In one of those moments where you realise that you’re getting old because the stuff that happened in your youth is a long time ago now, I read the twin posts by Carter and Gemima @ Sometimes It’s Just A Cigar marking the putative 20th anniversary of Britpop. “Bugger me! (In a purely figurative manner)” I thought, “It’s true: twenty years since Oasis hit the charts. How did that happen?”
So, like so many English cultural strands, I observe it as a outsider, looking on, terrified that the lack of depth I perceive is really just evidence of my lack of understanding. In this case, I don’t think I’m wrong – Britpop really was as shallow as a coffee spill on a formica table in a cheap cafe just round the corner from Affleck’s Palace where the jukebox was still stuck in the sixties.
He cites the use of Don’t Look Back in Anger for the last episode of TV series Our Friends In The North, suggesting that “Oasis are seen as more credible than they really are” as a result of the makers’ decision to use it. But the song was so perfect for that show precisely because of the meaning and depth to it. So now you know that I come down on the same side as Gemima:
Bands who went back to the basics, not musically, no one ever accused the Stone Roses of underproducing their work, but the basics of what music was, people expressing and talking about their lives.
(Of course, it may just be that I was at the time a “lachrymose sixth former” strumming along to ballads, that influences my view)
I recall reading an interview with Noel Gallagher, some time after their second album was released, in which he said that the band’s whole message was summed up in one song, which is “Rock’n’Roll Star”. He said that the northern audiences seeing a bunch of unemployed guitarists on stage mocked that sentiment: a “Yeah, sure you are. Wankers,” type of attitude. But the lyrics weren’t “look at me, I’m famous.”
I love Oasis. I love their rawness, the fact they look like lads from down the pub, I love the fact they arent perfect, and would have fucked both, or either. They looked, and acted like rock stars in an era of people pretending we were all the same. It goes back to Common People. I don’t want my rock stars to act like they are still on the dole. Oasis wrote about things I recognised though, without pretending to be something they weren’t.
That’s what Rock’n’Roll Star was all about. The opening line is, “I live my life in the city / and there’s no easy way out”. The song isn’t about being a big, famous, rock star. It’s about being unemployed or in a deadend job, in a run-down city, but then when you get your band together you can dream and forget about the shit life you lead during the day: “In my mind my dreams are real / Nobody’s concerned about the way I feel / Tonight, I’m a rock’n’roll star!”
If you recognise that emotion – and I did – and understand that’s the context of albums “Definitely Maybe” and “(What’s The Story) Morning Glory” then you get the depth and meaning. This isn’t an intellectual exercise, it’s reporting lived experience and defiant optimism. (After that, I felt the fame and riches gradually distanced Noel from those roots and the music wasn’t as honest.)
But most of all, it got me to thinking about the music, the experience I had of growing up in the 1990s with these soundtracks going on.
To start this journey, I was born just before Thatcher came to power and my experience of popular music was in the 1980s (so, my pre-teen years) much as described by Gemima: “Many of us had seen the music scene completely ignore the dance scene in the 80s, preferring to push the bland pap of people like Seal or Spandau Ballet.” I grew up loving English folk songs, 1960s protest songs, a smattering of blues classics and the Beatles. In 1991, Freddie Mercury died and the next year the school Christmas concert was a tribute: all the various musical groups in my secondary school learned a couple of Queen songs, and the grand finale was the choir, backed by the teachers’ rock band, singing Bohemian Rhapsody. It opened my eyes to what rock music could be and I started on a journey of discovery that pretty soon found grunge, Rolling Stones and more. I started buying records. I wanted to be in a band and started learning guitar.
And then I heard Oasis on Top of the Pops, and bought Definitely Maybe. Britpop became a soundtrack to my later teen years. Not britpop alone, I hasten to add: I still loved the folk music and folk-rock that I heard through family; I experimented with other indie movements (Carter mentions “Cool Cymru”, but I don’t buy the claims he makes about it), and other types of rock, and still like many of those as well. But the core were the bands that somehow came to be lumped together as “britpop”.
Which leads to a tricky question, which is what, exactly, was britpop? What makes a band in or out of the definition? Gemima notes that there were distinct “Northern” and “London” elements but some of the northern bands were from varied cities, and not all the London bands seemed to be in the style. Then again, some that sounded similar never really seemed to attract the label, despite having the “indie” tag – Suede, for example, somehow never felt (to me) like they were included, and yet they were roughly contemporary. Gemima included The Stone Roses, but my understanding was always that they were a precursor rather than part of the movement (Liam Gallagher imitated the vocal style, for example). I think there’s a good case for marking The Stone Roses as a part of the movement, though, because the content was thematically linked in that getting on with life/escapism duality that I noted in “Rock’n’Roll Star” and so on.
Besides, when, exactly, was “britpop”? If this year is the 20th anniversary, then presumably we start it at 1994. When does it end? Well, 1994 was also the year that Tony Blair became leader of the Labour Party and started to “modernise” it out of existence (much as the Tories are doing with the NHS – there’s still a thing called “the Labour Party” but it’s a shadow of what it used to mean). Blair adopted the “cool Britannia” slogan and schmoozed with some of the bands, claimed his musical past as proof he was a part of the movement. This was around 1996, and in 1997 he became Prime Minister. And then we realised that he wasn’t just trying to win our votes, he meant all that right-wing stuff. In my mind, britpop ends roughly when the Blair veneer slips, some time around 1998 or 1999. The music that was once a symbol and expression of resilience was now co-opted by the Establishment.
Here’s the bands I find still in my tape collection (and a few CDs loaded into iTunes) that I think of as being part of that britpop era and movement. It surprised me to realise it’s been a while since I listened to some of these albums and in writing this post revisiting the old memories and emotional impact was a very happy experience. Some of the bands I only found I liked them after a few years, having initially dismissed them, but all of them fit into my memories and resonance. The song after each is the one that immediately springs to mind when I remember the music, or the one that spoke most directly to me emotionally:
Oasis – Live Forever
Blur – Country House
Dodgy – Good Enough
Echobelly – Great Things
Elastica – Waking Up
Embrace – It’s Gonna Take Time
The Verve – The Drugs Don’t Work
Sleeper – Sale of the Century
Pulp – Disco 2000
Cast – Walk Away
The Slingbacks – All Pop No Star
Honourable mentions for bands that for whatever reason don’t feel to me like “britpop”, despite being related to it or roughly contemporary and often sounding very like bands in the list above: Kenickie (top song: “PVC” or “Punka”); Republica (Ready To Go); Cornershop (Brimful of Asha); My Life Story (Sparkle); Suede (Animal Nitrate); The Stone Roses (Waterfall or She Bangs The Drum).
To be fair to Carter, there were quite a few “maudlin ballads” in amongst the output of some of those bands (I’m looking at you, The Verve, and Embrace, particularly), and the groups I think of as the descendants of britpop often go for the guitar-pop ballad as their staple. But there’s nothing ballad-like about most of these, and some only did one or two per album, for variety. These bands aimed more for anthems (in the pop/rock sense, not the religious music sense). Elastica, Kenickie and similar were like my gateway drug into punk and heavy metal, their harder edge intriguing me and encouraging me to seek out more. Republica got me into “nu metal” and exploring more electronica. In fact, going through my tapes and CDs, it was intriguing to see just how much of my broad tastes stemmed from my initial engagement with “britpop” and exploring the popular music of the mid-to-late 1990s. Alright, so the music of my teen years, basically.
I remember growing up in the John Major years. The Cold War had ended, Iraq War 1 was over, Yugoslavia was breaking up with ethnic violence and peacekeeping, the Rwandan genocide was in the news, Britain was struggling out of a recession, Major opted out of the Social Chapter of the Maastricht Treaty, corruption was becoming apparent in Parliament and young people were singing protest songs written by The Levellers (guitar band, not 17th Century political movement) and digging out the old ones that I remembered from my youth. Everywhere the aftermath of Thatcherism seemed to hang like a deadening smog on the culture. Britpop was the music that sprang out of that post-Thatcher experience. If it seems empty of meaning, then perhaps it’s because it doesn’t often talk of a better future, only of the life and the escapism from it. But the deeper meaning was there: “I have a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” It just wasn’t expressed in terms of politics but of culture and social life.
The music was for me a bright spark keeping hope alive, but politically I was full of excitement and righteous activism: I believed in protest movements, in nonviolent direct action, in marching and waving banners. I really hoped in 1997 that getting rid of the Tories could change something. For my activism, I was listening to Levellers, Chumbawamba (“I was into them before it was cool” – i.e. before the release of Tubthumper made them a national name 😉 ) and the like. If the Levellers and the like were the musical “Communist Manifesto” of the time, then britpop, in its genesis anyway, was perhaps something akin to Engels’s “The Condition of the Working Class In England”. It was political because the personal is political and finding one’s everyday, humdrum existence recorded and expressed for all to see was something powerful and valuable for us.
And yes, I still love the defiance, the optimism, the escapism and the reportage that comprised the spirit of those bands and their music. The same issues seem relevant today. Besides, as 2000s punk band “Bowling For Soup” put it in their song “High School Never Ends”:
And you still don’t have the right look
And you don’t have the right friends
And you still listen to the same shit you did back then
Which is another song about the truth of lived experience.