From the Beatles to Oasis, Blur and the Battle of Britpop
16 October 2019
Dr Peter Mills, from the School of Cultural Studies & Humanities, examines the legacy of musical milestones.
It’s a sobering thought that Definitely Maybe by Oasis, which effectively fired the starting gun for Britpop, is 25 years old this year, as far behind us now as 1969’s Abbey Road by Noel Gallagher’s idols The Beatles was in 1994.
Both anniversaries are being marked in the manner now traditional in the recalibrated music industry - expensive box set versions being sold to people who already own the music, and who still crave their music presented in tangible form.
This connection isn’t accidental for if it represented anything Britpop represented a reaffirmation of the virtues of classic pop songwriting and performance – strong melody, verse-chorus-verse, delivered by guitar, bass and drum.
Described thus it feels conventional but the music was a bracing blast after the wilfully synthetic textures of the Acid House and rave scenes of the late 80’s and early 90’s. Suddenly it was fashionable to cite the ‘old masters’ of the 60s and 70s as influences.
Definitely Maybe blends The Beatles, glam rock, 70’s TV themes, the Stone Roses and punk, while Blur’s Parklife suggests The Small Faces, early Who, Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd and XTC alongside the Quadrophenia inspired late 70’s Mod Revival.
While the heady rush of Definitely Maybe arrived unannounced, Blur’s Parklife (1994) was actually their third album and some might say that it was their second album, Modern Life Is Rubbish (1993) that was the first ‘Britpop’ spirited album, with its mix of Carnaby Street mod flourishes and glam racket.
Pulp meanwhile were already veterans, well into their career – their first single came out in 1983. Their 1995 album Different Class with its era defining hit ‘Common People’ directly and wittily addressed issues of class and they were swept up into the whirlwind of Britpop as a cultural as well as a musical phenomenon. So Britpop’s vanguard gathered together the like-minded if not an exact peer group.
Some of Britpop’s high profile was down to that old music industry favourite, hype, most notably in the Beatles/Stones, North/South, Working Class/Middle Class binaries swirling around Oasis – from Burnage in Manchester - and the decidedly Southern Blur.
This extended to a straight race for Number One between the two bands who released both singles on the same day in August 1995, a marketplace face-off dubbed ‘The Battle Of Britpop’. Blur won that sprint but lost the longer race- the second Oasis album What’s The Story Morning Glory became Britpop’s high water mark while Blur’s The Great Escape proved both a commercial and an artistic disappointment.
It’s generally the case that once an ‘underground’ movement goes ‘overground’ – known in a music industry in-joke as the ‘Womble Effect’ - it’s probably already had its finest moments, and that is perhaps the case here as Oasis never bettered their first two albums, Blur wandered off into lo-fi and musical experiment, while Pulp’s musical career seemed stalled by success.
By the Millennium, Britpop was already the subject of nostalgic reflection. So what prompted this last-gasp upsurge of 20th century pop culture in the UK? A response to EDM, certainly, but not unlike the early 80’s New Romantic period splashing colour and hedonism across pop in the wake of Ian Curtis’s suicide, Britpop’s exuberance could be seen as a reaction to the American nihilism of grunge, which found its sad end in the suicide of Kurt Cobain. The energy spoke of a determination to live fully but also lightly, a mood summed up in a line from ‘Alright’, the 1995 hit by Supergrass, ‘can’t go mad, ain’t got time’.
Born when the MTV era was probably at its height, there was a strong visual element to Britpop, and the record sleeves were symbolic artworks in their own right: think of the ‘homage collage’ of Definitely Maybe and the lean East End speed of the dogs gracing the cover of Parklife.
As the mod and punk subcultures had done, designers of the era reclaimed the Union Jack and remade it for their own purposes with fierce energy; the iconography also drew in David Bowie and the Spice Girls, both of whom incorporated the Union Jack as a positive symbol into stage outfits and cover art, connoting style, fun, creativity, and youth – really putting the ‘Brit’ as a wholly positive element into ‘Britpop’. The mix of music, symbols and personalities embodied ‘Cool Britannia’ as Vanity Fair’s confirmatory front cover of March 1997 called it.
So what is the enduring legacy of Britpop – nostalgia? Certainly. Musical influence? Probably. However it seems to me that the lasting impact of the period goes beyond a jukebox selection or a Spotify playlist.
There’s no doubt that music tells us about the period in which it was made whether it is designed to or not. Yet one could also argue that music was only part of the story, and that Britpop was a popular cultural explosion analogous to that of the 60’s – there were Britpop novelists (Irvine Welsh), poets (Simon Armitage), artists (Leeds’ own Damien Hirst) movies (Danny Boyle), fashion designers (Alexander McQueen) TV chefs (Jamie Oliver), even Britpop politics – Noel Gallagher rarely missed an opportunity to endorse Tony Blair, who was famously pictured reading journal of record the NME in the run up to the 1997 General Election, which Labour won by a landslide.
Furthermore there was a feeling of social and cultural optimism abroad in the UK that now seems as remote as the stars. The music can still unlock those feelings, perhaps.