. 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:
Do You Want to Know a Secret? Oasis’ Cover of ‘I Am The Walrus’ is Significantly Better than the Original
. If there is ever a music hipster’s coup of Great Britain, several new laws will be passed before you can say ‘Joe Lean and the Jing Jang Jong’. I can guarantee that these will include it being illegal to prefer Radiohead’s ‘The Bends’ to their supposed pièce de résistance ‘OK Computer’, finding ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ unbelievably dull will condemn one to a prison spell of 15 years, and insulting The Beatles on a musical level will be punishable by death. I hope that said coup never occurs, primarily because I contravene all of them – the latter only for the purposes of the opinion outlined in the title. And I won’t retract that opinion, borderline blasphemous as it sounds.
. Much as I love The Beatles (proven here), and despite the fact that they were famously ‘bigger than Jesus’, they were never going to have 13 perfect albums. Magical Mystery Tour is one of my favourite albums of theirs, but ‘I Am The Walrus’ is a low point for me. Where slow-paced psychedelia is magnificent in MMT bedfellow ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, it’s dull and sluggish in ‘Walrus’. The lyrics have an Edward Lear-esque nonsense charm, but that’s the only positive; the singing is monotonous, the tune is boring and it chugs along inconsequentially for four painful minutes.
. All criticisms that are frequently levied at Oasis’s much-maligned third and fifth studio albums, Be Here Now and Heathen Chemistry. But their version of ‘Walrus’ is proof that their no-frills approach can be brilliant. It’s a rare example of a fast Oasis song, which like many of their best songs is squirrelled away on B-sides compilation The Masterplan. Their rock anthem treatment of it vitalises it, and consequently improves it; the live recording and Liam Gallagher’s snarling drawl make it more vicious and raw – a world away from the over-produced original. Several of these minutes are of squealing guitar noises and feedback – the latter being something that The Beatles themselves originally pioneered with the opening of ‘I Feel Fine’, ironically enough. These make it sound psychedelic to the point of being unhinged, which works strangely well. It may be six minutes, but these pass more quickly and enjoyably than the four minutes of The Beatles’ version.
. It’s paradoxical, given Oasis’s reputation of being serial poor man’s Beatles plagiarists, that they improve the stagnant original so dramatically. The Beatles may be fantastic most of the time, but they’re by no means invincible, and especially not here. And that will be my defence if the hipster coup occurs.
The miniskirt may no longer be the epitome of rebellion, the Woodstock Festival is long over, and the memories of England’s World Cup victory may be fading further into the realms of ancient history, but one only has to look at the Amazon CD and game charts to know that one thing’s for certain – Beatlemania is back. Whether you’re strumming a plastic guitar in accordance with brightly coloured prompts from a games console or head-nodding along to a newly-remastered Abbey Road album on the train, you’re part of the second wave of Beatles-appreciation. Can you imagine such a fuss being made over The Jonas Brothers in nearly fifty years? Thought not.
But why do The Beatles have such a lasting impact on our culture? After all, the lyrics “She loves you – yeah, yeah, yeah” are hardly Shakespeare or Wordsworth. Their voices aren’t exactly of a Pavarotti or Presley standard. The beginnings of their fame had silly, youthful bowl-haircuts, while the end was marked by hippyish, overgrown locks – and that’s not even delving into the Sergeant Pepper-era moustaches. And arguably, they’re not even particularly attractive; especially not when one looks at the bands of today – bands of disputable ‘talent’ such as JLS apparently sell well because they have whiter-than-white teeth and toned abs (according to my friends – incidentally, I have absolutely no idea who they are). To the untrained eye and ear, by rights The Fab Four should have been a flash in the pan. Was Simon Cowell onto something when he claimed that they would never have made it past the first round of The X Factor?
Well, quite frankly – seeing as most of the flotsam that The X Factor produces is dire, unimaginative and back to the dole queue after a few flop singles, while the Beatles’ popularity marches on with an unassailable reputation and generations of avid fans – it’s a bit like comparing the literary merits of War And Peace to those of Twilight, but more ridiculous. One simply cannot underestimate the influence that the four boys from Liverpool have had on the world. For example – do you like any songs with guitar feedback in them? The Beatles started it, with the distortion that opens ‘I Feel Fine’. Like concept albums? Look no further than Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Do samples in songs rock your iPod? Yes, you guessed it, The Beatles did it first. Their influence is tangible in many current songs and albums: Muse’s latest album is heavily orchestrated, but The Beatles were the first popular band to have a full orchestra playing in the background. The recent 3OH!3 single ‘Don’t Trust Me’ is peppered with frequent refrains of “woah” – but The Beatles started the trend for putting informal fillers in songs. You get the picture; many of the things that we take as givens in popular music were innovated by The Beatles.
And, frighteningly, that’s just an argument for them being the most pioneering band of all time; not taking into account the actual music. Their music is timeless: while the early hits, such as ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ and ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ may sound somewhat tinny, they’re feelgood hits. Everyone recognises the opening of ‘She Loves You’ – lyrically profound it is not, but it’s nearly as infectious as an attack of headlice (though, of course, in a much nicer way). But it’s their progress from the innocent love songs of the Please Please Me era to the psychedelia of Sgt Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour that is most astonishing – if you weren’t well informed, you’d be quite happy to think that ‘Love Me Do’ and ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ were written by entirely different bands in entirely different ages. The brash harmonica that accompanies ‘Love Me Do’ is totally at odds with the other-worldly ethereality that personifies ‘Across The Universe’ (from final album Let It Be). It’s de rigeur these days that a band must constantly evolve its sound: but I’m yet to hear a greater progression of sound than the one undertaken by the Fab Four.
Yet, despite all this, it’s still incredible just how enduring The Beatles’ legacy is. While their current monopoly of the top 30-selling albums could be a backlash at the hordes of depressingly uniform R’n’B acts that congest the Top 40 these days, the sheer amount of articles, TV programmes and what-have-you being circulated about a band that split nearly forty years ago is phenomenal. It’s hard to understand for the younger generations how much of a fuss is being made over a collection of remastered albums. But, as a clever marketing ploy to involve us youngsters, they’ve released The Beatles: Rock Band game. Whether it makes you go out and buy the £200 limited-edition Beatles In Mono boxset as a result of playing the game, or whether you spend hours with your parents, zombie-like, perfecting the ‘Paperback Writer’ chords, you’ve helped keep the greatest band ever at the forefront of our culture. Strawberry Fields Forever, indeed.