Britpop

All the noise surrounding Brexit triggered memories of a much healthier expression of cultural pride than that interminable shitshow.

Brett Anderson of Suede correctly labeled “Britpop” a “horrible term.” I would go even further and call it “offensive,” “misleading” and “demeaning.” The connotation of the word “pop” implies light entertainment for the masses, a consumer-friendly form of music manufactured to provide everyday people with simple songs they can whistle on their way to work. While that connotation is true for most music that has made it to the pop charts over the years, there have been at least two periods in popular musical history where artists chose to lead rather than follow, and raised the quality of popular music to an art form while losing little of their appeal to the common folk in the process. The first arose in the mid-60’s when the Beatles, Kinks, Stones and others followed Bob Dylan’s cue and moved beyond boy-girl tunes to explore human and social conditions; the second was the Britpop era in the mid-1990’s.

One notable difference between the two eras is that the golden age of the mid-60’s was a worldwide phenomenon; Britpop was primarily a British experience. Some Britpop bands enjoyed modest popularity in some of the Commonwealth countries and in parts of the European Union that Ms. May is so desperate to leave, but only Oasis made any significant inroads in the United States. Part of the energy fueling Britpop involved the rejection of the grunge music pouring out of the States at the time, but after being flooded with American music, movies and television shows for a few decades, many people in the UK had become, in the words of Joe Strummer, “so bored with the USA.” Britpop artists not only sang primarily of the British cultural experience, but unlike most of their pop forefathers, they sounded like Brits, refusing to Americanize their singing voices. Ethnocentric, self-absorbed Americans had a hard time relating to the stories and the accents, and albums that made it to the top of the charts in the UK failed miserably when crossing the Atlantic: Parklife never charted; Different Class peaked at #34; and The Great Escape died a regrettable death at #150.

It has been said that Ray Davies is the Godfather of Britpop, and there is plenty of evidence to back that up that claim. The American performance ban on The Kinks coincided nicely with Ray Davies’ blossoming as songwriter and astute observer of human activity. Since there was little point in writing songs that appealed to the American market, he focused on life in the mother country. Face to Face, Something Else, The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society and Arthur are all filled with songs about British life and British people. Ironically, those albums were generally ignored in both the UK and the US, but they provided a blueprint for future artists to integrate melodic rock and roll with lyrics featuring a unique blend of pointed satire and expressions of empathy for the poor souls in the queendom. I can hear The Kinks in all the Britpop bands, but most noticeably in Blur and Pulp. Britpop was not a patriotic celebration of all things British, but often an insightful and sometimes discomfiting look at British cultural dysfunction.

The humor and satire certainly helped endear the Britpop bands to the listening public, but they also produced some of the catchiest damned music of any era. Many of the best songs of the era practically demand you to sing along, a feature best demonstrated in live recordings of Oasis, where the fans threaten to drown out the band as they raise their voices in joyful unison. Beneath those catchy melodies are often surprisingly clever variations on musical norms, and similar to the songs on The Zombies’ Odessey and Oracle, prove much more challenging to play in the comfort of your home than might first appear. Britpop had a lot more musical and lyrical depth than the term would apply.

Britpop also celebrated youth and vitality, a theme best expressed through the works of Supergrass, Oasis and Suede. The celebration was not the rejection of oppressive conformity you hear in “My Generation,” but just about how damned good it feels to be young, hanging out with the gang, staying “young and invincible” with your testosterone flowing like a river in flood stage. The youthful energy of Britpop is quite palpable, but the reference to the male hormone reminds us that Britpop was largely a male phenomenon.

Unless you count The Spice Girls, and I don’t.

All this youthful energy and budding pride came together to allow the media to invent another term to describe the era: Cool Britannia. I’m 90% sure that people who embraced that term never heard the original song by The Bonzos, which in four brief lines ridiculed the idea that the British cognoscenti could impose coolness on a population. I can easily expose the faux nature of Cool Britannia by quoting a single sentence from the Wikipedia article on the subject: “The election of Tony Blair’s Labour government in 1997, seen by some as young, cool and very appealing, was a main driving force in giving Britain a feeling of euphoria and optimism.”

Oh, well. He looked pretty cute in his well-tailored suits. Who could have predicted he would be dumb enough to allow George W. Bush (not exactly the brightest bulb himself) to talk him into helping the Americans launch a crusade?

Conclusion: Cool Britannia was horseshit, but despite its horseshit name, Britpop was the real deal. Over the next few months, I’ll be exploring the music of the era through the following albums (please note that I’ve already reviewed all of Oasis’ studio albums):

I reserve the right to throw in a few albums from the 60’s and 70’s during the series to keep my Baby Boomer readers happy.

6 responses

  1. Hmmm… “Britpop” – like yourself, I abhor that term and the first I ever heard of it was in August 1995 when the BBC broadcast a one off special called “Britpop Now” which was a great round up of some of the key names along with some who shouldn’t had been in there such as PJ Harvey… one of the highlights of the show sure, but when was she ever “Britpop”? Oasis were absent having thrown one of their petulant wobblers because Damon Albarn was hosting the show. It was a short-lived movement… I knew across early 1995 something special was happening because for the first time in over a decade I found myself actually liking some of what was coming out… even then I thought the “Britpop” tag was pretty lame but that’s what’s used to pigeonhole that era so we’re stuck with it. For me, 1995 was the last “good” year in popular music. It’s kinda ironic you mentioning the Spice Girls since the very moment they made their debut on “Top Of The Pops” in 1996, I knew it was all over and the music scene plunged into a coma which it has never surfaced from. 1997’s “Cool Britannia” stuff for me was complete and utter bullshit and when Tony Blair was suckering up to various stars, well… I’m too polite to offer any further comments on that.

    Of course, my thoughts shared here are my own based upon being British and witnessing the whole era first hand… I was in my early to mid 20’s so it resonated strongly with me so giving my perspective on it.

    It was the last era where people were actually feeling some sense of excitement, talking about the music and acts. The Blur vs Oasis “battle” was pretty much a media invention and unfortunately the brothers Gallagher swallowed the bait. I know you love Oasis and can respect and understand why whereas I was never convinced by them feeling they were over-hyped and over-rated, a feeling that has never changed. BUT they were big news to the degree that they, Damon and Jarvis Cocker became almost iconic celebrities in their own right. Of them all, Jarvis was by and far the most endearing and oddest for me and he could do no wrong in 1995. I loved the guy and his penchant for getting headlines then making fun of them on TV shows was glorious. That was the difference for me – Jarvis was charismatic whereas the Gallagher’s were arrogant and I’m not a fan of arrogance.

    The Ray Davies “godfather” thing came about when Damon guested with him on a TV show early in 1995 but somebody else not mentioned above was also almost as worthy of the tag who enjoyed a major renaissance during this era who was also a big Ray Davies fan – Paul Weller. It’s kinda ironic that Davies and The Kinks enjoyed this new found interest in their work as they were then on ice and split for good in 1996.

    But “Britpop” wasn’t all about guitar based bands either as there were two electronic outfits I adore who emerged during this era who occasionally get lumped in – Dubstar and Moloko. Sure, the ripples went on for a couple of years or so afterwards but for me personally it was all over the moment the Spice Girls were inflicted upon us. Pulp’s “This Is Hardcore” album was the gravestone… quite a shocking album to release at the time due to it’s sinister darkness and the title track released as a single was daring, an act akin to Hara Kiri as they destroyed their commerciality in one fell swoop! I liked it, but most absolutely hated it and thought Jarvis had flipped.

    But when all is said and done, the glory year of 1995 still stands out in my memory. A happy year for me personally and a relief as for a while I felt “in synch” with what was going on musically. A shame it burned out too quickly and that mediocrity once more suffocated it and been decimating music ever since.

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    1. I look forward to seeing extensive commentary from you on this series! One correction: I would describe my relationship with Oasis as more love-hate than pure love, partially influenced by teenage-level hormonal explosiveness. Of the 8 studio albums, I panned three, and one was mixed. Your comment on This is Hardcore perfectly summarizes the reasons why I chose to include it in the series. And hey, didn’t Noel Gallagher have a bit part on Stanley Road?

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  2. For whatever reason, I absolutely love Suede right up through their mostly-good fourth album, Head Music, but I have never warmed up to any of the other so-called Britpop bands. Why is Suede so different for me? My best guess is that it’s because Suede is more epic and less willing to undercut themselves with irony, like David Bowie with a little bit of Smiths thrown in, so I could relate to them right away. Oasis was obviously influenced by a lot of my favorite 60s music, but they always seemed too derivative. I liked Blur better than Oasis but couldn’t really relate to their scattershot mix of musical styles. I wonder if there are others who feel the same way. Maybe your reviews will lead me to give some of these bands another try.

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    1. Mike Joyce of The Smiths declined the opportunity to join Suede because he felt they had to forge their own identity; I think they forged a very clear identity relatively quickly, but one that gave them plenty of room to maneuver. I will probably get around to reviewing some of their other albums (I find Dog Man Star particularly intriguing).

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  3. For a British teenager in the early to mid 90s like me who knew and cared pretty much nothing for contemporary music and had no idea how to work a radio, there were only three bands in the world: Blur, Oasis, and Pulp. That’s how culturally inescapable they were. (And I still managed to hear literally nothing from Definitely Maybe until a couple of months ago when reading your review of it, just to illustrate my own utter insulation from the world I lived in then.) I agree with you that this music stands the test of time. I re-listened to The Great Escape recently and was struck anew by what an incredibly *good* album it is. I’ll be really interested to see what you have to say about that and of course about Pulp. It’ll be interesting too to see how you come to this music from your very 60s-centric background. When I first heard it I was unfamiliar with any music at all from the 60s (other than Beatles, Stones, and blues). When I hear it now, having become more familiar with classic rock, it still *sounds* very different although I can recognise Ray Davies’ influence on the subject matter, especially with Blur.

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    1. The 60’s-centric emphasis you see reflects ongoing trepidation about reviewing music from the 90’s because those were my teen years, the period in human development when irrational bonds are formed to the music that made up the daily soundtrack. Every time I think about reviewing a 90’s album I go through all sorts of emotional gyrations, which is why this series—one I’d planned four years ago—took so long to come to fruition. 60’s and 70’s music was always on in my house growing up, but I have a better command of “negative capability” (see Keats) and detachment in relation to that music because my “experience” of those years is entirely historical, not immediate. The 90’s were an intense period for me, where I formed most of my foundational beliefs, so I have to watch the tendency to over-relate to the music from that era.

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