Don’t look back in anger: Britpop – 15 years on from Blur versus Oasis
Bands apart: with their raging rivalry, Blur and Oasis ensured Britpop went supernova in ’95, but were they leaders of a ’60s-esque cultural high or pawns in a media-driven mod repeat?
Yes, would you adam an’ eve it (as an extra in the video to Parklife may have said), but exactly 15 years ago on this very day, or at least yesterday, Sunday 20 August 1995, the great battle of mid-’90s music came to a head. Blur versus Oasis. Country House versus Roll With It. Supremacy atop the UK singles charts versus ignomony in, er, any position further down the charts. And just how did it conclude? Country House claimed the top spot; Roll With It was runner-up. So Blur won. Or did they? In fact, did anyone win in the great musical juggernaut that was Britpop? And, while we’re about it, just what the hell was Britpop anyway?
It’s a very good question, and, for this blog, not just a topical one either. For while you might say Britpop had absolutely nothing to do with the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, you could also say it had absolutely everything to do with the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. Indeed, it was surely born out of the very perspectives we’ve always held of those three decades – culturally (and especially musically) speaking – ever since they came to an end.
If I’m honest, this mid-’90s musical movement holds a very fond place in my heart. Indeed, at the time it took me in hook, line and sinker. I was a 16/ 17-year-old, revelling in the non-school-uniformed sixth form, encountering alcohol, parties and all that other stuff on something approaching a regular basis, and finally seeing the light at the end of the adolescent tunnel that was the promised land of university, gleaming ahead of me like a great, bold, turn-of-the-milennium beacon. And while all that positive experience was taking place, there was something else – a soundtrack to it. A bright, bolshy and rather big-headed era of music that dominated the British airwaves of the time. It was Britpop and, in short, it was the music of my youth.
Girl and boys: Jarvis Cocker (Pulp), Sice Rowbottom (The Boo Radleys), Louise Wener (Sleeper) and Damon Albarn (Blur) in a promotional shot from the 1994 BBC programme Britpop Now
In fact, not just for me but for many, the indie pop/ rock music that came to be huddled together under the umbrella term of Britpop was a breath of fresh air. Come the end of the ’80s and it felt like, in many ways, it was the end of pop music – or, at least, pop (and rock for that matter) had nowhere left to go. The Stock, Aitken and Waterman-led style of pop had turned the charts into something of a vacuous bubblegum confection, while rock – Guns ‘N’ Roses aside perhaps – seemed to have reached Heavy Metal valhalla. What would come next? Could anything come next? Well, yes… and it was called Grunge.
Growing out of Seattle, this form of rock was hard, shaggy, ominous and navel-gazing – like Emo, only at it’s best rather good and generally more grown up. Its greatest exponents were, of course, Nirvana, driven by the long blond-haired, shy Jim Morrison for Generation X that was Kurt Cobain. Millions of teenagers couldn’t get enough of moshing along to Feels Like Teen Spirit in the early ’90s. But it couldn’t last forever, and it didn’t. Cobain – equally distressed and paranoid by the worldwide fame he had quickly acquired – took his life in April 1994, and Grunge seemed to die with him. Suddenly, it was time for something to fill the void again. And something did – and it was born out of backlash.
It was also, if you believe the media (and the media had a very big role to play in what was to come, of course) born out of London’s Camden Town. At this time, three indie bands that had been gathering terrific word-of-mouth and moderate-to-genuine chart success, while pushed forward by the music press, seemed to congregate around this most trendy of North London areas. They were Suede, Blur and Elastica. And they were good and, make no mistake, very British. Indeed, as their members have confessed in the years since, their sounds, styles and very identities were intended to be at odds with the sombre, US-led Grunge scene. They wanted to offer audiences and listeners something brighter, lighter, hookier and, well, more British. Yet, given the state that pop and rock had found itself in by the end of ’80s (and from which it certainly hadn’t recovered), they didn’t exactly look forward in how they did this – instead they very consciously looked back.
Masters and apprentice: Paul McCartney lighting up Damon Albarn (left); The Kinks’ Ray Davies duetting with Albarn on an acoustic version of Waterloo Sunset (right)
From the start then, Britpop was retro, and very knowingly so too. Suede were the first of the three bands to hit it big. Founded by lead vocalist Brett Anderson and girlfriend Justine Frischmann in 1989, upon them meeting at University College London, Suede’s sound developed into a style heavily influenced by Bowie, Bolan and Glam Rock – characterised as it was by driving melodies and fast guitar hooks. Armed with guitar supremo Bernard Butler, Suede were declared on the cover of Melody Maker magazine in April 1992 as ‘the best new band in Britain’ and, for many observers since, Britpop was now officially born. The following year, their self-titled first album went to the top of the charts, became the fastest selling debut in 10 years and won the band the UK’s Mercury Music Prize.
Frischmann, however, had been no part of the success, having left the band in 1991 on breaking up with Anderson and starting a relationship with Damon Albarn, lead vocalist of Blur. Soon though, she set up a new band, Elastica, which with its late-’70s punk rock sound quickly became a favourite on the live circuit and would lead to the release of a critically and commercially successful self-titled album in 1995.
All the same, both Suede and Elastica’s successes would be eclipsed by those of Frischmann’s boyfriend’s band. Having formed at Goldsmiths College in 1988, Blur took longer to make the big-time than Suede, but when they did there wasn’t a man, dog, child or dog at a racetrack who didn’t know who they were. They released their first album in 1990, entitled Leisure, and it spawned a hit single, There’s No Other Way, a spacey, trippy-esque tune that reached #8 in the charts and was obviously riding on the coat-tails of the Madchester scene, which hit its peak the year before. Madchester was a unique and all too brief episode in music, revolving around a clutch of talented Manchester bands (The Stone Roses, The Charlatans and The Happy Mondays among them) and indelibly linked to the late-’80s rave scene, itself punctuated by ectasy use and the sudden breakout of dance music into the mainstream. But Blur would find it difficult to follow up their early promise and took to touring the US in 1992 in order to make ends meet. This trip across the pond, however, would prove to be fateful, not just for them, but for all that was to follow.
It was a long tour and they soon became homesick. Out of sorts with the Grunge scene and depressed this may have been the reason they hadn’t been able to build on their early success, Albarn pushed Blur’s stance even further away from Grunge as he started to write songs with heavily England-centric sounds, themes and lyrics. “I just started to miss really simple things,” he said of the time. “I missed everything about England so I started writing songs which created an English atmosphere.” Upon their return, Blur found success once more with their second album Modern Life Is Rubbish, released at the end of the year. Now, enjoying their new direction, Albarn upped the ante on their next album, the eponymous Parklife. Released in April 1994, it was finally this effort that sent the band stratospheric and properly kickstarted Britpop itself.
Parklife was the cheekiest, most self-consciously British (or, to be more precise, English) record since the ’60s; its style clearly influenced by the output of bands such as The Kinks, The Beatles and The Who at the peak of their popularity. Its title single was a knowing nod to mod-living (featuring as it did Phil Daniels of Quadrophenia fame delivering a monologue throughout – he also appeared prominently in the song’s classic, colourful video), while Girls & Boys was a disco-driven commentary on Ibiza holidays and To The End a delightful exercise in epic, string-saturated balladry. All three singles were huge hits and the album, which went in at #1 on release, stayed in the charts for a total of 90 weeks. Not only was Blur’s sound now firmly retro, it was retro with a nod, a wink and a nudge. A public starved of smart, quality, fun pop lapped it up. But this wasn’t the only great album from a great, retro-influenced band it lapped up in ’94.
Enter Oasis. Formed in Manchester in 1991, and led by the Gallagher brothers Noel (lead guitarist and songwriter) and Liam (lead vocalist), at first they looked like someone had had The Stone Roses pulled out of carbon-freeze – all baggy clothes, pugnacious swagger and enough attitude to fill Maine Road. Yet, musically Oasis were more directly informed by The Fabs and The Stones than their Madchester precursors, albeit a sort of back-to-guitar-basics version of The Fabs’ and Stones’ general sound. Their debut album Definitely Maybe caused a sensation, definitely. Released four months after Parklife, like that record it immediately hit #1, but it also eclipsed Suede‘s record as the fastest ever selling debut album. And all that after a difficult recording process and a small-scale promotion by debt-ridden record company Creation through football magazines, matchday programmes and dance music publications. Suddenly then, British pop and/ or rock music looked exciting again – there were two big, different players in town and most certainly something to shout about. And listen to.
Strike a pose: Jarvis in one of Britpop’s defiant, iconic images (left); Blur recreate another iconic image for their notorious video to the single Parklife (right)
And, the following year, more was to come. In May Oxford group Supergrass released their first album I Should Coco, featuring chart hits Caught By The Fuzz and Alright, and their ensuing success – not to mention the antics on show in their videos – invited Steven Spielberg to express interest in creating a Monkies-style TV show around them (which should say much about their early style). In May, The Boo Radleys hit the big-time with the hopelessly cheery Wake Up Boo, a Top 10 hit, and followed it up with their fourth album Wake Up! that summer. In October, Liverpool-based Cast released their double-platinum album All Change, which spawned the hits Finetime, Walkaway and Alright (not to be confused with Supergrass’s single of the same name). Cast were led by former guitarist with The La’s, John Power, who with that band had already achieved worldwide success in the late-’80s with the song There She Goes. Plus, in November, Menswear hit the charts, suitably decked out in mod togs, while the bands Gene and Echobelly both built on the moderate success they’d achieved the year before.
For me, however, the biggest Britpop event of ’95 came in the autumn with the release of Pulp’s fifth album Different Class, which it most certainly was. The mid-’90s were made for Pulp, and that’s probably just as well as the Sheffield five-piece had been hanging around, not fitting in anywhere, since 1978, but they rode the Britpop wave like skilled Big Sur surfers. Even more retro than Blur, Pulp wrote witty, hooky, ironic and unashamedly poppy songs about the working class, sex and what it’s like not to fit in, and were unmistakable thanks to their as far from trendy as possible, pencil-thin frontman Jarvis Cocker. Jarvis would become as much an icon of Britpop as Damon or Liam (and, in the same way, came to be referred to simply by his first name), as he delivered charsimatic performances of his bands tunes, including hits Sorted For Es & Whizz (which was the subject of controversy in the summer; Middle England missing the irony of its lyrics), Disco 2000, MisShapes and signature tune, the bravura Common People. I adored Pulp and still do. For me, they encapsulated Britpop at its best; full of retro stylings, fun, irony and top songs – not to mention Jarvis’s inspired upstaging of Jacko at the Brits.
As 1995 seagued into 1996, so Britpop continued and grew. Unlike in their chart battle the previous August (unhelpfully dubbed ‘The British Heavyweight Championship’ by NME), Oasis triumphed over Blur at February’s Brit Awards, winning Best British Group and Best British Album for (What’s The Story) Morning Glory?, their second album that was released the previous year. Following on the heels of the acrimonious chart battle, a battle of the albums had surfaced and although Blur’s release The Great Escape (featuring, alongside Country House, Charmless Man, Stereotypes and the excellent The Universal) was hugely successful, Oasis’s effort proved a high-speed express train, shifting four million copies and becoming the third biggest selling UK album of all-time. In addition to Roll With It, almost every song on it became a single and entered the public consciousness, among them the huge Wonderwall and Don’t Look Back In Anger, Some Might Say, She’s Electric and Champagne Supernova. In August they would go on to hold two gigs at Knebworth House, both of which were attended by 250,000 fans – and achieved the highest ever demand for concert tickets in British history, a record that still stands. It could be said then that while Blur had won the battle, for better or worse, Oasis had won the war and become the era’s musical kings.
Cool britannia: Chris Evans holds court on TFI Friday (left); This Life steams up TV screens across the nation (centre); and Kate Moss models a Union Jack outfit (right)
Oasis didn’t have the year all their own way, though – and neither did music. While Suede returned with another acclaimed, hit album, Coming Up, and more major Britpop bands surfaced this year – Ash, Ocean Colour Scene, The Bluetones, Kula Shaker, Dodgy, Shed Seven and Sleeper (fronted by near-sex symbol Louise Wener), pop culture in general seemed to go retro itself. Was Britpop rubbing off on other things, or was it part of a broader ’60s retro era? In film there was Danny Boyle’s follow-up to the acclaimed Shallow Grave (1995), Trainspotting. An adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s Edinburgh-set novel about the rigours and realities of heroin addiction, it boasted the vibrant visuals, smarts, humour and critical and commercial success of a Swinging Sixties hit like Alfie. The movie’s soundtrack also featured a parade of Britpop acts including Elastica, Sleeper and Damon Albarn, who even recited the names of classic Bond films from the ’60s on his closing-credits track Closet Romantic. Also, 007 himself reappeared after six years away in cinemas with the renaissance adventure GoldenEye, full of retro stylings and debuting Pierce Brosnan as Blighty’s finest spy, playing the role as Sean Connery meets Roger Moore. Art and fashion were in the mix too, with Londoner Kate Moss becoming a supermodel in designs by Brit Alexander McQueen and the art world fawning over the controversially radical works by the likes of Damien Hirst and Tracy Emin.
And even sport got in on the action, as football’s European Championships – or Euro ’96 – were held in England in the summer and, like exactly 30 years before, a genuine feelgood factor spread through the country thanks to the home nation capturing the imagination as it reached the later stages. Although, in reality, the tournament more resembled the World Cup of 1990 to that of ’66, as England eerily went out on penalties to Germany in the semi-finals – again. Still, upon England’s demise, what song did the Beeb choose to play over the end of their broadcast? That’s right, Cast’s extrememly fitting Walkaway. Meanwhile, another Britpop band found one of their song’s genuinely immortalised on TV when, in the week of its release, The Riverboat Song by Birmingham rhythm ‘n’ blues-esque four-piece Ocean Colour Scene was chosen as the walk-on music for winners at the year’s Brit Awards. The band had been plucked from obscurity by Noel Gallagher when he’d asked them to play support for Oasis in ’95, while several of its members regularly played in the band of ‘Modfather’ Paul Weller, who had a serious resurgence in popularity at this time too with the albums Wild Wood and Stanley Road, and the singles they spawned.
Moreover, just a few weeks later The Riverboat Song was chosen by the Brits host, the high-profile media personality Chris Evans, as the walk-on music for guests on his new show TFI Friday. Featuring a bar instead of a studio and a big gig-like space in which bands of the moment played, this Friday evening party full of raucous energy was the ultimate Britpop TV show – a sort of ’90s version of Ready, Steady Go meets Tiswas. Evans himself – who, at the time, was also the BBC Radio 1 breakfast DJ – was like an ultra Simon Dee. The mood also spilt over into print as the ‘Lads’ Mag’ era began with the launch and phenomenal popularity of Loaded magazine, which pretty much crowned king of lads the enfant terrible of the moment Liam Gallagher. ‘Lad culture’ was also to be seen on television as single-men in-chaos sit-com Men Behaving Badly rose in the ratings to a mid-’90s peak. And, unforgettably, Britpop music featured prominently throughout the two series of the era-defining, no holds barred young professionals drama This Life.
Party host and gatecrasher – but who’s who?: Noel Gallagher and Creation’s Alan McGhee (far right) meet Tony Blair at Number 10 and the party begins to go sour
In short, in 1995/96, you couldn’t move for Britpop and, alongside it its retro cultural bedmates – but then, suddenly, just as soon as it had appeared it went. It was all gone, in the mere blinking of one of Louise Wener’s lovely eyes. What the hell happened? Frankly, who knows. It’s very hard to put your finger on what brings about the demise of these sorts of things. However, if a cultural alignment as I’ve outlined genuinely did take place, then such a thing is likely to be enigmatic and fleeting by its very nature – art can and should never be bottled and sold.
Mind you, having said that, one could conversely argue that that’s exactly what happened during this period. There’s no doubt that Britpop was triumphed – nay, arguably created too – by the music press and the radio and TV media (Top Of The Pops and TFI Friday certainly played their part), while the record companies, and Damien Hirst and Tracy Emin and, for that matter, Kate Moss and Alexander McQueen controversially made millions of squid from their artistic creations – not exactly in the spirit of the ’60s peace and love ideals. So, there was a lot of cash generated and swirling around the Britpop scene and Cool Britannia era (as it was inevitably monikered), and given that was the case the bubble surely had to burst at some point.
And, ultimately, that point came in summer 1997. Blur and Pulp had already turned their backs on cheerily nodding to British nostalgia (Blur’s album this year would be influenced by US lo-fi guitar music and Pulp’s would be darkly entitled This Is Hardcore) and new bands weren’t coming through with the same freshness, urgency and quality of the last two years. Thus, when in August Oasis released their third offering Be Here Now, which was supposed to be their crowning achievement as rock gods, but turned out to be a bloated, over-produced, samey and messy effort recorded while they were living it up on everything they could get their hands on during the party… when that happened, the party really was over.
Still, what a party it had been. Looking back, it’s easy to dismiss Britpop as a bit of a cynical rip-off of the best that the ’60s and maybe the ’70s gave us, yet for the same token, there were flashes of confident British cultural ambition and quality across the spectrum – and joined-up in that wonderfully intangible way too. Moreover, for some of us, coming as it did after a decade absolutely dominated in the cool stakes by US culture, it served as something of an introduction to the true delights that Britain of the ’60s and ’70s had to offer. Britain was cool once and for a fleeting moment genuinely was again – even if, among other things, Blair’s New Labour proved a false dawn, but then politicians always disappoint.
So then, recalling the sight of Daniel Craig’s Geordie Peacock walking away and into the future at the end of 1996′s awesome TV drama Our Friends In The North, and recalling the tune that soundtracked that very moment, come on, peeps, 15 years on, don’t look back in anger – in the end, Blur versus Oasis and everything else surely wasn’t as bad as all that, was it…?
The Britpop Mix
Oasis ~ Wonderwall
Pulp ~ Babies
Elastica ~ Connected
Supergrass ~ Alright
Cast ~ Walkaway
Ocean Colour Scene ~ The Circle
Blur ~ Parklife
Sleeper ~ Inbetweener
The Bluetones ~ Slight Return
Dodgy ~ If You’re Thinking Of Me
Shed Seven ~ Chasing Rainbows
Suede ~ Beautiful Ones
Manic Street Preachers ~ A Design For Life