If you’re younger than me, you might not remember “Britpop”.
So, just in case you’ve been hearing about some 20th anniversary, and are wondering “What’s all this about?”, let me enlighten you.
“Britpop” is a vacuous marketing term, from the mid 1990s, which lumped several bands in with a handful, all British, who would have been called “Indie” a few years earlier.
They were a collection of the most insipid (at one end) and most obnoxious (at the other end) British guitar bands of their day, and fulfilled the role of marginalizing more interesting music.
It was a heady time, 1994: Tony Blair was elected leader of the Labour party. That was before he was a mass-murdering psychopathic megalomaniac, so it was considered acceptable to like him. The only death he presided over in those days was the death of the post-war social contract (the idea of public services funded by progressive taxation, providing a safety net for the vulnerable), speeding the continued ascendancy of the Thatcherite nightmare in which we all live now.
So it was considered OK to like Blair in the mid-1990s, before all the bombs and neo-liberal extremism marked him as Just The Same As All The Rest But Somehow Even Worse.
The “Britpop” “movement” (as I hear it called on the radio this week, apparently without irony) was an answer to both the dominance of the charts by “Dance music” (a technical term for pop music not considered part of the Southern US Blues tradition, some of which didn’t even have guitars) and the dominance of “alternative rock” by “grunge” (a term to describe a kind of music from Seattle that was also invented by the music press to describe several bands who weren’t particularly good, and a couple that were).
Bands like Oasis, Blur and Suede (all of whom, in saner times, would have been dismissed as derivative, boring poseurs) were the soundtrack to the changing times in Britain in the mid-1990s.
The times they were a-changing* so fast that they looked, sounded and were politically-managed exactly the same as the three decades before.
Which was clever, in a way.
Here were all these disparate, average (or shite) bands, and all this “lad” (ie, stereotypical working class male) culture, and they all used guitars and they were all British.
Which was brilliant.
Because being British was cool. Being a lad was cool.
The “new-found British self-confidence” was a welcome respite between periods of bombing Iraq and all the other business-as-usual stuff.
Tony Blair was cool, Oasis were cool, even football joined in and was cool for a while, when England hosted an international tournament competently and the team played well for two or three games, at the same time in 1996.
(Even people who had no interest in football in May 1996 were there, singing “Three Lions On A Shirt” in June 1996, and discussing Gazza’s weight and mental health and Teddy Sheringham’s shit haircut and undoubted class and Shearer and Pearce and blah blah blah.
Because it was cool.)
The music industry was right there to bring together these elements in a kind of mawkish nationalism-lite that the credulous presumably found entertaining. It was your basic Bread & Circuses stuff. (Jarvis cocker mooning Jacko at the Brits, Liam Gallagher giving the V’s to a million photographers, and Gazza sliding on his arse, just failing to score in the Euro ’96 semi-final – that was the circus stuff)
It was a heady, exciting time, when, to appeal to teenagers who liked “real” music (another technical term that meant music with guitars and drums), all a band had to do was belt out some bog-standard rock (the kind punks sneered at 20 years before) with bravado and no imagination.
An innocent, happy time in which a band with a retro guitar sound and a singer who sounded like he had something stuck up his arse, and wasn’t sure if he was enjoying it or not could storm up the charts.
A Golden Age of British Bands For British Teenagers. A time when the phrase “Cool Britannia” could be repeated without derision or irony, when simply rhyming two words would induce the record-buying, newspaper-buying public to roll over to have their bellies tickled.
It might be more accurately called the Pre-Ironic Age, that Pre-Millenial World. It was an old-fashioned world, a British world.
A time when all we, British Youth, needed, was British bands. And we knew they were British, because there was a Union Flag on NME every week, and Damon Albarn sang in that sort-of cockney accent.
(Ever the self-effacing realist, Damon Albarn later said “We created a movement.”)
And there was also the magazines, like Loaded, which were brilliant, for some reason.
("BIRDS BOOZE N FOOTY WAAHHEEEEYY" they screamed.)
("BIRDS BOOZE N FOOTY WAAHHEEEEYY" they screamed.)
And it was all cool. Somehow.
(Not like Grunge. What was all that about? Just noise, wasn’t it?)
And teenagers bought music on CDs. From shops.
In musical terms, it was a handful of bands defined by immediately obvious influences (British, 60s guitar-based pop sound of the kind their parents would recognise) – and several bands that got lumped in with them for marketing purposes.
It co-incided with some very mild social change packaged as a massive change for the mass consumption of a conspicuously self-conscious mass media culture.
For those at whom the whole hoopla seemed to be aimed, it now looks like almost everything else from anyone’s childhood/teenage years: a mildly embarrassing phase of awkwardness when we were too young to now better.
The music press (remember them?) and major record labels (remember them?) had a position to justify, and it all worked well for them. In hindsight, it seems like their last fling.
And now, Steve Lamacq goes on the radio and talks about it like it was the fucking Renaissance, or something.
And then in 1997 (when I was 16), OK Computer was released and I breathed a sigh of relief and felt creative and excited, and not at all sad.
GLOSSARY OF (SOME) BRITPOP BANDS
Not really part of any scene. Not really any good.
Bandwagon-jumping tossers posing as working-class stereotypes. At very best, sounded just a little bit like The Kinks.
Utter fucking shite, that’s the kindest thing I can say about them.
Sort of like Belly, if Belly were shit.
Wanted to be The Smiths so much they couldn’t sleep at night.
They wore suits. That’s honestly all I can remember.
Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha
Balls-out bravado-heavy Beatles-wannabe, pro-lager and cocaine working-class stereotypes. Distinctly average, but widely liked, for some reason.
Ocean Colour Scene
Chris Evans-approved rock. Says it all, really.
The most interesting of the lot (no achievement, that), had been around for years when tarred with the “Britpop” brush. Often mentioned in sentences like “Britpop bands, like Blur, Oasis and Pulp” by Stuart Maconie and others who make a living remembering things that seemed good at the time.
This lot wanted to be The Rolling Stones. Can you see a pattern emerging?
Not that bad. Alright first album, second one not as good.
A mix of glam-rock and Morrissey-aping whine that wasn’t any better than that makes it sound.
Cheeky. “We’re all young and cheeky, we are…” got better with age, which was a pleasant (although, by then inconsequential) surprise.