As a wave of red seats washed over England’s political map, the rise of Britpop was mounted and shouldered in by Tony Blair, at the time a youthful face of a reformed Labour Party. Whilst Blur and Oasis waged war with one another in the charts, they found clarity and similarities in their cosy attitude to Blair and his breakthrough.
If the politicisation of music has taught us one thing, it’s that it will make or break a genre. Punk worked primarily as a rage against the machine, a rebellious call to arms that The Sex Pistols, The Clash, and Ramones kindled for much of the genre’s lifespan. The political piggybacking of New Labour and Britpop was a strange by-product that led to this fresh British genre’s demise. How we charged towards this point of no return is as fascinating as the eventual fallout that broke up bands, brothers, and audiences. To understand why Britpop fell apart, we first need to look at why it began.
Journalist John Harris in his book, The Last Party: Britpop, Blair and the Demise of English Rock, states that the birth of Britpop came from “the deluge of acclaim that greeted Suede’s first records”, their “audacious, successful, and very, very British” sounds had trumped the American grunge market. Paired with the tragic passing of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, Suede’s success edged grunge out of the charts, and rose to the top with a Union Jack in tow.
The fire was further fuelled in April 1993, SELECT magazine ran a cover of Suede’s leading man, Brett Anderson, posing in front of a Union Jack, with the headline “Yanks go home! Suede, St. Etienne, Denim, Pulp, The Auteurs, and the Battle for Britain”. Britpop paved the way for a critical and commercial success Britain’s music scene hadn’t felt since Beatlemania.
It would be some years after this SELECT cover before the key players in Britpop released relevant material. Pulp had put out their Intro: The Gift Recordings compilation, and would begin writing His ‘n’ Hers that same year. Oasis had merely teased us with their EP, Live Demonstration, and although Blur had been fighting in the trenches of Madchester beats, it wasn’t until ‘94s Parklife that a unique sound was cemented as a flag-bearing genre for Britain.
This period of music saw a flurry of albums that are widely regarded by peers, fans, and professionals in the industry. Different Class, The Great Escape, Coming Up, Elastica, Definitely Maybe, and I Should Coco all left their mark on the critical and financial standings of the music industry. NME marked Different Class as “phenomenally nasty and genuinely subversive”, whilst BBC Music’s retrospective of I Should Coco stated Supergrass’ debut “…has left a deeper and longer-lasting footprint than the band’s legacy overall.”
Britpop was, at the time, not a genre that defined the artists within it, but a genre interpreted by artists who had longstanding connections with the industry. A new sound gave a break to artists who had been struggling to break through to the mainstream for years, sometimes decades. Pulp had toiled away at Sheffield’s infamous The Leadmill for over ten years, Justine Frischmann of Elastica spent years in Suede before the idea of her post-punk inspired releases ever came to be. These were hard-working artists who bided their time, eventually accepting Britpop as the closest notion of their sound and vision.
It’s hard to ignore the astronomical effect the Blur vs. Oasis tabloid coverage had on the longevity of Britpop. Chart wars that, upon closer inspection, were not dominated as strongly by these two bands. Suede, Pulp, Happy Mondays, Black Grape, The Charlatans, Elastica, and The Verve all did considerably well, often charting higher or more consistently than the two at the heart of the infamous Battle of the Bands.
Country House and Roll With It waged war for their respective artists, the Blur-backed pop at country living against a song Noel Gallagher declared was “…about fuck all. It’s just a simple rock ‘n’ roll tune.” The animosity between the two groups would be the high point of Britpop. Soon after the release of these singles, Britpop began to fade, and the performers that made it happen were to blame.
The infective notions of success led to gluttony and suffering for all those at the heart of it. Whilst audiences lapped up the comforts of the genre, the stars in charge of the show we’re toiling away in unprecedented spotlight showcases, stressful tours, and years without stopping for a breather. Heroin became a leading issue, and the frequency of its use led to starkly different albums in both tone and line-up. Russell Senior’s departure from Pulp in 1997 came only a year before the coked-up comedown This is Hardcore looked to showcase.
The party Britpop had offered was coming to a close, Pulp’s single Party Hard captured it in the line “I was having a whale of a time until your uncle / your uncle psychosis arrived”. Finally hitting the success they had longed for, many bands were now starting to feel the effects of fame, fortune, and drugs.
Shrouded in mystery as it is for Cocker and company, the problems of drug use were clearer elsewhere. Suede singer Brett Anderson was frank with his discussion of how addiction harmed him, the Sky Arts documentary Suede: The Insatiable Ones gives clear understanding to a tumultuous situation, “I justified my addiction by seeing it as part of a rock’n’roll mythology.” Simon Mason, the man who dealt these doses to the frustrated, over-worked stars, said heroin was “the dark secret of Britpop.” He found himself in the entourage of Oasis, eventually falling into homelessness and addiction of his own.
So clear were the effects of heroin on the Britpop scene, that it changed the narrative and tone of the music itself. Gone were the chirpy hits of Common People and Parklife, and in came a deluge of drugged up consequences. Be Here Now hits out at the genre that made Oasis famous, the Gallagher brothers biggest influence for the album not some memory of old, but the drugs of new.
Pulp spent an agonising three years piecing together an album that would eventually turn into This is Hardcore. Bassist Steve Mackey spoke of the horrors of the recording process in Mark Sturdy’s compendium of interviews, Truth and Beauty: The Story of Pulp. “We’d do a song and then it would go in the can for two months. We all agreed that what we’d recorded was really good, but somehow we couldn’t seem to finish it for a while.”
Cracks were beginning to show in other groups, too. Blur feared they were falling into a state of caricature-like mockery, their appearance as country farmers to support the release of Country House smacks of a genre and band on its last legs. Their swerve into grunge-like tracks with Song 2 and their self-titled ‘97 album is an ironic full circle. Suede had battered down the effects of grunge influence with heavy layers of art-pop and sexualised lyrics, and a mere five years later, one of the big four of Britpop had made its way into grunge in a hopeless attempt at tapping into the American market.
Worst of all, though, were the band that introduced us to this brief period of British pop. Suede’s fourth studio album Head Music was the penultimate nail in a coffin closed two years before its release. Their 1999 efforts showcased a half-baked attempt at capturing a new wave of music, but their heroin influence and shattered mindset made it clear that they weren’t up to the task. Mat Osman spoke of this period in an interview with The Independent, “We felt bulletproof – we felt we could do anything… but we couldn’t.”
The sleek pop antithesis of the Spice Girls, and those that had found their influence in Britpop, such as Coldplay and Radiohead, soon led to the demise of the genre. Pairing this with a miserable third album from Oasis, and the cracks begin to show. Add This is Hardcore, Blur, Head Music, and the release of Spiceworld, and Britpop is as good as dead. A star had shone, rose, fallen, and burnt out within a five-year period.
Ironically, that same Union Jack that heralded the arrival of Britpop would be staggered out once more for the Spice Girls. Britpop as a genre may have died out, but British pop as a concept, utilising the imagery of the country, the flags, stereotypes, and people, lived on through films such as Spice World and artists like Robbie Williams. It was far from the inspired madness of Britpop, but pop had seized the style and appeal found within the highs of “Cool Britannia”.
The final days of Britpop aren’t as closed as one would expect. Its death has been dragged out for over twenty years, with documentaries such as Live Forever and a whole slew of band-centric focus-pieces coming together to gather the thoughts of those at the heart of the final days of Britpop. Reunions, documentaries, and memoirs have kept the spirit of Britpop alive, flagging down the occasional pop at nostalgia for the glory days. The struggles of addiction, pain, and tortured publicity seem to have mellowed out as these artists have left their youth behind. Only two major bands have yet to get back together following the demise of Britpop. Oasis and Elastica. Perhaps the wounds are still too deep to reform and record work that left such colossal devastation.
The Blur-centric programme, No Distance Left to Run, details the sour taste and permanent imprint the term “Britpop” left on its artists. The alcoholism Graham Coxon struggled with, the panic attacks Damon Albarn felt, but it showcased the camaraderie and love the band had for one another. Albarn opened the documentary with his reasoning behind the reunion, “Getting my friends back, that’s what I needed”. The infamous fallout of the Gallagher brothers and the post-Britpop period is viewed less favourably by Noel, who doesn’t understand the need to return to those glory days. “People always want to relive those days, I suppose.”
The starry spectacle, the tight-fitting jeans, and the pop-centric party anthems of Britpop all fall away to reveal the grim realities of the Rockstar lifestyle. Cocker’s 2011 interview with The Guardian offered up his musings on the genre over a decade after it had ended. “Britpop ended up being slightly overweight men with their shirts untucked, getting sucked off while watching The Italian Job.”