The Sound Of Someone Losing The Plot: Britpop’s Big Comedown And What Came Next
Oasis and Blur may mark the official beginning of Britpop with the twin classics of Definitely Maybe and Parklife, respectively, but some people — particularly, seemingly, in music-writer circles — claim Pulp’s Different Class as the genre’s pinnacle. It’s the smartest of the bunch, as intricate and sprawling as Parklife, and armed with just a few anthems but ones that managed to sound less indebted to other artists than those on Definitely Maybe, accordingly making them age better. Pulp had already achieved some pop success and released another crucial entry in the Britpop canon the preceding year with His ‘N’ Hers — which, as you’ll notice with the publication of our dual anniversary pieces this week, came out a week before Parklife — but it was Different Class that was definitive, and that really threw them into superstardom akin to what the Gallaghers and Damon Albarn were experiencing. The difference was that Jarvis Cocker was already in his 30s. Pulp had been formed in the late ’70s. Their first record came out in 1983. It had been a much more circuitous, stop-start route for Cocker, but he had made it.
And, as it turns out, he had given voice to what wound up being the last word on a certain phase of Britpop. It’s hard to imagine something like this happening again now, but between ’94 and ’95 Oasis, Blur, and Pulp all released two albums, each following a landmark record with something even more ambitious. (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? followed Definitely Maybe, The Great Escape followed Parklife, and Different Class followed His ‘N’ Hers. It depends on your bias, but generally speaking Blur and Oasis released their masterworks in 1994, and Pulp theirs in 1995. (I’ve actually always liked Morning Glory more than Definitely Maybe, and I usually prefer The Great Escape to Parklife, but I’m going with consensus here, and my opinion actually runs counter the point I’m about to make, so.) Different Class seemed the final, perfect encapsulation of what Britpop was supposed to be about. By the time Pulp released This Is Hardcore in 1998, things were completely different.
“This is the sound of someone losing the plot/ Making out that they’re OK when they’re not/ You’re going to like it, but not a lot/ And the chorus goes like this,” Cocker sings at the end of the first verse of “The Fear,” the opening track on This Is Hardcore. Pulp’s music often had longing and sadness in it, but this was something else — underneath Cocker, a distorted guitar yawned in a way entirely foreign to the spritely beginnings of Different Class opener “Mis-Shapes.” Pulp had found the success they’d fought for so long, and the result was they they wrote new music that was much bleaker and world-wearied than anything they’d yet released.
It wasn’t just Pulp. After the streak of Britpop classics established the genre and its forerunners in ’94 and ’95, the next wave of records showed the primary Britpop artists in an entirely different headspace. Starting in 1997 and trickling through 1998 and 1999, there was a slew of new classics that were difficult, expansive and/or bloated, more all-encompassing at the same time they were more deeply personal and frayed. In February of 1997, Blur put out a self-titled album that for the most part sounded like an entirely different band than the one who had released The Great Escape two years prior. Oasis’ Be Here Now followed in August, and the Verve’s very temporary breakup ended with Urban Hymns being released the subsequent month. Always plugging along to the side of Britpop, Spiritualized released their masterwork Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space in May, and for a moment seemed on a similar wavelength stylistically to all their more famous counterparts even though that record generally seems on no other human’s wavelength in any other way. (Crucially, in that same month Radiohead released OK Computer, but we’ll get to that later.)
It was audible that these albums were made by people who were exhausted, or drugged-up, or generally despondent and listless in the wake of a few years being rich and famous. Collectively, this run of records — continuing on with This Is Hardcore in 1998 and Blur’s 13 in 1999 — represented not necessarily a development in Britpop, but a collapse of it. Even as these bands were releasing perhaps their greatest works, the movement that had birthed them was giving out underneath of — and because of — them. These were the last wheezing growing pain of Britpop, and what it meant was that Britpop ceased to exist as a binding concept in any relevant form.
According to each band’s style, they had their own particular version of strained or exhaustive, their own version of everything blowing out and slowly running down into the ground. Be Here Now doesn’t necessarily sound sad, just bloated and power-mad (there’s no other way to describe the impulse to put as many guitar tracks on “D’You Know What I Mean” as Noel Gallagher did). I mean, “bloated” somehow feels like an understatement. There’s no other way to put this, really: Be Here Now is ridiculous. Fueled by an unlimited amount of coke and arrogance, Noel made every song two or three minutes too long, drowning them in orchestration and overdubs that wrestle each other into a sort of collective, wall-of-expensive-noise oblivion. It basically single-handedly began the tarnishing of Oasis’ legacy; Noel Gallagher had been an infallible songwriter, and then he immediately showed himself to be very fallible. Even with all its flaws, though, Be Here Now is better than its reputation and perhaps one of the more fascinating Oasis listening experiences. The hooks couldn’t always keep up with the ambition these songs sought. Everything here was evidently produced by someone who really believed each song could and should be placed in the great rock canon (Aside from the title track, “D’You Know What I Mean” is my favorite song on the record, but those classic rock song and album title references are a bit comical). It’s wounded, desperate maximalism.
Where Be Here Now is coked-out and overblown, much of This Is Hardcore sounds like pained remembrances aired in a seedy bar in the bleary-eyed, early hours of the morning. It’s the comedown record to sum up Britpop’s comedown, again positioning Pulp as the band who said it one year later but said it best. (Blur’s 13 was yet to come, but you could make the argument that was almost entirely outside of Britpop stylistically.) Where the lasciviousness and prurience of Pulp’s earlier work were given human weight by the strength of Cocker as lyricist, “This Is Hardcore” was lurid in a way even the Different Class track “I Spy” hadn’t been. It’s ominous. Those horns, the way Cocker airs his anxieties about fame and touring via a song about porn, the fact that it lent the album its name — it sounds like a manifesto of self-revulsion. Cocker tells you plainly enough when the record begins: you’re going to like it, but not a lot. Guilt and anxious self-awareness are woven into the experience of the album. There’s a strong argument to be made that This Is Hardcore is the best Pulp album, the logical and decrepit endpoint of all that preceded it on His ‘N’ Hers and Different Class, and a conclusion that could only be followed by the post-script of We Love Life. “Party Hard” is one of only a few songs that still bear facets of the dance-rock Pulp had done so well, and it’s a haggard thing. I’m convinced the chorus sounds gross on purpose. “Common People” and “Disco 2000″ had their own emotional stakes, but they were sly and self-assured and funny. “Party Hard” is the guy who doesn’t realize the party wound down a few hours (or years) ago. It’s one of many moments on This Is Hardcore that sounds like cheap cigarettes and liquor, like vomit on the floor, like the shadows under a beleaguered man’s eyes.
If Modern Life Is Rubbish, Parklife, and The Great Escape formed Blur’s Britpop trilogy, Blur and 13 could almost be said to be something of sister projects. Blur was when the band began departing from idiosyncratically British music and incorporating the influence of American indie music, which would’ve previously been anathema in the Blur camp, and was certainly at least partially due to the influence of guitarist Graham Coxon. Perhaps most importantly, they are the records where Albarn was writing most specifically about his own personal turmoil, where before he had couched any such insight in stories and social critique. These are the heroin records. “Beetlebum” — a candidate for the best Blur song, if you ask me — is about heroin, but the whole record has a shambolic, strung out vibe to it. Blur transitions from logical maturations of their style like “M.O.R” or “On Your Own” to scuzzy, ragged stuff like “I’m Just A Killer For Your Love” or “Death Of A Party.” It runs all over the place.
Its successor, 13, was heavily inspired by the disintegration of Albarn’s seven year relationship with Justine Frischmann. Frischmann was, in many ways, woven closely into Blur’s narrative. She’d been a founding member of Suede, the lover of its frontman Brett Anderson, and then departed to become frontwoman for Elastica, whose 1995 debut was another pivotal entry in the Britpop canon. When she took up with Albarn instead of Anderson around the same time Suede was being championed as the best British band out there, it provided the impetus that drove Albarn into the obsessive need to prove himself that produced Blur’s breakthrough work. The collapse of their relationship could likely be tied to the heavy drug scene both had become involved in, though to hear Frischmann tell it, one of the main reasons was the tension of celebrity. 13 is a heavy, heavy album — songs like “Tender,” “Battle,” and “1992” are beautiful and haunting and raw. The record is perhaps Blur’s greatest moment. Much like This Is Hardcore, it directly or indirectly came out of the consequences that followed pop success. There was something symbolic to Albarn and Frischmann parting ways. One of the foundational stories of Britpop had unraveled into a bedraggled, inglorious conclusion. It would’ve been a logical ending point for Blur.
That leaves two somewhat ancillary inclusions: the Verve and Spiritualized. The Verve, who had been dark and grungey and psychedelic when Britpop was at its height, actually came back with the only record of theirs that sonically makes much sense in the general Britpop conversation. Urban Hymns is a panoramic listen, and ironically the slightly happier of the Verve records, which means they brightened up a bit just when everyone else was going off the cliff. Still, it has the quality of a band going for broke, which makes it still fit in with these other ’97 releases. As for Spiritualized, Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space had its own supposed roots in heartbreak: much of it has been rumored to be influenced by Kate Radley, a founding member of the band, leaving frontman Jason Pierce (and, later, Spiritualized itself) for the Verve’s Richard Ashcroft. It’s the sort of successfully over-the-top, classic rock-influenced freakout you’d imagine Noel Gallagher would’ve loved to have made with Be Here Now, and all its drugginess and suffering make it a fine companion piece for Blur and This Is Hardcore.
These bands would continue on. After a detour with the first Gorillaz album, Albarn returned to Blur for 2003’s Think Tank, which sans Coxon basically sounds closer to Gorillaz than it does to any other Blur release. Pulp would release We Love Life, and barely looked or sounded like themselves: far from the slinky rhythms and glistening surface of hits like “Babies” or “Common People,” We Love Life was dominated by weathered art-pop and folkier overtones that gives the whole thing an oddly naturalistic vibe one would’ve previously imagined to be entirely at odds with the urbane sound of Pulp. Oasis, of course, soldiered on the most, cranking out albums that started to sound the same — the last two of which, 2005’s Don’t Believe The Truth and 2008’s Dig Out Your Soul, are actually pretty great and underrated — as much as they did brotherly spats, one of which finally ruptured the band in 2009. None of it matched the headiness, the lightning-in-a-bottle quality of Britpop’s zenith, and after that last glut of difficult, tortured albums in the late ’90s, it all felt tangential. The remaining strands of Britpop were dissipating off into separate directions. The albums of ’97-’99 were the final chapter, everything else a prolonged epilogue. Besides, there were other things afoot now.
As Britpop’s leading figures departed for solo careers or whatever else, their influence lingered in different ways for different artists. By the early- and mid-’00s, bands were beginning to crop up that quoted Britpop alongside the genre’s own influences, reaching back to punk and mod. You had bands like the Libertines (who I still don’t get the big deal about, but whatever), and bands like Kasabian and Kaiser Chiefs, who were good for a handful of infectious singles and then stuck around way too long and lingered as punchlines of sorts. Every now and then you got an Arctic Monkeys, who were rawer than Britpop’s main figures (though not necessarily more so than, say, Supergrass’ I Should Coco) and wound up maturing far better than you might’ve expected; never having been much of a fan of their earliest iteration, I find their last two records to be their best, and am constantly surprised that they’ve already become trad-rock troubadours of a certain kind.
But there was a whole other slew of artists making music that had very little to do with Britpop musically, even if it seemed to come directly out of the more wearied tone that permeated Britpop’s waning days. Less world-weary than “afraid of” or “at odds with” the world, Radiohead released OK Computer in 1997. Some people lump Radiohead in with Britpop because the years line up, but they had nothing to do with the movement. Their 1993 debut Pablo Honey was indebted to Sonic Youth, U2, Nirvana, and the Pixies, not the Jam or the Clash or the Kinks. Their music is more cerebral or philosophical; their social commentary is always framed in apocalyptic imagery rather than character studies akin to what Cocker or Albarn might write. And by the time they got to OK Computer, they were totally on their own trip. Where many of the records discussed above had a worn out sprawl to them, OK Computer was tightly wound, chilly, claustrophobic. With this record and 2000’s Kid A, the band grappled with anxiety about the impending turn-of-the-millennium and technology. Most importantly, they took the baton from Britpop.
There may have been those aforementioned bands that bore resemblance to Britpop, but it was Radiohead who ascended — they became critical darlings, and remained the world’s unlikeliest arena rockstars through their most recent tour in support of 2011’s The King Of Limbs. And immediately in the wake of OK Computer came the wave of copycats or bands simply influenced by them, the post-Britpop bands. Britpop came out of Madchester and baggy, among other things, but was partially developed in reaction to such movements. It was only in hindsight that a band like Primal Scream or Charlatans or Stone Roses would get lumped together with Blur and Pulp as being part of the same generation or movement. It doesn’t seem there’s a willful negation of Britpop occurring in the music of bands like Coldplay, Doves, or Elbow, but there’s little chance of those bands getting summed up together as having anything to do with their predecessors musically. The post-Britpop bands took, if anything, the atmosphere of the times from Britpop — the perpetually rainy murk of Doves’ Lost Souls or Elbow’s Asleep In The Back could be a further extension of the dejectedness of This Is Hardcore or 13.
The morose atmospherics of Radiohead proved to be the defining sound there for a few years. This probably had something to do with the fact that these bands drew on similar influences that departed somewhat from those of the British bands that had preceded them. Post-punk instead of punk, the Smiths, R.E.M., and the anthems of U2 all mingled together. Bands got more ethereal, for a time. There was a kind of dramatic gravity to it all. The most famous of these in America is Coldplay, who were at first written off as a Travis/Radiohead ripoff when Parachutes came out, and only later became more closely associated with being a U2 ripoff. Elbow’s gotten their accolades in recent years, including a Mercury Prize in 2008 for The Seldom Seen Kid, but their friends over in Doves remain one of the most underrated bands of the ’00s. Each had a run of gorgeous, mostly heartbreaking albums in the first half of the last decade, though it was somehow Elbow’s orchestral progginess that wound up finding mainstream success. (Or licensing “Grounds For Divorce” and “One Day Like This” a million times each, whichever.)
The thing that stands out now from those years is fragmentation. (Fitting, if we’re looking to Radiohead as the godfathers of this era of British music.) The handful of bands I mentioned above saw some success, as did that other handful I started with; how many Americans you know that are familiar with them probably depends on if your friends are obsessive music fans, and if they actively seek out recent-ish guitar music. You’re not going to stumble into Doves the way you could Pulp or Blur. They never had that reach, but neither did their contemporaries. Many things had changed since the ’90s — the mainstream was more fully in the digital era and going down that road of ballooning to incorporate the world. It was becoming, as it is now, hard to point to a single movement as if it’s a the universally “defining our times” movement the way you could’ve said about Britpop in ’90s Britain. I can’t say whether it’s worse or better. Maybe it’s received nostalgia, but there does seem like there’s been something lost since the end of Britpop (or, Stateside, the ’90s alternative boom). There isn’t the same kind of universal experiences shared amongst a generation, and we might be more listless for it.
It’s appropriate that the tone of post-Britpop is one of perpetual elegy. It seems outlandish to think that albums like This Is Hardcore or 13 could produce popular radio singles. But that was the power of Britpop — they had complete control of Britain’s mainstream, and in 1997 they drove it into the ground. We still have our collective experiences now, of course, but to hear fans reminisce of experiencing something as big and over-arching as Britpop in the moment has begun to feel like an entirely foreign concept. Illegible. Nothing like that happened again in Britain in the wake of Britpop. We’re left with shards in the new millennium, with Radiohead and Bloc Party and Kaiser Chiefs and Editors jostling around together. And that’s before you even get to any other English imports, like Amy Winehouse or Adele. Maybe it is indeed better off this way, to have to navigate the big mess of it. After all, if you listen to all those last great Britpop albums, it sounds like universality took its toll.