballed – eventually leading to their last-minute inclusion in the Brits line-up after an NME campaign championing the cause. They also made use of the Anglocentric rhetoric that Blur embraced wholeheartedly in Modern Life Is Rubbish and Parklife both in interviews and, more subtly, in their songs; ‘The Next Life’, Suede’s closer, features the lines “Far away – so far away/Down to Worthing, and work there/Far away, we’ll go far away/And flog ice-creams ‘til the company’s on its knees!”. Their ascent was centred on a very personal desire to inflict schadenfreude upon nemeses Blur following a messy love triangle between Brett Anderson, former Suede member Justine Frischmann and Damon Albarn, and – in 1993 at least – they were avenged. Ironically, it was with an album in parts charting Anderson and Frischmann’s break-up.
They didn’t rest on their laurels, of a fantastic debut album and a host of jaw-dropping B-sides; they released stand-alone single ‘Stay Together’ on Valentine’s Day 1994 amid an increasingly icy atmosphere between Anderson and Butler, reaching #3. Although it’s since been disowned by the band, the radio-edited single is good, and on the single disc lurks both the beautiful paean to a junkie lover ‘The Living Dead’ and the glorious eight-and-a-half minute full version of the single – complete with two minutes of deranged guitar parts by recently-bereaved Butler, an incomprehensible drug-fuelled rant by Anderson over the top (possibly featuring the line “Take me to Stephen Fry!” at 5:48), and a triumphant horn section. The fractious recording sessions for the second album saw a stand-off between Butler and producer Ed Bueller, leading Butler to issue an ultimatum; one of them would have to leave. Anderson stuck with Bueller, and finished Butler’s guitar parts by himself. The finished product, Dog Man Star, is as far-flung from the better-selling likes of Parklife and Definitely Maybe as can be imagined, especially considering that Suede helped wedge the door open for the likes of Blur and Oasis to become successful. It’s a ridiculously melodramatic, saturnine album, with Orwellian imagery and an all-pervading sense of gloom, but it’s ambitious, intricate and intensely cinematic. Any album with the opening lines of ‘Dog man star took a suck on a pill/And stabbed the cerebellum with a curious quill’ was always going to be slightly avant-garde, but it is in the best possible way. Nine-minute penultimate track ‘The Asphalt World’ is stand-out stunning both musically and lyrically, telling Anderson’s autobiographical story of a love triangle between a boy, his girlfriend and her girlfriend. The whole album justifies the 9/10 ratings bestowed on it on its release, along with every word of praise it received.
Complimentgasm over. Having made their work of art, they ventured into brighter territory to again avenge themselves over Blur, whose fame had skyrocketed following their Brits success in 1995 as Suede’s internal problems threatened to overshadow Dog Man Star’s brilliance. Coming Up sold over a million copies in Europe and Asia (excluding UK sales of over half a million), taking Britpop international in a way that the period’s other bands never quite achieved***; despite the fact that Britpop’s dominance was firmly embedded in the charts in 1996 following the Battle of Britpop, it was still an achievement for Trash, The Beautiful Ones, Lazy, Filmstar and Saturday Night to all chart as highly as they did. Even Rihanna would have difficulty with that kind of consistency.
Unfortunately, their last two albums – Head Music and A New Morning – were poor follow-ups to their excellent predecessors. The former was plagued by Anderson’s heroin addiction and Codling’s Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, whereas the latter just suggested that they’d all been burned out from mind-blowing excess and extravagance; it’s not unlike the circumstances behind Be Here Now and Standing on the Shoulder of Giants – the first one betraying the influence of substance abuse and the latter being ‘stripped back’ to compensate, though I’m of the opinion that Standing… is a better album than A New Morning. Having run out of ideas, they split in 2003 and embarked on alternative projects; most intriguingly, including Anderson and Butler’s reunion as The Tears in 2004. But now they’re back, and apparently still brilliant live (due to the Uni of Exeter’s inconvenient exam and lecture scheduling, I haven’t been able to see them yet – sob, weep, blubber).
If you’ve learned anything from this article, it should be the following things:
1. Suede are underrated and unquestionably important in the rise of Britpop (and, subsequently, contributed to the success and perhaps creation of various excellent albums from this period),
2. Their first three albums are fantastic, and you should listen to them if you haven’t already,
3. You should bolster the ranks of Suede fans. They may not be household names in the same way that Blur and Oasis still are, but they deserve to be, and you should protect their legacy, and…
4. I’m a mad fan girl who can’t shut up about them.
So please, give your ears generously to Suede’s first three albums, and make a Jen happy today. Thank you.
*I’d be reluctant to call anyone who compared Anders Breivik to KFC as brilliant. Even if Moz did write the lyrics to ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’ and said of Brett Anderson “He’ll never forgive God for not making him Angie Bowie”. He’s eminently quotable, but also a bit of a tosser. So there.
** Oasis’ The Masterplan reached #2 in 1998, but Suede never quite reached the same level of notoriety as the Gallaghers, so it’s still a remarkable achievement. Incidentally, Sci-Fi Lullabies and The Masterplan are both excellent albums.
*** Oasis and Elastica nearly broke America, but considering Oasis’s imperial phase and 4-million-plus sales of (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? in England, they didn’t do nearly as well as they could have. Elastica were ravaged by drugs before they could capitalise on their modest reviews success – though Robert Christgau still awarded their second album, The Menace, a rare ‘A’ rating in 2001. But I’ll be writing an article about them soon, so I’ll write more about them there.
Warning: This is a VERY LONG article. 2000 words-ish. If only I could channel that sort of passion into my essays…
To anyone faintly acquainted with the concept of Britpop, this introduction is entirely irrelevant; however, to those who are only aware of Oasis on account of their award at this year’s Brits (as a group of year 7s in my creative writing group last academic year were), this simplified context is necessary. In short; Blur and Oasis had become household names in 1994, the former with their third effort in Parklife and unparalleled success at that year’s Brit awards (uniquely winning four statuettes in the same evening) and the latter with their debut, Definitely Maybe, which – until Elastica released their first album the following year – was the fastest selling debut album in British history. With impending albums due out in the autumn of 1995, both groups had the first single from each album due out in the same week (Blur with ‘Country House’ from the upcoming The Great Escape and Oasis with ‘Roll With It’ from What’s The Story); the obligatory war of words sparked a media frenzy, with the chart battle being dubbed ‘The Battle of Britpop’ and presented as a war of North versus South or middle class versus working class. Blur outsold Oasis, but their victory was short-lived as (What’s The Story) Morning Glory went onto sell over four million copies in the UK, making it the third best-selling album in British history. [Thanks, Wikipedia!] History lesson over – despite the oft-quoted Britpop adage that “Blur won the battle, Oasis won the war”, it’s my opinion that Blur deserve a greater legacy.
This is not to say that (What’s The Story) didn’t deserve to outsell The Great Escape – indeed, the latter is probably Blur’s weakest album, whilst the former is a great album; not up to the same stratospheric heights of Definitely Maybe, but nonetheless mostly brilliant. What it is to say, on the other hand, is that Blur’s back catalogue effectively annihilates Oasis’s; had both bands gone back to their day jobs in 1996, this argument would be null and void – but they didn’t, so it isn’t. Of course, in terms of sales and chart positions, all signs point the other way. Oasis’s studio albums never failed to top the charts, whilst Blur’s first two records – the distinctly average Leisure and the wonderfully understated Modern Life Is Rubbish – charted in the lower reaches of the top 10 and 20 respectively. Yet, as any music fan knows, it isn’t sales that count; it’s quality. Indeed, whilst truly great albums are able to combine excellent music with sales, in terms of everyday sales, this obviously isn’t the case. Let’s face it; were the current album charts assumed to have sold well on account of the quality of their music, then Tinie Tempah – my recurrent favourite verbal punching – would be a musical maestro, along with The Script (about as interesting as a beige wall) and Mumford & Sons (see description of The Script), whilst Hole and The Magnetic Fields would be of the same quality as those ephemeral pop bands whose albums are doomed to a life of being abandoned on the shelves of charity shops with repeat copies of themselves for company (à la Three by the Sugababes – there is at least one copy of this album in every charity shop across the south of England). So, let’s look at the quality of their respective albums.
Oasis’s career trajectory in terms of quality goes something like this, with regard to studio albums: hit (Definitely Maybe), hit (What’s The Story), one of the greatest misses in musical history (Be Here Now), mediocre (Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants), miss (Heathen Chemistry), mediocre (Don’t Believe The Truth) and half-hit, half-miss (Dig Out Your Soul). Although the addition of their B-sides compilation, The Masterplan, would add another ‘hit’ to the list, it’s overwhelmingly apparent that, chiefly, two albums’ reputations have carried them to fifteen years’ worth of musical acclaim. This isn’t to say that I dislike the music they produced post-(What’s The Story). Even Heathen Chemistry stacks up as a better album than the vast majority of chart dross (sadly, I cannot say the same for Be Here Now – entertaining as its story may be, gloriously misguided as it is, it’s just a plain disaster in all senses of the word, with the one honorary exception of opening track ‘D’You Know What I Mean’). But, in comparison to Blur’s back catalogue (which, incidentally, is: mediocre, hit, hit, miss, hit, hit, hit)… well, there is no comparison; post-1995, Blur shit all over Oasis. Many music fans bemoan their favourite artists changing direction dramatically over the course of their career (Weezer, for example, have gone from Pinkerton to Hurley – oh, how the mighty have fallen), but it’s a far worse indictment of the band’s musical prowess if they stubbornly refuse to progress their style as Oasis did. They may have changed their tack with Dig Out Your Soul by cynically copying the Beatles (again), this time with an Magical Mystery Tour– style shift to psychedelia – but it’s too little, too late. Yes, Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants was a progression in terms of being far less mentally stifling than Be Here Now (nearly anything is), but many of the tracks are unmemorable (‘Little James’ is in competition with ‘(Get Off Your) High Horse Lady’ for their worst track ever); in any case, most albums would struggle to maintain the level that the gloriously tacky ‘Fuckin’ In The Bushes’ sets as the opening track.
Look, then, at Blur’s progress. Starting off with indie and conforming to the (hideously-named) ‘baggy’ scene of the time (Leisure), they progress to a discreet love-hate relationship with England (Modern Life Is Rubbish), before deciding that they’re brashly devoted to England (Parklife). The Great Escape doesn’t betray any attempt to change the Parklife template – it hides in its shadow rather – but they then go onto produce angular, American-influenced indie in Blur with more whimsical elements (‘Essex Dogs’ stretches out to eight minutes, mostly of guitar feedback, and whilst its lyrics touch on their Britpop era by discussing their home county – ‘You’re going to get a kicking tonight; the smell of puke and piss – the smell of puke and piss on your stilettos’ – the sound is far more avant garde than anything on their previous albums), then taking a turn into electronic/experimental with 13 and then ending up in the musical patchwork of Think Tank. Think Tank, like Dig Out Your Soul, delves into foreign influences – part of the album was recorded in Morocco – but doesn’t come off as something of a rip-off of one of their influences (or, with Oasis, pretty much their only influence). Surely a band who can change their sound both so effortlessly and impressively deserve more merit than a band who tried, and failed, to replicate the sound of their bestseller? In fact, this attempt to copy their earlier sound was so obvious that, as John Harris, everyone’s favourite Britpop historian, points out, “the verse of Stand By Me had the same vocal melody as Married With Children”.
If clarification is needed of Blur’s divergences in sound from album to album, listen to ‘Miss America’, ‘Parklife’ and ‘1992’. The former is resigned and wistful, the ubiquitous middle is a rowdy anthem for a lads’ night out, and the latter overshoots mere poignance and ends up somewhere in the area of being a goosebump-inducing, heart-wrenchingly atmospheric, get-me-to-therapy-before-I-slit-my-wrists mass of sadness. Not that it’s to be compared to the almost comedic depressive tone of the likes of ‘No It Isn’t’ by Plus-44 – this isn’t an emo anthem for thousands of tortured teenagers with ridiculous hair and too much eyeliner. It’s not for an easy or casual listen, or indeed for a casual listener. This song is the sound of a man losing his mind, tortured and wrecked by his broken heart (various lyrics websites debate the song’s meaning, but the desperation can only come from his break-up with Elastica’s Justine Frischmann – incidentally, if you have made it this far in the article, make a note now to listen to their debut album when you’ve finished the article). No song in Oasis’s back catalogue comes close to conveying that sort of emotion or innovation. Rarely do their songs suggest underlying emotion post-Definitely Maybe (with the exceptions of ‘I’m Outta Time’, ‘Champagne Supernova’ and ‘The Masterplan’). Not every song should be an emotional rollercoaster, but for barely any of their songs to contain any emotion…? This is in contrast to ‘You’re So Great’, ‘Tender’, ‘Beetlebum’ (which, for the record, is my favourite Blur song), ‘No Distance Left To Run’, ‘Out Of Time’ and ‘This Is A Low’ by Blur – and that’s just a short list. Whether it’s joy, despair, envy or anger, there sometimes needs to be something for the listener to hold onto – to relate to – surely? Liam Gallagher’s voice just lapses into a half-hearted sneer in the second half of their discography. Though, with reference to the first half, ‘Live Forever’ is sweet without ever becoming sickly; there’s a pang of wistful sorrow in his voice at the end as to suggest pain at the inevitable fact that ‘forever’ doesn’t really exist. So it can’t be suggested that they don’t have the capacity or necessity to write heartfelt songs; they clearly did have, but this was all lost in the mire of mindless rock stardom, mountains of cocaine and increasingly dire lyrics.
On the other hand, of course, sometimes the listener needs an arse-kicking anthem to pogo and headbang to. But even here Blur overrun Oasis, despite the latter’s more “rock star” credentials. Definitely Maybe has a collection of pogo anthems – ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Star’, ‘Up In The Sky’, ‘Digsy’s Dinner’ and ‘Bring It On Down’ – alongside the more leisurely anthems ‘Supersonic’, ‘Shakermaker’ and ‘Cigarettes and Alcohol’ (and, of course, in the ballads corner are the quintessential ‘Live Forever’ and ‘Slide Away’). Thus it achieves a balance of the necessary ingredients for a great rock album. But as the years and albums drag on (literally, in terms of the latter), sluggish tempos become more and more apparent. This contrasts sharply with ‘Song 2’, Blur’s most universally-recognised and successful song (they have apparently earned £2 million in royalties from various advertising campaigns), which is – plain and simple – a jump-around-until-your-hair’s-a-mess-but-you-don’t-care anthem. Many years before that, their career got into the spotlight when ‘There’s No Other Way’, an energetic composition, sprung to 7th place in the charts. Then there’s ‘Advert’, ‘Bank Holiday’, floorfiller ‘Girls & Boys’, ‘Movin’ On’, ‘Bugman’ and ‘Crazy Beat’… with the exception of The Great Escape, there’s one there from each album. They not only progressed their sound over time, but they continued to provide different moods and tempos for their audience, whereas Oasis just chugged. Blur just clearly beat them all over the park.
At the end of the day, they’re still two of my favourite artists; that hasn’t changed. But it’s become increasingly apparent as my Blur discography edges nearer to completion (I’m only missing their live album at the moment) that they had, overall, a far more forward-thinking plan than Oasis, and thus managed to wade out of the musical mire that Oasis were often embroiled in post-What’s The Story. I’m sure many wannabe rock stars dream of commercial acclaim. That may be. But true rock stars – ones who should be lauded – are the ones who want to make wonderful and, yes, critically-acclaimed music. That’s not to say that the critics are the be-all and end-all – one only need see the overwhelmingly orgasmic reaction to Be Here Now to see that – but critical acclaim tends to be a better indicator of quality than commercial acclaim. And therefore, yes, I believe that Blur have the upper hand over Oasis. Is XFM’s top 1000 songs of all time, with 20 Oasis songs in it (!), beginning to look a little misguided now?
Having ranted about something I dislike, I feel it’s time to return some cheer that is obligatory in the festive season, and therefore it’s entirely necessary to write about Britpop. Again. Because I love it so very, very much.
Ever feel like you were born in the wrong era, musically? Born in the week that ‘The Drowners’ by Suede, the first Britpop single to get noticed by the music world, was released, I was born in exactly the right era; the trouble is, babies can’t really appreciate music properly, and therefore I’ll still hand-wring that I was a case of wrong-era-conception. Thankfully, the spate of band reunions is fantastic for those of us who face this problem and spend half their lives wishing they had access to a time machine, and given the contemporary reunion-bandwagon, it’s no great surprise that Jarvis Cocker’s critically-adored outfit Pulp were the latest in a long, long line of artists who have reconciled over the course of the Noughties (along with my beloved Suede and Blur). Their defining legacy in popular consciousness is that of their fantastically camp, charismatic leading man Jarvis Cocker, his actions at the 1996 Brit awards (invading Michael Jackson’s Messiah-channelling performance of Earth Song, which he disagreed with on a moral level) and their biggest hit, ‘Common People’, especially its resonance in an age when having working class roots was the key to credibility, and an attribute which the record companies then sought to exploit. In any case, Pulp were genuine misfits; a bunch of (then) over-30s from Sheffield who had fallen out of windows whilst trying to impress girls (and people wonder why I love Jarvis Cocker…), had drum-kits fashioned from calculators, and had stuttered through the 80s making albums that were ignored or dismissed out of hand, in between sessions on John Peel. But then they got good. In fact, they got better than good… they released ‘Babies’.
‘Babies’ is the encapsulation of everything that is good about Pulp’s reunion – not that there’s anything bad about it. It narrates the story of a boy whose female best friend, who he’s always secretly fancied a bit, has a sister who has sex with boys in the room next door while they listen in; he then becomes obsessed with doing this and hides in the sister’s wardrobe and listens from there, before the sister one day opens the door, sees him in there, and has sex with him. EPIC SONG CLIMAX: the best friend hears them having sex! And why does he succumb to the slutty sister? In his own words, “I only went with her, ‘cause she looked like you!” Because he loves her, and not the sister! [weeps.] Convoluted? Extremely. But it makes for a song which has a geeky, gawky heart and soul. It’s not about brushing one’s teeth with a bottle of Jack or something equally dispensable and soulless. I can articulate less well the emotion which Cocker conveys in his impassioned cries of “Yeah! Yeah yeah yeah yeah, yeah yeah.” Therein lies the point: Pulp are both explicit and implicit. They say everything even when they’re saying nothing, but most of the time they are saying something – they’re speaking for reality and rejection, for awkward fumbles and predatory teenage boys. They’re real. They’re articulate. They’re storytelling maestros. I’ve probably moaned about lyrics in modern music before (seeing as I have bemoaned everything else about it), but even contemporarily they’re sharp. Even during their 80s nay-day they came up with gems such as “There’s a hole in your heart and one between your legs/You’ve never had to wonder which one he’s going to fill.” If he wrote novels, they would contain the sort of wittily insightful, poignantly perceptive pearls of wisdom that fill his songs. And, of course, they’d be full of affairs, sordid sex and scandal. Even the most straight-laced soul can’t deny that they obtain a sort of gossip-laden joy from reading The Sun’s more risqué elements, so why would anyone fail to enjoy the more smutty aspects of Pulp’s songs? Everyone loves a voyeur.
Lyrics aside – after all, they can only carry you so far – there’s the breathy, seductive vocals, which are full of a kind of lovable sleaze often heard in pubs and clubs that so fits the lyrical content. Image-wise, they’re riffing on a 70s-esque love for charity shop chiq and man-made fibres; they’re quirky! Joy! Back to the music, there’s the riffs and the synths and the occasional violin in the background which all work to a swooningly perfect effect – the latter in particular sounding absolutely beautiful in their Glastonbury ’95 version of ‘Underwear’. Candida Doyle’s synths help make them both indie-disco material and personal listening music; particularly with regard to ‘Disco 2000’ and ‘Do You Remember The First Time?’. But they can also do a self-loathing reminiscent of modern emo music, but without the parody; penultimate album This Is Hardcore’s opening track ‘The Fear’ is effectively music to slit wrists to. But it rises above such lowly stature by infusing a dark wit (“You can’t get anyone to come in the sack”, “So now you know the words to our song/Pretty soon, you’ll all be singing along…”) with its doom-filled rock. And then one need only look on songmeanings.com to see the other benefit to Pulp’s music: whilst not something which I myself have utilised it for, it’s apparently great music to have sex to (‘This Is Hardcore’’s title track being an apparent favourite; considering it’s a song about Cocker making his own porn movie, this hardly comes – ho, ho – as a surprise). So it has various uses, and they’ve got range.
And then there comes their apogee. Glastonbury 1995 was the moment when Pulp ‘made it’, filling in for The Stone Roses at the last moment. They had only just hit the heights of the chart with ‘Common People’, but this cemented the fact that they were, now, one of the biggest bands in Britain. I was lucky enough to see the footage on television the other evening; this marked the point when I went from wanting to see Pulp at next year’s Wireless festival to needing to see them. Jarvis Cocker’s random dance movements/gestures are quirkily endearing and strangely natural, whilst the songs sound great live (especially the aforementioned ‘Underwear’, the BBC footage at the end of which showing a sweetly wistful Cocker looking somewhat beautiful as his eyes are fixed skyward, presumably apologising to the Almighty for having unclean thoughts). The crowd’s enthusiasm is never dampened by the Roses’ no-show – they’re loving it. We were loving it at home. If Pulp can pull out similarly spirited, legendary shows at Wireless and Primavera in Spain, then there’s no worry about the audience not getting value for their money, because it truly was an astonishing performance.
So, what are we loving most of all about this reunion? We’re loving the songs, we’re loving the charisma, we’re loving the soul and the fact that Pulp are a voice for the talents of non-conformists all around the country. As they self-consciously put in the ‘Different Class’ sleeve: “Please understand. We don’t want no trouble. We just want the right to be different. That’s all.” Is there anything I don’t love about Pulp? No. So in my opinion, this reunion is a very good thing indeed. Jarvis Cocker shares the same initials with Jesus Christ for a reason.
(What’s The Story) Morning Glory? review – originally published in the March 2010 issue of Toggle Magazine
In mid-February this year, the Brits held their 30th ceremony of popstar posing, tearful acceptance speeches and quite frankly hideous outfits. Amongst the artists du jour winning gongs were JLS (too horrible to aptly describe in words), Florence and the Machine (nowhere near as original as is promulgated by the music press) and Lady Gaga (now overshadowed by her outfits): as usual, by this time next year they’ll be all but forgotten, their platinum-selling albums found at the bottom of bargain bins in HMV and replaced by a new generation of ephemeral “superstars”. The two throwbacks to the past – artists rewarded for having careers spanning longer than one year in the spotlight – were Robbie Williams, picking up the Outstanding Contribution To Music award, and the now defunct Oasis collecting the Best Album of the Past 30 Years statuette for seminal classic ‘(What’s The Story) Morning Glory?’. A high point for the Britpop band to end on, surely? But no; Liam Gallagher aroused his usual controversy by not only beginning a verbal feud with Peter Kay, the show’s presenter, but also by failing to thank his brother Noel for writing and composing every song on the album. Including the ubiquitous, million-selling song Wonderwall. So they end as they began, clouded in scandal for their belligerence.
So, now you know why I’m reviewing an album that celebrates its fifteenth birthday in October, I’ll procrastinate no longer: you just can’t argue with its four million British sales (it’s the third biggest selling album ever in the UK). It’s frequently described as having defined the zeitgeist of the mid-90’s – while I can’t really comment, having been barely three years old at the time of its release, the Britpop era was about sales and mainstreaming indie as much as it was about the reclaiming of Britain’s music scene from the American grunge scene, and most of the songs sound like they were written to fill stadiums. Virtually all of the songs are golden; of the singles released, there’s the aforementioned Wonderwall with its tender guitars offset by Liam’s hoarse voice, the magnificent Don’t Look Back In Anger with a tidal wall of guitars and an unforgettable chorus (incidentally, my earliest memory is of listening to this song in the car!), the anthemic Some Might Say, their first number one single – although it has a tendency to become dull if over-listened to due to its fairly sluggish pace – and the summery tones of Roll With It that sparked the ‘battle of Britpop’ in the summer of 1995 with Blur’s Country House. Morning Glory is glorious for similar reasons to Don’t Look Back; it’s got an inevitably sing-a-long chorus (“What’s the story, morning glory/Need a little time to wake up, wake up”) and screeching guitars that make you want to jump around in a field with a can of beer. And I don’t even like beer.
The other album tracks aren’t to be glossed over, either; opening track Hello borrows significantly from a Gary Glitter song (don’t worry, one listen won’t turn you into a paedophile) and is a stomping prediction of what’s to come. She’s Electric is a frisky bundle of sugar with vocals which are imbued with a sweet innocence (not a common feature for Liam Gallagher, it must be said), and you’d have to have a heart of stone not to love it/want to skip along to it [delete where appropriate]. The two excerpts of The Swamp Song (here, both untitled) are throwaway gimmicks – if you’re genuinely intrigued by them, buy their B-sides compilation The Masterplan (also brilliant) – and Hey Now! is a dull, clunking disappointment. Cast No Shadow has often been lauded by critics for its Richard Ashcroft undertones, though I personally have always found it pretty boring. The lyrics have been called into question; but their ambiguity is what makes the tracks truly great – they appeal to everyone because everyone can interpret them as being an extension of their own feelings. Some lines are utterly ridiculous – for example, “she’s got a sister/and God only knows how I’ve missed her/and on the palm of her hand is a blister” – but it’s a trifle. In the grand scheme of tunes, riffs and populist choruses, a few duff lines go unnoticed. Yes, the wit of songs on Definitely Maybe (especially Married With Children, its conclusion) is missing, as is the ambition so heavy in Rock ‘n’ Roll Star. But so many bands nowadays are plagued with awkward one-liner lyrics while misplacing a decent tune that it’s a breath of fresh air to have mediocre lyrics.
But the album’s real triumph is a step back from the guitar-laden frenzies of the other tracks. While this is, quite simply, one of the best albums ever, its high point must be the curtain call, Champagne Supernova. Starting off calmly, with laid-back guitars and muted tones from Liam, it passes through an oddly emotive first chorus (“some day you will find me/caught beneath the landslide/in a champagne supernova in the sky”) in which he sounds like he’s straining to convey some sort of hidden softness so often lacking from his generally thuggish behaviour and builds until the guitars properly kick in on the second chorus. It’s like a massage for the ears; it’s truly wonderful. Clocking in at over seven minutes, it should stretch the listener’s patience as it never really evolves past two verses and the chorus, but it doesn’t. It’s epic. It’s brilliant. It’s like the end of a truly fantastic party. You have to wonder if Britpop fell apart less than two years after the album’s release because it had reached the end of the road, or simply because Oasis and the Oasis-esque wannabes that followed in their wake just couldn’t replicate this album.
If you don’t have it, buy it. If you do have it, listen to it. Face it, unless you own a copy of its predecessor, Definitely Maybe, you probably don’t have anything better to listen to.
Following on from my previous blog post, I feel some sort of perspective is needed. It’s all very well for people like myself to condemn the current music scene; but if no high watermark is represented, how can things improve? Things may change, but not necessarily for the better. Whilst the 60s is commonly presented as the decade to which all other decades must aspire, my personal decade of choice is the 1990s; particularly the Britpop era of 1992 to 1997.
Admittedly, I acknowledge in advance that it’s the decade I know most about musically, as I’ve read books on it (a lot of the information in this article has been gleaned from John Harris’s excellent The Last Party; Britpop, Blair and The Downfall of British Rock Music) and hold great pride in the fact that I was born in the week that ‘The Drowners’ by Suede was released, the single that kick-started public opinion on Britpop and British music in general. Despite usually being cast off as a poor man’s duplicate of the British scene of the 1960s (Blur representing the Kinks-esque quintessential Englishness and Oasis providing frequent allusions to The Beatles), in reality the landscape of the 90s was more multi-faceted than the two artists around whom the ‘Battle of Britpop’ centred. All aspects of good music were represented. Suede, who resurrected British indie music after the lean shoegazing period and managed to sneak into the mainstream following a charged performance at the staid 1993 Brit awards, offered a dark and sexually ambiguous glamour along with astonishingly complex guitar solos and lyrics which were akin to a warped poetry, something more reminiscent of a 70s Bowie than anything from the 1960s. The sadly long-forgotten Elastica, whose debut was the fastest-selling of all time in 1995, boasted a three-quarters female line up (incidentally, the last two words were the title of the opening track on Elastica) and therefore were an advertisement for ‘Girl Power’ several years before The Spice Girls made the point explicit. However, let them not be remembered just for the band members’ gender; they specialised in ironic lyrics and short, sharp songs, having been influenced by punk and the underground scene. Pulp meanwhile also dealt in a witty currency, best manifested in the ubiquitous single Common People; but this wit was infused in a camp voyeurism rather than the typical-romantic-lyrics-pastiches that Elastica specialised in. Surely this surpasses The Beatles and their ilk in at least one way; most of their lyrics dealt in requited or unrequited love, and only in their later albums did they have sarcasm or irony (most notably, ‘Back In The USSR’ was written to poke fun at rivals The Beach Boys). Menswear also briefly acted as a personification of the frivolity of pop music, a more indie-ish Blue or JLS who had the advantage of being able to play their instruments and, in some cases, being fairly attractive.
As for Blur and Oasis, who consciously modelled themselves on their spiritual ancestors of the 1960s, they also brought different skills and sounds to the Cool Britannia party. Oasis, whilst their more recent efforts were monotonous and turgid, originally offered an energised, hedonistic promise that the other bands of the decade were less capable of; Suede, Elastica et al were influenced by The Smiths, whose legacy is synonymous with the word ‘cool’ but, due to their deep-seated indie ideals and emphasis on moderation and intellectualism (‘This Charming Man’ featured complicated lexis in order to educate their listeners and bring various words out of obsolescence), they were hardly the most debauched of bands. Oasis, on the other hand, with aims that more resembled those of anyone on The X Factor (to be rich and famous) and a background illustrated not with literature but with lager and cocaine, made Definitely Maybe rich with ambition and confidence. This is probably one of the main assets lacking in today’s bands – they have little desire to leave a lasting impression on popular musical history. Does Plan B want to change British culture to something patriotic or intelligent? Doubtful. Whilst that was Blur’s aim rather than Oasis’s, the latter certainly bought into the Anglocentric angle as time went on. One only need see Noel Gallagher’s Union Jack guitar to ascertain this. Indeed, Blur’s admirable crusade to overturn the greasy-haired grunge onslaught that followed in Kurt Cobain’s wake (pun not intended) gave the era a sense of purpose, which seems unfathomable now we are in a period when the most revolutionary thing to happen in the charts of late was Rage Against The Machine’s prevention of yet another Simon Cowell-soundtracked Christmas. And that was nearly seven months ago.
Blur’s music stands notably for its precise placements in Essex or London, a la The Kinks, its third person narratives and, later on, their archetypal British campness (just watch the video for Country House). Indeed, many of the songs on Parklife and The Great Escape are essentially a musical version of the beloved British institution of Carry On films. And it’s this mash-up of all the wonderful things about music, from exotic lyrics and enviable musical prowess to humour and a venomous swagger, that makes me love the 90s. Sure, I love the 60s (The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks and The Velvet Underground), and the 70s and the 80s, but it’s the 90s that offers the most complete package for me. If modern music can take anything from my home decade, then surely it’s that even the most potent musical force en vogue can be toppled, as Britpop toppled grunge. And although Rage Against The Machine managed it last Christmas, it was an isolated incident – the mundane waves of tepid pop could-bes remain on top, whilst talented acts are flotsam and jetsam in their wake. Until the next Anglocentric revolution, I suppose I’ll just keep rereading my John Harris book, hoping that someone will bring salvation to both my ears and the music industry.