A recent Guardian article drew the attention to this.
A comprehensive guide to the Britpop years. Hey, everybody! Remember ‘Britpop’? Crap, wasn’t it?
“Well, that depends”, you may respond, “on whether you construct a picture of an era from various sell-through compilations and poorly-recalled media events or whether you maintain a vivid, quasi-synesthetic recollection of the era in your own imagination.”
Growing up in small country town in an unfashionable corner of England and clowning through a poorly-rehearsed adolescence at the time, music was more of a balm than a lifestyle choice. I fall into that latter group. Glancing over the track listing of Common People, then, two things leap forth:
- The era does not require a three-disc retrospective.
- Despite having moments, the track listing is terrifying.
So, how can such a period of musical history be boiled down into a disappointing Ragu of nothing?
“Because it was crap”, so the footnote goes. “Besides, I was heavily into Bark Psychosis and Autcehre at the time.”
In fact, it was great. But great in spite of, not because of, Echobelly. All manner of strange and joyful things were taking place. There was every kind of exciting, forward-looking music, the kind which would manage to remain gleefully entertaining and which, while perhaps being less commercially successful as other times could, at the very least, have expected to find itself on a three-disc compilation in 2009.
Recently, I read somewhere of John Peel’s negative influence during the punk years. How essentially what began as a DIY explosion of enthusiasm became one man’s idea of what was and was not cool. Likewise, would Ocean Colour Scene’s ‘The Riverboat Song’ still be licensed for a compilation in 2009 were it not for Chris Evans? Whatever the probable outcome, there’s little arguing that a certain template was set and media coverage duly granted to the bands, labels and writers who elected to, in the words of Lester Freamon, follow the money.
History therefore records that popular British music of the 1990s was, for the most part, fairly derivative guitar music, derived if not from some distant iconic touchstone, then from one another. Your scene leaders – your Blur, Pulp, Elastica, Suede, Oasis – clearly distinguish themselves from this, but what of the supporting cast, the seething mass of pond life in the garden of the Britpop house party? Why are Geneva, Powder and Shed Seven considered representatives of a decade, even on a three-CD set? Nobody EVER listened to Shed Seven. Even Shed Seven probably preferred Gene.
Let us apportion blame. Let us lay it at the door of the long defunct Melody Maker who, in July 1995, decided that standardisation was in order.
Up to around that point, it was anyone’s guess where things were going. It’s well documented that British folk were buying home grown British music again after a period of American domination, (though this in itself is clearly another fallacy, but that’s another story for another time). The fact is, all kinds of British music was shifting. Stern-faced crusties The Levellers and electro-boffins Orbital were playing to as many people as Suede, Tricky and Tindersticks and were on as many magazine covers. And the music was duly cross-pollinating. Remix work for the Chemical Brothers, guitars lurking on dance floor tunes by Underworld or FSOL. Everyone was on Top Of The Pops, whether they wanted to be or not.
Melody Maker called time on this. Publishing that cover feature on Britpop gave a name to something which previously had been an amorphous groundswell, and the feature itself divided the then current welter of artists into three tiers; those to watch, those to tolerate and those that were shit. Those not included were definitely not Britpop. One magazine’s idea of what was and was not cool, set in stone. ‘One poorly selling magazine’s idea’, you may retort, but an idea which has nonetheless endured.
Everything else that happened has been covered in great depth. What it all adds up to is, even with 54 tracks and five or six years to cast a net over, that the end result bears little or no resemblance to the period as I remember it. The net, apparently, is full of holes.
So with the aid of Spotify I have constructed a (one-disc) playlist which I think resets the balance a little bit and maybe captures a little bit of the unpredictability. If you were too young for it, or if you’ve somehow forgotten everything, the actual period was far more fun than Commerical Marketing, Melody Maker of Kula fucking Shaker would have you believe.
So – please enjoy British music of a specific period in the 1990s