The last week has seen an outpouring of Britpop-related nostalgia. Here's why it was so important, as Liam, Damon, Jarvis and the rest reclaimed faith in our national identity...
“Good evening Planet Earth”
Liam Gallagher addresses the crowd – and indeed the world – from the Knebworth stage and launches headlong into Columbia, anthemic riffs, swagger and all. It’s 1996 and what the crowd are witnessing (though most are probably too blasted to realise it) is the simultaneous high point and end of Britpop. For four glorious years, we’ve been spoiled for choice when it came to British music, British fashion, British art. But now the whole thing is on the verge of unraveling in a haze of New Labour, copious drugs and Be Here Now. But, in that moment, Liam’s opening salvo told you everything you needed to know: in the summer of 1996, Britain was the centre of the universe.
Twenty years on, it’s been wonderful to watch the BBC (amongst others) dedicate such a huge amount of time to commemorating this important period of musical and social history, tying it to the touchpoint of the release of Parklife. You see, the brilliant thing about Britpop wasn’t that it had a particular style (it didn’t) or that it was born out of a particular genre or set of influences (it wasn’t), it was simply a moment in history when Britain exported some of its very finest culture to the wider world, making being British something to be proud of. As such, Britpop influenced almost everyone who grew up in the 1990s, and that’s why it’s worth celebrating.
There’s not a lot of point retelling the story of Britpop (you should track down a copy of the excellent Stuart Marconie documentary Britpop: A Very British Pop if you need a recap) – suffice it to say that it started in art schools and pubs almost simultaneously, at a time when charts were largely filled with American imports and the alternative scene was focused on Grunge. Musically, the bands we now consider to have typified Britpop didn’t have a lot in common – drawing a musical line between the introspective trip hop of Massive Attack, through the art-school stylings of Suede to the swaggering lad rock of Oasis is a mug’s game. What united this unlikely group of performers was a shared foregrounding of their Britishness: stuck together by a music press who had spotted an opportunity.
In the aforementioned documentary, Marconie reminds us how Morrissey turned up on stage at Finsbury Park in 1992, draped in a union flag, and was promptly heckled offstage and derided by a music press that still felt it had a political conscience. No one quite knew what to make of someone displaying their British credentials so openly and he was swiftly branded a racist in some corners, just to be on the safe side. Of course it was all a bit more complicated than that, and it is not the place of this article to discuss Morrissey’s politics, but it remains an excellent example of the fact that the idea of Britishness had been somewhat clouded. A few years later, you couldn’t open the same magazines without being confronted with an onslaught of red, white and blue with not a star or stripe in sight.
So what changed? The answer is pretty simple. In the art schools and more “creative” universities, bands like Suede, Pulp and Blur began writing songs that were self-conciously British in style and influence. This wasn’t an aping of the popular American status quo, rather an attempt to make music that could really only have come from over here. Using previous British bands as their influences and (certainly in the case of Messrs Albarn and Cocker) writing about uniquely British themes. Jarvis Cocker’s description of “woodchip on the wall” in Disco 2000 for example, might not seem like the most obvious subject for a lyric but brought to mind a certain sense that you could only really understand if you’d grown up here. It’s like an in joke. Add to that a regional accent, and you had a sense of British identity that had been almost entirely lacking from the mainstream for what felt like forever. Then of course there were those uppity tykes from Burnage, with their plan to be the biggest band in the world and the self-belief to carry it off. Again, taking their cues from British influences and dressing themselves in the manner of every other working class man in Manchester, they were putting out a clear message that they weren’t prepared to compromise when it came to their roots; rather, making these roots and influences an important part of their music.
Of course, it didn’t take long for the music press to spot what was happening. Here were a group of new British pop bands (see where this is going…?) with British influences, wearing British-made fashion lables singing about the stuff of everyday British life. Swiftly corralled together in the pages of Vox, Select, Melody Maker and NME, the Britpop scene was was born. It doesn’t really matter if it was a media creation or the genius invention of a marketting department, the point was that we all bought into it, wholesale. A succession of ever-more popular hits increased this fervour and, before you knew it, Parklife, Different Class and (What’s the Story) Morning Glory took the country by storm: albums that could only have been made on these shores and placed British identity at the front and centre.
What had happened is that the bands, the artists and the press had come together to imbue Britishness with a new sense of positivity: national identity with no undercurrent of nationalism. In this country, we’re not generally very good at pride, it’s typically seen as arrogance. But, in much the same way that the punk movement reappropriated the Union Jack from the National Front by taking it as their symbol and treating it with no reverence whatsoever, so the movers and shakers behind Britpop took Britain’s confused sense of identity and forged it into something we could all be proud of. Suddenly it was possible to be proud of being British without any of the unpleasant undertones. Compare the reaction to Morrissey’s flag antics with the reaction to Noel’s Brit-branded Epiphone Supernova a few years later. Even the more traditional, mainstream pop world wanted a slice: “that dress” Geri Halliwell wore at The Brits being the most obvious example of a slightly frothier version of the same Brit Pride. And that was the genius of it, really. It was a movement that had something for everyone.
As is so often the case, though, it couldn’t last. As the last chords rang out over Knebworth there was a sense that, maybe, this was it. It had all got too big. How do you react against the mainstream if you are the mainstream? There was nowhere else to go. In the year following these concerts, the Labour Party would co-opt the Britpop movement and consciously associate itself with the artists and people it represented, eventually being elected by a landslide thanks to a surge in the number of young voters. The rest, as they say, is history.
So, why does it still matter? Why are we still talking about it twenty years on? Apart from the obvious answer (it produced some fucking great records) I’d venture to suggest that what Britpop taught us was how to be proud of everything that being British stands for, without slipping into chest-beating nationalism. Proud of being British, without necessarily having to be hostile to anyone else. And that’s why it still matters, to me at least. At a time when increasingly right-wing parties are again gaining traction across Britain, we could learn a lot from those halcyon days of the mid-90s. In a sense, Britpop taught us how to be British.