took a Tube to Camden Town”

Buried near the end of Saint Etienne’s 1990 debut Foxbase Alpha was perhaps the archetype for the Brit-centric pop/rock of the 90s: “London Belongs to Me.” It is among the first moments of greatness in their career, which has been a post-Acid House distillation of many of the great non-guitar/backbeat-centric music of the previous three decades: Motown, girl group, hip-hop, Northern Soul, yé-yé, house, tropicalia, exotica, techno—and later trip-hop and trance—all tied together with a unique English sensibility.

Pop made by keen music historians—such as Saint Etienne’s Bob Stanley—is often planted well in the past, but “London Belongs to Me” was filtered through an acute sense of time and place: Now and London. A clutch of early Saint Etienne tracks—among which “London...’” is the strongest—are drunk on the joys of the everyday, of youth. It captured the feeling of living in tremendous times, even if (especially if?) that merely meant Tuesday morning tennis, getting caught in the rain, or catching the KLF on TV. Communication was key. These were shared moments—some of them banal—that people talked about in the light of day instead of the middle-of-the-night and middle-of-nowhere connections made at raves.

Not that Saint Etienne were a denial of the Acid House revolution that had taken place prior to the start of their career. The group certainly had retro elements but weren’t guilt of fogeyism. Their earliest tracks were a succinct blend of an alternative canon that worked within a band structure, didn’t deny the sonic playfulness and progression of Acid House, and yet still embraced pop melodies and structures. And while the sounds were cosmopolitan—a new mod worldwide style-grab—the setting couldn’t have been anywhere else but London.

Prior to this, UK indie had been dominated for years by Northern morbidity or moodiness from fey Glasgow boys to Mancunian mopes to Sheffield’s industrial-pop to Liverpool miserabalists. In a quiet way, “London Belongs to Me” started—or at the least anticipated—a revolution. It helped move Brit music back to the capitol. Along with World of Twist and early Pulp, Saint Etienne also successfully navigated the gulch between pop and dance with a grace that bands such as Jesus Jones or EMF couldn’t manage and a sophistication that the Madchester artists didn’t possess.

This new Brit music, however, didn’t completely ignore the guitar, plenty of artists were using it with post-Acid House creativity. With the Happy Mondays, AR Kane, Kitchens of Distinction, My Bloody Valentine all at the height of their game, it was an unnatural period of sonic experimentation and creativity in the indie set. But where Acid House had challenged the earnestness of indie, shoegazing put an emphasis on sonics and embraced the 80s indie trope of dour seriousness and virtuosity. Post-MBV dream pop— Slowdive, Chapterhouse, Ride, Curve, Lush, Boo Radleys, Swervedriver, Verve—was neo-psychedelica with an emphasis on technology and craftsmanship. The one element of the late-60s psychedelica that it didn’t embrace was that it wasn’t dance music—it was the complete opposite, as its name suggested.

Some combination of these artists did club, however, at Oxford Street’s Syndrome. Many in the baggy and madchester scene coalesced there, acknowledging that London was again the center of the UK guitar industry—and with the emergence of darkcore and jungle was about to become the center of UK dance music.

And as London was once again becoming the center of British music, Seattle was becoming the rock capital of the United States.

“Teen Spirit Is the ’90s Scene”

In late 1991, Nirvana released “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the mainstream breakthrough from the working-class American kids who for the past few years had playing what was called grunge—a no-frills approach to guitar rock that adhered to the fundamentalism of 80s U.S. indie rock. A lack of personality and pained earnestness was valued as proof positive that the music was the thing; any elements of glamour or knowing artifice was deemed conceit and an absence of authenticity.

In the UK, punk had been a light to paper—a revolution—one whose direct, minimal aesthetic burned out in 18 months. In the UK, DIY was “do what you want,” a democratization of the music-making process that valued ideas, will, or a look over technique. In the U.S., it became an ethos that demanded adherence to a specific, inherently limiting set of rules about how not to approach music making, putting boundaries on artists on the basis of finance or fashion. This ask questions first, play music later formula stayed associated with varieties of heavy guitar music, some of which was liberating and exploratory, but some of which didn’t escape those trappings. When hard rock finally broke in America for the first time since punk, it did so into a glammed-up atmosphere of cartoonish metal, all the more proof to some that style was the antithesis of quality. As a result, grunge artists tended toward the anti-fashion of flannel shirts and guilt of stardom.

Ironically, Melody Maker was one of the first magazines to extensively explore and boost bands that were to become associated with grunge, Sub Pop Records, and Seattle, championing Dinosaur Jr. and Mudhoney in the late 1980s. When Nirvana finally went above ground with “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” American critics breathlessly hailed it as a revolution, believing that Nirvana and their musical brethren would upturn the mainstream. In actuality, all they did was manage to weed out the hair bands.

For Nirvana, success was something to question at every turn, although almost no other American artist bothered with hand-wringing any more than their indie pedigree-less followers such as Stone Temple Pilots, Candlebox, Live, or Collective Soul would. Unfortunately, most of the bands that followed Nirvana through the door were uninspiring and lumpen, shrill arena-goth, or earnest U2alikes.

In the UK, Grunge made indie-dance seem lightweight and the shoegazers seem ineffectual, a reminder for some that guitars were meant for aggression, velocity, and volume rather than shimmer and shine. It also sharpened notions of Brit-centrism that lay dormant in both Suede’s Brett Anderson and Blur’s Damon Albarn. For Albarn, the sensations were particular awakened on a disastrous and unfortunately lengthy tour of America that re-wired his sensibilities into a manifesto. Anderson’s creativity was fueled by his romantic rivalry with Albarn and a desire to re-inject fashion and a Byronic notion of Englishness into UK indie.

The first volley in Britain’s one-sided war with the U.S. alternative nation was fired by Select magazine, which ran a special Brit-centric issue in March 1993. With a “Yanks Go Home” headline, the cover featured Brett Anderson in front of a then-off limit Union Jack—and name-checked bands such as St. Etienne, Denim, Pulp, and the Auteurs.

It was an odd combination. Were the issue to have been published two years earlier, it could have easily been included the likes of Kitchens of Distinction or World of Twist. According to Select they personified the idea that “pop doesn’t always have to be two-faced and superficial, but the best always remembers that we’re dealing in artifice and pose.” In this case the laundry list of artists cited in the article were combined because they were “truly, madly, deeply in love with the communicative force of brilliant pop” and “what none of them are is earnest, petulant, self-serving or dull.”

Despite the chest-beating panic, Britain had recently enjoyed its own musical and cultural revolution, acid house—one whose lineage wasn’t directly challenged or threatened by grunge. The success of grunge wasn’t a blow to UK music—it was a blow to UK indie guitar music. Six years earlier, a collection of London clubbers on vacation in Ibiza imported Balearic Beats to a nation already enjoying the pleasures of Chicago house, hip-hop, and advances in sampling techniques. Over the next few years, the establishment of a new club and rave culture, buoyed by ecstasy, led to unprecedented progressions of rhythmic innovation, and a renewed interest in ambient and dub music. Tony Wilson proclaimed: “Wake Up America, You’re Dead,” but the country never got the message, almost completely missing the Acid House revolution save for a few stray indie-dance acts and a passing interest in Madchester and post-MBV dream pop. In the UK, those in the dance or indie arenas that didn’t get the message were almost instantly marginalized.

Like punk and post-punk before it, Acid House itself burned out in a matter of 18 months, leaving its fingerprints on every progressive facet of UK music, exploding sonic possibilities just as post-punk had years earlier. The cycle from 1977 through to 1982 coincidentally mirrored 1987 through 1992, by which time its influence had run aground, overdosed on possibilities and in need of a paradigm shift. By 1992, the Prodigy had “killed” rave; Factory Records went bankrupt; Primal Scream’s Screamadelica—the last word on the indie-dance crossover—won the Mercury Music Prize; My Bloody Valentine had released perhaps the last word in guitar-technology crossover; and the KLF invented stadium house, played the Brit Awards, and retired from music.

In the UK, once grunge outgrew the weeklies, the press hunted around for a new sound, one that they could grab onto at the ground floor. Select’s championing of British sounds and waving of the Union Jack was at first was considered xenophobic, until the magazine’s manifesto was adopted by Blur during the promotion of its second album, Modern Life Is Rubbish.

“It Helped Me See the World as I Wanted it to Be”

Blur began as shambolic avant-pop group Seymour, whose earliest performances demonstrated their art school backgrounds. Damon Albarn explored the “theater of cruelty” onstage and took cues from Julian Cope and Syd Barrett, while Graham Coxon mimicked the guitar sonics of Kevin Shields. Seymour isn’t a great name, but the switch—suggested by their label, Food Records—to Blur was part of the floundering and twist and turn between their artistic aspirations and commercial leanings. The one-syllable name is along the lines of the other baggy and shoegazers of the era: Ride, Curve, Lush, Verve.

Blur’s debut single, the placid casual “She’s So High,” is effective, but its B-side “Sing” was the band’s early masterpiece. A droning, unhurried almost mantra-like track, its minor chords and slow build is a world away from most of the lazy shuffles that ended up on its first LP.

Although it was an artful package, it was their follow-up, the more direct “There’s No Other Way,” that broke them. A decent baggy hit, it did little to suggest they were a long-term prospect. Debut LP Leisure did little to dispel this possibility, as it was an unadventurous rush job that proved that while the band was willing to take chances, it would only come on their B-sides.

As a result of their stalled position in the charts, Blur shifted from baggy to Mod: (see: Damon’s three-button suit at Glastonbury 1992). Unlike the first Mods who reacted against stuffy, gray-skied Britain by adopting the fashions of the continent and the sounds of America, now Damon and co. were reacting against dreary, stultifying Americanism. Fred Perry shirts and Dr. Martens became the uniform and the band celebrated the Syndrome’s “Popscene” with a robotic guitar and their first use of horns. It stalled at No. 32.

Despite that, the band continued its push toward experimentation, most likely as a direct result of its time spent on the Rollercoaster Tour with Jesus and Mary Chain, Dinosaur Jr., and My Bloody Valentine. Guitarist Graham Coxon enjoyed the experience of apprenticeship. Two tracks recorded around this time, “Oily Water” and “Resigned” appeared on compilations, indicating a more somber, patient direction for the band. Each track’s mood fit its title thanks to Coxon’s adept playing and Albarn’s lyrical maturity.

The slight momentum was upended by a morale-zapping 44-date American tour. Associated with indie-dance, trying to create art-pop, and playing in front of grunge fans, the band nearly imploded. They blamed the draining cycle of meeting DJs and playing shows in small towns, taking out their frustration by drinking, fighting, and sharpening their distaste of all things American. To compound the pain, while they were away Suede had become the darlings of London indie.

Albarn responded with his most Brit-centric single to date, "For Tomorrow," which he promoted with a pair of "British Images" and a cover photo that featured a World War II bomber. At the time he claimed modern life is rubbish; his critics claimed that he was reactionary and even quasi-racist. The song itself didn’t offer any proof that Albarn’s image-making was anything more than promo playfulness. The majestic string-led single—complete with mentions of Primrose Hill and being lost on the Westway—was easily the band’s best to date.

Despite that, Blur’s long-delayed second album, Modern Life Is Rubbish wasn’t all knees-up Cockneyisms and Village Green tea parties. Instead, it’s adventurous and varied, as steeped in MBV guitar squall as it is in Kinks or Madness pastiche. If this is where Britpop really started, there is actually very little to it that carries the hallmarks of that tag. The songs that received the most attention, however, were the ones that predicted Britpop: “Colin Zeal,” a Kinksesque character song in which Damon counts the fact that he “doesn’t dwell on the past” as one of his faults and the brassy “Star Shaped.” More explicit were the singles: “For Tomorrow,” “Chemical World”—which praises sugary tea and nods to “A Day in the Life”—and “Sunday Sunday,” a knees-up music hall jaunt that features a brass section. On the latter, Blur explored music hall even more on its B-sides with covers of standards “Daisy Bell” and “Let’s All Go Down to the Strand.”

Ambitious and yet still full of hooks, it is arguably their most appealing record—particularly as it retains its underdog status in comparison to the ubiquity of Parklife, the snotty triumphalism of The Great Escape and the self-consciousness of Blur.

Like Modern Life Is Rubbish, the band’s follow-up—Parklife—retains the very British qualities of farce and self-doubt, but covered their art-pop leanings with an increased emphasis on melody. Even more lyrically ambitious than its predecessor, the album continued to mine and lampoon explorations about contemporary British sensibilities over a combination of music borrowed from the Kinks, XTC, Madness, and More Specials.

Launched at a dog track, Parklife is swimming with London-centrism—more so than any record since Saint Etienne. Unlike those sometimes first-person, celebratory looks at the capital, Blur’s London is cold and charmless—although between Damon’s affected look and penchant for grandiose interviews—they had trouble effectively delivering that message. From Phil Daniels’ title-track monologue to discouraging traffic reports to suicidal thoughts on the Cliffs of Dover, all was not well. Here most of England was a world of self-denial from which an escape—whether for girls and boys on holiday or “Tracy Jacks” to the sea or to “Magic America” (the country or the Italian porn station)—was the key to pleasure. Video games were more important than the Queen; enjoyment came six times a year; and London loves “the way you just don’t stand a chance.”

Albarn’s more personal songs—“End of a Century” and “To the End”—are no more cheery. As far as mood goes, the low point is the album’s artistic peak, “This Is a Low,” still perhaps the finest achievement of the band’s career. Potentially alienating for American listeners, it’s tempestuous and atmospheric, a blend of on-the-face-of-it celebration that hides dissatisfaction, like most of the best songs from that album. Albarn’s reading of the English shipping report over Coxon’s backward guitar is the best romanticization of the mundane since “London Belongs to Me.” There is a sort of spectral finisterre quality to the song's tracing the outline of England by boat that marks the edge of Britain as the end of the world. And because those shipping reports—news from the end of the world—are what used to sign off the BBC broadcast each night, the song almost sounds as if it could be the nation's lullaby. The sun once never set on England; this song seems to indicate that it now did so nightly—in a haze of depression and doubt.

“Trying to Lose the Friends That He’s Found”

Damon Albarn’s successful pursuit of then-Suede guitarist and future Elastica leader Justine Frischmann—Brett Anderson’s longtime girlfriend—connected his life and, in some ways, his record collection and ideas about a British revival with those of the Suede singer. Frischmann’s departure from both the band and Anderson’s life pushed him to pursue his career with a new fervor. He wrote a series of thinly veiled songs about Frischmann and began to foster a rewarding songwriting partnership with guitarist Bernard Butler and must have felt no end of satisfaction from usurping the Syndrome scenesters as the UK’s It indie sound. When Blur returned from their horrific 1992 tour, the salt in the wound was that in their time away Suede had been declared by Melody Maker to be the “best new band in Britain.”

Anderson and Butler began to construct songs that blended the outsider, bedsit lyrics of 80s indie with the direct punch of glam-era Bowie and early Adam and the Ants. Audacious and fashionable, Anderson insisted that a tribe of indie kids who had returned to their self-denying, pre-Acid House days should stop staring at their shoes and slap their asses—provocation, sexuality, style, and extroverts are in. Anderson’s theatrical vocals and embrace of androgyny further set them apart from the protestant, sexless sound of shoegaze. Anderson’s benign, pale indieboy frame hid latent sinister thoughts—not unlike some of Stuart Murdoch’s lyrics years later.

Suede’s debut single, “The Drowners,” was a return to fractured romanticism and one-on-one connections rather than the movement of the crowd of rave. “He writes down the line, goes right down my spine / It says, �Oh, do you believe in love there?” Anderson asked, demanding a direct dialogue between bedroom indie artist to bedroom indie listener. Suede’s debut blew most of the cabal of Syndrome clubbers out of the water, buoyed by a pair of excellent B-sides, “My Insatiable One” and “To the Birds.” Suede set the track record of making each EP’s release an event, not tossing filler or failed experiments on the back of singles releases. Those early b-sides—collected on disc one of Sci-Fi Lullabies—remain Suede’s strongest collection of songs.

Unfortunately, Anderson began another Britpop trend by giving a series of increasingly ludicrous interviews—most famously his much-quoted support of a leading question that suggested he was a “homosexual man who had never had a homosexual experience.”

A brief of flurry of Next Big Thing excitement beat a path to America, but despite some air play for an in-the-round Frankie Goes to Hollywood-like video of “The Drowners” and a Tonight Show appearance, they couldn’t crack an America that was suspicious of such prancing—particularly during the height of grunge. (Ironically, Suede’s look was also a thrift-store fashion, albeit one that denied rather than celebrated their working-class roots.) Plus, with America still romanticizing paying dues before paying rent, Suede’s famous “Britain’s Best New Band” headline—written before their single was released—was the stuff of mockery.

When the debut album was finally released, it found Suede carrying along in the same vein as its singles, with less consistent success. It did launch them from indie world into the pop charts, however: “Animal Nitrate” hit the top 10 and they played the Brit Awards. On the whole, Suede’s earliest work was more Brit-popesque than Blur’s. They were first to use horns—later a hallmark of the sound—and they more explicitly honored their influences. The band’s position as musical royalty was secured when the stand-alone single “Stay Together” hit No. 3, helped again by a collection of strong b-sides. This new expansive sound, however, would fracture the band and lead to the departure of Butler.

Whereas the line between palpable, intelligent melodrama and absurdity is toed nicely on the debut, it’s often crossed on their follow-up, 1994’s Dog Man Star. That album is focused on Anderson’s survey of London night decay and Butler’s increasingly grandiose and floral music. With Butler’s music sometimes spinning into gaudy, unwieldy lengths, Suede found themselves out of step with the lockstep, crisp three-minute perfect pop chugged out by their peers in Blur and the now-ascendant Elastica.

Anderson’s camp vocals on “Black and Blue” were supposed to embellish the pain he shared in lines such as “Left the coast and overdosed on that London sound” or “I don’t care for the UK tonight.” It all just sounded silly.

Worse is “Asphalt World,” another sneering take on London from the seamy edge of town. Originally conceived as a 25-minute piece with an eight-minute guitar solo, it was mercifully trimmed but still released as an unforgiving length of 8:32. The grandiosity and sheer pointlessness of its music is matched by a cynical, pompous lyric, a thinly veiled swipe at Damon Albarn—“When she’s there in your bed / I’ll be in her head.”

Along with a group of fairly solid singles, the album did contain one unsung masterpiece, “The 2 of Us.” The song has the grace that comes with regret and doubt. More importantly, it contains a humility that prevents the song from disappearing into the stratosphere and/or up Brett or Bernard’s ass like too many of the other ballads on the record. Once again the lines in a song are used to ID a very specific love or loss—“That song goes through my head / The one we both knew / In each line lies another line full of sacred sound / But you’re outside where the companies dream and the money goes round”—not the removed scanning of broken, twisted London that peppered most of the rest of the album. The song probably was about Justine but it could have just as easily described Bernard. The group soon said goodbye to their lead guitarist—replacing him with a 17-year-old lookalike and later adding a well-sculpted fan on keyboards—descended into self-parody and more closely resembled a Suede tribute group than anything else.

“Everyone’s Dreaming of All They Have to Live For”

While Blur and Suede led the move, other bands were marrying a new Brit-centric fashion and swagger with UK-based pop, as well.

By early 1994 people had finally stopped complaining about the bluster and supposed xenophobia of the new pro-UK bands. The guilt of waving the Union Jack or dressing in Docs and tagging “British Image #1” on a wall passed, and soon after the chest-pumping was no longer seen as evil, it was seen as good. National pride was acceptable as a cure for the dominance of Yank prole rock. In April 1994, Kurt Cobain’s suicide left American alternative rock in the incapable hands of bands such Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Stone Temple Pilots, Green Day, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. It wasn’t such a threat anymore.

Glossy fashion mag The Face pieced it all together first, which was fitting because the pseudo-scene was brewing in clubs and neighborhoods. Camden Town’s The Good Mixer was near both the offices for Food Records and the PR firm of Savage and Best, which represented a chunk of the scene’s major players. The massives clubbed at Blow Up, Fantasy Ashtray, and Smashing, the latter of which is where Menswear was formed. Over the course of the year, The Guardian picked up on Britpop—still two words and inclusive of any UK pop sounds, whether guitar-based, dance-oriented, or both. Melody Maker put Britpop on its 1994 year-end issue, and NME did the same on its 1995 preview. Following the word was the look, led by the young, jaunty Supergrass and their angular guitars and music hall piano; the sharp, staccato Elastica—a gang of mostly girls with mannequin looks and “Mannequin” sound; and Oasis and their “last gang in town” bravado and populist pop. By early 1995, they were joined by Gene, Sleeper, Echobelly, Shampoo, Menswear—all of whom had a solid single or two but fell at the hurdle of capturing more than three minutes of lightning in a bottle. The more intelligent, arch-British artists such as vets Saint Etienne, Pulp, the Boo Radleys, Denim, and the Auteurs and relative newcomers Stereolab, Tindersticks, and My Life Story also shined in the relative shadows.

The first British Invasion was a means of combating the still-felt post-war gloom out and asserting the new materialism of youth; the second one was about rejecting the starving artistry of punk and embracing business ethics and world-beating pop. Unlike the first, Britpop was not a rejection of mainstream morays, it was a celebration. The scene purported to want to make music more stereotypically British; unlike the second, Britpop didn’t explicitly rebel against its indie roots from the word go.

To many, it rebelled against acid house and was inherently racist, a charge that doesn’t stick during these early, creative days, if it does at all. Blur most often fit that mold, with its semi-threatening British Image and self-celebratory nature, but at the peak of their chirpy days, they were as close to the multi-culture Two-Tone than most any other element of post-punk. Unlike the Specials or Madness, however, they’re an all-white band, but the video for “For Tomorrow”—the first explicity Brit single—featured a multicultural and cross-generation collection of Londoners miming the track’s rousing “la la la”’s... For Blur during the Britpop years, selling to a wide audience seemed more of a goal than selling to youth or indie one, which was reflected at the time by a �classic’ British sound.

In addition to this, through the efforts of those on the fringes and the popular club nights such as the Heavenly Sunday Social—which featured members of Saint Etienne and the Chemical (neé Dust) Brothers on the decks—pop and club sensibilities were central to the early groups of the Brit pop movement. As Britpop became more and more popular, however, it soon repositioned its ground zero influence as 1963, as opposed to its earlier almost fanatical rejection of the 60s rock canon.

The earliest Britpop groups had a sphere of influence that stretched back to the early 70s that incorporated the more arty side of leftfield rock and pop: glam, Sparks, 10cc, Wire, Magazine, Two-Tone, the Smiths, My Bloody Valentine. They didn’t associate populism with quality either in those they admired or their own work but weren’t adverse to the charts or hamstrung by the hand-wringing over fundamentalist ethoses as their 80s indie progeny. Later, this would be almost entirely the opposite. Part of the blame is that the previous attempts by the British to refine American music usually dressed sounds that were closer to their rhythmic roots. This time they took already whitewashed copies of originals and made yet another copy.

Despite that, musically, what by the end of 1994 would become Britpop was getting a lot of things right. It wasn’t alone—music in the UK in 1993 and 1994 wasn’t nearly as apocalyptic as it was in 1987 and 1988, and its breadth was much more impressive.

“I Say I Deserve Better Than This”

Among the sounds competing with Britpop were jungle, trip-hop, and post-rock. The first two were each a reconstruction of hip-hop, filtering them through a more club-friendly environment; the latter was an attempt to retain a pop structure and exist within the framework of a rock band without having to shy from an embrace of technology.

Jungle came from hardcore—an offshoot of techno with more backbeat and quicker BPMs. DJs blended ragga, jazz, and dub into the mix, creating a darker, post-Ectasty sound. By 1993, the influence of breakbeats and polyrhythms almost completely eliminated traces of its techno roots. The sonic advancements of the scene—the speed by which it moved, fed by the immediacy of being divorced from label promo, instead fueled by pirate radio and specialty shops—made it nearly impossible to follow without a near-total dedication. Shy FX broke the top 40 with “Original Nuttah,” but the sound never really crossed despite the considerable efforts of labels such as Rob Playford’s Moving Shadow. By the time the sound began to engage with the mainstream in any real quantity, it had acquired the dour, whitewashed tag “drum n’ bass” and the ragga elements were almost totally absent. New producers moved the sound away from frenetic dancefloor fillers instead making more jazz- and ambient-influenced sounds, known—with more than a hint of pomposity—as “intelligent drum and bass.” Rhythm, falsely maligned as insubstantial and insignificant, was replaced by often drip-dry head music. The first blends of techstep and more ambient jungle sounds created a brief period of inspired records from the likes of A Guy Called Gerald, Adam F, Omni Trio, Goldie, 4 Hero, Dillinja, and others, but when the music moved further away from its club roots, the less urgent it became.

Trip-hop began in Bristol with the Wild Bunch axis and also included the work of new labels Mo’ Wax- run by James Lavelle and featuring the likes of DJ Shadow (“In/Flux”) DJ Krush- and Ninja Tune. Often down-tempo—and sometimes essentially Coldcut-like turntablism—trip hop placed the same credit on obscurity that Northern Soul had done in the 1970s and even adopted some of the same soul and funk fetishes. A brief flourish of creativity was spoiled by a near-universal rejection of the genre’s tag, one that—like drum n bass had done for jungle—seemed little more than a white-washed way of saying, “hip-hop.”

The surprise success of spy music samplers Portishead and the cache of Mo’ Wax’s first Headz compilation (and Lavelle’s lifestyle-oriented branding of his music, crossing into clothing and other merchandise), attracted a lot of poor copycats. The sound became either middlebrow and half-baked or a flat female-vocaled dead end, depending on which path was followed. Unfortunately, the one blazed by Tricky on Maxinquaye wasn’t explored much until years later with garage. Ninja Tune because an appropriate name because its pleasure was stealth, the sort of chin-stroking Squarepushing that U.S. indie kids accept as dance. Mo’ Wax was an apropos tag because its cratedigging overwhelmed its sound, and collections of its original sample sources are now more inclusive and delightful than the artist records on which they’re built.

UK post- rock was post-punk updated with technology and sampling. In the U.S., artists such as Labradford were mining similar territory, but it was in the UK when it really took off, led by Disco Inferno, Stereolab, Bark Psychosis, and Seefeel. Those bands embraced the texture and atmosphere of dance and the freedom of Jamaican and German music, ignored chords or riffs, and created frequently challenging yet still pop-centric sonic landscapes. Other more neo-psychedelic artists such as Laika, Flying Saucer Attack, and Moonshake picked up the mantle and did the same. The best of the groups was Disco Inferno, who linked drum and guitar to samples in order to conjure a world of sound with every “note.” Combined with Ian Crause’s pre-millennial tension and prescient, conscious, intelligent lyrics, a series of five EPs and the inaccurately titled DI Go Pop made Disco Inferno arguably Britain’s most creative and rewarding band. Only Melody Maker attempted to push the band, one of the Brit press’ worst crimes, and after DI’s equipment was stolen, they soon disappeared.

The combination of these more forward-looking sounds and a feminized, pop version of British guitar music justified the national pride felt in the British music press. Unfortunately, the press only considered the more conservative and promotion-friendly artists worthy of their attention.

“Everything I Touch Is Turning to Gold”

By 1995, the word "Britpop" was everywhere. At the start of the year, Blur had swept the Brit Awards, an unprecedented feat for any artist, let alone one thought to be ground in the indie circuit. Elsewhere, the Britpop pups were prepping their debut LPs and the media was gleefully flag-waving—and that last bit was among the problems. The media—the weeklies, BBC, lad magazines—boosted the profile of Britpop to ridiculous levels.

The irony is that for all of the railing against U.S. alternative boom made the UK indie guitar circuit a bit shortsighted. Just as Nirvana was seen as the start of something, when Blur swept the Brits it was seen as an indication that “good” music would win, that it would bring a new element of experimentation into the mainstream. It didn’t happen.

At first, the weeklies tried to play an us vs. them game, celebrating the success of “their” bands .The weeklies and the indie media had been suspicious of the charts—especially in the years between punk and grunge, when a series of independent labels such as Rough Trade, Mute, Creation, and 4AD had prospered.

The weeklies were among the first to celebrate the new British pop. In 1994, the NME created the Brats, an anti-Brits ceremony complete with childish middle-finger-shaped trophies, designed to celebrate indie music. That year, Suede, Radiohead, and Elastica were among the winners. The following year, when Blur won at the Brits, the Brats ceremony seemed even more pointless than it already was. One year earlier, Suede were a curio at the Brits, now Blur were the event. Other awards that year went to Oasis, Supergrass, and Massive Attack. At the podium to accept the best band award, Damon said it should be: “shared with Oasis” and bragged “wake up America.” Later that night, Noel said: “what Blur did was a great gesture and I want to go on the record as saying that it’s us and the now, against the world.” Apparently, sharing space on the charts with pop and R&B and other sounds was less acceptable than attempting a whole scale takeover.

The British press was compliant in championing these bands because they fit into their historical knowledge base, overall aesthetic, and sense of linear history. As a bonus, many of these bands talked a good game and pushed an acceptable chest-swelling nationalism. With the music print press now focused more on monthlies, there is less need to react and more time to reflect or present an analytical approach to scenes, focusing on a variety of artists and sounds (which, of course, did not occur). In the weekly format, the magazines pushed a series of artists with whom they could maintain access, whose music they understood at every turn, and had a steady cycle of high-profile promotional events (tours, singles, video shoots) around which features could be tailored. Of the four strains of Brit creativity circa 1994, only Britpop fit the bill. Blur’s exaltation sealed the deal, as the weeklies sought to expand their readership and profit margins without realizing that once “their” bands were also the property of larger, mainstream media, the weeklies role in the careers of Blur, Oasis, etc., would be far less relevant.

Perhaps just as important, a shakeup at the BBC opened doors for Britpop to get on the radio. Steve Lamacq and Jo Whiley were hired for the Evening Session, allowing them to begin to push Britpop. As soon as they started, however, Radio One’s daytime programming picked up on many of Lamacq’s favorites before he could bleed them and claim he was there first. Britpop eventually outgrew that which spawned, named and coddled it. The delight of championing a band and watching them head to the charts was shared suddenly by the BBC, Loaded, Smash Hits, Q and broadsheet newspapers. To try to make up the difference, the alternative weeklies began to hype even less worthy artists rather than attempt to stake new ground in the hopes of once again being on the ground level of the revolution.

Granted some deserved bands that had been on the fringes of the weeklies slipped through the cracks and onto the charts, among them Tindersticks, Stereolab, Aphex Twin, Portishead, Underworld, and Radiohead. But if only the press had ceded a little more of the space reserved for Sleeper and Marion to other pursuits the same may have happened to the arch-English and rewarding sounds of Saint Etienne, the Auteurs, Omni Trio, A Guy Called Gerald, Ultramarine, and Disco Inferno, all of which were lost in the rush to maintain the need to bet on the right horse.

“Together That Summer, We Raised Some Hell”

Among the new press that embraced Britpop was BBC breakfast host Chris Evans and lad’s magazine, Loaded. By 1995, Britpop was already too humorless a movement—despite its early desire to distance itself from American alternative earnestness, as personalities, most Britpop stars were nearly impossible to take seriously. The few bands that did exert some sort of wit were swept up away by a tide of laddism, a rejection of the political correctness and a renewed embrace of hyper-masculinity and the anti-intellectual trinity of sex, sports, and beer.

Loaded debuted in April 1994 claiming that it was for “men who should know better.” Almost immediately, it found a soundtrack to its booze, birds, and football aesthetic in Oasis, who proudly celebrated the pre-PC days and all things knuckle-dragging.

With its attempt to reclaim soccer from its 1980s hooliganism and a lampoon of that decade’s ultra-PC ways, Loaded became the best-selling men’s magazine in the UK. Former Man United star George Best, who squandered his natural talent by bloating himself full of lager and famously bragged that he “spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars...the rest I just squandered” was a patron saint.

Political correctness eroded and suddenly off-color jokes were out, the political consciousness and indie fundamentalism of the Thatcher years was out. Lad culture began to infect other elements of Brit culture, as northern stereotypes—so long as they had a self-conscious, knowing element to them (remember the men should know better—and anti-intellectualism was embraced. The groundwork was laid in America by Baywatch, Wayne’s World, Madonna’s Sex, and Married...with Children. Even grunge had the same sort of faux poor or white trash fashion aesthetic seen today in ironically wearing trucker hats or growing a mustache.

In the UK, even the art school, student types embraced lad culture. Albarn swapped the Mod wear and three-button suits for Sergio Tacchini track suits and adopted a mockney accent and love of football and played into the new lad aesthetic. Blur bassist Alex James took up residence with boho louts such as Keith Allen and Damien Hirst. In Albarn’s only Loaded interview he played both sides of the fence, claiming that he was “more homosexual than Brett Anderson” before assuring that “when you get down to it, you can’t beat a pair of tits.” Worse, he claimed that he “started out reading Nabokov and now I’m into football, dog-racing, and Essex girls,” a quote that rivals his belief that if “Cobain played soccer he would have lived” for lad-era stupidity.

The peak/valley of this empty machismo was the August chart battle between Oasis and Blur. Despite the goodwill between the bands months earlier, Oasis singer Liam Gallagher goaded Coxon almost any time he could. The chart battle garnered news coverage in the UK and attention in the U.S., but was farcical and antagonistic. Neither Blur nor Oasis had a chart-topping single yet, but suddenly for former indie bands to succeed, they needed to get all the way to No. 1.

The press portrayed it as a class war—despite Albarn’s new (and apparently unconvincing) psuedo-yob image. In the end, Blur’s clucky “Country House” with its Benny Hill video beat the horrid, self-helpisms of Oasis’ “Roll With It” to No. 1, which even more antagonized the class aspect of the rivalry and led Oasis leader Noel Gallagher to hone his sense of ambition and belief in the unwavering greatness of classic guitar pop.

“A Rose-Scented June”

The question throughout the summer of 1995 was “Blur or Oasis?” but the correct answer was Pulp. Months before the Blur-Oasis battle, Pulp reached No. 2 on the singles chart with “Common People,” a moment of inspired anger and vitriol amidst the empty nationalism of Britpop. The song—with its bitter claim that “you’ll never fail like common people / And watch your life slide out of view”—could have been aimed at Damon and his embrace of lower-class culture, the new anti-intellectualism of laddist slumming, or the pig-shit conservatism of the burgeoning Noel-rock. Probably it was a bit of all three.

After years of passable folk-pop, Pulp’s rise begin with the monosyllabic but joyous Separations and a series of singles in the early 1990s, “Countdown,” “O.U.,” and “My Legendary Girlfriend,” the last of which was re-released unofficially by Bob Stanley of Saint Etienne on his Caff Corporation label. Stanley wrote the sleeve notes, calling it a “bottomless pit of seething sauciness.” The patronage of Stanley—a former journalist—had already boosted World of Twist and the KLF. He went on to re-jig early Stereolab single “Super Falling Star” for “Star” on his band’s Continental compilation and in 1993 connected shambolic indie pop and Francophilia by co-editing a fanzine with the Pastels and Stereolab. After the Manic Street Preachers released two good singles on Heavenly, Stanley issued one of their singles on Caff. In all, he pressed 17 seven-inches for Caff with a remarkable strike rate, including World of Twist, indie-pop heroes such as the Field Mice, the Close Lobsters, the Razorcuts, TVPs, Orchids, Lilac Time, and a mod revivalism split in 1990 that predicated Damon’s three-button look by two years.

Pulp’s next two singles, “Razzmatazz” and “Babies” and the low-rent disco of His n Hers perfected Cocker’s mix of suburban sleaze and elegance, but the band’s breakthrough was an almost total shock. Their fast ascendance was sealed when they were tabbed to replace the Stone Roses as the closing band of the 1995 Glastonbury Festival. Playing a mix of old and new tracks, Pulp seized the moment with aplomb, symbolically sealing Britpop’s rise to the top of the indie circuit by effortlessly casting off the ghost of the long-loved Stone Roses. “When you go home on Monday morning, you’re going to go home to a different world,” Cocker told the crowd. He meant that John Major had been removed as Tory party leader, which made the election of Tony Blair’s Labour party seem inevitable, but he could have meant that musically the troika of his band, Oasis, and Blur were about to ascend to the top of British music. Pulp’s symbolic act of camping out in tents rather than staying in trailers further endeared them to the crowd and the debut of “Sorted for E’s and Whizz” neatly encapsulated the post-rave hangover of British pop that had resulted in so much creativity circa 1993. The song’s title referred to the lasting memory of the Stone Roses’ Spike Island show, a 30,000-person event, organized like a rave, in which the drugs had overwhelmed the sense of community or the music. Despite the warnings, Pulp’s performance sealed Britpop as large-event music and the people’s consensus choice. Pulp at Glastonbury was the artistic peak of Britpop, the moment where indie’s outsider culture—cut off from the rest of the country—said goodbye to its core audience before completely grotesquely, inelegantly crashing the mainstream.

For Pulp, it was a tribute to 15 years of plugging away, always out of step. Pulp had the fortune of continuing to do what they did well and instead of adapting to the atmosphere of Britpop—like so many others did—it galvanized them. It highlighted their strengths rather than encouraging the band to abandon them. Jarvis wrote the bulk of Different Class after the success of “Common People,” and it oozes with the confidence and ambition and relief of a man who after years of trying was finally in the right place at the right time. He had to get it right and, spectacularly, he did.

Cocker provided the 1996 Brit Awards with its key moment, an ass-waggling in the face of the pomposity of Michael Jackson. Britpop’s final anti-American act, it launched Cocker into the tabloids, a world to which he did not sit well. Months of guest lists and free drinks left the champion of common people haggard and broken. The result was This Is Hardcore, a great morning-after album of regret and self-doubt that commercially undid the band.

Different Class was the only album that connected Select’s "Yanks Go Home" roundup to the peak of Britpop’s commercial years. After a steady stream of solid releases, it was the finest record made by any of the early Brit poppers (Pulp, Saint Etienne, Blur, Suede, Elastica, the Auteurs, World of Twist, Denim). It wasn’t long before a second wave of British groups emerged, ones who weren’t as schooled in the traditions of the UK’s underground music traditions (Oasis, Supergrass, Gene, Sleeper, Shed Seven, Menswear, Northern Uproar, Powder, Echobelly, Marion, the Bluetones). The highest-profile members of each of those unofficial groups, Blur and Oasis, would engage in battle the charts in later 1995 that took Britpop from Glastonbury headliners to chart headliners.

“You Tried to Push Me a Bit Too Far”

Blur and Oasis’ rivalry continued throughout the year. Still attempting to position themselves as working class heroes, Blur played the 17,000-capacity Mile End on the dilapidated part of London’s East End; Oasis played the 20,000-capacity Earl’s Court. Blur’s Damon Albarn dabbled in laddism; Oasis’ Gallagher Brothers were lads. Damon performed a duet with Ray Davies on British television; Noel played with Paul Weller and Sir Paul McCartney on a charity album. In fall 1995, the bands released albums one week apart.

Blur’s The Great Escape hit the stores first and continued the band’s fascination with both skewering contemporary Brit culture and Aryan, music hall, art-pop, and second-wave ska sounds. This time, however, Albarn turned even more toward character songs (there had really only been three on Blur’s albums to this point) and became more snide and hateful. His sketches of suburban life aren’t painted in anything but contempt. All brass and Bow Bells, it’s almost embarrassingly jaunty and Anglo-centric. Tellingly, the best track here is the one that isn’t specifically about either the UK: “Yuko and Hiro,” in which Albarn disguises his eroding relationship with Frischmann by assigning his emotions to Japanese characters. Along with “He Thought of Cars,” “The Universal,” “Fade Away,” and “Best Days,” it’s among the highlights of the album. Of the upbeat tracks, only “Entertain Me” competes with those other five songs. And while the album sold well, its cynical, sneering tone alienated some fans and its sense of compromise and the band’s status as tabloid stars nearly undid them.

Oasis, on the other hand, roared out of the north with their brutal simplicity and win-at-all-costs attitude. Compared to the fashion-conscious Londoners, Oasis’ Last Gang of Townies swagger and classic pop hooks had a benign charm. Their artless sense of ambition, hedonism, and bickering brother act was, at first, endearing. The band’s debut, Definitely Maybe is a set of classic, direct pop songs made by a group of hard-drinking, confident everymen desperate to escape dead-end streets. Christmas single “Whatever” and follow-up EP, “Some Might Say,” consolidated the band’s strengths: Hummable melodies, a blend of aggression and vulnerability, and Liam Gallagher’s sneering vocals and marathon vowel sounds.

Oasis’ second album What’s the Story (Morning Glory)—released one week after The Great Escape—was a critical stumble but an unprecedented success. The band’s desire for success and reverence for the typical canon created a tunnel-vision world that focused only on sales and the most obvious reference points. With only a pair of decent, new songs—the title track and Noel-sung “Don’t Look Back in Anger”—the record is primarily covered in mawkish ballads and Beatles worship. After years of adventurous music and divisive youth tribes, Oasis’ consensus sound—the first real retreat to and consolidation of the “good old days” circa 1966—made them the biggest band in Britain.

After winning the battle but losing the war, Albarn and the band—smarting from an antagonistic public and bruised egos— reconvened at Coxon’s insistence and began measuring their success with music rather than column inches or chart places.

For Oasis and the rest of the second wave of Britpop, however, craving success became the rule, and in the process Noel Gallagher almost single-handedly hammered nails into the coffin of British indie guitar pop.

“Get Your Kicks Watching the Old Generation Game”

In the hands of Noel Gallagher, Anderson and Albarn’s goal of returning UK music to the charts, to wrestle it away from the Americans, became overrun with self-importance and a total lack of self-actualization or irony—just like American rock circa 1993. Additionally, the music press wouldn’t settle for retreating into their indie-centric past and, in the process, essentially made themselves irrelevant.

The assumption usually is that when the independent circuit moves en masse into the mainstream it results in a more diverse and worthwhile pop landscape. Perhaps that may have been true were the class of ’93 to have broke, but it was Noel Gallagher’s word that became law and indie guitar rock became the most purposefully conservative, derivative element on either side of the virtually eroded indie/mainstream divide. Sadly, the press celebrated here more than ever. Summer 1996 was Cool Britannia after all. Football was coming home, Labour was going to win the next election, Oasis were the Beatles + 20 years, the Union Jack was on Noel’s guitar and Liam’s duvet on the cover of Vanity Fair. Britmusic, Trainspotting-led Britfilm, and Young Brit Art were in vogue.

In music, Oasis wired the now to the then and the weeklies quickly connected the dots. A linear history was in place—one that skipped the dancier ends of psychedelic rock and post-punk and all leftfield sonic adventurers. Despite living in Manchester during acid house, all Oasis took from Madchester were the Stone Roses’ guitar heroics, brio and the Happy Monday’s laddism. Experimentation—long a hallmark of the indie circuit—was abandoned in favor of songcraft and classicism. Everything old was new again: Beatlemania swept England thanks to the Anthology series; the Sex Pistols reformed; Paul Weller was feted; Morrissey released his best album in years; and Madchester veterans Shaun Ryder, Ian Brown, and John Squire returned. Indie had enough of your vorsprung durch technic.

Yet for as much as Oasis wanted to turn back the clock, the primary difference between Merseybeat and Britpop is that the former was frustrated with the limitations of contemporary music and continually pushed it in different directions while the latter rejected most forms of experimentation or contemporary sounds.

Oasis’ record label, Creation Records, had released 1991’s indie-dance crossovers Loveless and Screamadelica. In the wake of the group’s success, however, they began to sign prole rock bands in mass. Even more discouraging, the success of conservatism led established bands down unfortunate paths. The ambitious Boo Radleys dabbled in horn-soaked Beatles pastiche; Shoegaze stars Ride dabbled in lazy pastoralisms and the Manics went MOR.

Despite Noel’s assurances to the contrary, his group did cast a shadow—an unfortunate one, at that—which insisted that “This Is Music.” Cast, Kula Shaker, and Ocean Colour Scene and a series of lesser pugnacious Oasis-lites were happy to comply.

The peak of Oasis’ ambition was a grotesque series of shows at Knebworth. An incredible 2.6 million people applied for the 250,000 spots at the two-night event. Unfortunately, this was the point when Britpop engaged with America and it is the legacy that remains. As disappointing as this fact is for some, it was part of the point for bands like Blur, Suede, and Pulp to never have crossover appeal in the States.

In Oasis’ case, however, the quest to ape the past in order to create a timeless sound- which almost inherently results in mediocrity- was able to transcend the cultural divide of the two countries and make them the largest English group in America...for the time being.

“Do You Wanna Be Soft Like Me?”

Once Noel-rock got big, it aimed to get bigger and it was the needless opulence and cocaine-fueled excess of the band’s third album, Be Here Now that, in part, spelled the end of Britpop. By 1997, the smarter bands either hid from the spotlight or became victims of sloth and drug abuse. For Oasis, the rock star lifestyle was always the goal—there was no guilt or conflict of interest about stardom. While Graham desperately clung to pseudo-bohemia and Damon recovered from his noble savage era by retreating to Iceland, Noel was trailing his wife to Prada and decorating gauche dream home Supernova Heights. The music press—championing increasingly terrible and third- and fourth-rate Brit guitar bands—seemingly lost all critical faculties.

Be Here Now was the Tower of Babel of Britpop, a lesson not learned by the decade’s other grandiose failures from Suede and the Stone Roses. With more studio time and money at their disposal, the band piled guitars on top of guitars without a hint of subtlety, wit, or even melody. The nadir was the monstrosity “All Around the World,” a song so overcooked that it made the band’s previous nonsensical epic, “Champagne Supernova,” seem punk.

In 1997, the indie circuit also got a temporary boost—through both a series of high-profile albums and a reorganization of the scene at ground level. Records from Primal Scream, Spiritualized, Cornershop, and Radiohead returned texture, atmosphere, and rhythm to the now-dour UK guitar music with some level of success. Even more encouraging, bands in Scotland (Belle and Sebastian, the Beta Band, Mogwai, Hefner), Wales (Super Furry Animals, Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci), and Birmingham (Broadcast, Plone) rejected the inward-looking London-centrism, English nationalism, and 60s humping of Britpop by exploring more traditional indie roots and asserting their own regional identities. Organized on the Internet as much as the weeklies, this was a return to the Smiths/Peel Sessions/detail-oriented songs and one-on-one musician-fan relationships that stood on stark contrast to Britrock’s Knebworth adventures.

For the most part, the weeklies no longer had time for the bands that attempted to pick up the scattered pieces of the indie landscape. With the shadow of Britrock still looming, they championed only that which had its roots in 1966 or 1977. Their reluctance to rework themselves as identifiers of truly thrilling new music but to go with the safe touchstones, good interviews, and a scene they can call all their own has been a detriment to anyone who would take them seriously.

The final death blow to Britpop, however, was aimed at laddism and thrown by a surprising quintet: the Spice Girls. Meat-and-potatoes Noel-rock was no longer competing against other indie bands but against the rest of the charts and it met its match with the resurrection of feminized, stylish pop. The Spice Girls’ vague notions of girl power (“If you wanna be my lover / You gotta get with my friends”) were naïve, but they pushed laddism to the side of mainstream Brit culture. With camaraderie, sexuality, brash talk, and hooks, the Spice Girls made the Britrock crowd’s terrace-ready slabs of populism sound dreadful and dull.

One year earlier, the Spice Girls swept aside former Take That star Gary Barlow and in 1997 they showed up Oasis. For Oasis, biggest was best, they measured success in sales and the Spice Girls were a global phenomenon that broke America further open with one single than Oasis had done with years of touring. By the end of 1997, Ginger Spice’s Brit Awards dress was the new Union Jack icon, Robbie Williams was the new Liam, and All Saints, Backstreet Boys, Aqua, Steps, and 5ive were all in the charts, and Britpop was over. Sadly, the UK indie pop landscape was as well.

By: Scott Plagenhoef
Published on: 2003-06-23
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