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Britpop

Britpop is a subgenre of alternative rock that originated in the United Kingdom. Britpop emerged from the British independent music scene of the early 1990s and was characterised by bands influenced by British guitar pop music of the 1960s and 1970s. The movement developed as a reaction against various musical and cultural trends in the late 1980s and early 1990s, particularly the grunge phenomenon from the United States. In the wake of the musical invasion into the United Kingdom of American grunge bands such as Nirvana, many bands positioned themselves as opposing musical forces, referencing British guitar music of the past and writing about uniquely British topics and concerns. Oasis, Blur and Pulp are often considered the scene's most prominent acts.

Britpop groups brought British alternative rock into the mainstream and formed the backbone of a larger British cultural movement called "Cool Britannia". Although its more popular bands were able to spread their commercial success overseas, especially to America, the movement largely fell apart by the end of the decade.

Style, roots and influences

Britpop bands were influenced by British guitar music of the past, particularly British Invasion groups The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks, and The Small Faces; glam rock artists such as David Bowie and T. Rex; and punk rock bands like the The Jam, the Buzzcocks and Wire. Specific influences varied: Blur and Oasis drew from the Kinks and the Beatles, respectively, while Elastica had a fondness for arty punk rock. Regardless, all Britpop artists projected a sense of reverence for the sounds of the past.

Alternative rock acts from the 1980s and early 1990s indie scene were the direct ancestors of the Britpop movement. The influence of The Smiths was common to the majority of Britpop artists. The Madchester scene, fronted by The Stone Roses, Happy Mondays, and Inspiral Carpets (for whom Oasis' Noel Gallagher had worked as a roadie during the Madchester years), was the immediate root of Britpop since its emphasis on good times and catchy songs provided an alternative to shoegazing.

Stylistically, Britpop bands relied on catchy hooks and wrote lyrics that were meant to be relevant to British young people of their own generation. Britpop bands conversely denounced shoegazing and grunge as irrelevant and having nothing to say about their lives. Damon Albarn of Blur summed up the attitude in 1993 when after being asked if Blur was an "anti-grunge band" he said, "Well, that's good. If punk was about getting rid of hippies, then I'm getting rid of grunge." In spite of the professed disdain for the genres, some elements of both crept into the more enduring facets of Britpop. Noel Gallagher has since championed Ride (to the point of including Andy Bell in Oasis), and Martin Carr of the Boo Radleys has pointed out Dinosaur Jr's influence on their work. Noel Gallagher stated in a 1996 interview that Nirvana's Kurt Cobain was the only songwriter he had respect for in the last ten years, and that he felt their music was similar enough that Cobain could have written "Wonderwall".

The imagery associated with Britpop was equally British and working class. Music critic Jon Savage asserted that Britpop was "an outer-suburban, middle-class fantasy of central London streetlife, with exclusively metropolitan models. Suede's lyrics and videos dealt with the seedier side of suburban and sink estate life. In their early career, Blur introduced another critical element of the Britpop movement - a mod-influenced 1960s view of English life, portrayed through a clear lyrical narrative, in stark contrast to the previous shoegazing and Madchester scenes. Blur's promotion of Modern Life Is Rubbish also prefigured the rise in male working class values within the media, with the band in press photos straining to control a pitbull terrier, and the words "British image no 1" graffitied on a wall behind them. This rise of unabashed maleness, exemplified by Loaded magazine and lad culture in general, would be very much part of the Britpop era. The Union Flag also became a prominent symbol of the movement, and its use as a symbol of pride and nationalism contrasted deeply with the controversy that erupted just a few short years before when former Smiths singer Morrissey performed draped in it. The emphasis on British reference points made it difficult for the genre to achieve success in the US.

History

Origins and first years

The origins of Britpop lie primarily in the indie scene of the early 1990s, and in particular around a group of bands involved in a vibrant social scene focused in the Camden Town area of London. This scene was dubbed "The Scene That Celebrates Itself" by Melody Maker. Some members of this scene (Blur, Lush, Suede) would go on to play a leading part in Britpop. Others such as Kingmaker, Slowdive, Spitfire and Ride would not. The dominant musical force of the period was the grunge invasion from the United States, which filled the void left in the indie scene by the Stone Roses' inactivity.

Journalist John Harris has suggested that Britpop began when Blur's single "Popscene" and Suede's "The Drowners" were released around the same time in the spring of 1992. He stated, "[I]f Britpop started anywhere, it was the deluge of acclaim that greeted Suede's first records: all of them audacious, successful and very, very British". Suede was the first of the new crop of guitar-oriented bands to be embraced by the UK music media as Britain's answer to Seattle's grunge sound. Their debut album Suede became the fastest-selling debut album in the history of the UK. In April 1993, Select magazine featured Suede's lead singer Brett Anderson on the cover with a Union Flag in the background and the headline "Yanks go home!". The issue included features on Suede, The Auteurs, Denim, Saint Etienne and Pulp and helped forment the idea of an emerging movement.

Blur, a group that formerly mixed elements of shoegazing and baggy, took on an Anglocentric aesthetic with its second album Modern Life is Rubbish (1993). Blur's new approach was inspired by their tour of the United States in the spring of 1992. During the tour, frontman Damon Albarn began to resent American culture and found the need to comment on that culture's influence seeping into Britain. Albarn's girlfriend Justine Frischmann (formerly of Suede and leader of Elastica) explained, "Damon and I felt like we were in the thick of it at that point [. . .] it occurred to us that Nirvana were out there, and people were very interested in American music, and there should be some sort of manifesto for the return of Britishness. John Harris wrote in an NME article just prior to the release of Modern Life is Rubbish, "[Blur's] timing has been fortuitously perfect. Why? Because, as with baggies and shoegazers, loud, long-haired Americans have just found themselves condemned to the ignominious corner labeled 'yesterday's thing'". The music press also fixated on what the NME had dubbed the New Wave of New Wave (or 'NWONW'), a term applied to the more punk-derivative acts such as Elastica, S*M*A*S*H and These Animal Men.

While Modern Life is Rubbish was a moderate success, it was Blur's third album Parklife that made them arguably the most popular band in the UK in 1994. Parklife continued the fiercely British nature of its predecessor, and coupled with the death of Nirvana's Kurt Cobain in April of that year it seemed that British alternative rock had finally turned back the tide of grunge dominance. That same year Oasis released their debut album Definitely Maybe, which broke Suede's record for fastest-selling debut album.

The movement was soon dubbed Britpop. The term "Britpop" had been used in the late 1980s (in Sounds magazine by journalist, Goldblade frontman and TV pundit John Robb referring to bands such as The La's, Stone Roses, Inspiral Carpets and The Bridewell Taxis). "Britpop" arose around the same time as the term "Britart" (which referred to the work of British modern artists such as Damien Hirst). However, it would not be until 1994 when the term entered the popular consciousness, being used extensively by the music press and radio DJs. A rash of bands emerged aligned with the new movement. At the start of 1995 Britpop bands including Sleeper, Supergrass, and Menswear scored pop hits. Elastica released their debut album Elastica that March; its first week sales surpassed the record set by Definitely Maybe the previous year. The scene around Camden Town was now seen as a musical centre; frequented by Britpop groups like Blur, Elastica, and Menswear, Melody Maker declared "Camden is to 1995 what Seattle was to 1992, what Manchester was to 1989, and what Mr Blobby was to 1993.

Peak of success

A chart battle between Blur and Oasis dubbed "The Battle of Britpop" brought Britpop to the forefront of the British press in 1995. The bands had initially praised each other but over the course of the year antagonisms between the two increased. Spurred on by the media, the groups became prime contenders in what the NME dubbed on the cover of its 12 August issue the "British Heavyweight Championship" with the pending release of Oasis' single "Roll with It" and Blur's "Country House" on the same day.

The battle pitted the two bands against each other, with the conflict as much about British class and regional divisions as much as it was about music. Oasis were taken as representing the North of England, while Blur represented the South. The event caught the public's imagination and gained mass media attention in national newspapers, tabloids, and even the BBC News. The NME wrote about the phenomeon, "Yes, in a week where news leaked that Saddam Hussein was preparing nuclear weapons, everyday folks were still getting slaughtered in Bosnia and Mike Tyson was making his comeback, tabloids and broadsheets alike went Britpop crazy. Blur won the battle of the bands, selling 274,000 copies to Oasis' 216,000 - the songs charting at number one and number two respectively. However, in the long-run Oasis became more successful than Blur. Unlike Blur, Oasis was able to achieve commercial success in the United States thanks to the single "Wonderwall". Oasis's second album (What's the Story) Morning Glory? (1995) eventually sold over four million copies in the UK, becoming the third best-selling album in British history.

Oasis's prominence was such that NME termed a number of Britpop bands (including The Boo Radleys, Ocean Colour Scene and Cast) as "Noelrock", citing Gallagher's influence on their success. John Harris typified this wave of Britpop bands, and Gallagher, of sharing "a dewy-eyed love of the 1960s, a spurning of much beyond rock's most basic ingredients, and a belief in the supremacy of 'real music'". Starting on 10 August 1996, Oasis played a two-night set at Knebworth to a combined number of 250,000 people.

During this time the new electioneering saw the emergence of the young leader of the Labour Party - Tony Blair. Blair represented the new face of the dreams and wishes of the British counterculture and many acts like Oasis admired him. Noel Gallagher also appeared on several official meetings - even being invited to Downing Street on one occasion, along with Alan McGee from Creation Records - and expressed his support for Blair.

Decline

Oasis' third album Be Here Now (1997) was highly anticipated. Despite initially attracting positive review and selling strongly, the record was soon subjected to strong criticism from music critics, record-buyers and even Noel Gallagher himself for its overproduced and bloated sound. Music critic Jon Savage pinpointed Be Here Now as the moment where Britpop ended; Savage said that while the album "isn't the great disaster that everybody says," he noted that "[i]t was supposed to be the big, big triumphal record" of the period. Conversely, Blur's fifth album, the self-titled Blur, was well-received by critics—partly because it showcased a stylistic evolution for the band. The band moved away from their Parklife-era sound, and their music began to assimilate American lo-fi influences, particularly that of Pavement. Damon Albarn explained to the NME in January 1997 that "We created a movement: as far as the lineage of British bands goes, there'll always be a place for us", but added, "We genuinely started to see that world in a slightly different way.

As the movement began to slow down, many acts began to falter. Though some acts found success with more challenging records—such as Pulp's This Is Hardcore, Supergrass' In It for the Money and Cornershop's When I Was Born for the 7th Time—many acts found the pressure too great and split, or simply faded from the limelight. Elastica fell victim to drug abuse and did not follow up its 1995 debut album until 1999. Menswear also failed to follow up their debut, Nuisance, and split. In the aftermath of Britpop only Blur and Oasis emerged with their large fanbases more or less intact, Blur by moving away from the Britpop sound at the critical moment that the movement imploded and Oasis by dint of their incredibly loyal following built on years of touring. By contrast Pulp struggled to repeat their former success with subsequent albums and interest in bands such as Cast, Ocean Colour Scene and Shed Seven evaporated almost overnight. Some of the bands, sensing their time in the spotlight was up, split whilst others continued recording and releasing records in the face of dwindling sales and critical apathy. Furthermore, many of the newer acts the record industry rushed to sign during the heyday of Britpop sank without trace.

While established acts struggled, attention began to turn to the likes of Radiohead and The Verve, who had been previously overlooked by the British media. These two bands—in particular Radiohead—showed considerably more esoteric influences from the 1960s and 1970s, influences that were uncommon among earlier Britpop acts. While Radiohead had found commercial success their 1993 single "Creep" and commercial and critical success with 1995s The Bends, they had attracted little positive attention from the likes of the NME. Conversely, the Verve had enjoyed positive reviews, but little success. In 1997, Radiohead and The Verve released their respective efforts OK Computer and Urban Hymns, both of which were and remain widely acclaimed.

Aftermath

Blur continued to move away from the movement with their subsequent releases, parting company first with long-time producer Stephen Street in 1997 and eventually with guitarist Graham Coxon in May 2002 during sessions to record their latest album, 2003's Think Tank. Coxon later reunited with Street to record his most successful solo albums. Damon Albarn found enormous worldwide success in the 2000s with his electronica/hip hop-influenced project Gorillaz and an unnamed super group who released the album The Good, the Bad and the Queen which featured Simon Tong (formerly of The Verve) and Paul Simonon from legendary punk band The Clash. In September 2007, the band reunited with Coxon, though further studio work remain distant possibility.

In 1999, the Verve broke up with frontman Richard Ashcroft embarking on a critically acclaimed solo career. On 26 June 2007 Jo Whiley, on BBC Radio 1, announced the reunion of The Verve's original line-up. The band embarked on a sell-out UK tour and released an album of new material in 2008 which debuted at #1 on the UK albums chart.

Oasis remain popular, but entered a period of inactivity following Be Here Now. While recording the follow-up in 1999, they suffered after parting company with founding members Bonehead and Guigsy, replaced respectively by Gem Archer (Heavy Stereo) and Andy Bell (Ride). In 2004 longtime drummer and member Alan White left and was replaced by Zak Starkey (Ringo Starr's son), leaving only the Gallagher brothers as original members from the Britpop era. Regardless of line-up changes, Oasis along with Supergrass are the only bands who continue to release notable records on any regular basis, of the many bands who helped propel Britpop in the mid-90s. Both bands released commercially successful albums into the millennium with Oasis' Don't Believe the Truth (2005) reaching #1 and Supergrass' Diamond Hoo Ha (2008) peaking at #19 in the UK charts.

Suede released two more albums in 1999 (Head Music) and 2002 (A New Morning), before eventually breaking up in 2003 . Brett Anderson reunited briefly with Bernard Butler in 2004 in the formation The Tears, who released an album Here Come the Tears the following year. Anderson has since released his first solo self-titled album. Pulp followed up 1998's This Is Hardcore in 2001 with the Scott Walker-produced We Love Life. Afterwards they entered an extended hiatus from which they have yet to emerge. Jarvis Cocker reemerged in late 2006 with a well-received solo self-titled album Jarvis that featured other ex-members of Pulp. When interviewed, Cocker said that he saw no reason to reunite the band at the moment.

See also

References

  • Cavanagh, David. The Creation Records Story: My Magpie Eyes Are Hungry for the Prize, 2001.
  • Harris, John. Britpop!: Cool Britannia and the Spectacular Demise of English Rock. Da Capo Press, 2004. ISBN 0-306-81367-X
  • Harris, John. "Modern Life is Brilliant!" NME. January 7, 1995.
  • Live Forever: The Rise and Fall of Brit Pop. Passion Pictures, 2004.

Footnotes

External links

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