Lately, inspired by Dominic Sandbrook’s books about the 1960s and 1970s and the onset of nostalgia that accompanies early middle age, I’ve been thinking about Britain in the 1990s with a view, possibly, to something at the end of it. Here’s a sample…
With its leaders incapable of leading anyone anywhere except the bedroom other magnetic poles in British society exerted their pull on national attention. One was popular music and the craze of ‘Britpop’
Britpop was a group of bands who found fame from about 1993, peaked in 1995, and were finished by 1997. Beyond the fact that they played guitars and were British these bands had very little in common. The fey tweeness of Cast or The Bluetones was a million miles from the raucous pub rock purveyed by Reef or Ocean Colour scene; the intelligence of Blur or Radiohead was far removed from the uncompromising stupidity of Oasis or Shed Seven. The same went for the fans. The make up wearing, vaguely goth types who listened to Suede or Pulp were the sort of people lager swilling Oasis fans in Ralph Lauren shirts and ice white Reebok Classics beat up.
A common factor was a cheap sort of pseudo-patriotism which would soon generate the horrible phrase ‘Cool Britannia’. Noel Gallagher of Oasis had a Union Jack patterned guitar and his brother Liam appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair in March 1997 with then wife Patsy Kensit in a bed with Union Jack bedclothes. The headline swooned ‘London Swings Again!’ There was more to this than knowing postmodernism, a popular excuse in the 1990s for serving up old tat in a cloak of irony. Elastica’s Justine Frischmann said “it occurred to us that Nirvana were out there, and people were very interested in American music, and there should be some sort of manifesto for the return of Britishness” In April 1993 the cover of Select featured the usually intelligent Brett Anderson of Suede draped in a Union Jack atop the headline ‘Yanks Go Home’
1995 was the year. It was to Britpop what 1967 was to flower power or 1977 to punks. The success of Blur’s Parklife and Oasis’ debut album Definitely Maybe in 1994 had lit the fuse. In ’95 Britpop exploded into national prominence with the releases of Blur’s The Great Escape and Oasis’ (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? as well as a host of other albums by Britpop’s B list like Cast and Supergrass, both of whose albums produced infectious hit singles titled Alright. Also in the charts were Radiohead and The Verve, who would soon deliver Britpop’s funeral oration, and acts like Pulp and Paul Weller, both of whom had been struggling for attention until they were immolated in the Britpop backdraft. That summer teenage boys gathered round CD players to hear Noel and Liam Gallagher being rude to each other during a radio interview on a disc called Wibbling Rivalry. As bootlegs went it wasn’t exactly Bob Dylan at the Free Trade Hall.
The highpoint of the highpoint came on Monday August 14th 1995 when the Britpop behemoths of Blur and Oasis went head to head with singles released the same day, Country House and Roll With It. It was no surprise to see NME hyping this up as the biggest clash since Hitler took on Stalin but the event even made the 6 O’clock News, interest stoked by rude things Liam and Noel had said about the various members of Blur. In the event Blur took Number 1 and were declared the winners of the Battle of Britpop. By the end of the year that looked mad as (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?, released in October, sold 347,000 copies in its first week (it was still selling 200,000 copies a week in early 1996) while The Great Escape was a bit of a dud. By the end of the decade the judgment of August looked sounder as Blur continued to release interesting music while Oasis didn’t.
There wasn’t very much new in floppy haired teenage boys swaying to guitar music as would have been obvious to anyone familiar with The Beatles. Indeed, the Britpop bands were as generous in acknowledging their influences as The Rolling Stones and Beatles had once been in acknowledging Chuck Berry. The people who teased me for liking The Beatles in my first year at secondary school went out and helped their Live at the BBC album top the charts in 1994 after Oasis said they liked them. Kids, who were supposed to rebel against their parents, were now raiding their record collections for 1960s bands like The Kinks, The Who, and The Small Faces. My Generation had been adopted by a new generation.
One thing Britpop did have was an unrivalled ability to celebrate itself. Events such as the launch party of Pulp’s Different Class held at Britpop HQ The Good Mixer in Camden passed into the memory even of people who weren’t there. You constantly heard that Camden was swarming with music stars but when I started going there in search of these stars in 1995 all I found were other suburban kids like me looking for the same stars. The 1990s was, like my dad said of the 1960s, “like a big party you could hear going on in the next street”
A lack of originality was hard wired into Britpop which was, in retrospect, an entirely reactionary phenomenon. Anyone looking for invention in British music would have gone to the dance scene. One of the richest musical legacies of the 1980s had been the fusion of indie music with elements of dance music imported from New York’s club scene. New Order, who emerged from indie band par excellence Joy Division, were a classic example. Happy Mondays and The Stone Roses carried it to its fullest on tracks like Step On and Fools Gold. Former punks Primal Scream’s dance infused 1991 album Screamadelica was one of the musical highlights of the decade.
The 1990s saw the fracturing of this. Dance music and indie went their separate ways and dance took the inventiveness with it. While Oasis churned out the music of Slade with the lyrics of the Electric Light Orchestra bands like Massive Attack, Portishead, and Faithless, were recording music genuinely unlike anything heard before. Borrowing much from a continental tradition of electronic music these bands made records that were as suitable for the dinner party as the ten hour bender.
Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys observed that music had always evolved with technology; Mozart had written for the new-fangled harpsichord, Elvis for the new-fangled guitar. In drum and bass technology facilitated one of the most bracing musical genres of the decade. The award of the Mercury Music Prize to Roni Size for his album New Forms in 1997 was a belated and, it felt, grudging admission of this.
But when looking back one must always be careful not to mistake what the noisiest commentators say people were doing or thinking for what people were actually doing or thinking. Most people weren’t listening to Bentley Rhythm Ace or Goldie. Manufactured pop bands like Take That and the Spice Girls outsold almost any given Britpop band. In the rivalry between Take That and East 17 the ‘boyband’ genre even had its own version of the Blur vs Oasis schism. In their favour, with records like Back For Good and Stay Another Day, these boybands had at least one good song in them which is more than could be said for later acts like the dreadful Westlife.
If these acts seemed old fashioned so did Britain’s musical tastes. The bestselling singles of the 1990s look like a list of bestselling singles from an earlier decade. In 1990 and 1995 the biggest selling singles were versions of Unchained Melody (by The Righteous Brothers and stars of popular TV show Soldier, Soldier Robson and Jerome respectively), a song written in the 1950s. In 1994 it was a cover of Love is All Around a song first released in the 1960s and in 1998 it was a new song by Cher, a singer who had her first hit in the 1960s. In 1992, 1996, and 1997 the biggest selling singles were versions of songs first recorded in the 1970s.
It was the same story with albums. (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? was the decades biggest seller by some distance but the other top selling albums were greatest hits compilations by ABBA and Madonna and pap like Celine Dion, Simply Red, Robson & Jerome, and The Corrs.
Same as it ever was. Just as in the 1960s Sgt Pepper’s was outsold by the soundtrack for The Sound of Music and Mull of Kintyre sold more copies in the 1970s than Anarchy in the UK, the British record buyer remained a conservative creature.