In his brilliant, if bitter book ‘Bad Vibes’, Luke Haines traces the birth of what went on to be know as Britpop to the Select magazine of April 1993, the one with Brett Anderson of Suede on the cover striking a coquettish pose against the back drop of a union jack. The text of the ‘Yanks Go Home’ article was about combating the influx of American grunge music by supporting home grown bands that specialised in ‘Wit, glamour and irony’. Almost exactly a year later, notes Haines, Kurt Cobain killed himself and with him the domination of America music. If this was indeed the birth of Britpop, then London was its nursery for a very long time. Only Suede and Elastica, (both with number one records, both as London as Big Ben) where making any kind of dent. By 1994 Oasis where on the rise, selling more and more records and playing bigger and bigger gigs. But despite this they where still ‘an indie band’. You and your mates knew them, maybe your little sister too, but your Mum didn’t. Not yet.
Things really started happening in 1995. Oasis released their second album What’s the Story, Morning Glory? In October that year. A month later, I went to a gig by the Charlatans at the Wolverhampton Civic Hall. Whilst stood at the bar, I spotted two girls, one Asian, one white. They both wore a matching sixties two-piece skirt and jacket set, but what really stood out was their matching cravats, which bore the pattern of the union jack. It was the first time I had seen (in the flesh so to speak) the flag used in a positive light, and was my first indication that this new scene had spread north from the capital.
There a few factors to why Britpop ballooned. The seeds were sown in the excellent ‘Revolution in the Head’, Ian MacDonald’s essential book about the Beatles. A lot of the book concerns itself with picking up every detail from every song the Fabs recorded. If you want to know which track Ringo played kazoo on, or who farted at one minute forty seven into ’Octopus’s Garden‘, this is the book for you. But what’s really worth noting is his incredible essay ’Introduction: Fabled Foursome, Disappearing Decade’, which paints the sixties as some sort of pop utopia, a place where the sun always shone, where the government was down with the kids, a place where the milkmen constantly whistled the latest life changing chart topper. A place where records so unbelievably fresh, exciting and new came out as quick as tins of beans on a conveyer belt, so fast that your ears struggled to keep up. A place where everyone from your little sister to your headmaster dressed cool and talked hip. Where sex and drugs where everywhere, and ripe for the picking. ‘Blimey‘, thought the late nineteen nineties ‘I’ll have me some of that‘.
In November 1995, less than a year after the ‘Revolution in the Head was published, and a month after What’s the Story was released, E.M.I put out the first Beatles Anthology album. A splendid double CD package with rich sleeve notes and rare photos full of previously unheard out takes of the world’s most famous songs, versions where Paul coughs on ‘Paperback Writer‘, where the bass sounds slightly different on take thirteen. That kind of thing. Suddenly, (helped in no small part by Oasis covering ‘I am the Walrus’ on a b-side) England was starting to wake up to its pop heritage, how music could influence everything from fashion to politics. All they needed was a figurehead.
Oasis where the perfect foil. The first band in memory to talk openly to the point of bragging about using drugs (in 1995 I reckon about 90% of my social circle where taking drugs. Most, like me, stuck to smoking a bit of pot. But suddenly drugs where everywhere. Mostly weed, maybe Acid on occasion, but Ecstasy and Cocaine where very easy to get hold of and good value (In 1995 a pill would cost you about the same as a pint of strong lager). There were plenty of good times, and plenty of casualties) a band who threw their full support to the ever rising Labour party, and a band who started selling an alarming amount of records. Despite critics deriding the bands blatant ripping off T-Rex riffs (though that didn’t stop the Smiths. Play ’Panic’ next to ’Metal Guru and you’ll see what I mean) and the attitude of the Sex Pistols, Oasis were the first band that the younger brother, high on the lets-get-pissed-and-have it attitude and the older brother recognising the spirit of punk and the old Madchester swagger could listen to together. Their records promised good times ahead and slowly but surely it got easier to believe in them.
‘Wonderwall’ was a record so huge even your parents knew it, and the country convinced itself it finally had their new Beatles. Released on the tenth of May 1996 to coincide with the football tournament hosted by England, Three Lions caught the imagination of Blighty, convincing her that England would win its first silverware since the last high tide of British pop, 1966. It wasn’t to be, but the euphoria bubbled slowly until a year later when Labour sent the old, stuffy Tories crashing down and won the election by a landslide. It’s difficult to articulate what a huge deal this was. I remember sitting in the park with an ex-girlfriend Annie, just grinning to each other under the bright British sun. I was twenty years old but remembered the grey times and the hatred of the Thatcher era. The cool new labour government, pop music and drugs were in. Greyness, unemployment and the old guard where out. At least that’s how it felt. People like Mark E Smith and Lemmy out of Motorhead chastised Blair and his party for being wolves in sheep’s clothing. We thought them old and daft, that we knew better. We couldn’t possibly dream that they would be proved absolutely right. England believed it had found its pop nirvana so wonderfully described by MacDonald and the spirit of the 60’s was back. People started buying Small Faces records with the Gallagher approved Beatles and Pistols re-realeses. Every record was an anthem.
Oasis killed indie music as we knew it; it’s as simple as that. The people wanted their Woodstock and their Spike Island and they got them. Huge gigs in Knebworth and Loch Lomond. 250,000 people at Knebworth alone. A quarter of a million people who dressed the same, (new breed Ben Sherman’s and loafers for the boys, tights, trainers and tiny tops for the girls) drank the same and thought the same. Apart from a few decent singles (the irresistibly youthful energy of ’Man-size Rooster’ and ’Caught by the Fuzz’ by Supergrass, the slinky ’Slight Return’ by the Bluetones, the iced cool pouty swagger of ‘Line Up’ by Elastica to name a couple) the actual music Britpop produced was pretty grim.
The only album of the period that can hold its head high is the self titled LP by the Charlatans. Like Oasis, the band stole liberally from old music and wore its drug taking heart on its sleeve. And like Oasis, they caught the rush of the times but with a cool subtlety the Gallagher’s could never achieve. The whole LP is wonderful, but the single ’Just Lookin’ is a case in point. Opening to chords which bring to mind Bob Dylan, the record goes on to be an ecstasy fuelled rush of a song. The words (And we stand with our hands in the air/and we feel so good ‘cos you care/Count me in ‘cos I don’t wanna work/In no place in the whole universe) could almost be an ode to the hedonistic days of the Hacienda. Even the chord progression of the chorus riff, getting higher and higher each time feels like the rush of E going up your spine. Being off your tits never sounded so god. They even had a track called ‘Feeling Holy’, putting no doubt to the pill fuelled party that was its creation. But despite that, the album is full of soul groove and cool. It still sounds fresh, it still sounds funky, and it still sounds fun. How many albums of the period can you honestly say that about?
With the records Oasis made now in direct competition to Michael Jackson and Madonna, indie didn’t stand a chance. Labels signed with their wallets instead of their hearts, and signed a list of piss poor Britpop also-rans as long as it is comical. Every new single tried to be the next anthem of the movement. If you couldn’t slur it with your arms around your mates’ shoulders, the charts didn’t want to know. Songs become no more than jingles. ‘Alright’ by Supergrass, ‘Wake Up Boo!’ By Boo Radleys, ‘Going for Gold’ by Shed Seven. Travis and the Stereophonics would be their legacy. (Stereophonics, a band who had the nerve to exhume Tom Jones. The single by Catatonia and the singer from scouse also-rans Space called ‘The Balled of Tom Jones’ would be the stinking cherry on the piss poor cake, Even records by ex-Take That-er Robbie Williams could not delve into such shitty lows)
All records seemed almost designed to by taken up by a TV advert. All so saccharine they could dissolve your teeth. Even the one song almost everyone can agree is a classic; Common People by Pulp was misplaced. Suddenly the middle classes chanted along to a song that took the piss out of them, missing the irony to a jaw dropping degree. A song that eloquently expressed how bad it was when rich kids indulged in some class tourism would go on to spore a generation of kids raiding Oxfam and bothering the regulars in local Caffs by trying desperately how ’authentic’ they were. And, lets be honest, Babies is a better record isn’t it?
With a lack of decent new records and with gigs and indie clubs being awash with lads high on lager and Lynx, the indie foot soldier found his or hers options somewhat limited. Some went off to a world of pills and all night raves, other chose to smoke themselves insensible to the coffee table groove of Portishead and Massive Attack. I found myself at a night called Planet of the Breaks, mixing skunk with Red Stripe and dancing the night away to old funk records. White Smiths fans where getting down to ’Champ’ by the Mohawks and ’Apache’ by the Incredible Bongo Band. Bloody hell, we even discovered the joy of dancing to ’I Want You Back’ by the Jackson 5. As Jarvis Cocker waggled is arse in front of Michael Jackson at the Brit Awards, his fans where learning to pull shapes to Jacko’s seventies hits. I discovered (partly through the youth’s desire for all things Mod) the joy of Northern Soul. All the classics like Do I Love You (Indeed I Do), Out on the Floor and Gloria Jones’s take on Tainted Love but also lesser know gems like ’Let The Music Play’ by Didi Noel, a joy of a 45 that cant decide whether it wants to be up beat or melancholy, so settles of a heart melting mixture of both. I devoured albums by the Supremes and found Motown. All music I had ignored whilst holding my head in the water of the well of indie. I even discovered what my dad saw in the Drifters. By getting stoned at people’s houses after a night dancing, I got into slow tempo stuff like Gram Parsons and Tim Buckley. One thing I can thank Britpop for is taking my white-boy-with-reverb blinkers off. Whilst Powder, Fluffy, and Menswear haunted Camden town like HMV Jack the Rippers, I had my ears opened up form everyone from the Flying Burrito Brothers to the Four Tops, having a reefer to Aretha instead of a can of Carling to Cast. But it couldn’t last. As much as I adored (and adore) the funk, the soul, and American cosmic music, I felt the need to go home. Back to my roots. To taking the long way round to a place where I come from…