Britpop: The Scene That Smothered Itself

Gallagher Bros

I love the rosy glow of nostalgia as much as the next man but the 20th anniversary of Britpop is not something I choose to celebrate. No. The day that Stuart Maconie (for apparently it was him) decided to lump a group of disparate bands together and cloak them in the Union Jack was the moment when the culture industry seriously set about absorbing the underground culture that had been developing for since the 80s. By 1996 such manufactured stars as the Spice Girls and Robbie Williams were seen as part of a scene whose justification was no longer seen in cultural terms but in the amount of units they shifted and what they did for UK trade.

Glastonbury slipped from a participatory counter-cultural event to a mass media spectacle. From a place where you could just bowl up and get a ticket (or jump the fence) to a mad internet rush to beat the touts while global superstars were helicoptered in over the heads of police, private security and a fence that wouldn’t be out of place in occupied Palestine.

Popstars and artists were courted to help re-brand the stale politics of the free market and were rewarded with drinks at Number 10. To be fair, many of them rebelled at the idea of this. Suede denounced it from the start while Pulp and Blur sought more challenging, spikey and acerbic outlets and left others to plough the ever more derivative furrow of appearances on TFI and Jonathan Ross and all. Many more refused to play the game in the first place – and so, not fitting in to the Britpop discourse, are air-brushed from history altogether.

Because Britpop, far from being a celebration of the full diversity and creativeness of British culture, was instead the colonisation of counter-culture by the media and entertainment industry. This was the co-option of a culture that had been growing in reaction to the values of Thatcherism. A culture that showed it was possible to be, at the same time, an individual and part of a collective. I argue that in full knowledge of the petty-bourgeois commercialism that inevitably hangs around the edges of any culture existing in a capitalist society. But despite the would-be-Bransons, t-shirt and whistle sellers, the culture they operated in was increasingly collective. The indie scene, largely growing out of the punk scene had been collective by default. Scenes developing out of gaggles of similarly minded people who gravitated to places where interesting music and ideas could be heard. They interacted with each other and new ideas were born. New bands were born and the space between the performer and the audience was blurred. In halls and cellars of pubs across the country, Indie kids organised their own clubs, just as the punks had done – and what reggae was to punk, house music was to indie.

The cross-over of indie and dance culture was another cultural dynamo that has been largely ignored in the current celebrations. Although the boundaries were always more porous than the music press would have you believe anyway, Jah Wobble, Youth and Kris Needs all came through the punk scene, The KLF, Primal Scream and The Shamen came from the indie scene, System 7 and PWEI came from the free festival circuit – and fuck knows where Psychic TV came from! Pulp might have, quite legitimately, castigated ravers for not living up to the hype – but the paradigm was of one love – one collective evolutionary leap. Even if we didn’t always manage to live up to those ideals. The elitism of early eighties club culture was brushed aside by a ragtag collection of soul-boys and Stonehenge refugees who found common ground in a new beat, a new drug and a new vibe. The squat gigs that had been the province of punks and crusties suddenly morphed into raves that drew in the whole community. This was a potential game-changer. While the police thought they could get away with viciously beating women and children out of their homes at Stonehenge they knew that they had no chance against the 40,000 at Castlemorten. The legislative route led to the anti-CJB campaign and the potential of politicising a movement which had been more culturally collective than politically. “Fuck ’em – and their law!” was playing across the country. Although The Prodigy rather disappointingly refused use of the track to a Greenpeace film, there were many more bands who would. Across the country it was getting hard to see where the music scene stopped and the environmental protest began. From the Newbury bypass to the Westway to the Deptford Free Festival, people were creating their own alternative participatory culture. Spaces such as Claremont Rd were as much about cultural and lifestyle experiments as they were about protest.

And there was plenty to protest about! All of these movements were under attack from a reactionary free-market obsessed government and, as shown by the murder of Steven Laurence, racism was still a serious issue. But viewed through a lens of a society that was increasingly multi-cultural, this was seen as the rearguard action of an increasingly irrelevant ideology. Jah Wobble, the On-U-Sound System, Trans-Global Underground, Asian Dub Foundation, Sabres of Paradise and many others fused world music, reggae, dance, rap and indie together. Music was increasingly seen as a global artifact rather than one confined to the slef-referential twin centres of the US and UK. Artists from around the world became more widely recognised. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan appeared on MTV and multi-culturalism became a reality of interacting and sharing ideas and culture rather than existing in their own separate silos. And into all this someone decided to introduce Britpop and cloak it in the Union Jack!

Doubtless some will claim that Britpop sought to reclaim the Union Jack from the racists – but of course in trying to put a boundary round such a multi-cultural melange you inevitably exclude. Obviously Bjork and Stereolab, Whale and The Cardigans were out on the basis of not being British – but who else gets overlooked? Cornershop only get a look-in through a remix. What about PJ Harvey, Tricky, Massive Attack, Portishead, Moonshake, Daisy Chainsaw, Orbital, Dreadzone, Skunk Anansie, Leftfield, Belle & Sebastian, Arab Strap, Huggy Bear, Loop Guru, Aphex Twin, Mogwai, Credit To The Nation, Senser, RDF, Lamb, Underworld, The Levellers, Minty, Dub War, Bomb The Bass, Galliano, Leila, Fun’da’mental and so on. Of course you can argue that many of these have nothing to do with Britpop – but this is exactly my point! There was so much diversity out there – but in what was increasingly a homage to the sixties guitar bands, the kids were all white! But Britpop didn’t notice. It wasn’t focused on the rest of the world. It wasn’t even focused inwards on the UK. It was focused on the USA – and particularly grunge. It was seeking to define the British scene as the negation of the grunge scene – although why anyone would care to do that is beyond me.

What was grunge? A movement that had more in common with the British indie scene than not. A point clearly illustrated by the number of UK indie kids turning up at grunge gigs and indeed forming their own bands. Grunge was an iconoclastic extension of the lo-fi indie-punk scene that had been quite effectively stealing ground from the sexist poodle permed glam metal outfits. Bands that eschewed image, placed artistic authenticity over shifting units, that minimised the boundaries between band and audience. Bands whose nihilism challenged the American Dream. Like any scene there was a certain amount of repetition – but there was also a blurring of space between band and audience. A feeling that anybody could do it. A focus on immediacy and emotion over production levels. It was punk. Nirvana were just a support band for Mudhoney unintentionally sharing a name with a 60s psych-folk duo until one riff caught the imagination of the world and propelled them to stardom. Plenty has been written about Kurt Cobain’s demise but the key point that he seemed to want to make was that the compromise between cultural integrity and the commercial music business was a compromise too far. If Britpop was, after all, the antithesis of grunge then perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised it turned into the corporate gangbang it did.

At the same time as Kurt was rejecting the trappings of rock-stardom with a shotgun, the K-Foundation were burning a million quid. The fetishisation of money was being challenged. Those who castigated Cobain for killing himself “when he had so much” were the same ones decrying the K-Foundation for “not giving all that money to the poor”. Of course, they missed the point. They were much happier seeing Damien Hurst selling dead fish and cigarette butts to the Saatchis. But it was the 1990s not 1919 and such dadaist scams had long ceased to shock. Instead they were co-opted into Britpop / Britart’s fetishisation of celebrity, where they were safely packaged to support the status quo where artists were supported by rich patrons while their work was displayed in galleries paid for on the back of the slave trade. And the same process was going on in music.

Only the burning of money shocked – but the self-proclaimed firestarters kept their matches to themselves and joined the pop elite. Soon they were living in very big houses in the country. Blessed indeed were the cheesemakers, living off the fat of the land while they told the unemployed how best they could get on their bikes and look for work. Fanzines morphed into lads mags and porn stars became extras in videos that paid homage to the Benny Hill Show. The irony that always cloaked the indie scene was always going to be the first casualty of Britpop.

There was some brilliant music to come out of what is now called Britpop. The tragedy is that, in seeking to falsely create a singular scene out of so many inter-connected but also quite distinct artists, creativity was stifled in favour of homogenisation. XFM and Kiss were bought out by commercial radio and difference was stifled by repetitive playlists. The indie scene was swallowed by big labels. Focus was increasingly on what would sell not what was interesting. Leading to the inevitable lowest common denominator soundalikes. Britpop went from the Scene That Celebrated Itself to the Scene That Smothered Itself. You couldn’t tell where the drunken caterwauling of Wonderwall ended and the drunken caterwauling of Angels began. And the fucking Riverboat Song was stuck in your head through the repetition of a TV theme just as A Whole Lotta Love had been twenty five years earlier. Meanwhile something else changed. Gigs got bigger and more expensive. The gap between the performer and the audience became so huge you needed a big screen to see them – and a mortgage to afford a ticket. Local venues increasingly filled with covers bands – which unsurprisingly failed to bring in the punters. The local music scenes that had thrived since the days of pub rock withered and slowly died. Leaving the ever-decreasing circle of odd venues that continue to be picked off to this day.

Now it’s a bit strong to lay the blame for all this at the feet of Stuart Maconie – especially when what I’m describing is a repeating cycle of capitalist society. Maconie has always struck me as a nice bloke, absolutely committed to a thriving music scene. Doubtless when he coined the term Britpop he did it in the context of a job where you were almost contractually obliged to come up with a new scene every 6 weeks or pack your bags. I expect it surprises him as much as it surprises me that we are celebrating it 20 years later. But Britpop became a brand and the flag became the logo and creativity got lost in marketing. There’s so much more to celebrate about the culture of the late 80s / early 90s than the reductionist lens of Britpop allows. It should be a celebration that recognises the diversity and creativity of the period, not just a rather motley collection of blokes with guitars. What’s more it should be a celebration that recognises and encourages the ongoing process of creation, rather than a bunch of old cunts (like me) sitting about reminiscing about how much better it was in our day. Much of the celebration of Britpop has been on Radio 2. Pause for a moment. Think about it. Then laugh, cry or cringe. It doesn’t matter. Then go and ask your kids what they’re listening to. Better still, go out and buy them a guitar or keyboard and tell them to do it for themselves.

 

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