Bill Bois’ Music Theory For Non-Musicians™
…if there was ever an art where breaking the rules is one of the rules, it’s music.
What Makes Britpop, Britpop?
The weather there is pretty gray and dreary most of the year, so it’s not beyond the realm of possibilities.
Great Britain is also known for its drab weather. Yet grunge didn’t really make an impact there, with the exception of Nirvana.
Of all the Seattle bands, they were the only ones to gain any sort of audience in the UK, perhaps because they were one of the more melodic.
When Kurt Cobain died, it left an opening for other loud guitars in the UK.
British bands were ready.
Margaret Thatcher’s time as Prime Minister ended in 1990.
A big part of Thatcherism is the idea that the government can’t make you happy. You are responsible for yourself and need to make your own way. Don’t worry about other people.
Yes, Thatcher did say “there’s no such thing as society,” but that quote is taken out of context. She meant that people shouldn’t rely on society for their well being. They need to take care of themselves.
That’s a good political theory. But theories and reality are often two different things.
Thatcher’s economic policies drove many manufacturing companies to go out of business or move overseas. Lower class people had a harder time taking care of themselves without jobs or government help.
There I go, oversimplifying again.
But this is the backdrop against which grunge came to Britain – and pretty much failed to catch on.
The problems of British kids were a lot different from anything going on in the Pacific Northwest.
British youth wanted their own songs.
Both Suede and Blur were formed by suburban kids while attending university in London.
Suede’s bassist Mat Osman described his hometown of Haywards Heath as “a kind of place where literally nothing happens.”
That’s what they wrote songs about: Real life in Britain.
They also thought it important to sing in their own accents. In other words, they didn’t try to sound American. They wanted some authenticity.
Suede singer Brett Anderson and guitarist Justine Frischmann had been a couple, but things weren’t working out. They split up and Frischmann was immediately “swept off her feet,” as she put it, by Blur’s singer Damon Albarn. She hoped to continue in Suede, but it was awkward for everyone.
After she was late for a rehearsal because she had been at a Blur video shoot, Anderson kicked her out of the band.
Anderson wrote about the pain of losing her. His songs got better because they had more heart, and Melody Maker magazine called Suede “The Best New Band In Britain” before their first album even came out. Their first three singles and the quotable Anderson talking about his sexuality gave the music press plenty to write about.
When the self-titled album came out, it debuted at #1. Anderson’s honest songs about life in British suburbia resonated in both sales and reviews.
It won the 1993 Mercury Prize as the best British album of the year. The band donated the £25,000 prize to cancer research.
That, however, wasn’t the start of Britpop.
There had been undercurrents of a new patriotism since England reached the semi-finals of the 1990 World Cup.
But Britpop gelled when Select magazine put Anderson on the cover of its April 1993 issue with the headline “Yanks Go Home!”
It listed Pulp, St. Etienne, and others in what it called “the Battle for Britain.”
This slight exaggeration of music’s global importance helped raise the domestic stature of these bands, and probably helped diminish grunge’s potential in the United Kingdom. It also shows how important the music press was to Britpop’s future.
Going into this period, there were no guitar-based bands in the Top 40. It was mostly lightweight pop, from ballads to dance tracks.
However, as Select’s cover shows, there were already bands writing interesting, UK-centric, pop rock. Pulp formed way back in 1979. Their first single, My Lighthouse, came out in 1983. Blur released their first single She’s So High/I Know in 1990. The Charlatans, known as The Charlatans UK in America, also released their first single and album in 1990.
The term “Britpop” wasn’t coined until long after most Britpop bands formed and released material.
The Face magazine wrote about Blur in May 1994, shortening “British pop” to “Brit pop.”
The Guardian used the word later that year, as did NME the next January.
It was everywhere after that.
Most of the bands that would come to be called Britpop formed between 1990 and 1993, about the same period as grunge.
It wasn’t a genre as much as it was a movement. All of these artists had roughly the same idea at roughly the same time.
That idea was to celebrate all things British, even the not so great parts, and to bring back guitars. It recognized the great British rock bands, like The Beatles, The Kinks, The Who, and The Smiths. At the very least, it was a British reaction to American grunge.
Following Blur’s first three singles and various tours of the UK, they found themselves £60,000 in the red. They booked a tour of the States in hopes of earning enough money to pay off their debt.
It wasn’t a great tour.
Though it only lasted two months, all the members were homesick and started fighting with each other, sometimes violently.
Albarn started writing songs about what he missed about England. He found the States to be artificial and shallow.
He wrote about what he loved and didn’t love about home.
These songs became the basis for their second album, Modern Life Is Rubbish, which got some good reviews and modest sales. Albarn immediately began writing new songs for their next album.
Released in April 1994, Parklife debuted at #1 on the strength of its first single, Girls & Boys. The album was nominated for a Mercury Prize, and went platinum four times over in the UK. Its songs were about everyday British life, from housing estates to the shipping forecast. Given its subject matter, it didn’t do well in the US.
Meanwhile, Frischmann had started her own band called Elastica with Justin Welch, who had briefly played drums in Suede.
Elastica’s first release was a single called Stutter.
While the lyrics aren’t explicit, it’s about a woman dealing with a man having a bout of erectile dysfunction.
It was an immediate hit, especially with women.
There were two more singles, and their self-titled album was released in March of 1995. It went gold in the UK, US, and Canada.
This new power couple of Albarn and Frischmann were a gold mine for the music press and tabloids. They churned out issue after issue with one or the other or both on the cover. The pressures of this scrutiny on two kids in their 20s who just wanted to play music led to drug use and nervous breakdowns and the end of their relationship.
To keep selling papers, the tabloids would have to invent new stories.
In 1991, a new Manchester band wasn’t happy with their singer and auditioned Liam Gallagher as a replacement. They hired him, and Liam brought his brother Noel to an early gig. Noel thought they were alright, but nothing special.
However, Noel approached them about performing some songs he had written – with the understanding that he’d be the bandleader and songwriter. They agreed.
Noel directed them to play simple parts. The bass had to stay on the root notes, the guitars had to play basic barre chords, the drums couldn’t be too busy.
He did this in part because he didn’t think they were capable of playing anything intricate.
But if you look at the discography of very successful bands with long careers, you’ll see that their material tends to get simpler over time. In a small nightclub with little reverberation, a band can play a lot of notes in rapid succession and it’ll sound good. Doing that in a huge stadium doesn’t work because the sounds bounce all over the concrete walls. In bigger venues, simple sounds better.
Oasis skipped straight to the simple stuff. Simple and loud.
The lyrics don’t really say anything about Britain or anything else. I’m still not sure what wonderwalls or champagne supernovae are, but it doesn’t matter. The words are meaningless but sound good.
Oasis set out for world domination.
Their management realized that the core midlands/northern Oasis audience didn’t read the London-based music press.
They weren’t the kind to keep up on what bands were releasing singles next week, and didn’t really care about which bands were popular in London. They were busy enjoying the Madchester scene, which was just winding down.
So the Oasis team placed ads in nontraditional places, like football programs.
Oasis’ first album, Definitely Maybe, produced four top 40 singles and went eight times platinum. It’s even sold a million copies in the US. Such is the strength of simple, gorgeous, melodies.
The Gallagher brothers were louts with enormous egos, constantly quarreling with each other and cursing up a storm (if you could understand their accents). They’d argue with anyone over anything. This sort of band drama was perfect for the tabloids.
At the 1995 Brit Awards, Blur won four trophies. A little embarrassed, Albarn said from the podium that the awards should be shared with Oasis. He meant it.
But shortly after, at a party celebrating Oasis hitting #1 with Some Might Say, Liam Gallagher went up to Albarn and said that Oasis was #1 now.
Except, being Liam Gallagher, he didn’t say it politely. It was aggressive and churlish and vulgar.
And Albarn didn’t forget it.
It was the start of what rappers would call: a beef.
Both bands had albums coming out that fall, and Oasis scheduled their first single to be released the week before Blur’s.
If Oasis went to #1 that first week, they were likely to be #1 the next, too, making it harder for Blur to hit #1.
If Albarn and team delayed their single by a few weeks, it would start tabloid rumors that Blur was scared of competing, so they changed their release date to the same day as Oasis’. It set up a head to head contest.
Stories vary about how seriously either band took it, but the press hyped it like crazy. They called it “The Battle Of Britpop.” Even the mainstream news carried breathless reports.
It became more than a rivalry between two bands. It was framed as the southern middle class against the northern lower class. It was personal.
When the sales figures came out, Blur’s Country House sold 270,000 copies, 58,000 more than Oasis’ Roll With It. Neither song is among the bands’ best.
In the long run though, Oasis sold more records in more countries than Blur could ever hope to.
When Blur finally got a hit in America with 1997’s Song 2, they had changed their sound. It was more grunge than Britpop.
Definitely Maybe and Parklife are to this day considered Britpop’s best albums. The Britishness of Parklife and the singalong anthems of Definitely Maybe define Britpop.
But what is Britpop really?
A marketing term.
I haven’t mentioned any of the other bands under the Britpop umbrella, like Pulp, who were there from before the beginning and contributed great work.
Just like any band from Seattle was called grunge, all a band had to do to be considered Britpop band was spell “colour” with a “u”.
Many of these bands weren’t very good but labels knew Britpop sold records, so that’s how they were defined.
Britpop started fading out in 1997 with Oasis’ album Be Here Now.
Noel thought it was bloated and the songs were too long.
Liam loved it. It sold well enough, but the public mostly agreed with Noel.
Pop, like nature, abhors a vacuum. Britpop was gradually replaced by pop acts like The Spice Girls.
Frischmann said she knew Britpop was over when she heard Robbie Williams’ Angels.
Oasis broke up and threatened to get back together and threatened to break up again.
One Gallagher sued the other, which I suppose is better than fisticuffs. As unstable as they are, their place in music history is rock solid.
Given all the tabloid attention he received, it’s no wonder that the band Albarn started after Blur broke up is virtual.
Gorillaz is a fictional band, or at least the characters on the album covers and in the videos are. In concert, the band played behind a translucent curtain under a screen showing the cartoon band members.
Albarn doesn’t have to show his face in public ever again if he doesn’t want to.
Elastica put out a second album in 2000. It sold poorly and they broke up shortly after. Frischmann, who majored in architecture at university, co-hosted a BBC series about the subject.
She earned a masters in visual arts, and now lives in northern California with her meteorologist husband.
She paints instead of making music, which no longer interests her.
And this concludes Season 3.
The lovely Ms. Virgindog and I will be traveling for a couple weeks, first to France and then to England. Please don’t break into our house while we’re gone.
I’ll probably check in from time to time but it’s likely that I’ll be preoccupied with croissants and crepes and charcuterie and chips and crisps. And that’s just the C’s.
Not that I’m looking forward to it or anything.
Suggested Listening: Full YouTube Playlist
The Charlatans (UK)
You’re In A Bad Way
New French Girlfriend
Girls & Boys
Sleep On The Left Side
In The Name Of The Father
The Lightning Seeds
Sale Of The Century
Don’t Look Back In Anger
Let the author know that you liked their article with a “Green Thumb” upvote!