|Cultural origins||Early 1990s, United Kingdom|
|New wave of new wave|
Britpop is a UK based alternative rock subgenre and culture movement in the mid 1990s which emphasized "Britishness", and produced bright, catchy pop music partly in reaction to the US led grunge music and the UK's own shoegazing music scene. The most successful bands associated with the movement are Oasis, Blur, Suede and Pulp; those groups would come to be known as its "big four". While music was the main focus, fashion, art, and politics also got involved, with artists such as Damien Hirst being involved in creating videos for Blur, and being labelled as Britart or Britpop artists, and Tony Blair and New Labour aligning themselves with the movement.
Though Britpop is viewed as a marketing tool, and more of a cultural moment than a musical style or genre, there are musical conventions and influences the bands grouped under the Britpop term have in common, such as showing elements from the British pop music of the Sixties, glam rock and punk rock of the Seventies, and indie pop of the Eighties in their music, attitude, and clothing. An influence they shared in particular was the Smiths whose lead singer Morrissey championed a nostalgic view of Britain. Britpop was a media driven focus on bands which emerged from the independent music scene of the early 1990s—and was associated with the British popular cultural movement of Cool Britannia which evoked the Swinging Sixties and the British guitar pop music of that decade.
In the wake of the musical invasion into the United Kingdom by American grunge bands, new British groups such as Blur and Suede 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, The Verve, Supergrass, Cast, Placebo, Space, 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. A chart battle between Blur and Oasis dubbed "The Battle of Britpop" brought Britpop to the forefront of the British press in 1995. By 1997, however, the movement began to slow down; many acts began to falter and broke up. The popularity of the pop group the Spice Girls "snatched the spirit of the age from those responsible for Britpop." 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
Though Britpop is seen retrospectively as a marketing tool, and more of a cultural moment than a musical style or genre, there are musical conventions and influences the bands grouped under the Britpop term have in common. Britpop bands show elements from the British pop music of the Sixties, glam rock and punk rock of the Seventies, and indie pop of the Eighties in their music, attitude, and clothing. Specific influences vary: Blur and Oasis drew from the Kinks and the Beatles, respectively, while Elastica had a fondness for arty punk rock. Regardless, Britpop artists project a sense of reverence for British pop sounds of the past. Alternative rock acts from the indie scene of the Eighties and early Nineties were the direct ancestors of the Britpop movement. The influence of the Smiths is common to the majority of Britpop artists. The Madchester scene, fronted by the Stone Roses, Happy Mondays and Inspiral Carpets (for whom Oasis's Noel Gallagher had worked as a roadie during the Madchester years), was an immediate root of Britpop since its emphasis on good times and catchy songs provided an alternative to the British-based shoegazing and American based grunge styles of music.
Local identity and regional British accents are common to Britpop groups, as well as references to British places and culture in lyrics and image. Stylistically, Britpop bands use catchy hooks and lyrics that were relevant to young British 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 and 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. 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 Jack became a prominent symbol of the movement (as it had a generation earlier with mod bands such as The Who) and its use as a symbol of pride and nationalism contrasted deeply with the controversy that erupted just a few 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
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 start the idea of an emerging movement.
Blur were involved in a vibrant social scene in London (dubbed "The Scene That Celebrates Itself" by Melody Maker) that focused on a weekly club called Syndrome in Oxford Street; the bands that met up were a mix of music styles, some would be labelled shoegazing, while others would go on to be part of Britpop. 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. Blur, however, took on an Anglocentric aesthetic with their second album Modern Life Is Rubbish (1993). Their new approach was inspired by a 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 term "Britpop" arose when the media were drawing on the success of British designers and films, the Young British Artists (sometimes termed "Britart") such as Damien Hirst, and on the mood of optimism with the decline of Thatcherism, and the rise of the youthful Tony Blair as leader of the Labour Party. The term had been used in the late 1980s in Sounds magazine by journalist John Robb to refer to bands such as The La's, The Stone Roses, and Inspiral Carpets. However, it would be 1994 before Britpop started to be used by the UK media in relation to contemporary music and events. Bands emerged aligned with the new movement. At the start of 1995 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 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."
"The Battle of Britpop"
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 phenomenon, "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, with one journalist commenting; "(Knebworth) could be seen as the last great Britpop performance; nothing after would match its scale." 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.
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 self-titled fifth album, Blur (1997). On guitarist Graham Coxon's suggestion, 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 1990s and early 2000s.
After Britpop the media focused on bands that may have been established acts, but had been over-looked due to focus on the Britpop movement. Bands such as Radiohead and The Verve, and new acts such as Travis, Stereophonics, Feeder and particularly Coldplay, achieved wider international success than most of the Britpop groups that had preceded them, and were some of the most commercially successful acts of the late 1990s and early 2000s. These bands avoided the Britpop label while still producing music derived from it. Bands that had enjoyed some success during the mid-1990s, but were not really part of the Britpop scene, included The Verve and Radiohead. The music of most bands was guitar based, often mixing elements of British traditional rock (or British trad rock), particularly the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Small Faces with American influences. Post-Britpop bands also utilized specific elements from 1970s British rock and pop music. Drawn from across the United Kingdom, the themes of their music tended to be less parochially centred on British, English and London life, and more introspective than had been the case with Britpop at its height. This, beside a greater willingness to woo the American press and fans, may have helped a number of them in achieving international success. They have been seen as presenting the image of the rock star as an ordinary person, or "boy-next-door" and their increasingly melodic music was criticised for being bland or derivative.
The cultural and musical scene in Scotland, dubbed "Cool Caledonia" by some elements of the press, produced a number of successful alternative acts, including The Supernaturals from Glasgow. Travis, also from Glasgow, were one of the first major rock bands to emerge in the post-Britpop era, and have been credited with a major role in disseminating and even creating the subgenre of post-Britpop. From Edinburgh Idlewild, more influenced by post-grunge, produced 3 top 20 albums, peaking with The Remote Part (2002). The first major band to breakthrough from the post-Britpop Welsh rock scene, dubbed "Cool Cymru", were Catatonia, whose single "Mulder and Scully" (1998) reached the top ten in the UK, and whose album International Velvet (1998) reached number one, but they were unable to make much impact in the US and, after personal problems, broke up at the end of the century. Other Welsh bands were Stereophonics, and Feeder.
These acts were followed by a number of bands who shared aspects of their music, including Snow Patrol, from Scotland and Elbow, Embrace, Starsailor, Doves, Electric Pyramid and Keane from England. The most commercially successful band in the milieu were Coldplay, whose debut album Parachutes (2000) went multi-platinum and helped make them one of the most popular acts in the world by the time of their second album A Rush of Blood to the Head (2002). Bands like Coldplay, Starsailor and Elbow, with introspective lyrics and even tempos, began to be criticised at the beginning of the new millennium as bland and sterile and the wave of garage rock or post punk revival bands, like the Hives, the Vines, the Strokes, and the White Stripes, that sprang up in that period were welcomed by the musical press as "the saviours of rock and roll". However, a number of the bands of this era, particularly Travis, Stereophonics and Coldplay, continued to record and enjoy commercial success into the new millennium. The idea of post-Britpop has been extended to include bands originating in the new millennium, including Razorlight, Kaiser Chiefs, Arctic Monkeys and Bloc Party, seen as a "second wave" of Britpop". These bands have been seen as looking less to music of the 1960s and more to 1970s punk and post-punk, while still being influenced by Britpop.
Retrospective documentaries on the movement include The Britpop Story - a BBC programme presented by John Harris on BBC Four in August 2005 as part of Britpop Night, ten years after Blur and Oasis went head-to-head in the charts, and Live Forever: The Rise and Fall of Brit Pop, a 2003 documentary film written and directed by John Dower. Both documentaries include mention of Tony Blair and New Labour's efforts to align themselves with the distinctly British cultural resurgence that was underway, as well Britpop artists such as Damien Hirst.
Bands associated with Britpop
- Black Grape
- The Boo Radleys
- The Divine Comedy
- Ocean Colour Scene
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