In the 1990s a picture of John Noakes (the children’s TV presenter of the 1970s) was used to sell vodka, and space hoppers became a ubiquitous symbol- tacky nostalgia telly shorthand – for a kind of funky goofy retro comedy of recognition. As Kevin Rowland once sang, ‘I’m trying to get the feeling back I had in 1972 but why Kevin, why?” (Michael Bracewell, When Surface Was Depth)
Why indeed? Are we so obsessed with the past? Especially in music and culture? There’s a hazy view we have of growing up that never leaves us, a warm fuzzy glow of better times, more optimistic times, a rose-tinted time of hope? A time when the summer’s seemed endless and the music seemed glorious and things could only get better.
But when you look back is the music that you first loved, like your first relationship, as good as you remembered it ‘the first time’? Or were you just blinded by a naive youthfulness and optimism, that rushing in your belly that’s grown more weary with the inevitable swell of time? Simon Reynolds grumbles in his book ‘Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past” that “The attachment of young people to genres that have been around for decades mystifies me. Don’t they want to push them aside?” He may have a point but a famous man once said ‘The music you fall in love with as a kid never leaves you’ and its true. Here’s a recollection of my memories of the music of my youth (and some I discovered later on) alongside a meditation upon the fad for nostalgia and how healthy it is in 2014..
Back in the balmy early 90s, I remember rewinding and playing a worn out VHS copy of Nirvana Unplugged to the distraction of my family. Fascinated by Cobain’s tortured voice stripped bare, for all the three chord bluster it revealed a sensitive songwriter to compare with Neil Young. Constantly amused by his between song quips and stung by a era-defining songwriter that could connect with the anger and dissatisfaction of a slightly awkward loner teenager like myself. At the time my turntable was glowing with records by R.E.M (Automatic for the People), the Red Hot Chilli Peppers (Blood Sugar Sex Magic) Pearl Jam‘s (Ten) and Rage Against the Machine (Self Titled). Some people talk dismissively now about ‘Grunge’ but when you look back, initially there was an exciting ‘alternative scene’ and they didn’t all have long hair and three bar chords, these guys could craft songs of enormous emotion and epic appeal. But they were American, why was British music as represented by TOTP’s so poor? I used to ask myself at the time. Perhaps ignorant as a thirteen year old to the fuzz of shoe gaze(apart from a Holiday recommendation of Ned’s Atomic Dustbin by exposure to My Bloody Valentine, Ride et al) and the first murmurings of UK guitar bands was limited.
Then like a shaft of light on a grey day, a riposte to US alt. rock and Thatcher’s recession hit Britain. That flip side was Oasis, when ‘Definitely Maybe’ hit my tape deck it hit hard. Oasis were that classic mixture, loud guitars, a wall of sound that thrust itself through the timidly of much of the jangle pop of the early 90s. Unlike the timidity of earlier ‘indie bands,’ Northern Brother’s Gallagher were loud and brash, Noel’s somehow familiar melodies fed through towering swaggering rock squalled with the sound Manchester dole queues and pub crawls as immortalised by the line ‘You might as well do the white line/ Cos when it comes on top .You gotta make it happen!” lines that dripped with ambition and seizing of the moment of escape from the working class council estates of Salford for the bright lights of the city. Unlike the nihilism of grunge it was a celebration, Liam’s snarling Mancunian drawl was part John Lennon part Johnny Rotten, of ‘Cigarettes and Alcohol’ and wanting to ‘Live Forever’ who was that they were burying in the video? Their drummer or the memory of ‘grunge’?
When I found Radiohead, I remember distinctly taping their support slot with REM back in 94 and even back then their execution of my favourite album ‘The Bends’ was essential listening, encapsulating an ambition a melodic ism in guitar music that my young years had yet to be exposed too. Then there was the Manic Street Preachers, a band of outsiders from the mining town of South Wales whose glamorous look and punk appeal and way with a tune tapped into a wistfulness, my love of soaring melodies, and a lyrical intellect that name checked everyone from Plath, to Pinter, Miller and Mailer.Like The Smiths the Manics weren’t just another rock band they introduced you to a world of writers, poets philosophers, and political thought, plus identifying with their fans through their creative heartbeat’s (Nicky Wire/Richey Edwards) well documented struggles with mental health issues. I got into them through their most coherently commerical album Everything Must Go an album steeped in redemption and grief of losing their childhood friend and key lyricist Richey James Edwards, this acted as a gatekeeper album for me as I delved back into their catalogue falling in love with albums like Generation Terrorists and the fury and intelligence of The Holy Bible. With songs with titles like “Motorcycle Emptiness’ ‘Faster’ and ‘A Design for Life.’ Anthems that made you think and you can’t say that very often.The Manics were later drawn into the Cool Cymru movement of bands(Super Furry Animals, Catatonia, Stereophonics) as the Welsh government cynically saw an opportunity to repackage Welsh music not only to England but across the World.
‘The 1990s: the decade that puréed retro styles like a vegetable juicer. Sixties, Seventies, Eighties.. In the 1990s suddenly it became apparent that every issue of Style magazine had somehow looked exactly the same since about 1988. By 2001, cheap television would be running nostalgia shows about the year ….1997! (Behold the Retro! The past robbed of its history, the shell of age, repainted) (Michael Bracewell, When surface was Depth)
We’re bombarded by reformations ( Blur, Suede, Pulp and Take That) deluged by reissues (Nirvana, Eliot Smith, Neutral Milk Hotel et al) and a series of re-visitations of the decade (Primal Scream‘s Screamaldelica shows, and the new Creation film) hell even this article perpetuates the nostalgia feeding frenzy. As 90s night clubs start up celebrating the era of vimto, shell suits and crimplene was it really all so much better twenty years ago? Sure the 90s was wall to wall with dodgy music in the mainstream (witness Steps, Aqua and 2 Unlimited for a briefly disgusting taste) MTV pumping out sick making boybands and faceless dance acts alongside dreadful dinosaurs like Sting, Dire Straits and Phil Collins. But viewed from the vantage point of the naughties where music seems so disparate, disconnected by new technology and an online choice simply so vast that everyone is ‘following their own path’ often oblivious of the new gatekeepers(bloggers, podcasters and online media). For many of today’s new ‘bands’ the 90s appears to be a goldmine of influence to be plucked at.
While a particular brand of guitar music has gone global in the form of practitioners of stadium new agery of the dreadful Coldplay, and bland, idiotic landfill indie dominates all the while working under the veneer of independent values under the guise of a major label. If you look hard enough there’s still great music to be found. But that’s the point back in the 1990s you didn’t have to look that far. Charismatic personalities emerged, genres were spliced, songs as diverse as White Town‘s ‘Your Women’ to Underworld‘s ‘Born Slippy’ and Cornershop‘s ‘Brimful of Asha’, given a platform by Lammo, TFI and the The Word these songs were piercing the mainstream charts for the first time. For a brief tangible year or two the alternative had become mainstream, then it imploded. But it was fun while it lasted. Eh?
Like most so called ‘scenes’ the first bloom is the most delicious. Once its burst into the mainstream and the initial sheen wears off, then its everyone’s the milkman is whistling Supergrass‘ ‘Alright’ the slow death of any ‘scene’ begins. A triumvirate of albums were released in its nascent years would go onto shape the sounds of the next few years. Blur‘s ‘Modern Life is Rubbish,(1993)’ Pulp‘s ‘His n hers’(1994) and Elastica‘s ‘s/t’(1995)’s début were imbued with a new confidence, a starker vision of Britain and spikier tunes that whilst were rooted in the past still rippled with personality and bravery.
As Travis sung in their 97 single the slightly naive jauntiness of ‘Tied to the 90s’ hid a more tired appraisal of the transients of what was termed ‘Britpop’: ‘We’re stuck in a path/ Where fashion is fast/And nothin’ is lasting/ It’s all ghetto blasting’. Britpop was a more immediate tuneful kind of indie, that harked back to the ‘classicism’ and eventually wrapped itself in the Union Jack, in a controversial reclaiming of the flag. Where the 80s was all about jangle, difficultness and coyness the new guard weren’t afraid to be bold, brash and tuneful, witness the likes of The Bluetones, Dodgy and Supergrass for a feel of the upbeat singles that sound-tracked summer festivals. Britpop’s definition would become more of a troubling pigeon-hole in latter years as the bandwagon headed for the mainstream, including any act that was British and existed at the time.
Whilst we look back, the irony is 90s Britpop was very backward looking too, a post-modern bricolage of styles and sounds were quickly raided, as youngsters rushed toward their parents cupboards and record collections for inspiration. As Michael Bracewell puts it “youth flaunting the shock of the old and they did it with style and wit. True there were going to be some other diversions on this magical mystery tour down memory’s dual carriage way from the culd de sac… reawakening new romantic synth pop to the lay-by of easy listening revival but britpop was the real picnic at the end of the journey. And it was strictly for the kids- even if the adults tried to join in”
It’s clear to see in Oasis’s love of the sounds and iconography of The Beatles, The Who and even Slade, and application of the mod aesthetic for the lad generation. Blur’s hotchpotch of styles, Albarn as king magpie mockney plucking from Ray Davies‘ book of characters, to his meditations upon the shipping forecast and his love of the iconography of the 90s was a pot-pourri of influences. Pulp‘s frontman Jarvis Cocker literally wore his love of charity shop kitsch on his rather gangly sleeve while their references to awkward early sexual exploration, Roxy Music and a very Sheffield aesthetic, honed through their years under the radar. They exploded into life on their prime work 94’s His N Hers where his tales of bedsits, relationships and discos where given new focus, awesome cuts like ‘Babies’ ‘Do You Remember the first time?’, ‘Lipgloss’ etc. But Pulp’s crowning glory came with one of the greatest headline slots to ever grace Glastonbury in 95, as a by then coke addled Stone Roses pulled out. Pulp seized their moment performing a clutch of new songs (Mis-shapes, Sorted for Ez and Whiz) that would make up their breakthrough album Different Class(1995) and followed up by their biggest hit ‘Common People’ a personal narrative of his time with a girl in St Martin’s college giving him a platform for a wry, withering attack on middle class attempts to slum it with the proles (‘you’ll never know what its like to live your life without meaning or control’) delivered over a throbbing disco-pop song, that rose to violin driven crescendos, it became an anthem, their ascent was complete. Jarv was now a genuine Icon.
Meanwhile pre-Britpop Suede’s initial amalgamation of the glamour and sexual ambiguity of Bowie’s Aladdin Sane aesthetic matched by the kind of bittersweet songwriting that with the release of their sparkling début ‘Suede’ in the early part of the decade, briefly made them the 90s answer to the The Smiths. When they tore the Brits apart in with a performance that oozed sexuality, darkness, glamour and a seediness from frontman Brett Anderson and co that left music industry suits slack jawed. Their début was matched by the power of their melancholic suburban melodrama (all the love and poison of London) on their finest album Dog Man Star.(1994) Once Bernard Butler left to pursue a very successful partnership with David McAlmont. They followed it up with the bubble-gum glam of ‘Coming Up’ that saw them firmly welcomed into the Britpop club, with its outsider anthem for the disaffected stonker ‘Trash.’
Alongside Suede there were a host of glamorous dark guitar acts with a way with twisted melancholia and a thirst to be heard. Strangelove from Bristol had much in common with Suede, melancholic themes, introspective lyrics and mangled guitars, yet their records came from a more subconscious place, main songwriter Patrick Duff spent most of the 90s wired, spitting out streams of consciousness from deep inside. Over a three long playing releases Strangelove built their own cocoons: a world of introspection that plumbed the depths and observed the absurd. Highlights included the long player ‘Love and Other Demons’ that also featured guest vocals from Brett Anderson on the affecting ‘She’s Everywhere’.While their finest work is their first album ‘Time for the rest of your life’(1994) a suite of carolling distorted notes and primal rhythms, Patrick’s mad eye’d delivery and emotion adding to the mystique and power of these quite other worldly songs. It’s a fact not often mentioned that Strangelove supported Radiohead on tour in the early 90s and some pointed out the influence that this had on the latters second album ‘The Bends’…
Meanwhile up north things were stirring for a sleek looking bunch of Cheshire cats who went under the name of Marion, plying their trade in startlingly dizzyingly fast paced songs shot through with urgent vocals, they were even joined by former Smith Johnny Marr on their album The Programme. Best known for the floor filling songs (‘Time’, ‘Sleep’) that made up their cracking début ‘This World and Body‘(1996), and as they imploded in the late nineties the rumour that their front man Jamie burgled the BBC for a fix amidst a particularly heavy drugs binge (although these reports are unconfirmed). Sheffield’s The Longpigs are another oft overlooked band in the 90s cannon, their album ‘The Sun Is Often Out’ featured the wonderfully wonky introspective hit ‘She Said’ and the delicious longing of ‘On and On.’
“We all live on the rubbish: it dictates our thoughts and because it’s all built up over such a long time there’s no necessity for originality any more..There are so many old things to splice together in infinite permutations that there is absolutely no need to create anything new. I think that phrase (Modern life is rubbish) is the most significant comment on popular culture since Anarchy in the UK” Damon Albarn.
Blur‘s ‘Modern life is Rubbish’ dealt with these theme head on, a reaction of the US alt rock of the early 90s and the cold consumerism of Thatcher’s Britain with its recession and dole queues. Now they tackled the commodification of culture in songs like ‘For Tomorrow’ with its night-time visions of the ‘westway’ and the pre-millennial angst of its female subject and ‘Popscene’ they railed against a rubbish stack of culture and reaffirmed their own kind of Englishness. This album coupled with their new image one they claimed to have borrowed from 80s Ska movement, began to reassert an (albeit) clichéd type of British response to the US music of the early years, in terms of iconography, themes and sound, thus ‘Brit pop’ was born stretching through the release of ‘Parklife’ an even more tounge in cheek caricatured journey through Albarn’s neighbourhood inhabited by wry set of cut out characters that lived ‘southern working class’ all right govna lives and spent their summers in Ibiza see the bittersweet Casio romp of ‘Girls and Boys’ through to Oasis’ attempts to revive classic Mod culture in their look, the video for ‘Don’t look back in Anger’ in particular was a nod to the rock aristocracy of the 60s and 70s driven as they were onto the set of a stately home by none other than actor Patrick MacNee. Meanwhile the Union Jack was being wrapped around some like a kind of trophy, in a bizarre race to show how ‘British and proud’ we apparently all were now. But the reference points of draping the flag were often cringe making and stripped away any of the intentions of a new kind of patriotism. Noel’s Union jack guitar was an ever present whilst reaching its logical conclusion when Geri Halliwell’s garish Union flag dress, it was amusing to note that only a few years previously Morrissey had been derided by the NME for waving the flag as he sung about ‘NF Disco’ now it was accepted, nay embraced as the febrile rush toward the mainstream of flaunting of identity and ‘Cool Britannia’ led to sick making scenes of Brit Artists like Tracy Enim and Noel Gallagher rubbing shoulders with Tony Blair as he reached office, Noel presumably sneaking off to snort a line in the No 10 bogs eh?
Damon Albarn’s new girlfriend(and Suede front man Brett Anderson’s ex) Justine Frischmann was making a mark of her own with her band Elastica whose snorting female fronted garage punk was crystallised on their mighty fine self titled début album(1995), along with Sleeper, Echobelly,Kenickie, Lush, Catatonia, P J Harvey, Elastica were a stiletto heel of feistiness in quite a male dominated scene, it was a shame then that it would take years and years for its ill-fated follow up, by which time nobody much cared anymore.
If you dig further back into the early 90s you’ll find a host of genres that may have slipped you by. Like golden nuggets of influence that have seeped down the generations from the psych-rhythms of early Stone Roses or Primal Scream‘s ability to mix dance and guitar music successfully for the rave generation of ecstasy and all nighters, on their seminal album ‘Screamadelica.'(1991) That long player included a handful of stunning songs borne out of their collaboration with DJ Andrew Wetherall it was this fusing of rock and dance music that’s an essence that would bleed into the next few decades. See ‘Loaded’ , ‘Moving on Up‘ and the swooning vocals and trippy beats of early single ‘Higher than the Sun.’
Their label partners on Creation, Irish act My Bloody Valentine are perhaps the most cited bands by new comers at the moment. The formers searingly ambitious fuzz box opus ‘Loveless'(1991) is an imperious record of divine beauty and experimentation as hushed fractured melodic coos are buried beneath walls of swirling feedback,Velvet Crush, reviewer Ira Robbins wrote, “Despite the record’s intense ability to disorient—this is real do-not-adjust-your-set stuff—the effect is strangely uplifting. Loveless oozes a sonic balm that first embraces and then softly pulverises the frantic stress of life.” ‘Loveless’ continues to influence bands who ply the genres of shoegaze and dream pop as far and wide as The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, early Smashing Pumpkins and A Place to Bury Strangers, such are their influence upon so called ‘nu gaze’ bands it led one critic to suggest Kevin Shields should ‘sue’ he could build a case but maybe not…..
In the Creation documentary ‘Upside Down’ that charts the independent imprints rise from small back alley label in London with only a hand full of acts including Captain Sensible and some band called the Jesus and Mary Chain through to Oasis’ Knebworth shows where they played in front of 250,00 people across three nights. Alan McGee points out with a smile across his face ‘the story of creation is the story of indie’ and he’s correct. As Creation bloated in size its ramshackle operation powered by drug addicts and all night binges and a laudable but bloody minded belief in its artists became swamped by Sony execs who were just placed on the board so not so much a take over as a backdoor mission. ‘Indie’ whatever that meant anymore? Had gone mainstream, and that’s when in some ways the spirit of it died. Indeed as we survey the record industry now one ravaged by battles with digital file sharing sites the plummeting record sales and dominated by a few majors, we see that the ‘indie’ labels are now merely arms of major labels, where once they were independent operations they are now in some ways Satellite talent scouts. See Domino that’s now home to the Arctic Monkeys, they are owned by a major…and so on. And so the industry turns the small fish are eaten by the bigger fish and the whole thing has lost its essence.
Another Creation band Ride bridged the gap between shoegaze and Britpop with their rhythmic Catherine wheels of guitars infused with throbbing heart on albums like ‘Nowhere’ and ‘Going Blank Again’ and impressive songs like ‘Twisterella’ and ‘Vapour Trails’. New signings Super Furry Animals meanwhile perhaps the best Welsh band of the time, were told to sing in English by McGee when he first clapped eyes on them in a toilet venue, only to be told they were!
Meanwhile their sometime touring partners female fronted Lush had been carving out a niche, since the late eighties with their walls of sound(with albums like ‘Scar’ and ‘Spooky’) and delicate vocals of Miki Berenyi. By the time of 1996’s Lovelife, the band’s final album, which became the biggest seller of their career, Lush were perhaps strangely crammed into the Britpop pigeon-hole. Maybe it was due to a more upbeat production style and more immediately whip smart melodies than their earlier releases but still retained a lyrical insight rarely seen elsewhere. Lovelife included the wonderful hit single “Ladykillers” and the giddy ‘Heavenly Nobodies'(see below) also featured a guest appearance by Jarvis Cocker of Pulp, in a duet with Miki Berenyi on the song “Ciao!.”
There were new mixtures emerging. The cut ups of hip hop and dance music that increasingly relied on sampling, witness the work of Prodigy, The Chemical Brothers and DJ Shadow. The Prodigy’s early albums (‘Experience’ and ‘ Music for the Jilted generation’) in particular were highly influential in fusing rave culture, with hip hop and splicing it with elements of rock, reggae and techno. To create a force instantly recognisable and fearsomely built for the rave dance yet still retained a character that much of the faceless commercial bangers of the era lacked. See the singles ‘Out of Space’ and ‘No Good.’
When you look back other albums were not only dazzlingly original but also thumped with a heart that would allow them into the confines of the mainstream, at the time from Massive Attack‘s ‘Blue lines'(1991) through Portishead‘s ‘Dummy'(1994) to Tricky‘s ‘Maxinquaye’(1995) there seemed that something menacing was bubbling below the coffee table.
The power of the DJ to connect with a new clubbing crowd and continued toward Ibiza and the Ministry of sound as the decade progressed. Fatboy Slim, Carl Cox et al would all become names to conjure with, although their talent for um merely spinning discs seemed quite hollow. One unfortunate aspect of which led to the rise of the celebrity DJ, which reached its natural conclusion with the likes of Peaches Geldof getting paid to spin records rather than someone genuinely talented on the decks?! Still Boy George made a new career for himself eh?
The increasingly popular fad for collaborations and remixing may have some roots in the 90s scene. Fatboy Slim, The Chemical Brothers and Moby spliced and diced contributions. While the endless hip hop titles ‘featuring Snoop Dog’ or ‘Eminem’ or ‘Dr Dre’ now pushed hip hop from the inventive works of Public Enemy, NWA and De La Soul into more mainstream realms, as gangsta rap took over, reflecting the violence of gang, guns and drug culture in the shape of acts like Tupac, Wu Tang Clan and Notorious BIG and his countless accomplices. To the work of Unkle aka school friends James Lavelle and Tim Goldsworthy who successfully brought in guest vocalists(Thom Yorke, Kool G Rap and Mike D) to flesh out their tracks.
Bristol was also home to a more dance tinged element that was perhaps lazily lumped into the Britpop movement but reflected a more multi-cultural Britain, and sounds that reached beyond the 60s and 70s of their contemporaries and towards the dark downtempo corners of urban cities. The most successful of their kind were Bristolians Massive Attack from the wondrous ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ featuring the soul tones of Horace Andy as well as Shara Nelson, re-imagined through the trip hop prism of beats and unobtrusive string arrangements to Liz Fraser of the Cocteau Twins‘ achingly gorgeous contribution to the imperious ‘Teardrop.’ Massive Attack were taking the collaboration to encountered realms. Quickly co-opted on various compilations of the time by a very white, heterosexual male dominated, retro, guitar led Britpop movement eager to portray its multi cultural credentials it’s arguable whether these artists should be included or whether they operated in their own tip hop ether of the South West alone…Underworld were also included by dint of the marvellous ‘Born Slippy’s appearance on the Trainspotting Soundtrack a defining Britpop compilation(along with Help).
While slightly geeky looking DJ boffins The Chemical Brothers had a few of their own including the Noel Gallagher voiced ‘Setting Sun’ that had more than a nod to the Beatles’ ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’. In the mainstream two unlikely characters teamed up to wonderful affect when Nick Cave embellished one of his Murder ballads(where wild roses grow), in a stunning vocal partnership with Kyle Minogue.
American acts have had a pervasive influence too, beyond R.E.M who had spent the 80s honing their alternative brand of college rock/folk for the mainstream(with albums like ‘Out of Time’ , ‘Automatic for the People’ and ‘Monster.’ While the slackers bands like Dinosaur Junior, the skilful dynamics Sebadoah or some the Pixies looser work are now a shorthand of the records that now inform the UK acts like Yuck, Dinorsaur Pile Up et al. The playfulness and whimsy of Pavement’s work in particular is cited by many British bands now as a huge influence upon Los Campesnios! and beyond, devotee’s to all things Malkmus and the literate narratives and creative backdrops of Neutral Milk Hotel with their influential 98 album ‘In An Aeroplane over the see’.
Following a dynasty of his father Tim, Jeff Buckley‘s seminal album ‘Grace'(1994) still informs many singer songwriters to this day his angelic falsetto and effortless melding of the soul/rock/blues genres led many to uncover his album for the first time in the years that passed. His songs and performances retaining a reverence and power that have lived on since his death, witness the constant reworkings of his stepped back bare version of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’. Reports surrounding his untimely death include him swimming out to sea, before being drowned by a strong current pulling him under while he sung Led Zepplin‘s ‘Whole Lotta Love’, although it’s not something we can confirm!
Elliot Smith‘s career had echoes of Buckley too, a vastly influential songwriter whose hushed delivery brutal introspection and expertly crafted songwriting over a brittle acoustic guitar pluck and sublime albums like the stripped back ‘Roman Candle’ and the more orchestrated ‘Either/Or'(1997). You can hear the shadow of his voice in artists like Villagers, Benjamin Leftwitch and in countless who follow in his tread.
Coldplay‘s puzzlingly ascension into global stardom was probably influenced in no small part to the work of Buckely, Martin’s croon on perhaps their finest moment ‘Yellow’ bares the hall marks of an attempt ape how Buckley gracefully swooned up the registers yet lacks his originality. The door opened by the likes of Travis whose star in the late nineties began to rise on the back of a series of emotional earnest acoustic strummers of the kind that would probably be ignored if they were released today but such was the paucity at the time. Coldplay‘s popularity grew as the new decade progressed as they retooled and smoothed the edges off the likes of U2, Radiohead and Travis for mass stadiums of the new millennium. But lacked the invention or ambition to actually push themselves that so marked Buckley or Radiohead’s work, but they were now satisfied with being a global band “for the people,” but actually saying very little. Here’s another ‘nice’ but crushingly bland elevator tune, please buy my record.
Perhaps we’ve established that reaching back into the past can help us shape and understand our future. But is the kind of retro day-glo world of Nostalgia a negative thing? Well it may give the wrong impression, sure the 1990s had its fair share of sublime music, great albums and singalong hits. But it encourages a blank form of almost comic nostalgia where the signs are replayed so many times that we think we have an idea of what the 1990s was all about from the endless documentaries and the preponderance of reissues and revivals. At Also it has encouraged a kind of lunkheaded in the shape of bands like The Kaiser Chiefs, The Enemy, Kasabian and Brother who seemed to deal in an idiotically tub-thumping pastiche of the era.
In his recent Book Simon Reynolds calls this blank kind of pastiche ‘Retromania’ and claims that submerging yourself in past musical genres merely destroys individuality: “Pop’s vulnerability to its own history, the way the past accumulates behind it and hampers it, both as an actual sonic presence (on oldies radio, as reissues, through nostalgia tours and now via YouTube) and as an overpowering influence. What is different about the contemporary retromania is the aspect of total recall, instant recall, and exact recall that the internet makes possible. Fans can drown themselves in the entire history of music at no cost, because it is literally all up there for the taking. From YouTube’s archive of TV and concert performances to countless music, fashion, photography and design blogs, the internet is a gigantic image bank that encourages and enables the precision replication of period styles, whether it’s a music genre, graphics or fashion. As a result, the scope for imaginative reworking of the past – the mis-recognitions and mutations that characterised earlier cults of antiquity like the 19th-century gothic revival – is reduced.”
Also the songs and albums of the period, can become stripped of meaning without context and a sense of place. Like Blur‘s biggest album ‘Parklife’ an album teaming with Albarn’s characters, romping strings and bouncing brass, and a wry purposely day-glo view of Englishness that seems to lack the impact, viewed from a comfy distance of naughties multi cultural Britain where the landscape has changed, that album’s parodied view of ‘Englishness’ may have made sense in the 90s as a riposte to the tide of Americanism, but it probably never existed, stereotypes there must be more to life. Although the songs may still sound strong, these touchstone albums can become just more colours to fill in our binary view of a decade that younger people now may not even remember! More ‘issues’ for talking heads to spout forth on, like they were involved, or more Top 100 of the whatevers for Travis, Snow Patrol and Keane to be held up as bearers of a new kind of personality-less, strumalongs dirges made for dreary playlist music radio and the backdrop for a meal in pizza hut.
To some the reunions seem hollow too, as much as the fanfare that follows them, Blur‘s return at Glastonbury headliners a few years back was warmly received but only on the proviso that this wasn’t just an other ‘mortgage scheme reformation’ from old has beens trying to clear a few overdrafts and recapture something they can never get back. But a genuine send off for a well liked band who weren’t going to jam the dreaded ‘new material’ down our throats. Although British Gas seem determined to try and destroy the memory of one of Blur’s better songs ‘The Universal’ with their over use of its intro on their television adverts above as a bed below its (unfounded) claims of corporate helpfulness.
The returning Verve, weren’t so successful, they had briefly held the zietgiest back in 98 with their string led album ‘Urban Hymns’ by the time of their second reformation was increasingly just a way for Richard ‘the ego’ Ashcroft to continue to fund his increasingly middle of the road solo albums…. Then there’s the reformation of Suede who were greeted to cheers by the NME, a publication that had buried them only a few short years before, the irony wasn’t lost on many. In fact the only 1990s reformations I can think of that were a ‘success’ include Suede‘s recently well received and long talked about ‘Bloodsports’(2013) accompanied by a series of well attended shows, Martin Rossiter‘s marvellous solo album(2012) that if anything was better than anything that Gene released and Pulp‘s joyous peep above the parapet at Hyde Park in 2011 was tear inducingly good.
Lest we forget The Britpop years weren’t all pints down the good mixer and hazy summers of love either. From the vulgar Oasis Vs Blur chart battle(1996), engineered by their labels and desperate media outlets to further stoke the rivalry between the bands, the lines drawn crudely between northerners and southerners, working class oiks versus art school poshos it was ultimately a doomed load of nonsense characterised by Blur‘s worst ‘carry on’ style ‘oo er misus’ stereotype video ‘Country House’. A band called Thurman jumped onto the Parklife bandwagon and lurched Britpop into full on self parody, the whole Seaside Postcard caricature of English cultcha reflected by their laughable song ‘English Tea'( sample lyric
“Oh, what a lovely day to drink some English tea”) (Source: The Last Party).
The self styled ‘Take That of Indie’ Menswear were perhaps the biggest distillation of the swift asset quickly followed by a bursting of the Britpop bubble, arriving in Camden with barely two songs to their name there insured a major label battle to sign them, a flurry of hype and three or four singles (most notably ‘Being Brave’ and ‘Daydreamer’) that graised the charts before a downward spiral that saw them nursing breakdowns, addictions and a very strangely promoted second album that vanished without a trace.
I remember a lot of tension at the time, from the class divides increasing as Blair’s Britain was increasingly shown up as a false promise. While the battles between the ‘townies’ the ‘ravers’ and ‘indie kids’ had become more nuanced now guitars were mainstream but what did the old fans think of that? A uneasy scene summed up at the Manic Street Preachers gig at the turn of the millennium, as lads who would probably have beaten the Manics up for wearing eye-liner and looking like ‘poofs’ at the start of the decade sung gleefully along to lines of ‘A Design for Life’ that are haunted by irony ‘We only want to get drunk we only want to make love.’
Lest we forget laddism was now in full swing a boorish often masochistic movement fuelled by a very male retro ‘real music’ scene presided over by Noelrock(Northern Uproar, Cast et al) and titles like Loaded and Nuts flooded in increasing the uncomfortable objectification of women on their frontpages and even coining the term Ladette and Radio 1 DJ’s like Sara Cox sought to out drink her male counter parts nly to be papper falling out of a night club the next morning. Drug taking too was on the rise cocaine fuelled Britpop’s rise in the pubs and heroin addiction robbed us of the work of talents like Donna Matthews of Elastica. It was a situation documented in Duffy’s excellently observation Needle Mythology which captures the moment when drugs began to ensnare musicians with its dangerous allure of cool. While what Harris calls ‘The Elanor Rigby of Britpop’ ‘London Girls’ is a plinky plonky oft over looked document of Camden night-life at the height of the dance between Britpop bands and the weeklies over eager scribes…
In 1999, Belle & Sebastian a fey Glasgow band Belle and Sebastian who had built a career until then on swoonsome tales of disbanding relationships, little known authors and French films, and had built a cult following with a crowd who’d grown tired of the mainstream’s tubthumping and savoured their modest brand of instrumented indie pop stretched over albums like ‘Tigermilk and ‘The Boy With the Arab Strap’. Bizarrely the briefly gatecrashed the mainstream when they were nominated for Best British Newcomers, at the Brits, despite having released three albums before the 1999 release. (The Brits never let fact get in the way of a nomination do they?) The award was sponsored by Radio One and voted for online by their listeners. At the time, Steps were arguably Britain’s biggest boy/girl pop band and were also nominated. Despite this, the award was won by Belle & Sebastian. A strange triumph for a band who had spent most of the decade shying away from publicity, despite the obvious quality of their work.
Elsewhere in the outer fringes of the country things were stirring at Chemikal underground as Mogwai emerged, with a sublime post rock début long player entitled ‘Young Team’ initially finding favour in the depths of the night playlists of R1 soon their merging of the hushed power of the likes of Slint and Low were drawing people into their world of quiet/quiet/fast/quiet while their label mates Arab Strap were just as sparse early on, led by one Aidan Moffat whose rambling tales of insecurities, drunkenness and sexual obsessions were delivered with a deep Scots brogue and whiskey soaked wit of an end of the night confessional.Their finest work is still considered the epic ‘The First big weekend’ while ‘Philophobia’ was a superb album rooted in sexual confusion. Idlewild were another band making a loud noise in the highlands, initially described by the NME the sound of”the sound of a flight of stairs falling down a flight of stairs.” Their early EPs captured their energy, and the ferocity and intellect of their young lead vocalist Roddie Womble. As the years progressed so did their sound, maturing through the R.E.M influenced vignettes of ‘100 Broken Windows’ until they reached the more acceptably mainstream height with ‘The Remote Part’.
Post the Britpop bubble, there was also sense of uneasy just before the new millennium(and not just from the crock that was the millennium bug) that whilst it may have given rise to superlative Britpop come down albums like Radiohead‘s claustrophobic opus ‘Ok Computer’,(1997) Ultrasound‘s sprawling double album ‘Everything Picture’ that saw them implode not long afterwards, Mansun‘s schizoid prog concept album ‘Six'(1996) and Pulp‘s come down album masterpiece ‘This is Hardcore.’(1998) ‘OK Computer’s finest moment’s ‘Paranoid Android’ ‘No Surprises’ and ‘Karma Police’ summed up the uneasiness, and alienation from popular culture and politics that many felt as the decade that started with such ecstasy enhanced hope drew to a juddering close.
It lead many to question whether Britpop and the slew of awful bands that followed in its wake was actually just a vacuous empty media creation, that pigeon-holed acts that’s only association with it were simply that they were based in Britain and existed in the mid 90s era whilst it was happening around them. There were two things: Britpop as a sound and look and flag waving attitude that faded out and the bandwagon that followed as Label A&R men searched in vein for the next Oasis or Blur, and a list of really good wave of British acts making music at the time that had no association with this so called movement.
A scene that at its height promoted simplistic terrace like sing-alongs stripped of the wit and social commentary of the best moments promoting a distasteful laddishness that was now boiled down too knuckleheaded terrace-like sing-alongs. Oasis‘ ‘Be Here Now’ was certainly evidence of this, an album fuelled by copious cocaine consumption and rampant egos of lads who now owned ridiculously expensive homes called ‘Supernova heights’ and layered 200 guitar tracks like molten shit onto any embers of melody. Luke Haines’ album ‘What I learnt from the Bootboys’ was perhaps a dissection of some of Britpop’s more vulgar excesses of boorish cocaine fuelled retroism in some ways. Once lumped into the Britpop scene by Select magazine in 1993 alongside (Suede, Denim, Saint Etienne and Elastica). The songwriter reiterated his dislike for Britpop, in a interview with Drownedinsound.com that surrounded the release of his book ‘Bad Vibes: Britpop And My Part In Its Downfall’ last year “I think it was a fairly crap period for British music. Pulp made good records during that time and there were probably people that weren’t anything to do with Britpop, English bands, that made some good records.”
“Other than that, the whole Britpop thing killed that eccentricity in music for quite a long time.”
Yes Haines has a point in the mainstream at least the tidal wave of blandness that followed Britpop’s worst is perhaps rooted in the cross over of what used to be ‘indie’ into the mainstream. Characterised by Oasis’ biggest hit ‘Wonderwall’ from their biggest album ‘What’s the Story Morning Glory?’, a catchy Beatles aping ballad that seared itself into the imagination of everyone on the back of its rolling strum, its straightforward soppy lyrical conceit and direct melody. Thus bands like Keane, Embrace and Travis cynically mined the increasingly worn out ‘anthemic indie singalong’ for a good part of the early years of the 00s, a period best forgotten in many ways. With the advances in technology the ability for new bands to perfectly recreate the sounds of any period so perfectly, that it negates the fact that the best acts of the time actually used their influences and dashed them with their own personalities and ideas, thus Reynolds idea of Retromania, especially in the mainstream may be grounded in some elements of truth. “The future for music-makers has been displaced by The Past: that’s where the romance now lies, with the idea of things that have been lost. The accent, today, is not on discovery but on recovery. All through the noughties, the game of hip involved competing to find fresher things to remake: it was about being differently derivative, original in your unoriginality. when we listen back to the early 21st century, will we hear anything that defines the epoch? Or will we just find a clutter of reproduction antique sounds and heritage styles?”
But despite the worst after affects, the 90s will perhaps remembered for much of its better music and that wasn’t just in the mainstream or in one genre, the focus on a very white brand of ‘Britpop’ revivalism in this country is somewhat forgetting the burgeoning start of hip hop, commercial rnb and dance music that would seep its way into mainstream popular culture in the ensuing years. In many ways a white kid from Detroit’s trailer trash who worked under the name of Eminem will be remembered as a significant artist who under the wing of NWA godfather Dr Dre, brought his focus and satire of 90s celebrity culture shifted hip hop further into the mainstream in the 2000s allowing the likes of 50 cent, Outkast and Jay Z to follow…Witness him announcing his arrival into the charts with his number one ‘My Name Is’ in 1999.
Reynolds goes further in his appraisal he believes that the Black Eye’d Peas owe a great debt to the work of early 90s hip house and R& B where the Fugees lead the mash up of RNB and hip hop the Peas followed blankly: ‘Peas’s maestro Will.i.am is also a pioneer of 90s recycling: the non-80s parts of The Time sound like boshing techno-rave from the early days of Berlin’s Love Parade. On the radio,every big R&B hit sounds less like R&B and more like Ibiza-trance or circa-1991 hip-house. Guest rappers such as Pitbull or Ludacris are obliged to spout party-hard inanities just like the MCs of Technotronic and CC & Music Factory once did.”
As we stand at its 20th anniversarry one does have to conclude that the complete wash of ‘Britpop’ revisionism is rather jingoistic to exclude the quality US alt rock bands that plied their trade in the 90s too, just look at the revival in those sounds today. Also the attempt to cram everyone into a ever expanding Britpop tag at the time looked clunky, and at worst looks hamfisted, like many in the so called ‘music media’ there was a thirst to fulfil the profligacy by the time first rush of excitable releases and performances had worn off, Kula Shaker were a particularly puzzlingly load of terribleness: as four poshos regurgitated middle class Eastern influences over bizarre 70s retro it was the equivalent of overpriced a tourists holiday with none of the roughing it. While bands like Reef, Skunk Anansie and Republica desperately tried to rewrite that one hit over and over again without success. Indeed the arse end of Britpop was filled with the awful wreckage of bands like Embrace , Shed Seven , Starsailor and latterly Toploader, there should perhaps be a differential between the ‘Britpop’ sound and the bands that were squeezed into it latterly who were merely producing more ‘commercial’ versions of already established templates.
But if you ignore the awfulness of Britpop’s worst excesses and blandness, its spiral into illusions to ‘Britishness’ and self parody, and dig a little deeper into the decade you’ll find that even acts below the ‘chosen few’ were creating affecting works below the mainstream in the 90s, they may have borrowed but they seemed able to splice sounds in a patchwork of individuality that actually made them sound like ‘them’ fresh. Thus Reynolds idea of Retromania was in the 90s and to this day is constantly challenged by those in the underground and the margins constantly struggling to be heard as the internet and music media makes independent music more and more disparate and hard to define.
Those are the artists that I have discovered and delved into from the 90s as time has worn on range from The Beta Band to Mogwai and Arab Strap through to, Sixty Foot Dolls, Lush, Strangelove, Massive Attack and The Prodigy and beyond. Singles like Cornershop‘s ‘Brimful of Asha’, Longpigs She Said’, Babybird’s ‘You’re Gorgeous’ , Massive Attack‘s ‘Protection’, Blackbox Recorder‘s ‘Facts of Life’ all pierced the mainstream which is not something you could envisage today. Perhaps ‘Britpop’ or British pop for all the rubbish, flag waving, laddism, materialism, under rated artists and yes flashes of brilliance in full view of the public, is the last time we shall see real independents storm the mainstream, because quite frankly in ten years alternative music will probably be further watered down, rehashed, commercialised and ghettoished, so maybe that’s part of our fondness for the period too! The 90s as a whole are a veritable treasure trove of artists and albums, the affects of which are still felt today. I listened to more diverse and under rated selection of music from that period as the years wore on. As the new decade dawned the depths seemed to have been sunk and as Blair took office ‘Things Could Only Get Better’ couldn’t they ?
“Original article written in 2011, recently updated for publication in Britpop Month in 2014.”
How do you remember the 90s? Is our obsession with the decade unhealthy? Can you make futuristic music if you are hamstrung by the past?
References: The Last Party- John Harris
Retromania- Simon Reynolds
The Nineties when Surface became Depth – Michael Bracewell
Love and Poison (Suede) – David Barnett.