It has been more than 30 years since Suede’s first single, The Drowners — slightly longer than the gap between that and the Beatles’ debut — but Britpop is having yet another moment. Blur have just announced two dates at Wembley Stadium next summer, which will take place a week after Pulp headline Finsbury Park. Most likely Noel Gallagher will be touring a new album next summer, while Suede will be playing songs from their thrillingly vital latest, Autofiction, on the festival circuit.
Liam Gallagher recently headlined Knebworth twice, with more than half his set devoted to Oasis songs. There are new books about the period, too: Faster Than a Cannonball: 1995 and All That, an oral history by former GQ editor Dylan Jones, and Verse, Chorus, Monster, a memoir from Blur’s Graham Coxon. It’s slightly insulting to lump these artists together as Britpop when it was just a three or four-year slice of their careers, but it was the slice that made everything else possible.
Why can’t we let Britpop go? It certainly helps that the generation currently running the media grew up with it, and that, unlike the extraordinarily unfortunate grunge scene, all the key players are still with us. Aside from Elastica’s Justine Frischmann (whose influence is audible in this year’s sardonic indie sensations Wet Leg), they are all still making music. The best songs endure. Beyond the music, it is a great yarn, with a tight-knit cast of characters and a full menu of drama: sex, drugs, money, hubris, vengeance and bitter rivalry.
Britpop is usually remembered as the musical component of a time when British culture was exploding with energy and optimism: in art, fashion, cinema, football, comedy, television, magazines, literature and politics. But the scene itself was full of rancour, gleefully stoked by the music weeklies. Oasis famously set themselves against Blur but so did Pulp and Suede. “It felt like whenever a new English guitar-based band arrived on the scene, the press would pit Blur against them, even when it wasn’t really appropriate,” Coxon glumly recalls in his book. And thanks to the warring Gallaghers, Oasis also hated Oasis. Music became a contact sport.
Britpop is still worth fighting about. When Blur tickets went on sale, one friend tweeted a savage (and simplistic) assessment by Suede’s Brett Anderson: a band “who waved flags and dropped their aitches and painted a social tourist’s cartoon of British life: patronising, jingoistic and crass”. This opinion wasn’t expressed in the NME in the heat of 1994; it appeared in Anderson’s 2019 memoir Afternoons with the Blinds Drawn. Old feuds die hard. People still argue about who was the best band. They argue about whether Britpop was guilty of legitimising flag-waving and misogyny. They even argue about Oasis’s grand folly, Be Here Now, which many fans like rather more than Noel Gallagher does. Most of all, they argue about whether it deserves to loom so large, then and now. Was it really so special?
Britpop was an idea and an attitude rather than a genre, and it was born out of confrontation. The milestone April 1993 issue of Select magazine (“Yanks go home! Suede, St Etienne, Denim, Pulp, the Auteurs and the Battle for Britain”) was a tongue-in-cheek riposte to sullen post-Nirvana rock and American cultural imperialism in general, against which it championed homegrown “glamour, wit and irony”. The Young British Artists had a similar sense of outsider ambition, greeting the post-Thatcher, post-Cold War Nineties with a determination to come roaring out of the sidelines and rewrite mainstream culture.
“Like it or not, we were Thatcher’s children,” Steve McQueen says in Faster Than a Cannonball. “When you realise there’s no safety net… people just tried to get on with it.” For the most part, these were not children of privilege (Blur’s Damon Albarn, the son of a university lecturer from Essex, somehow became the “posh” one) and they were reaching out to take what they had been denied. In Daniel Rachel’s oral history Don’t Look Back in Anger, radio DJ Steve Lamacq recalls his thoughts when playing Pulp’s 1995 hit Common People: “This is our victory; we’ve come from nothing and we’ve won.”
Right from the start, though, there were sceptics. “One of Suede’s many achievements,” responded Keith Cameron in NME that same month, “has been to inspire some of the most outrageous examples of self-aggrandising tommyrot the British music press has ever seen fit to print… This is a small country, bedevilled with delusions of grandeur — not least of which that we invented pop music.” Suede and Pulp both hated the Union flag on the Select cover. Everybody hated the word Britpop, which didn’t actually appear in Select but soon became ubiquitous. “Nobody liked it,” Frischmann once said. “We knew it was trouble.”
This early definition of Britpop was a spiky, arty affair. “I was thinking of Philip Larkin not Phil Daniels,” Stuart Maconie, who wrote the lead essay in Select, told me a few years ago. “It was bedsits and being on the dole: a sort of pasty-faced underdog strangeness.” But that eccentricity did not survive the million-selling success of Parklife and Definitely Maybe in 1994, two albums which collapsed the wall between indie-rock and mainstream pop. The new generation in charge of Radio 1, Top of the Pops and tabloid showbiz columns was as keen as the weeklies to cheerlead the new breed, and that rolled into a bigger narrative (embarrassing in hindsight) about the branding exercise known as Cool Britannia.
In rejecting the political earnestness and low commercial horizons of alternative culture in the Eighties, Britpop overcorrected. The music industry and media, more than the bands themselves, became obsessed with size and success, to the detriment of many careers. When outsiders become insiders, values change and the initial blast of subversion fades into assimilation. The same story played out simultaneously across British culture. Chris Evans, Loaded and the Spice Girls have become looped into the Britpop story while the Manic Street Preachers, Tricky and Radiohead have not.
As a synecdoche for Britain in the Nineties, Britpop’s reputation rises and falls with that of the decade in general. When, in 2003, John Harris published The Last Party: Britpop, Blair and the Demise of English Rock, a tale gradually swamped by cocaine, heroin, depression and disappointment, he struck an elegiac note: “Britpop is as uncool as could be imagined.” Britpop’s key bands broke up or lost momentum in tandem with the decline of New Labour and the YBAs, and they were all bundled together into a metaphor for squandered promise, arrogance, excess, conformity and apolitical escapism: what were we thinking? Britpop was also blamed for hogging the narrative and occluding other developments in British music, such as trip hop and drum’n’bass, which were more futuristic, more anxious, and less white. Come 2016, when the roots of Right-wing populism were traced back to Nineties Third-Way complacency, some people even blamed Britpop for Brexit — an absurd idea but a briefly popular one.
I sometimes feel like Britpop has to be either the best or worst thing that ever happened. The generation that grew up with simplistic received wisdom about the Sixties and punk rock has lived long enough to see its own youth culture reduced to a cartoon. That’s karma, I suppose. But Britpop had an unfortunate talent for self-caricature, producing images that did it no favours: Noel Gallagher at Number 10; Jarvis Cocker waggling his bum at Michael Jackson; the gruesome video for Blur’s “Country House”, directed by Damien Hirst in the style of Loaded. Such tabloid moments enabled Brett Anderson to dismiss Britpop as a “cheap, beery, graceless cartoon bereft of passion or rage which cravenly hid feeling behind a brittle mask of irony”.
Needless to say, the music was more complicated than that. “Common People”, for example, is neither jaunty social comedy nor a straightforward anthem of working-class pride but a mounting howl of rage and panic from someone who feels himself to be stranded between classes. Parklife’s studies of British life are satirical or elegiac rather than affirming, and the ghastly sitcom oom-pah of “Country House” has that ghostly cry for help in the middle eight. And even Oasis’s give-me-everything confidence was laced with apprehensions of loss: “Slide Away”, “Fade Away”, “Half a World Away”. Perhaps the only example of undiluted youthful vim is “Alright” by Supergrass. But narrative beats close listening every time. “I was singing out my slightly dystopian vision of the future, of the country, and everyone was going, ‘This is brilliant! It’s great!’,” Damon Albarn says in Don’t Look Back in Anger. “It became a nightmare. I suffered profound anxiety for years after as a result.”
These musicians were also more curious than they were given credit for. “Ultimately, Britpop was a reaction against new ideas; it was against rave, hip hop and R&B, wrapped in a Beatles/Stones comfort blanket,” alleges Bob Stanley in Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop. But Noel Gallagher, a former Hacienda clubber, made records with the Chemical Brothers and Goldie, remixes abounded, and it’s hard to find a British musician less parochial than Albarn, from Gorillaz to Africa Express.
I always feel drawn to these wrinkles in the Britpop story but Faster Than a Cannonball leans into the myth with gusto. Whether the choice of interviewees dictates the story or vice versa, it is a robustly anti-revisionist amen to the mid-Nineties. We get rosy memories from those, such as Noel Gallagher and Blur’s Alex James, who had a spectacularly good time but not people like Graham Coxon, who found much of it unbearable. The “Country House” video, he writes in his memoir, “seemed to confirm what I was afraid of — that Nineties culture had become tacky and cheap. For me, the decade wasn’t as golden and beautiful as my idea of the Sixties were like — which, of course, would have been very different to the reality.”
Ah, the Sixties. At first, Britpop seemed to owe far more to the seedy glamour of the Seventies (“it was a bit off, a bit eccentric, a bit wrong”, explained Jarvis Cocker) but Dylan Jones argues that “the Nineties chimed with the Sixties in being a decade that was almost uniquely British”. Blur vs Oasis harked back to the Beatles vs the Stones and Euro ’96 to England ’66. Swinging London characters such as Michael Caine, Ray Davies and John Barry become icons all over again. “London Swings! Again!” shouted Vanity Fair. Driven too hard, the comparison ended up making all the excitement about British culture feel second-hand: an echo of the real thing. “With Austin Powers the decade was already lampooning itself as a kind of shit Sixties,” the usually upbeat Alex James complains in Jones’s book.
Faster Than a Cannonball is too bullishly celebratory for my taste but perhaps it is well-timed. While the 30-year-olds I know are likely to regard Britpop and the Nineties with disdain, the teenagers are enthralled by the last great music scene before the internet was everything. It speaks to the lost centrality of pop music in British life, when it could pull together art, sport, fashion, cinema and even politics. Britain still has great rock bands, fascinating pop stars and thriving scenes but not that same unignorable convergence of all three. We certainly don’t have that sense, overblown and self-congratulatory though it may have been, of national rejuvenation and positive movement. Britannia doesn’t feel very cool right now, does it? The music industry feels more sombre, too. Now that we are acutely aware of the psychological and financial strains on musicians, perhaps the misleading notion that it was all non-stop fun in the mid-Nineties is more attractive than the messy reality.
So is it any wonder that the myth of Britpop continues to exert such fascination? Even if the hard-earned optimism of the early Nineties soon gave way to boorish triumphalism, the memory of that enviable optimism still appears to burn bright. Faster Than a Cannonball suggests that you had to be there but I wonder if it is, in fact, easier to see that time as simply “golden and beautiful” if you weren’t.