The Rise and Fall of Britpop – British Music in the 90’s and it’s last musical movement…

Let me take you back to a glorious time in the History of Great Britain. A time when we stopped fearing the Russians. A time when we stuck two fingers up at our American cousins. A time when we told those Australian soap stars to go back to their acting careers. A time when as a nation, we cast aside our Japanese video games, rubbed our eyes, and turned on the radio. In this decade we reclaimed our identity while embracing our diversity. We looked to the past and realised how bloody great we were and how it could be combined into a 60’s-glam-punk-mod-rock hybrid. With it we took back the charts, took back our culture and even changed our government.

I’m talking about Britpop of course! The explosion of not only British music but also fashion, film, art and so much more. The British Indie and Madchester scenes had spawned this generation of musical legends. The Smiths had picked up the match and The Stone Roses, Inspiral Carpets, The Charlatans and Happy Mondays had lit the fuse. Thatcher was gone and these bands were introducing the U.K to a new genre of music but it appeared to be a false dawn. The Stone Roses went into hiding and the others were knocked back by the grunge revolution that was reverberating across the world from Seattle. Instead of Ian Brown and Tim Burgees we were hearing Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder. British music needed it’s own Seattle to re-ignite it’s fuse. That would be be done in the form of Camden Town in London. From it came a band at war with itself but also a band that would be the first to flick the musical switch of the nation off auto-pilot. Suede released singles such as ‘The Drowners’ and ‘Metal Mickey’ in 1992 which had sparked an increased interest which expanded rapidly when they released ‘Animal Nitrate’. The loud, grinding and sharp guitar riffs and the bold lyrics were hard to ignore and as a result the producers of the BRIT Awards decided to throw them into the 1993 ceremony last minute. In their attempts to revive the fading and irrelevant awards ceremony they left the nation in shock and awe of Suede’s performance. Their debut album became the fastest selling debut album in the U.K for a decade. While this was going on; Blur had started to re-evaluate their approach from the psychedelic, shoegaze band they were and into a band that would take note of the ‘Americanisation’ of the U.K with Modern Life is Rubbish. But that would only serve as a pre-cursor to what was to come from them. Meanwhile in Wales a reinvention was underway. It had the style and flare of Glam Rock yet the grit of punk. It was portrayed by a band called the Manic Street Preachers and they began to inflitrate the charts with ‘Motorcyle Emptiness’ and a cover of ‘Suicide is Painless’  In 1993 a defining moment occured on the cover of the Select magazine that would officially spark the movement. It recognised the new sound of bands like Suede and how unique it was to Britian. They featured Suede frontman Bret Anderson on the cover with a Union Jack in the background along with a subtle message. Also mentioned on that very cover were a Sheffield band that had been plugging away un-noticed throughout the 80’s and had also started to make new waves in the British music scene. Singles such as ‘Lipgloss’ and ‘Do You Remember the First Time?’ lead the newly christened Britpop scene into 1994. The band was Pulp and their His ‘n’ Hers album was as bold and as bright as Suede’s debut but tinged with a Northern feel provided by Jarvis Cocker and the inclusion of keyboards that made them a little more ‘funkier’ and saw them begin to take the lead of the Britpop scene. However they, along with the rest of the country; had no idea of what was to come over the next few months.

 

The first number one song for the movement came from the three quarters female group: Elastica. The grinding and slightly distorted guitars were a feature as were Justine Frischmann’s shouty and almost spoken vocals. Blur would emerge as a stronger and bolder force than the year before with their album Parklife. On it featured ‘Girls and boys’ and ‘Parklife’. One was almost like a dance track complimented by Graham Coxon’s agressive riffs. The other was a much more guitar driven song which oddly featured spoken verses from actor Phil Daniels but which worked to great effect; especially when it lead to Blur taking over fully in the chorus. With this many critics had claimed the the grunge revolution was being defeated and these comments seemed more ominous upon Kurt Cobain’s suicide. The world and the nation mourned the loss of a musical legend and icons in Nivarna. But little did they know, another was about to smash it’s way onto the scene and raise the stakes in what was fast becoming a British free for all in the charts. Oasis introduced themselves to the nation with ‘Supersonic’. A track that teases the listener with a simple drum intro and then with that definitive grinding guitar but it was done with such flow and effortlessness it was hard to place it with the others. The bass featured more prominently and of course Liam Gallaghers vocals the most prominent of the 90’s with his down your throat and in yer face style to deliver Noel Gallagher’s well crafted and British lyrics. With this,’Supersonic’,’Shakermaker’,Liver Forever’ and so many others they had thrown away the gloves in the fight supremacy and Britpop had just turned nasty as Oasis took the Britpop scene back to it’s origins. Back in Wales, the Manics dropped all the American influences that had featured heavily on their second album and picked up their Joy Division, PiL and Gang of Four influences to create a Hard Rock, Punk masterpiece to much critical acclaim with The Holy Bible. The album perhaps had some of the strongest anti-american messages out of all the British groups from the 90’s and though it wasn’t a massive commercial success, they did appear on Top of the Pops to perform ‘Faster’ in which the BBC suffered a raft of complaints from disgruntled viewers who had witnessed the Manics all in military attire with frontman James Dean Bradfield wearing a balaclava. These would be their last performances as a quartet as their guitarist and lead lyricist Richie Edwards would suffer a breakdown and later go missing for which he still hasn’t been found to this day. The Manics would spend 1995 considering their future and revaluating as a band.

 

1995 would very much see the movement at it’s peak with all the various groups trampling over each other in the charts in order to get number one singles and albums. The nation would soon find itself gripped by it all and Oasis would trigger the fight with their single ‘Some Might Say’ from thier huge album (What’s the story) Morning Glory. It would be their first number one single and came only a few days after the Conservatives heavy defeat in the local elections. It signalled the beginning of the end of a difficult era under Conservative rule that stretched right back to 1979 and many started to endorse Tony Blair; especially Noel Gallagher. He descibes the song as the definitive Oasis song and it certainly saw Oasis win the upper hand in the chart battle with their British counter-parts, mainly Blur. It would commence the fierce battle between the two which was mainly provoked by the NME. Blur too, played to it and delayed the release of the first single off their album Great Escape to coincide with Oasis’ second release from Morning Glory: ‘Roll With it’. It was released August 14th 1995 as was ‘Country House’ from Blur and the nation stopped to find out the outcome of the ‘Battle of Britain’ or ‘Battle of Britpop’. It was even reported on the Ten o’clock news ahead of The Bosnia crisis and Iraq’s supposed possession of WMD’s. It was dubbed by the press as a battle between Working and Middle class, North and South and it was Blur who won that Battle to knock Take That off the top of the charts. However it was very much as case of Blur winning only the battle and not the war. While other Blur releases from The Great Escape would chart highly, they wouldn’t eclipse Oasis releases from Morning Glory that were arriving 13 months after the release of the albums first single. They wouldn’t have it all their own way though. The Verve from Wigan showed much promise on their album A Northern Soul and had close ties to Oasis. Pulp were back with their legendary album Different Class which spawned the singles ‘Disco 2000’, ‘Mis-shapes’ which reached number 7 and 2 respectively. The Britpop anthem that was ‘Common People’ also reached the number 2 spot and the song is often hailed as the epitome of the Britpop movement with it’s class messages. Supergrass too emerged with their hit single ‘Alright’ which was a more upbeat Britpop event. Even the Modfather that was Paul Weller was getting in on the act with his solo album Stanley Road which spawned the singles ‘Changingman’ and ‘You do something to me’.

1996 would tie up any loose ends left over from 1995 and would feature some of the greatest British anthems of all time and some sensational returns. Morning Glory was still releasing singles off what was to become the third greatest selling album in U.K chart history. From it they would get their second number one single with perhaps one of the greatest tracks in U.K chart history in ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’ This was the first time Noel took the lead vocal on an Oasis single despite being the chief writer of the band. His delivery, especially in the chorus is the sort of vocal that gets a nation singing along with you and the exstensive use of guitar solo’s of which Oasis always featured more prominently than others gave the hook for what is primarliy a Noel Gallagher song. But it was a song that showed another level for Oasis. A level that Blur couldn’t replicate and one they were not willing to as they began to depart from their typical Britpop like sound that they had used for the last four to five years. Liverpool had a small part to play with the band Cast who released the hit single ‘Walk Away’ from their 1995 album All Change. Another of the great British anthems was released in April that year as the Manic Street Preachers returned with the epic ‘Design For Life’ which was much more akin to Britpop and propelled the boys from Blackwood back into the spotlight with the Manics on their emotional return after the disappearence of guitarist Richie Edwards in February 1995. The song was one last blow to the class system and it charted at number two for a lengthy period as did the album Everything Must Go. The title track and all the singles from that album charted very well and was commerically, the bands most successful album. Another player would emerge in 1996 to further clog up the charts full of British music. This time from Birmingham and their answer to Oasis with Ocean Colour Scene. Along with The Boo Radleys and Cast from Merseyside they were labelled as ‘Noel Rock’ groups due to the heavy Oasis influences, particularly from Noel Gallagher in terms of vocal, lyrical and musical style. ‘The Riverboat song’ from Ocean Colour Scene pushed them up to fifthteenth spot in the charts while ‘The Day we Caught the Train’ would give them their best chart showing coming in at number four. The song was heavily influenced by The Who and the cult film Quadrophenia from 1979 which starred Phil Daniels and Sting amongst others. The band would give the Midlands it’s best representation thoughout the movement and they would win the approval of those such as Noel Gallagher. He made sure that they would be on the roll call of British groups on show at the famous Knebworth concert in August 1996. It broke the record for free standing attendance in the U.K and Oasis were the centrepiece. The Manics would also gain a lot of respect as now being part of the movement as it’s Hard Rock representatives while the ‘Noel Rock’ groups such as Ocean Colour Scene and Cast would also feature. It is often cited as the ultimate peak of the Britpop era and of British music in the 90s. Many thought that an event of such scale would never occur again and it wouldn’t. From this point the whole Britpop era was only set for a tumble and tumble it did. One of the first Britpop acts in Suede were back with their thrid album Coming Up. It was a much more melodic and considered affair than their debut album and featured much more long and drawn out chords and riffs and more drawn out and ambitious vocals from Bret Anderson. The album was a critical and commercial success with great singles like ‘Beautiful Ones’ and the simple contented love song that is ‘Saturday Night’ but it was in no way an attempt to re-ignite Britpop and more of a signal of it’s change and the Post-Britpop groups that were on their way. 1997 would be the year that everyone realised Britpop was changing and that in some respects, there was nothing left to moan about and little lyrical fuel for the movement.

 

1997 would start with the return of Blur and the signal of a different approach from the group. Guitarist Graham Coxon had suggested they should stop their approach of the last three albums and start to embrace American culture a little more rather than countering it. They adopted a more alternative and indie rock style that resulted in the album called Blur. Many thought that the abandonment of their general fanbase would see the album be a critical success but a commerical flop. However when ‘Beetlebum’ was released in January 1997, it went straight in at number one. The more at ease and considered style worked well with Damon Albarn’s deeper and more meaningful lyrics and this was followed by the alternative rock classic that is ‘Song 2’ In much of the opposite effect of Beetlebum it had raging instumentals and the simple Woohoo as the vocal hook and the album was seen a general triumph at redefining Britpop. But Coxon was growing weary of the other members of the band. He grew tired of Alex James and his disinterest in the process and Damon Albarn’s attempts to control the whole creative process. Nevertheless everyone would await the response from Oasis. Meanwhile the group that would become the Post-Britpop pioneers were starting to make themselves heard to represent the Cardiff music scene alongside their psychedelic counterparts Super Furry Animals and the Cerys Matthews led Catatonia who go on to claim the number one album in 1998 and 1999. The group was Stereophonics and they would claim several top 40 hits with their debut album Word Gets Around. The best and most successful single would be ‘Local Boy in a photograph’ that would showcase Kelly Jones and his gravelely vocal style. The instrumentals would feature much more disstortion and were lyrically more generalised with more agressive drumming and maybe even a little more optimistic than those groups that inspired them. Meanwhile on a politcal level the Britpop movement had achieved it’s goal. John Major was defeated by a Labour and Blair landslide and in that sense they had done what they had intended. Noel Gallagher would go on to attend Blair’s victory dinner after endorsing him so heavily. Damon Albarn, Jarvis Cocker and others would refuse their invites. However the Blair campaign had no use for the movement anymore either. They had utilised it to get power and now they had it for the first time since 1979. This would go on to see a devaluation of both Blair and Britpop. However the movement wasn’t over just yet and The Verve would come to refresh the more traditional ideals of Britpop with some extra production. Bittersweet Symphony was a masterpiece of British music instumentally with the orchesteral elements and lyrically and had an iconic video too. It would go on to reach number two in the charts while it’s follow up ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’ which was released the day after Princess Diana had died and the sombre and reflective mood of the song and of the nation was the most likely the reason why it got to number one. a few days before Oasis released the highly anticipated Be Here Now. It was so highly anticipated due to Blur’s redirection that it was decided that there should be very limited promotion for the album in fear of over-hyping it and the fact that Oasis were now probably the biggest band in the world at that point and even America couldn’t keep ignoring them. However the tension between Blur’s band members was typically nothing compared to the Gallagher brothers. Tension wasn’t the word. Their producer Owen Morris had stated by that time “Noel had decided Liam was a shit singer. Liam had decided he hated Noel’s songs” and with Liam’s behaviour growing more erratic, Noel had decided to leave but was convinced to come back. The album features two lenghty songs that weren’t just for the album but were two of their singles as well. Many had also criticised them for ‘Trying too hard to be The Beatles’ and for the massive over-production on the album. The large length of their first single D’You Know What I Mean? clocking in at nearly eight minutes did nothing to stop them from getting to number one however. The same is true for their 1998 single ‘All around the World’ at nearly nine minutes but still getting number one. However it now seemed that the general support for Oasis had gone as it had done for Blur. Now Oasis records were only being bought by proper Oasis fans and they had polarised their audience in that sense from that of the rest of the country and it can even be seen in the lyrics. “All my people right here, right now; D’You Know What I Mean?” or the title of the single “Stand By Me” all had supported the idea of influencing their followers and they had more than enough to still get to number one. More than what Blur could call on. Pulp would be back again with their album This is Hardcore and featured the lead single ‘Help The Aged’ which got to number eight in the charts. It’s lyrics too were inadvertedley signaling the end of the Britpop movement in saying “Nothing lasts forever. No big deal…” or “Funny how it all falls away”. The B-side for this song ‘Tomorrow Never Lies’ was also chosen as the themesong for the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies but was replaced by a song from Sheryl Crow. That perhaps a sign that British music was becoming less valued in Britain.

The remainder of the period saw the winding down of Britpop. The Manics would utilise it one last time to great commercial success with the album This is my Truth Tell me Yours which got to number one along with the single ‘If You Tolerate This Then Your Children Will Be Next’ which was a big hit despite holding the record for the longest song title to get to number one. Oasis would release the live album Masterplan and Blur would go on to have another critically acclaimed album with Tender which spawned two great songs with ‘Coffee and TV’ and ‘Tender’ yet they would never top the charts again. Meanwhile Stereophonics had another successful album but were often unfairly cast aside with the likes of Travis and mainly Coldplay in taking their Britpop influences and abusing them to no end. This is something Coldplay would go on to do for the next decade and in some ways it was those sorts of bands who were seen as the legacy of Britpop which may have tarnished the period as a whole.

The Britpop legacy instilled a long term sense of pride throughout the 90’s in British culture and tradition. Something which has never occured in such a way since apart from one month in 2012 during the Olympics. But how can a long lasting feeling of national pride exist in Britain when it’s soundtrack is Emeli Sande? It took an American band from New York to save guitar music in the Strokes and we can thank them for the Libertines, Arctic Monkeys and other great British bands. We should be very gratetful to our American cousins who stepped in when as a nation we were and still are destroying ourselves. That’s why no musical movement has grown again and I doubt there will never be another. How can there be? In the 21st Century it’s fine to have Simon Cowell alone be the judge of your music on behalf of the nation. It’s ok that he acts as some master dictator of mainstream British music. It’s fine that you can’t sing these days and that you try to hide it. It’s fine to have a team of writers for you. Heaven forbid you would actually try and write your own song! Even the election of David Cameron isn’t creating any genuine creativity in spite of him. These days people have become so polarised into their own musical groups and genres that even if a truly talented musician comes around and has some chart success, they will tagged as being too commercial and too ‘mainstream’ or ‘indie’ or whatever crap term people have for them. To us now whatever music makes it into the charts is crap. No matter who they are or what they sound like. Granted many of them are but that’s the culture and that’s what people have grew up with. In a way it’s hard to blame people if that’s all they know. It’s suggested that this culture and those people such as Cowell are on the way out and for the sake of music in this country I hope it’s true. Maybe people will wake up and make their own choices and their own music, maybe we need a shove in the right direction from another country or maybe that is it. For good. Im very proud to say I was born in the middle of the 90s and the Britpop movement but im ashamed to say I now live an era where music is an after thought. I hope this will change for future generations but ours is a lost one.

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Comments

  1. Very interesting and thorough post! I’m not really crazy about Britpop in music sense but I love it as a part of the youth culture. It’s a shame, as you’ve said earlier, that rock music is basically dead in Britain at the moment and that makes me so sad. Of course I can listen to these songs now still, but it’s just not the same. I often regret that nothing’s going on on music scene, perhaps The Libertines were and The Manics still are the last of their kind.

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