If anyone is entitled to feel a little bitter about The Britpop boom of the 1990s, then it’s My Bloody Valentine frontman Kevin Shields. Bands like Pulp, Oasis, and Blur practically erased the shoegaze movement of the late 1980s and early ’90s in one fell swoop, ushering in a new age of rock n roll. But, looking back at that period, Sheilds has argued that something sinister lay at the heart of the ‘Cool Britannia’ phenomenon. For him, it was less a musical movement and more an artfully crafted publicity stunt.
Whilst the likes of My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, and Ride had garnered a loyal fanbase with their innovative approach to guitar music, many bands of their ilk were regarded with apathy by the music press. It’s almost as if they were waiting for them to fail. Perhaps it was something to do with the non-confrontational nature of shoegaze music. In the eyes of many rock fans at the time, the ambient wall of sound which characterises the shoegaze genre was distinctly un-rock n roll. It seemed to come from a completely different musical tradition, one informed by the “furniture music” of Erik Satie and Brian Eno. Indeed, the musicians themselves were seen as having such little stage presence that they seemed part of the furniture as well. In contrast, Britpop’s Noel and Liam Gallagher were loud, boisterous and ready to seize the camera with both hands.
Britpop coincided with a transitional moment in UK politics. After decades of Tory rule, Tony Blair represented a new age. He was young, he used to be in a rock band, and in Kevin Shield’s opinion, he exploited Britpop to promote the cause of New Labour. In an interview, Shields argued that the ‘Cool Britannia’ phenomenon was little more than a marketing trick. “Britpop was massively pushed by the government,” he said. “Someday, it would be interesting to read all the MI5 files on Britpop. The wool was pulled right over everyone’s eyes there.”
In his first years of being prime minister, Tony Blair invited several notable members of the Britpop scene to Downing Street, including Noel Gallagher and Damon Albarn. The drinks party took place in what has since been defined as Blair’s “honeymoon period”. According to Sheilds, the event was used as an opportunity for Blair to exploit the popularity of Britpop with young people. In showing himself shaking hands with the likes of Gallagher and Albarn, he was cementing himself as an integral part of a new national identity.
But, by the time Blair invaded Iraq in 2003, the sheen had worn off, and the public was starting to wonder if New Labour was really just Toryism under a different name. In a retrospective interview, Gallagher was asked how he felt about being part of Blair’s elaborate game of dress-up: “Nothing really changes does it? Same shit, different day. What was it: “We’re all middle-class now”. I find that really insulting. Being middle-class is just one step closer to topping yourself, if you ask me. It’s just the most boring thing I could ever imagine.”
Explaining why he decided to go to Downing Street in the first place, Gallagher added: ‘I just thought, if the Prime Minister of England wanted to see me, then, fuck me, I must be a fucking geezer. I was convinced that I was going to get a knighthood that night. You live and learn, don’t you?’ Those certainly sound like the words of somebody who’s had the wool pulled over their eyes to me.