Common People: The Britpop Story
, June 19th, 2009 08:23
You can't help the era you're born into. It's not my fault I turned eighteen at the dawn of 1994, just as Blur donned their suits and Elastica, These Animal Men and S*M*A*S*H were releasing their debut singles.
Today's appetite for red, white and blue-tinted nostalgia suggests that back in the mid 90s this was all that was going on. It wasn't — or certainly no more than Kaiser Chiefs and Razorlight were the sound of, say, 2006. Musical taste is not a rigidly ghettoised entity, so for me, and many more who came of age during the Britpop era, these bands were just a small part of our musical discoveries.
Yet still, slipping on this accurate 54-song, Universal-compiled 3CD retrospective that brings together the good, the bad and pug-ugly in equal proportions, there is one unavoidable fact: I went out and bought half these songs upon release. Indulge me while I get personal for a second, but these were the songs I took speed for the first time to (contrary to popular belief, no-one could afford cocaine in 1995). I jumped trains to London to go see these bands live, I rubbed shoulders with them in Britpop hot-spots like Blow Up at The Laurel Tree (and later The Wag), George and Nicky's greasy spoon café on Parkway and Popscene at the LA2. I once blagged my way into a Marion gig by pretending I was their (teenage) publicist, persuaded Brett Anderson to put me his on his guestlist, argued politics with Ed from SMASH, had a little dance with Leon from Northern Uproar down the Heavenly Social and stood alongside Hooligan and his Animal Men when some Geordies took umbrage at their eyeliner.
All of which tells us two things: I was cheeky little bastard and history, however much we try and re-write it, cannot be ignored. Some of the songs featured here matter to people. They soundtracked an era.
But what was the era defined by, exactly? It wasn't Tony Blair, Chris Evans and Cool Britannia — predictably, that all came along about two years too late. It wasn't Blur or Oasis either, the only two bands who still moan about the Britpop tag that made their careers and the only two bands of the era notable by their absence here.
Instead, Britpop was the NW1 noir of The Auteurs, the overlooked La's re-tread of Cast. It was Bluetones, Menswear, Powder. You may well laugh — and I'm laughing as I type this — but some of these songs stand up today. That they may have been the one good song each band produced is beside the point.
There's plenty of dog shit too, of course — all those bands who got swept up in the signing frenzy of 1996-1997, bands like Hurricane #1, Geneva, Seahorses, Rialto, Monaco and theaudience, all of whom feature here.
Britpop had many more downsides: the parochialism, the arrogance, the blind self-belief, the laddishness, a sense of conservatism that would make the then-Tory government proud and, more than anything, the opinion that all American music was worthless. How wrong they were, and how silly Blur looked when they did a U-turn during their Pavement-inspired late 90s era.
But in amongst the memories of sore nostrils, sore cocks and the many preening herberts who got signed on their strength of their sideburns alone, there remains some good music. Contributions from The Auteurs, Suede, Supergrass, Pulp, Marion, These Animal Men and overlooked nuggets from the likes of Longpigs, Salad, Kenickie and — yes — Menswear all stand the test of time.
Britpop died the moment Oasis released the dismal ‘Roll With It'. Or maybe it came earlier, when Bernard Butler left Suede, or the Stone Roses released a disappointing second album. Either way by mid 1996 — the exact moment I began writing for Melody Maker, in fact — the best had passed. But for about eighteen months, in those dark, pre-internet days, there was a lot of fun to be had out there in indie land.