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Perfect 10: Britpop stars on 45

“I’m not Noel Gallagher – I never turned up at that bloody party! I’ve never believed in Cool Britannia. It’s a load of bollocks to me.” 

So said George Michael on the BBC in 2003. Twenty years on, it’s easy to pigeonhole Britpop as retrograde, non-progressive piece of nationalist fluff cynically designed to shift as many newspapers and magazines as it did records. 

Yet the all-pervasive ‘movement’ that captivated this infuriating little island with big dreams spawned a period full of characters, some memorable singles and a fair few decent albums. To me it isn’t a Union Jack on the top of a mini, it isn’t even Ginger Spice’s outfit at the Brits, and it certainly ain’t the rave wallops of Prodigy or the art-rock experiments of Radiohead, as great as they are/were. 

As Ian Dury once said, I want to make Walthamstow seem as glamorous as Route 66. Because if you were around in the early ’90s too will probably recall it was a fairly grim time for guitar bands, or rock music in general. One word: Grunge. Yuk! Dreadful records as plain and plaid as the shirts they wore. Did the papers care who they were by? Was Merrie Olde Engerland and Her Imperial Majesty doomed?

Was she shite.

The parochial Brits mounted the biggest fight back since Mrs Holtwhistles successfully kept hold of her bloomers in the face of an insurmountable American GI onslaught. No longer silent and grey, the Britpop pack were now going to make their own music, sing in their own voices, and write parochial pop ditties about English towns and villages.

Remember the infamous Select magazine cover: “Yanks go Home!”. Well, they bloody well did. For a bit. 

Fast forward three decades and some of the biggest ’90s bands have been playing major gigs across Britain again, and headlining festivals abroad. Yet Cool Britannia’s swaggering sense of national self-belief feels like a distant memory.

Welcome to the Perfect 10 of Britpop then.

World Of Twist – Sons Of The Stage (1991)

The band that should have been massive. Bridesmaids since the early ’80s, World Of Twist were the Manchester miscreants who shared a geography and danceability with their Madchester peers, but inhabited a zone of their own, more inspired by a heady concoction of the BBC Radiophonic WorkshopDetroit proto-punk, glam and Krautrock than the requisite acid house and psychedelia.

They were led by the reclusive eccentric Tony Ogden. No relation to Stan and Hilda, or any Nut Gone Flakes, but a paper-thin Cheshire chap who could pass for the secret lovechild of Bryan Ferry and Leonard Rossiter on a damp day. Tony had the voice and the charisma, in a way running tandem with that other great band from over the moors in Yorkshire, Jarvis Cocker’s Pulp, though not as bogged down in the Kiss Me Quick hysterics. World Of Twist was an infinitely more cerebral beast.

Their sophomore single Sons Of The Stage is what Britpop should have been. It starts off pseudo Pink Floyd and edges into a monolithic chugging rock beat, with Ogden intoning a spaceship or a bad trip, coming down to the noise and confusion, via a cacophony of fuzz guitar solos courtesy of Gordon King. 

For added pop credentials, while they’d originally had Jamie Fry (singing younger brother of ABC’s Martin Fry) in their ranks, there were stronger sonic synergy with one or two two later bands, particularly Laurence’s louche glitter outfit Denim – though as the Brummie jean genies were namechecked on the infamous Select cover WOT had already played their last gig.

Talking of which, two brothers from Burnage were soaking up the influences at one of World Of Twist’s live shows, and pair were so taken with the Beatles meets glam rock Bolan boogie they almost named themselves Sons Of The Stage instead of Oasis. I wonder what happened to them.

Suede – Animal Nitrate (1993)

The pride of Sussex, Suede were the band chosen to symbolise that Select cover, which depicted frontman Brett Anderson in front of a Union Jack. Alas, they were ostensibly the antithesis what Britpop would evolve into. There was no jingoistic flag waving from these miserable buggers, just a sense of alienation and a disenfranchised determination to stand apart from the noxious lad culture of Middle England. 

Drab, fab and deliciously camp, Suede were a band whose council estate aesthetic celebrated the seamier side of British life: Home Counties satellite towns, big city adventures, chasing the dragon and shagging crack whores in bus shelters while the needle’s still in the arm.  

Accompanied by trusty for-the-moment are-they-aren’t-they? guitar genius Bernard Butler, Suede’s early singles were gritty ditties which soon won them a rabid following, particularly the incendiary androgynous Animal Nitrate: “I see myself as a bisexual man who’s never had a homosexual experience.” Captain Brett reckoned, while wailing a chorus that exclaimed “Now you’re over 21”, a stinging reference to the hideously unequal age of sexual consent for gay men at the time.  

Wearing his influences on his Oxfam sleeves, it’s Brett doing a Bowie come on in drama and sentiment, although The Dame actually did experiment with men. Did Anderson? Who cares? It’s a brilliantly bum-wiggling single, and the commercial centrepiece of Suede’s first album. The second set, Dog Man Star, is full of Lou Reed’s Berlin meets Pet Shop Boys-style melodies, and is arguably even better. As well as its controversial cover of a naked man lying in front of a window, for added zing the LP was recorded at Kilburn’s Master Rock studios, just three blocks from where that Steve Pafford guy was living at the time. So young.

Blur – Girls & Boys (1994) 

After a baggy bandwagoning first album (1991’s Leisure), and a vaudevillian Kinksian sophomore set (1993’s Modern Life Is Rubbish) that was commercially poor but critically solvent, came – ta-da – Parklife. After a disastrous US tour, everyone’s favourite Essex polymath Damon Albarn decided he was going to pen a trilogy of parochial oh-so English albums. Alas, Blur‘s jocular jingoistic Parklife was unceremoniously ravaged by Melody Maker, who ran the headline, “Would you buy a used ideology from these men?” The answer was yes, yes yes!

Fresh out the block, the third LP was packed to the gills with annoyingly catchy songs, but it’s the poptastic first 45 Girls & Boys that really sent Blur soaring. A tasty triumvirate of off-kilter Frippertronic guitar slashes, John Taylor bassline and spartan, ironic dance grooves, even the band’s Alex James summed it up as “disco drums, nasty guitars and Duran Duran bass.” It’s as if Parlophone faxed over a request for a postmodern single for the mid-’90s that would tick as many boxes and possible: two parts Bowie’s Fashion and one part Pet Shop Boys minor chords to a synthy, syncopated beat. 

No surprise then that the song impressed PSB enough to agree to mix the 12” version, the duo’s first remix job for an outside act, and which they’d follow up with a radical remodelling of Hallo Spaceboy for Bowie himself. Do you like girls or boys?

Damon’s chucking sandcastles of shade at your Eurotrash-loving Magaluffing holidaymakers, with sassily sardonic lyrics as infectious as the STDs he alludes to in this ambiguous romp. Another is-he-or-isn’t-he swingers’ reference, in the ear-worm chorus about girls who do boys who do boys who girls who girls who look like boys, erm boy, well anyway you get the idea. For the record, Damon said he wasn’t gay but was much gayer than his arch nemesis Brett Anderson. The exact quote regarding letting it all hang out with the boys? “I’ve been tasted.” (OK, I can confirm he has, though to be honest there wasn’t a great deal to taste – Ed.)

Oasis – Cigarettes And Alcohol (1994)

They say looks can be deceptive, never judge a book by its cover, still waters run deep and all that. Which reminds me of jazz supremo and rotund wit George Melly when he asked granite-faced octogenarian Mick Jagger why he had so many lines on his face. The Rolling Stone said it was because he laughed a lot. Quick as a flash, Melly retorted “Surely nothing can be that funny?”

I felt the same when I first saw the Gallagher brothers – surely no one can be that thick? I was born on a council estate and most of us had aspirations beyond the bullish neanderthal vibes early Oasis Quo gave off. Liam and Noel suffered from no such existential despair or postmodern ennui that their so-called contemporaries grappled with. The siblings were infamously unafraid to speak their mind almost to the point of caricature. 

Their music was about the joys of living free and they seemed to have no reservations about fulfilling that promise. And nothing best sums up their ethos than Oasis’s fourth 45, Cigarettes And Alcohol. By then I was proper smitten. It was was surprising yet joyous evocation to hear the Bolan boogie back in the top ten, and a great distillation of what everyone would be doing on a Friday night shebang downtown. Never mind What’s The Story Morning Glory, the first album

Definitely Maybe, the Masterplan B-sides comp and any serviceable greatest hits are all you really need to hear from Oasis.

By 1997, it was effectively all over when a circling tortilla of cocaine and helicopters made a sonically decadent mess of the flotsam and jetsam tertian third album Be Here Now. I blame Knebworth and that notorious showbiz party at No. 10. When the strangulation of the post New Labour dream is full of blusterous over-blown statements, one line from Noel Gallagher stands out. “We got in this for fit birds, and a big telly. And then ended up with court cases and man bags.”

Elastica – Connection (1994)

If Britpop’s essence was gleeful, irreverent insouciance in the face of dour American grunge, then Elastica were the Britpoppiest band of them all. Led by the impossibly fierce Justine Frischmann, this black-clad gang of three birds and one bloke banged out smart, deliciously catchy pop-punk songs about stuff like erectile dysfunction, car sex, and, um, lubrication. A possibly less good Franz Ferdinand in formation were furiously taking notes. 

Justine was a Zelig-like figure in Britpop: A founding member of Suede and partner of Brett Anderson, this lover of all things Adam Ant ditched Brett for Damon Albarn, forming Cool Britannia’s first power couple. All her relationships would implode, but for a brief, shining moment, Elastica were the coolest band in Britain, even if they shamelessly shoplifted riffs from Wire and the Stranglers, but turned them into leftward hooky tunes that were tons more fun. 

Their first album came out in the same week as Radiohead’s The Bends and Moby’s Everything Is Wrong. But it’s Elastica we’re talking about here, and in common with the other two –  and most of Britpop – it meant something in America, where it went gold.

15 tracks in 38 minutes without an ounce of fat, and with a lead 45 that was the Kraut-crunching sub electronica of Connection, they concocted not only one of the era’s most vital singles, but even provided the theme tune to Dom Jolly’s Trigger Happy TV. HELLO?!

Boo Radleys – Wake Up Boo! (1995)

With delightful contrariness, Oasis label mates The Boo Radleys released what was the summer anthem of 1995 but in February. Go figure.

Wake up Boo! is as joyful as a thousand milligram dose of Vitamin C, brilliantly scribed from the pen of the vastly underrated Martin Carr. He’s like the psychedelic Scouse commander we hoped for in The La’s Lee Mavers though with less of the shoe-gazing.

Their most Britpop record, Wake Up was the band’s fourth LP, after fabulous fuzzy pop of 1993’s Giant Steps. Later albums included 1996’s C’ Mon Kids (Career suicide) and 1998’s Kingsize (McGee hates it, I love it, Hurrah!) but either way, it’s a stunning back catalogue from a guy who’s sadly remembered more of as a one hit wonder. 

But what a hit. Brassy Motown junk (inspired, nonetheless, by the incongruity of a Style Council B-side) boasting a bittersweet middle eight with the line “You have to put the death in everything”. A radio staple that screamed “play me on the Breakfast Show”, the Wallasey wonders never sounded so alive.

Pulp – Common People (1995)

“Sing along with the common people!”

The irony is Pulp were possibly the greatest band to emerge from the whole Britpop scene, even though Sheffield’s Jarvis Cocker formed the band, with a revolving door line-up, in 1978.

Either way, Jarvis never conceals his displeasure at being lumped in with the whole Cool Britannia movement and couldn’t even bring himself to write the B-word in his autobiography, Good Pop Bad Pop, deliberately misspelling it as Br@pop, and telling Pitchfork

“It’s just a shitty-sounding word. I don’t like the nationalistic idea of it; it wasn’t a flag-waving music. It was really distasteful when it got called Britpop because that was like somebody trying to appropriate some kind of alternative culture, stick a Union Jack on it, and take the credit for it.”

Like Neil Tennant or Alex Turner, Jarvis is a brilliant storyteller, but as a performer he seeks to transcend reality, like all the greatest pop music. After being described as “a cross between ABBA and The Fall, by the mid nineties the Yorkshire combo had expanded on past formulas and mastered their theatrical brand of sonic satire.

His ’n’ Hers (1994) and the all conquering Different Class (1995)  are packed with formica funk and polyester pop of the highest order, like a witty dry singing Alan Bennett he weaved tales of joy and heartbreak that rivalled anything written by Leonard Cohen.

Staking its place as the era’s most epochal single, everyone loved Common People. However ubiquitous, there’s no denying it’s essential pop listening, and like folklore it transcends any box or genre.

Its parent album is a wry, saucy lynchpin of ’90s culture and a testament to the unbridled power of weird. While Modern Life Is Rubbish was British in a way that made people want to apologise to non-Brits, Different Class owes no apologies to anyone. Pulp got their right to be different and it’s forever true high common art. 

Supergrass – Alright (1995)

Since they had a lower profile than their peers and came across as a bunch of mates instead of serious musicians, Supergrass tended to be the most overlooked of all the major Britpop bands. They didn’t define the culture like Oasis or Blur, never had a following of serious-minded, clever misfits like Pulp, they weren’t as sexy as Elastica, and they lacked the grandiose, doomed romanticism of Suede. 

What they were, though, was a bloody brilliant guitar pop band. And even though their debut, 1995’s I Should Coco, had a bigger stylistic sprawl than any album that year (not to mention the Parlophone label’s biggest selling debut since a certain band went into Abbey Road to record Please Please Me). it’s as a purveyor of 45s that they really excel, as 2004’s generous 24-track collection Supergrass Is 10: The Best of 94-04 amply proves.

Mansize Rooster, Caught By The Fuzz, Pumping On Your Stereo, Moving, Richard III; Supergrass are undeniably one of the most consistently great British singles bands of our times, up there with The Jam, The Smiths, Pet Shop Boys, and Madness. And in musical terms, I’d suggest Gaz Combes, Danny Coffey and Mick Quinn have more in common with the Mike Barton piano-led peak of the matter before the Camden lads got tired of being Nutty Boys.

In the context of Britpop, like the Welsh wonder of Super Furry Animals, Supergrass have an amazing back catalogue of witty, surreal and off-the-wall pop. In many ways, the trio out-Blurred Blur with the deliriously infectious summer anthem Alright. The simplest of melodies repeated ad infinitum with a Hank Marvin-aping guitar solo, it was the Oom-Pah-Pah anthem of ’90s music hall without that sodding Country House.

Space – Female Of The Species (1996)

Space are a sonic curveball. A band people forget and then you hear the theme to Cold Feet and that light samba rhythm instantly transports you back like a warm mink glove. 

Had they been around in the sixties, Tommy Scott and Co would have been sporting cheap tuxedos and singing tawdry torch songs in Butlin’s rather than showing off their Beatle boots on Carnaby Street. But, armed with electric guitars, hip-hop grooves and synths galore, Space cropped up at the fag end of the era, out to destroy retro-gazing Britpop from within by disguising themselves as mop-topped Oasis dopplegangers but delivering a message far more subversive than, “You gotta roll with it.”

Spiders, the Scouser’s 1996 debut, was packed to the rafters with quirky sample-heavy pop, and taking the old Tin Pan Alley remit of “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus” to heart, they seemed to almost have a monopoly on great choruses. For a while at least.

With its blood-stained lyrics, Female Of The Species was a reference to the 1911 Rudyard Kipling poem of the same name, which boasts the refrain “The female of the species is more deadly than the male.” Drawing inspiration from a disparate roll-call – Scott Walker, the Rat Pack, Charles Manson – the band’s fourth 45 is still a record that discombobulates people. 

Female Of The Species could be a parallel universe Bond theme, an offshoot of the limbo calypso pop of Haircut 100, another pre Britpop troop before the fact. It’s a classic jaunty writing lesson in how to write a quirky, earworm of a tune, and for the first two albums Space had that in spades. Tom Jones and Cerys from Catatonia were just around the corner. Cue knickers.

Verve – The Drugs Don’t Work (1997)

“Now the party’s over.” 

This is the mam and dad coming home, unplugging the stereo and saying this is where the fun stops. And speaking of yesterday’s dried roasted peanuts, the gone cold buffet of The Drugs Don’t Work by The Verve. A song so resolutely grim it caused the sanguine beauty Princess Di to crash her car. Or did it?

Either way, it’s a great song. When my father was dying of Parkinson’s I used to play it all the time. It’s about the wiry Richard Ashcroft’s father and his battle with cancer, hence the lovelorn couplet of “The drugs don’t work/ they just make you worse.”

Like a lot of the Britpop-tarred bands, The Verve had been knocking around on the fringes for aeons, and it’s fashionable to declare their sophomore set, 1995’s A Northern Soul, is their meisterwerk. The Drugs Don’t Work dates from that mid-decade period but had to wait until a September 1, 1997 release as the second single from the band’s penultimate album Urban Hymns to receive its due.

Produced with Youth (Killing Joke, Blue Pearl), Rolling Stone described the song as “a tear-stained ballad enhanced with sparse, nebulous horns and reverberating pedal steel guitar.” While Music Week thought it “beautifully orchestrated, semi-acoustic and distinctly old-fashioned, it’s a melancholy ballad executed with great panache and enormous style by a group who can only get bigger.” 

In fact, the sombre nature of the song unintentionally captured the spirit of the nation as the 45 was issued the day after Diana met her fate in that Paris underpass. The Verve, too, would implode within a couple of years, reforming briefly for 2008’s cleverly titled Forth – fourth album, geddit? (Reminds me, I caught their 2007 ‘reunion’ show at the then new London o2 Arena and it was easily one of the dullest shows I’ve ever seen. Oh, I’ll shut up – Ed.)

Of course, unlike the human body, singles don’t have a shelf life of a few weeks, months or years. If I can paraphrase Oasis, they last forever. Even if the idea of Britpop, conceived as a mere headline in a tawdry magazine, became a buzz word for a time and a place, I know we’ll never see its like again.

Mark Gibson

BONUS BEATS

How did they get here? Oh only via…

The Jam

The Kinks

Haircut 100

Manic Street Preachers

Saint Etienne

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