What Is Britpop? A Brief History by Kayley Kravitz
The term Britpop gets thrown around a lot these days. I’ve seen it used to describe everyone from the Beatles to One Direction. In an effort to hopefully clear up some of the confusion surrounding the Britpop moniker, I’ve composed a brief history and description of both the music and the scene in ’90s Britain. Enjoy!
Britpop was the name used to describe alternative rock bands in the ’90s in the UK. When the decade began, American grunge (Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam) and British shoegaze (Ride, Chapterhouse, Slowdive) ruled the UK charts. Suede is largely credited with kicking off Britpop in the spring of 1992 with the single “The Drowners.” In the documentary Live Forever, journalist Jon Savage claims that Britpop happened as a reaction to the domination of American pop culture in the UK. Blur’s Damon Albarn once said that if punk was about getting rid of hippies, he was about getting rid of grunge.
Britpop really started to take off in 1993. Suede’s Brett Anderson famously graced the cover of Select magazine with the headline “Yanks Go Home!” If a band was from the UK, they automatically got lumped in with Britpop. The Auteurs, Saint Etienne, Denim – regardless of their actual musical style, these bands were part of the Britpop scene whether they wanted to be or not (see: Mansun!). Britpop saw tremendous overlap with the bands that would now be labeled alternative rock (see: the Manic Street Preachers’ 1994 final tour as a four piece with Suede and Therapy?).
Oasis brought Britpop into the mainstream with their 1994 debut Definitely Maybe. The album went straight to #1 and was the fastest selling debut of all time in the UK. That’s when the Britpop party really began. British music largely ruled the UK charts with bands like Elastica, Supergrass, Blur, Pulp, Suede, the Verve and Oasis scoring numerous hit singles. The Britpop scene spawned countless other bands that never achieved the legendary status of the aforementioned groups: the Bluetones, Shed Seven, Sleeper, Marion, Menswear, Kenickie, Echobelly, etc.
The majority of the Britpop bands were inspired heavily by the mod and garage rock groups of the 1960s. Most famously, Oasis was cited with ripping off the Beatles while Blur credited the Kinks with some of their inspiration. Additionally, the influence of the post-punk groups could be heard in many of the Britpop groups ranging from Suede to Marion. The Verve and Lush were originally shoegaze bands but as the ’90s progressed, they adopted a more pop-friendly sound giving us such Britpop classics as “Bittersweet Symphony” and “Single Girl.”
The scene itself was exciting. London’s Camden Town was the epicenter of Britpop with pubs and clubs like the Good Mixer and the Groucho playing host to the scene’s biggest stars. Many of the bands didn’t hide the fact that they drank a lot of alcohol and snorted a lot of drugs. Britpop fashion was both casual and smart with both the boys and the girls favoring Fred Perry polo shirts and Doc Marten boots.
Oasis’ 1997 release Be Here Now is largely attributed to the decline of Britpop. As the ’90s ended, many of the Britpop groups released their final albums or simply faded off into the sunset. At the start of the new millennium, post-Britpop groups like Travis and Coldplay began to dominate the airwaves with a far more accessible, softer sound.
The Britpop legacy remains solid in 2013. Sure some of the bands have been lost to the annals of history or are simply remembered as jokes (see: Babylon Zoo) but many of them have reunited recently to great fanfare. Marion completed a small but successful reunion tour in 2012. When Blur reunited for some gigs at London’s Hyde Park, they brought out all the people… so many people. The new waves of British groups from the now-defunct Viva Brother to wunderkind Jake Bugg are heavily influenced by the Britpop sound and style. The scene itself may have died with the Y2K bug but the music and the message live on.
Want to read more? Check out the definitive book on Britpop – The Last Party: Britpop, Blair and the Demise of English Rock by John Harris (note this book was simply published as Britpop! for the American market).