By Fam Li
It was 25 years ago today…
I recently read Taylor Parkes’ (who wrote a great piece on The Fall! – ed) long and very provocative think piece on Blur’s iconic third album Parklife and, more generally, on Britpop’s cultural status (and cultural worth) as a whole on the online music magazine the Quietus. It was actually written in 2014 (that’s about half a decade ago) but was recently dusted off again by the Quietus in order to mark the 25th anniversary of the release of that landmark album. Parkes was a writer for the Melody Maker throughout the Britpop era (in fact he wrote for them for throughout most of the 90s), and was therefore on the journalistic front lines, so to speak, of a musical and cultural movement that seemed, more than any other, to be fuelled and sustained by clever PR and by music press and industry hype. Parkes’ is therefore no second hand testimony, he was lucky (or unlucky) enough to have lived through the whole thing and is able to speak from his own experiences. I experienced that whole era too, although in a much more vicarious way than Taylor Parkes, that is, as a music loving teen back in the mid-90s: as an avid reader of the NME (meaning that I was, alas, unfamiliar with Parkes’ oeuvre until I read the Quietus article) and enthusiastic (although to varying degrees) member of the record buying public. Britpop happened to coincide with that time in my life when I was just starting to become seriously interested in music and was beginning to buy CDs and identify myself with different musical groups and artistes all of which means that I do have a certain fondness for the period, even if I am far from uncritical of its cultural impact or the preponderance of second rate music that characterised it.
Now Parkes’ article gets a lot of things right — and I will come to that bit shortly — but I also think that he gets a lot more wrong. And then there’s the whole question of the tone of the piece, the bitterness and the sense of sour grapes that are inescapable throughout its entire length. It seems as if the author still harbours intense feelings of resentment over the fact that he was obliged, during his time with the Melody Maker, to write about bands and music that he had no real respect or admiration for — and although he has every right to be resentful, that resentment along with an unhealthy, and at times very misleading, dose of hindsight, colours his view of the whole period, and more saliently of the music of that period, to a wholly unreasonable extent. And the main target of all this resentment just happens to be Albarn and his merry band of self-satisfied mockney minstrels. For Parkes Parklife (I’m guessing his surname might something to do with his fixation) is emblematic of everything that was wrong about Britpop, whereas Britpop in its turn is emblematic of everything that went wrong culturally, economically, intellectually, and politically (take your pick) with Britain in the last half decade or so before the start of the new millennium — and beyond.
In particular Britpop sounded the death knell of a certain kind of alternative youth culture, a sort of updated and significantly less elitist version of Bohemianism, that stood in opposition to the demeaning practises and exploitative commercial ethos of the mainstream music industry. More generally though it stood against the dehumanising and assimilating tendencies of late 20th century capital, in the form (post 1970s) of a growing and rampant Neoliberalism, and instead promoted a strong community based DIY ethic. This actually gave young people, in particular, an important degree of social autonomy in which to fashion their own aesthetic, cultural and intellectual values apart (albeit to varying extents) from the mainstream conventions so favoured by their elders. It was a sort of cocooned idealism.
Britpop doesn’t deserve to be remembered with any real fondness or nostalgia, Parkes seems to be saying — not necessarily because it was there, in the space of those three or four years, that the (counter-) cultural rot really began to take hold — but because it was in that period that it could have been, and really should have been, stopped. In other words for Parkes Britpop was the socio-cultural point of no return.
Where does Parklife fit into this process of cultural degeneration? Now although Parkes does begrudgingly concede that the Essex foursome were more than capable of writing the odd decent song or two, and that ‘[b]its of [the album] are really good’, his overall view of the album is strongly negative and he is deeply scathing in terms both of its impact on the music scene of the time and on what was to follow. Seriously though, the dude doesn’t hold back. He describes the album as both ‘heartless and sour’ and ‘infuriatingly bubbly’, and feels that Albarn himself is ‘phenomenally hard to stomach’, calls his lyrics ‘horribly grating’, while individual songs are described as smug and uncaring, and ‘vaguely sinister.’ However Parklife’s abiding sin (aside from any considerations of its artistic worth or lack thereof) lies in the fact that, more than any other single record — or any other cultural artefact really — it was *the* album to usher in this new phase in the subversion and co-option of a youth culture that up until then still had a few vague pretensions to being radical and alternative; indeed Parkes treats Parklife rather as if it was some kind of cultural Trojan Horse. For instance, it’s accused of (or at least suspected of having a rather large hand in) among other things: inaugurating the total gentrification and de-bohemification of London, as well as being complicit in the destruction of its traditional working class culture (Parkes describes the album as having a ‘penchant for smirking caricatures of working class culture’) being entirely cynical in its (often ironic) plundering of the past for musical inspiration and setting off a trend for the same; and of being a calculated attempt by the band to win over mainstream popularity while at the same time holding on to their pre-existing indie cred, and thereby making selling-out a respectable option for other musical groups.
Parkes, of course, doesn’t just stop there, (even if Blur are always his chief targets) he also has some very choice words to say about the unscrupulousness of a mid-90s music press that, spurred on by an ever increasing greed for sales (and the resulting move towards increasing tabloidification) decided at a certain point that it would throw all caution to the wind and go full on in with the Britpop gravy train. It thus ended up goading on and helping to manufacture some of the worst excesses of the genre, revelling in its crassness, its celebration of homogeneity, and just out and out mediocrity — all the while reluctant to do anything, aside from maybe printing the occasional snipe, that might put its new stable (probably more of a barn) of cash-cows at risk. Parkes’ critique also takes in (obviously, how could it not?) Oasis along with a whole cast list of Britpop also-rans, bands whose very names if they’re remembered at all, have gone onto become a series of cautionary punchlines over the years: Sleeper, Shed 7, Cast! At the end of the day, Parkes assures us, the music itself just hasn’t stood the test of time, and he admits to only having hung on to a handful of records from the period in question — none of which he feels a strong urge to ever listen to again. In Parkes’ view then, Britpop’s legacy is an unhappy one on almost all counts, although once again its greatest fault is in the complacency which it seemed to breed in a generation of musicians, journalists, and artists that made them unable or unwilling to perceive the downward spiral in which we were, all of us, headed as a culture, and to even just trace out an attempt at some kind of radical intervention.
Li Contra Parkes
Now, don’t get me wrong: I think that Parkes is fundamentally correct in several of his denunciations of Britpop. Yes, it was an extremely vapid and backwards-looking movement and one which would indeed turn out to herald the final stage in the (almost) complete takeover of youth culture by corporate brands and corporate sponsorship. It *was* thoroughly anti-intellectual and was undoubtedly responsible for the quality of the content and the writing in the (mainstream) music press plummeting somewhere around the mid-to-late 90s. It also gave the world lad-culture with its promotion of sexism, excessive masturbation and the over-consumption of alcohol (the last two are fine in moderate doses by the way, I ain’t no puritan). Amongst numerous other horrible things it also introduced the world to the odious Guy Ritchie and his poisonous fetishization of English working class culture, as well as setting the ball rolling on making jingoism and nationalism respectable again. (And speaking more seriously it also gave the world Blairism which was to signify endless war and the near total-destruction of the left from within). And, yes, the music (being hyped up to the ceiling week in week out the pages of the NME and the Melody Maker) could also be thoroughly mediocre, if not actually straight out piss poor. Bearing all that in mind though I still find Parkes’ criticisms far too sweeping overall, if not extremely unfair and misguided in parts. Let me explain why.
It’s all about the music, man…
The first issue I have with Parkes’ article relates to his dismissive evaluation of the music. Yes there was a fair amount of chaffy old-shite being held up as premium grade golden wheat at the time; on the other hand, however, a good deal of what was released back then actually still holds up now two decades and a half on. Let’s start with Parkes’ big bête noire, Blur. Leaving aside his criticisms of Parklife, Blur’s most influential (if not, in my opinion, their best) album, I find it strange that he doesn’t once mention its successor, the Great Escape, an album that is as close to peak Britpop as it possible to get (the other major contender for that title, Menswe@r’s second album, having only ever been released in Japan) and one which reveals a band which had, at certain points, clearly crossed over the threshold into self-parody (see especially, Mr. Robinsons Quango, the ironically named Stereotypes), a threshold they had still only been hovering in the vicinity of on their previous LP. Indeed, the Great Escape is guilty of most of the sins committed by the band on the previous album — many of which Parkes helpfully singles out in his lengthy screed — and on some counts even surpasses it (as the music press, though generally laudatory of the album, acknowledged at the time). Perhaps Parkes held the album in such deep contempt that he couldn’t even bring himself to nominate it in his article — or might it be, that despite its being as smug, and as condescending, and as full of ‘smirking caricatures’, as its predecessor, if not more so, The Great Escape doesn’t tend to grate quite in the same way that Parklife does? Indeed what saves the album from being the conceptual auto-disaster that it could so easily have been — and that actually helps to take the edge off Albarn’s infuriating smugness and cultural insensitivity, which Parkes does kind of have a point about — is the depth and polish of songwriting talent that the album ends up bringing to light. Actually, Parkes does mention Country House (the lead single off the Great Escape) describing it as ‘almost supernaturally shit’ (an accolade he simultaneously accords to Roll With It, which was pretty awful in fact), and while I do agree that certain aspects of the song are pretty dumb/questionable — the lyrics are as puffed up and conceited as ever, yet another stilted, rudimentary attempt at social commentary devoid of charm or wit; the music video is dreadfully, painfully sexist (with the transparently lame excuse that of course it’s supposed to be a ironic pastiche of Benny Hill or some shit), and features Albarn at his most fantastically punchable — overall it turns out to be quite successful as a piece of pseudo-trashy pop music, in a way that both Girls and Boys and Parklife aspired to be but never actually were (indeed I tend to place the latter pair on a level with your average novelty single); the brashness works out this time because, cocky cunt that he is, Albarn had improved, markedly, as a songwriter.
The larger point which I want to make is this, namely, that we shouldn’t let the very many cultural failings of the Britpop era blind us to the fact that, thinking in terms purely of its musical legacy, it did actually end up leaving behind some very good records — enough of them, at least, to make Parkes’ Britpop takedown feel petty and actually rather specious. Pulp, for instance, managed to release two absolutely blinding albums during those years, His N Hers and Different Class (I’m leaving aside the band’s excellent drugs and bad sex themed comedown album This is Hardcore because it was released during Britpop’s tail-end), both of which are high water marks of 90s music by any fair reckoning and both of which it would be churlish not to include under the Britpop banner, even if the band had been around for at least a decade prior; Pulp, of course, a band as subtle and as thoughtful in their social criticism as Blur were offensive and superficial and as Oasis were… well, they never even tried to give the impression that they’d ever progressed any further than Topsy and Tim in their reading.
Then there were the Manic Street Preachers who happened to release one of their best albums during Britpop, Everything Must Go — a record whose ambitious retro sound would turn out to be a touchstone in Britpopian musical aesthetics — but who were, thematically and lyrically, in a completely different league from most of their mid-90s peers (I mean they started a song off with the words ‘Libraries gave us power’ for fucks sake — you can’t really compare it with ‘I’ll take my car and drive real far/They’re not concerned about the way we are’). These two groups were everything that the overwhelming majority of second- or third-tier (and even most of the first tier) Britpop bands weren’t: that is intelligent, articulate, and (relatively) musically sophisticated — although that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be classed as Britpop (at least with respect to their output of that period).
Lest we forget then Britpop gave us such brilliant albums as Everything Must Go, Different Class, His N Hers, Definitely Maybe, Dog Man Star, The Bends, Elastica, I Should Coco, It’s Great When You’re Straight, Wake Up Boo, C’mon Kids, and if we’re being honest Parklife and its successor. And fuck me if the likes of Echobelly, Gene, Ash, the Charlatans, and even the Bluetones, Ocean Colour Scene, and Shed Seven (who I have to confess I retain something of a soft spot for) didn’t put out some great singles too (Sleeper on the other hand are completely unredeemable) — as I hope my spotify playlist, below will demonstrate. It would be absurd to pretend that as an era in the history of post-war popular music it’s even remotely up there with the 60s or punk or post-punk, but at the same time, in comparison with the 2000s and the disgrace that was indie landfill, Britpop feels like a veritable golden age.
Taking a higher level, much more zeitgeisty, view of the situation, the fact is that, even if Britpop was, in large part, a creation of the music press and the music industry, its popularity remains to a decisive extent, an organic phenomena: part of a virtuous/vicious push-pull cycle in which a cultural industry attempts to carefully manipulate the tastes of a target audience and to capitalise on — or more accurately hijack — what it discovers to be popular, and at the same time to figure out what the next big thing will be and which it can co-opt in the next round. No popular musical movement is completely top down (regardless of what ‘Cultural Marxism’ obsessed conspiracy theorists might think) and while it’s true that hype and wall to wall media coverage can often be instrumental in helping a band’s career take off, history is littered with examples of bands or movements that the music industry and the press wanted to happen but that never did, due either to the inherent shiteyness of the original product, or not even that: due to something else that no one has so far managed to pin down.
There has to be something there that can appeal to people in the first place, even if that is the lowest common denominator, and even that doesn’t always work. And so I find it hard to pin so much of the blame on the music press or the industry let alone on a character like Albarn as Parkes does — how could he have predicted any but the most trivial ramifications that recording Parklife would have on the British cultural scene? That it would, in Parkes’ terms, ruin guitar music over the next couple of decades or so. While we’re playing the blame game here, then, the record buying public deserves some of that opprobrium too, just as it deserves praise when it lavishes attention and success on artists and musicians that you and I are much more favourable towards.
What Happened Next…
And then there’s the other fact that Parkes weirdly (but perhaps understandably, given its awkwardness for his main theses) decides to occlude, and which he could easily have found room for in his very length diatribe, that is, no sooner had Britpop’s corpse been freshly laid upon its bier (it was probably still at the twitching stage) than the serious contestation of its legacy, of what Parkes calls Britpop orthodoxy, began in earnest. So while it is true that Britpop turned out to be a particularly unadventurous time for popular guitar based music– one that not only looked to the past for its inspiration, but to a past that was completely sanitised and, in many ways, falsified — it didn’t take long after its demise for the anti-reactionary reaction to set in: for musicians and journalists to start name dropping everything from Krautrock to Detroit Techno to Slint as big influences and for the couldn’t-be-more-progressive-if-it-had-been-called-prog-rock genre that was post-rock to start to gain some sort of critical momentum and extended coverage in the music press — for instance Tortoise, the post-rock group par excellence had already begun to win numerous plaudits back in 1995, during the very height of Britpop. And it even got to the point that the NME decided that drone obsessives Spiritualized’s Ladies and Gentlemen was the most important album of 1998 (even more important than OK Computer, which, as much as I like the record, it absolutely wasn’t) and celebrated Jason Pierce’s whole career, from Spacemen 3 onwards, in a lavish two page centre spread on the eve of the album’s release. For fucks sake they even went and put Godspeed You! Black Emperor on the cover, for what turned out to be that particular music rag’s lowest selling issue to date (although that record probably didn’t hold very long). Even the DIY scene had its ever so fleeting moment in the sun when Teen-C Glasgow funsters Bis were declared the next big thing for about a couple of weeks in 1996 (it’s probably pointless wondering what they’re up to these days, it’s very likely the exact same thing they were doing 23 years ago).
But that was just the way the wind was blowing back then, as we found ourselves accelerating ever more breathlessly towards the turn of the new millennium — and all of which began to prefigure what had once seemed almost impossible, a critical re-evaluation of prog which even took in those perennial music press whipping boys Yes. Even Blur themselves had moved on — the big giveaway was just before the time that their eponymous 1997 album came out when Damon Albarn wouldn’t stop going on about Pavement in all his press interviews, signalling what became a drastic shift away from his previous London-centric Ray Davies pseudo-Cockney obsession and a greater openness towards cross-Atlantic, and in Albarn’s particular case (and he should be lauded for this) worldwide, influences. All of which ended up being eclipsed by what turned out to be Rock’s very own singularity, or rockism’s own version of the end of the Mayan calendar (except unlike 2012 no one was predicting it and it actually ended up not being a non-event), the release of Radiohead’s OK Computer, an album which turned out to be the zenith of British guitar based music.
The message being; you can’t just isolate a period of, say, five years, and then talk about its influence on events a decade or so later and barely mentioning what happened in between. Yes, there was something particularly nauseating about Britpop’s dumb, semi-ironic, semi-serious attachment to the flag along with its spurious nostalgia for a past that was as halcyon as it was (mostly) non-existent, but it’s too simplistic to trace back the current re-awakening of nationalist, anti-immigrant sentiment to Britpop via a straight line. Certainly the current, parlous state of the music scene (at least as it pertains to guitar music) should not be attributed in such a simplistic manner to the artistic and moral deficiencies of Britpop and certainly not to the pre-millennial success of one band, as patronising and as self-satisfied as that band could at times be.
In decontextualising Britpop to the extent that he does, Parkes’ article completely fails to take into account the cyclical nature of the different scenes and movements which composed the British alternative/independent music scene in the years which followed punk: with one set of predominant trends sparking off a reaction was to determine the character and sound of the ensuing (artistic) generation of musicians and popular beat combos. More importantly it fails to take into consideration the longer term trends that cut across and were sustained throughout those individual cycles. For instance, the strong hedonic, anti-intellectual (proto-Nathan Oakleyesque) tendencies which Parkes locates in Britpop, and which he can’t stop castigating it for, were already a prominent feature of Baggy/Acid House (with the former as enamoured of MDMA as the latter was of cocaine and lager), it just never went away — blame it on the availability of different kinds of stimulants, the multifold failures of the British education system, people reading less with each passing generation etc, but don’t (just) blame it on the Britpop.
Which brings us back to today…
Of course the reaction to the (relative) conservatism of the Britpop era wasn’t just limited to the music getting a bit more interesting: the political atmosphere also became much more radical in the years which followed with the growing worldwide influence of the anti-capitalist and anti-globalisation movements — as was so notably manifested in the success of Naomi Klein’s No Logo, and the backlash against the sinister quasi-cultish advertising tactics of multinational brands such GAP and Nike, and culminating in important turn of the millenium G7 protests and the massive, should have been era defining, No Iraq War movement. In the end though it was all to no avail: all those various, forward thinking late 90s, early 00s tendencies eventually led to…well, politically, they led to the fucked-up, hyper-gentrified situation in which we currently find ourselves in — a less hopeful, in many ways, version of the Gilded Age. Music wise they led to a dead end for British guitar music. The fact is that Indie or Rock or whatever you want to call it ran out of steam as a genre, or as an incestuous cluster of genres, round about the 00s — in fact around the time that the Strokes and Libertines were being touted as the saviours of music by the now moribund music press. But that running out of steam and that lack of inspiration and sheer honest-to-god fecklessness which essentially typified British, and actually also American, guitar music in the years following the millenium (and which was soon to lead to the moral musical Waste Land that was landfill indie) was fundamentally a result of the genre’s relatively limited musical set up (with a line-up that usually consisted of a vocalist, a guitarist, a drummer, and a bassist, none of whom were supposed to be particularly adept at their instruments). It was a musical genre which didn’t really have anywhere much left to go on either side of the Atlantic, not least after the clutch of genre-bursting albums, the likes of (the aforementioned) OK Computer, Ladies and Gentlemen… and the Soft Bulletin, that came out in the late 90s, and in the face of a genre like hip hop which creatively speaking was going from strength to strength — nowhere to go, that is, except in a backwards direction (unless you were as freakishly talented and exceptional as a band like Animal Collective, which most new groups weren’t).
Now this is something that often happens to genres of music, most if not all of which seem have an inherent sell-by date, after which they can be carefully and ritualistically preserved as part of a folk tradition, and/or incorporated into other newer genres and transition into something completely different, in the cultural equivalent of a paradigm shift. But even if this all this seems obvious to everyone now, that is really only thanks to hindsight because it sure as fuck didn’t seem obvious back then. No one had the foggiest clue as to how things were going to pan out, and there were no cultural Cassandra’s we were all blithely ignoring as far as I can recall. Reading Parkes’ article, on the other hand, you come away with the opposite feeling, as if everyone, or at least everyone involved in the so called creative industries, could see what the ‘consequences’ of Britpop were and therefore is culpable for what came next.
Give me playlist a listen
In conclusion, then, it’s obvious (or at least it should be) that the almost unimaginably complex interplay of factors — socio-cultural, geo-physical and (above all imo) economic — that have led to our current, intemperate and absolutely dysfunctional, social reality cannot be boiled down to those few specific tendencies which Parkes is desperate to localise within the Britpop era — but as obvious as it is, the content of Parkes’ article shows that it still bears repeating. Parkes is, in fact, guilty of projecting the cynicism of the present back on the past, and as much as I share that cynicism with regards to our contemporary situation, and as much as I agree with a lot of his criticisms of Britpop, I keep coming back to the music, which as I said above, and contrary to Parkes’ rather disdainful attitude, still stands up to scrutiny, even after all these years. I admit, however, that this opinion might be unduly influenced by my own nostalgia, by my own (much happier) memories of the time. To this end, and to compensate for the inadequacy of all my rhetorical efforts above, I’ve put together a Spotify playlist which features a lot of my favourite Britpop tracks and, which I’m convinced, shows the genre/period at its best and thereby offers the best antidote to the ill-tempered anti-Britpop negativity of a Taylor Parkes. Listen for yourselves!