Britpop: an insider’s tale of music’s last great gold rush

Twenty years ago, it felt like John Niven and his fellow indie kids had won pop's cold war. But then the madness set in.

Damon Albarn's band Blur and their fans felt London belonged to them. Photo: Rex
Damon Albarn's band Blur and their fans felt London belonged to them. Photo: Rex

It’s such an awful term, isn’t it? A genuinely dreary expression – Britpop. So bovine and literal, containing none of the wit or musicality of “punk rock” or “acid house”. Let’s face it, even “skiffle” – with all its onomatopoeic bounce and shuffle – was a better word to describe a genre than Britpop. Still, we’d best call it something if we’re to remain on the same page.

Exactly twenty years ago this month, in the spring of 1994, I moved from Scotland to London, renting a room from my friend John Kellett in a Georgian maisonette in Notting Hill Gate. John was the head of legal and business affairs at Go! Discs, which was enjoying huge success with Paul Weller and the Beautiful South and was getting ready to release the first Portishead album. I was moving from working at a tiny independent label in Glasgow to my first major job, at London Records, then part of the PolyGram group. Go! Discs was based in Chiswick, west London. We were in nearby Hammersmith. Most mornings that summer, John and I would race each other to work in our company cars, speeding along the Westway.

I wasn’t the only indie kid graduating up from the bush leagues that year. In the weeks and months following my move south, Blur released Parklife and Oasis put out Definitely Maybe: the two records that heralded the Imperial Phase of what would come to be known as Britpop, a movement that had been birthed a year earlier – albeit in a crude, forced, C-section kind of way – by a Select magazine cover featuring the Auteurs, Pulp, Suede, Denim and Saint Etienne. (Note to readers much under 30: Select was a kind of Q or Mojo for rave and indie kids whose existence exactly spanned the Nineties.)

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young, overpaid and living in London was very – well, heaven might be stretching it, but you certainly felt glad you weren’t in the Shetland Isles, or out in Hackensack, New Jersey.

Indie London of the Eighties had been a grim old place, a sad wasteland where you stared through your fringe at the June Brides or the Shop Assistants as they played in a brightly lit room above a pub, the carpet crunching beneath you as you frugged shambolically under the powerful spell of three Hofmeisters. In our world in 1988, to see a band like Primal Scream filling the big hall at Ulu (capacity: 700) was like seeing the Stones at Madison Square Garden in 1975. A few short years later this kind of gig would be a warm-up show . . .

By all means go ahead and cock your snook in the cold light of 2014, but it’s hard to overstate how exciting the early Oasis shows were, or the thrill of hearing Blur’s “For Tomorrow” in a speeding car on the Westway. Of hearing records you loved coming out of radios in offices and factories all over the country, rather than from the stereo in a sordid bedroom containing you and five of your mates. Suddenly the bands you liked were in the charts and you and your friends were working at major labels, and it felt like we had won the indie cold war of the Eighties. Suddenly you were in the VIP box at Maine Road, lurid with drugs and icy champagne. Suddenly watching Death by Milkfloat at the Camden Falcon felt a long, long way away as the capital came alive for us.

The street names I learned for the first time during that hot summer of 1994 are as sweet to me today as a litany: Westbourne Park Road, Ladbroke Grove, Camden Parkway and Old Compton Street. Of course, we were just doing what generation after generation before us had done – finding our feet in London and deciding it belonged to us and no one else. We painted it in our own colours: the gold of dawn, the chalky white of Ecstasy and cocaine and the bold red of New Labour.

We were in from the cold. And very soon we created an environment where Cast could have a double platinum debut album, where Blur and Oasis were discussed on the national news, where Leon from Northern Uproar could talk openly of buying a casino, and yet still aliens did not come and destroy our planet.

As you get older, you realise that every generation has its moment where impotence becomes prepotency. Where it gets its shot in office. The hippies of the Sixties swapped tie-and-dye and four-skin joints for velvet suits and gold coke spoons and ran CBS and Warner Brothers in the Seventies. The punk rockers of the Seventies wore Yohji Yamamoto suits and turned rebellion into money as they presided over the cold stream of synthetic pop music that we indie kids waged war against in the Eighties. And in our turn, in the Nineties, we untucked our Ralph Lauren shirts and talked about “having it” and “larging it” and we thought Audioweb not altogether a bad thing, and we dumbed it down and watched the cash pour in.

It was to be the last great gold rush of the music industry, when having a decent hit meant you were selling over a million albums at 13 quid a pop. As opposed to today, when you’re celebrating doing 100,000 at £7 per unit. We were selling ten times the volume at twice the price. It did not lead to reasonable behaviour or sane decisions. And, again like every generation before us, we eventually came to realise that our moment of dominance was hollow and riven with compromise. Cocaine destroyed you. We went to war in Iraq. Cast broke up. And, as John Harris sagely noted in his superlative study of the period, The Last Party, Leon from Northern Uproar did not get that casino.

As the decade drew to a close it all changed. Noel went into the kitchen at Supernova Heights one morning in 1998 to start the day with a lager and a chunky line of bugle and thought, “What the fuck am I doing?” In four short years we went from “you might as well do the white line” to Jarvis desolately singing “bye-bye” at the end of This Is Hardcore.

Britpop. Look upon its works, ye mighty, and, what? Sigh? Laugh? Shrug? Do not judge us too harshly. Like Francis Ford Coppola making Apocalypse Now – if you can picture Coppola snapping his fingers Manc-style in an untucked Ralph Lauren shirt and crocodile-effect Patrick Cox loafers – we were young, we had too much money and we had access to too much “equipment”.

And, little by little, we went insane.

John Niven is the author of “Kill Your Friends”, “The Amateurs” and “Second Coming” (all published by Vintage)