photo manipulation by nacrowe
growing up in SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA in the mid-90s means i was very much aware of local legendary LOS ANGELES rock station KROQ 106.7FM. it is almost absurd to consider the amount of bands that have broke big internationally due to exposure at this single radio station. i still think its incredible that such a corporate entity still had room for the esoteric pursuits of legendary resident taste-makers like RODNEY BINGENHEIMER.
my problem was that in this pre-internet age (yep i am that old) i oftentimes didn't know who the bands were since the rotation of songs weren't often tagged by the DJs, which makes sense given how ubiquitous these songs must have been to their regular audience. as a child and later a preteen, i was definitely not that clued in unfortunately.
it wasn't until years later in middle school abroad in NIGERIA that i realized songs i was familiar with were by bands like ALICE IN CHAINS ("MAN IN THE BOX"), NIRVANA (obscure b-side "SAPPY"), SPACEHOG ("IN THE MEANTIME") and THE BREEDERS ("CANNONBALL").
one of these bands was ELASTICA and the song was "CONNECTION." i distinctly remember hearing that song while waiting in line for SPACE MOUNTAIN at DISNEYLAND in elementary school. sadly, i didn't rediscover this band until high school in the early 2000s after relocating to SACRAMENTO from KUWAIT during my senior year. to me their debut album ELASTICA (GEFFEN, 1992) is a perfect album, easily the best thing to come out of the whole 90s BRITPOP movement (check out this BOOK REVIEW i did if you are unfamiliar with that scene). what i loved about it aside from JUSTINE FRISCHMANN's snarky, seductive crooning was angular guitar work which after further investigation introduced met to POST-PUNK bands that influenced them like WIRE and GANG OF FOUR. the inter-textual nature of art where different scenes, eras and modes are referenced and re-appropriated is something i've always appreciated. ELASTICA to me is an example of a stellar band that encourages me to stay curious, dig further and expand my ears to different sounds. i don't tend to fixate, if anything each new great band i learn about only serves as a new nexus point for other new discoveries.
if you aren't familiar with ELASTICA, check out either of their two releases. along with THE SMITHS, they are on my bucket-list of bands i hope and pray to see play live on day. nobody is cooler than JUSTINE FRISCHMANN. no one.
photo manipulation by nacrowe
because of my father's job, my family spent part of the 90s living overseas in NIGERIA. during the summers stretching from 1996-98 we spent time with a british relative in a northern LONDON suburb of HATFIELD. that community was home to the DE HAVILLAND AEROSPACE COMPANY that during WWII produced the MOSQUITO fighter jet, of which my relative was a part engineer. dude was one of the coolest guys i've ever met, but that's for a later post.
it just so happened that those years were at the tail end of the BRITPOP explosion which exposed me to all sorts of bands from OASIS and BLUR to ELASTICA, PULP, SLEEPER, LUSH, SUPER FURRY ANIMALS, SUEDE, THE PRODIGY and beyond.
one of my favorite groups from that era is BLUR, probably because aesthetically they were very much informed by the narrative songwriting of BRITISH INVASION bands like THE KINKS and THE WHO while also embracing the discordantly melodic and expressive qualities of more sonically experimental american INDIE ROCK music like PAVEMENT and DINOSAUR DJ.
those two tendencies in BLUR's music undoubtedly is rooted in the tastes of their two main songwriters, DAMON ALBARN and GRAHAM COXON. ALBARN is widely celebrated, for good reason, as one of the great songwriters of his era, having genre-skipped with delight throughout his numerous solo and side endeavors including GORILLAZ, THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE QUEEN and ROCKET JUICE & THE MOON, not to mention his production work with BOBBY WOMACK, AMADOU & MARIAM, THE STROKES, DE LA SOUL and numerous collaborations and film work. the vein through his work is his mercurial sense of songwriting brilliance that can navigate through seemingly any sonic texture or genre aesthetic.
but i feel that the work of COXON is equally as compelling, only the palette much more limited and the scope of his music more controlled, confined and determined. his songwriting is more along the lines of SYD BARRETT or NICK DRAKE in that he uses sound and lyrics to give off a vibe rather than a clear perspective. it is at once deliberate yet paradoxically opaque. whereas ALBARN tends to use music and lyrics as a way to draw the listener into a particular character or worldview, COXON invites the listener to enjoy the visceral ride and not get caught up in red herrings like meaning and interpretation.
i enjoy both songwriting traditions that each encompasses, but i just wanted to shed light on what a brilliant songwriter COXON has always been. if anything that push and pull of these two styles was a key element into what made BLUR such a creative and artistic force.
photo by nacrowe
John Harris' BRITPOP: Cool Britannia & The Spectacular Demise of English Rock (Da Capo, 2004) is a comprehensive exploration 1990s British musical culture and all that came with it: the rise of the Labour Party, Ecstasy, Kurt Cobain, Hip Hop and heroin. It covers every major band of the period from OASIS, BLUR, SUEDE, PULP, SUPER FURRY ANIMALS, SLEEPER, RADIOHEAD, SPIRITUALIZED, MASSIVE ATTACK, LUSH, SUPERGRASS, PORTISHEAD and (my personal favorite) ELASTICA but ultimately the key narrative BRITPOP harkens back to again and again is how to express British identity in a modern context where the nation itself is becoming more diverse, jaded and fragmented.
Harris makes the argument that by actively seeking to shed NIRVANA's influence (in terms of their sound & aesthetic) and by becoming politically active (video of NOEL GALLAGHER at 10 Downing Street) with respect to the rise of New Labour, the movement marked itself as something new. something that had not been seen before in terms of political and cultural influence.
as much as i love the music of this period, and i do (ELASTICA, MASSIVE ATTACK, BLUR & OASIS especially), i don't think they were that influential beyond the UK. the very fact that a lot of this music of this period was constructed in opposition to or in the tradition of something else marks it for me. What do I mean?
DAMON ALBARN's early celebrated work with Blur uses fictional characters and settings meant to parody or mimic the narrative styles of RAY DAVIES, LENNON & MCCARTNEY, JOE STRUMMER, PETE TOWNSEND or countless other classic British songwriters of the 1960s & 1970s. He grew out of this and made exceptional work, but during this period he was consciously pushing himself to be in this musical tradition in opposition to american bands of the day.
To mention the OASIS' indebtedness to 1970s Glam or THE BEATLES is beside the point. They fact that there was a blueprint that they kept so close to kinda shackles them a bit. The fact that they were such a strong band and that NOEL has largely transcended this as well to be in the greater aforementioned pantheon of great English songwriters (along with ALBARN), is a testament to his def ingenuity, craft and talent. Its just during this period he kept to the script, and why not?
the one band from this period that exemplifies this push and pull of establishing a new identity by transcending its component parts is MASSIVE ATTACK. ethnically diverse, geographically remote, economically lacking and politically estranged, this group reinvented hip hop, reggae/dancehall/, film music, r&b and rock into a seamless concoction that perfectly reflected the emerging new face of Britain that came from the far reaches of rural council estates. their music still sounds fresh and it is hard to pin point an antecedent sound that predates it, given its surreal originality (in my opinion).
listen, i love 1990s Britpop. even dedicated a radio show to it. i just don't think you can call something revolutionary if it is actively seeking to reimagine, re-contextualize, re-live something that came before.
That ain't revolutionary. That's reactionary. But no doubt the music was still great.
LIVE FOREVER (BBC, 2003) Trailer