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.