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Pop Goes the Genre

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Sure, musical trends come and go, as that's their appeal. Temporary soundtracks to temporary moments in time make for convenient reference points, especially for those not prone to scrapbooking. We all used to be somebody, usually somebody with a song playing in the background. It's a fact not lost on John Harris, former NME scribe and author of Britpop! -- Cool Brittania and the Spectacular Demise of English Rock (Da Capo Press) -- an exhaustive account of a fantastically messy period in British, and indeed global, rock 'n' roll. It was a period that, to the American eye, may seem oddly insignificant now.

But it was significant. At least for some.

For those of us "sorted" enough to have fallen under the spell of Britpop's distant soap opera -- those attending state universities in the early-1990s and wiling away beneath the intoxicating drive of whatever was to become the "next big thing" (from the comfort of our own frictionless squalor lined with outdated copies of NME) -- the hangover has been horrific. What once seemed some in-group imperative of musical transcendence has, with the erosion of time, revealed itself to have been little short of a cocaine distraction set to jaunty music. It was supposed to be everything, but in effect, that promise was broken. These days, it's almost like Britpop never happened -- like after all, there was no Oasis, and no "Wonderwall."

But indeed there was. In Britpop!, Harris digs deeper than could possibly be expected into the inner workings and personal lives of the new breed of British rock stars, turning up a sociological, even clinical, tome on the nature of an industry taught to eat its young. Baggy pants (the fashion of the day) drag and illicit chemicals fly as a parade of unlikely superstars squeeze their moments dry and tumble predictably to the ground. Sad commentary? Maybe. Indispensable reading? Definitely.

The story goes something like this (catch your breath here): Fresh from the Thatcherite overstatement of Duran Duran frilliness, Britain punks down into complacent day-life and hallucinogenic nightlife, spawning a slew of shoe-gazing musical heroes headlined by Primal Scream and the Stone Roses. Suede's Brett Anderson and Justine Frischman (later of Elastica) sip tea and decide to throw overwrought romance back into the game, while the like-minded club-dwellers in Blur stutter through an initial "baggy" populism, before yanking back into an affected modishness centered on British pride -- the anti-Nirvana, if you will.

Meanwhile, Noel Gallagher tools around with mopey Inspiral Carpets until he joins up with younger brother Liam's laddish rock troupe, Oasis, bringing simple songs of common people that will later go on to, predictably, connect with the masses. As will the hit tune "Common People" by longtimer Pulp, standing somewhere above the milieu, but coming from the same place. Justine dumps Brett for Damon of Blur, Blur and Oasis collide in liquored pomposity, records sell by the boatloads, and "indie" becomes very popular. Eventually, everything will head south when everybody makes too much money and descends into cliched narcotic overstatement.

It all sounds simple, if a bit incestuous, but Harris' strongpoint is his ability to connect each of the strands into some swelling zeitgeist of reason, and to lend a compassionate ear to the era's protagonists.

The most unlikely figure at the base of the story is that cut by Tony Blair. Blair's own longhaired collegiate musical indulgence, a band called Ugly Rumours (named after a reversed message hidden in a Grateful Dead sleeve) warrants a whole chapter here, and for good reason. Later in life, Blair will directly court Blur's Damon Albarn in his Labour Party campaign for "inclusiveness," which sounds a muted death knell to the whole rock 'n' roll proposition, and he'll make appearances at "hip" music functions, even stumbling into one amphetamine-rowdy Noel Gallagher, hilariously, all of this prior to becoming George W. Bush's strange global bedfellow.

The end dawns apparent when the movement's two leaders, Blur and Oasis, become tabloid fodder in the wake of their simultaneous bloated single releases: Blur's "Country House" and Oasis' "Roll With It." While neither is terribly memorable now, at the time (fall 1995) they would be the standard by which all future records would be judged -- prompting a public war for the stakes of a No. 1 placing. Blur won, but Oasis prevailed, later releasing, you guessed it, "Wonderwall," to platinum worldwide acclaim while Blur shrunk in its shoes. In the initial wake, Noel Gallagher told London's Observer a thing or two about his feelings on Blur: "The bass player and the singer, I hope the pair of them catch AIDS and die, 'cos I f--kin' hate them two." The world collectively throws its arms in the air, confused.

And then it all blows over, leaving bulging industry expectations to falter in the face of such scene-mockery as the band Menswear, and so an empire is constructed and destroyed in the space of 10 years. Cast carefully as an epic of no small cultural importance, Britpop! succeeds as a sincere document of a heady but troubled time, and for American readers it serves as a gap-filling treat for those of us who still remain a little confused about what it was that America never fully embraced. Britpop is dead. Long live Britpop.

John Harris' Britpop! -- Cool Brittania and the Spectacular Demise of English Rock explores the phenomenon that gave birth to bands such as Oasis, Suede and Blur.
  • John Harris' Britpop! -- Cool Brittania and the Spectacular Demise of English Rock explores the phenomenon that gave birth to bands such as Oasis, Suede and Blur.

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