On Britpop, by Sam Murray

Blur Sam

Editor’s note: This article was written as a response to Episode 103: Britpop. He is a former guest of the podcast (see: Episode 92: When in Portland), and is a resident of Leeds.

By Sam Murray

Britpop is often centred on the indie guitar music of the nineties and to whom it applied we don’t ever know because it was everyone and anyone. Britpop is not so much a genre as an assessment of a political and social changed in the nineteen nineties. We do have clear musical sign posts to this in the music of Oasis, Blue, Pulp, Suede and even to a lesser extent The Spice Girls. Britpop was a reactionary music like those genres that had gone before and seized the opportunity to claim new ground and new notions of British Identity in a way stifled under the dark reign of Margaret Thatcher.

I was born in 1990 as the Berlin Wall and communism fell in the east, and capitalism started making small but necessary social concessions in the west. I grew up in a time of great social change for Britain and Britpop was the soundtrack to this. I remember discussions round the primary school dinner table which side of the oasis blur argument were we one, I have a bizarre memory of one kid using a toothpaste analogy which sadly I can’t recall. TV was full of this debate Oasis vs Blur and it almost complimented a north/south divide. My sister got into Girl Power and followed the spice girls even having the iconic union jack dress worn by Geri Haliwell at the Brit awards. You just couldn’t avoid Britpop and things were positive and hopeful.

The nineties socially in Britain all centred on the 1997 general election which saw a mass decimation of Tories in favour of a rebranded and revitalised New Labour. Things had been rough for the working class under Maggie and John Major was just a drip who continued the attack on the working class and then came Tony Blair. Blair was painted as a saviour for new hope, please bear in mind Iraq wasn’t until 2003! I distinctly remember Election Day my dad took me with him to the polling booth and asked me who he should vote for and I told him to vote Lib Dems, I had no idea who they were but had heard about Paddy Ashdown on TV and recalled his name. This act repeated when I could vote for the first time in the 2010 election although no more!

Blair had come to save the working class and things did start to feel better and aspiration for us northerners returned. Britpop was the essence of this aspiration. Britpop was about empowering working class brits in expression. Yes, Blur and Pulp were art school kids but from working class roots and commenting on the working class, don’t forget the Greek student’s affection in “Common People” was for dear Jarvis. Through the voices of Oasis, Blur, Manic Street Preachers and Pulp we had articulations of life for us and I could connect growing up in a working class family. Each of these bands spoke to their respective geographical areas and didn’t seek to patronise.

Oasis were the hedonistic self-proclaimed successors to The Beatles. It was their audacity and cheek that got them attention but then came the songs. The songs of Oasis work on so many levels, they are incredibly easy to understand and follow but are so effective. They avoid virtuosity in favour of a simple and direct approach. We all know Noel was the talented one and had very dynamic songwriting. Oasis captured a glorious sense of hedonism about them that has become so instilled in British culture. You can ask anyone from any subculture of youth and they can connect with Oasis. Knowing their songs is a massive badge of northern working class pride as they appeal to rock fans and chavs alike. In case you don’t know Chavs are a subculture in British culture, wrongly defined as just working class, who are notorious for anti-social behaviour wearing knock-off Burberry tracksuits and gold chains and being offensive and rude at all possible moments. Oasis managed to speak to these folks as well which is a big feat for any band, considering they normally would listen to happy hardcore EDM which is truly horrific. Oasis has become cultural capital for anyone who knows British culture. Kids when they get guitars are so made up when they work out the chords to “Wonderwall”. We all know that a good way to end a heavy night of drinking, and boy do we Brits drink, is to walk down a city centre street singing lyrics from “Don’t Look Back in Anger”. I can recall many an occasion his was the last song of the night at discos and we’d all gather in a circle arms on shoulders shouting the lyrics in our northern accents. These songs have great cultural significance to the Brits of today.

Blur are a band I came to understand when I grew older. When I was younger I remember the admiration for Parklife being huge. It accompanied a Nike tv advert, oh what a Portland link! Which commented on Britain’s Sunday football culture where on a Sunday loads of dad’s and mates gather to play non-league matches in the local park. I also remember how popular the Coffee and TV video was when played on SMTV live a popular Saturday kids show. I had the honour of seeing the milk carton used at the EMP in Seattle although I did wonder what on earth it was doing there of all places?! Yeah we want it back thanks Seattle. Blur was a band always for thinkers, there was always something edgy and intellectual about them. “She’s so High” could be a Smiths-esque musical successor for example. But my real appreciation for Blur came when during a lecture for my BA we disseminated “Tender”, still to this day my favourite Blur track. When you take time to pick the song apart and its reverence for all that has gone before in popular music your mind is just blown. Yes, love IS the greatest thing that we have! Damon Albarn’s genius still reigns, with his incredible array of projects – Gorillaz and The Good, The Bad and the Queen as well as his latest solo record – all showing progressions in British culture and he is easily one of our most important songwriters. He is a facilitator of multiculturalism today at a time when things are slipping backwards thanks to financial recess triggering rises of the far-right. Damon has always been a left-wing musical visionary and his musical movements have helped shape our cultural landscape.

Pulp are the Britpop band I really should be most related to as they come from Yorkshire, are left wing and display great intellect and retort in their work. I probably haven’t listened to as much Pulp as I should have but aside from knowing the hits have only briefly encountered. “Common People” was of course my first main encounter and I loved the song from the off. Its satyr is so true of life and having had a few posh girlfriends who revelled in my working class attributes despite my education eventually rendering them useless. My best Pulp revelation came when I purchased the DVD of Later…with Jools Holland’s Cool Britannia special taking in the best British bands. On the DVD is a performance of “This is Hardcore” and it was a musical awakening for me. This song is so slick and sleazy yet musically brilliant; it’s like a film you want to look away from but can’t. As Jarvis dribbles the line “It seems I saw you in some teenage wet dream I like to get up if you know what I mean” your ears don’t want to hear it but it’s in there. It captures the sleazy adolescence of sexually informed male youth and is so dark but musically brilliant. It for me is the height of Pulp’s achievements as a group.

But there is one Britpop band who have stayed with me more than any other, the Manic Street Preachers. I was drawn in late to the party but boy am I glad I’m there. I live close to the site for the Leeds Festival and upon hearing they would be headlining the NME/Radio 1 tent in 2008 good incredibly involved with their music. This is everything I want from a band, socialist lyrics and catchy melodies. Manics still have that vagabond spirit today and represent a real feeling of left wing Britain. With the nineties came an advancement of consumerism as the working classes began catching up with the yuppies and Richie stopped and shouted at us that wonderful line ‘life sold cheaply forever’. Richie Edwards vapid lyrics spoke truth about Britain and despite his disappearance the lyrics he left behind still bite hard as ever. They were the only band suspicious of New Labour and were proven right and once called “Louder than War” by Fidel Castro. Generation Terrorists is brash, exciting and intellectual, not bad for a band from Blackwood. I have probably have had a subconscious affinity with the Manics due to visiting my grandparents in Newport, South Wales a place in Wales you will find decimation and desolation. While most Britpop bands relished a British identity of working class culture here was the band to defend it to the hilt. They are probably the most consistent Britpop era band still in existence today defending our value today. Whether its Nicky Wire saying: “Mumford & Sons, they obviously eat really well and that’s why their music’s so fucking awful” or the invitation to German actress Nina Hoss to proclaim “Europa Geht Durch Mich” at a time when supporting the EU is becoming dangerously unpopular, the Manics are still here for us and I have a feeling they always will be.

Britpop was at a time of British cultural reformation out of the shadows of Thatcherism and the music it required, such as the dirge of Stock, Aitken and Waterman, the promoted vile pop in a vile fashion. Britpop celebrated the liberation with excess in some quarters and caution with others and it managed to help the working class realise potential and reignite creativity. Britpop wasn’t a genre, it was a political movement.

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