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4 January 2023

The Britpop nostalgia complex

The writer who christened the genre watched its droll ingenuity become boorish excess. Is it ripe for resurrection?

By Stuart Maconie

In late 1992, I quit as assistant editor of the NME after we put a lank-haired, plaid-shirted American rock group called Superchunk on a cover under the headline: “The Yanks Are Coming! Superchunk lead the American rock invasion”. Like Neville Chamberlain and Michael Fish before us, I knew we had failed to see the coming storm. Grunge, which had only ever produced one truly great record (Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”), had ossified into whiny complaint-rock. All the genuinely interesting new pop, I felt, was emerging from suburban England, specifically from three groups: Pulp, Blur and Suede. Each were very different but each had, it seemed to me, something of a shared aesthetic. They were strange and funny, they had good tunes, they were sexy and cool in a wonky-toothed, NHS-spectacled, cheese-and-onion-crisps-complexion way. It was a world-view nurtured in the dole queues of provincial Britain, not the bland, infernal sunshine of LA.

In 1993, now freelance, I was given most of the April issue of Select magazine to polemicise about all this. The cover showed Suede’s Brett Anderson under the headline “Yanks Go Home”. (I would replace mine and frame it for posterity, but a copy on eBay will currently set you back about £350.) Somewhere along the way I coined the term Britpop, thus becoming the Dr Frankenstein/Robert Oppenheimer of pop; the begetter of monsters.

Three decades later Britpop is back on the agenda and “in the discourse” – prompted by news of major stadium shows by Blur and Pulp in summer 2023 and memoirs by key players, most recently Blur’s Graham Coxon. In Verse, Chorus, Monster!, Coxon explains how touring the US in the early 1990s “cleansed us of any lingering desire to ape the music that was coming out of it”. Instead, he felt more of a kinship with Pulp and their thrillingly odd frontman Jarvis Cocker, whose aesthetic reminded him of “Tom Courtenay in Billy Liar”.

This kind of mid-century reference and resonance was key to the early distinctiveness of the scene. The Britpop aesthetic I hung around the necks of Blur, Suede and Pulp (without their permission and, eventually, without their enjoyment) was much more about drollery and maudlin glamour than the braggadocio and bombast it became. It was more Tony Hancock, The Likely Lads’ Terry Collier and Harry Corbett’s Steptoe Jnr – smouldering desire and thwarted ambition in bedsits and on council estates – than larging it in Soho with Damien Hirst and Keith Allen. But one begat the other, for complicated reasons not entirely musical, but as much to do with football, economics, the Spice Girls, Tony Blair and cheap art studio space in east London.

[See also: The best albums of 2022]

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Until recently, Britpop “literature” tended to fall into two categories. There’s the ebullient “scissors and paste” celebration – all chirpy blokeishness and Shed Seven swagger. Or, more common, there’s the rueful, censorious reappraisal, post-Blair, post-Iraq, and post those terrible Oasis albums. It is as if the carousing critic, having woken up beneath the Groucho Club’s famous snooker table, skulked sheepishly across town to the Stop The War march.

One reason for the commentariat’s retrospective distaste for Britpop is that it was chiefly the preserve of young white men. This was nothing new. It had been the monocultural, patriarchal hegemony of guitar pop for three decades. But lately we have, maybe rightly, come to see it as Britpop’s major failing, if one that merely reflects the power structure of most of the planet then and now. It didn’t look so much this way at the time though. Caitlin Moran, in her bestselling memoir How to Be a Woman, recalled that sexism seemed “to be dying so fast… in this era of Doc Martens and beer and minimal make-up”. But this was a sanctioned kind of feminism where equality meant drinking as much and being as lairy as the “lads”. Britpop was even more white than it was male. Sonya Aurora Madan of Echobelly was a notable exception: a young woman of colour who was also a kick-boxer and a sternly oppositional presence to the prevailing, dismal “ladette” trope.

But in recent years we have become more forgiving. We can acknowledge that there were some excellent records: Pulp’s Different Class, Blur’s Modern Life Is Rubbish and Parklife, the first two Suede albums. Each swam with class, ambition, sense of place, lust, black humour. Then along came the Spice Girls and Oasis. Both wore Union Jack livery without “interrogation”, as we’d say today, and mouthed essentially meaningless slogans (“Girl Power!” “Mad For It!”) while performing music that sold phenomenally well but made everyone feel a bit bad about themselves come the new millennium. For a time (around the 50 minutes it takes to play the first album) Oasis’s music did have much to recommend it: a simian brio infused with the cocky insolence of Arthur Seaton in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, albeit with worse haircuts.

Yes, there was a brattishness to Britpop – but, unlike the petulance of grunge, this was cheeky not whiny, funny and optimistic rather than morose and self-pitying. No one in this movement, as the Nirvana song put it, hated themselves and wanted to die – they were having too good a time. And if this relentless cockiness became wearisome, it was diverting for a while, especially if the alternative was the lugubriousness of Alice in Chains and Stone Temple Pilots.

But in truth, what I called Britpop ceased to be creatively interesting when it left the brutalist walkways of the Park Hill Estate, Sheffield, or the suburban torpor of Colchester and Haywards Heath. In true Sixties tradition, following Albert Finney, Rita Tushingham and John Braine, it moved to London to chase the big parts and the big money. Once in Soho, this weird little scene changed its essential nature – from chippy, sexy misfit to swaggering, triumphalist dullard. It then mushroomed into a mildly toxic puffball with spores of football, lads’ mags, “edgy” comedy, Page 3 girls and cocaine.

The Britpop frontman of 1993 became the Cool Britannia posterboy of 1996. While the former drank cider on dole money, the latter drank Krug on royalties. The new aristocrats of Cool Britannia had no desire to live like common people. They were too busy pitching panel shows in Soho House and going to restaurant openings. If we imagine a Venn diagram of these two adjacent but now incompatible worlds, the shaded overlap in the middle reads: “Alex James.”

The three great groups of the first Britpop spasm I celebrated in that Select issue all opted out in their own ways as the new century approached. Pulp retreated into the queasy, twilit shooting gallery of their 1998 record This Is Hardcore. Suede visibly brightened with a big, shiny pop album (Coming Up), before Brett took all the drugs in Britain. Blur, on the verge of self-destruction, sojourned to Iceland, listened to ramshackle American skatepunk and emerged creatively re-energised with the hugely successful “Song 2”. Ironically, this sounded like a grunge record – but one made by talented people with a sense of the absurd.

Now, with the announcement of Blur and Pulp’s instantly sold-out arena dates and the celebratory memoirs, it seems there is an appetite again for that first sulphate flush of vim and vigour that was Britpop. Twelve years of austerity, corruption and culture wars make the glad morning of the mid-1990s look enviably attractive, innocent even. Was it really so bad to feel so good about ourselves, even if that confidence cost us £50 a gram and a private club membership?

Just as the Nineties recalled the cultural and economic white heat of the Wilsonian Sixties, we seem to be entering a rerun of the conditions that demanded Britpop: a moribund Conservative government riven by scandal, economic ineptitude and complacency, slowly and publicly slouching toward its end-times. In the wings, a managerialist, competent, centrist Labour Party invigorated by victory over its hard left. Here’s to Britpop mark two then – available early 2024.

[See also: How Terry Hall shaped British music]

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This article appears in the 04 Jan 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Sunak Under Siege