Thursday, April 24, 2014
BRITPOP DISSECTED #1 - The Brit Box
The Brit Box: UK Indie, Shoegaze, And Brit-Pop Gems of the Last Millenium
Directors Cut version, Salon.com December 8th, 2007
by Simon Reynolds
The Brit Box comes cutely packaged. Exploiting the long rectangular cardboard case, the front shows a red telephone box of the kind you’ve seen in countless old movies set in England. Flitch a little switch on the box’s backside (which depicts an old fashioned rotary phone) and a light goes on in the phone box on the front, just like real ones do at dusk. But this one flashes like a lightshow at a rock gig.
Of course, in the UK, the classic public phone box--sombre scarlet paint, eight glass window panels on three sides, Her Majesty’s crown insignia at the top--was long ago replaced with a sleeker, modern-looking model. Rather than the garish stickers for Britpop groups that plaster Rhino’s phone box, you’ll find equally lurid cards from hookers advertising all manner of kinky services. Besides which, everybody in the UK uses cellphones now. But the out-of-date packaging suits The Brit Box’s sales pitch to a tee. The idea here is that Great Britain is quaint but classy. Just as Fortnum & Mason continues to offer afternoon tea even though that scones-and-cucumber-sandwiches custom has completely died out among the populace at large, British bands can always be relied on to serve up the country’s traditional pop values-- wordsmith wit, shapely tunes, English charm--just like they did back in those fab gear 1960s.
In America, this shtick appeals to the same sort of Anglophiles who fasten on Masterpiece Theater and PBS’s other imported programming as the seal of quality (even though the dowdy costume dramas, lame sitcoms and sleuth shows about crime-solving antique dealers and spinsters barely qualify as middlebrow in their homeland). It’s the exact same demographic (college-educated upper middle class), just a younger subset, and an identical syndrome: the equation of England with a superior level of refinement and literacy.
Being into music from the UK has long been a way for a certain kind of young American to express their sense of being different from everybody else. The seeds of this dissident taste might germinate with hearing Depeche Mode or Morrissey on a modern rock station, then bloom through discovering of college radio and being initiated in Anglo esoterica like XTC or Robyn Hitchcock, and finally blossom when the budding Anglophile starts picking up pricey import copies of British pop papers. The English weekly music papers--nowadays there’s only NME left, but in the Eighties and Nineties there was also Melody Maker and Sounds--have long inducted Anglophile neophytes into a fabulous world where bands talk better (reared on the music papers, they know how to give good interview) and look better (UK groups often have a pulled-together, collective image) than their American indie equivalents. Just as they manage to be glamorous without being glitzy in a mainstream Billboard way, the music of the Brit-bands likewise offers a winning combination of ‘alternative’ and pure pop appeal. The guitar/bass/drums sound connotes indie and “real music”, but English bands tend to have a sharper knack for concision and melodic punch, perhaps because their singles actually have a shot at making the UK Top Forty.
There’s a sexual component to rock Anglophilia too. The British groups usually contain at least one or two pretty boys--pale, thin, with really good hair; some will even use eyeliner. Anglo androgyny appeals to young women who like their pop fantasy object to be sensitive and delicate--unmanly, as opposed to a buff hunk. But this willowy, tousled look also appeals to a certain kind of gay taste. Over the years I’ve noticed that even UK frontmen who are considered macho louts in their homeland seem to have an aura of androgyny by association. There’s a sense in which England as a whole codes “gay”--too complex a syndrome to explore here, but it has something to do with Oscar Wilde, Britain’s private boarding school system, and the glam tradition that encompasses everyone from Bowie to Boy George to Morrissey.
Targeted at this country’s niche audience of Anglophiles, The Brit Box’s timespan--it starts in 1984, ends in 1999--seems somewhat arbitrary. What actually distinguishes those sixteen year as a separate period from the epoch of British guitar-based music that preceded it? Perhaps it’s simply the fact that, notwithstanding its appeal to a compact cult following in this country, almost all of the music on this box failed commercially in America. From the early Sixties to the early Eighties, what was big in Britain was, with a precious few exceptions, equally big in America: Beatles, Stones, Kinks, Who, Cream, Sabbath, Zeppelin, Rod Stewart, David Bowie… The Trans-Atlantic traffic faltered slightly circa punk, but resumed in force with The Police and The Clash. Then came all the synth-wielding, MTV-friendly androgynes of the early 80s, the so-called Second British Invasion. Conversely, with a few exceptions like The Cure and Oasis, what this Rhino box documents is the British Non-Invasion.
Of course, the Brit Box doesn’t attempt to encompass all the music that came out of the UK between 1984 and 1999. Plenty of English acts enjoyed substantial success in the United States. Tellingly, though, almost all of them--from George Michael to Soul II Soul, Simply Red to Stereo MCs and EMF--were deeply steeped in Black American music. Essentially, they represented the continuation of what the British Invaders of the Sixties started, the great English love affair with cutting edge black music: back then, blues and soul; by the Eighties and Nineties, funk, disco, hip hop, house. However much they expanded and mutated their black sources, every major group of the British Sixties was at heart a dance band, with years of hard graft under their collective belt, playing in sweaty clubs to teenagers looking to shake their stuff. Fetishising the guitar sound of the Sixties rather than its rhythmic base, British indie rockers ignored the processes and practices that actually made the British beat group boom happen--its rhythmic base and impulse toward sonic hybridity. If you're going to be retro, you might as well at least take everything that's good about the vintage style you're pillaging, surely? But not only did most British indie rockers of the 80s and 90s fail to adequately replicate the rhythmic dynamism of their Sixties sources,which was grounded in rhythm-and-blues, they also shied away from infusing their music with the energy and innovation of contemporary black music. If “UK indie, Shoegaze, Britpop”, as Rhino’s box characterizes its contents in the subtitle, proved unable to match in America its chart success at home, could that be precisely because of its divorce from black music and the dance imperative? That seems more plausible than the Anglophile fan argument that would attribute it to defective popular taste or the conservatism of American radio.
The Smiths, who kick off The Brit Box with their 1984 song “How Soon Is Now”, were a critical force in the drift away from the dance floor and black influences. Morrissey’s voice sounded “pale” and “pure” in a way that was almost but not quite folky; Johnny Marr’s guitar harked back to Byrdsy jangle rather than Chic’s choppy funk. In 1986, The Smiths spelled out their opposition to mainstream dance-pop with their single “Panic”, whose chorus demanded “burn down the disco/hang the blessed deejay.” In Morrissey’s fantasy tribunal of popular justice, the crime was lyrical vapidity and complacent hedonism: “the music that they constantly play/says nothing to me about my life”.. Morrissey’s interview comments of the time--he described hip hop’s presence in the charts as “a stench”, dismissed reggae as “vile” and derided R&B’s gross caricature of sexuality--prompted some critical supporters of soul music and club culture to argue that his remarks exposed a subtle form of racism in the indie music scene. Bizarrely, this ancient controversy flared back into life last month when Morrissey, interviewed by NME, blamed the erosion and erasure of the England he knew and loved as a child in the Sixties on immigration, even using the classic nativist metaphor of a culture being “swamped”. During the resulting furore, which included a follow-up interview and lawyer’s letters, Morrissey insisted on his opposition to racism, which he described as “silly”.
This apparent contradiction of being anti-racist but steadfastedly avoiding any contact with black music culture is integral to indie rock. The Smiths did in fact play a Rock Against Racism benefit in 1986 not long after “Panic” was released. Indeed it could be that indie-rock fans, with their high quotient of college students, are more likely to have progressive political opinions than regular folks. But those liberal values do not stretch to a form of affirmative action when it comes to their music consumption. There is a blinkered parochialism and sluggish conservatism to indie rock taste whose net result ends up looking an awful lot like self-segregation. One of the dirty secrets of the UK music press was the fact that sales figures and market research both showed that issues featuring black artists on the cover sold poorly. The charitable interpretation of this is that the regular readership assumed that these were performers in hip hop or R&B, i.e. genres they either had no curiosity about or actively despised.
During much of the period covered by The Brit Box, I worked at Melody Maker, as a staff writer and later as a freelance contributor. I witnessed the rise of most of the bands featured herein, watched them progress from live review buzzes to Singles of the Week, from one page features to cover stories. More often than not, though, I saw it out of the corner of my eye. With a handful exceptions--the epoch-defining Smiths and Stone Roses, the dizzyingly innovative My Bloody Valentine, the witty, charismatic Pulp, a few others-- my attention was focused on all the other stuff going on during this period: UK rock’s experimental fringe, hip hop, dance culture and electronic music. When it came to guitars, I found the stuff coming out of America far more appealing, on the whole: wilder-sounding, better played, often coupled with a deranged and scabrous sense of humor. For my contingent at Melody Maker, the rock bands that really mattered were mostly from the States: Husker Du, Big Black, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jnr, Butthole Surfers, Pixies, Mercury Rev, Royal Trux…. Indeed in our crowd, it became a fashionable attitude to be ashamed of the homegrown indie for its sonic feebleness and for being hidebound by self-consciousness. Ironically (given our profession) we blamed this on the malign influence of the music press itself, which tended to favour bands that were hot on manifesto and rhetoric, because it made for a good story and an easy life for the journalist. For some reason, in those days I believed that American bands were more intuitive and less contrived--an idea that now seems absurd (what could be more arty and thought-out-in-advance than Sonic Youth, more irony-clad than Pavement?). Nonetheless there was a palpable difference in quality and substance between American and British rock, audible on the basic level of rocking, something which few UK guitar bands seemed able to pull off during the Eighties. (Things improved somewhat in the 90s thanks to the rock refresher course that was grunge. But only very slightly).
That’s one reason why the bands corralled on The Brit Box stumbled when they reached the shores of America. Time and again, bands used to playing in huge venues to fervent, pre-converted crowds would arrive to face the humiliation of starting all over again from near the bottom: small clubs and audiences with a high proportion of skeptics waiting to see if the group could deliver live. Having risen so effortlessly in their homeland, the English groups would flinch from the prospect of slogging around the United States, putting in the work required to make it here. As time went by and the failure stories accumulated, their attempts to break America grew ever more desultory.
There was a sound reason for not making a serious bid to conquer the American market, though. Being abroad for long stints entailed neglecting their fanbase. In the high turnover, hothouse atmosphere of the UK scene, out of sight means out of mind; hungry new pretenders are always coming through to seize the throne. British music fans and British music papers love the idea of the local: fans want bands they can go and see regularly, groups they can root for and support almost like a soccer team. What the music press readership in the UK has always wanted is a band that resembles itself, which means it’s got to be white, male, British. The band also needs to stick to the traditional format of songs plus electric guitars, and to lyrically offer a slightly heroicised version of the fanbase’s dreams and fears. If you look at what the readerships of NME and Melody Maker voted for as Best Band over the last 30 years, each year’s #1 has rarely been an American group (REM and Nirvana were brief exceptions). It’s been a straight line running from The Jam, Joy Division and Echo & The Bunnymen, through The Smiths, Stone Roses, Oasis and Blur, right up to today’s Franz Ferdinand and Arctic Monkeys. Not an American accent, black face, or pair of ovaries in the lot of them. And apart from Oasis and Franz, not a full-blown American success story among them either.
* * * *
Open The Brit Box and you’ll find two CD cases containing four discs in total. Each one is designed to look like an ashtray, with the number of cigarette stubs corresponding to the disc’s number. (Smoking seems to be a crucial element of Britpop’s semiotics, from Oasis’s “Cigarettes and Alchohol” to Arctic Monkeys’s debut album with its cover photo of a lad smoking a “fag” down to its nub and the disc’s image of an ashtray choked with stubbed-out butts). The phone box theme of fusty English charm resumes on the CD inserts, which depict baked beans, licorice allsorts, used teabags and a Beefeater Doll.
Pop Disc One into the CD-player and what soon becomes apparent is how, circa 1984,
British indie rock averted its face from the pop present and looked to the Sixties. Alongside The Smiths, the prime instigators of this drastic shift were The Jesus and Mary Chain. By the time of 1987’s “April Skies,” Jim Reid and his brother William had removed their trademark wall-of-noise (as heard on classic 1985 singles like “Upside Down” and “Never Understand”) to reveal classically contoured songs constructed in homage to a canon of renegade rock: The Stones, the Stooges, The Velvets, The Beach Boys. Stripping away their sole claim to radicalism, that blistering sandstorm of feedback, left them exposed as pasticheurs.
Starting out at roughly the same time as J&MC but slower to achieve renown, Spacemen 3 engaged in a similar retreat to rock’s archives. Their “Walkin’ With Jesus” is little more than a guided tour of their record collection (more or less identical to the Reid Bros, but with some MC5 and gospel added to the mix). Spacemen 3 consciously saw their music as a gesture of defiance against the Eighties. In the box set’s booklet, the band’s Jason Pierce (later to break away to form the more expansive outfit Spiritualized) declares: “we sat the ‘80s out, really. We weren’t in tune with what was going on musically or politically at all…. We mined a world of music that wasn’t mainstream--taking from ‘50s and ‘60s music--then just sat on it and made it our own.”
Spacemen 3’s mission statement was “taking drugs to make music to take drugs to”. But on a popular level, the true chemical-generation revolution in late Eighties Britain didn’t take the form of Detroit 1969 revivalism. It was rave culture, fueled by Ecstasy and soundtracked by the alien electronic tonalities and machine beats of house and techno, a music movement oriented around looking-to-the-Nineties futurism rather than pining-for-the-Sixties nostalgia. Some of the J&MC and Spacemen’s 3 fellow-travelers in retro realized this and tried to board the rave train. The Stone Roses already had one of the few really groovy British drummers around in Reni, something audible in the spring-heeled bounce of the otherwise Sixties-sounding “She Bangs The Drum” (their contribution to The Brit Box). But as their hometown Manchester became the North of England’s dance mecca, the Roses made a concerted attempt to assimilate house music’s hypno-feel with their biggest hit “Fool’s Gold”. Happy Mondays, also from “Madchester”, had started out resembling a funked-up Velvet Underground (John Cale produced their debut album), then hooked up with UK house producers for songs like the box set’s “Step On”. But their lumpen groove generally sounded more club-footed than club-friendly. On “Only One I Know”, The Charlatans’s drummer imitates a looped breakbeat, but their milky Hammond organ sound leaves them stuck in the Sixties. Just about the funkiest track on all four discs of The Brit Box is “Loaded” by Primal Scream, the group fronted and led by Jesus and Mary Chain’s drummer Bobby Gillespie. But that’s because it’s a sampled and beat-looped remix of another Primal Scream song, with deejay-producer Andy Weatherall transforming what was originally a bluesy ballad into something like a house music update of “Sympathy for the Devil.”.
“Swing” and “feel” are in short supply across all four discs of The Brit Box. This rhythmic deficiency is partly due to the lingering influence of punk, which made virtuosity nothing to aspire to--or something to conceal, if you already had it. British rock once boasted many of the finest drummers in the world--Keith Moon, John Bonham, Charlie Watts, Ringo Starr, Mitch Mitchell from the Experience, Ginger Baker, Bill Ward, Bill Bruford…. the list goes on. But it’s hard to imagine anyone but diehard fans being able to even name the drummers in the vast majority of bands on The Brit Box. Likewise, if you took the songs and stripped away the other instrumentation, you’d be unable to identify these tunes from their beats, something you can actually do with many songs by The Stones or Led Zeppelin. Rarely contributing anything to the music beyond marking time, the drummers mostly seem to be there because that’s what rock bands are supposed to have. In Britain, this most crucial of functions in any band has become the profession of plodders, people who want to be in a rock group for the lifestyle, not because they have musical instincts. Anybody in Britain who really cares about beats and has a feel for the construction of that commonplace miracle, a groove, has long since gone to work in dance music or hip hop.
In the absence of rhythmic verve and invention, Britpop’s saving grace is melody. Perhaps the traditions of Tin Pan Alley, music hall and light musics of all sorts have always been stronger in the United Kingdom. After all, we got rhythm second-hand, as an American import, starting with jazz. Rock’n’roll and rhythm-and-blues impacted the UK so hard in the Fifties and Sixties that the result was a perfect balance between beat and song. But with some of the lesser output of Sixties England--all those Merseybeat groups like Freddie & The Dreamers, bands like Herman’s Hermits and the Hollies--you can hear a native proclivity for over-melodiousness, the musical equivalent to the national sweet tooth. You can hear the same weakness--an eager-to-please mellifluousness of tone and tune--in a lot of the Britpop on this box.
That said, there are melodic jewels scattered across these four discs, like The La’s “There She Goes” (so blatantly a love song to heroin it’s amazing they got away it), or “Here’s Where The Story Ends” by The Sundays, whose singer Harriet Wheeler fused Morrissey’s plaintiveness with enraptured grace of Liz Frazer of the Cocteau Twins. Frazer appears twice in succession on the first disc, first with the Cocteaus’s slightly frou-frou “Lorelei”, and then as the backing vocalist on Felt’s “Primitive Painters”. Her cosmic powerhouse of a voice compensates for the one-note-range of Felt frontman Lawrence, lending majesty to his passive-aggressive anthem of defiant apathy--"I wish my life could be as strange/As a conspiracy/I hold out hope but there's no way/To be what I wanna be"--and transforming his “trail of disgrace” into a heroic refusal.
Lawrence’s “defeatist attitude” was an advance glimpse of the next phase of UK guitarpop, the shoegaze scene, which was essentially the South of England’s riposte to the Manchester indie-dance sound. The term “shoegazer” originated from these bands’s immobility and withdrawn aura onstage, the way they hid behind their long hair. Guitarists, especially, seemed to spend the whole gig staring at the floor. There was a prosaic reason for this: the billowing amorphousness of shoegaze’s guitar sound relied heavily on foot-controlled pedal effects. But the shoegaze bands’ seeming inability to meet their audience’s gaze captured the essence of this neo-psychedelic genre, which involved escaping from a troubled world into a narcoleptic dream-state. (Dreampop, in fact, was another contender for the genre’s name).
The sound was pioneered by My Bloody Valentine (who only last month announced their return to activity after 15 years hibernation), and their string of classic EPs and two masterpiece albums Isn’t Anything (1988) and Loveless (1991) dwarfed the efforts of their progeny. But the most successful shoegaze band was Ride, regular visitors to the UK Top 20 who prospered seemingly for their very mediocrity. Where MBV’s “Only Shallow” (included here) actively engulfs you in its swoon, Ride’s “Vapourtrail” casts a pall of lethargy with its grey-haze guitar and vocal performance closer to a sustained sigh than singing.
I enjoyed shoegaze quite a bit at the time, especially early tracks by Slowdive (not included here) and Moose (present with their country-influenced later style, in the form of “This River Never Will Run Dry”). But fifteen years on, listening to this stuff again felt less like bliss-out and more like being lost in a listless mist. Rather than dreampop, Lush’s “For Love” resembles a song the band dreamed but could only faintly recall upon waking: bass inaudible, drums soft as snowflakes, voice partially erased, guitars like a watercolor with too much water in it. Bleach, similarly, sound bleached--bleached bland. The anemia deepens with the sickly Chapterhouse, the nondescript Catherine Wheel, the perfectly formulaic Curve. Around this time grunge happened and a comparison between the two genres is instructive. The roots were similar (blizzard-guitar groups like Husker Du and Dinosaur Jnr) but grunge’s roar of rage and cathartic release is much punkier and energized than shoegaze. “Anemia” is all too apt: there’s a haemorrhaging away of will and agency in this music. Hardly forceful presences to begin with, shoegaze vocalists were further subsumed by the genre’s standard production style, which buried their beneath the layered guitars (typically fast-strummed and fed through effects so they swirled in the listener’s face like a wind-born flurry of snowflakes).
From the band’s attempt to overwhelm the audience live with a deluging density of sound to the songs’s Romantic imagery of ravishment and rapture, shoegaze was based in an aesthetic of surrender. Its dream-your-life-away resignation mapped neatly onto the political situation, the long era of Conservative rule in Britain, a period when the Labour Party seemed unelectable and the Tories, under Thatcher and Major, pursued youth-unfriendly policies: phasing out grants to university students, introducing the council tax (an unpopular form of local taxation that shifted the burden from property owners to young renters--unless they wanted to drop off the electoral roll, which meant they’d
literally become disenfranchised youth). There’s a curious aptness too the way that so many young people during the Eighties and early Nineties went into a kind of cultural exile by hiding in “the Sixties” (the music of Byrds, Velvets, et al) just as Thatcher and her allies were steadily abolishing the gains of that decade.
The shoegaze sound was going nowhere (the title of one of Ride’s albums, as it happens) and soon the UK scene snapped out of the dream-haze with a concerted move towards punchy tunes, clarity of production, and singers who reveled in the spotlight. First came the punk recyclers (amphetamine-gobblers These Animal Men, protest poets The Manic Street Preachers). Next up was the glam redux of Suede, massive for a couple of years and deservingly so, although “Metal Mickey,” their offering here, is one of their flimsier singles. All this was just preparing the way for Oasis, though. When “Live Forever” rips out the speakers half-way through Disc Three, you can see why they had such an instantly massive impact: what a relief to hear a voice that snarls, that takes the tune by the scruff of its neck. Oasis understood rock as a matter of attitude and vocal timbre (Liam Gallagher’s blend of Lennon’s insolence with the insouciance of Stone Roses singer Ian Brown) combined with guitar sound (brother Noel’s distorted tone, gnarly enough to sound classically rock but stopping well short of shoegazey miasma). The idea of rock as a rhythmically dynamic music was simply forgotten. Oasis’s no-mark drummer never did much more than trundle unobstrusively beneath the singalong; Liam’s voice dominated the mix.
The British scene let out a massive sigh of relief: after the half-measures of shoegaze (its ineffectual mix of almost-pop and semi-experimentalism, expressed through an obsession with guitar textures), Oasis had redirected indie rock back to the eternal verities of songs. Thrilling as “Live Forever” and the group’s five or six other killer tunes are, though, one shouldn’t lose sight of the Gallagher Bros as culture criminals, the guys who nearly killed for good the idea of rock as a genre that was forward-looking and experimental. (That notion made a slight recovery with Radiohead, a band who the Gallaghers, revealingly, find an almost personal affront, and who are oddly absent from The Brit Box). Oasis paved the way for a grim phase of UK pop dominated by what some wag nicknamed “Dadrock”--bands like Ocean Colour Scene, Cast, Kula Shaker, Dodgy. It was Dadrock because it could be (and was) enjoyed equally by kids in their teens and twenties and by their parents (teens or twentysomethings back in the Sixties, whence these groups derived all their ideas). Kula Shaker even brought back 1967-style Eastern spirituality with their execrable hit “Tattva”.
When you compared Britpop with its Sixties source, though, what was striking was how plain and uninspired the substance of its sound was. Britrockers in the Sixties uniformly strove to grow and develop, both as artists and instrumentalists. Amid the sustained adequacy of the playing on Disc Three and Disc Four, it’s a shock when genuine ability and flair leaps out of the speakers in the form of “The Riverboat Song” by Ocean Colour Scene. The groove is supple and agile; the singer has the rich white-blues timbre of Procol Harum’s Gary Brooker or Traffic’s Stevie Winwood. Too bad “Riverboat Song” sounds like it actually arrived straight from 1968in a time capsule.
There are diamonds in the dungheap: “Stutter”, Elastica’s own time capsule, from 1978, the year of Buzzcocks and Wire; Supergrass’s T-Rexy youth anthem “Alright”, the Roxy-gone-shabby tumult of Pulp’s “Common People”. The prime period Britpop of 1994-96 also captures the optimism and confidence of that moment when everyone in Britain sensed that the Conservatives were going to get kicked out by Tony Blair’s New Labour at the next general election. Blair courted the leading Britpop bands both before and after that May 1997 victory, making the revitalized UK pop scene a central part of his “Cool Britannia” push to rebrand the nation as modern and vibrant. He praised Alan McGee of Creation, Oasis’ record label, as a shining example of New Labour-style entrepreneurialism and famously invited McGee and Noel Gallagher to a reception at 10 Downing Street (the singer of Oasis’ great rivals Blur, Damon Albarn, was also invited but declined to attend). “Cool Britannia” was a replay of the Sixties “London Swings” scenario, with Oasis as the Beatles to Blair’s Harold Wilson (the last actually popular Labour PM). Egos inflated by their importance in the scheme of things (and by vast quantities of cocaine) Oasis then made the bloated Be Here Now, whose lead single--“D’you Know What I Mean”--attempted to capture the weightiness of the historical moment with its incoherent chorus “all my people right here right now/you know what I mean.”
There were much more interesting things going on in the UK during this period, which The Brit Box acknowledges with tracks from Saint Etienne, Stereolab and Cornershop. Saint Etienne present a far more attractive version of pop Englishness than the rehashed Kinks/Beatles/Jam of most Britpop. In their hands, this was a national identity open to outside influences: house music from Chicago and Rimini; soft ‘lover’s rock’ reggae from Kingston by way of Brixton; French pop of the 60s. Even the group’s name came from a French soccer team. A similar cool, esoteric mix informed Stereolab’s music, but unlike the sampler-and-sequencer wielding Saint Etienne, this South London group stuck with guitars, bass, drums, and keyboards. Unlike Saint Etienne, they also had an actual French singer, the dulcet-toned Laetitia Sadier, as opposed to a collection of Françoise Hardy singles. Sourced in the trance-inducing pulse rhythms of Krautrock outfits like Kraftwerk and Neu!, Stereolab’s songs came with incongruously non-lulling lyrics. On “Wow and Flutter” (included here) Sadier coos of capitalism, “it’s not imperishable, it’s not eternal/Oh yes it will fall”. Cornershop were another politically aware bunch of smartypants, whose line-up includes two of the handful of non-white musicians on The Brit Box, in the form of the Asian British brothers Tjinder and Avtar Singh. The band are represented here by “Brimful of Asha,” an oblique paean to Bollywood singer Asha Bosle. But the compilers opted for the late period Velvet Underground shimmy of the original rather than the boisterous dance remix by Fatboy Slim, which actually reached #1 in the UK charts.
These groups are exceptions to the post-Oasis rule. As we enter the last three years of the Nineties with disc Four, it seems like every band is competing for the attention of buskers across the land. The musical backing is just that… a mere backdrop for the voices, which are clear, soaring, often in high register and prominently exposed in a mix that kicks everything else out of the spotlight. One reason for this is that for indie rock fans on both sides of the Atlantic, the raison d’etre of the genre is clever words. You can, of course, find them all over the place in pop, not least in hip hop. In indie, though, “clever” often seems to equate with arch turns of phrases or droll allusions to popular culture. Hence the X Files-referencing love song “Sculder and Mully” by Catatonia, a Welsh band whose 1998 album International Velvet (ha, another pop culture reference) went triple platinum in the UK. Catatonia singer Cerys Matthews was once unkindly but indelibly and accurately described as sounding like "a chicken laying an egg." by Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy, whose own droller-than-thou Brit Box contribution, “Something For the Weekend” was inspired by the face of actress Kate Beckinsale.
Flourishes of “wit” such as these were scant compensation for Britpop’s sheer mundanity of sound as the decade’s end approached. Ash, Sleeper, Bluetones, Hurricane #1, Rialto, Gay Dad… there’s a reason you’ve never heard of these bands. For reasons unclear, The Brit Box stops short of venturing into the new millennium, when things simultaneously got even worse and improved slightly. On the down side, there was a post-Radiohead shower of mild misery, bands like Coldplay, Razorlight, Starsailor. But there was also a new crop of spiky vigour in the form of Franz Ferdinand, The Libertines, Arctic Monkeys, Art Brut, Bloc Party, The Klaxons, groups who drew on sharper influences from the postpunk and New Wave era. Fans of well-honed, observational words and lyrical intellect didn’t need to deny themselves fully-contemporary beats either, thanks to a new breed of British singer-rappers like Mike Skinner of The Streets, Lily Allen, Hot Chip, and Lady Sovereign. Influenced by the rhythms and vocal stylings of ska, reggae, lover’s rock and dancehall, these performers showed how fertile and enduring the contribution of Jamaican music has been to British pop across the decades.
Racists in Britain used to chant “There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack”. Draping themselves in the flag, Britpop artists inadvertently sealed themselves off from the invigorating stream of new ideas coming from black music in the Eighties and Nineties, a good proportion of them spawned on Britpop’s own doorstep--sounds like jungle and 2step. Cultivating their quintessential quaintness, clinging tightly to a glorious and storied past, the British groups protected their appeal to patriots at home and Anglophiles abroad. But in the process they lost the world.