The Professor: Britpop 101

rainy-street-london-england_67537_990x742By Antony. Recently, a few things have reminded me of Britpop: Radiohead’s The Bends turned 20 a few weeks ago, Blur’s been killing it with a new album on the horizon, and I’ve been pondering what to make of the new Mumford & Sons song, which led me to contemplate who Coldplay is, which led me back to The Bends. All of this is to say, I decided to dig a little deeper into Britpop, and I’ve come to a conclusion: Britpop is not simply the triumphant run of a number of British bands in the mid-90s; it’s really what British rock has always been about and continues to be about.

It’s generally accepted that Britpop begins in 1993 with Suede’s self-titled debut and is most certainly finished by the time Oasis’s bloated third album, Be Here Now, is released in 1997. I want to tell the longer history of Britpop.

Prehistory

Certainly the UK has a rich rock ‘n’ roll history, but for our purposes at the moment, only four truly matter—The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, and David Bowie. All four deserve your time and their status as inspiration to generations of music.

In the years immediately prior to 1993, the UK was a revolutionary place musically speaking: New Order and the Manchester rave scene, The Smiths perfected sadness, and The Stone Roses pulled all the pieces together on their self-titled debut. Each of these is represented here by their work near the Britpop moment. This means The Smiths are represented by Bona Drag-era, still vibrant Morrissey. For a reason I don’t know, post-Jam, solo Paul Weller was important to the guitar bands even as he turned out acoustic meditations like “Wild Wood” that seem so far from everything else going on.

The Britpop Moment

I imagine if I’d grown up in the UK, I would have a different sense of what mattered in this time period. Living across the pond, in the era of $17 CDs, I really only knew the basics—Oasis, Blur, and Pulp. In fact, when it came to pre-“Song 2” Blur and Pulp, I think I was the only person (other than my brother and UK cousins) I knew who dug them.

I recall the media (remember late night videos on MTV?) thinking Elastica was more important than they turned out to be. I think time has been kind to The Verve, who only mattered for “Bittersweet Symphony” over in the States. This is a shame, it robbed me of a decade of familiarity with the imperfect but excellent Urban Hymns.

The Chemical Brothers deserve a mention here because they are Britpop’s electronica group. I don’t really listen to the Brothers anymore, but I do still listen to Underworld. Their “Born Slippy” was the key song from era’s classic movie, Trainspotting (1996), but the Chemical Brothers are the ones who bridged the rock and electronica divide. They collaborated with the Charlatans on an EP and got Oasis’s Noel Gallagher to sing the Beatlesque “Setting Sun”—which set the future in motion by reimagining the past. What a terribly British thing to do!

The bulk of artists on this mix come from this “golden age”—Suede, Blur, Oasis, Pulp, Elastica, The Verve, The Auteurs, Manic Street Preachers, Ride, Teenage Fanclub, The Charlatans, The Chemical Brothers, Radiohead (from their only Britpop album, The Bends), Primal Scream, and Supergrass.

The Children Of Britpop

Up until now I’ve been sharing facts—colored a little by my own personal music biography—but facts nonetheless. Here’s where I suppose I start making my case that though its golden age may have collapsed, Britpop has never ended. Britpop is really just the UK’s musical DNA. The Beatles, Stones, Kinks, and Bowie remain the touchstones of music. The music still draws on wiry punk, scuffed-up rock, pretty melodies, and continues to wrestle humanity out of electronic sounds.

As the golden age expired, there rose a generation of bands deeply indebted to the recent past. I don’t see the break in continuity with bands like Doves and Travis. Of course, the emergent winner of the “moment after” is Coldplay. I’m convinced they modeled all of their first album, Parachutes, on the quieter moments of The Bends (compare “Bulletproof (I Wish I Was)” and “Spies”). Starsailor is an also-ran of this era, who wrote one song that I love; so they get represented here not for their virtue, but their fortune.

In the years after, the UK music press continued to crown young bands as the “Next Big Thing”—it was a lot more hype than substance, but there were some highlights. The Libertines, shambolic and periodically brilliant, burned out before catching fire. Bloc Party started strong but quickly fizzled. The Arctic Monkeys—NBT still as teenagers—are finally fully delivering on their promise. Their last album AM was truly excellent. The 1975 seems like two bands: one pop-tart outfit and the other moody, atmospheric electronic pop that sounds like the future. And then we have Mumford & Sons. Until the new single, “Believe,” I would not have put them in this history. They would’ve been central to the story of the London folk scene emerging in opposition to all that was Britpop, but this story—now I see—was a phantasm. Mumford & Sons drops the banjo for one song, conjures the spirit of Chris Martin, and reveals that really they had always just been banjo-driven Britpop.

Download here: S&N Mix 17: Britpop 101

Disc One
1. The Stone Roses — Waterfall
2. Oasis — Wonderwall
3. The Verve — Lucky Man
4. Morrissey — Everyday Is Like Sunday
5. Blur — The Universal
6. Bloc Party — Banquet
7. Pulp — Sorted For E’s & Wizz
8. Radiohead — Bulletproof (I Wish I Was)
9. Coldplay — Spies
10. Mumford & Sons — Believe
11. Travis — Sing
12. Teenage Fanclub — The Concept
13. Ride — From Time To Time
14. The Chemical Brothers — One Too Many Mornings
15. Doves — The Cedar Room
16. Paul Weller — Wild Wood

Disc Two
1. Suede — So Young
2. Pulp — Common People
3. Charlatans — The Only One I Know
4. Elastica — Connection
5. New Order — Regret
6. The Verve — Bittersweet Symphony
7. Primal Scream — When The Kingdom Comes
8. Supergrass — Alright
9. The Libertines — Can’t Stand Me Now
10. The Jesus & Mary Chain — Sometimes Always (f/ Hope Sandoval)
11. The 1975 — You
12. Arctic Monkeys — Fireside
13. The Auteurs — Show Girl
14. Manic Street Preachers — A Design For Life
15. Oasis — Slide Away
16. Starsailor — Good Souls

9 thoughts on “The Professor: Britpop 101

  1. Some welcome surprises on this mix, including Teenage Fanclub, Doves, Elastica, and Starsailor. (On that note, I feel like Britpop made for some fine one-hit wonders).

    Doves and Travis were two Britpop bands that I feel were really underrated, at least in the States. Travis, of course, was absolutely massive in the UK for a while there. Great live band too. In fact, that’s one of the funny things about Britpop bands is that they make for surprisingly great live acts. They know how to build a mood and play with dynamics better than our American counterparts.

    • @Spencer – I agree with that some. Britpop artists were/are surprisingly good live acts. There is a reason to go see them live. It’s not just playing through the new record or the hits.

  2. How can you forget The La’s????? Only had one album, but were very influential. Also, early Verve is where you should be focused, not Urban Hymns.

  3. @Kelly. I thought about including the La’s but really “There She Goes” is so intimately connected to So I Married an Axe Murderer that I can’t think of it as part of anything else.

    As for the Verve, Kelly-the-first-album-is-my-favorite, I happen to prefer Urban Hymns–pretty much a matter of taste.

  4. I think both sides of The Verve are fantastic, in very different ways. I came in during Urban Hymns, and there’s no doubt that it’s their best songwriting. But I learned later to appreciate equally their early stuff, when it was more psychedelic and jam-oriented. I don’t think you have to choose one or the other. (And Forth is actually a pretty successful blending of the two styles, if you haven’t heard it).

  5. Also, The La’s are more than that one song. Listen to Sun of a Gun and then listen to Two Fingers by Jake Bugg.

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