Entertainment Music

Tuesday 20 February 2018

Why did Britpop fade away?

Blur's 'Parklife' is 20 years old, but is one of the genre's few records to have stood the test of time, writes Tanya Sweeney

Blur in the early 90s
Blur in the early 90s
The iconic ‘Parklife’ album
Jarvis Cocker from Pulp

Tanya Sweeney

If the fact that Kurt Cobain's death was 20 years ago hasn't prompted you to go buy a walk-in bath, here's some more food for despairing thought: this week marks the 20th anniversary of Blur's album Parklife.

It was the band's third offering, yet one that propelled them from the indie periphery straight to the top of the charts. This does mean that for all intents and purposes, the zenith of Britpop was nigh on two decades ago. And what a time it was: think short, razor-sharp haircuts, Adidas tracksuit tops and untold amounts of effete posturing. Its finest and most dramatic hour arrived in August 1995, during the infamous Blur v Oasis chart battle: Blur's 'Country House' won, selling 274,000 copies (in the UK) to Oasis' 'Roll With It' 216,000. If you were a teenager at the time, it was of serious importance: it was even relayed on the BBC's Nine O'Clock News

The halfway house between shoegaze and Madchester and full-blown chart pop, Britpop had lashings of attitude, but precious little staying power. In fact, as musical genres go, it burnt out and slithered off fairly quickly whence it came. No one is remotely surprised to find that Boo Radleys, Gene, Kula Shaker, Bluetones or Space aren't riding high in rock's big leagues. None of them – as best we know – are living in a house, a very big house in the country.

Punk, grunge, new wave - all of the genres and scenes - became venerated down the years and effectively safeguarded from the scrapheap. Why was Britpop afforded a different fate? It was a thrilling and lush musical time ... so what the hell happened?

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Jarvis Cocker from Pulp

Jarvis Cocker from Pulp

Perhaps it has something to do with the idea that Britpop's raw ingredients were that bit different to genres of yore. Though there were plenty of art school students making up the numbers, Britpop was less of an art school-based scene than it was a media confection. Britpop wasn't born on the mean streets of London or Oxford: it was gleefully cooked up at the desks of Melody Maker and the NME. Music scenes that are organically birthed from civil unrest or political dissent often stand the test of time. One that's been essentially made in a test tube; not so much.

And, despite Blur's Cockernee barrow-boy pretensions, Britpop was all painfully middle-class. Kula Shaker's Crispin Mills was the son of Disney actress Hayley Mills, while Elastica singer Justine Frishmann's father was the chairman of a firm of consulting engineers. What did they have to get riled about? Punk, by contrast, was innately feral and snarling. Grunge, particularly its poster boy Cobain, was disenfranchised, sad and in pain. Youngsters can get behind this sort of dissent and sense of disenfranchisement. Britpop was boisterous and ebullient.

This is perhaps why Britpop is regarded with not so much pious reverence as light-hearted affection: it was one big hearty jape that landed smack bang at a time of relative financial prosperity. Britpop provided the perfect snapshot of a time and place: specifically, the Good Mixer pub in Camden in 1995. It gave us kids – squirreled away in provincial bedrooms – hope of a glamorous, louche and boozy life in London. Though it borrowed wholesale from other genres and periods, Britpop and Cool Britannia was quite the palate cleanser.

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The iconic ‘Parklife’ album

The iconic ‘Parklife’ album

What Britpop did have going for it was style – even if style did have substance on the ropes. They weren't even clever enough to articulate pre-millennial tension, leaving that task instead to hunched Bristolians like Massive Attack and Tricky.

Some of Britpop's main players have stood the test of time: Blur and Pulp still sound fresh and relevant, while the brothers Gallagher are still knocking about and outstaying their welcomes in various guises. So many others have gone the way of the fax machine, however; lost and superseded in a world brimming with other, easier choices. Chris Gentry of Menswear manages bands like Noah & The Whale, while Gene frontman Martin Rossiter teaches at a music college. Louise Wener is now a novelist, while Kenickie's Lauren Laverne parlayed her brief time as a Britpop babe into a stellar media career.

As it happens, Britpop was one of the few relatively truly egalitarian music scenes that ever existed. Mouthy birds in Doc Martins were given as much credence as their scrawny male counterparts, hence the term 'Sleeper bloke' (the term afforded to Louise Wener's inanimate 'backing musicians' in Sleeper). Frischmann and Wener, along with Echobelly's Sonya Madan and Lush's Miki Berenyi, proved that anything art school blokes can do, girls with guitars can do just as well, if not better. And that's as good a legacy as any.

As the final embers of the Britpop flare died out, there was no time for mourning. Electronica – the Chemical Brothers, Leftfield, Air and Daft Punk – was so shiny and blinding.

Yet anyone who can remember will do so with no shortage of fondness – it was hot, fast, boisterous, quick ... and soaked with booze.

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