‘It was 20 years ago today,’ The Beatles sang on ‘Sgt. Pepper’ and it’s hard to believe that two decades have passed since Blur were battling Oasis for the No1 spot as Britpop ruled the airwaves.
Just as the first British invasion was led by a mighty triumvirate of the aforementioned Fab Four, The Rolling Stones and The Kinks, so the mid-1990s paradigm was led by a trio of bands whose sound bore many echoes of the past.
Blur ditched their previous generic indie jangle for rollicking Mockney insolence and came roaring out of the traps with ‘Parklife’.
Pitched as polar opposites, Oasis burst on the scene in a blaze of headline-grabbing high jinks, one-finger salutes and glam-rock guitar. Meanwhile Pulp’s charismatic bespectacled frontman Jarvis Cocker was embracing ‘overnight success’ after 16 years and multiple Pulp personnel changes.
These three were to blaze the trail for what quickly became known as Britpop, but was it really a movement or a cultural construct?
While the bands themselves largely rejected any notion of togetherness – it was clear that they and other scenesters like Suede, Supergrass, Sleeper and Verve all shared certain characteristics and lyrical preoccupations.
They sang in English accents about English life and English places (Wales, NIreland and Scotland were pretty much left outside the Britpop umbrella). Council estates, street corners, booze, fags, discos and cheap holidays were celebrated and exalted.
Working class life was heralded and revered – a source of inspiration rather than a nightmare to be escaped.
Arty pretentiousness was firmly stomped underfoot – Oasis’ Noel Gallagher famously slamming Suede for writing about ‘being a pantomime horse’.
Magazines like Loaded tapped into the (new) laddishness and swagger of the music and, despite posturing to the contrary, the bands were happy to play along.
Soon Britpop was riding the wave of so called ‘Cool Britannia’, epitomised when Oasis frontman Liam Gallagher posed with then partner actress Patsy Kensit for a Vanity Fair cover-shoot draped in a Union Jack.
But Britpop’s embrace by the media was to prove its downfall, as the best of the music was diluted and dissembled by bandwagon-jumpers and phony marketing ploys.
For every decent group there were dozens of pale imitators – Menswear, Dodgy. Shed Seven, Kingmaker, Salad, Powder – the list goes on. And while nightly news shows might have been impressed by the so-called chart showdown between Blur and Oasis in August 1995, real fans found it felt fake and embarrassing – a third rate attempt to recreate the equally contrived battles fought by The Beatles and The Stones.
The Britpop storm finally blew out as the intense optimism that saw Tony Blair sweep to power in the 1997 election gave way to darker moods of betrayal and bitter disappointment.
After ‘The Great Escape’, Blur soon tired of the game, looking to American art-rockers like Pavement for inspiration for their self-titled next album.
Oasis released the bloated, cocaine-fuelled ‘Be Here Now’ in 1997 – the sound of a band rapidly running out of ideas. Sales held up but their output suffered from gradually diminishing returns.
Pulp quietly slipped into dormancy, though – as perhaps the one truly original performer of the era – Jarvis Cocker retains the affection of the British public and is well on the way to becoming a national treasure.
So what of its legacy?
Well, despite its New Lad connotations, the Britpop era produced some significant female artists. Sleeper’s Louise Wener – now a successful novelist – showed you didn’t have to be a geezerbird to make it in the ‘90s, even if her opinions were often more interesting than her music.
Elastica fronted by Britpop It-girl Justine Frischmann – then partner of Blur’s Damon Albarn and former paramour of Suede’s Brett Anderson produced a fine single ‘Connection’ and self-titled debut album before imploding shortly after completing their second long player.
There were also inspiring contributions from the likes of Lush and Echobelly’s Sonya Madan.
The Britpop era produced a slew of sparkling singles; Suede’s ‘Animal Nitrate’, ‘Alright’ by Supergrass, Sleeper’s ‘Inbetweener’, ‘Girls and Boys’ (Blur), ‘Common People’ (Pulp) and ‘Wonderwall’ (Oasis) to name but a few.
But ‘Parklife’, (Blur) ‘Definitely Maybe’ (Oasis) and ‘His ‘n’ Hers’ (Pulp) aside – there weren’t many truly great albums, with perhaps only the Verve’s ‘Urban Hymns’ – released in the dying days of the movement – coming close to the mark.
The music was essentially backward-looking – drawing on the likes of The Kinks, The Beatles, Bolan, Bowie, The Smiths and the Sex Pistols, often sadly without really adding anything new.
Its influence on subsequent bands like Arctic Monkeys and The Libertines is undeniable, however for me this was a movement which flattered to deceive – shining and seductive on the surface, but with little of substance underneath.