I don’t know when I became aware of Britpop as a ‘scene’. In late 1994 I had read a few articles on a hotly-tipped band called Suede, and then watching Top of the Pops one Thursday evening it featured a band called Blur playing a slightly annoying song called “Girls and Boys”. Personally I was more interested in raiding my parents collection of 60s and 70s vinyl for bands, and I was under no illusion that I was deeply uncool.
British guitar music had been in a rather sorry state for years, at least as far as I was concerned. I found the appeal of the Baggy / Madchester scene baffling and the whole shoegazing thing had just passed me by. The contemporary acts I liked were few and far between and of them, The Wonder Stuff had called it a day and I wouldn’t discover the joys of Cud and James until the closing months of the century. By 1995 Britpop was very much a ‘thing’ and even a backwards-facing musical luddite like I was at the time couldn’t escape the fact that large swathes of my generation were falling under the spell of these new young(ish) guitar-led acts. Maybe it was my mistrust of anything new, maybe it was my natural resistance to anything considered ‘fashionable’ or ‘cool’, but I initially resisted falling under the immeadiate spell of the same acts. That’s not to say I didn’t hear anything by them, indeed you couldn’t escape this new music, particularly if you were a student in your late teens.
It pains me to admit this almost two decades later, but I finally started paying attention to Britpop in order to gain the attention of a girl. I’m not proud of that fact, but it did mean that I started to take note of the acts that were appearing on Later with Jools Holland from week to week. For me the Britpop box had been opened and for the first (and probably last) time ever, I had a patchy knowledge of the fashionable music movement of the time.
This patchy knowledge didn’t mean I embraced it all though. For me Blur’s faux-cockney knees-up sound that their biggest hit singles were seeped in grated against me in a most unpleasant manner and even now I shudder when recalling Sleeper, who struck me as little more than a cynical marketing exercise whose stature has only diminished since. Then there were bands like The Bluetones, who I vaguely recall were so anonymous sounding that I cannot recall a single song of theirs of note.
Although at the time, each of the main Britpop acts had at least one album that did big business for the band, listening back now, too many albums from the era are hit and miss affairs. While there are some great, great albums, from the shamelessly catchy and riff laden Coming Up by Suede, to the semi-conceptual grandeur of Mansun’s Attack of the Grey Lantern, Super Furry Animals’ stunning Radiator, Supergrass’s In it for the Money and (of course) Pulp’s Different Class, an album which today, sounds very of its time, but still maintains that indefinably quality that all great albums have. However, for every great album, there were at least three albums which just don’t stand up today, where every track other than the singles are very much filler. For a scene with so many bands and that the press got so excited by, it resulted all too few genuinely brilliant albums when you consider how much product the record companies flooded the market with. Perhaps it is best to view Britpop as a scene which produced singles that made for good radio fodder, as even some of its least enduring acts produced the odd toe-tapper. Be it Cast’s “Walkaway”, Echobelly’s “King of the Curb”, Rialto’s “Monday Morning 5:19” and even Dodgy’s “Good Enough”, almost every Britpop act had their moment in the hit-single sun.
There were a number of acts that saw Britpop inject life into dwindling careers, as the likes of Blur, Manic Street Preachers, The Charlatans, Pulp and The Boo Radleys that saw their commercial stock rise as a result of them being labelled Britpop a few years into their career whether they wanted to be or not. There were also those that had been through the block a few times like James, Teenage Fanclub and even Paul Weller, where even the press weren’t sure if they were Britpop or not, but decided to lump them in anyway, just to be on the safe side. Then of course there were those that unashamedly jumped on the Britpop bandwagon after years of obscurity and against all the odds actually made a decent fist of it, such as Ocean Colour Scene.
For me though, there is an elephant in the Britpop party. A vast, inescapable elephant, whose sales, press coverage and undeserving critical acclaim ensured that they became the colossus of the movement and therefore continue to cast a vast shadow over every other Britpop act, including the hugely successful trio of Suede, Blur and Pulp. To me though they embodied everything I detested about Britpop, as they represented a triumph of swaggering arrogance and mediocrity over genuine talent, a celebration of the lowest common denominator and all too willing to sneer at anyone that dare even suggest that they may not be releasing the greatest music in the history of recorded sound. The thing is, they were so hung up on classic rock riffs and grooves that they eschewed anything unique, special, or even original. All these things I could have accepted as being just general run of the mill for the type of mid-level acts that were being signed on a weekly basis at the time. What really wound me up though was their arrogance, the fact that they expected everyone to believe every utterance they ever made was the most enlightening and intelligent thing anyone had ever said. However, this was a band that both celebrated “Cigarettes and Alcohol” and the desire to be a “Rock and Roll Star”. This was not a band prepared to pay their dues and work their way slowly to respectable mass acceptance. They wanted it fast, they wanted it cheap and they wanted it now, as if fame and fortune could be charged to a credit card and paid back in financially crippling monthly instalments thereafter. They didn’t even have the good taste to accept their music for the disposable rubbish it was, they genuinely thought they were creating brilliant artistic statements – The equivalent of someone turning up with a re-heated Big Mac and fries when we were all promised a lavish six course banquet, but still expecting us to eat it and be thankful. Sorry Oasis, I just didn’t ‘get’ what was supposed to be so great about you, and the fact that you enjoyed as much success as you did and for as long as you did, will always make me feel vaguely ashamed about my generation.
Another disappointing thing about Britpop was the fact that there were precious few women making much of an impact. Elastica and Lush aside, there were almost no bands that had more than one woman in them until Kenickie, who arrived just as the Britpop hangover set in and reminded us how much better the whole thing would have been if there had been more equality. Lush, Elastica and Kenickie aside, women in Britpop were either consigned to either standing to one side playing keyboard (Pulp’s Candida Doyle, Lightning Seeds’ Angie Pollack) or guitar (Ash’s Charlotte Hatherley), or alternatively fronting four or five ‘Sleeperblokes’, a term coined at the time for an all male band being fronted by a token woman who was pretty much the only reason that the band stood out. Of the female fronted bands, the only ones to truly stand out were Catatonia and Skunk Anansie, Catatonia’s frontwoman Cerys Matthews had managed to avoid the pitfalls that other women fronting bands of ‘Sleeperblokes’ by possessing a talent far beyond having easy on the eye features. Elsewhere, Skunk Anansie were a hard rocking band who were frequently lumped in with Britpop for no better reason than they were British and played guitars, however their frontwoman Skin was one of the most unique and striking figureheads of any band of the 90s.
For all of Britpop’s sonic limitations, there were a number of bands that did their best to escape that stylistic straight-jacket. Mansun went all nu-prog and lost sales which annoyed their record label enough for them to insist that they record an album of bland tunes which ultimately became their final album. On a more successful note, Blur eventually grew out of their cartoon mockneyisms and became a hell of a lot more interesting for it. Super Furry Animals were just too damn weird to be constrained by Britpop and they quickly morphed into one of the most consistently brilliant bands of the last two decades. Of course, the most notable act to traverse the often murky waters of Britpop were Radiohead, who were briefly tagged with the Britpop label around the time of their The Bends album, but quickly escaped the realms of guitar rock to plough a unique furrow that no other act has since been able to emulate.
Looking back now, there were three albums that gave notice that the clock was ticking for Britpop. Spritiualized’s Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space highlighted just how limiting Britpop was as a genre, and shortly after that Radiohead’s OK Computer did the same, but took the same message into the mainstream, resulting in a lot of red-faced record executives and dozens of Britpop band members either shrugging at each other, or realising that they just weren’t as great as everyone had been telling them they were. The third album was Oasis’s Be Here Now, which was released on my nineteenth birthday to much fanfare, expectation and eye-watering sales, only for the press and public to eventually realise that it was just one giant musical white elephant (which was quite fitting really).
As a result of all this, as the 90s closed, Britpop was on borrowed time. Many of the mediocre bands got dropped after the hit singles and album sales dried up, though there were still moments of occasional brilliance, with albums like ex-Suede guitar man Bernard Butler’s elegant solo debut and The Supernaturals’ overlooked pop masterpiece A Tune a Day. There was still the odd great single, such as Blur’s “Tender” and James bursting Britpop’s fame hungry bubble with “Destiny Calling”. A year or so later the previously unheralded Travis were in the process of recording an album which would become a mega-selling crowd pleaser by keeping all the tuneful aspects of Britpop while minimising its lesser aspects and in the new Millennium a band called Coldplay would polish that sound a little more and achieve what no Britpop act could do and become a genuine global success.
By 2001 Britpop was now a rapidly fading memory. Only the biggest acts remained in the spotlight of the media and of those Pulp and Blur were only going to go on for a few more short years, Oasis remained full of the same empty bluster they always had been and Paul Weller had matured out of his Britpop phase. Both Super Furry Animals and Radiohead had already escaped the decaying orbit of Britpop and were delighting their respective fanbases by simply being Super Furry Animals and Radiohead. Arguably the only band that survived the fall out of the Britpop explosion that didn’t have to consciously distance themselves from it were Supergrass, a band whose output had remained surprisingly consistent, but who had matured along with their audience without alienating anyone by feeling the need to prove they were anything else than a great little rock band.
As I’ve spoken to friends as I’ve written this article it’s become apparent that the legacy of Britpop is difficult to define, as other than the rather Britpop Mk2 scene that briefly bubbled up a decade ago, it doesn’t seem to have had much of a lasting influence sound-wise, other than to prompt music fans to perhaps pay a little more attention to their parents album collections (funny that…). Britpop was arguably the last music scene dictated by the press, as shortly after its death-rattle, the internet was allowing the average music fan access to a greater diversity of acts than they could have ever have previously imagined. Perhaps that is Britpop’s legacy then, the last hurrah for the British music industry before it had to change beyond all recognition.
**Thank you to those I’ve spoken to about Britpop as I’ve written this article, specifically Louise, Simon, James, Chris and Sally, as well as my fellow Backseat Mafia writers. Your contributions, thoughts and opinions have been invaluable.