Britpop – Bah! It’s rubbish, innit?
Blur, Oasis, Pulp. Hard to believe it now, but back in the 1990s they were the epitome of cool. These days they’re part of the establishment and modern life is still pretty rubbish. In the run-up to Blur’s IMMA gig next week, time to ponder how Britpop fell flat
Blurred lines: Damon Albarn of Blur performing at a charity gig in 2012, at the invitation of old Britpop rivals Oasis. Photograph: Ian West/PA
We’ve all seen the picture. A smirking Noel Gallagher, glass of champagne in one hand, the fingers of a ruddy-cheeked Tony Blair in the other. They look at each other as knowing victors, men at the top of their leagues, each dominating British culture at the tail end of the 1990s in their own way. Alan McGee stares at them from the background, his unimpressed Scottish head impossible to miss. You get the sense that he knew what was coming. He had a good nose for the future.
This was in some ways the newly-elected Blair’s high-water mark, the point at which his New Labour physically and metaphorically collided with the zeitgeist of a young, upwardly-mobile, London-centric Britishness. At 43, he was the youngest Prime Minister since 1812 and his brand of “social-ism”, free market capitalism by any other name, was taking off.
Having released the biggest selling British album of the decade less than two years previously, Oasis were at the pinnacle of British popular culture and at the height of their commercial powers. Which, ultimately, was all that mattered. As John Harris, author of The Last Party and presenter of BBC4’s The Britpop Story, told the BBC in 2005, “Oasis were a no-nonsense rock’n’roll band who wanted to roll around on a bed of £50 notes.” Perfect bed-fellows, then, for New Labour.
By this time, 1997, Gallagher and his brother Liam were the kings of Britpop, a scene that had begun at the turn of the decade with London bands that sounded altogether different: Suede and Blur. While Oasis became “as big as the Beatles” by writing classic pop songs that anyone could shout along to, Suede and Blur were attempting something more self-conscious. As a result, their songs often prickled with a pained pseudo-intellectualism, a simultaneous deconstruction and celebration of white, middle-class Britain, its history and its supposed essential values.
Suede’s creative core of Brett Anderson and Bernard Butler quickly burnt themselves out on a cocktail of Class A drugs and egos, and besides they were too glam, too aloof to be the voice of “real” British youth. Up to the plate then stepped Blur’s mercurial duo, Damon Albarn and Graham Coxon. After a Madchester-influenced first album, the group’s second record, Modern Life Is Rubbish, set the template for the style they would perfect on their third, Parklife.
Theirs was a camp, but not too camp, re-imagining of an old England, still tethered to its traditional values and power structures. For all of Albarn’s ironic caricatures, in Blur’s songs, as in much of Britpop, Britain’s popular history re-emerged through Coxon and Albarn’s intelligent musical cherry-picking. The thin gloss of half-baked satire sticks to the top of it like treacle – too smarmy, too arch, ultimately unloveable. As Poptimism blogger Tom Ewing says of Albarn at this time, “he’s the Peter York of pop, the songwriting equivalent of jokey pen-portraits of ‘social tribes’ in a Sunday supplement”. No empathy or understanding, just observation.