Britpop Stylistic origins Alternative rock, Madchester Cultural origins Early 1990s, United Kingdom Typical instruments Vocals - Guitar - Bass - Drums - Keyboards Mainstream popularity Popular from the mid- to late-1990s. Derivative forms Post-Britpop Subgenres New Wave of New Wave Regional scenes England - Scotland - Wales - Northern Ireland Other topics Bands - Cool Britannia - Timeline of alternative rock
Britpop is a subgenre of alternative rock that originated in the United Kingdom. Britpop emerged from the British independent music scene of the early 1990s and was characterised by bands influenced by British guitar pop music of the 1960s and 1970s. The movement developed as a reaction against various musical and cultural trends in the late 1980s and early 1990s, particularly the grunge phenomenon from the United States. In the wake of the musical invasion into the United Kingdom of American grunge bands, new British groups such as Suede and Blur launched the movement by positioning themselves as opposing musical forces, referencing British guitar music of the past and writing about uniquely British topics and concerns. These bands were soon joined by others including Oasis, Pulp, Supergrass, Sleeper and Elastica.
Britpop groups brought British alternative rock into the mainstream and formed the backbone of a larger British cultural movement called Cool Britannia. Although its more popular bands were able to spread their commercial success overseas, especially to the United States, the movement largely fell apart by the end of the decade.
Style, roots and influences
Britpop bands were influenced by British guitar music of the past, particularly movements and genres such as the British Invasion, glam rock, and punk rock. Specific influences varied: Blur and Oasis drew from The Kinks and The Beatles, respectively, while Elastica had a fondness for arty punk rock. Regardless, all Britpop artists projected a sense of reverence for the sounds of the past.
Alternative rock acts from the 1980s and early 1990s indie scene were the direct ancestors of the Britpop movement. The influence of The Smiths was common to the majority of Britpop artists. The Madchester scene, fronted by The Stone Roses, Happy Mondays, and Inspiral Carpets (for whom Oasis' Noel Gallagher had worked as a roadie during the Madchester years), was the immediate root of Britpop since its emphasis on good times and catchy songs provided an alternative to shoegazing.
Britpop groups were defined by being focused on bands rather than solo artists; having drums/bass/guitar/vocals (and sometimes keyboards) line-ups; writing original material and playing instruments themselves; singing in regional British accents; references to British places and culture in lyrics and image; and fashion consciousness. Stylistically, Britpop bands relied on catchy hooks and wrote lyrics that were meant to be relevant to British young people of their own generation. Britpop bands conversely denounced grunge as irrelevant and having nothing to say about their lives. Damon Albarn of Blur summed up the attitude in 1993 when after being asked if Blur were an "anti-grunge band" he said, "Well, that's good. If punk was about getting rid of hippies, then I'm getting rid of grunge." In spite of the professed disdain for the genres, some elements of both crept into the more enduring facets of Britpop. Noel Gallagher has since championed Ride. Noel Gallagher stated in a 1996 interview that Nirvana's Kurt Cobain was the only songwriter he had respect for in the last ten years, and that he felt their music was similar enough that Cobain could have written "Wonderwall".
The imagery associated with Britpop was equally British and working class. Music critic Jon Savage asserted that Britpop was "an outer-suburban, middle-class fantasy of central London streetlife, with exclusively metropolitan models." A rise in unabashed maleness, exemplified by Loaded magazine and lad culture in general, would be very much part of the Britpop era. The Union Flag also became a prominent symbol of the movement, and its use as a symbol of pride and nationalism contrasted deeply with the controversy that erupted just a few short years before when former Smiths singer Morrissey performed draped in it. The emphasis on British reference points made it difficult for the genre to achieve success in the US.
Origins and first years
The origins of Britpop lie primarily in the indie scene of the early 1990s, and in particular around a group of bands involved in a vibrant social scene focused in the Camden Town area of London. This scene was dubbed "The Scene That Celebrates Itself" by Melody Maker. Some members of this scene (Blur, Lush, Suede) would go on to play a leading part in Britpop. Others such as Kingmaker, Slowdive, Spitfire and Ride would not. The dominant musical force of the period was the grunge invasion from the United States, which filled the void left in the indie scene by The Stone Roses' inactivity.
Journalist John Harris has suggested that Britpop began when Blur's single "Popscene" and Suede's "The Drowners" were released around the same time in the spring of 1992. He stated, "[I]f Britpop started anywhere, it was the deluge of acclaim that greeted Suede's first records: all of them audacious, successful and very, very British". Suede were the first of the new crop of guitar-orientated bands to be embraced by the UK music media as Britain's answer to Seattle's grunge sound. Their debut album Suede became the fastest-selling debut album in the history of the UK. In April 1993, Select magazine featured Suede's lead singer Brett Anderson on the cover with a Union Flag in the background and the headline "Yanks go home!". The issue included features on Suede, The Auteurs, Denim, Saint Etienne and Pulp and helped foment the idea of an emerging movement.
Blur, a group that formerly mixed elements of shoegazing and baggy, took on an Anglocentric aesthetic with their second album Modern Life Is Rubbish (1993). Blur's new approach was inspired by their tour of the United States in the spring of 1992. During the tour, frontman Damon Albarn began to resent American culture and found the need to comment on that culture's influence seeping into Britain. Justine Frischmann, formerly of Suede and leader of Elastica (and at the time in a relationship with Damon Albarn) explained, "Damon and I felt like we were in the thick of it at that point [. . .] it occurred to us that Nirvana were out there, and people were very interested in American music, and there should be some sort of manifesto for the return of Britishness." John Harris wrote in an NME article just prior to the release of Modern Life is Rubbish, "[Blur's] timing has been fortuitously perfect. Why? Because, as with baggies and shoegazers, loud, long-haired Americans have just found themselves condemned to the ignominious corner labeled 'yesterday's thing'". The music press also fixated on what the NME had dubbed the New Wave of New Wave, a term applied to the more punk-derivative acts such as Elastica, S*M*A*S*H and These Animal Men.
While Modern Life is Rubbish was a moderate success, it was Blur's third album Parklife that made them arguably the most popular band in the UK in 1994. Parklife continued the fiercely British nature of its predecessor, and coupled with the death of Nirvana's Kurt Cobain in April of that year it seemed that British alternative rock had finally turned back the tide of grunge dominance. That same year Oasis released their debut album Definitely Maybe, which broke Suede's record for fastest-selling debut album.
The movement was soon dubbed Britpop. The term "Britpop" had been used in the late 1980s (in Sounds magazine by journalist, Goldblade frontman and TV pundit John Robb referring to bands such as The La's, The Stone Roses, Inspiral Carpets and The Bridewell Taxis). "Britpop" arose around the same time as the term "Britart" (which referred to the work of British modern artists such as Damien Hirst). However, it would not be until 1994 when the term entered the popular consciousness, being used extensively by the music press and radio DJs. A rash of bands emerged aligned with the new movement. At the start of 1995 Britpop bands including Sleeper, Supergrass, and Menswear scored pop hits. Elastica released their debut album Elastica that March; its first week sales surpassed the record set by Definitely Maybe the previous year. The music press viewed the scene around Camden Town as a musical centre; frequented by Britpop groups like Blur, Elastica, and Menswear, Melody Maker declared "Camden is to 1995 what Seattle was to 1992, what Manchester was to 1989, and what Mr Blobby was to 1993."
Peak of success
A chart battle between Blur and Oasis dubbed "The Battle of Britpop" brought Britpop to the forefront of the British press in 1995. The bands had initially praised each other but over the course of the year antagonisms between the two increased. Spurred on by the media, the groups became engaged in what the NME dubbed on the cover of its 12 August issue the "British Heavyweight Championship" with the pending release of Oasis' single "Roll With It", and Blur's "Country House" on the same day. The battle pitted the two bands against each other, with the conflict as much about British class and regional divisions as it was about music. Oasis were taken as representing the North of England, while Blur represented the South. The event caught the public's imagination and gained mass media attention in national newspapers, tabloids, and even the BBC News. The NME wrote about the phenomeon, "Yes, in a week where news leaked that Saddam Hussein was preparing nuclear weapons, everyday folks were still getting slaughtered in Bosnia and Mike Tyson was making his comeback, tabloids and broadsheets alike went Britpop crazy." Blur won the battle of the bands, selling 274,000 copies to Oasis' 216,000 - the songs charting at number one and number two respectively. However, in the long-run Oasis became more commercially successful than Blur. Unlike Blur, Oasis were able to achieve sustained sales in the United States thanks to the singles "Wonderwall" and "Champagne Supernova". Oasis's second album (What's the Story) Morning Glory? (1995) eventually sold over four million copies in the UK, becoming the third best-selling album in British history.
By the summer of 1996 Oasis's prominence was such that NME termed a number of Britpop bands (including The Boo Radleys, Ocean Colour Scene and Cast) as "Noelrock", citing Gallagher's influence on their success. John Harris typified this wave of Britpop bands, and Gallagher, of sharing "a dewy-eyed love of the 1960s, a spurning of much beyond rock's most basic ingredients, and a belief in the supremacy of 'real music'". Starting on 10 August 1996, Oasis played a two-night set at Knebworth to a combined audience of 250,000 people. The demand for these gigs was and still is the largest ever for a concert on British soil; over 2.6 million people had applied for tickets.
During this time the new electioneering saw the emergence of the young leader of the Labour Party - Tony Blair. Blair represented the new face of the dreams and wishes of the British counterculture and many acts like Oasis admired him. Noel Gallagher also appeared on several official meetings — even being invited to Downing Street on one occasion, along with Alan McGee from Creation Records - and expressed his support for Blair.
Oasis' third album Be Here Now (1997) was highly anticipated. Despite initially attracting positive reviews and selling strongly, the record was soon subjected to strong criticism from music critics, record-buyers and even Noel Gallagher himself for its overproduced and bloated sound. Music critic Jon Savage pinpointed Be Here Now as the moment where Britpop ended; Savage said that while the album "isn't the great disaster that everybody says," he noted that "[i]t was supposed to be the big, big triumphal record" of the period. At the same time, Damon Albarn sought to distance Blur from Britpop with the band's fifth album, Blur (1997). On the album, Blur moved away from their Parklife-era sound, and their music began to assimilate American lo-fi influences, particularly that of Pavement. Albarn explained to the NME in January 1997 that "We created a movement: as far as the lineage of British bands goes, there'll always be a place for us", but added, "We genuinely started to see that world in a slightly different way."
As the movement began to slow down, many acts began to falter and broke up. The popularity of the pop group the Spice Girls has been seen as having "snatched the spirit of the age from those responsible for Britpop." While established acts struggled, attention began to turn to the likes of Radiohead and The Verve, who had been previously overlooked by the British media. These two bands—in particular Radiohead—showed considerably more esoteric influences from the 1960s and 1970s, influences that were uncommon among earlier Britpop acts. In 1997, Radiohead and The Verve released their respective efforts OK Computer and Urban Hymns, both of which were widely acclaimed. Post-Britpop bands like Travis, Stereophonics and Coldplay, influenced by Britpop acts, particularly Oasis, with more introspective lyrics, were some of the most successful rock acts of the late late 1990s and early 2000s.
- List of Britpop musicians
- The Britpop Story
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