The great Britpop debate. This article is one half and argues that Britpop wasn't really that good. Have your say and check out the other article here.
'I am working on a new song called 'American Guitars': part sarcastic riposte to British bands who cannot find their own voice, forever worshipping at the altar of US rock, part self-mythoslogising history of my fledgling band. Soon the press will pick up on 'American Guitars', proclaiming it some sort of battle cry against the marauding Yanks. It won't be long before Britpop rears its ugly head, bobbing about on the perimeters, then brazenly cavorting around on stage like an attention-seeking moron.'
- Luke Haines, Bad Vibes (Windmill, 2010)
It's a much repeated truism that scenes lose their lustre soon after reaching the mainstream. Instead of continuing to evolve, all vibrancy disappears; as soon as record execs are running the show it's all about the Benjamins, and effectively, it's all over. And so Grandmaster Flash becomes 50 Cent; Pixies become Silverchair and R.E.M. become a weak parody of the band they once were.
Britpop, the name given to parochial, boring guitar music made in Britain between the years 1993 and '98, was no exception but arguably it didn't even have a low-key gestation period. The window in which good music could possibly have been made - before the scene was swallowed by hype - was tiny; perhaps it didn't exist at all. Blame who you want for this: it's traditional to say the NME, jumping the gun as usual, but it was probably a perfect storm of the NME, Loaded, the tabloid media and growing economic prosperity causing a rise in dunderheaded feel-good patriotism ('Cool Britannia').
Imagine: it's 1993 and a bunch of terribly dressed oiks are playing boring pub-rock to their mums at the Dog & Hammer with no hope of escape, but then, fuck! It's 1994 and someone from EMI has showed up with a million pound contract.
Britpop's second great problem was its stated influences. The more laddish end (I'm talking Oasis here, but see also Ocean Colour Scene, Northern Uproar and others) completely disregarded two preceding decades of (r)evolution, preferring to ineptly re-write Beatles songs, clearly without any understanding of what made Beatles songs work in the first place. If buying a Rickenbacker and sitting in your room listening to The La's and getting stoned was the key to great songwriting, every fucker would be doing it.
Now, everyone's lining up to kick the Gallaghers in the crotch these days, but those Britpoppers who were into punk, glam or new-wave were similarly slapdash when it came to incorporating their influences. Elastica were accused of stealing the riff from Wire's 'I Am the Fly' in 1994; less than 12 months later the rightly-derided Menswear built their breakthrough single 'Daydreamer' around the exact same stolen riff. In what fucking coke-addled shitfest of a universe is that in any way okay, Menswear? You complete arsebrains. To clarify, I bought that single, but I was 13 and had never heard of Wire. So lay off.
So, as you can see, the most confusing thing about all this plagiarism was how brazen it was. Oasis half-inched the riff from perhaps the most famous song of the glam-rock era for 'Cigarettes and Alcohol', then Elastica (them again!) had their way with The Stranglers' 'No More Heroes'. Guys, even Father Ted and Dougal realised you need to find an obscure song to steal from! And they're not even real.
Now, you might say you can find examples of blatant stealing in any given scene, but these extreme examples (and I would argue they're abnormally blatant) of ripping off your forebears are indicative of the attitude of so many Britpop bands: they were lazy fuckers who wanted to be adored, wanted a quick buck, and didn't care how shamefully they went about it. And remember, Elastica were one of the good bands.
Britpop's third great problem was its conservatism. It grew partly out of the Madchester scene, which itself had inevitably become stagnant and self-congratulatory. Added to this was the awful, misguided idea that we needed to get 'back to basics' after all that appalling imagination and fun we'd been enjoying over the previous few decades. Britpop was proud to look backwards as no other scene has been, before or since: it was happy to be conservative! We're talking about rock'n'roll here, remember, kids: that thing that's supposed to be vital, rebellious and fun.
Oasis, of course, were the leaders of all this shit, telling us that our music had to be universal; that if Noel Gallagher's narrow idea of the man-on-the-street didn't like it, it wasn't worth listening to. Noel even went so far as to suggest that, just as all great footballers are working class, only working class musicians were capable of writing good songs - which was a great theory, providing of course you ignored the background of many of his own heroes (Lennon, Jagger, Richards etc). His pronouncement can probably be blamed for another of the most obnoxious trends in Britpop; namely, posh kids putting on affected regional accents to try and sound 'authentic'. (And for the record, although Damon Albarn did this, it's not a specific dig at him: there are like, a million examples.)
And so, just as Britpop was completely obvious and lowest-common-denominator in every other way, we must talk eventually about the actual sound of the records. Britpop, in fairness, took place at the apex of several shitty trends in music production which were largely beyond its control. Something known as the 'loudness war', in which finished songs are compressed so that there is less variation in volume (but they sound generally louder) was gaining momentum in the early-to-mid 90s, and (What's the Story) Morning Glory? is now seen as a milestone in loudness war mastering. There can be no doubt the huge popularity of Oasis' sophomore blowout encouraged labels to keep going for a louder, less subtle sound.
It was also the last period of unfettered record label decadence before the internet tore the heart out of the industry. Scruffy, imperfect bands would be shoved into a five-grand-a-day studio with some coke-fiend producer-du-jour and come out with some shiny, over-compressed nightmare (In Bad Vibes, Haines describes the sound of Suede's debut album as "horrible, weedy guitars lost in a sea of cheapo reverb", and lays the blame on producer Ed Buller. Coming Up, released in 1996, was ten times worse.)
Remember, most of these bands were only putting the absolute minimum effort into their songs - nursery-rhyme lyrics and tired chord progressions abounded. But the same could be said for punk, and that sounded great because it was dirty and real (or dirty and fake, but, you know: good.) Britpop was not punk - these kids had nothing to be angry about, and nothing at all worth saying as it turned out. Too vain and insecure to write from the heart; too stupid to be intellectually engaging; too laughably uncool to even provide something for a kid to aspire to. Production-wise, 90s label bosses wanted something Smash Hits-friendly for their piles of dough, and they got it, and that's how the whole terrible package came together.
There are so many awful tropes that just pop up again and again in that 'Britpop sound'. How about everyone using the same two guitar tones on every record? Do you like your bands to give a little contrived yelp and arch their eyebrows at the end of every verse, as if they've just said something fabulously witty? How about the Kaiser Chiefs' keyboard lines? Aren't they great? Don't you wish every band would use them? What about bands putting half-understood kitsch references in their songs in a lazy attempt not to look like philistines.
And so, what else could we have been listening to at the time? Well, the pernicious tentacles of the loudness war left a smear on almost all mainstream music of the period (by mainstream, I'm talking major label, major label subsidiary and large indie label artists). So there's a certain tacky obviousness that taints everything from the new British dance music (The Chemical Brothers, Fatboy Slim et al) to American post-grunge and (yuck) nu-metal.
Across the pond bands like Pavement and Yo La Tengo on the college-rock scene were attempting to hang on to some kind of K Records-influenced lo-fi credibility. Whatever you think of Pavement (I count myself as a fan while admitting that they were as often infuriating as great), they wrote some memorable pop tunes, and were self-aware (okay, too self-aware) and lyrically inventive. That's more than can be said of 99 per cent of Britpop bands. Looking beyond the guitar, the 90s were a decade of boundary-pushing in electronic music (Warp Records) and acts like Wu-Tang Clan, De La Soul, Dr Dre and A Tribe Called Quest proved rap artists were much better at balancing mainstream success with artistic integrity (for a while, at least).
Rather than comparing Britpop bands to their contemporaries though, it is infinitely more damning to think about the music they must have grown up with: The Smiths, The Cure, Pixies, Orange Juice, Prince, Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen. What exactly was, say, Menswear's Johnny Dean thinking when he wrote lyrics? Was he ever secretly ashamed at what he'd done?
If this diatribe has come across as vituperative, it's because I really do take Britpop's rubbishness personally. At 13 my first gig was Dodgy, and as it was my first I have fond memories of it, but let's not mince words: Dodgy were a bad band - lyrically atrocious and musically almost comically pedestrian. But I worshipped these bands as only a kid in his early teens can: I just didn't know any better. Realising that the bands I loved were terrible was, to use a tired but apt cliché, like having the rug pulled from under me. I didn't listen to any new music for two years; at 17 I was as cynical and bitter as a present-day Paul Morley. One day in the year 2000, I heard some band playing a ramshackle three-chord song on the radio and things started falling into place again. But I can't forgive those cynical fuckers for taking a callow youth for a ride like that. Some people were allowed good bands as their first musical crushes, and that's just not fair.