20 Years Of Britpop

Caught By The Buzz: A Look Back At Britpop’s B-List

| April 23, 2014 - 12:02 pm

Akin to the early-’90s post-Nirvana feeding frenzy in the Pacific Northwest, the Britpop explosion of the mid-’90s spawned a similar slash-and-burn signing boom on the other side of the pond. And as with post-Nirvana culture, the milieu surrounding Blur and Oasis gave way to a litany of fates for bands just hungry for their slice of attention in what rapidly became an over-saturated and bloated scene. There were keepers — the Divine Comedy were seemingly impervious to a slightly raised profile, and have a nearly peerless discography, while Ash astoundingly continue to dazzle, playing from the same deck of cards as Brad Pitt in The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, capturing the spirit of youth with even more alacrity as they ostensibly age in reverse. There’s also the feckless dreck — Ocean Colour Scene, 60 Ft. Dolls, and Dodgy were tailor-made to cynically exploit the successes of their contemporaries, and they failed miserably, releasing largely insipid albums. And then there were the bands that perhaps didn’t have what it take to swing for the fences, but nonetheless made the most of their fleeting moments in the spotlight. The prime example of this template is Drugstore, who released one of the more underrated albums of the ’90s with their Radiohead-championed self-titled debut. Rock and roll notoriously gets interesting at its fringes. We’ve chosen 20 of Britpop’s notable wannabes and also-rans to feature in this B-List, which is compiled alphabetically below. Not all these bands deserve to be celebrated, but they do deserve to be remembered. Dig in and you’ll certainly find a few keepers, those who rightfully deserve a place alongside Pulp, Suede, Verve, Blur, and Oasis for having released some of the most compelling music of the ’90s.

60 Ft. Dolls

Hometown: Newport, England
Their Big Hit: “Stay”
What They Sounded Like: Sneering and angry, with buzzsaw guitars evocative of the Jam and MC5, hooked to the gills with melodies to the point where it often seemed as though they were trying too hard.
What Happened: Bassist Mike Cole wrote a terrible song titled “Hair” for his then-girlfriend Donna Matthews of Elastica, and it was pretty much all downhill from there. But digging through their trove of singles, one wonders if they’d be a good band to place in a time capsule, under the heading of “prototypical, insipid indie pop” for generations down the line to discover. It wasn’t all bad – only most of it.


Ash

Hometown: Downpatrick, Ireland
Their Big Hit: “Girl From Mars”
What They Sounded Like: An Irish Green Day? Teenage Fanclub if that band were made up of actual teenagers and had fanclubs who were not solely made up of music critics.
What Happened: Ash released their first single, “Jack Names The Planets,” in 1994, when frontman Tim Wheeler was all of 17 years old — a huge talking point for the British media. The band’s first proper LP, 1977, was so named to reflect the year of its authors’ birth. It was packed with hits, including “Girl From Mars,” “Kung Fu,” and “Angel Interceptor.” Ash were so hot that they were handpicked by director Danny Boyle to write a song for A Life Less Ordinary, the 1997 follow-up to his smash film Trainspotting. But for some reason, Wheeler’s precocious songwriting chops didn’t ripen with age, and while Ash went on to record four albums after 1977, they never even came close to topping the band’s debut. Ash’s last album, Twilight Of The Innocents, came out in 2007, when Wheeler was 30. As Jarvis Cocker once sang, “Funny how it all falls away.” Indeed.


Bis

Hometown: Glasgow, Scotland
Their Big Hit: “Sweet Shop Avengerz”
What They Sounded Like: With the ebullience of the B-52s and the fuck-all attitude of contemporaries Yummy Fur, Bis were perhaps the unlikeliest entrants into the Britpop sweepstakes. They were probably the most parochial of the Britpop acts, as endemic to Glasgow as a late-night pub binge at the Nice ‘N’ Sleazy. Manda Rin delivered her high-octane performances as if she were on nitrous oxide, and the results were captivating. Sadly, this energy was never captured fully on record, although The New Transistor Heroes and Return To Central are each essential documents of Glasgow’s idiosyncratic take on Britpop.
What Happened: Bis never amounted to much commercially, and unceremoniously disbanded in 2003. They’ve announced a new album for later this year, so perhaps they’ll capture the kinetic verve so pervasive during their live shows, yet so impoverished throughout their rather flat albums.


The Bluetones

Hometown: London, England
Their Big Hit: “Slight Return”
What They Sounded Like: Sing-songy ’60s pop, deeply indebted to the Stone Roses. They didn’t imitate present trends, and were all the better for it, producing some of the finest Britpop of their era, something of a U.K. equivalent to Sloan — albeit 100 times more popular. Mark Morriss’ dulcimer vocals and Adam Devlin’s chiming guitars may have led you to check your dial to see if you were listening to some long-lost Byrds number.
What Happened: They were world-beaters in their home country, but never cracked the U.S. Nonetheless, they released six largely excellent albums throughout the ’90s and ’00s, before calling it a day following 2010’s A New Athens. The returns were diminishing, and the band knew it was time to exit the party. They did so at precisely the right time.


The Boo Radleys

Hometown: Liverpool, England
Their Big Hit: “Wake Up Boo!”
What They Sounded Like: The Boo Radleys toyed with My Bloody Valentine-esque atmospherics, but were truest to themselves when making teenage symphonies that would make God blush.
What Happened: They crafted some fine albums on Creation Records before hitting it big in the U.K. with “Wake Up Boo!” from 1995’s Wake Up! They went out with something of a whimper with 1998’s insipid Kingsize, although Interpol’s Paul Banks frequently champions them as an influence, leading to speculation that they may one day reunite to support NYC’s gloom mongers.


Catatonia

Hometown: Cardiff, Wales
Their Big Hit: “Mulder And Scully”
What They Sounded Like: Straightforward, don’t-bore-us-get-to-the-chorus pop candy. Catatonia were light years removed from their Welsh brethren Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci and Super Furry Animals — Catatonia was tailor-made for radio, like a hyper-polished Butch Vig production or mid-period Weezer fronted by a more populist Bjork in Cerys Matthews.
What Happened: As their sonic fidelity increased, so did their popularity — the band were superstars in the U.K. “Mulder And Scully” and “Road Rage” were nutmeg-sweet blasts of pop candy, and found the band at their apex on 1998’s International Velvet. The returns diminished thereafter, and Catatonia broke up after 2001’s underwhelming Paper Scissors Stone. But like Jack Nicholson’s character in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest trying to rip the sink out of the wall, they gave a try at superstardom, swinging for the fences with every over-the-top, ambitious endeavor.


The Divine Comedy

Hometown: Enniskillen, Northern Ireland
Their Big Hit: “Something For The Weekend”
What They Sounded Like: A dollop of Scott Walker, a dash of mid-period R.E.M., the chamber sensibilities of the Tindersticks, the pathos of Nick Drake, and the gallows humor of Momus made for a damn impressive band.
What Happened: They were, in comparison to most of the bands on this list, more or less a cult act. Composed of Neil Hannon and a cadre of collaborators, the band honed their erudite, chamber-pop ditties over the course of ten albums, the last being 2010’s Bang Goes The Knighthood. They charted reasonably well in the U.K., but that’s hardly the raison d’être for Hannon. Like few artists of the past twenty years, he’s managed to push himself artistically while maintaining a loyal, reasonably sizable audience — no easy feat.


Dodgy

Hometown: London, England
Their Big Hit: “Good Enough”
What They Sounded Like: The Monkees of the Britpop scene. Dodgy never deigned to attempt originality, and actually knew their way around a hook fairly well. Nigel Clarke’s lyrics were cringeworthy, like something Greg Brady might’ve written as his alter-ego Johnny Bravo. This was lifestyle music, worthy of pushing a cart around a grocery store.
What Happened: The band were festival favorites, their albums tore up the British charts, and they could, inexplicably, do no wrong in the public eye. That changed after the release of 2001’s Real Estate, which found the general public perhaps unable to ingest the Kool-Aid the band had been ramming down their throats for the better part of a decade. They broke up, and as every band is seemingly wont to do in the ’10s, reunited in 2012 with the release of Stand Upright In A Cool Place, a fair effort that reclaimed some of their old fans, and reminded us that there might’ve been something redeeming about this act.


Drugstore

Hometown: London, England
Their Big Hit: “El President” (Featuring Thom Yorke)
What They Sounded Like: The Mazzy Star comparisons were downright trite. The band owed to the likes of American bands as disparate as Sebadoh, the Velvet Underground, and Neil Young, and had the songwriting chops to live up to those formidable influences. They could overdo it with the effects pedals, but frontwoman Isobel Montiero’s eviscerating, bone-marrow-rattling vibrato could bring any Swans fans to his knees.
What Happened: Their best record, the eponymous Drugstore, garnered acclaim, but its follow-up, the largely underwhelming White Magic For Lovers, was a commercial flop in the U.S. — despite Thom Yorke’s high-profile appearance. They’ve sporadically released records since, and good ones at that, including a recent import-only greatest hits collection, but nothing’s suggested the terrifyingly gorgeous excoriation/exorcism of Montiero’s demons on their debut.


Echobelly

Hometown: London, England
Their Big Hit: “Great Things”
What They Sounded Like: Early on, they sounded a lot like a tremolo-laden Smiths. In fact, guitarist Glen Johansson’s tremolo palette was so impressive that it purportedly inspired Peter Buck to rethink his guitar-playing style during R.E.M.’s Monster.
What Happened: Stipe and co. were huge fans of Sonya Maden and her crew, having them open numerous dates on R.E.M.’s Monster tour, and even footing the bill for some of the band’s travels. Echobelly released a terrific debut in 1994’s Everybody’s Got One, and a near-equal follow-up in 1995’s On. 1997’s Lustra found the band losing their mojo, but at their peak, they could still sound like prime-era Debbie Harry fronting the Smiths. They released an album in 2004, Gravity Pulls, to little acclaim, and went from there to sundry side projects. They never amounted to much commercially, but as far as unheralded Britpop bands go, Echobelly’s one that never really got their due.


Embrace

Hometown: West Yorkshire, England
Their Big Hit: “All You Good Good People”
What They Sounded Like: Anthemic, arena-ready rock, a Frankenstein mixture of the Verve, Oasis, U2, and Coldplay. They could write a damn good hook, and their frontman, Danny McNamara, exuded pure charisma.
What Happened: Embrace were initially a product of enormous NME hype; their 1997 debut album, The Good Will Out, debuted at No. 1 on the charts, and won them a nomination for a “Best New Band” Brit Award. Soon afterward, they were slaughtered by the UK media for doing the same things for which they were initially praised. They’re still around, and they haven’t reinvented the wheel; at this point they make Coldplay seem downright challenging. Their first album in eight years, the self-titled Embrace, is set to be released this month.


Gene

Hometown: London, England
Their Big Hit: “For The Dead”
What They Sounded Like: Not mentioning the Smiths while discussing Gene is tantamount to neglecting to mention Joy Division in an Interpol review. Gene were very much beholden to the Manchester greats, but despite Martin Rossiter’s Moz-esque affections, they had seemingly endless permutations on the Brit indie great’s sound, primarily due to Steve Mason’s delectable grab bag of guitar motifs — he was just as comfortable aping the Jam as he was emulating the sublime grandeur of New Order.
What Happened: They were hailed as the second coming of the Smiths, which was a lofty burden for even the most cocksure of Britpop’s alumni. Yet Gene delivered a bonafide classic with their 1995 debut album, Olympian, and followed it up with some fine records that did little to expand their sonic palette. One of their hit singles was titled “We Could Be Kings,” and with Moz-mania raging unabated at the present, perhaps they could. Sadly for Gene, the ’90s belonged to Blur and Oasis, all Kinks-bluster and Beatles-ballast, which was just too damn prosaic for the epicurean tastes of Rossiter and Mason. They broke up in 2004.


Northern Uproar

Hometown: Manchester, England
Their Big Hit: “Livin’ It Up”
What They Sounded Like: The imagination of youth, as filtered through the jaundiced eye of Manic Street Preachers’ James Dean Bradfield, who produced their debut album. Ash and the Cribs were contemporaries, sonically, and Leon Meya evinced a strut and swagger sorely lacking in modern rock singers. He was having a gas onstage and on record, and you knew it.
What Happened: They never really attained the commercial accolades for which they seemed destined, although everything they released, save 1997’s swansong “Goodbye,” charted in the U.K. top 100. They reunited in 2013 via a fan-funded album, All That Was Has Gone, words which proved sadly prophetic, as the magic had seemingly departed from the band.


Ocean Color Scene

Hometown: Birmingham
Their Big Hit: “The Day We Caught The Train”
What They Sounded Like: Like something Noel Gallagher and Paul Weller would dig. The former invited them on tour, while the latter helped to produce their early demos. They hopscotched styles early on before setting on the aforementioned boogie-down, classic-rock-indebted, riff-heavy AOR schlock.
What Happened: They, predictably, became massive in the U.K., with a run of top 10 albums and singles in the ’90s and early ’00s, and barely registered a blip outside. Recent efforts, Saturday and Painting, sound like sordid simulacrums — don’t waste your time.


Salad

Hometown: London, England
Their Big Hit: “Motorbike To Heaven”
What They Sounded Like: An amalgamation of every bad Britpop band.
What Happened: Cynically assembled as something of a “supergroup,” including European MTV personality and model Marijne Van der Vlugt, this was Britpop’s woeful nadir. The band found little commercial or critical success, thankfully. Music this crass is downright execrable.


Shed 7

Hometown: York, England
Their Big Hit: “Speakeasy”
What They Sounded Like: The flavor of the month. Rick Witter and Paul Banks exhibited all the charm of watching a plant grow. They wrote a few minor-key ballads akin to Gene or the Sundays that were likable enough, but they were largely forgettable, a band you’d listen to once and chuck the CD to the back of your car to be rediscovered years and years later, wondering why your impulse purchase on the basis of “Speakeasy” had come to fruition at all.
What Happened: They called it quits in 2003 after relentlessly touring Truth Be Told. Truth be told, they should’ve quit nine years prior. There was the perfunctory cash-grab reunion in 2007 which found them flogging around their greatest hits, which took place to little fanfare and even less critical adulation.


Sleeper

Hometown: Manchester, England
Their Big Hit: “Inbetweener”
What They Sounded Like: The quintessential Britpop act, Sleeper had it all: an attractive, charismatic frontwoman in Louise Wener, and infectious melodies that would stay in your head like the rattle in a spray-paint can for weeks. Their Pixies-esque guitar motifs fit like a glove over Wener’s roistering vocals.
What Happened: They did exceedingly well in the U.K., but were unable to break through America’s Korn- and Limp Bizkit-dominated radio charts. But they crafted a series of fine albums, none of which outstripped their divine debut, Smart. The slope downward was fairly level, however, and they never made an album that flat-out stunk. Perhaps that was their problem — they were taken for granted. Had they made a terrible record, a la Be Here Now, perhaps their fans would’ve returned in droves. But they cared too damn much and were just, well, too smart to allow that to happen. The band broke up in 1998, with Wener going on to become an accomplished novelist, indeed a fine calling for such a strong lyricist.


S*M*A*S*H

Hometown: Hertfordshire, England
Their Big Hit: “(I Want To) Kill Somebody”
What They Sounded Like: They were downright caustic in comparison to their Britpop brethren, sounding queasily anarchic at times, summoning the spirit of the likes of Wire and the Buzzcocks.
What Happened: Some bands burn out, some fade away. S*M*A*S*H clearly burned out, as their scorching anthems would portend. But there was a certain alchemy when Ed Borrie (vocals, guitar), Salvador Alessi (bass), and Rob Haigh (drums) hit the stage or studio, and their long-out-of-print three albums are in desperate need of a resurrection.


Space

Hometown: Liverpool, England
Their Big Hit: “Female Of The Species”
What They Sounded Like: ’70s glam cross-pollinated with early-’90s Madchester — think the gender-fuck games of David Bowie, played on a Ouija board pointing directly at the Stone Roses’ debut album.
What Happened: Circuitous lineup changes and tragic deaths (ex-drummer Andy Parle passed away in 2009) haven’t stopped this band from chugging along with locomotive intensity. They recently announced a 20th anniversary tour after a 10-year hiatus, releasing the milquetoast Attack Of The Mutant 50 Ft. Kebab. Despite this record’s uneven nature, one can imagine the lighters aloft during the sublime likes of “Me And You Versus the World” and “The Ballad Of Tom Jones,” from the band’s twin masterpieces, Spiders and Tin Planet.


Supergrass

Hometown: Oxford, England
Their Big Hit: “Alright/Time”
What They Sounded Like: The Buzzcocks on Adderall. Seriously. But they could also temper their breakneck anthems for elegiac ballads such as the sun-bleached reverie “Late In The Day.”
What Happened: They were massive in their home country from the outset, 1995’s release of the classic I Should Coco. And truth be told, they never made a bad album, splitting without damaging their legacy in the slightest, two years after the release of Diamond Hoo Ha. If there were any justice in the world, “Pumping On Your Stereo” would’ve been blasting from every damn dorm room in America. Yet, their appeal was selective in the U.S., as was the case with many of these acts. A potential breakthrough series of gigs opening for Radiohead at Madison Square Garden in 2003 was cancelled due to a family emergency, sabotaging what could’ve turned a generation of American alt-rock fans onto their music. But for those who have “Seen The Light,” it’s blinding and brilliant.

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