- Author Simon Lucas
- Published June 5, 2014
Why you should listen to… Britpop
Britpop was far more than long fringes, tight shirts and singing in defiantly English accents – as What Hi-Fi? Sound and Vision editor Simon Lucas explains…
It’s important not to let the Britpop icons’ feet of clay cloud your judgement when compiling a Britpop playlist.
Like the majority of once-transcendent popular musicans, the big cheeses of Britpop have by and large grown old, grown fat, grown self-satisfied or (in terms of quality of recordings, anyhow) grown either silent or crap. And while Britpop comprehensively disappeared up its own fundament well before the turn of the 21st century, for a solid four or five years it delivered some of the hookiest and (sometimes) artistically valid music to come out of the UK in what seemed like ages.
A very British protest
Initially Britpop took a deliberately parochial stance against the overwhelming US juggernauts of grunge and hip-hop that dominated the charts and airwaves (this was a time when both the charts and the airwaves were enormously important). Reaching back to the British pop high-water mark of the 60s, taking in the arch art-rock of the 70s and the indie pop-power of the 80s, Britpop celebrated the nation, the past, the Union Jack (just a few short years after Morrissey had been accused of racism when draping himself in the flag), guitars, regional accents and the slim fit of Mod fashion.
For a while there Britpop harked back to the 60s almost uncannily. For a while there the mainstream media were fully and excitedly engaged; for a while it seemed that any gang of chancers with Steve Marriott hairdos and tight T-shirts could produce an effortlessly catchy single. For a while Blur and Oasis was like The Beatles and The Stones. Or at least it seemed so at the time.
It couldn’t last, of course – the air of optimism that surged, London 2012-like, through the country after England’s sun-dappled failure in Euro 96 and seemed to reach full bloom with Tony Blair’s election in 1997 curdled quickly into the risible Cool Britannia scene that drew in the BritArt element tool.
Some Britpop figures have endured, revealed as music/entertainment polymaths who undoubtedly would have succeeded whether beneath the Union Jack umbrella of Britpop or not. Some are almost certainly working in an accounts department now. But Britpop produced some genuine pop classics – which is all you want from your pop-music fad, after all.
The Kinks: Where Have All the Good Times Gone (1965)
Britpop drew on plenty of mid-60s influences, and dozens of Kinks songs alone offer straightforward inspiration for the whole scene (this, for instance, or this), but it’s Where Have All The Good Times Gone that seems to me the true blueprint. Bittersweet, unmistakably and unapologetically English (“guess you need some bringing down… get your feet back on the ground”), celebratory, self-deprecating and, most importantly, a great pop song.
Blur: For Tomorrow (1993)
Blur’s second album (Modern Life Is Rubbish, which might as easily have been titled Britain Used To Be Brilliant) set a Britpop agenda at once wide-eyed and cynical. First single and album opener For Tomorrow is the entire stance in microcosm: sweet, satirical, clever enough to be aware of its own stupidity, beautifully played and produced. Plus it has big hooks.
Pulp: Babies (1992/1994)
No matter how distasteful he found the label, Jarvis Cocker was always Britpop – he just needed British pop music to come to the space he’d been occupying ever since the nascent Pulp formed in the late 70s. Morrissey without the chippiness, Alan Bennett with two functioning hips, Jarvis had been writing British kitchen-sink dramas all along. Even so, on its first release in 1992 Babies (a tale of everyday pubescent randiness and confusion) was ahead of the curve – it needed a remix and a re-release as Britpop took off to turn Jarvis into a charity-shop Ray Davies.
Suede: Animal Nitrate (1993)
Aiming for a bit more androgynous sexiness than most of their peers, Brett Anderson and Suede dragged in a Bowie-esque glam-rock element to complement the see-through shirts and vaguely druggy undertones. And in Bernard Butler, Suede had a strong contributor to Britpop’s fascination with what I’m calling the reverse guitar-hero: brilliantly virtuoso but with enough self-awareness to look slightly embarrassed when pulling off one devastating lick or another. See also: Blur’s Graham Coxon.
Oasis: Columbia (1994)
Britpop might have been pretty dull if it was the preserve of yer art-school types, but happily Oasis (original tag line: “we’re here to finish what The Stone Roses started”) brought some desperately needed inner-city sensibility to proceedings. Exposed early, and decisively, as a one-trick pony, Oasis’ debut album Definitely Maybe was nevertheless intermittently thrilling… meat-and-potatoes rhythm section and pea-soup production notwithstanding. For my money this is the best (read: ‘most typical’) track.
Supergrass: Mansize Rooster (1995)
There’s something brain-befuddlingly meta about Supergrass. Sure, they were only and always Britpop, but their most successful song sounded like nothing more than The Monkees. But then The Monkees were only manufactured as an American answer to The Beatles… So what we’re left with is Britpop via Liverpool and Los Angeles.
Sleeper: Sale of the Century (1996)
As I say, Britpop was nothing if not egalitarian – and while calling Sleeper a one-hit-wonder is mildly unkind (there are far more convincing contenders than they) it’s safe to say they’re never going to be anything but a footnote. Doesn’t mean they weren’t capable of turning out concise, incisive and, above all, hummable hand-grenades of Britpop, though.
Simon Lucas is the editor of What Hi-Fi? Sound and Vision magazine.
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