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How Parklife skewered the Nineties The Britpop generation knew they were a joke

'A whole new culture developed and old England died away' (Koh Hasebe/Shinko Music/Getty Images)

'A whole new culture developed and old England died away' (Koh Hasebe/Shinko Music/Getty Images)


April 25, 2024   6 mins

If Damon Albarn was telling the truth, and Saturday’s Coachella performance was Blur’s “last gig”, it was a miserable swansong. A field of influencers (some of whom appeared to not know who Blur are) crowded into the most corporatised festival in the world, all to turn it into sponsored TikTok content. It’s exactly the sort of scene that Nineties Albarn would have written a scornful observational pop song about.

While Blur may be doing better in their home country — they sold out Wembley last year — to most of my generation, they are essentially a sad nostalgia act. Rarely have a band’s glory days been so inseparably tied to such a derided historical moment: the “Britpop” movement and its demographic derivative “Britpopper” now represent an abyss of cringe. 

For Britpop was co-opted by that generation of British late-boomers who parlayed the end of history, their demographic glut and unique economic fortune into a series of foolhardy political conceits. Long before he invited Noel Gallagher to Downing Street, Tony Blair was having meetings with Damon Albarn in the Palace of Westminster. Soon enough the former lead singer of Ugly Rumours was saying things like: “Rock’n’roll is not just an important part of our culture, it’s an important part of our way of life”. Unfortunately, the heady cultural and intellectual optimism of that period can’t be seen as anything but complacency now.

As we see it, this lot valorised the liberalism that bore fruits for them, and sat on their hands as it rotted away. They fashioned a social-democratic aesthetic, and then forgot to build the social democracy. And they are consequently held responsible for a grab-bag of important and trivial mis-steps: New Labour, the Iraq War, the Olympic opening ceremony, the People’s Vote campaign and The Rest is Politics. This folk history of the Nineties does have a seductive simplicity, useful for young gadflies on Left and Right to caricature the decade, a way of chronologically tethering their competing attacks on Blairism. And it’s helped along by the fact that politics and culture did seem to align in that moment.

And yet, while Britpop certainly was gleeful at the prospect of political change, it also knew full well the problems it was running away from. Blur’s Parklife in particular, which celebrates its 30th birthday today and which was inescapable in that summer of 1994, is striking for how much of the Nineties mood it managed to get right at the time. Rather than a straightforward celebration, it sounds, now, like a melancholic critique of the period to which it also served as soundtrack, a record of the atomisation and anxiety that had already begun to seep into society. 

Its reputation for care-free Cockney smugness is a product of the popularity of its title track — and Blur did occasionally over-indulge the musical style which Gallagher brothers called “Chas & Dave chimney sweep music”. But the rest of the tracks conjure a completely different mood: “Badhead”, “To the End”, “This is a Low” and “End of a Century”… So much of Albarn’s song-writing was drawing from a well of existential despair, his lonely characters drinking too much and cycling through American TV channels, stuck in apathetic or crumbling relationships. Already he was diagnosing the boredom and stasis we sometimes think particular to 21st-century life. And it is telling that he suffered from crippling panic attacks in the weeks immediately after Parklife’s release, bowled over by the force of getting everything he’d always wanted.

But these tracks are overshadowed by a grander project: Parklife’s nauseous portrait of modern life, a social diagnosis that Albarn and his cheerleaders went as far as to label a “manifesto” for modern England. Interviews from the time reveal his narrative of the recent past to be full of decline and decay. Post-Thatcher, “a whole new culture developed and old England died away… The American shopping malls landed in England, first in Essex. It was just awful to look at, like a spreading cancer…” And his songs are the stories of “characters living in this environment” and yearning to escape it — like Tracy Jacks, the civil servant who dreams of streaking on Walton Beach. Albarn called it “music for whistling in the dark”.  

The influence of Martin Amis’s London Fields has often been noted — not least by Albarn himself, who at the time painted himself as something of a Lad-lit troubadour. And he certainly inherits Amis’s scathing condescension, and his propensity for turning flesh and blood into a comedy cartoon. The album’s biggest hit, “Girls & Boys”, was written after a holiday to Magaluf, during which Albarn witnessed the emergence of Houellebecqian sexual scene, which clearly perturbed even if it did not offend.There’s a very strong sexuality about it. I just love the whole idea of it, to be honest. I love herds. All these blokes and all these girls meeting at the watering hole and then just… copulating. There’s no morality involved, I’m not saying it should or shouldn’t happen. My mind’s just getting more dirty.

Albarn’s exact class relationship to this milieu was fiercely contested, especially by more true-born working-class peers. Initially, he had talked up Parklife as a concept album — “the travels of the mystical lager-eater”, a spin on Amis’s cast of low-life flaneurs. And at various stages the album was to be titled London, Sport or Soft Porn. But, soon after release, Albarn seemed determined to actually become such a figure. He held the album’s launch party at Walthamstow Dog Track (“you get the ooze of life there”, he said). And he was soon saying things like, “I started out reading Nabokov and now I’m into football, dog-racing and Essex girls,” as comfortable in an East End boozer as he was in the student union. The reality was that Albarn was always a lower-middle bohemian, not a working-class hero. He was accompanied on his fact-finding trips to Magaluf by his St Paul’s alumna girlfriend, Justine Frischmann. And his life in Essex was characterised not by dog-racing but by art school and the kind of cultured, post-Sixties homestead where he called his parents by their first names.

These contradictions of Albarn’s perspective — that of the mordant satirist-voyeur and the enthusiastic participant — do work in his favour. They lend his songs a scope that allow him to capture both ends of the Nineties. This reaches a climax on Parklife’s masterpiece, “This is a Low”. Framed through a cycle of lyrics based around Radio 4’s Shipping Forecast, the song is something of a mournful state-of-the-nation ballad. But its background account of a forgotten traveller on some twilit homeward journey (“Hit traffic on the Dogger bank/Up the Thames to find a taxi rank”) lend it a more wretched and introspective mood.

This isn’t triumphant Cool Britannia. It’s about as far from “Things Can Only Get Better”, or indeed Coachella bubble-gum, as you’re going to get, not least because it predates Britpop’s co-option by an expedient Labour Party and greedy A&R. But if we can accept that Albarn was capable of seeing behind the Nineties’ veil, perhaps we can also begin to reinterpret my generation’s received narrative of the decade. 

“Albarn was capable of seeing behind the Nineties’ veil”

Rather than a last party busted by Columbine or September 11, for some the Nineties was the decade that parts of popular culture became aware of the sheer flatness of life after the great political battles of the Eighties. Part of this related to globalisation — and the music hall carry-on of Blur’s aesthetic universe was a conscious rebuttal of the creeping Americanisation they observed around them. But it also related to a distinct historical moment in Britain itself. 

Like Blair, Britpop had an ambiguous relationship with the Thatcher era that preceded it. Its subject matter — its commodity — was Thatcherism’s devastation. From their own corner of the wasteland, Blur, Pulp and Suede wrote about what they saw: lonely suburbs, remorseless yuppies and small-town drug abuse. Oasis, the most musically populist of the Britpop elite, admittedly traded in the headless euphoria of escape and renewal. But this only resonated because it was a dream, a dole-queue fantasy, that so many others could recognise. And yet, Britpop was ultimately to be consumed by the very forces that set it in motion. The first truly commercialised indie scene, they pursued popularity and market share without shame, allowing punk-ish taboos about “selling out” slide. “We were all Thatcher’s children, who got off our arses and did it for ourselves,” says Noel Gallagher, sounding every inch the barrow boy who “got on his bike”. 

Perhaps that’s why the Nineties generation is so easy to resent. They bore witness to the arrival of the society that we still live in, but were either powerless to change it, or more than happy to swim with the tide. The music, though, stands as testament to the fact that the contradictions of the decade were being registered on some level. The Britpoppers may have quickly become consumed by illusions of the new millennium, some of them embarrassingly to this day. But that doesn’t change the fact that some of them also gave voice to a world that had lost something — something which is still missing now. 


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Billy Bob
Billy Bob
21 days ago

I disagree, I think Britpop tells a realistic appraisal of the 90’s. After the carnage and upheaval of Thatcherism throughout the 80’s, there was hope and optimism that things were looking up. Blair’s election was one of (unfortunately misplaced) optimism.
I think the mix of Oasis’ dreaming of escape and hedonism combined with the cynicism of Blur sums up the British psyche perfectly, always dreaming that things will come good without ever really believing they will, a kind of hopeful pessimism born from a millennium of rigid class systems

Jon Morrow
Jon Morrow
21 days ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

I disagree, the real carnage was the 70’s. It was Thatcher who didn’t just dream, but acted to make things “come good”. Britpop singularly failed to recognise this.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
21 days ago
Reply to  Jon Morrow

Some reforms were necessary but let’s not pretend what she did was anything special. Despite a North Sea oil boom, billions raised from selling off the country’s utilities and housing stock plus the bonus of women entering the full time workforce in great numbers for the first time, her economic record was still simply two large recessions with a boom in the middle with average growth of only 2% a year.
There was genuine optimism in the 90’s once she was toppled, it replaced the anger of the 80’s and Britpop reflected this more hopeful, chirpier outlook

Jeff Butcher
Jeff Butcher
20 days ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

What this article fails to take account of is also rave culture which was arguably a bigger thing than britpop, and had more of an impact

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
20 days ago
Reply to  Jeff Butcher

Although they came out in the mid-noughties I think The Streets accurately captured the convergence of Brit-pop and rave, but also marked its end: Blinded By The Lights, terribly dark, but quintessentially British.

Jeff Butcher
Jeff Butcher
20 days ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

Absolutely- the Streets underlined how hedonistic the 90s were as well – something I didn’t really realise until I popped out the other end!

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
20 days ago
Reply to  Jeff Butcher

I think the two went hand in hand, a sort of council estate hedonism

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
20 days ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Genuine optimism in the 90s? Presumably you missed the ERM debacle, the house repo’s, the long long Major years of things just not getting better or going anywhere positive at all, Tory sleaze…

So yes, Blair got a landslide…and was almost worse…catastrophic war, pensions wrecked by Brown, extension of the Tory public/private partnership…

Yes it all went swimmingly…but even worse was to come…Cameron and his successors…

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
19 days ago
Reply to  Jon Morrow

She made some things better, the economy was a complete mess and needed reform.

However, there is no doubt that some areas of ‘traditional’ Britain were devastated by rapid deindustrialisation. Also, small C conservative herself has a blind spot for what much less travelled economic liberalism would bring in its wake..

Graeme Archer
Graeme Archer
21 days ago

I’m a little puzzled by the slightly negative tone of the piece, which at the same time details the quite specific artistry of Damon Albarn. He *is* a very talented artist, and his music reflects that- as the author describes. (I think it’s wrong to lump Albarn, some Suede and some Pulp into the same bag as Oasis, who were/are simply dreadful; unmusical; not-art.) I have zero memory of Albarn hiding the fact that he was “lower-middle bohemian” [many of us from the lower-middle class walked the same late 90s path; it was fun, so long as you stayed the right side of Jarvis Cocker’s famously common line, and oh heavens did Hackney heave with people who didn’t]; he often talked about it in interviews, so the charge cannot be hypocrisy (would we accuse Orwell of the same?). I really enjoyed the essay and the writer has a gift, but I’ll need to re-read I think, because I feel I’m slightly missing Nicholas’s point. If I had to summarise a single “point” about Blur, it would be that the majestic (cockney, and Albarn’s family are authentic Essex post-war overspill) knees-up can co-exist – must co-exist? – with a melancholic sense of loss (and, corollary, there’s always a morning-after price to pay for hedonism). Surely this is something that any Tory innately understands, at a near-genetic level? (Irony alert: the drummer is famously a committed Labour activist and candidate at the next election!) Thanks for this piece and the space to spill out reactions!

Graeme Archer
Graeme Archer
21 days ago
Reply to  Graeme Archer

Actually I think Nicholas is saying that Blur were satirising the 90s’ culture. To an *extent* I agree, but they were also celebrating it. Isn’t that what an artist attempts? To look clearly and describe? (Walthamstow Dogs is – I was going to say “long gone”, but to those of us who were in our late 20s when Blur were peaking, it doesn’t feel like long ago at all, and the passing of that specific timebound culture – destroyed by Blair- is to be regretted.) The mid-80s to the late-90s were the best time to be alive in the 20th C, and nothing in the 21st has yet made me recalibrate.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
21 days ago
Reply to  Graeme Archer

Oasis: “dreadful, unmusical, not art” isn’t worth critiquing. Blur/Albarn (as the author notes) are more London-centric “music hall”, redolent of the typical post-yuppie complacency than anything else.

Quite simply, people will remember and still be playing Oasis when Blur are no longer even a blur.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
19 days ago
Reply to  Lancashire Lad

I like both but I think you might be right there.

Kevin Ludbrook
Kevin Ludbrook
20 days ago
Reply to  Graeme Archer

I agree, I think this depressing article and much of the comments might be over analysing with hindsight the fact that some young musicians got together and made some great music whatever your (anybody’s) personal tastes are. Anyone that can write a song and play it live is good – give it a go! They just happened to be around at the time of new politics and new marketing and another, regular, cultural phase. Those are different topics to analyse if you wish but It’s not necessary to denigrate the artists as the article does.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
19 days ago
Reply to  Graeme Archer

Blur were more talented but you are much too harsh on Oasis imho. I think it’s true that many people preferred their anthemic music to the slightly pretentious art school Blur offering, even if the latter was more innovative at its best.

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
21 days ago

All Blur and Oasis did was reproduce anti-aesthetic representations of the south and north of England for the benefits of marketeers, particularly to target the student market with its enormous growth in numbers.
But aesthetically, this was surprisingly easy to ignore as the 80s and 90s were a golden period for English independent pop music. New genres were invented that were embraced by the artistic world rather than the reheated 60s pop of Blur and the pub rock of the Gallagher brothers.

Dennis Roberts
Dennis Roberts
20 days ago
Reply to  Tyler Durden

Blur had some good songs though, even Oasis did at the start (though Pulp were better than either IMO). Both were popular in the working class town I grew up in.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
19 days ago
Reply to  Tyler Durden

Pop music has never been ideologically pure! Motown, for example. Bands constantly wanting to “break America”. Etc.

Adam Huntley
Adam Huntley
20 days ago

I still can’t forgive Blur for shamelessly ripping off Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit in the supposedly ironic Song 2. Surely one of the the greatest crimes in pop history

Jeff Butcher
Jeff Butcher
20 days ago
Reply to  Adam Huntley

A greater irony is that all the Britpoppers seem to be doing alright still whereas many of their grunge brethren died horrible heroin deaths despite making better music

Dennis Roberts
Dennis Roberts
20 days ago
Reply to  Jeff Butcher

Nirvana aside, grunge was awful.

Jeff Butcher
Jeff Butcher
20 days ago
Reply to  Dennis Roberts

Oh I don’t know – I like Dinosaur Jr, although bands like Alice in Chains and Soundgarden were really metal bands

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
20 days ago
Reply to  Jeff Butcher

Probably because Britpop had a more cheery outlook. Even the ones deriding the living conditions at the time had an element of hopefulness and escapism about it. Grunge was simply wallowing in self pity (although I did like Nirvana)

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
20 days ago

Whatever. I’ll enjoy my crush on Damon for the rest of my life. Whoo hoo!

Andrew Vanbarner
Andrew Vanbarner
20 days ago

She studied sculpture at St Martin’s college …..

NIGEL PASSMORE
NIGEL PASSMORE
18 days ago

To be able to write anything of experienced based value on Brit-pop or the early nineties you now need to be at least 45 or better 50 plus. I’m not sure what age the writer is but this piece reads like it was written by someone who has studied the period but wasn’t actually there. It is riddled with cliches that anyone who lived in Britain in that decade (myself Edinburgh and London) wouldn’t recognise. I was both a university student and city worker and married in to a blue collar working class family. So I saw a pretty broad spectrum of Britsh life, and I don’t recognise the picture painted here.

What I would say is:

– Brit-pop was a relatively small UK Flash in the pan musical movement that nobody I Iknow of my age celebrates
– Cool-Britannia was a puff illusion created by Master Charlatan the Blair Creature reflected at the 2012 London Olympics by the Heir to Blair.
– Thatchers’ Britain was for the vast majority a time of energy, possibilities, opportunity and hope. The 90s with Blair, Clinton and Social Media reversed all that and is the root cause of the complete mess the Western World is in today with Globalist Technocrats (I mean the Adults in the Room) at the helm.

Regards

NHP