On this day, 20 years ago, Blur released their third album, Parklife, to commercial and critical acclaim. Thus, Britpop was born; a period of music that was the soundtrack to the derision, bitterness, hedonism and angst of the people who created it while trying to balance stardom and privacy and the fights borne out of the relentless hand of the media that served to raise up and tear down.
Girls and Boys
Blur, with their angelic faces that belied utter mischief and a cock-of-the-walk attitude, always had what it took to be a truly successful band; critically and commercially. From the start, Damon Albarn was a bloody-minded man on a mission and in Graham Coxon and Alex James, he had found his lyrical and musical counterparts. Even listening to Blur’s music from the 90s, one can hear the talent in Coxon’s playing that was in sync with Albarn’s lyrics; allusions to the British way of life; council flats, messy relationships and excessive partying.
|—||Justine Frischmann on her first meeting with Damon when Suede were supporting Blur at Brighton’s Zap Club in 1990.|
“For me, Parklife is like a loosely linked concept album involving all these different stories. It’s the travels of the mystical lager-eater, seeing what’s going on in the world and commenting on it.”
– Damon Albarn, NME 1994.
By the time Parklife was released, the shoegaze and new wave era were over and there was an impressively large wave of new bands to make their mark on the face of music, the likes of which hadn’t been since the British Invasion of the 60s. America had grunge and Britain had “Britpop.”
|—||Justine Frischmann on Britpop|
Out of the furore, came the idea that Britain and being British was cool again. NME was most integral in promoting the likes of Blur, Oasis and Elastica as the faces of a new kind of England; one dominated by snarls, cheap beer, Adidas trackie pants and brashness. Albarn had always been a show-boater, even though on occasion, he would display a vulnerability belying the insecurity beneath; but Oasis really brought out the competitor in him. This was not helped by the fact that media pitted the Gallaghers against Blur in a modern day battle of which band really was the face of British music. One only has to peruse back issues of NME and The Guardian to find a plethora of insults from both sides, of which nothing was sacred, not even Albarn’s girlfriend, Elastica’s Justine Frischmann.
|—||Damon Albarn | NME 1994|
|—||Liam Gallagher on Justine FrischmannNME 1995|
In light of this, it would not be imprudent to say the media frenzy and obsession with the Blur/Oasis feud, served to crush the band’s creative spirit and even their likeability. Here were these talented musicians embroiled in a bitter battle to prove themselves yet imploding from the sheer exhaustion of it all; neglecting their music. After the release of Parklife, Blur was propelled to worldwide stardom and each band member used this passport to enter the intoxicating life of excess.
“As Parklife gathered more and more momentum I slipped anchor and blew adrift on the shallow sea of a permanent backstage party. There was always one more place to go and I leaped into London’s deep and dark night.”
– Alex James, A Bit of A Blur.
In August 1995, things came to a head when Blur’s label released the single, Country House, off their new album The Great Escape, on the same day as Oasis’s Roll With It. British media pounced on the story and called it the “Battle of Britpop.” Blur won the battle, with Country House taking the top spot, yet lost the war when Oasis’s album, (What’s The Story) Morning Glory?, sold more copies.
Talking to the people and the fans, things weren’t the same again for Oasis. The Gallaghers flat out could not work together anymore. Naysayers believe Oasis to be nothing more than Beatles rip-offs while others will see that they achieved what they could, despite their inner conflict; a miracle when you remember Liam and Noel haven’t really spoken in five years. After Albarn’s descent into heroin and subsequent split with Frischmann, Blur turned into an introspective and humbled avenue with what is known as the “break-up” album, 13. It’s a great record and shows how Albarn can turn any experience into something expressive. Coffee and TV alone proved that Blur could take on the 2000s. And who knows, we might have a Noel/Damon collaboration soon.
Damon Albarn : I’d love to work with him. But I don’t know… That’s the exciting thing about being a musician and collaborating with people, you don’t know what it’s gonna be like when you turn up. It could be shit. Or it could be fucking… marvellous.”
|—||Damon Albarn interview after the NME Awards (2014)|
What makes Britpop special, even though it was a star that burned too bright and faded out just as quickly, are the cultural landmarks the songs and albums have become. They are moments captured in time and hold intensely special places in many peoples’ hearts. While I have focussed on Blur and Oasis, there was a flurry of bands that were all members of the Britpop party. It is worthy to note that Britpop may have started with boyish abandon but many of the bands that came out of it were made up of women.
A band who were more than happy to stay the bemused spectator amidst the ego-fuelled spats.
Their self-titled debut LP was released in March 1995 and entered the UK Albums Chart at number 1. It became the fastest selling debut album since Oasis’s Definitely Maybe and held the position for 10 years. The band were poised for worldwide success but internal conflict and heroin addiction all but disintegrated it.
While not strictly a Britpop band because they started in 1989 and have lasted through the years, Suede distanced themselves from the loutish attitudes of their peers with darker and more glamorous alternative rock. Definitely the “weird kid” of all the Britpop bands, lead singer and songwriter, Brett Anderson, started Suede with then-girlfriend, Justine Frischmann, who later left him for Albarn. This “love triangle” was the springboard for most of the media’s attention and before Oasis, the media stoked the fire of Albarn and Anderson’s obvious dislike for each other. Animal Lover was written by Anderson after Frischmann arrived home with scratch marks on her back from a night with Albarn. For an awesome article on this period and relationship read Love and Poison by John Harris.
A Morissey-influenced band that would have been unremarkable if not for Sonya Madan’s hypnotic voice and lyrical ability.