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):
- Suede: Suede March 1993
- Blur: Parklife, April 1994
- Supergrass: I Should Coco, May 1995
- Blur: The Great Escape, September 1995
- Pulp: Different Class, October 1995
- Supergrass: In It for the Money, April 1997
- Pulp: This Is Hardcore, March 1998
- Oasis: Familiar to Millions, November 2000
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.
Originally written February 2013, revised April 2016.
During the dark period after the release of Be Here Now, the release of a collection of B-sides provided welcome support for a fan’s belief that Oasis still qualified as a band worthy of devotion. Noel Gallagher never had a more fruitful period of songwriting than he had during the first few years of Oasis’ existence, a period that was both prolific and marked by songs of exceptional quality. Oasis recorded so many great songs during that period that they couldn’t fit them all on Definitely Maybe and What’s the Story, Morning Glory? Ergo, we have The Masterplan.
While I wish “Acquiesce” had opened Morning Glory, its presence here tells that Oasis wasn’t just using The Masterplan to unload a bunch of crap on gullible fans who at the time would have flocked to the music stores to buy Liam Gallagher’s Greatest Kazoo Hits. Featuring fabulous dual vocals (Liam on verse, Noel on chorus), “Acquiesce” is a driving, loose, explosive rocker that is one of my all-time favorites. In the little room where I listen to music, I only have one picture hanging on the wall: an art piece containing the lines from “Acquiesce” that expresses my most cherished beliefs about human togetherness and human potential:
Because we need each other
We believe in one another
I know we’re going to uncover
What’s sleepin’ in our soul
The B-side to “Don’t Look Back in Anger,” “Underneath the Sky” opens with a frantic double speed guitar that eases into a mid-tempo groove that in turn supports a melody floating over a chord pattern mingling minor-seventh, major-seventh and sustained fourths. When you combine more complex chords like that into a song, it’s more difficult for the listener to fixate on the root notes of the chords, so “Underneath the Sky” has an airy feel to it, with a flow that seems effortless. This tale about the desire for the freedom of anonymous rootlessness (forced or unforced) is both rich and delightfully melodic.
Noel wrote “Talk Tonight” after one of the many dramatic near break-ups that characterized the band’s history. A quiet, introspective acoustic number characterized by remarkable vulnerability in lyrics and delivery, “Talk Tonight” is one of those archetypal songs that simply had to be written by someone at some time or another. It’s followed by “Going Nowhere,” a song that would have been much better without the cheesy horns in the verses. Following that rather sleepy song, the hot guitar riff that opens “Fade Away” comes as a blessed relief, although the initial energy is sapped by breathtakingly boring drum work that fails to keep up with Liam’s energetic vocal. The instrumental “Swamp Song” follows, the only track on The Masterplan that clearly qualifies as filler material.
I’d always thought that what made “I Am the Walrus” such a great song was not all the special effects but the strong underlying baseline rock pattern that gave Lennon and friends solid ground on which to play with possibilities. That hypothesis is proven in Oasis’ version of the song, a live-performance, no-nonsense kick-ass rocker delivered with energy and commitment. It’s followed by “Listen Up,” a song that sounds like a lesser version of the classic “Live Forever.” On the other hand, “Rocking Chair” is one of those songs that makes you want to pick your acoustic guitar and learn it so you can play it with friends on those occasions when slight drunkenness neutralizes your stage fright. The song flows naturally and easily, and the chords are indeed grouped in such a way that it’s an easy song for the amateur to master.
Noel’s second acoustic number is the country-tinged “Half the World Away,” a soft and wistful tune about that vague feeling of restless dissatisfaction that comes upon us from time to time when we feel out of touch with the world:
I would like to leave this city
This old town don’t smell too pretty and
I can feel the warning signs running around my mind
And when I leave this island I’ll book myself into a soul asylum
‘Cause I can feel the warning signs running around my mind
I can so relate to those lyrics right now as I negotiate my way through a period of moving away/moving towards.
“(It’s Good) To Be Free” is a darker song than the title would lead you to believe, and though I like Liam’s vocal, this song doesn’t quite work for me. On the other hand, “Stay Young” is one of Oasis’ most positive and anthemic songs, a song that might have significantly improved the feel of Be Here Now had it been included instead of being relegated to obscurity as the B-side of “D’You Know What I Mean.” With a great melody, strong chorus and Liam singing with warm enthusiasm, “Stay Young” is one of Oasis’ most optimistic numbers:
They’re making you feel so ashamed
Making you taking the blame
Making you cold in the night
Making you question your heart and your soul
And I think that it’s not quite right
Hey! Stay young and invincible!
‘Cause we know just what we are
And come what may, we’re unstoppable
‘Cause we know just what we are.
“Headshrinker” takes off like a Corvette from a dead stop and just keeps on flying down the highway. Almost punk in terms of its frantic energy, this is Oasis kicking ass without apologies. After that welcome burst of energy, the epic title track commands your complete attention with its contrasting and subdued opening passage made even more captivating by the introduction of strings. How “The Masterplan” wound up as a B-side is anyone’s guess, as it’s a perfect album closer that could have been held to strengthen Be Here Now. The core message of the song is captured in the line, “All we know is we don’t know how it’s going to be,” an apparently contradictory comment to the expressed belief that “We’re all part of the masterplan.” In truth, life is a story written by our choices, and we will likely only see the design of the tapestry as we’re on our way out. Noel’s advice is “dance if you want to dance,” to follow your impulses rather than the script and let the plot emerge and surprise you. Beautifully arranged and featuring one of Noel’s clearest vocals, “The Masterplan” is a wonderful bookend to an album that opened with the equally strong “Acquiesce.”
The Masterplan has the same effect on me today that it did when I first heard it during my waning years of high school: I wished that Oasis would live forever. Well, that didn’t happen, but at least we have this wonderful collection that will indeed live forever regardless of any stupid shit one Gallagher brother says about the other in the future.