Sorted! A Beginner’s Guide to Britpop

Sorted! A Beginner’s Guide to Britpop

The songs, the moments, the performances, and the Gallagher quotes that made Britannia cool in the mid-90s.

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Defining Britpop:

While retrospect allows for a clearer idea of what music history has now defined as Britpop, coming up with a name for the explosion of guitar bands that emerged on the British music scene in the early to mid-1990s was much more difficult at the time. For the most part, ground zero is considered to be the April 1993 issue of Select magazine that featured a cover with Brett Anderson of Suede in front of a Union Jack and the headline “Yanks, go home!” The implication was that Britain had found its own chart-topping pop stars and that the Seattle-based Grunge scene that had influenced the sound of most of the American bands that had held sway over the pop music scene were now being supplanted by an emerging British sound that was uniquely un-American. Indeed, a close read of Blur’s 1993 album Modern Life is Rubbish reveals how Damon Albarn, the band’s lead singer/songwriter, was openly rejecting the imposition of American culture while at the same time embracing all things British. Similarly, Suede’s self-titled debut album presents images and characters that are uniquely London-centric, and it would quickly become clear that this new desire to celebrate and represent all things British would be key to the success of the new crop of bands touring the country and looking for record contracts.

In 1994, Oasis released their debut album Definitely Maybe, while Blur released their most successful album to date, Parklife. These two albums and their accompanying singles dominated the British music charts, knocking American bands to the curb. It was around this time that the term “Britpop” was being used by the music press to describe the new trend in British music, much of which was inspired by British Invasion bands from the 1960s like The Beatles, The Who, The Rolling Stones, and The Kinks. 1995 saw the release of critically praised debut albums by Elastica, Sleeper, Gene, and Menswear, as well as well-reviewed follow up albums by Oasis, Blur, Pulp, and Suede. By this point, it was difficult to find any non-British bands on the music charts or covered in the British music press at all. This would be the peak year of Britpop, and the Glastonbury music festival of 1995 would prove to be the epoch of the entire era as headlining sets by Oasis and Pulp would come to define that year. But by 1996, the tide would start to turn as the over-saturation of Britpop references would become more of a curse than a blessing for a lot of the bands who had found fame under that banner, many of whom never wanted to be associated with it in the first place. Redefining their sound too much (like Pulp and Blur) or not enough (like Oasis and Ocean Colour Scene) would now invite more criticism from the music press, although that wouldn’t necessarily result in lower album sales. Still, it was clearly the end of an era, manifested perhaps most significantly in the career arc of Oasis, who after their meteoric rise through 1994 and 1995 would return in 1996 with the dull, over-bloated, expensively produced Be Here Now, an album whose songs are as uninteresting as the album’s title. It’s not exactly un-listenable, but it’s certainly a disappointing follow-up to their albums from the previous years, and it’s debatable whether the band would produce anything as captivating as those first two albums ever again. This story became synonymous with many of the bands of that era (Sleeper, Elastica, Pulp, Blur, Suede, Menswear, Ocean Colour Scene, Gene) who would go on to produce albums (some great, some not so much so) that simply lost people’s interest and flew under the radar, ultimately resulting in the bands disappearing into obscurity or just straight up calling it quits.

And while music was at the center of Britpop, it should also be noted that there was a broader cultural movement taking place that was indirectly tied to the idea of Britpop. Coinciding with the gradual fall of the British Conservative party under John Major (the heir apparent to the 1980s Iron Lady herself, Margaret Thatcher) and the rise of Tony Blair’s Labour party (he would become head of Labour in 1994, and then go on to become the youngest British Prime Minister of the 20th Century with their landslide election victory in 1997) and its campaign of New Labour for a new England, the UK found itself with a strong currency, a thriving economy, and a freshly optimistic youth culture. All things British suddenly became popular, and the style of Mod culture (think Ben Sherman shirts, Fred Perry polos, Doc Martins, and Vespas and Lambrettas emblazoned with Union Jacks) and other aspects of swinging 60s London became the visual language of Britpop. But there was a darker side as well, which was manifested through the “lad culture” that tended to dominate the Britpop scene. This involved adopting a social position that saw middle-class men embracing the ethos commonly associated with working-class thinking, which was anti-intellectual, sexist, and celebratory of excessive drinking, football hooliganism, and violence. New men’s magazines like Loaded promoted this movement, and eventually films, television shows, and advertising would follow. It was clear as well that this division was occurring in the music that defined Britpop, and it was most prominently demonstrated in the “Blur vs Oasis Rivalry” of 1995.

When Oasis released their debut album Definitely Maybe in 1994, Blur released Parklife, their third album. However, as both albums were so significant to the rise of Britpop and as both generated a healthy collection of singles that sat on the music charts throughout most of 1994, it was with much anticipation and not a little bit of clever marketing that the race for the top of the pop charts would be established when it was announced that both bands would be releasing a new single on August 14, 1995. The two big music papers, the NME and Melody Maker, turned this “coincidence” into a full-on rivalry, and much of the year leading up to the release of the two singles was built on the Team Blur vs Team Oasis battle. Musically the two bands are remarkably different, and it was believed that so too were their fans. Blur were represented as an upper-middle-class, well-educated London band who wrote clever songs with witty lyrics for posh college kids and art students, while Oasis were represented as a working-class band from the northern industrial city of Manchester who wrote straightforward, heart on your sleeve songs about living a better life and going out and having a good time with your mates for an audience of lager lads and football fans. Whether these demographic details lined up was irrelevant to the story being created in the press, and the band members themselves were hounded and harassed with questions about this rivalry rather than about the actual music they were producing. As for who won the rivalry (aside from the music papers)? Blur’s single “Country House” outsold Oasis’ single “Roll With It” on the day of release, but the latter’s album (What’s the Story) Morning Glory would vastly outsell Blur’s The Great Escape; as well, Oasis would translate that success across the Atlantic, breaking the American market in a way Blur was never able to (and never would, as it happened). But what was really established through this rivalry was the idea that you could be a fan of Blur or you could be a fan of Oasis, but you couldn’t be both as they were (supposedly) diametrically opposed. Complete nonsense, obviously, but the idea of class conflict is so entrenched in British society that this rivalry essentially wrote itself. The working-class heroes of the North pitted against the art school intellectuals of the South is simply another way of explaining why Britain was and still is a society divided, and the fact that both bands bought right into this back in 1995 goes some way to demonstrating why Britpop was more than just another era in music history.

Legendary Performances:

Glastonbury ’95

featuring Oasis headlining the Main Stage on the Friday night and Pulp on Saturday night, while over on the NME stage performers included Elastica, Belly, The Prodigy, The Charlatans, Gene, Sleeper, Supergrass, Menswear, and The Verve

The Phoenix Festival, 1995

featuring a Friday night headlining set by Suede and a Sunday evening headlining set by Paul Weller, as well as performances by Tricky, Edwyn Collins, The Verve, and Underworld

Knebworth Park, August 1996

Oasis played two nights here, covering material from their first three albums (Definitely Maybe, (What’s the Story) Morning Glory, and Be Here Now) to more than 250,000 fans.

Notable Quotes by The Brothers Gallagher

“Everyone knows if you’ve got a brother, you’re going to fight” – Liam Gallagher

The onstage and offstage antics of Oasis members Liam Gallagher (lead singer) and Noel Gallagher (guitarist and main songwriter) were notorious and well documented by the music press of the day. The Gallaghers took shots at other bands, the media, and even audiences, but mainly they criticized each other. Here are some of their finer moments:

“Phil Collins has got to be chased out of the charts, and Wet Wet Wet. It’s the only way to do it, man, to fucking get in there among them and stamp the fuckers out.” (Noel)

“I heard that fucking Radiohead record and I just go, ‘What?!’ I like to think that what we do we do fucking well. Them writing a song about a fucking tree? Give me a fucking break!” (Liam)

“Liam is rude, arrogant, intimidating, and lazy. He’s the angriest man you’ll ever meet. He’s like a man with a fork in a world of soup.” (Noel)

“People think I’m a fucking lunatic, but Noel can be a little bitch too.” (Liam)

“We’re not arrogant, we just believe we’re the best band in the world.” (Noel)

“Name one rock star in Britain apart from a member of Oasis. Name one!” (Liam)

“Americans are crazy. They have this fascination with throwing their shoes on stage. I’ve been to a lot of shows in my life, some good, some bad. But I was never moved to take off my shoe and throw it at the lead singer.” (Noel)

“Americans want grungy people, stabbing themselves in the head on stage. They get a bright bunch like us, with deodorant on, they don’t get it.” (Liam)

“With every song that I write, I compare it to the Beatles. The thing is, they only got there before me. If I’d been born at the same time as John Lennon, I’d have been up there.” (Noel)

“I suppose I do get sad, but not for too long. I just look in the mirror and go ‘What a good-looking fuck you are.’ And then I brighten up.” (Liam)

Under-appreciated Bands from the Britpop Era:

Ocean Colour Scene

Key Albums: Moseley Shoals (1996), Marchin’ Already (1997)

A band sanctioned by the likes of Paul Weller and Noel Gallagher, OCS represented a truer throwback sound than either of those artists, creating music in the vein of British Invasion bands of the 1960s while adhering to a Mod styling. It was their second album, Moseley Shoals, that positioned OCS for a remarkable career, but, unable to break America or to reach a substantial audience outside of the UK, the band faltered, occasionally showing up on soundtracks (Guy Ritchie was a fan) or 90s collections.


Key Albums: Olympian (1995), Libertine (2001)

Written off almost immediately as a Smiths-wannabe band, Gene came out of the gates with a stellar debut album and live performances that suggested there was much more swagger behind this band than the marketing material and singles covers might lead people to believe. True, lead singer Martin Rossiter had a fey kind of Morrissey-esque approach to interviews, but Gene were anything but twee, as single “Sleep Well Tonight” easily demonstrates.


Key Albums: Smart (1995), The It Girl (1996)

Sleeper showed remarkable progression as they went from their debut album to their sophomore effort. Lead singer/songwriter Louise Wener would work hard to shake off the media label of being just another heavy touring female-fronted Britpop guitar band with a few good singles, producing instead songs characterized with clever social criticisms, great hooks, and catchy melodies, all very much like fellow era stalwarts Blur, but mysteriously without the same fame or critical acclaim.

Read about Foster's experience as a young lad at The Phoenix festival in 1995 in A Britpop Fan’s View from the Crowd




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