The Very Days of Britpop
I’ve been thinking about the past a lot, lately. No change there, you might rightly say; but this time, I’m not alone. It seems that everyone of a certain age – and many more besides – have had their minds on the last century, specifically on a period of music, clothes, drugs and optimism now known by a vaguely rubbish name: Britpop.
Britpop has been everywhere recently – TV, radio, blogs, articles … Alex James has probably made a commemorative cheese called ‘There’s No Other Whey’ – but it was John Niven’s piece for the New Statesman that really got my cognitives turning.
John is one of Britain’s finest writers, but his article left me cold. Not because of the quality of the writing (which is as evocative and outlandish and visceral as his stuff invariably is) but because, as Morrissey said in an earlier era of British pop, before he became a beyond-the-end-of-the-pier racist comic, it says nothing to me about my life. My memories of the mid-’90s are not of London, the music business, cocaine and ecstasy. They’re of the Midlands, of school and the dole, weed and poppers. John’s Britpop sounds like headlining Glastonbury; in comparison, mine was akin to being seventh on the bill at the Princess Charlotte.
But that doesn’t make my memories any less potent, or the era to seem – in retrospect, at any rate – as glorious for me as it might have been for anyone else.
So when did it start? Everyone has their own Britpop timeline, their own bookends of the age, but the ‘Yanks Go Home’ edition of Select to which John refers is a fairly good base point. Spring of 1993 also saw the release of Modern Life is Rubbish, and while Blur and Oasis weren’t even close to being the best bands of the period, they have become totemic of Britpop; so if starting with Blur’s first genuine stab at glory makes sense, so does ending with Oasis’s final clutching at it. Their b-sides compilation The Masterplan, which came out in November 1998, is as good a point as any to bring down the curtain and put away the mirror and the razorblade.
That certainly fits for me at both ends. (Sorry. I’ve just watched the ‘Country House’ video.) In 1993, I was studying for my A-Levels and dreaming of rock ‘n’ roll glory; in 1998, I was working in a pub and my teenage dreams had been all but mothballed like unsold copies of a Heavy Stereo single. But in-between … Oh man, those were the very days.
From the glorious final terms of school to two years in a ramshackle three-storey Victorian end terrace, my friends and I orbited an electric hub of creativity: songs, poems, stories, novels, screenplays … All unpublished, most unperformed in public, many of them utter garbage, I’ve no doubt, but there was a bulletproof optimism about those days, an unshakeable believe in what we were doing, a sense that this was our time and the keys to the kingdom were there for the taking.
We swam unfathomable lakes of beer, burnt through a thousand acres of tobacco, and became temporarily deranged on Liquid Gold and weed in bulk (although the acid I bought from a festival dealer in 1995 still hasn’t kicked in to this day). I remember daydreams in dusty bedrooms, plans for world domination sketched on the backs of beer mats, lazy sunshine afternoons and midnight drives through black rain, The Holy Bible pulsating from tinny car speakers.
Manic Street Preachers didn’t epitomise the era in the way that Blur or Oasis came to in later retrospectives, but they ran through rock’s underbelly like a rich seam of copper: a gift that kept giving long after the bigger bands had lapsed into irrelevance, ignominy or impenetrability. (There’s a fairly decent argument that the real bookends of Britpop are Gold Against The Soul and This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours.) They were a regular presence in our lives and tape decks, particularly for the twelve months that marked the apotheosis of the age, between the summers of 1995 and 1996 – and if there’s any single song that can sum up Britpop, one all-encompassing statement that embodies the time without becoming indivisible from it, it’s not ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’ or ‘Parklife’; it’s not even Pulp’s unfailingly wonderful ‘Common People’. It’s ‘A Design For Life’.
It wasn’t merely the Manics, though, just like it wasn’t all about Blur, Oasis and Pulp. Suede, Gene, the Boo Radleys, Elastica, the Charlatans, Menswear, Shed Seven, Supergrass, Echobelly, the Bluetones, Cast, Lush, even Dodgy … the list may read now like a list of lower-league journeymen than Premier League superstars, but all of them had at least one unstoppable, net-busting, thirty-yard screamer in their arsenal and some, like the Lightning Seeds with Jollification, had whole albums that still permeate my Nineties nostalgia like the trace memory of cigarette smoke in pubs and an electable Labour Party. (‘Three Lions’ is a half-remembered terrace chant; ‘Marvellous’, ‘Perfect’, ‘Change’, ‘Telling Tales’ and the rest are the soundtrack of an epoch.)
But all ages are finite – or, as a rejuventated Echo and the Bunnymen presciently put it at the time, nothing lasts forever. My dreams drifted into a coma of depression and impecuniousness, and when I came round, I was working behind the bar of my local. It was a refuge at first, but it gradually became a prison where time was added on for good behaviour; the counter was a cage.
This was in the middle of 1996, not too long before Oasis played to 300,000 people across two nights at Knebworth. It was the summit of Britpop, but the descent down the crags on the far side was protracted and painful. Be Here Now came and went in a bloated, wet fart of anti-climax, blazing a trail for a stream of ghastly Dadrock albums that forewent excitement for craftsmanship; Blur finally let Graham Coxon take a turn at the rudder and he steered them out of Britpop’s burning boathouse. Blur wasn’t anywhere near as American as was made out at the time, but it was continents away from very big houses in the country.
Some bands continued to flourish – the Manics, having lost guitarist Richey Edwards, released the storming Everything Must Go and the Verve, after another of the many splits-and-reconciliations between Richard Ashcroft and Nick McCabe, returned with Urban Hymns – but others floundered: Elastica went underground; Suede couldn’t build on the success of Coming Up; Ocean Colour Scene just wouldn’t fucking let it lie. But it was Pulp’s creepy, claustrophobic This Is Hardcore album, released in 1998, that finally closed the door on Britpop. It was a comedown set to music; the party was over. All that remained were the epilogues.
Two decades on, my memories of Britpop are fuzzy snapshots: faded prints from an age that predates the digital documenting of everything. (I even used a blog I wrote a decade ago on a defunct part of a dormant website for some points of reference – which ironically has been saved for posterity by the internet.) But I remember enough of it to resonate twenty years on: the times, the people, the music … even the vaguely rubbish name. Britpop didn’t save the world; it didn’t even change it very much. But the fact that such things felt possible in the years between 1993 and 1998 is part of what makes the period so eternally, universally, enduring.