Telegraph "Guide to Modern British Music" supplement
Published on Saturday October 25, 2008
From Britpop to Girl Power, OK Computer to Big Beat, Chris Alden remembers the 90s in British music.
Two words sum up the musical 90s: Cool Britannia. British guitar bands rediscovered their suburban roots and swaggered on stage to thrash out three-minute pop songs; the Spice Girls’ Geri Haliwell sported a Union Jack dress; and pop stars were invited to Downing Street by Tony Blair.
The 90s also witnessed the UK’s best-selling single of all time, Elton John’s non-profit Candle in the Wind 1997, released to mark the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. It sold 1.5 millon copies in its first week in the UK, about 10 times more than other decent number one singles.
But by the decade’s end, the only question was how to party like it was 1999 – staying at home and listening to Radiohead’s millennial OK Computer, considered by some the best album since Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon, or by going out and dancing to Fatboy Slim. The choice was yours.
Blur and Oasis in the Battle of Britpop
As a PR stunt, it was inspired. Take the two British bands of the moment, Blur and Oasis, and let them release their singles on the same day. Play up the idea that one lot are pretty boys from the south, the other a pair of pouty brothers from the north. Call it the “Battle of Britpop”. Sit back and watch the accusations fly.
August 1995, the week that Blur and Oasis went head to head in the UK singles chart, was the high tide for Britpop – a craze for dreamy, jangly and utterly British guitar pop that swept the nation in the mid-1990s. It was a time when Britain fell back in love with its suburban musical traditions – from the Beatles to Bowie, the Jam to the Kinks – and reinvented them for a new generation of fans.
Crucially, Britpop demonstrated that there was a market for what 80s DJs thought of as “alternative” music – but only if you gave it airtime and exposure, as the BBC finally did in 1993 with the purge of the much-lampooned Smashie and Nicey brigade at Radio 1.
The voices in the wilderness heralding Britpop’s arrival had been Madchester’s finest the Stone Roses. Their 1989 debut album, The Stone Roses, drew inspiration from both dance music and the psychedelic 60s; its catchy guitar hooks, surreal lyrics and throaty vocals from Ian Brown – who, with his simian features and straggly haircut, was a prototype for the 90s frontman – made it a jukebox favourite throughout the next decade.
Also jingle-jangling at the dawn of Britpop were Oldham’s The Inspiral Carpets, who had a 1990 hit with This is How It Feels; while The Charlatans added a further dose of psychedelia with early songs like Weirdo.
Then down south, a string of bands began to assert their Englishness for England’s sake, in rejection of American grunge. Suede, founded by Brett Anderson and Justine Frischmann, were a magnet to fans eager for successors to Bowie and the Smiths. Yet as early as 1991 Frischmann, not willing to be the “girl playing guitar at the back”, had left to front post-punk Elastica – whose energetic first hit, Stutter, proved that where two-minute guitar pop was concerned, the world would listen.
Then Blur and Oasis crashed on to the scene. Blur – fronted by Damon Albarn, later going out with Frischmann – had been Madchester outliers, but caught the Cool Britannia mood in 1994 with their third album, Parklife, whose signature single featured Phil Daniels and some catchy, Ray Davies style lyrics. The album toyed with whimsical English archetypes: six packs on bank holiday,2pm lie-ins and rolling on the white cliffs of Dover – perhaps, you imagined, all at the same time.
Oasis, meanwhile, found inspiration in the Beatles. Their debut album Definitely Maybe featured Noel Gallagher’s lyrical reflections on dreams, aspirations and the distractions of a creative life, delivered with vocal gusto by brother Liam.
But Britpop wasn’t only about Blur and Oasis. If the Gallaghers and Albarn were the movement’s leading men, the supporting cast was led by Jarvis Cocker of Pulp, who chronicled dreams and awakenings in a Sheffield suburb. Pulp’s 1995 single Common People was an irresistible hit. In the wings were the Manic Street Preachers, the Bluetones and Supergrass; while the leading lady of Britpop became Louise Wener of Sleeper, with punkish narrative pop songs like Delicious and Statuesque.
So who won the Battle of Britpop? For the record, Blur’s Country House outsold Oasis’ Roll With It by 58,000 units; but the success was shortlived as Oasis’ album (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?, went to number one with hit singles like Wonderwall, Don’t Look Back in Anger and Some Might Say.
If the Blur-Oasis head-to-head was the high point of Britpop, it was also the beginning of the end. With its emphasis on commercial success as well as critical, it paved the way for a return to manufactured pop. By Christmas 1997, Britpop had fizzled out, and the Teletubbies were saying “Eh-oh”. Uh-oh.
Girl Power and boy bands
“Yo… I’ll tell you what I want, what I really, really want. I want a record deal with a seven-figure advance, the fastest-selling album since the Beatles, six number ones in two years, success in countless countries, a film, a sponsorship contract with 10 of the country’s leading brands, and a husband who can take a half-decent free kick …”
By summer 1996, there wasn’t a man or woman in the country, perhaps the western world, who hadn’t heard of Ginger, Scary, Baby, Sporty and Posh. The debut single, Wannabe, has been a runaway hit. The pages of every tabloid and broadsheet are filled with a new phrase: Girl Power.
These days, all-girl bands are everywhere – but after years of British boy bands like East 17 and clean-cut Take That (launchpad for the solo career of Robbie Williams), the Spice Girls were brash and fresh.
Who can forget Geri Halliwell wearing that Union Jack dress? Who wasn’t attracted to the idea that feminism is about being happy in your Wonderbra – and mistress of your own destiny? Happy times – and the Spice Girls took that feeling, bottled it, and sold it around the world.
OK Computer – and its legacy
To make an era-defining album, they say, all you need is to capture a change in the national mood. And just as Pink Floyd caught Britain’s shift from the swinging 60s to the meditative 70s with The Dark Side of the Moon, so in 1997 there came an album that rode the bumpy, downhill slope from cocky Cool Britannia to pre-millennial angst.
That album was OK Computer by Radiohead – a melodic, filmic, anomaly of a record that marked the moment when the Britpop generation grew up, got jobs, and didn’t like what they saw.
The seeds of change had been sown. After 1996, British guitar music increasingly moved from the Gallagher swagger to the languid, elegiac sound of bands like Richard Ashcroft’s The Verve. So Radiohead, whose main hit to that point had been their 1992 single Creep, made their own bitter-sweet symphony – albeit more bitter than sweet.
Partly recorded in an Oxfordshire shed, OK Computer is a rejection of faceless, corporate Britain – Karma Police could have been about David Brent – and also a plea for escape to a better world. But sometimes it all goes too far: if all you’re in the mood for is a pop song, listening to OK Computer can be like watching the closing scenes of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Radiohead’s legacy was a new downbeat guitar rock scene. Turn-of-the-millennium British bands like Travis, Muse and Coldplay were all, in their turn, criticised as “Radiohead lite”. Whatever the truth, it was Radiohead who set the mood.
Bouncy techno, trip hop, big beat
From oldskool to nu skool, bouncy techno to happy hardcore, jungle to drum and bass, the sub-genres of electronic music in the 90s were sometimes enough to confuse those who were there. But two distinct movements, indirect descendants of the late 80s British house scene, stood out above the sirens, scratches and breakbeats.
The first was the Bristol sound. It’s frightening to look back and realise how early Massive Attack released their debut album Blue Lines: the standout track Unfinished Sympathy, in 1991, combined elements of US hip hop, acid jazz, soul, and a downtempo style that echoed ambient house.
Along with Massive Attack, Portishead and ex-Massive Attack member Tricky were the main exponents of what became known as “trip hop” – a seam of laid-back electronica that ran as counterpoint not only to the happy hardcore then popular in clubs, but also the jangling of boys with guitars.
But by the late 90s, we were dancing to a very different sound. Artists like the Chemical Brothers, The Prodigy and Fatboy Slim had hits as varied as the danceable Hey Boy Hey Girl, the in-your-face Firestarter and the soulful Praise You – but they were unified by a common theme: the samples, vocals and digital effects underscored by the heavy, uptempo “big beat” that gave the movement its name.
Compared to the Bristol sound, big beat was a runaway commercial success. The Propellerheads’ Spybreak was used in the blockbuster film The Matrix – and by 2002 Fatboy Slim (aka Norman Cook, the former bassist of the Housemartins) was drawing crowds to Brighton beach for a huge summer party that attracted 250,000 people. Who said music was no longer fun?
Definitive 90s playlist
WONDERWALL – Oasis (1995)
PARKLIFE – Blur (1994)
COMMON PEOPLE – Pulp (1995)
STUTTER – Elastica (1993)
WANNABE – Spice Girls (1996)
ANGELS – Robbie Williams (1997)
RELIGHT MY FIRE – Take That (1993)
FITTER HAPPIER – Radiohead (1997)
THE ONLY ONE I KNOW – Charlatans (1990)
KINKY AFRO – Happy Mondays (1990)
ONLY LOVE CAN BREAK YOUR HEART – St Etienne
PRAISE YOU – Fatboy Slim (1999)
BITTER SWEET SYMPHONY – The Verve (1997)
ANIMAL NITRATE – Suede (1993)
FIRESTARTER – Prodigy (1996)
UNFINISHED SYMPATHY – Massive Attack (1991)
HEY BOY HEY GIRL – Chemical Brothers (1999)
CANDLE IN THE WIND 97 – Elton John (1997)
THIS IS HOW IT FEELS – Inspiral Carpets (1990)
MULDER AND SCULLY – Catatonia (1998)
STAY – Shakespears Sister (1992)
IF YOU TOLERATE THIS THEN YOUR CHILDREN WILL BE
NEXT – Manic Street Preachers (1998)
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