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.
Of course there were bands other than Blur and Oasis caught up in the Britpop hysteria in the mid-1990s. Elastica's genius succumbed to drug-related and personal problems, as so many did. The Auteurs were sabotaged by the fact that Luke Haines hated everyone around him and was outspoken about it. Pulp, in many ways, trumped them all by being smarter and funnier than Oasis and more down-to-earth and less cynical than Blur. The "battle" narrative propagated by the NME and the BBC didn't have room for a third heavy-hitter in the ring though, and you get the sense that Jarvis Cocker didn't want the fame quite as much as the others did. Or he was after a different kind of fame.
Fast-forward through the disintegration of Tony Blair and the embarrassment of Gordon Brown, the war in Iraq, the financial collapse, band break-ups, addictions galore and into the Britain of today, with David Cameron, the Olympics, the dismantling of the NHS, workfare, riots, stop and searches, bedroom taxes and money-milking band reunion tours.
Blur have been back on that circuit since 2009, having spent a mere six years on hiatus. Next year they will have been back for as long as they were gone. Their return was heralded by a British press starved of a home-grown (read: “white”) popular music they can get away with writing about. Sold-out Hyde Park shows followed, a Glastonbury headline slot awaited; huge shows, huge paychecks and a couple of minutes of nondescript new music that no one cares about anyway. You could say all the same about Pulp, who didn’t even bother with the new music. Even Suede have dipped their toe in the water. Play the hits, it’s what everyone wants.
Sing along like the good old days, before the Kaiser Chiefs, when no one you knew was voting Tory and keeping poor Blur drummer/
Labour politician Dave Rowntree out of Westminster in the process. A time before Blur bassist/artisan cheese farmer Alex James had a column in the Sun. A time before before everyone got rich but you didn't.
We're 20 years on from Modern Life Is Rubbish but modern life is still rubbish and for many of the same stupid reasons it was then. The only difference now is that these people are part of the establishment, not an alternative. Why are we still singing their songs?
Blur play Imma on Thursday August 1st