Whoever coined the term ‘Britpop’ needs to have a long hard look in the mirror; it’s not that the term is inaccurate. I accept that the Britpop era of the 1990s saw the UK produce some of the best-selling albums in its musical history. Groups like Blur, Oasis, Suede, and Pulp helped to renew Britain’s status as one of the world’s greatest purveyors of stadium-filling rock music. I do not deny any of that. It’s just that the term is a little too reminiscent of the bunting-hanging, flag-waving, ‘let’s show Fritz whose boss’ mentality of yesteryear — one I’d really rather leave in the past.
So it pains me when I hear people banging on about the famed “battle of Britpop” as if it was the defining moment of UK music. This opinion will probably make me a little unpopular, but I think it’s time we let it go.
Said “battle” was fought between Oasis and Blur, who had been transformed into the Beatles and Stones of their day by a hungry media, eager to amp up the beef to sell papers. In the summer of 1995, the two Britpop giants were set to release their singles on the very same day on August 14th. The anticipation of whose track would take the number one spot divided the country into two camps. You were either vying for Oasis’ ‘Roll With It’, or Blur’s ‘Country House’.
Both bands were at the top of their game. Oasis had just released their debut Definitely Maybe to critical acclaim, and Blur were still thriving off the success of 1994’s Parklife. The excitement was real, and it could have gone either way.
But here’s the thing. Neither ‘Country House’ nor ‘Roll With It’ are examples of either bands’ best work. Far from it, they’re some of the worst songs they ever released. As a result, neither song has endured half as much as the petulant squabbling that preceded Blur’s eventual, and utterly meaningless, victory. More than the songs themselves, what resides in the memory is the vacuous nature of a music industry blinded by its macho self-importance.
I think I find the whole ‘Blur/Oasis’ beef so tiring because it was symptomatic of a much larger social trend that swept through the UK in the 1990s. The mid-’80s had seen the birth of acid-house, a new kind of music that was all rhythm and texture. It coincided with the popularisation and new ubiquity of Ecstacy, and suddenly clubs and warehouses across the UK were full of strangers “spreading the love” just as they had in the late 1960s.
For a time, hooliganism and violence seemed outmoded forms of communication. But within a few short years, that notion had been flipped on its head and by the 1990s, hooliganism, beer-drinking, and verbal abuse had all become signs of good honest patriotism, one typified by the figure of ‘the lad’. The aggressive rivalry between Blur and Oasis demonstrated how they had embraced this new form of posturing. More than that, they were venerated for it, and, arguably, Liam Gallagher still relies on it today.
Before the chart battle between the bands, Blur and Oasis had shared a mutual respect. At the 1995 NME Awards, Blur won five awards, and Oasis won three. Noel and Damon shared photographs, and Liam even conceded: “I don’t think we should have got more [awards] than Blur. Blur are a top band.” But after a triumphant Liam Gallagher mocked Damon Albarn at a party in which Creation Records were celebrating ‘Some Might Say’ reaching number one, the Blur singer decided to get his own back, and so the “battle of Britpop” was born.
What followed was an unending parade of petulance, in which members of both bands fired abuse at each other through TV screens and across audiences at award shows. The rivalry took on the masculinity of two heavyweight boxers trash-talking each other from either side of a shrimpy referee, and the media lapped it up. Tabloid newspapers thrived on the press the bands’ beef produced, so much so that, when a victorious Oasis treated the audience of the Brit Awards to a rendition of Blur’s ‘Parklife’, lovingly entitled ‘Shitlife’, the music press practically exploded with excitement.
The media and music industry also thrived on the old rivalry the Oasis/Blur beef stirred up between northerners and southerners. For many, Oasis represented the grit and hard-grafting attitude of the post-industrial north, whereas Blur represented the soft, art school-attending inhabitants of the home counties. As a result, the “battle of Britpop” triggered a sort of tribalism that defined individuals by their geography, in much the same way that football had been doing for decades.
Although this allowed for a fan-loyalty that has since disappeared, in contrast to the “love” movement of acid house, it also pitched people against one another and for no real reason other than to boost record sales. The music industry recognised that, by stoking century-old resentments between classes, it could make an absolute packet.
The chart battle between Blur and Oasis was, for me, little more than a media circus. It was an exercise in how far that media could manipulate the public. Although it seems like a fairly causal thing, the music industry’s celebration of on-screen bullying and its exploitation of class boundaries seem pretty insidious on closer inspection. But more than anything, I can’t help feeling that, in celebrating the days when musicians spoke their minds, we’re also glorifying something that was, at its heart, pretty cruel.