Do you remember the first time when we all wanted to live forever? When we were all so young and everything was alright? Acintya beddha beddha tattva.
This was the ’90s a new decade full of optimism, swagger and opportunity. Britain had emerged out of the rubble of the last ten years and it’s not surprising that the music scene was empowering everyone from Minehead to Birkenhead. But who or what was this invisible stalwart supporter of the cause? Britpop, of course. This was ’60s Britain’s snotty-nosed little brother. He regurgitated the spirit of the ’60s and on the effervescent bile, Britain’s newest pop and rock infants fed. Some reached monumental highs and some just wallowed in the shallow end, but they were all contributing to the imperialistic dream in making Britain great!
Britpop single-handedly arm-wrestled grunge and won, stuck an elbow in the ribs of shoegaze and smartened up the appeal of baggy Manchester. No one, not even common people had seen it coming. It all became a bit of a blur. Its lifespan was somewhere between 1993 and 1997, inclusively but not exclusively. What is universally recognised though, is that this was the last scene before the birth of the internet.
So, in 20 steps I will attempt to define the legacy of this crucial period in music history by talking about the albums most associated with this movement. Chart its rise and fall and leave it up to you to decide if Britpop was supersonic.
Back In Denim
Long before Britpop decided it was a thing rather than a journalist’s shorthand to curtail British pop, Lawrence (Hayward — second name optional) was the lead singer of Felt. ’80s romanticism and the subsequent withdrawal from this was their thing.
Now world-weary from living in the US and homesick for London, Lawrence drew upon a diverse selection of musicians and made an album of acute observations on British idiosyncrasies. Unbearable to work in the studio with, he got the record he wanted. A mix of ’70s glam with a sprinkling of rock n roll clichés. His method was simple; pre-empt music’s new excesses by directly attacking them. You could clearly see he was fond of the modern world back in 1992. It was the English way. What we’re left with is a Shakespearean prologue for the next four to five years. A bittersweet record created by a hopeless romantic — what could be more British than that?
Mark E. Smith had never wanted to belong anywhere let alone being accepted by the Britpop contingent. It would, however, be remiss of me to not include this spectacular album as a precursor to a scene dominated by luxurious egos, triumphant guitar squalls and a rollicking heavy sound which puts you right in your place.
Not all Britpop albums deliver electronic dance-orientated rock but consider if you will bands like Underworld, Chemical Brothers and latterly UNKLE who decreed you could still rock out super hard if the beat is there. Code: Selfish is the early ’90s raging demon which makes itself known once in a while. It’s that feeling you get which charted the development of the scene in small sweaty intimate gigs back then. It’s also The Fall’s last great album until much later down the line.
Suede were staggeringly confident and exuded a charming danger.
Songs about sex, drugs and council estates made Britain relish that change in the air. The whimsical ’70s glam-rock strut was back in the charts once more—but this time had dirt under its fingernails. A remarkably bleak record at times but also heartbreakingly beautiful too.
A real chance to wallow in Britain’s own ineffectual shortcomings but feel proud about where we come from. Hence that photo of Brett Anderson resplendent with a Union Jack flag on the cover of Select magazine. This was every part of the opening curtain of a new era.
Modern Life Is Rubbish
I urge you to go back and revisit this LP.
A rabble-rousing pick-me-up which was only moderately successful upon release but one that has aged a lot better than its predecessor ‘Leisure.’
No hit singles, no silly videos just plenty of songs about what it is to be young. Damon Albarn and his band gazed into the crystal ball somehow, matched their songs to their surroundings and predicted it was only a matter of time before they hit it big. And, by heck, were they right.
If it was Blur’s job to master the art of playful pop, Oasis’ was to get you into a headlock until you would submit. Definitely Maybe was a mission statement.
An album full of bravado, self-confidence and aggression. Ultimately the same catapult that would launch them into the spotlight would see them collapse under their own weight — albeit 15 or so years later. Even so, the whirlwind of the inescapable furore was insatiable.
A rock record for the masses where it seemed all the planets had aligned for this moment to hear the eloquence of ‘Slide Away’, ‘Bring It On Down’, ‘Live Forever’, ‘Cigarettes and Alcohol’, ‘Supersonic’…I could go on. Choose your heroes wisely they tell you, not when they come from the North of England wearing a parka and shaking a tambourine while the other turns you on to every Beatles B-side you’ve never heard. Because like strawberry lemonade, all your dreams are made.
Everyone’s Got One
Echobelly’s debut provides sassy and inspired melody throughout.
It’s great to hear a female singer being so sharp and dynamic. Delivering songs full of wit and splendour unfurling all her own life experiences. It was unfair for 1994 music journalists to focus on Aurora Madan being non-caucasian and don’t say it too loudly, a non-male! Madan grapples with just as much socio-political commentary as Morrissey did with the Smiths.
The group’s biggest single ‘I Can’t Imagine A World Without Me’ wouldn’t feel so ordinary if you didn’t notice EGO is the abbreviated form of the title of the record.
His N Hers
Instead of focusing on ‘Common People’ and the album Different Class many people forget about this little number released a year or two earlier. It captures all Jarvis Cocker’s wit and wisdom and is much more of a rewarding listen that doesn’t need to focus on big Top Of The Pops-style singles.
Four records in and Jarvis Cocker was unleashed to the general public. The effeminate geek in corduroy chic boasted the most refreshing and engaging lyrics we’d heard yet. He was a self-proclaimed indie Alan Bennett and we were so proud he was British (and Yorkshire in my case).
His N Hers deals with acute observations like hiding in your sister’s wardrobe whilst she had sex, being useless with women and the struggles of turning your husband on. If the voyeurism didn’t get you going, the triumphant provocation certainly would. Not everyone caught this wave first time around, but that’s OK Jarvis’ songs were so coolly crafted they basically sounded like tabloid articles and filtered into your subconsciousness anyway.
From the demanding opening line of ‘Planet Telex’ “You can force it, but it will not come” Thom Yorke is playing with his mundane view of how he feels modern rock is. And through the restless tension that floods through this album, Yorke is commander in chief, revitalising the vanguard of Britain’s new modern rock heroes.
The Bends stands out in 1995 because no one really knew how to take Radiohead. Following on from Pablo Honey, which even by today’s standards we see it as kind of fussy, it lays the foundations for the dazzling OK Computer in 1997 and we get to glimpse upon Radiohead’s brooding appeal. Even in 2018, I know so many people who are only just coming to terms with how important The Bends is as a record. One which begs you take it seriously too. Being swept away by its earnestness is as much about the listening. Don’t try to fight it.
Exit Planet Dust
Chemical Brother Ed Simons once said, “Nobody from the dance world has come up with an album to reflect these times”. This is essentially the manifesto for the Chemical Brothers debut record.
It’s the other side of the coin to shouting back lyrics to Cigarettes & Alcohol with 1500 other people. Beats driven dance was being conceived as we were buying our indie singles, travelling to festivals or wearing our bucket hats. Yes, they’re not originators but not since 1992 had there been such a resurgence of modern dance. The Chemical Brothers really helped push this genre back up the charts.
Their ambition is glaringly obvious on this record, detailed and well-constructed due to its mastery and skilful arrangements. A larger than life dance-rock crossover and a great partner for the alternative scene.
Justine Frischman, a founding member of Suede, fully committed everything to make this debut record with her new band as Britpop’s brightest thing. Elastica wasn’t up for stage theatrics or swaggering about, they packed 15 songs into 40mins and sounded more like Wire and The Stranglers (a little too much at points as the story of the court case goes) than their contemporaries.
In 1995 Rolling Stone magazine named them as best new band in the world. Let’s be honest it all comes from Frischman’s seedy lyrics about sex and cheap wine sung with self-assured aggression. The intoxicating crush that this record had on people and the empowerment it provided meant big bucks for the music business but more importantly, Britain was now bursting at the seams with fresh and exciting musical talent.
Cool fact: I had a paper round and used to make mixtapes to stick into my Alba walkman as I went around door to door. My favourite Britpop playlist tape began with All Nighter. Every time I hear the opening chord progression now, I can smell the newspaper print.
It was incredibly important for the Modfather to find Britpop.
It just seemed to be the perfect scene that levelled up with the trajectory of his career—and to be appointed scholar in some respects to Noel Gallagher and Steve Cradock. Stanley Road is his third solo LP which helped modernise that gleaming mod sound from 20 years previous.
Scattered with obvious singles, great lyrics and fuzzed-out guitar outros that usher in the next tracks this record showcased his best work. It’s the sound of a long hazy summer, one which we were all loving in 1995.
Like The Smiths before them, Gene was a thoroughly self-conscious band.
That classic jingly-jangly ’70s and ’80s English rock sound was their inspiration and they brazenly drew on that to their own fulfilment. Yet against other bands around at the time they were seen as mediocre. They created pop songs with detail and originality, not music to dance or rock out to.
Obsessive and complex, they were the antidote to ‘lad culture’ which is why they should be cherished. Their echoes of self-awareness were more than just mediocrity, Gene channelled soul and feeling much deeper than their peers.
Almost too synth-driven for baggy Manchester, and too pompous and brash to fit in with the angular London scenesters, The Charlatans seemed like a square peg in a round hole until their fourth album arrived. Quite an obvious change in direction happened.
From just blasting on a Hammond organ creating some quite bland shoegaze rock into conquering the powerful three-minute pop song made them sound like a band invigorated. Impressively they managed to strengthen that funky Hacienda dance sound (an echo of New Order’s crossover appeal) and become better at those bluesy strum-a-long Rolling Stones style pop efforts. They fitted in perfectly well with the Britpop scene and it was from here they could deliver on making some of the catchiest singles of the time.
The greatest draw this record has is its belief in itself. The quality in its songcraft and structure is hard to beat — Walkaway sounds so much like Scott Walker it’s unreal. The pedigree from which All Change comes from stems from John Power’s time with The La’s.
The genetics of that Merseybeat sound filters down into the melodies, drum patterns and singing. Some bands were only touching on the Beatles, T-Rex and The Small Faces, Power created tunes from the inside out. It’s almost so well built it wouldn’t look out of place at the back end of the ’60s.
Expecting To Fly
One of my favourite ever records which I’m still on the hunt for an original copy of on vinyl. This record in many ways was almost too accomplished. The number of hooks and melodies crammed into Expecting To Fly is impressive. They had no need for beer-lairyness the journey of the record instead focussed on fun and adventure. Misspent youth and heart-breaking motifs.
Many reviews raise the question there is a lack of variety within it. The consistently brilliant fuzzed out guitar, sing-a-long lyrics, changes in tempo, rose-tinted views on topics such as relationships and regret. Yeah, definitely a lack of variety on a linear view but definitely not in its everyman charm and spiralling ambition.
Cool fact: Mark Morriss once bought me a whiskey because I sang the opening lyrics to ‘Things Change’ directly at him. More out of necessity than kindness I think.
Super Furry Animals
Super Furry Animals sounded like nothing else at the time. Only a year after their debut EP Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch (In Space) their supreme weirdness matched with their expertly crafted songwriting wizardry won them legions of fans.
No one sounded quite like them and that was cool. SFA were the alternatives in an alternative scene, which by today’s standards doesn’t make them stand out all that much but in 1996 when you were making dreamscape songs about unicorns and talking to God, SFA were the ‘odd’ ones out.
Fuzzy Logic is eclectic and eccentric psychedelia. If rock n’ roll clichés were doing your head in, then the Super Furries would be your new favourite band.
The Manic Street Preachers
Everything Must Go
The Manic Street Preachers felt it necessary to continue despite Richey Edwards’ disappearance. No other band at this time was so steeped in tragedy yet unwaveringly they produced a record full of intellectual spirit and brave abandonment.
Now a trio, as so distinctly shown on the cover sleeve, their gritty punk foundations showed resilience in the face of adversity. Unsurprisingly this collection of songs showed the Manics had great depth in songwriting and from their brash beginnings, they proved they could step up their game and be the band they always wanted to be without relying on gimmicks.
Most records released at the time were about how to live right now, Everything Must Go showed you how far an optimistic view towards the future could take you. A cathartic experience with a very forthright direction.
Attack Of The Grey Lantern
Mansun were on the more proggy side of Britpop.
Their progressive sound was the touchstone for their experimental (in Britpop terms) debut LP. Their curiously opulent pop songs, string arrangements and playful ambient noise shared much in common with Tears For Fears and to some extent Talk Talk. Artistic and compelling with vivid character portrayals it would be easy to lose the flow and focus with such grand profiling yet Attack of The Grey Lantern is strangely mesmeric.
Maverick A Strike
Finlay Quaye dropped light pop reggae just at the perfect time in 1997.
It was the twilight of the Britpop scene; the heyday was almost over, and Maverick A Strike filled the lavishness of the alternative scene with an urban contemporary street vibe. The LP is expertly produced even by today’s standards with lazy grooves, infectious guitar hooks and swirling organs — it felt like each track followed you around from hearing it on TV and the constant radio airplay.
A reimagined version of Bob Marley on ‘Sun Is Shining’, to that uniquely whispered vocal on ‘Even After All’ It is its own sophistication that gives itself plenty of oomph. So what if this record is more akin to trip-hop being laid down by the likes of Portishead and Massive Attack than the last five-six years of British guitar-driven rock.
No one knew what would usher in the new millennium, but they knew it would be groovy.
The last great swan song for British rock and this time it wasn’t penned by Blur or Oasis but with a Wigan five-piece. It was almost viewed as the album that would trigger a new musical direction for UK music, its anthemic grandeur and retro indulgences were part and parcel of the last five years. A supreme culmination of everything audiences wanted. The seismic shift in music which Urban Hymns brought with it was phenomenal. If you’d charted their earlier shoegaze stylised music choices you’d be indebted to this these were a different band entirely. I often think of the Neil Young line “It’s better to burn out, than fade way” when I return to this record. Britpop needed a line to be drawn underneath it — Blur and Oasis were quite happy to continue until the beginning of the next decade through petty squabbling. Richard Ashcroft was respected far too much to get sucked into that nonsense. 1997, in fact, was his chance to get it right. If way back in 1992, Denim created the prologue for Britpop, Ashcroft wrote its epilogue with ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony.’
Often the beginning and end of a journey are what sticks in our minds most of all. The fact Britpop gave us a climax halfway through with a proper suspenseful plot. We were introduced to new heroes, political and football contributions, sell-out stadium tours and album after album which the world still holds with great regard. Just like the sixties before the true adventure was the whirlwind that we all got caught up in. Whether you liked Blur or Oasis better needn’t matter the appetite for change will always be what Britpop and the 90’s legacy will be remembered for.