Illustration by Jack Dylan
New Labour. The Premier League. Britpop. Nineties Britain seemed to be a place of change, modernity and optimism. How much this was the case has since been debated, with some looking at the period with nostalgia, and others disparaging it. The fact that Britpop is still present in youth culture through Film,Fashion and new music signify it's continued influence as a cultural movement and a genre, for both people who were and were not there at the time.
Above: Oasis Credit:Michel Linssen
Britpop very much looked backwards to find inspiration, from light influences to plagiarism, which Noel Gallagher and Oasis were sued for on three separate occasions. The eighties Madchester movement and bands such as The La’s and The Smiths have been cited as influences on Britpop. However, bands also looked further back to the sixties, with Oasis’ well documented obsession with The Beatles.
The Guardian’s Michael Hann offers the interesting opinion, that the Italia 90' World Cup was needed for Britpop to happen, as John Barnes’ rap in World in Motion, Gazza’s tears and England reaching the Semi-Finals meant that imagery of working class “lad” culture was no longer associated with negative aspects such as hooliganism. How accurate this is appears to be rather unclear, but it also could be seen to have led to a change in the way patriotism was viewed in Britain. Previously associated with things such as the National Front, with Morrissey being criticised, arguably fairly given his comments since, for performing draped in the Union Flag. But now patriotism was being celebrated, christening the movement and providing much of its imagery. The nineties were seen as a time where change was needed, away from Thatcherism, hooliganism and American dominance of the music scene in Britain and the world. Britpop was able to link all three, with its use of football imagery and culture, and the reciprocated support of New Labour. It was able to have a huge impact on the UK charts, although Pulp, Blur and Suede only had two number one singles between them.
Above: The La's
The term ‘Britpop’ had previously been used by music journalist John Robb to describe The La’s, The Stone Roses and Inspiral Carpets, but has since come to define the later movement of the likes of Blur, Oasis, Pulp and Elastica. The event which is seen to have marked the start of Britpop was Suede’s appearance on the cover of Select magazine, with the caption “Yanks go home!”,with a Union Flag background. Blur’s second album, ‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’, celebrated the group towards a more ‘British’ sound, and a year later in 1994 they extended such a sound successfully with ‘Parklife’. With songs often about the humdrum of everyday lives, work and relationship issues, with a distinctly Cockney feel, particularly on the title track. Another band with a strong civic identity were Oasis, who released their debut album ‘Definitely Maybe’ in the same year, and thus started one of the most famous, if at least partially manufactured, music rivalries of all time. The album was the fastest selling debut album of all time when it was released, and went straight to number one. Despite the Gallagher’s fractious relationship, the band went on to achieve seven more number one albums, and 8 number one singles. This rivalry came to a head when the bands released singles on the same day. Blur’s 1995 hit ‘Country House’ went up against Oasis’ ‘Roll With It’ in a battle for chart supremacy that even made the national news. Blur won the battle, but who won the war is debated still.
Although coming from a working class background was used by many Britpop bands, particularly Oasis, Pulp were the most lyrically class conscious of them all. This is famously true of their 1995 hit ‘Common People’, and the rest of ‘Different Class’ is in much of the same vein. Although excluded from the Blur vs Oasis dichotomy, Pulp are regarded by many as musically more established than both. Perhaps this is why they were seen by many as not quite fitting within the Britpop movement. Despite Britpop often being associated with the laddishness of the likes of Liam Gallagher, there were many female fronted Britpop bands, including Elastica and Sleeper. Elastica’s music was different to the archetypal Britpop sound, with its roots in Post-Punk. This highlights the fact that Britpop was more of a cultural movement than a musical genre, therefore seeing it as being solely comprised of Blur, Oasis, Pulp and knock-off versions of those bands is unfair.
Above: Oasis at Knebworth
Two key events, both relating to Oasis, are seen to signal the decline of Britpop. The first of these was the group’s gigs at Knebworth, for which roughly 1 in 20 people in the UK applied for tickets. The scale of this was extraordinary, but also signalled that Britpop could no longer realistically claim to be alternative. Another was the release of 1997 album ‘Be Here Now’. Although the album sold well, it was seen as disappointing compared to their two previous albums. Despite some recent revisionism of this by the likes of the NME, many still believe that the album sums up the excesses of Britpop, with the band having lost their songwriting edge in a haze of cocaine and egomania. Today Britpop remains divisive, with some viewing it as bringing nothing new to the table and appealing to the lowest common denominator, and others pointing to classic albums such as ‘Parklife’ and ‘Definitely Maybe’, and the fact it shifted the centre of the rock musical world back to Britain.