Listen to this track by Brit-pop rear guard band and early to mid-nineties music industry case-study Sleeper. It’s “Sale Of The Century”, a top ten hit from 1996’s The It Girl. Even if they never made a record as big or as era-defining as Parklife, let’s say, this album is looked upon as their definitive statement during the height of the Brit-pop period, a bona fide platinum-selling record. This one is my favourite of their singles, of which they had eight in the top twenty during their tenure together before the end of the decade.
Sleeper formed at just the right time, and were active on the local scenes in London just as one era was ticking over into another. A record deal seemed to materialize before their eyes. But, by the time “Sale Of The Century” came around, they’d been on the scene playing the parts of jaded pop stars for a year and a half, touring with Blur, REM, and later with Elvis Costello & The Attractions. “Sale Of The Century” can be viewed in a different way when one considers their trajectory, and the mindset of lead singer Louise Wener as the writer and central figure in the eye of their particular storm. Read more
Listen to this track by Scottish post-Britpop favourites Travis. It’s “Driftwood”, a top twenty UK single as taken from their 1999 album The Man Who, their second. The song was released in May of that year, the second single from the album following the Oasis-like “Writing To Reach You”.
Travis represented something of a third wave of British guitar pop in the 1990s, coming in after the Britpop era had concluded, and long after The Stone Roses and their contemporaries revitalized the guitar for pop music in Britain at the beginning of the decade and out of the ashes of the late 1980s. At the time Travis were looked upon as being somewhat lightweight when compared to the zeitgeist precision of Blur, the kitchen sink drama of Pulp, or the ironic glam of Suede. But, to me those are not apples to apples comparisons in any case.
What this song provided was something of a relief from the artifice of Britpop (as good as that artifice was, to be clear). It navigated different waters, and more frightening ones in some respects, just because it contrasted so starkly against the distance and irony for which Britpop is known. No, Travis went the other way; they were earnest. That’s a tough row to hoe, especially when it comes to the British music press.
Really, I think that’s what was at the center of the critical backlash against a lot of late ’90s British guitar pop, with the understanding that some bands pulled it off to a greater degree than some others. So, what’s so earnest about this song, and what is it really about anyway? Read more
Listen to this track by Sheffieldian Britpop figureheads Pulp. It’s “Do You Remember The First Time”, a single as taken from their 1994 record His ‘N’ Hers. This record helped to establish the band’s propensity for strong narratives marked by a dramatic slice-of-life songwriting style.
The band began in the late ’70s when lead singer and founder Jarvis Cocker was 15. But, it was only in the 1990s that they would make their mark in the mainstream, helping to define the Britpop era in terms of subject matter, tone, and overall presentation. It would be this album that would serve as their invitation into the premiership of the UK charts, with that aforementioned flair for drama within a four minute pop song .
This particular song tells the story of two lovers, and another one waiting at home. On the surface, this story appears to be about sexual jealousy. But underneath that, it’s also a song about memory, maturity, and and how love itself can be very messy. Read more
Listen to this track by Anglocentric, conceptually-minded Brit-pop forseers The Kinks. It’s “Victoria”, a single as taken from their 1969 album Arthur (Or The Decline and Fall of the British Empire). After a distinguished purple patch of singles, and a slight dip, this was a return to the Billboard charts.
In many ways, The Kinks are the forefathers of Brit-pop more so than the Beatles. Like their ’90s progeny, they dealt in decidedly British themes and presented material through an English cultural lens at a time when gaining an American following was so vital, and so very expected of every rock band coming out of England in the early-to-mid 1960s. Many would get there in varying degrees. The Kinks would, too – eventually. But, the Beatles/Stones/Who triumvirate would shut them out of the top three places in the minds of record buyers in North America at the time.
Arguably, this was down to a Kinks ban in America at just the wrong time; from 1965 until the end of the decade when the American charts were the most receptive to British bands, and just when their classic line-up (with Pete Quaife on bass) was active. There are a number of theories as to the reasons for the ban, ranging from the alienation of prominent promoters, to their volatile on-stage behaviour (before Oasis, there was the Kinks …), to not paying dues to the appropriate American unions.
So how did they survive, and actually thrive, under these conditions? Read more
Listen to this track by Preston-based multi-cultural, multi-genre concern Cornershop. It’s “Brimful of Asha” as re-mixed by Norman Cook, who heard the original track, made his mix, which then became a number one. The original track appears on the 1997 album When I Was Born For The Seventh Time. This version of the song hit the charts in February of 1998, becoming in the minds of many, the definitive version.
In many ways, “Brimful of Asha” is a prime candidate to display the state of things in 1990s where British pop/rock music was concerned. For one thing, it’s remixed version is a clear example of how dance music, and guitar-bass-drums rock music could live together quite happily without the seams showing, and without it looking like a cynical marketing move. Norman Cook re-mixed it because he loved the original source material.
This song touches on a number of cultural crossings besides, with the intermingling of genres being one example.
Listen to this track by deliberately British, Brit-pop rock foursome Blur. It’s “This Is A Low”, a deep cut from their now-classic 1994 record Parklife, and also to be featured on Blur: the Best of compilation as chosen by the band themselves, even if it wasn’t originally a single.
Among other things, this song concerns itself with that most British of subjects, the weather. More to the point, it references another aspect of British life, which is The Shipping Forecast. That program is a BBC4 radio broadcast that is widely listened to internationally, and in the wee hours of the morning, accompanied by the theme music “Sailing By”.
In British culture, nothing says “I can’t sleep” more than tuning into the Shipping Forecast, which can be heard at 00:48 and again at 05:20. Many of the locations in the song are referenced in the broadcast; The Bay of Biscay, Dogger, Tyne, Forth, Cromarties, and Malin are all Shipping Forecast regions.
So, besides a cultural obsession with the weather, what else lies behind this song, a stalwart live cut and a fast favourite among band members and fans alike? Read more
Listen to this track, a proto-Brit pop gem from guitar pop one-man band World Party. The track is “Ship of Fools”, and the one man is Karl Wallinger, newly and amicably departed from the Waterboys at the time of this release. The song is taken from his 1987 debut Private Revolution.
The World Party name is a vehicle for Wallinger’s interests in classic British guitar pop of the 60s and 70s. Musically speaking, this song to me is something of an outlier for the Brit-pop of the 90s, with a return to a Beatlesque emphasis on melody and big choruses. With an anthemic chorus as big as the one here, to my ears the song is very Gallagher-worthy. Wallinger’s efforts followed the same template as Oasis, and many other British groups, although a number of years earlier. And by 1997, Wallinger would find a nice little earner in his song “She’s the One”, as taken from his Egyptology album. The song was a smash UK hit by British pop chart golden boy Robbie Williams.
But as for “Ship of Fools”, the song is both ahead of its time as well as being something of a period piece. The themes here are about the fear of the future, and about being led into that future guided by the self-serving hidden agendas of those with all the power. This is certainly not what I’m talking about when I say that this is of it’s time, of course. What theme could be more pertinent to this current decade, century, millennium that we now find ourselves in?
It’s just that in the 1980s, songwriters seemed to be unafraid to write songs like this in a pop music milieu , wearing their fears on their sleeves about the state of the world, and challenging us to think about our own while still aiming for airplay – and getting it. I’m not sure this happens quite as much today. And it makes me wonder why, since in many ways our world is in even bigger trouble than it was in 1987. The chorus ‘save me from tomorrow’ is, in a way, quite prescient.
For more information about Karl Wallinger and World Party, investigate worldparty.net.
In an age where a lot of bands are getting back together, this one feels a bit different, going beyond the usual rock clichés of ‘we’ve put the past behind us’, and ‘the music is bigger than our petty squabbles’. For one thing, the word nostalgia isn’t a dirty word.
It’s admitted in the article that the period when the band made its best work were the among the best times of their lives, particularly kicking off with their 1993 album Modern Life Is Rubbish, through to the heady days of 1994’s Parklife, when they captured the attention of an entire nation. That the Brit-Pop hangover albums 13 and the self-titled Blur, not to mention the very rocky Think Tank sessions in 2001 are still fresh in the minds of each member, it seems to be their early period that stands out for them:
(Blur bassist Alex James) “That was when we really discovered ourselves and stood up for ourselves. We were just young and … Not rich, but we did have everything we wanted. All we wanted was to get drunk and play our guitars really loud. And we traveled round the world and were … Just young men, I suppose.”
Article writer John Harris muses that this may be a common experience for many, given that the period roughly between the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the 9/11 attacks in New York City in 2001 were a period of relative stability. There was a certain feeling of innocence during those times, when it seemed like a good time to be young, in a band, or just in being a music fan. This is certainly true in my own case. Yet, despite this, the article gives the impression that this sense of nostalgia is in context.
Life hasn’t stopped for each member. Singer Damon Albarn and guitarist Graham Coxon still have wandering musical interests of their own. Bassist Alex James is a an active columnist for a number of British publications. And drummer Dave Rowntree is studying to be a solicitor with a mind to become an Member of the British Parliament!
The band are currently rehearsing for upcoming live appearances, most notably in Hyde Park on July 2 and 3 of this year, and the Glastonbury Festival. There’s no word on a new album, currently.
Listen to this song by Brit-pop brats Supergrass with the opening salvo of their 1995 debut album, I Should Coco. Warning: this tune rocks like a bastard, the bastard’s brother, his bastard wife, his layabout bastard brother-in-law (who’s between jobs right now…), his seven bastard children, and any collection of bastards unrelated to him in his postal code.
In my experience, Brit-pop bands are not universally loved, even among fans of that particular scene. A lot of people found the contrived cockney-isms of Blur to be tiresome. Some couldn’t stand Suede frontman Brett Anderson’s poor man’s Bowie. And Oasis? That’s a whole other post. But, I find that almost everyone likes Supergrass (I can only think of one exception in my immediate circle who doesn’t…). I think it might be because they seem to draw from the same classic British influences as their peers. Yet, they’ve managed to present them in such a way that it’s very hard to pinpoint exactly which ones.
The first time I heard this tune, I was sitting on the floor of a friend’s living room wondering how in god’s name they could pack that many riffs into one song without it sounding cluttered. And this is clearly rock ‘n’ roll, yet of what variety? There’s some punk in there – I think. And some 70s glam too – maybe. Also, a dash of 60s jam-rock, with keyboardist Rob Coombes mashing down the keys like Ray Manzarek crossed with the Roadrunner. And even if it isn’t cluttered, it’s totally over the top. But, it’s over the top in a good way.
Supergrass would evolve, and almost fifteen years later (!), they’ve maintained a steady output of solid records. This is from their first album, and the music represented is very much in a Brit-pop vein. But by their second, they were looking to escape the label since it was antiquated even two years after . That follow-up, We’re In It For the Money, is respected by many as their best. But, there’s something about the tunes on this debut which just shimmer with first-album enthusiasm of a band bursting with ideas and the skills to bring them off.
Listen to this song by outwardly Liverpudlian jangle-pop collective Shack. It’s “Natalie’s Party” as taken from their 1999 releaseHMS Fable. This band was the outcropping of another cult-band The Pale Fountains, of whom mainstream North American audience also remain tragically uninformed.
I must begrudgingly give Oasis some credit. They made classic rock-pop songwriting and presentation marketable again after many years of this approach lying stagnant. As much as the techno-rock of the late 80s, early 90s coming out of England produced some interesting material, it seemed to me that the art of a four-piece band putting out compact pop songs without additional stylistic flourishes was on its way to becoming a lost art. But, Oasis reminded us of the anthemic nature of guitar rock without all of the accessories. Yet, they weren’t the only ones working in this vein.
Shack is spearheaded, much like the aforementioned Oasis, by two brothers; Michael and John Head. Shack was a phoenix rising from the ashes of another band, the Pale Fountains who had run aground due to label pressures, debt, and drug abuse. By 1985, they’d crashed on the rocks. . They began as Shack in the late 80s, but it was their 90s output which finally had them in line with the zeitgeist of Brit-pop. Yet, there again they were outshone, despite a sterling output of material which pulls together elements of the Beatles, the Byrds, and West Coast psychedelic rock band Love, with whom they appeared during Love frontman Arthur Lee’s return to the stage.
But for me, this track is my favourite; just a shimmering burst of joy, with jangly guitars, la-la-la backing vocals, and luscious strings. I may visit some favourite musical locales from time to time. Well, OK. Fairly often. If I’m honest, this is the sound that most feels like home to me – four guys, some jangly guitar, a drummer and bass player, and songs to sing along with. This is aural comfort food.
Oasis must be thanked again, in that Shack are currently signed to Noel Gallagher’s Sour Mash label. And for more information about Shack, check out Shacktheband.com.