If you've been keeping up with the music world in the UK recently, you'd be forgiven for thinking we were in 1995, not the 2000s. There's been a Britpop revival. Summer 2009 saw the triumphant live return of Blur and the split of their arch-enemies Oasis after one too many arguments between the Gallagher brothers. Over the past two years, minor bands such as Cast and Shed Seven also reformed and this summer sees Pulp jump on the bandwagon. But what was the last great British musical movement, and why is it worth celebrating nearly two decades later?
The start of the 90s saw a strange mishmash of musical styles. From the tail end of the 80s emerged acid house and 'Madchester' with the Happy Mondays and Primal Scream unique and colourful fusion of dance and guitar music, where the focus was on having a good time (with or without the help of drugs). At the opposite end of the spectrum was the anger of grunge popularised by Nirvana and the hypnotic but often uninspiring sound of shoegaze, named as such because the musicians spent entire gigs staring at their effects pedals!
Britpop essentially rose out of both of these musical extremes. The good times of Madchester soon faded away as the Stone Roses went into hiatus and even the music press began to tire of the self-conscious introspection of shoegaze with its increasingly bad band names. Attention began to focus around emerging bands in London, especially the Camden Town area. Britpop was as much about the relationships and feuds that linked these bands together as the music, specifically the love triangle between Brett Anderson (singer of Suede), Damon Albarn (singer of Blur) and Justine Frischmann (later singer of Elastica). The scene was dubbed by Select Magazine as "The Scene That Celebrates Itself", and immediately things began to happen.
Journalist John Harris points towards two seminal records as the beginning of Britpop; Suede's eponymously titled debut album and Blur's second album Modern Life Is Rubbish. Suede were the epitome of dark glamour, with Brett's soaring voice recounting tales of drugs, council houses and sexual ambiguity. Blur, on the other hand, were reasserting their nationality after a terrible encounter with America. Damon Albarn's lyrics reflected a culture which he viewed as being invaded by American influence, and his own personal 'manifesto for Britishness', inspired by the culture of the 60s. Riding a wave of publicity following Brett's appearance in front of a Union Jack in Select Magazine, Suede went straight to number one and is still the fastest selling debut album in UK history.
Although Modern Life Is Rubbish was a more moderate success than Suede, Blur had been working on what would come to be known as one of the definitive Britpop albums. Parklife was released in early 1994 and with the death of Kurt Cobain, cemented Blur's position as the biggest band in the UK. At the same time, so began the rise of Oasis, a five piece from Manchester who were determined to be the classic rock 'n' roll band of the 90s and emulate The Beatles in terms of success. Definitely Maybe, their debut album was released to great excitement in spring 1994. With the constant bickering of outspoken brothers Noel (lead guitarist) and Liam (lead singer) Gallagher, they soon began to grab headlines as much as Blur and the press began to engineer a rivalry between the two bands.
Between 1994 and 1995, the success led to an explosion of success for a whole array of bands such as Elastica, Supergrass and Pulp (who had been around since the 80s, but found mainstream success with Britpop). Although bands tended to vary between the witty cynicism inspired by Blur (Sleeper, Gene) and the all-out guitar rock of Oasis (Cast, Ocean Colour Scene), they were all very much British in their sensibilities. There was even a manufactured Britpop band in the form of Menswear, who infamously signed a record deal before even playing a gig. It seemed like almost any new British indie band could have a hit.
The summer of 1995, however, saw the peak of Britpop. Blur and Oasis were releasing their new singles in the same week of August. Dubbed the 'British Heavyweight Championship' and 'Battle of Britpop' by the NME, the battle was set between southern middle class art school boys Blur and northern working class lads Oasis. This was no longer about who had the best song, but more about class and regional wars. The story even reached the broadsheets and the evening news, truly showing the spread of Britpop like never before. When it came to the crunch, Blur's 'Country House' beat Oasis' 'Roll With It' to number one, but the battle wasn't over yet.
As many say, Oasis may have lost the battle but they certainly won the war. The release of anthems such as Don't Look Back In Anger and Wonderwall in 1996 had cemented their reputation as music for the masses. Whilst Blur et al. were popular, Oasis were on a whole new level never seen by most indie bands. Their album (What's The Story) Morning Glory? became one of the biggest selling albums in British history and it was estimated 1 in 4 households owned a copy. They also had the dubious honour of hosting the largest ever gig in Britain at Knebworth in summer 1996 - over 2 million people applied for tickets and the gig could have been filled 20 times over.
By 1997, even Oasis didn't think they could get any bigger, and so began the decline of Britpop. The media, enthused by the sudden explosion of British music, began to get excited about a whole new revival of British culture known as 'Cool Britannia'. It was even capitalised upon by Tony Blair, the then Labour leader in his general election campaign. When voted into Downing Street in May 1997, he held a reception whose guests included Noel Gallagher. At this point many believe the movement had lost touch with its indie roots and began to turn their backs on it. Blur released their self titled album which was clearly influenced by American indie rock, as they purposely distanced themselves from Britpop, and many other bands began to split or fade away.
It was up to Oasis, however, to give the final death blow to Britpop. As with other bands like Elastica, drugs such as cocaine and heroin began to interfere with the music making, and this was no more clear than in Oasis' album Be Here Now. The album was hyped up to enormous levels, but even Noel Gallagher admitted it was off the mark, sounding overproduced and directionless. The same drug-addled fate also befell albums such as Suede's Dog Man Star and Pulp's This Is Hardcore (which are nonetheless spectacular records well worth checking out). However the turn from commercial to dark and troubled left the public disappointed, and the country turned its attention to bands such as Radiohead and later The Verve. Both who were arguably helped by the popularity and success of Oasis with their universal guitar anthems. Their influence lasted well into the next century, paving the way for singalong friendly bands such as Coldplay and Travis. What had started out as an exciting indie movement had now become the backing music to a thousand TV programmes.
Although fading into darkness, Britpop was a bright light in 90s culture. Arguably the last time there was a coherent movement in British music, it's possible that in the future bands may look back on 1993-1997 and be inspired in the way that Britpop bands were by the 1960s and 70s.
All of the artists/songs/albums mentioned above plus
Elastica - Elastica
I Should Coco - Supergrass
Different Class - Pulp
The Great Escape - Blur
Coming Up - Suede
Urban Hymns - The Verve
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Britpop - very good starting point
Britpop! Cool Britannia and the Spectacular Demise of English Rock (book) - John Harris, 2004
Live Forever (film) - John Dower, 2003