Why people are wrongly remembering Britpop
With British band Blur being announced as the headline act for this year’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix concerts, nostalgic Britpop is back on the conversation agenda. Although we’re as fond of putting on rose-tinted glasses and looking back at our youth as anyone is, the current nostalgia over Britpop is something very misleading.
All these “cultural commentators” seem to be forgetting that all those bands deemed to come under the umbrella of Britpop didn’t arrive all at once – fully formed, waving the Union flag – and didn’t suddenly become the only music out there.
A look back that the end of year best albums list from the NME, predictably has Definitely Maybe and Parklife as the top two albums of the year, but the third album is Ill Communication by the Beastie Boys followed by Nirvana’s Unplugged. One floor up at the old King’s Reach Towers and the Melody Maker rightly hailed Portishead’s Dummy as the album of the year – which in terms of quality and innovation it really was.
Neither was this some great victory for the common people, seeing their music suddenly have its moment in the sun because the facts really don’t back that up in the slightest. Here are the top 12 highest-selling singles for 1994:
1. Love Is All Around by Wet Wet Wet
2. Saturday Night by Whigfield
3. Stay Another Day by East 17
4. Baby Come Back by Pato Banton
5. I Swear by All-4-One
6. Without You by Mariah Carey
7. Always by Bon Jovi
8. Crazy for You by Let Loose
9. Things Can Only Get Better by D:Ream
10. Doop by Doop
11. The Sign by Ace of Base
12. Come on You Reds by the Manchester United Football Squad
Yeah, just think about that rum bunch as the soundtrack to the year. And this isn’t me trying to only show a top 12 to skew the results, because below that it’s all Take That, Boyzone, more Mariah Carey and Jimmy Nail. Yes, Jimmy Nail’s single Crocodile Shoes – there’s your Britpop for the masses right there. Of the whole top 40 best-selling singles you could only really (at a big push) call The Prodigy’s No Good (start the dance) as anything like being something out of the usual. And you’d hardly call it Britpop, in the Mod-haircut and Adidas-trainers sense.
Even when you look at the top-selling albums, Blur’s Parklife only traipses in at number eight. Bon Jovi was number one and the highest-selling British group in terms of album sales was The Beautiful South.
While it may have been a great party down at the Good Mixer in Camden, for most of the provinces it was business as usual. You just never expected to hear music you liked when you went out to bars and clubs. The best you could hope for was a pub that had a decent jukebox or a night that you and your mates put on yourselves.
There is an argument to be made that the charts don’t really matter culturally and the only people who really care are the record label bosses looking at quarterly profit-and-loss sheets. If this really is about art rather than commerce then sales figures are merely incidental. After all, if you look back to 1977, which will forever be dubbed The Year That Punk Broke it’s pretty obvious that it’s didn’t break into the charts and if there was anarchy in the UK then it was confined to specialist clubs mostly in London. The top 10 highest-selling singles for that year was this:
1. Mull of Kintyre – Wings
2. Don’t Give Up on Us – David Soul
3. Don’t Cry for Me Argentina – Julie Covington
4. When I Need You – Leo Sayer
5. Silver Lady – David Soul
6. Knowing Me, Knowing You – ABBA
7. I Feel Love – Donna Summer
8. Way Down – Elvis Presley
9. So You Win Again – Hot Chocolate
10. Angelo – Brotherhood of Man
But culturally, the revisionist thinking is also way off. The seemingly-agreed upon narrative is that the public were bored of the American music – notably the “grunge” bands – and wanted something of their own to come and save them.
The fact that Blur released Parklife in the same month of Cobain’s death is a semi-convenient “that-thing’s-over-now-look-at-this” moment. But the NME themselves, surely the cheerleaders for the whole of Britpop, still recognised that the music scene then was far more varied.
Their magazine front-covers that year featured Chuck D and Ice Cube, The Beastie Boys, Therapy?, Bob Mould, the Lollapalooza festival, Rage Against the Machine, The Smashing Pumpkins, Cypress Hill, Courtney Love, Snoop Doggy Dogg, Crowded House (!),Red Hot Chili Peppers, R.E.M, Neil Young and more, as well as the bands that we keep hearing about. Because back then, if you were really into music then you were into lots of things, and it really was a time when lots of great stuff was being released. A lot of rubbish too, but hey, that’s the game, and I’m sure with hindsight (and sales figures to hand) the NME editor regretted putting Crowded House on the cover. And of course when they put Blur and Oasis on the cover the sales went up, so there must have been a temptation to keep flogging that horse, but thankfully they also championed other music as well.
Arguably, dance music, in all its forms, was the real big innovation. The Melody Maker was running a series of features about “The Big Dance Explosion” and their Decks, Es, Midnight Runners features proves that not only did they love a pun-tastic headline, they were covering far more than British guitar music.
It’s easy to wonder, looking back now at previous eras, how much great music you’re missing out on simply because people like to group things neatly in scenes and rewrite the narrative of what actually happened. So if we are going to celebrate Britpop then let’s not forget that there was a lot more to it than just Blur vs Oasis with Pulp looking on.
Here are 20 great British singles from 1994-97 that probably won’t get “remembered” by the talking heads in the inevitable look-back pieces.
Bomb The Bass featuring Justin Warfield – Bug Powder Dust (1994)
It was Select Magazine who were credited with largely starting Britpop and waving the Union flag with their April 1993 cover, but this was their single of the year for 1994.
The Boo Radleys – Lazarus (1994)
From the 1993 album Giant Steps, this single was (re)released in 1994 and is still one of the finest British singles of the entire decade.
Portishead – Sour Times (1994)
The Supernaturals – ‘The Day Before Yesterdays Man’
When Take That made their fairly recent comeback, lots of people said they now just sounds like The Supernaturals. And by lots of people, I mean me and the few that remember the perky underdogs
Fun-Da-Mental – Dog Tribe (1994)
Cornershop – Born Disco, Died Heavy Metal
Elastica – Connection (1994)
The WonderStuff – On The Ropes (1994)
S*M*A*S*H – (I Want To) Kill Somebody (1994)
And almost certainly the only song ever written to contain the line “Gillian Shepherd’s got an appalling unemployment record”, this rant against the Tory party of the day still works now.
Orbital – The Box (1996)
It could be the soundtrack to a Cold War thriller but was often the soundtrack to post-night-out-back-in-the-flat-sessions. And check out a young (and scary looking) Tilda Swinton in the video.
Stereolab – Ping Pong (1994)
Not quite as brilliant as 1993’s French Disco, but this from London band Stereolab is lovely.
Dubstar – Not So Manic Now (1995)
Doesn’t get more British than singing about noisy neighbours, “the monotony of the tower block” and making yourself the usual cup of tea.
Teenage Fanclub – Sparky’s Dream (1995)
If you really wanted retro-pop then Scotland’s Teenage Fanclub did harmony and melody better than pretty much anyone.
Carter USM – The Only Looney Left in Town (1995)
A big, raucous, jubilant two-fingers raised to fascism. Now, even more than back then, this is relevant.
Sneaker Pimps – 6 Underground (1996)
Therapy? – Screamager
These Animal Men – Your Not My Babylon
The Jesus And Mary Chain – Sometimes Always
Billy Bragg – Everybody Loves You Babe
Spiritualized – I Think I’m In Love (1997)
Jason Pierce’s album about heartbreak and drugs is a masterpiece that in 1997, along with Radiohead’s OK Computer, finally killed off Britpop. This track is a standout single.