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Britpop: What prompted the end of the genre that gave us Blur and Pulp?

This summer, some of Britpop’s biggest bands are back on the road.

Pulp are headlining festivals across Europe; and Blur played two triumphant nights at Wembley Stadium – a venue they never envisioned playing, even at the height of their fame in the 1990s.

By coincidence, the bands have reformed as Britpop celebrates its 30th anniversary.

You don’t need to have been there and bought the bucket hat to know the songs: Parklife, Common People, Supersonic, Connection, Girl From Mars, Animal Nitrate.

The movement was often framed as a push back against the dreary self-seriousness of US grunge, with bands drawing consciously on the tradition of melodic, guitar-based British pop established by the Beatles, and spicing it up with elements of glam and punk rock.

The term Britpop was coined by journalist Stuart Maconie in a long polemic about the state of guitar music in the April 1993 issue of Select magazine.

Styled as an angry letter to Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, Maconie wrote: “Enough is enough! Yanks go home! And take your miserable grungewear and your self-obsessed slacker bands with you.

“We don’t want plaid. We want crimplene, glamour, wit, and irony. It’s time to bring on the Home Guard. These, Kurt, are the boys who will stop your little game: Suede, Saint Etienne, Pulp, Denim and the Auteurs. Bands with pride!”

It was a rallying call, for sure, but the movement didn’t burst into life straight away – perhaps because, in addition to Britpop, Maconie insisted on calling these bands “The Crimplenests”.

Suede were first out of the traps, releasing their searing debut album in 1993, all glam guitars and sexual androgyny.

But the scene really came together a year later. In the space of two weeks, Blur released Parklife, Oasis put out their debut single, Supersonic, and Pulp issued their breakthrough album His ‘N’ Hers.

For the next few years, indie bands ruled the charts like they never had before. By 1996, all five of the best album nominees at the Brit Awards had a connection to the scene.

Oasis won with their blockbuster second album, What’s The Story (Morning Glory), but the competition was just as worthy – Pulp’s Different Class, Blur’s The Great Escape, Paul Weller’s Stanley Road and Radiohead’s The Bends (Radiohead always sat slightly apart from Britpop, partly because they spent so much time touring in the US, their eyes on a much bigger prize than the British charts).

That same year, the Blur v Oasis chart battle made the BBC News, in an era where rock music only got on to the bulletins if someone had died; and two million people applied for tickets to see Oasis play at Knebworth.

Britpop dominated the musical landscape so definitively that bands felt bulletproof.

“I suppose I felt like I could walk out into traffic and cars would bounce off me,” recalled Blur’s Graham Coxon. “I probably tried it.”

Then, almost as soon as it arrived, Britpop fizzled out.

In a new BBC Sounds series, The Rise And Fall of Britpop, Jarvis Cocker explains where it all went wrong.

“[Britpop] had this euphoria of thinking, ‘Yeah, we’re the snotty kids and we’re finally getting to go centre stage,” he says.

“Then everybody was drinking too much and getting a hangover – and then, of course, people don’t want to buy records by hungover people.

“Then the Spice Girls and Robbie Williams appeared and they did some of the same things, but without the grumpiness.

“The record-buying public – and I don’t blame them at all – just thought, all right, let’s get rid of these misery guts. And so that was the end of it.”

His analysis bears weight. As Britpop matured, a sense of ennui and depression kicked in.

Pulp’s own This Is Hardcore was written about mid-life oblivion and the inevitability of death. Blur’s self-titled 1997 album favoured lo-fi American guitar sounds over the colour-by-numbers vibrancy of Tracy Jacks and Country House. Oasis’s Be Here Now was, in Noel Gallagher’s own words, “the sound of a bunch of guys, on coke, in the studio, not giving an [expletive].”

“Broken bands make broken records,” says Steve Lamacq, who co-hosts the Britpop series with Jo Whiley, recreating their influential partnership on Radio 1’s Evening Session in the 1990s.

The broadcaster recalls the experience of Elastica, whose debut album was released on Deceptive – a label he set up in 1993,

“They were like the Backstreet Kids of pop really, they were cheeky and sarcastic and cool and very credible. And their debut album was one of the best records of that era.

“But from day one, they were always in demand. Everybody wanted a piece of them. They become one of the very few British bands to find some sort of success in the States. Then you fast forward two years and they are absolutely knackered, mentally and physically.

“There was no let-up and at that point, they were probably running on adrenaline. And when the adrenaline ran out, they were fuelled by anything that might keep them going. And I think in short, it just, it stops being fun, really. But even when it stops being fun, the demands on you, they don’t stop.”

He details how sessions for the band’s second album were “painfully slow” with members failing to turn up for recording sessions, often for weeks at a time.

When the record arrived, it was called The Menace – and the material was infinitely darker and more haunting than the bubblegum brightness of their debut.

“I really felt for them,” says Lamacq, “because despite all the people who were trying to direct them, they got absolutely lost.

“And they weren’t the only ones because that level of success, and its subsequent pressures led to this rash of, if not cynical records, then albums that bare the soul of people who’d been in the music industry washing machine, and felt like they were being hung out to dry.”

Damon Albarn found himself in a similar position.

“I had a sort of a strange episode when I was walking under the the A12,” he says on the podcast. “Suddenly it looks like everything you’ve ever dreamed of is going to come true and I had a real… call it a panic attack or something like that.

“That reverberated for many years really. It was quite difficult thing to live with, especially as everything ramped up. I found it difficult, if I’m honest.”

For many of its biggest stars. then, the Britpop party was over. But Whiley says the movement had an important legacy.

“There genuinely weren’t many female bands [around] but I think the women who were there made a lasting impact on other girls who were listening to the radio and realising that they could actually get themselves a guitar, they could begin to make music… and I think that’s really, really important.”

Whiley says it would be impossible to replicate Britpop today, as the music industry is too fractured to coalesce around any one particular sound.

“The whole model has completely changed and record labels lost a lot of control, so maybe it was the last hurrah.”

But speaking on the podcast, Noel Gallagher says Britpop “was kind of absorbed back into the system” and recycled by the major record labels.

“After what became known as Britpop, you end up with bands like Busted with the Les Paul [guitars] and all that.

“They’re kind of rocking, they kind of play their own instruments, but it’s just pure trash pop music.”

Source: BBC