‘In 20 years’ time, people will buy Definitely Maybe and listen to it for what it was. That’s what is important’ (Noel Gallagher, August 1994)
So, what ‘was’ it, Mr Noel?
The media is currently awash with hagiographic recollections and memories of a movement that demands more scrutiny than simply getting all dewy- eyed. Twenty years on once again we are enduring the hysterical retroalgia known as ‘Britpop’.
What’s the quote again, ‘History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.
Self-aggrandisement levels are threatening roofs everywhere. The same vapid cheerleaders are still banging the same boring drum, from Jo ‘Amaaaayyyyzin’ Whiley with her ‘Britpop reignited a music scene’ mealy mouthed words uttered to milk a(nother) cash cow of memories to Britpop’s Goebbels, Steve Lamacq.
In retrospect it was little more than a postmodern horrorshow that many were complicit in albeit inadvertently. By following bands like Pulp, Blur, Suede and The Auteurs before they became ‘Britpop’, you became part of its construction, fabrication and immediate mythologising. Before you knew it, appreciation of many bands meant you were a ‘Britpopper’; you were bracketed, labelled, defined; something that sticks in the craw to this day.
The seeds had been sown in 1989 when ‘indie’ music began to fuse the beats and bleeps of the acid house/dance scenes whilst reliving 1960s sounds and styles (bands such as A Certain Ratio and New Order had been doing this for a while). The Stone Roses’ eponymous album, a concoction of hippy psychedelic sounds and ideas with an acid house rhythmic sensibility, was released to initial mass indifference, but critical acclaim. The following year the alternative scene was gripped by the sounds of ‘Madchester’, a group of bands from Manchester (or thereabouts) -Happy Mondays, The Charlatans, Inspiral Carpets – which in turn led to national exposure and the first signs of the crossover that was to follow.
The prescribed dictum is that by 1992 the sound of Uncle Sam had begun to reverberate around the British music scene – grunge copyists and US lite-rock – which allegedly resulted in a fight back and the emergence of British bands determined to reclaim the charts and reinstate a sense of identity. Blur and Suede initially led the way with profoundly Anglocentric themes and influences (Blur’s Modern Life is Rubbish romanticises about an England of yore with sounds reminiscent of postpunk and new wave whereas Suede exuded glam and seedy tales of society’s misfits channelling David Bowie and The Smiths.
These notions of ‘Britishness’ and nostalgia reached fever pitch after the suicide of Kurt Cobain in April 1994 and the release of Supersonic by Oasis. The fact that Blur’s Damon Albarn spoke admiringly of a British musical heritage and Oasis’ repeated Beatles worship (as if constantly saying it established parity), this was the arrival of a generation steeped in a new classicism – what Michael Bracewell dismissively termed ‘heritage pop’.
Had the Britpop Bay City Rollers appeared a couple of years earlier they would arguably have been one of the many bands who appeared, disappeared and then found their every strum and false start disinterred and repackaged some time later.
Hot aired windbag does David Byrne impression
The word Oasis connotes bounty, pleasure and delights yet a more apt name would be Mirage –all illusion, false promise and ultimate disappointment. The boorish ’lads and birds and booze and fags and mad f’rit and whaeeeyy’ lumpen rock with its tired clichés, moronic calls to arms with no appeal to intellect was (and still is) a tiresome bluster. Following their (ironic-free) nods to the New Seekers and numerous guitar bands of a few years prior (shoegaze, baggy) their initial arrival did suggest some kind of insurrection; (for these ears) the sonically arresting ‘Columbia’ existing as a reminder of their subsequent diminishing returns.
as everything ultimately was a derivative of this
Wonderwall saw the band capture the nation’s (sweet)hearts; its anodyne sentiment becoming the go-to-anthem for buskers worldwide (Ralph McTell’s never recovered). This saw the onset of their (Mint) imperial phase; a period that was and remains) hard to swallow whole, resulting only in pain on investigation. Each release deployed nonsensical lyrics with a nod to their hero(es), however, unlike Lennon’s Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll inspired surreality, we were treated to such intellect-ignoring ditties that paved the way for the likes of Coldplay with their vapid greetings card homilies to being unable to boil an egg because ‘she’s gone (again)’. Luke Haines put it best in his book ‘Bad Vibes’ where ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’ is described brilliantly as a “brainless, oafish anthem about nothing at all’ Now don’t get me wrong, many a brilliant song has made absolutely no sense lyrically, but, has also been treated as such. The hypnosis took effect, dissent was heresy.
It was all chartered territory, with the perimeters and parameters all defined and in place. Acting as if they had created everything before and since, it was a Year Zero albeit one that signified the end of the beginning and the beginning of the end. ‘Indie’ and its attendant symbols would perpetually be trapped in ‘Oasisworld’ a bog-average theme park where the rides down simulacra lane would be ruined by having to avoid being hit by hurtling pints of lager (or worse/better, depending on your choice of ale).
For all Oasis’s pretensions to The Beatles the closest they came to their heroes was when they were sued by renowned Beatles parodists The Rutles for appropriating their music – running Kissinger’s Nobel Peace prize award close in the irony stakes. The Rutles then adopted the start of ‘Whatever’ for the intro to Shangri-La in 1996.
When they became ‘the biggest band in Britain’© the focus of ‘indie’ music ultimately shifted away from experimentation, towards being included in the mainstream, as celebrity and vast commercial success. As John Harris wrote ‘Ambition was redefined purely in terms of making the charts with those golden ages of Britannia ruling the airwaves and the 45 rpm – the mid-1960s and New Wave – were ransacked in order to create a third (putative) age for the radio and the single.’
This outgrowth of ‘indie’ music -once an alternative musical universe, charged by innovation and truly independent record labels – had turned into populist fodder enjoyed by all and sundry. What was once a home for misfits became uniform, with a rigid sound, set of influences, dress code and flogged rock and roll clichés. Any notions of otherness and outsiderdom evaporated, arguably for the worse. Identity issues surrounding masculinity and femininity also found themselves under the spotlight.
The Creation label, once a stable of independence and alternative values (The Jesus and Mary Chain, The House of Love, My Bloody Valentine) had been a subsidiary of by Sony since 1992, so it affected an illusion of independent tropes and a stable of rebel rousers. Alan McGee, the Larry Parnes of Y2K, amassed more clone bands than he could cope with (bar the superlative Super Furry Animals).
Even the historical battle of the bands -a craven attempt at (re)creating the manufactured rivalry between The Beatles and The Stones – the simultaneous release of singles by Oasis and Blur in 1995, which made the national news, obscured some truths. They were both fighting for the same side, ‘Britpop’, and that for all its claims on a British based dominance of the charts, when the singles (‘Country House’ and ‘Roll with it’) went to Numbers One and Two respectively, only one other act that had been decreed Britpop – Radiohead (despite starting as a Pixies-esque band) – figured in the Top Twenty, at 19.
Despite lacking in wit, mystery, mystique, their ‘working class credentials’ and their ordinariness at least encapsulated a kind of fatalistic ‘fuck-you’ that had been nurtured from years of being downtrodden by various Conservative governments (don’t worry, ‘Tony and his Paymasters’ will save the day, oh wait …) ‘We’re gonna live forever’ were lyrics that people loved because they were saying ‘we can imagine that we’re going to get out of this shithole, even though really we know we’re not’. So although there was a certain romance to it, that romance had no ‘point’ in the sense of punk’s ‘fuck you because we’re as good as you and we’ll do what we want!!’ anger, which prevails to this day. The anger was fuelled by hedonism as opposed to a desire for social change.
For a musical era so entwined with politics, it’s startling how little of it commented on or reflected it. Pulp’s ‘This is hardcore’ at least articulated the excess and hedonism at the heart of much of the scene. The ‘fat dancer from Take That’ Robbie Williams’ ‘I hope I’m old before I die’ (twinning The Who with Oasizzzzzzzz) in 1997 only served to highlight the drudgery and final yelps of a dying horse.
‘Do you remember a worst time?’
Oasis’s appropriation of ‘old’ sounds also coincided with the release of both ‘new’ and old Beatles material – Anthology. This revocation of the kaleidoscopic Swinging Sixties (epitomising Frederic Jameson’s ‘history represented through nostalgic images of pop culture, fantasies of the past’) and a renewed sense of social and political optimism – led to a renewed corporate interest in traditional guitar based groups and a scene to match, with its themes adopted by the freshly prefixed New Labour party led by ‘ex-rock and roller’, Tony Blair.
Following the sudden death of the Labour Party leader, John Smith, Blair was ushered to the forefront and set about instigating the mass hypnosis that would take in Oasis’ Nuremberg rallies (Knebworth) and end with the death of ‘The People’s Princess’ at whose remembrance would epitomise Blair’s ‘catch throat theatrics’; an ominous portent of the forked tongue antics that lay ahead. New Labour used D:Ream’s 1994 song ‘Things can only get better’ as their campaign song. Borrowing from Bill ‘Would I lie to you, baby?’ Clinton’s usage of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Don’t Stop’ for his ascent to the top and through his cynical deployment of playing the saxophone (a blatant attempt to appeal to the baby boomers in all its acrid hipness), pitting the young, progressive Clinton against the stuffy, reactionary Bush.
Blair’s latching onto the band wagon was no surprise as John Harris noted in The Last Party, ‘in Britpop’s fetishisation of chart positions, platinum discs and huge crowds, he surely saw the same impulses that turned the People’s party into New Labour. Principles were secondary to popularity.’ For Blur v Oasis see New Labour v Tories, North v South, paradigms, dichotomy, polarisation all leading to who’s side are YOU on? This union was cemented in 1997 when Noel Gallagher attended that (in)famous get-together at Downing Street which signalled its effective demise – for if rock stars were now friends of the government, how could they continue to matter?
In Situationist terms the outré, the other, the alternative had been recuperated. Surely any insurrectionary and revolutionary potency was gone for ever more (if indeed it ever did?)
Where some bands evolved and strived to free themselves of the constraints that this ‘seminal epoch’ imposed, most within the scene stayed stagnant. Oasis’s ‘Be Here Now’, made against a backdrop of excess and ubiquity, hammered the final nail in the coffin. After spending two albums pilfering from his (then limited cache of) musical heroes, Gallagher began to pilfer himself. It was released three weeks after the Downing Street party and despite huge sales was widely regarded as a massive anti-climax. Britpop was over and with it any notions of novel, non-referential outsider music again.
By 1997 it was all over, job done. New Labour had triumphed (at what cost was all to come), three years of empty rhetoric and false promises resulted in nothing having changed, business as usual, end of the end, the ultimate rock and roll swindle. A nation duped; the drugs did work (but eventually wore off) leaving us with a perpetual hangover.
Popular music sets a tone now more materialistic than political. This materialistic escapism epitomises a pop industry that has never been more irrelevant, immature, apolitical, manufactured and meaningless. Pop without substance is a dangerous thing – it denies what is going on in the world. The dialogue of a generation is set by the culture it consumes. For Greil Marcus, ‘pop can only have any significance when it ceases to be ‘just music’, when it reverberates with a politics that has nothing to do with capitalist parliamentarianism.’
Still no black in the Union Jack (with apologies to Paul Gilroy)
The Union flag, long associated with the Far Right and tarnished and banished after Morrissey’s ‘provocative flirtation’ at Madstock in 1992 was given a dry cleaning becoming the symbol of a new fashioned sense of nationhood and national unity, we’re all in it togetherness, it’s image a hark back to the halcyon (media generated) Swinging 60s: London, Twiggy, Carnaby Street). It required a tag so Britannia was decreed cool and Britpop was its soundtrack. It highlighted an inherent hypocrisy at the heart of the UK (ostensibly England); who decides how an image/motif is to be deployed and understood, who controls the message? The flag flew with its metonymy of a male, white-centric empire and a ‘Great’ Britain imposing the word of the Lord and hereditary empire, wreaking destruction and installing democracy.
Up your Arsenal
Adolf and Eva bunker up
‘Nasty’ Nick Griffin busking for funds for the Darby and Joan
In 1995 Simon Reynolds wrote about the u-turn in events (signposting his successive work on nostalgia in ‘Retromania’);‘ Returning to the 3 minute pop tune that the milkman can whistle, re-invoking a parochial England with no black people, Britpop has turned its back defiantly to the future. Here’s hoping the future will respond in kind, and remember Britpop only as an aberrant, anachronistic fad–like trad jazz, the early ’60s student craze that resurrected the Dixieland sound of 30 years earlier. Perhaps Oasis will one day seem as inexplicable as Humphrey Lyttleton!’ Ahem …
Roger Sabin believes that ‘Cool Britannia was hideous and used to ‘sell’ UK youth culture round the world in ways that hadn’t been considered before. It was a neo-liberal phenomenon, for example, when Japan realised that manga were starting to sell quite well in the west, they studied Cool Britannia very carefully. This is ‘culture as a weapon’ in a new cold war. Additionally, despite the blather and bluster of the reclaiming of ‘Britishness’, American rock didn’t die, it just changed slightly – e.g. Bob Mould and Sugar were doing their best stuff in this period’.
So what is Britpop’s legacy? There are still a plethora of bands that depressingly ape Oasis’ look, sound and attitude. No one even bothers pointing out the ripping off anymore; the rabbit hole gets deeper. Contrast the difference in innovation, energy, creativity between the years 1955 to 1975, 1965 to 1985; a sense of progress, a desire to escape the norm and create something new. Music used to move forwards, rip up, discard, deride and wasn’t so overcrowded and stuffed with different time periods overlapping each other, stifled with revival and nostalgia and formulae. In today’s dystopia we are left with Kasabian, true inheritors of the moronic lad element.
‘The spectacle is the moment when commodity has secured the total occupation of social life’ (Guy Debord, 1967)
What has caused this malaise? One possibility is that music has not changed enough over the last 20+ years for the next generation to come up and identify with it as its own so they have no alternative but to jump on what was the generation before, or before that. Music’s place in culture has changed. When rock was new it was a way for an entire generation to embrace it and say ‘this is our thing, this is the way we want to live.’ It can only happen once and it happened. The 1960s have left another cultural legacy: it seems that the concept of rebellious pop culture, which once seemed the sole property of youth, has followed the baby boomers all the way. The dissolution of a generation gap, with markers such as dress and hairstyle no longer distinguish and separate a tween from a twit.
Britpop is back, (s)elections are looming (Scotland, UK) with real choice an illusion once more; which shyster will get the top slot this time?
Mr Wells – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SeYmvrtrq7I