In the Guide’s weekly Solved! column, we look into a crucial pop-culture question you’ve been burning to know the answer to – and settle it, once and for all
Britpop, its impact, legacy and exactly what it meant, has grown ever murkier in the 20-odd years since its demise. For a while, the genre was definitely (maybe) something; then, suddenly, pretty much nothing, leaving Chris Evans, Xfm and Loaded magazine to cling on to the flotsam and jetsam. There are many murder suspects, but before we gather the potential culprits in the drawing room, we have to understand the shape of cadaver round which we are chalking.
It all started relatively innocently. Stuart Maconie, in an April 1993 Select article, used “Britpop” as a catch-all term to encapsulate upcoming art school-driven British guitar groups such as Suede, Pulp and Denim. “I lumped all the above new British bands together,” he wrote in the Mirror in 2014, “and held them up as emerging foot soldiers in the war against grunge.” Oasis, although nothing to do with art (or indeed school), somehow came to fall into this catch-all, and their 1994 debut, Definitely Maybe, along with Blur’s Parklife from earlier the same year, provided the scene’s breakthrough moment, lending a soundtrack to a national pride not seen since London had last swung. It all chimed nicely with the optimism of early New Labour, a resurgence in British film and economic stability.
Critical mass was reached in summer 1995, with Blur and Oasis’s headline-grabbing battle for No 1. It was all getting a tad ridiculous. In December 1996, the Oasis tribute band No Way Sis showed up on Top of the Pops with an ironic cover of I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (Oasis had lifted the melody for Shakermaker), and didn’t look any more ridiculous than many actual Britpop bands.
Despite this apparent bullishness – and the best efforts of afterthought bands such as Menswear, Kula Shaker and Ocean Colour Scene – it was earlier that year that our first murder suspects emerged. The Spice Girls released their debut single, and suddenly manufactured pop was back. Then, a lad-sized bubble was popped when England crashed out of the Euro 96 semi-final on penalties, soundtracked by Cast’s Walk Away. Some sort of golden summer was ending.
The year 1997 should have been so Britpop: the Britpop prime minister entered Downing Street; Be Here Now by Oasis was given five stars by Q magazine; Blur and Pulp were due to release hugely anticipated albums. But it didn’t quite work out that way. Jaded, exhausted and punch-drunk from the past few years, those two bands created dark, introspective (yet brilliant) anti-Britpop hangover records. And Be Here Now – which, if anything, sounded too Britpop – turned out to be an overproduced, coke-fuelled mess.
By August, the positivity in the air dissipated abruptly with the death of Diana, Princess of Wales: a national mood-changer that accelerated the demise of a fading scene. Overnight, Beatles feather cuts were chopped off and people started to dress more like Robbie Williams (another suspect, by the way; if Wannabe was the uppercut, then Angels was the KO).
The murderer, then? Hubris. Like almost every other cultural phenomenon, Britpop became engorged with its own success: too busy in the Groucho toilets to do any actual work. Still, The Universal is a pretty song, isn’t it?