20 Years Of Britpop

It’s Britpop Week On Stereogum

By Michael Nelson / April 21, 2014 - 11:31 am

The first time I saw Blur was on September 29, 1994, at the old Academy Theatre on 43rd St. in Manhattan. That place has been shut down now since 1996, but I’d guess it held … 1200 people? 1300? In any case, it was a relatively intimate room, and as I recall, that show wasn’t even sold out. This was the last night of an 8-date North American tour on which Blur had embarked in support of their then-new third LP, Parklife. They were joined on that trek by support act Pulp, who were also promoting a new album, His ‘N’ Hers. The timing was good: Both albums had been received fairly rapturously by the UK media after being released within a week of one another: His ‘N’ Hers came out on April 18, 1994, and Parklife dropped the following Monday.

If you were trying to identify a single week in which the thing called “Britpop” burst into bloom, you’d probably have to point to that stretch of mid-April 1994. (Actually, you could probably start the clock a week earlier, on April 11, 1994: the day Oasis’ debut single, “Supersonic,” was released.) This was not, crucially, the birth of Britpop (more on that later), but it was the moment at which these many disparate musical things of British origin became a single one. Suddenly there was no more baggy or Madchester or shoegaze: Countless extant bands with monosyllabic monikers (Verve/Suede/Lush/James/Ride) were swept into this new movement; countless new ones (Cast/Ash/Shack/Space/Gene) seemed to arrive immediately afterward, as if coming off an assembly line.

For a music-obsessed college kid in New York City, this was a joyous moment in which to exist. Every day brought with it new discoveries. Those discoveries weren’t limited to Britpop, naturally — there was a lot of great music being made in 1994 — but something about Britpop inspired a different sort of devotion. It was a community, an identity. I spent the better part of the second half of the ’90s working at the tiny Greenwich Village record store Rebel Rebel, which was New York City’s best source for British music (and it remains so to this day!), and I saw it firsthand. One of my co-workers at Rebel was a kid named Arty Shepherd, who today plays in the band Primitive Weapons and co-owns the Greenpoint bar St. Vitus. Back then, Arty and I used to pull these bootleg Blur photobooks off the shelves at the store and bring them around the corner to Thomas David Salon, where we’d show the stylist pictures of Blur frontman Damon Albarn, requesting the same haircut (or the closest approximation possible) for ourselves. We weren’t the only ones. I remember, at the Blur/Pulp show, my friend Kevin walking up to some random stranger in the crowd and asking if he was “the singer from Oasis.” Of course he wasn’t; he was just another lookalike, like all of us. Less than six months later, Kevin and I went to see Oasis, touring for Definitely Maybe, at that same Academy Theatre, where the guy working security at the load-in entrance tried to open the door for us because he thought we were in the band. I remember one day at Rebel Rebel, when some seriously skeevy dude asked me, Arty, and another Brit-obsessed co-worker — all of us in our early 20s — if we’d be interested in doing some “modeling,” in which we’d dress (and presumably undress) in the style of Blur. I also remember our revulsion came only after we discussed which one of us would most likely get to be Damon.

I’m confident in saying no city in the world, outside London itself, boasted a more frantic and fervent Britpop scene than New York. We had record stores that stocked import CDs and magazines, and clothing stores that sold brands like Fred Perry and Merc. Big British bands would come here — here, before any other city in North America — to play small clubs. In the pre-internet world, this degree of access to information, fashion, and art was rare, and it was intoxicating. Blur’s music openly mocked American culture (or lack thereof), but as a young and jaded American, it wasn’t hard to see where they were coming from. On these shores, Britpop was the elitist’s alternative to “Alternative,” which had grown dull and depressing and diluted. Kurt Cobain had killed himself; Beck was singing, “I’m a loser, baby, so why don’t you kill me?” Oasis, meanwhile, were singing, “You and I, we’re gonna live forever.”

Those lyrics, of course, come from “Live Forever,” Oasis’ third single, released on August 8, 1994, three weeks in advance of the band’s debut album, Definitely Maybe. By that point in the year, the Charlatans had released Up To Our Hips, and Ride had released Carnival Of Light, and Primal Scream had released Give Out But Don’t Give Up — and in the months that followed, Manic Street Preachers would release The Holy Bible, and the Stone Roses would release Second Coming, and Suede would release Dog Man Star. All those bands had already experienced enormous success prior to the birth of Britpop, but now they were being re-contextualized, recast, as Britpop bands.

There’s something kind of sublimely ironic about that, because in a very real way, Britpop was conceived as a reaction to — and, violently, against — some of those bands. I’ve already written at great length about this, so I’ll sum it up as quickly as I can: When the nascent Blur were first signed to Food Records in 1990, they were forced by their new label to write and record songs in the style of the Stone Roses and the Charlatans: Manchester indie-dance bands whose then-popular sound was already on the decline by 1991, when Blur’s debut album, Leisure, was released. Thus, Leisure was more or less dismissed by the British press as generic and inessential. As the NME said of the band at the time, “[Blur] are [the] acceptable pretty face of a whole clump of bands that have emerged since the whole Manchester thing started to run out of steam.” Even so, Food flogged the album, sending Blur out on a 44-date North American tour in 1992, where they played to small, unenthusiastic crowds. Just 11 days into that tour, the ascendant English band Suede (whose singer, Brett Anderson, was a rival for the affections of Albarn’s then-girlfriend, Justine Frischmann, of Elastica) were on the cover of Melody Maker, hailed as The Best New Band In Britain. A seething, bitter Albarn spent days and nights on a tour bus listening to the Kinks and writing the songs that would eventually become 1993’s Modern Life Is Rubbish: a record that, per Frischmann, was “some sort of manifesto for the return of Britishness,” and would, per Albarn, serve as “Public vengeance and personal vengeance [and] dethrone Brett [Anderson] and his group of cretins.”

Modern Life Is Rubbish is a fantastic record with several of Blur’s very best songs, and it represents the true birth of Britpop. But by the time Parklife arrived, less than 12 months later, Blur were triumphant. Parklife is a collection of 16 songs, and each one is essential — hell, each one is a highlight, somehow. It’s an album of remarkable diversity and confidence; no two songs sound alike, yet all are clearly the striking vision and voice of a single artistic unit operating at absolute peak capacity. Here, alongside the towering Albarn, was Britain’s best rhythm section (drummer Dave Rowntree and bassist Alex James) and its most innovative guitarist (Graham Coxon) collaborating on songs that drew from punk rock, pub rock, disco, psychedelia, glam, fucking musical theater, and pop, all comprising a loose-concept album about life in London.The NME gave the album a 9/10, saying, “Musically they’re leagues better than before, the ill-formed ideas have reached fruition and lyrically Blur now find themselves at the end of an inheritance that starts with the Kinks and the Small Faces and goes through to Madness and the Jam.” Throw in Bowie and the Beatles and you’ve got the essence of Britpop: distinctly British music with distinctly British musical cues and lyrical themes. Parklife was — and remains — its apotheosis.

For all the virtues and accomplishments of Blur, though, Britpop would not have been a dominant worldwide force had it not been for Oasis. Definitely Maybe is very much a Britpop album, but Oasis songwriter/guitarist Noel Gallagher’s England was simply nothing like Damon Albarn’s. Where Albarn’s writing was critical and arch, and his influences high-minded and deliberately sourced, Gallagher’s songs were equal parts aspiration and melancholy, his riffs burly and brutish, his melodies soaring. Critics and fans alike have spent the better part of the last two decades dismissing Noel as a Beatles copycat, and for the better part of the last two decades, Noel has largely earned such criticism. But not the Noel Gallagher of 1994 and ’95, and especially not the Noel Gallagher who wrote Definitely Maybe, which has the swagger of the Rolling Stones, the wry humor and deep sadness of the Smiths, the indelible, unstoppable power of T. Rex and Slade, and the seething fury of the Sex Pistols. Much of the songs’ power, of course, was derived from the vocal presence of Noel’s then-22-year-old brother Liam Gallagher. With time and age — and sped along by years of unnatural abuse — Liam’s voice has long since withered to a desiccated husk, but in 1994, he was a force of nature, a mad angel, a truly otherworldly singer with no peers in all rock and roll. Definitely Maybe is a perfect album, an unrepeatable triumph, a gift from some higher power. It has sold more than 15 million copies worldwide. In June 2006, the NME named it as the greatest album of all time. The hyperbole of the NME has done irreparable damage to British music (we’ll get to that), but in this one instance, they might not be overstating the case.

Oasis’ meteoric rise stoked the same competitive fire in Albarn that had been sparked in him by Suede in 1992. At this point, both Blur and Oasis were not only massively successful, but prolific, overflowing with confidence, seemingly unable to contain the music within, seemingly unable to write a single bad song. (It’s a cliche to say it at this point, but it bears repeating just the same: Oasis’ non-album tracks from this era are superior to most bands’ entire catalogs, and perhaps superior even to everything else in Oasis’ entire catalog.) This led to both bands recording follow-up masterpieces to their initial masterpieces — if, in retrospect, Definitely Maybe and Parklife are both worthy of 10/10 scores, then Oasis’ 1995 LP, (What’s The Story) Morning Glory is at least a 9.5/10, and Blur’s The Great Escape is something like an 11 — but it also led to Albarn making the single worst decision of his artistic career: deliberately and arrogantly pushing up the release of Great Escape lead single “Country House” so that it would hit stores the same day as Morning Glory lead single “Roll With It,” forcing a battle for the top chart spot that week. “Country House” won — selling 274,000 copies to “Roll With It”‘s 216,000 — but with that, a war had begun, and in its wake, carnage.

Ultimately, the Oasis/Blur conflict had no clear victor: “Country House” outsold “Roll With It”; Morning Glory outsold The Great Escape; Blur have had the more accomplished career, but Oasis still probably have more money. The only party to emerge truly triumphant was one not involved in the initial firefight. Pulp’s Different Class was released on October 30, 1995, six weeks after The Great Escape, four weeks after Morning Glory. Because of frontman Jarvis Cocker’s lyrical themes, the album’s title is frequently read as a comment on Britain’s class system — and, I’ll concede, that is one of its several meanings — but to me, it always seemed like Cocker’s sly way of pitting himself and his band above the fray altogether. Let Blur and Oasis fight it out, Cocker was saying; Pulp doesn’t engage in that sort of behavior, and anyway, it wouldn’t make for a fair fight — we’re simply in a different class.

And Different Class really was. It’s the final truly essential, truly timeless Britpop album, and the best. Cocker’s lyrics are finely detailed, rich with sex and struggle and drama and frustration, but sympathy, humor and earnestness, too. It has Ziggy Stardust-size hooks, and Cocker’s dynamic vocal delivery, which often started at a whisper, but grew to a passionate, almost desperate roar. Different Class contains the consensus best Britpop song ever — maybe the best song of the decade, period — “Common People.” It also contains “Disco 2000,” a song that is in many ways “Common People”‘s equal, and in some, its superior. “Let’s all meet up in the year 2000,” sings Cocker, from the point of view of a shy adolescent in the ’80s, imagining a distant-future reunion with his classmates, one in which he is confident enough to declare his love for the girl who doesn’t notice him now. “Won’t it be strange when we’re all fully grown?” Different Class opens with “Mis-shapes,” whose name was borrowed by New York City scenesters Leigh Lezark, Geordon Nicol, and Greg Krelenstein, first to be used as the name of their downtown dance parties, and later, as the name of their DJ collective, whose image and events were partly responsible for the face of modern hipster culture worldwide. Those dance parties ran from 2002 – 2007; they came to an end on September 8, 2007, and the very last song played played that final night was “Disco 2000.”

Perhaps even more than its music, Britpop will be remembered for the drama it produced: Oasis vs. Blur, Noel vs. Liam. In this regard, the British media must be held to the highest level of accountability. That media drove a wedge between the Gallagher brothers, magnifying their every public spat, every perceived slight, inflaming what was already a sensitive partnership, encouraging two brothers with obvious insecurities and issues to air their grievances in public. The two brothers have spent most of the last five years on non-speaking terms, a fissure that is still addressed on a nearly weekly basis in the British press. Meanwhile, “The Battle Of Britpop” caused debilitating harm to both parties involved, and while Damon might be viewed as responsible for firing the first shot, he had been riled up for months by a British press that had been angling for such a conflict. (Indeed, initially the two bands had been complimentary toward one another; by September 1995, Noel was granting quotes like, “I hope [Damon Albarn and Alex James] catch AIDS and die because I fucking hate them two.”) Over time, Blur and Oasis were positioned in the media — and thus gained a foothold in public opinion — as representatives of Britain’s upper and lower classes, respectively, giving their spat awful, unearned socioeconomic undertones.

When it was over, Damon was shellshocked. Oasis, meanwhile, lost all sense of artistic purpose. It’s no coincidence that both bands never quite recovered from that bloodbath, and especially in its immediate aftermath, were adrift. As Blur’s James said, “After being the People’s Hero, Damon was the People’s Prick for a short period … basically, he was a loser — very publicly.” Blur would largely abandon Britpop and even British music and begin aping American influences, of all things, on their self-titled follow-up to The Great Escape. Oasis, on the other hand, took a victory lap that saw them at their laziest and most bloated, with Liam and Noel’s press-fueled drama suffocating their creative process. “The only reason anyone was there was the money,” said producer Owen Morris of sessions behind the recording of Oasis’ third album, Be Here Now. “Noel had decided Liam was a shit singer. Liam had decided he hated Noel’s songs … Massive amounts of drugs. Big fights. Bad vibes. Shit recordings.”

When the media could no longer cannibalize Blur and Oasis, it began to feast on the many smaller bands who made up the majority of Britpop’s ranks. By 1997, the NME‘s tendency to overpraise the first recordings of a new band only to use that same band for target practice soon afterward had becoming a running joke (if not a massive source of frustration and anxiety). Bands like Embrace and Gay Dad have been credited with speeding Britpop’s demise via their own supposed mediocrity, but in truth, they were essentially promising acts who were largely undone when their debut albums were saddled with expectations like, “the light at the end of the tunnel: an album by a British band that actually stands comparison with Definitely Maybe,” or, “Like all great records, this album offers you a chance to reset to Year Zero and erase the competition.

Britpop is celebrated for the classic albums it produced, but in the moment, it was made up of a billion songs — singles, and B-sides, and remixes — by a million bands, most of whose music was never even released in the United States. From the floor at Rebel Rebel, every tiny step of its evolution passed through my hands — every goddamn CD single released by the Bluetones and 60 Ft. Dolls and the Divine Comedy, all so clearly ephemeral and yet so absolutely addictive. And every night, after getting paid out of the cash register, I would hand my money right back to my boss, and head home, nearly penniless, carrying back to Brooklyn a bag full of that music. Today it’s worth nothing, but on those nights, it really was worth all that and more. Have you ever listened to Echobelly’s “King Of The Kerb” or Supergrass’ “Richard III” or Cast’s “I’m So Lonely” or Catatonia’s “Road Rage” or Super Furry Animals’ “Something 4 The Weekend“? When was the last time you listened to those songs? Whatever, either way, you gotta go listen to them now. They were so good, and they are still so good. And there might be more music today than there ever was at any time in history, but nothing like this exists anymore.

Britpop was eventually conflated with and consumed by the cultural movement Cool Britannia — an empty term that included things like Tony Blair’s election and Trainspotting and the Spice Girls — which coincided with its irrelevance. To quote Britpop’s finest poet: Something changed. The new Britpop bands — Kula Shaker, Rialto, Mansun — just weren’t as exciting as the old ones, and they certainly weren’t as exciting as the British bands who were making music that was not Britpop — Radiohead, Spiritualized, Massive Attack, Cornershop — or, for that matter, most of the bands everywhere else in the world.

For about three years, though, nothing was more exciting than Britpop, and those three years kicked off with two remarkable albums released in one week in 1994. The timing is once again good: Next week, Damon Albarn — still one of the world’s visionary artists — will release his first official solo album. And while he won’t commit to a new Blur album, he did say, two weeks ago, that a collaboration with Noel Gallagher is “a distinct possibility.” Whatever that might sound like — and really, who the hell knows? — I can say for sure that I’ll be excited to hear it. So on the 20th anniversary of its coming-out week, we’re spending this week celebrating Britpop with a ton of stories that remember the first time, that remember all of Britpop, from its sudden arrival to its slow decline, from helloto the end.

We’re starting below with our Britpop Spotify playlist. It’s hard to call this the “Ultimate Britpop Playlist,” because — just as it was back in ’94 — lots of Britpop’s best songs aren’t available in the United States. But it’s 150 songs, which is more than enough. And this is really what it sounded like. So put on your headphones, hit shuffle, and let’s all meet up…