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.