Britpop is back – and it’s just what the nation needs
Are you ready for the return of Britpop? This summer, two of the most popular British bands of the 1990s are set to reunite after more than a decade for massive live shows, with Blur performing two sold-out concerts at the 90,000- capacity Wembley Stadium in July, and Pulp headlining outdoor shows and festivals across the country from May.
Does your heart stir even a little at the thought of fields full of bucket hats and branded sportswear, men of a certain age in baggy football shirts and Harrington jackets, women raiding the back of their wardrobes for vintage slip dresses and Doc Marten boots? Such has been the impactful iconography of the Britpop era, you really don’t have to have been a devoted subscriber of Loaded magazine to know what to expect: blasts of electric guitars and snarky attitude, vast gut-busting singalongs of such rousingly cheeky anthems as Parklife and Common People, perhaps even a smattering of Union Flags waving, however ironically? And (inevitably) lager, lager, lager.
These shows will be big, they will be messy and, honestly, they could be just what the dysfunctional British music scene needs to give it a rudely required kick up the posterior.
There is, of course, a glaring absence in the 2023 Britpop nostalgia calendar, with the Gallagher brothers still bickering from afar and no Oasis reunion on the horizon. But both Noel and Liam Gallagher will be playing festivals this summer in sets packed with crowd-pleasing Oasis hits. Indeed, Liam remains arguably the most popular solo rock star in the UK, having performed to 170,000 fans at Knebworth over the Platinum Jubilee weekend, in a recreation of Oasis’s record-breaking 1996 concerts.
According to the British Phonographic Institute’s end-of-year charts, Oasis registered two albums in the top 40 UK bestsellers of 2022. It is certainly impressive, until you contemplate what that might suggest about the cultural currency of contemporary British bands, who struggled to make any impression at all.
Indeed, no new artists (of any genre) broke into the year’s bestsellers. Indeed, only three British albums released in 2022 (from poppy solo artists Harry Styles and George Ezra and Oasis’s Noughties heirs Arctic Monkeys) registered in the top 40. A handful of 2021 albums continued to perform well (notably from Ed Sheeran, Adele and Sam Fender). The rest of the chart was made up of American artists and vintage rock and pop catalogue.
There are a lot of complicated reasons for this, particularly given the effect of streaming on distribution and consumption of music. The end-of-year singles chart was considerably kinder to homegrown talent, with all of the UK’s top 10 singles featuring British artists, albeit you would be hard-pressed to find much evidence of a healthy grassroots live scene among the TikTok dance crazes and the return of Kate Bush. It is impressive that 58 per cent of the UK’s top 100 singles were British. Yet it should not distract from the industry’s failure to actually land a debut artist in the album charts or break a major UK talent on the world stage.
It certainly doesn’t bear much comparison to 1995 and the height of Britpop, when Oasis, Blur and Pulp all had now classic albums in the end-of-year top 10, and over half of the chart was made up of exciting new UK music from artists including Portishead, Supergrass, Black Grape and The Lightning Seeds. It was the year of Radiohead’s The Bends, of Maxinquaye by Tricky and Elastica by Elastica. It was a time when pop was so central to British life that the competition to score a number one single between Blur’s Country House and Roll With It by Oasis was featured on prime-time mainstream TV news reports as “the Battle of Britpop”.
For a glorious period, somewhere between the emergence of Britpop as a coherent scene in 1993 and its dissolution into cocaine-fuelled egotism and derivative repetition by 1997, Britain was celebrated as the pop cultural centre of the world. The term Cool Britannia was bandied about to embrace a multitude of intermingling artistic strands, including the Young British Artists scene, a high fashion clique, and a kind of spirit of creative confluence between such bravura British authors as Nick Hornby and filmmakers such as Danny Boyle.
Right at the centre, kicking the whole thing off and binding it together, was music. Britpop may have been in essence a revivalist rock guitar genre, but it became a catch-all for a youthful spirit of confidence closely connected to Ecstasy and rave culture, tied with the psychedelic club sounds of Trip Hop, Techno, Big Beat and Drum ’n’ Bass, incorporating such multifarious dance artists as Massive Attack and Soul II Soul and electro groovers The Chemical Brothers, Fat Boy Slim and Goldie. By 1997, you could wrap The Spice Girls into the Britpop quilt, as Geri Halliwell’s Union Flag minidress helped the feisty girl group become the biggest British global pop export since the Beatles. Britpop was arguably the last great British music scene – and boy could we use some of its swaggering self-confidence now.
There is no great mystery as to why we’re talking about Britpop again. Nostalgia is a huge driver of pop trends and there is a pervasive notion of a 30-year cycle which argues that this is the time it takes a critical mass of people to grow from childhood consumers to adult creators, serving a market of contemporaries with disposable income, all attracted to the cultural signifiers of childhood.
With 1993 as a pivotal year in the origins of Britpop, triggered by the release of the chart-topping, Mercury prize-winning debut album from sleazily fantastic (and still hugely active and popular) Suede, it is hardly surprising that we seem to be warming up to celebrate it again. That, sadly, doesn’t mean we are about to experience anything akin to the kind of creative surge that inspired the original Britpop explosion. The times and market conditions are very different, while the tools of creation and dissemination have changed almost beyond recognition. In Dylan Jones’s recently published oral history, Faster Than a Cannonball: 1995 and All That, Noel Gallagher mourns the 1990s as “the last great decade where we were free, because the internet had not enslaved us all”.
Politically, you could draw cheeky parallels with an unpopular Conservative government slipping in the polls after many years of rule, faced by a resurgent Labour Party. There was an exuberantly modern patriotism abroad in Britpop, flying the flag for a new idea of Britain, but sadly the unpopularity of Brexit among the under-40s has probably tainted the Union Flag as a pop art symbol around which any British musical movement might cohere. More crucially, youth culture itself is effectively being diffused by the sheer vastness of internet possibilities, while music as a tribal signifier has been devalued by the limitless access of streaming. Sure, there are still trends and fads, but TikTok, for example, seems unlikely to inspire the kind of tribal allegiance crucial to a thriving rock and pop scene.
Meanwhile, the music business is proving hopelessly derelict in terms of developing and nurturing talent, feeding funding into the kind of grassroots networks where musicians can thrive, and then bringing the best to mainstream attention. There is certainly no shortage of gifted artists out there, working hard to be heard. There is plenty of Britpop crunch and swagger about Wet Leg, Yard Act and Wolf Alice. But something is deeply awry in UK music, and I am not sure anyone has a convincing answer to what that might be.
What this moment of burgeoning Britpop nostalgia might just succeed in doing is show audiences what fun a great pop movement can be. It might inspire young musicians by demonstrating what creative joy can be found among groups of like-minded souls crafting clever, heartfelt anthems built to be sung by multitudes. It has the potential to rekindle interest in the kind of lifestyle tribalism that was once the very point of being a pop fan, a sense of communal belonging that was all about being there, in real life, forging a shared identity uniting audience and artists. It might even remind the British music business of a time when its maverick talents were deemed capable of taking on the world. Because when Blur and Pulp take to the stage again this summer, one thing you won’t detect is a lack of confidence.
That is something British music sorely needs a boost of right now.
The five greatest Britpop albums
1. What’s the Story (Morning Glory)
An era-defining moment – not just for the Manchester band, but for British culture as a whole. This was a tuneful, swaggering beast of an album, providing anthems of such staying power as Don’t Look Back in Anger.
Not since The Kinks had pop offered such an acute dissection of our society. Dustmen, joggers and the perils of the 18-30 club holiday, it’s all there in this assured album.
3. Different Class
Combines both a nihilistic spirit and an emotional warmth. Jarvis’s England conjures a world of losers, voyeurs and joyless drugs experiences, all wrapped up in an exquisite musicality.
Justine Frischmann, the undisputed cover girl of Britpop, was more than a triumph of image over content. This debut album features 15 near-perfect songs.
5. The Bends
Not since Roxy Music had art rock felt so perfectly crafted. Thom Yorke’s plaintive voice still brings shivers to the spine in such tightly constructed songs as Just. Not anthemic exactly, it’s all too queasily haunting for that.