Wednesday, August 17, 2005

the britpop years (reprise)

I watched the britpop programming on BBC4 last night and thought it was fairly uneven stuff; as is often the way with themed evenings and documentaries, much was left out, much was skewed, and much required further embellishment. It wasn't devoid of merit, however, and was an enjoyable evening of nostalgia.

Looking for angles, they picked out the three most obvious ones; Nirvana, Thatcher, and class. I was thinking hard about how I felt about Nirvana last night, and to what extent britpop blew away those cobwebs. I suppose, looking back, that I was pleased that the likes of Brett Anderson and Damon Albarn were talking about reacting against grunge, although I think that it's a mistake to assume that anti-Americanism lay at the heart of that.

For me, at least, I was excited because I found American fashion and rock culture uninteresting, and the fact that Blur were talking about Meantime, Reginald Perrin and Martin Amis was hugely exciting in comparison to the cultural emptiness of grunge, which only referenced dissatisfaction and abandonment. Of course 'Modern Life Is Rubbish' was no great philosophical statement, but in harking back to the music of the Kinks and XTC (or Bowie, in Suede's case) Blur seemed to be arguing for music which was part of some exciting lineage. If it was parochial it was also comforting, and it evoked feelings of familiarity in recalling bands whom, in truth, I'd never really cared for, but yet whom seemed to matter in this new context.

Of course, I didn't stop listening to American music, but it was true that, after grunge, this new literate, articulate and understandable music was welcome. That said, it only took last night's viewing to make it horribly clear that none of the bands involved in britpop came close to Nirvana at their best.

With regard to Thatcher, I didn't really get what they were trying to say. The centrepiece documentary opened with some weird chronology, trying to argue that the seeds of britpop were born in rave culture and Spike Island in 89, which is so arbitrary it's untrue. Moving through the Bristol scene in a matter of moments, and completely ignoring Jungle, the Scene That Celebrated Itself and the early nineties pop of Ride, The Charlatans and James, the programme leapt forward to 1995, completely missing Modern Life is Rubbish, glossing over Suede, and suggesting that the excitement surrounding Blur and Oasis had it's roots in post-Thatcher ennui.

There's some justification for this; pop music and popular culture was overwhelmingly left-leaning in the mid-nineties, and the political beliefs (or party loyalties) of the Gallaghers or Jarvis Cocker are not to be doubted. Certainly the poverty of expectation which was a legacy of more than a decade of tory rule had played some part in Oasis's hedonistic impulses (just as it did with the Happy Mondays - inexplicably not mentioned - nearly a decade earlier).

But the hatred of the Conservative party permeated everything in the mid nineties, and was no more vividly displayed in Britpop than it was in TV, fashion and literature. The programme entered a kind of social whirl in the middle, where the term britpop became interchangable with cool britannia (which was, perhaps, what they should have been talking about in the first place; not a musical scene at all but a cultural mood, which is quite different), but stil excluded plenty from it's coverage. Either way, by the time May 1997 came round, I was desperate - like everyone else - for a Labour win. But I never once connected that, beyond what was clearly a marketing ploy by New Labour to involve the likes of Albarn and Gallagher in their campaign, with the music made in the Britpop years.

And as Noel Gallagher made pretty clear - incidentally, he was infuriatingly intelligent and witty throughout, making even more of a mystery than ever of his moronic, tedious music and cack-handed lyrics - if hatred of Thatcher's legacy fuelled Oasis's sense of recklessness, their class identity was piqued by Albarn (sad to say, acting like a spoilt child throughout). But beyond the Gallaghers and perhaps Jarvis Cocker, that sense of class (and geographical pride) was not much apparent in britpop. It really just gave the programme makers license to do what they were there to do, which is talk up the battle of the bands.

Clearly, with Damon acting brattishly and the Gallaghers on fine form, it was easy for the programme makers to belittle Blur's part in the britpop debacle. What was disappointing was that, picking out only two Blur happenings to focus on ('Girls and Boys', dismissed as irony, and 'Country House', just dismissed) the programme makers missed why people actually went in for Blur in such a big way. Footage from Ally Pally or their utterly triumphant Glastonbury set from '94 would have been much appreciated. Damon Albarn closing the night with 'This Is A Low' was the moment when it hit home that Blur were going to be absolutely massive - it remains their finest moment. Instead we saw them at the video shoot for Country House. I can see why the footage was included, but little attempt was made to paint Blur as anything other than show-offs and - ultimately - losers. Well, that's my predictable bugbear. Sadly, Damon makes kicking Damon very easy to do.

Of the music featured in the evening, it was much as expected. Powder, Marion, Menswear and Echobelly sounded really terrible. Supergrass and Sleeper were thin-sounding but just about interesting. Gene and PJ Harvey sounded out of place, although the latter played the best song of the night by several country miles. Pulp donated a thrilling rendition of Common People, and Blur a terrible take on Country House. Brief clips on two of Oasis's three decent songs (Supersonic and D'you Know What I Mean) hinted at what the hype was all about; turgid fare like Live Forever and Wonderwall elsewhere abounded. There was, thankfully, no sign of the execrable Don't look Back In Anger). Suede were unfairly glossed over, and Radiohead didn't get a mention, unless I was out of the room at the time.

Looking back on britpop, which meant so much to me when I was a teenager, is a weird process. I was disappointed that practically no mention was made of what drove the musical instincts of those involved, and there was a predictable section where all they talked about was who was shagging who.

For all the fun I had at the time, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that, of all that music, the only records from the genre I'd bother getting hold of now are the three Blur albums, the first record by Suede and possibly the Elastica album - not really such a rich picking after all. Oddly, that doesn't diminish it for me - I think the reason that Britpop really meant something to people is that the bands involved - Blur, Pulp and Oasis - were all reachable. You didn't have to visualise the grey streets of Seattle or the sun-drenched hills of California. You could reach out and touch them. We all went out, we drank too much, we became grown ups in the evenings, and we thought Steve Marriott had a good haircut.

If only I could figure out exactly why we thought that last bit...


Paul said...

at least they didn't cover Cast!!!

Ben said...

You probably already know this from SWSL, but I hate / hated Britpop. I've since come to appreciate bands like Pulp (and perhaps even Blur) more, but there was so much awful dross churned out - Ocean Colour Scene, Menswear, Cast, Echobelly, 'The Great Escape' - that I find it impossible to overlook.

Looking back, I guess, it felt like you had to take sides - and I was very much a grunge kid. That too became vapid and tedious fairly quickly, but I think it's wrong to label it "culturally empty" - it certainly wasn't at first, even if record companies soon seized upon the marketability of vaguely-directed "angst".

I still love most of those American bands - they just spoke to the teenage me much louder than the likes of Blur and Oasis. 1991 and the release of Nevermind really was a year zero for me - I got rid of nearly my entire record collection (admittedly not very big!) and started again from scratch.

I've had many an argument / debate with Paul (the other half of Black & White & Read All Over) about Britpop. He loves it and associates it so closely with being a teenager and growing up that when I slag it off it's like I'm attacking him personally. I feel the same when he slags off grunge bands. Neither of us will ever persuade the other - it's too personal!

One final thing (sorry for taking over your comments box): I'm not surprised Radiohead weren't mentioned. They were never part of the whole Britpop "thing" - over and above it, moodier and more intelligent. The Bends was gloriously out of place being released in the year that chirpy Britpop hit the mainstream big-time, and OK Computer was the final nail hammered into its coffin two years later.

jonathan said...

I probably didn't use the phrase 'culturally empty' advisedly, I didn't really mean that. But I've always really got off on bands who turn me onto other things.

Grunge never inspired me to watch a certain film or a certain book in the way that a lot of English pop groups did/do, and I detest Led Zeppelin and all that kind of thing, so I never even got to appreciate the musical roots of the movement; I can't bear Husker Du or Black Flag or the Replacements or Uncle Tupelo or...

I guess the exception to that was the dischord/riot grrrl movement, which was incredibly rich with references to art, pop music and books - that really inspired me. But even then it was as much the UK side of things, which was interested in mod culture and clothes and stuff like that. Obviously Pavement are excepted, too, but then they were pretty anglophile in a lot of ways.

A lot of the britpop stuff was really bad, yup. What I couldn't bear was all the 60s stuff - you'd go to a club and they'd play the fuckin Beatles. Gah.

I suspect that people our age have very strong ties to their formative musical experiences, and that's where the friction comes in. I hated Oasis so much when I was a teenager that I actually still get angry when I hear a friend defend them, which is absolutely ridiculous :-)

Oddly, I could never get into Pulp or Radiohead, I dunno why, cause I can see they're pretty good.

Ben said...

Re: cultural emptiness. Probably the first band I got into after / through Nirvana was Sonic Youth - and when it comes to turning people on to other bands / art / literature they're the daddies!

I have to confess to not investigating the roots of grunge back in the underground scene of 1980s America - I don't think I own any albums by the bands you list (Husker Du, Replacements, Black Flag, Uncle Tupelo...).

HOWEVER, I did read Michael Azerrad's book Our Band Could Be Your Life which is absolutely amazing and gives you a real feel for what was going on. It has chapters on Husker Du, The Replacements and Black Flag, but also on a load of bands that I think you're more fond of - Dinosaur Jr, Sonic Youth, Beat Happening, Fugazi (as well as Minor Threat, The Minutemen, Mudhoney, Big Black...). If you haven't read it, I thoroughly recommend it - it might just get you into some of the music, but even if it doesn't it's still an excellent read.

Andrew Brown said...

Like you I didn't think that much of the music had stood the test of time (which is fine, pop music's supposed to be disposable(ish)). But having had a couple of days to think about it - and provoked by your post - I wonder why there was very little, or nothing, about the wave of very English bands that came before. Why no mention of the Smiths, the Wedding Present, or Luke Haines? Where were Carter USM or even The Wonder Stuff?

I mean it wasn't like English music stopped in 1968 or 1977.

jonathan said...

I suppose the problem was in where to draw the line, and I can understand that they had to manage their definition somehow. Particularly in terms of the central documentary (Live Forever), which seemed to concentrate on how britpop seeped into the mass media. Understandable.

The problem is that the evening's remit went wider than a look at the chart hits of the period, and in failing to produce something which looked at britpop in a wider context BBC4 missed a trick. The evening, frankly, looked like it had been pulled together in five minutes, quite arbitrarily, from existing material.

So you had:
- no mention of factory or creation
- no mention of the influence of punk
- no mention of the two scenes which book-ended britpop; NWONW (which really started the ball rolling) and the shortlived Mod revival.
- no mention of shoegazing, riot grrl, all that Levellers/Carter/EMF stuff.
- practically no mention of dance music
- nothing on the fact that the much heralded 'Good Mixer' scene existed in exactly the same form for about five years previously at The Syndrome, and afterwards at Smashing.
- no mention of The Smiths, The Wedding Present, Julian Cope or The House Of Love.
- etc.

I guess what we're saying is that we'd like to see an intelligent, non list-format documentary looking at alternative music in the nineteen nineties.

I wonder if there is sufficient interest to make it worth considering some kind of blog project which looks at this stuff, perhaps with a variety of contributors. I've a feeling that Ben at SWSL was collaborating on something like this a while back, but I may have made that up.

Simon at No Rock and Roll Fun has posted a good article about John Harris Night, incidentally...

Ben said...

I was contributing to a monthly feature for Stylus (online music mag) called I Love The 90s. We were asked to comment on some of the key songs and bands of the Britpop era, as well as on the phenomenon itself one year - I got a lot off my chest then...

Stephen Newton said...

It's good that Harris has provoked so much debate, but where I depart from some people here, is the apparent inclusion of the Madchester scene as Britpop. I don't think it was (and the Smiths certainly weren't).

And I think Oasis came out of both without being part of either.

(As you've no trackback I'll you know I've been taking about you here