Sunday 13 October 2019

It's been 20 years since Oasis' Be Here Now signalled the end of Britpop

It's 20 years since Oasis's bloated Be Here Now signalled the end of Britpop. Our music critic looks back on the highs and lows of 'Cool Britannia'

Rock 'n' roll stars: Oasis were one of a host of bands who defined the Britpop era
Rock 'n' roll stars: Oasis were one of a host of bands who defined the Britpop era
John Meagher

John Meagher

Twenty years ago this weekend - Oasis released one of the most anticipated albums of the 1990s. Be Here Now would become the fastest-selling album in UK chart history (based on first-week sales) but the critical brickbats weren't slow in coming. It was, most seemed to agree, a bloated, over-the-top collection of stadium-baiting anthems where stupendous amounts of money were swishing about and everything and the kitchen sink had been fired into the mix in the studio.

Even today, you'll find nobody to say it was in the same creative league as their first two albums and the recent 'deluxe' version did little to persuade us otherwise.

We weren't to know it at the time, but Be Here Now would help signal the end of Britpop. Like many of the great cultural movements of the late 20th century, Britpop only lasted a handful of years - roughly from the early summer of 1993 to the late summer of 1997 - but it left a legacy that's still felt keenly today.

At its best, Britpop was about guitar bands rediscovering that sweet spot where pop and rock meet and many of them looked to those iconic names who had soundtracked the 1960s, including The Kinks - that most British of Swinging Sixties bands. (A defining image of the time was watching Blur's Damon Albarn and the Kinks' Ray Davies performing a duet of the latter's 'Waterloo Sunset' on the then super-cool Channel 4 music show The White Room.)

At its worst, Britpop was jaded triumphalism that every opportunist - from big brand marketeers to New Labour's spindoctors - were desperate to appropriate.

It gave us some truly great music from era-defining bands like Blur and Pulp - and, of course, Oasis. If any song summed up 1994, for instance, it was 'Supersonic' and the swaggering machismo of Liam Gallagher. And it also found room for pedestrian hopefuls like Shed Seven and Menswear - the latter the subject of a record company bidding war that could only have happened in an era when album sales were still so buoyant.

For me, though, Britpop was about those lesser lights that released great music - even if some of those bands would baulk at the idea of being considered part of the 'movement' at all.

Both the Auteurs and St Etienne offered cerebral songs, but with a pop sensibility, and the Boo Radleys did a fine line in feel-good, sophisticated chart pop.

And while it's true that there was a distinct laddishness to Britpop - witness Oasis and Albarn circa Parklife, as well as the proliferation of titillating men's mags like Loaded - the era also gave us some intriguing female-fronted bands like Justine Frischmann's Elastica, Louise Wener's Sleeper and Sonya Madan's Echobelly. 'Britpop' as a term was first employed in 1994 by the BBC presenter Stuart Maconie in Select - a then big-selling monthly music magazine, now long defunct - but it was the previous year when people started talking about a new wave of great British music.

Suede got many in a lather with their exhilarating self-titled debut album in March 1993 and Blur delivered Modern Life is Rubbish two months later. Both albums were startling arrivals in a world where, for many, British music was best characterised by rave culture and dance bands like the Shamen and the Prodigy.

Many of us were looking to the US for our fix of great music - the early 1990s saw grunge sweep all before it and Nirvana's last great hurrah, In Utero, was also released in 1993. British music, by contrast, seemed in a moribund state in the few years after the excitement of the Stone Roses and their 'Madchester' counterparts faded from view, although Massive Attack's Blue Lines from 1991 was a reminder that gold could be found amid the dross.

And, no sooner were Suede and Blur changing the conversation, but several others were joining them, too. Pulp released their brilliant His 'N' Hers album in early 1994 - which was denied the Mercury Music Prize by one vote (the ghastly M People won instead) - and Blur followed with Parklife in May. It's perhaps the most defining Britpop album of them all and 'Girls and Boys' provided an anthem for a generation.

Noel Gallagher would argue that Oasis's debut is the true embodiment of the era and when Definitely Maybe landed in September 1994, even the slowest out of the blocks would have had to admit that something remarkable was happening in British music. I wore out my old cassette copy of the album through overplaying - and I'm hardly the only one. Its cocksure songs captured something of the anything-goes optimism of the time - one that was very apparent to anyone who visited London in the mid 1990s.

It wasn't long before the 'Cool Britannia' sobriquet came into vogue and, for a while, it seemed as though Britain was the centre of the cultural universe. It wasn't just the glut of great music that was putting it in the spotlight.

The stars were also in alignment in the worlds of visual art and fashion - think Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst and all the other YBAs ('Young British Artists', to you and I) as well as designers like Alexander McQueen and supermodels Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell.

There was some must-watch TV drama, too, including the London-set This Life and the groundbreaking Queer as Folk (which started in 1999 on Channel 4, but had been conceived some years previously), and many of us were happy to stay in for the blokeish TGI Friday and the Mary Whitehouse Experience.

Of course, like any fondly remembered time, it's easy to fall into a nostalgia trap and it's worth remembering that British music of the mid-1990s also gave us Wet Wet Wet's 15-week number one 'Love is All Around', and a slew of manufactured bands, including the soon-to-be ubiquitous Spice Girls.

And, of course, some of the greatest British albums of the time weren't 'Britpop' releases at all. Radiohead's The Bends and OK Computer, Massive Attack's Protection, Tricky's Maxinquaye, Portishead's Dummy and Spiritualized's Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space remain some of the most essential albums of the mid-1990s, but existed on a separate plane. Nonetheless, the rich pickings of the era suggested UK music was in a very rosy place indeed - one, arguably, that it hasn't enjoyed since.

While Oasis's gargantuan third album may have been the point where, in the words of the Guardian, it swept "the whole thing [Britpop] into the dustbin", there were signs earlier in 1997 at some of its leading proponents were getting sick of the genre.

In February, Blur released their fifth album - a self-titled offering that was indebted to lo-fi American indie bands like Pavement rather than anything from back home - and Pulp's new offerings from what would become This is Hardcore suggested Jarvis Cocker et al were making a speedy departure from the sounds of their much-loved 1995 album Different Class.

Today, there's a tendency to downplay those Britpop years, to mock the associations of Oasis and Blur with Tony Blair and to decry its odd sense of patriotism. But to do so is to disown the thrill of the soundtrack it provided - and still does, more than 20 years later.

5 Great songs of Britpop era

'FOR TOMORROW', BLUR - the one that kickstarted Blur's reinvention, it was indebted to the Kinks and was a standout on their Modern Life is Rubbish album.

'COMMON PEOPLE', PULP - the Sheffield band went from fringe attraction to mainstream stars with this giddy, pulse-quickening anthem.

'GREAT THINGS', ECHOBELLY -another anthem for a generation who recognised themselves in Sonya Madan's declaration "I want to do great things".

'THE MASTERPLAN', OASIS - Noel Gallagher was in such great creative fettle in the mid-1990s that his b-sides were stone-cold classics, too, and this marvelous song was the b-side of 'Wonderwall'.

'ALRIGHT', SUPERGRASS - "We are young, we are free," was the exuberant message of Gaz Coombes' magnificently catchy terrace anthem.

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