May 11, 2022, 6:33 p.m. | Updated: May 11, 2022, 7:08 PM
Britpop turns 30 in 2022… but it all started with Blur and Oasis? Radio X examines the evidence.
Britpop has spawned some of this country’s best known and most successful artists and put music at the forefront of the British lifestyle. But what was the spark that led to the genre’s dominance on the charts in the mid-90s?
The story is this: in the early 1990s, British bands were so annoyed and alienated by the sudden rise in popularity of American acts like Nirvana and pearl jam that they kicked against grunge and began to carve out a niche for themselves.
The movement paid homage to classic rock acts from previous decades – The Kinks, The Little Faces, T-Rex, The Beatles – while adding a healthy dose of indie swagger to the mix.
But Britpop didn’t happen overnight, it was a gradual process, as one set of bands gave way to another. Can we, three decades later, pinpoint the exact moment when the genre flourished?
Unfortunately for Oasis fans, the Gallaghers were relatively late on the scene. When they played their first gig in August 1991, they were doing house covers and didn’t meet their mentor A.Ian McGee until May 1993, the same month Blur released their influential album Modern life sucks. So which artist took the first step into the world of brit pop?
Sweden – The Drowners (May 1992)
Released on May 11, 1992, Suede’s debut can lay claim to being Britpop’s first single – certainly in terms of sound, presentation and its overall intention to weed out the old guard. With the spectacular combination of the singer Brett Anderson and guitarist Bernard Butler, Drowners is confident and sexy, paying homage to artists of yesteryear like david bowie and Mark Bolan.
It was unlike anything else on the charts and the cover art, which features a woman wearing tin body paint to look like a male gangster, summed up the band’s attitude brilliantly.
When the band appeared on Top Of The Pops in September 1992 with their second single metal mickey, unsuspecting viewers were confronted by the fabulously androgynous, open-shirted Anderson, making a career out of the stage. It seems Britpop as we know it started here. But other artists had sown the seeds…
Blur – Popscene (March 1992)
In his book The Last Party: Britpop, Blair And The Demise Of English Rock, writer John Harris claims the movement started in the spring of 1992 with Suede debut album (see above) and this standalone single from fall out. The group had enjoyed success the previous year with hits like There is no other way and snapwhich tapped into the “baggy” beat that cluttered the dance floors of indie clubs at the time.
This approach, although commercially successful, did not sit well with the band and they wanted to try to forge their own identity. Popscene, released on March 30, 1992, was the next step. Up tempo, aggressive and full of angry riffs, the track deviated from the baggy shuffle of their debut album. Hobbies.
But listening to Popscene, while some of the elements of Blur’s future direction are there – the marching band-style keyboards, the cocky attitude – it’s a very heavy, guitar-driven record. And check out the video, which is an embryonic version of the classic clip from Song 2. Graham Coxon’Blur’s love of American guitar bands would carry Blur through the post-Britpop era.
At the time of Popscene’s release, Blur was part of the Russian mountains tour, a trip across the UK on a bill that also featured My Bloody Valentine, the channel of Jesus and Mary hasand heroes of american grunge Dinosaur Jr, they have therefore been grouped with the decreasing trend of the “shoegaze”. A week later, they would travel to America for a series of shows that would make them feel even more out of place, leading Damon Alban to start exploring more English themes in his lyrics. With the arrival of the album Modern life sucks a year later, with a press shot bearing the slogan “British Image 1”, the model for Britpop was set.
Manic Street Preachers – You Love Us (May 1991)
Are the Manics Britpop? Their underdog status still sets them apart from the genre, but Everything must go was a key album of the Bripop era. But listen to their second single on the independent label Heavenly, in May 1991. Did it all start there?
The band looked like: Richey Edwards and Nicky Yarn played with gender stereotypes in their clothes and makeup, while the song itself is a self-aggrandizing retro homage to Shockthe New York Dolls and – in the original Heavenly version only – Iggy Popthanks to an ending that deliberately rips off the classic riff of thirst for life.
But the Manics weren’t really part of the Camden scene (mind, neither Oasis) and so it looks like a first panel towards Britpop. Some future bands were taking note.
The Real People – Window Pane (December 1990)
Who? Well, exactly. This group from Liverpool has been verified by Noel Gallagher for their help in the early days of the Oasis narrative; Gallagher met bassist Tony Griffiths who helped the guys from Manchester make their famous demo. Griffiths and his brother Chris helped Oasis create the arrangement for their early tracks, which was key to the debut album’s success. Definitely maybe.
Window shutter was released as a teaser for the band’s debut album for CBS Records and while it still has that ever-present baggy mix, there’s a nod to classic ’60s songwriting that ties directly into Oasis, Cast, Ocean Color Scene and a dozen others. However, The Real People is probably leaning a bit too much towards Britpop’s Oasis arm – there aren’t many Bowie influences here.
The La’s – There She Goes (November 1988)
Is this classic single the source? Like real people The the were Scousers, and this simple acoustic song sounded incredibly out of place in the indie landscape of 1988, which saw many bands trying to fill the void that The Smiths was gone. There was perhaps something too naïve and basic about the song to fit into the cynical 80s, which is why it struggled to reach number 59 in the UK charts on its initial release. When the track was re-released in line with the long-awaited arrival of The La’s self-titled debut album, it fared much better, reaching the Top 20.
Singer Lee Mavers struggled to deliver a follow-up album and The La’s failed. His comrade John Power left the group at the end of 1991 and reappeared with Castwho have found a ready and waiting audience.