We choose to revel in the big-chorused glory of mid-90s British pop music, with some of the era’s defining players
Of all the genres of music over the last few decades, Britpop might be the most derided of all. For us, unjustifiably so. To blame it for the lad culture of the mid-90s would be like holding The Beatles to account for Charles Mansun. Therefore, we invite you to discover the real Britpop and revel in all its big-chorused glory…
Ah Britpop, a time when musicians took tea at 10 Downing Street, glamour models appeared in music videos and bespectacled frontmen of formerly uncool bands embarrassed Michael Jackson at the Brit Awards. The death knell of British guitar music, when groups disappeared so far up their own egos that they didn’t even notice that all they were doing was ripping off the music of the past. Sounds awful, doesn’t it?
Or so some will have you think, but not us. Like psychedelia and punk before it, Britpop showed how music could provide hope to a young generation, give them a voice and a scene to call their own. And you know what, the songs were actually pretty great.
Between the springs of 1994 and 1997 Britain was able to, belatedly, crawl out from the grey spectre of the 80s and the dole culture of that decade. There had already been suggestions that music would lead the way, The Stone Roses’ infamous Spike Island gig on 27 May 1990 was a mass gathering of like-minded individuals which hinted that change was afoot. But the Roses weren’t able to hold it together long enough to finish what they had started. Instead, it was left to a pair of bands, one from each end of the country, to lead the charge.
That Oasis and Blur were diametrically opposed might also explain the genre’s popularity, helping it to throw a blanket over much of the population. Whether from the North or South, the working or middle classes, there was someone speaking from you. And each appeared to be singing from a similar hymn sheet.
With their debut Definitely Maybe, Oasis created songs about escaping the city and living a better life and, together with Blur’s Parklife, presented listeners with a genuine alternative to the grungy dirge emanating from across the pond. And just like that, bands from every corner of the UK found themselves with a music press, and fans, ready to embrace them. Groups such as Suede, Ocean Colour Scene, Elastica, Echobelly, Menswear and Cast.
When defining the archetypal Britpop sound you have to mention the big choruses and hooks. These were singable anthems which harked back to the glory days of the 60s and 70s while still managing to sound fresh to young ears.
More experienced lugholes would bemoan Suede’s similarity to Bowie or Elastica’s nod to Wire and The Buzzcocks, but hasn’t art always cherry-picked the best bits of what came before?
This was a time of optimism, the sunshine after the thunder. Even in the kitchen sink dramas of Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker (he of the Jackson incident) or Brett Anderson of Suede’s neon-lit vignettes of London’s seedier side, it was life-affirming stuff… a scene which (to badly paraphrase Supergrass’ Alright) made its audience feel young and free.
Britpop dragged in music from the periphery too. Leftovers from the Madchester scene, like John Squire’s Sea Horses and Shaun Ryder’s Black Grape, found
a new home and visitors from the dance world, such as The Chemical Brothers, Underworld and The Prodigy greatly benefited from sharing the same stages and records as their peers from across the genre divide.
When you consider how marginalised guitar-led music has become in 2018, it’s worth remembering just how far Britpop encroached into the mainstream. The climax, of course, came when Oasis and Blur battled it out in the charts by releasing singles on the same day. Albarn and co. purposefully pushed the release of single Country House back to 14 August 1995 in order to compete with Roll With It. Damon even made an appearance on the national news to (somewhat sheepishly) champion his band’s cause; a move which paid off when they pipped the Gallagher brothers to the No 1 spot.
Then, in 1997, it all just seemed to fizzle out. Partly because, with Tony Blair inviting Noel Gallagher to his house to celebrate Labour’s victory in that year’s election, the fans weren’t prepared for their favourite poacher to turn establishment gamekeeper. The death of Princess Diana also cast a long shadow over the country and the music world turned, first, to Elton John and then, with his own watered-down version of Britpop, to Robbie Williams for comfort.
The genre’s legacy can perhaps be best seen in the tribute acts selling out large venues and the many reunions (Sleeper have just announced details of their first new album in 20 years), the music clearly still means something to those who were raised on it. But more than that, in these times of political division and increasing hardship wouldn’t it be great if another genre could unite us in hope in the way that Britpop once did.
Over the years we’ve spoken to many of those who were on the inside of Britpop (and a few who were peering over the fence). Here’s what they have to say…
“I had a big plan for Cast and envisaged us going places – I thought the songs had something very special…We nearly disbanded before we got it on… the industry were signing the wrong type of bands – the idea of Britpop hadn’t really caught on at that point. But then we were supporting Oasis, who were about ten yards ahead of everyone, and it all started happening. We were really tight, gigging All Change, playing that live for an hour every night. It was going down a storm.”
“We were confident that we’d find our audience. We just hoped we’d be a cult band – that would’ve been enough for us! When Slight Return went so big and the album followed it didn’t feel real. Titles I’d always find hardest to come up with, which is why some of them are quite obtuse. Even with Slight Return, it isn’t a line from the song – it’s just a nickname that stuck. That happened a lot of the time… There are so many different ways that you can conjure a song out of the air.”
“A friend had a six-track mixing desk in his attic, and we’d write songs in there, and that’s how we started Alisha’s Attic. We got into the industry through a guy called Mark Fox, who was one of the people renowned for discovering the Spice Girls, who introduced us to the music lawyer David Glick and he started to send our stuff to record labels. Luckily we were writing the right songs at the right time and got signed…”
“It was work as usual until Oasis broke, then everybody wanted bands like them, so it was a desperate cash-in by the rock world to try to join in the party… I thought we’d already established that rock music was something that wasn’t going anywhere any time soon and it was a bit sad when everyone was trying to turn into Britpop bands. So I kind of rejected any idea of there being such a thing, to be honest.”
“I’m not bothered about representing a nation. At that time there was the whole Britpop thing and I just thought, ‘It’s not the Olympics, it’s not sport, it’s music!’ I wasn’t really that fussed about it. You had Tony Blair coming in with the Union Jack and Cool Britannia and it’s just a marketing tool. I kind of feel a bit whatever about it, even though I love England and I love where I come from, but music is music isn’t it… I don’t think I’ve got anything outside of music for that decade, it was just music”
“The first song that was written for The Man Who was written half an hour after I wrote The Line Is Fine for Good Feeling, and that was Writing To Reach You. I can’t think of two more different songs and yet they happened within 20 minutes of each other. It didn’t fit with all those other rocky songs. Good Feeling was like wearing Britpop on your sleeve, but it was starting to get quieter towards the end of that album. So I was writing songs for The Man Who and I didn’t even know what The Man Who was!”
“Back then, York was full of folk artists playing in pubs with an open fire. We were a bit different but because we were doing that after Manchester there was an awful lot of dance/acid house stuff, but there wasn’t a lot of guitar bands… What we didn’t realise was that there were bands like us all around the country probably thinking the same as us. Obviously, The Bluetones, Oasis, and all of these bands, wanted to bring guitars back and that crash kind of created Britpop.”
THE DIVINE COMEDY
“I did enjoy the moderate amount of fame that I received and I enjoyed being on Top Of The Pops and having chart positions. That was all kind of exciting and I’d grown up on British chart music so it was a huge ambition to do all that. But I was able to run the songwriting in parallel to that, and not one becoming toxic to the other… I enjoyed writing hooky tunes – and I thought hooks are nothing to be sneered at, I think they’re incredibly important in music and songwriting…”
Words: Duncan Haskell