“Looking back, Britpop is almost unique among those musical trends which lasted half a decade or more, in that you couldn’t fill a Nuggets-type compilation with genuinely good tracks.” – Taylor Parkes
“There were lots of bands around back then, and some of them haven’t dated very well.” – Gaz Coombes
“Once the box marked ‘the past’ was open, other people were bound to cherry pick rather less recherche inspirations – why bother drawing on forgotten Lynsey de Paul album tracks when you had the Beatles, the Stones, the Jam? With the first wave of Britpop we unwittingly set everyone up for Union Jack sweaters and endless re-runs of Quadrophenia.” – Bob Stanley
“It’s got to mean something, it needs to mean something, surely it must mean something.” – Sleeve notes from Pulp’s ‘Sorted For Es & Wizz’ single
Last year the BBC held celebrations to mark the 20th anniversary of ‘Britpop’. Their starting date was taken from the release of Blur’s ‘Parklife’ on April 24th 1994. For me the relevant date to mark is 20th August 1995, when Blur beat Oasis in the “Battle of Britpop.” On that day I was in holiday with my mother, sister and grandmother in a guesthouse in Torbay, listening to the top 40 countdown on a portable radio, feeling that something hugely exciting was happening. I experienced Britpop from the sticks, through Select magazine, on Top of the Pops and Radio 1, and bought into it, completely, for a while at least. I taped ‘Britpop Now’ and watched it perhaps 50 times. There are a hundred other things I could’ve been into, but I wasn’t. Britpop was my thing and two decades later I still feel like I somehow need to stick up for it. So I made this, and we’ll see if Taylor Parkes is right.
In making this sort of compilation, the intention of the curator is usually to draw attention to something which has been neglected, but with Britpop this would clearly be insane. For starters, it already receives too much attention, as the tedious week of nostalgic guff the BBC released made clear. Even in 1995, it relied on already recycled sounds and ideas, when much more interesting music was going on elsewhere, and being ignored as it didn’t fit Britpop’s conservative little box. To side with Britpop is to side with the dull parochial nostalgics, and against almost anyone who was making genuinely interesting art at the time. Even many of the artists on this compilation have little or nothing positive to say about it. All true, and yet I would like to make the case that there is still something here worth saving, or at least to find out if such a case exists, if my reasons for listening to any of this is anything more than nostalgia.
Britpop began with “The scene that celebrates itself” – a collection of friends who hung around in Camden and sometimes played in each-other’s bands, all producing different kinds of experimental or arty music, none of it remotely commercial, a sort of early 90s indie Bloomsbury Group. Most of the people involved would have nothing to do with Britpop, but the scene would survive and mutate into a very different beast, an often bitchy group, not playing with each-other so often, but becoming increasingly similar in their sound. The actual people involved came from all corners of the country, but most of them ended up drinking in the same few pubs, then came cocaine, then heroin, then The Spice Girls.
This compilation mainly tells the story of this group, excluding those who deliberately distanced themselves (Manic Street Preachers, Saint Etienne), those who were never really involved (The Verve, Radiohead, Kenickie), and those who came along too late (Travis, Kula Shaker.) I’m also limiting the scope to 1993-1997, and going in roughly chronological order. These rules will be strictly obeyed, except when I feel like breaking them. I was also planning to exclude Blur, Oasis and Pulp, but the story makes little sense without them, so here they are too – but in the form of album tracks and b-sides.
1. Suede – Metal Mickey
This is as good a place as any to start – spiky artpop with a distinctly English flavour tearing up the pop charts. (Or at least it seemed to be in the music press; the cool kids at school preferred The Levellers and Kingmaker.) ‘Metal Mickey’ was Suede’s first hit, and stood out from everything else in 1993. The first Suede album conjured up a magical world all of its own, one that was too left-field and romantic to be easily replicable, and all that later bands seemed to draw from it was a sense of scale of ambition. Unfortunatly the more important factor in the invention of Britpop was the Select cover. It set up the idea that something was going to happen, and that was apparently all that was needed. As for Suede, their influence would swiftly wane, the poetry and drama giving way to a comfortable cruise control mode which would continue to sell records long after Britpop had been and gone.
2. Denim – Middle of the Road
Also featured on the “Yanks go Home” cover was Denim, a new project from Lawrence, formerly of Felt, refugee from the lost world of C86. Too early to join the Britpop party and too odd to get into the mainstream, Lawrence would spend the rest of the 90s experimenting with increasingly cheap-sounding synths, often to brilliant effect, but apparently of little interest to people who actually bought CDs. His comeback single “Summer Smash” was pulped in the aftermath of the death of Princess Diana, but it’s doubtful that it would’ve attracted much attention in the Britain of 1997 anyway. ‘Middle of the Road’ is the first of a couple of statements of intent, something which Britpop in its stride conspicuously avoided. (NB: If anyone is angry about Lawrence “hating” any of these act, please pay attention to the bit where he says he “hates guitar licks” and, you know, don’t take things so literally.)
3. The Auteurs – American Guitars
The Auteurs positioned themselves as the mortal enemy of Britpop, so they seem a little out of place here. In 1993, however, they were on the Select cover with everyone else, and ‘American Guitars’ sets up the parochial narrative of Britpop as much as anything on Modern Life is Rubbish, in ways that nobody really intended.
“I am working on a new song called ‘American Guitars’: part sarcastic riposte to British bands who cannot find their own voice, forever worshipping at the altar of US rock, part self-mythologizing history of my fledgling band. Soon the British press will pick up on ‘American Guitars’, proclaiming it some sort of battle cry against the marauding Yanks. It won’t be long before Britpop rears its ugly head…” – Luke Haines ‘Bad Vibes; Britpop and My Part in its Downfall’
Britpop wasn’t supposed to be a reaction against grunge, but a reaction against British indie music of the early 90s – more anti-Stourbridge than anti-Seattle. This distinction was, naturally, lost as Britpop found its way to the tabloid press.
4. Elastica – Stutter
Then there was a year or two where there was something changing, but it wasn’t really clear what it was, and none of the names given to it would stick. The “scene” was well established, however, and Elastica were sitting right at its hub. Aside from the obvious Brett-Justine-Damon connection tying them to Suede and Blur, the group will pop up here again and again, in relationships, friendships, as housemates and substance abuse enablers to about half the groups here. To quote Luke Haines again;
“Donna [Matthews, Elastica guitarist], although she doesn’t realise it, is a negative Timothy Leary figure. Arriving in London from Newport with just an electric guitar and enough heroin for the movers and shakers of the Camden scene to turn on, tune in and nod out.”
After an excellent, if not terribly original (but really, who cares?) debut LP, Elastica would descend into an ever changing line-up of junkies, producing little more than an EP of good material over half a decade, so let’s remember them with ‘Stutter’, the moment when they really were briefly the best band in the world, and the only charting song I can think of on the topic of brewer’s droop.
To read more about Elastica please have a look at Kat Stevens’s One Week One Band entries, which really sum up the suburban Britpop experience as well as anything I’ve read.
5. Pulp – Lipgloss
Pulp had been around forever, of course. Their first rehearsal took place a whole fifteen years before the release of this single, though to be fair this particular lineup had only been at it for four. It was their luck to reach their most commercial phase at just the right moment, and to tire of it marginally more quickly than the public did. Of all the groups here, Pulp mean the most to me, but rather than explain why at length here, I’ll direct you to my other blog where I’m reviewing all of their songs (and promise to start updating it again soon.) Lipgloss is the group’s first top 40 hit, and marks a nice mid-point between the multicolored brilliance of their Gift singles and the pop sheen of their nascent imperial phase. It’s also a good demonstration of the Ed Buller thousand-layer production style which dominated these years before Steven Street, Owen Morris and Chris Thomas became so dominant. Speaking of which…
6. Blur – Tracy Jacks
Of course all of this might have been for nothing if it hadn’t been for Parklife. Music that sounded vaguely like The Kinks and XTC, lyrics about archetypal English characters; this would be the blueprint for 50% of Britpop acts to either define themselves by or in opposition to. Parklife itself is a good deal more varied than this suggests, from the silly punk of Bank Holiday to the swoony balladry of To The End and the sarcastic disco of Girls & Boys. Only a couple of tracks fit the overall picture, and Tracy Jacks is probably the best of them – all Tony Hancock and Reggie Perrin set to tightly meandering post-punk, somehow sounding like it wouldn’t worry Radio 2.
7. Echobelly – Today, Tomorrow, Sometime, Never
Echobelly arrived on the scene surprisingly early, narrowly avoiding being labeled “New Wave of New Wave” by being insufficiently new wave. Comprised of Indian singer Sonya Madan, black lesbian guitarist Debbie Smith and hugely tall Swedish pornographer Glenn Johansson (and a markedly less multicultural rhythm section), some might expect them to have been one of the less predictable Britpop groups, but for whatever reason it didn’t really work out that way. This is Sonya’s song about emerging from a restrictive upbringing to find the world of rock’n’roll to have more lethargy and less direction than it had seemed from the outside. This is an unusual and quite personal topic for a pop song, and that’s a good thing.
8. Salad – Your Ma
Further deviating from the ‘4 white English boys’ cliche, here’s Salad, with Dutch singer Marijne van der Vlugt. Salad never really reaped any success from Britpop, possibly because they had lyrics too ridiculous to tolerate, or possibly because Marijne was a model and a ‘VJ’ on MTV8 Europe, which made her somehow suspect to the music magazines. Do me a favour and please ignore all of this – Salad were one of the strongest groups of the era, recording two whole LPs without so much as a duff track. ‘Your Ma’ is the group at their prime – bizarre lyrics over deranged punk-pop music, but if you want something a little more serious then check out this article about ‘Motorbike to Heaven’ at ‘Left and to the Back’ where Marijne is pretty active in the comments.
9. Shed Seven – Dolphin
I was spending the weekend at my Dad’s flat in Romford when I saw this exciting new group called Shed Seven on an LWT regional arts programme. Returning to high school in Worcester, I found to my surprise that they had supplanted Ride as the band of the moment. Having only heard ‘Dolphin’, Shed Seven seemed like our generation’s great angry, funky punk band, but I’m afraid to say I found everything else they did to be little more than water treading. In spite of my *very important* personal misgivings, the formula worked, and they managed another 14 top 40 hits, the last one as late as 2003, and only one of them was rerecorded by the group as a jingle for a mobile phone shop.
10. Oasis – Bring It On Down
So far we’ve covered one half of ‘Britpop’, so here’s the other. On the surface there seems to be a huge divide, but this is deceptive – Oasis were also nostalgics posing as revolutionaries, and they also drank at The Good Mixer. I tired of Oasis more quickly than most, but it’s hard to deny the power in something like Bring It On Down. Oasis were best when they were hungry, and it’s this drive and passion that got them in the door in the first place, something else that was quickly forgotten. Can you imagine anyone else here (or any of their descendants for that matter) singing ” You’re the outcast / You’re the underclass…”?
11. Whiteout – No Time
The first guitar band to sign with Silvertone since The Stone Roses, Whiteout went on a triumphant co-headlining tour with Oasis in 1993 to considerable enthusiasm from both press and public. At least one of the two groups was fated to be successful – that is, Oasis were. It would’ve been a huge surprise if anyone was particularly interested in Whiteout in, say, 1995. Primal Scream’s ‘Give Out But Don’t Give Up’ had tested everyone’s patience for hoary blues-rock, and even by the end of 1994, it sounded like the last thing anyone wanted to hear. After their LP flopped and their singer and drummer quit, Whiteout optimistically carried on for a few years as a two-piece, to apparently zero interest from anyone, then quietly split. Scottish Britpop groups, as we will continue to see, were cursed.
12. Ash – Petrol
Three sixth-formers from Northern Ireland, Ash only count as a ‘Britpop’ group due to an accident of timing, releasing mainstream indie-pop singles like Girl From Mars in 1995, before naturally deciding they were a rock group after all and positioning themselves very much on the other side of the Atlantic. Unlike almost anyone else on here, they are still around. ‘Petrol’ is their second single, from 1994.
13. Thurman – English Tea
If you care about authenticity (I don’t) then Thurman are probably not the group for you. Originally a heavy metal band genuinely called “2 Die 4”, they saw the way the wind was blowing, changed their singer and started playing semi-plagiaristic rip-offs of glam rock and 60s pop. Was this all done cynically? Not sure it matters. Skilled imitation is a valuable thing, and their album Lux is still an enjoyable listen, even now. “Famous” is a pretty insightful piece about an indie singer suddenly realising he could be big-time famous and getting a little too carried away, but it’s “English Tea” that’s presented here, purely as it’s the closest thing I can find anywhere to a 100% Britpop genre-piece.
14. 60ft Dolls – Happy Shopper
60ft Dolls just didn’t fit in. A welsh rock group, normally found drinking heavily and getting into various kinds of trouble, they would seem a natural fit for the ‘Oasis’ side of the great Britpop schism, if it weren’t for the fact that they were brought together, pre-Britpop, by Elastica guitarist Donna Matthews, who was dating bassist Michael Cole and working in the same pizza restaurant as guitarist Richard Parfitt. After putting out a few surprisingly soulful punk-rock singles like ‘Happy Shopper’, the group found themselves inevitably sucked into the Camden whirlpool, a shame as they showed a certain amount of promise. Later Richard made more of an impact on the music scene by discovering Duffy.
15. Sleeper – Inbetweener
It’s a bit disingenuous to paint Sleeper as pioneers of any sort, but they were the first to take that ‘Parklife’ sound and successfully export it to the charts. Louise Wener didn’t have much of a voice, but she made the best of what she had, burbling and cooing around the edges of her tiny range, creating vividly realized stories of suburban English relationships – in truth, there was a lot to like. ‘Inbetweener’ is still their best-known song, and for good reason – it takes ‘Chemical World’ or ‘Stereotypes’ and adds some much-needed empathy. After their first LP, Sleeper for some reason adopted a policy of putting all their musical experimentation into the first 20 seconds of their songs, leading to disappointment when the colour-leeched ‘real song’ kicked in. Were they deliberately trying to be “more commercial”? I hope not.
Louise is one of the few Britpop alumni who still praises the movement, and has managed to reinvent herself as a writer of reasonably good indie-themed chicklit. The Sleeperblokes have presumably found alternative careers.
16. Supergrass – Mansize Rooster
More kids, but this time veterans too. Before Supergrass there was The Jennifers, a fey jangle indie band easily eclipsed by their sequel. I found Supergrass to be genuinely exciting at the time, not hugely original of course, but with the inspiration to back up their influences and an ability to turn up the heavy from time to time, which was lacking in most of their contemporaries. A shame that they are remembered more for the chirpy ‘Alright’ and its novelty video. Mansize Rooster is much better, endlessly inventive and accomplished without ever being self-indulgent.
Supergrass, of course, stuck it out for ages, only breaking up in 2010
17. Dodgy – So Let Me Go Far
Dodgy had been around for a good few years by the time Britpop arrived (I remember Chris Morris, of all people, playing them in 1993) and had the good fortune to peak just as their sound accidentally gelled with the zeitgeist. They might’ve shared influences with many of the other bands here, but they slotted them together in quite a different, much more earnest way. Sometimes this worked out well, as it does on ‘So Let Me Go Far’, a welcome dose of sincerity in what Damon Albarn described as the “blizzard of cocaine.” Soon, though, they just seemed to be a band who played every festival going in order to be sung along with by hoards of beered-up lads in Mani hats; and even this job was snatched from them when Travis appeared. That’s not how I want to remember them, but it’s hard to avoid it.
18. The Boo Radleys – Stuck on Amber
More ship-jumpers here, b-list shoegazers The Boo Radleys decided that they were interested in making pop music, and created ‘Wake Up Boo’ – a track seemingly tailored to be the theme to Chris Evans’ Radio 1 Breakfast Show. Received wisdom has it that ‘Wake Up Boo’ and ‘It’s Lulu’ were just sneaky cover to introduce quality songwriting into the charts, and if you’d asked me last year I’d have agreed – I bought ‘Find The Answer Within’ and ‘From the Bench at Belvidere’ and thought ‘Ride the Tiger’ was one of the best singles of 1997. Listening back, though, I seem to have lost whatever it is I saw in them, the songs sound muddy, the tunes seem to be AWOL. ‘Stuck On Amber’, featured on a wonderful Select cover tape in 1995, is the only thing that grabs me now, I’m afraid.
19. My Life Story – Angel
Enough with the four-piece bands, to close CD1 we have a small orchestra fronted by an immaculately coiffured fop. I liked My Life Story, but was put off by their fanbase – mainly painfully shy bookish couples in their mid 20s wearing matching MLS t-shirts. Nice people, I’m sure, but not an exciting crowd when you’re 16. That was them all over – fairly good, but somehow faintly embarrassing at the same time. They did really made an effort to engage with their fanbase, producing a newsletter called “Sex & Violins,” seemingly every month, and sending out more free gifts than anyone else. Of course, this didn’t mean they would escape the great post-Britpop label purge at the end of the 90s. ‘Angel’ is possibly the most heartfelt and least arch thing they ever did, and stands up well even now.