I’ve reached that age where things that happened 20 years ago are not just in my lifetime but are active in my memory. Admittedly I was only 10 in 1995, but it sticks in my mind as the time when I was first really getting into music. I had realised that the pop nonsense of Smash Hits was not my bag and had started to read the NME and, when my parents weren’t looking, Kerrang! A whole world of new music was opening up to me.
In 1995 this brave new world was dominated by one genre: Britpop. A very British phenomenon, unsurprisingly, the bands involved harked back to the legendary sounds of the ’60s and ’70s, notably The Beatles and The Kinks. In 1994, Blur released Parklife, considered by many to be the first proper Britpop album. In September 1995, they followed it up with The Great Escape, just in time to go toe-to-toe with Oasis, the other Britpop heavyweights who were preparing to release (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? in October. The latter were to get the win in the short term – sales for the album in the first week of release topped 347,000 and they went on to play immense gigs at Knebworth in ’96 – but Blur rode the Britpop wave better.
Always the more artistically-minded of the two bands, Blur’s output stands the test of time in a way that much of the Oasis back catalogue cannot match. Indeed, Damon Albarn has managed to rebrand himself as a world music guru, while the response to the Gallaghers’ recent outings has been tepid at best. Shall we call it honours even?
Britpop became part of popular culture in a way that few musical genres could ever hope to emulate. The ‘Britpop wars’ were a mainstay of the tabloid front pages, and the lad culture of beer and Britannia leaked into the TV and film of the era too. Check out The Big Breakfast and Trainspotting if you’re not sure what I mean. The interesting counterpoint to this is that a lot of the music that defined the era has been forgotten. Like all fads, the genre provided a whole host of one-hit-wonders and hangers-on who were never going to stay the course; however, there were also some great artists whose association with Britpop managed to be both the best and the worst thing that happened to their careers.
Below are five of my favourite acts who survived the excesses of Cool Britannia and are still making exciting music:
Morriss was frontman for one of the more whimsical Britpop acts, The Bluetones. With their jangly indie guitars and English wit, they continued to make albums until 2011 and have only recently reformed for a UK tour. In the meantime, Morriss has been working as a solo artist. While his distinctive vocals remain, the music is more folksy than that of The Bluetones, a bit darker. In addition, Morriss has been playing with The Maypoles, the band fronted by comedian Matt Berry of The IT Crowd fame. That might sound like a terrible idea, but the music is genuinely interesting, folk music that sometimes exudes the atmosphere of a horror film from the 1970s. Morriss has a solo tour on the go, as well as tours with The Bluetones and The Maypoles this year, making him one of the busiest Britpop survivors still on the scene.
The former Auteurs frontman said what he needed to say about Britpop in his divisive 2009 book ‘Bad Vibes: Britpop and My Part in Its Downfall’. Whether in his books or his lyrics, Haines’ writing has always been witty, misanthropic and eccentric, making his solo work close to impossible to categorise. There’s a whole lot of it too, with each album having a very different feel and theme. For instance, there’s a concept album about wrestling called 9½ Psychedelic Meditations on British Wrestling of the 1970s and early ’80s, while his most recent solo work is a ‘micro opera’ called Adventures in Dementia. There are spoken word interludes, epic titles (‘A Badger Called Nick Lowe’) and lyrics that veer from hilarious to super creepy, often on the same song. Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Britpop any more.
Supergrass were fun, weren’t they? Songs like ‘Alright’ and ‘Pumping on Your Stereo’ were so much a part of the fabric of music in the ’90s, particularly for the teen audience, that there was always a danger that they would struggle to become anything more mature. However, Supergrass were still releasing records as late as 2008, and had developed a bluesier, more mellow vibe by then. Gaz Coombes’ solo work could come as a shock to those unfamiliar with these later albums, particularly as the lyrical content and sound is decidedly downbeat. This year’s release Matador has an electro backbone, and is a startlingly beautiful and human album. We might not be laughing any more but we’re left with something much much greater.
Many of the women of Britpop have moved onto other things. Justine Frischmann of Elastica fame is now an artist in the States and Sleeper’s Louise Wener is a respected writer. However, Sarah Cracknell, formerly of oft-maligned Saint Etienne, is now releasing some of the best music of her career. Saint Etienne were all girly vocals and indie pop; Cracknell now, like so many of the former Britpop stalwarts, has taken a slightly folkier approach. 2015 album Red Kite showcases Cracknell’s soft vocals, which sound much more mature and less affected than in the Saint Etienne days. It’s largely a gentle album but songs like ‘I’m Not Your Enemy’ show that she retains her old pop sensibility.
Manic Street Preachers
For the record, the Manics are probably my favourite band in the whole world so this is unlikely to be an objective review. The Welsh legends seemed to get labelled as Britpop solely through being British male musicians, but their output has always been more varied and interesting than that. 1995 fell between two very distinct albums – the abrasive The Holy Bible and first post-Richie album Everything Must Go – and marked the move towards more chart-friendly fare for the band. However, after the Britpop wall fell, they carried on, with each album having a different sound from the last while remaining recognisably MSP. Take the 2013 and ’14 albums Rewind The Film and Futurology respectively. The former is a stripped-down, almost minimalist record, partially inspired by the band’s time in Japan. Futurology is a stark contrast, all Europop brashness and indie dance tunes, yet the pair work surprisingly well as companion pieces. Smart and subversive, the Manics still exist on the edge of mainstream music, just as they did on the edge of Britpop.
If you have a Britpop favourite who is still going strong, let us know in the comments below.
Cover image by AMD5150