Sunday, April 27, 2014

BRITPOP DISSECTED #2 - 1995 and the Battle of Britains

Frieze, December 1995

By Simon Reynolds

'Britpop'--just in case you've been in a coma for the last year--is the music papers' buzzterm for an alleged rejuvenation of the charts, with the likes of Oasis, Blur, Elastica, Pulp and Supergrass displacing American grunge/faceless rave/super-annuated AOR in the higher reaches
of the Hit Parade. 'Britpop' has become a rallying cry, an excuse for chests to swell with patriotic pride. It's even made the tabloids and the News At Ten. Back in August a cabbie told me he'd only ever bought four records in his entire life, then--unprompted--brought up Blur and Oasis.
Even he'd heard about their big battle over whose single would enter the charts at Number One.

So everybody--industry, media, 'the kids'--is frothing with excitement about Britpop. Why? The music biz, which was having trouble building long-selling careers off the back
of dance music and had lost ground to the post-rave indie labels, is thrilled because the Britpopsters are guitar-based bands who willingly constrain themselves within the 3-minute
pop single format and radio-friendly, trebley production. The music press is buzzing 'cos Britpop's aesthetic base-- the mid-Sixties, filtered through its late '70s echo, New  Wave--had hitherto been strictly an indie style, and thus the inkies' province. At the same time, the bands are overtly
anti-experimental and pre-psychedelic; they combine playsafe 1966-meets-1978 aesthetics with an almost doctrinal ethos of ambition and stardom-at-all-costs. Because the bands it
discovers now hit the charts, the music press' prestige and morale has been boosted; for the first time in years, people turn to the inkies as tipsheets! Moreover, Britpopsters behave like stars, make
an effort to give good face and good copy, and this makes the journos' job easier. And 'the kids'? Even the youngest surely sense, on some subliminal level, that the sound of
Britpop harks back to the days when Britannia ruled the pop waves, while the attitude evokes an era when being young was a real cool time. The glory-lust of Oasis' "Champagne Supernova",
the insouciance of Supergrass' "Alright", seem mighty appealing, even as they fly flagrantly in the face of the socio-economic facts.

As it happens, I think Britain IS the place to be, pop-wise; it's just that this state-of-affairs has NOTHING to do with Britpop. Relatively unheralded by the media, another
generation of Britons are waiving the rules. There's the post-rock experimentalism of Laika, Pram, Techno-Animal etc; the trip hop of Tricky, Wagon Christ and the Mo'Wax label;
the 'artcore' jungle of 4 Hero, Dillinja, Droppin' Science, the Moving Shadow label; the art-tekno weirdness of Aphex Twin, Bedouin Ascent, et al. All these strands of UK activity are either offshoots of, or deeply influenced by, club music and sound-system culture; sonically, they're informed
by the rhythm-science and studio-magick of dub reggae, hip hop and techno. And all speak eloquently if non-verbally of the emergence of a new hyrid British identity, a mongrel,
mutational mix of black and white.

Britpop is an evasion of the multiracial, technology-mediated nature of UK pop culture in the '90s. If it started a few years ago as a revolt against American grunge (Suede's fey fusion of glam Bowie and glum Morrissey), now it's extended itself into the symbolic erasure of Black Britain,
as manifested in jungle and trip hop. For Britpopsters, the Sixties figure as a 'lost golden age' in a way that's alarmingly analogous to the mythic stature of the Empire vis-a-vis football hooligans and the BNP. Even more than the insularity of Britpop's quintessentially English canon (Kinks, Jam, Small
Faces, Buzzcocks, Beatles, Smiths, Madness), it's the sheer WHITENESS of its sound that is staggering. Take Elastica, whose singer Justine Frischmann confessed that she could only
think of one form of black music she liked: ska (the jerkiest, most New Wavey form of black pop ever!). And take Blur, whose homage to the U.K's music-hall pop tradition
manages to sever The Kinks from R&B, Madness from ska, and Ian Dury from the Blockheads' fluency in funk and disco.

Damon Albarn's pseudo-yob accent testifies to a nostalgia for a lost white ethnicity, one that's fast eroding under the triple attrition of America, Europe and this nation's indigenous non-white population. Like his hero Martin Amis, Albarn fetishises London's vestigial remnants of
authentic white trash as "the last truly English people you will ever know" (to borrow a lyric from Morrissey, another feller with a dubious penchant for skinheads and villains).
Mozzer is right, this is a dying breed, already displaced by a new generation of London youth who speak an alloy of Cockney/Jamaican patois/B-boy slang, watch American sci-fi
movies, grapple with Japanese computer games, and listen to sampler-based music like jungle.

It's these kids--the kind you'll find at drum & bass hang-outs like Speed and AWOL--who are today's mods, not the  sorry-ass mod revivalists at Camden's Blow Up club. Mod
originally meant 'modernist', meant having utterly contemporary tastes in music, clothes, everything. Today's junglists, trip-hoppers and techno-heads share their '60s ancestors obsession with records (the obscurest track, the freshest import) as opposed to bands; the same orientation
towards Black America and Jamaica; the same anticipation for the future. Camden is supposed to have brought back the idea of Swinging London, but for five years now pirate radio has
been making a clandestine cartography of the metropolis, bringing the scent of enchantment to forsaken places like Peckham and Dalston, as MC's chant out the listeners' paged-
in "big shouts" and "'nuff respects".

Perhaps even more than race, it's covert class struggle that underpins the Britpop phenom: the fetishising by mostly middle class bands and fans of a British working class
culture that's already largely disappeared, is really a means of evading the real nature of modern prole leisure, which remains overwhelmingly shaped by rave. Blow Up's avowed anti-Ecstasy stance symbolises this perfectly. Not only did E usher in a new and still unfolding era of psychedelic music
based around the drugs/technology interface, but the drug also permanently altered the mentality of vast tranches of da youth, blasting away reserve, inhibition, emotional
constipation, everything in the English character that holds us back. E and rave transformed the UK into one funky nation, but you wouldn't be able to tell that from Britpop. From Blur's rickety arrangements to the raunch-less turgidity of Oasis, Britpop is rhythmically retarded, to say the least.
Partly, it's the result of cultural inbreeding, of a white pop tradition that's long since distanced itself from the R&B roots that made the Beatles and Stones dance bands; partly, it's a
deliberate avoidance of anything that smacks of lumpen rave.

Thanks to rave, the most vital sectors of '90's UK subculture are all about mixing it up: socially, racially, and musically (DJ cut'n'mix, remixology's deconstructive assault on the song). Returning to the 3 minute pop tune that the milkman can whistle, reinvoking a parochial England
with no black people, Britpop has turned its back defiantly to the future. Here's hoping the future will respond in kind, and remember Britpop only as an aberrant, anachronistic fad--like trad jazz, the early '60s student craze that resurrected the Dixieland sound of 30 years earlier. Perhaps
Oasis will one day seem as inexplicable as Humphrey Lyttleton!

Where Blur's The Great Escape and Oasis' What's The Story) Morning Glory bask in the setting sun of England's bygone pop glory, Tricky's Maxinquaye and Goldie's Timeless gaze into the future. Both Tricky and Goldie are black British B-boys mindwarped by the drugs/technology
interface; both share a strikingly similar set of miscegenated influences ranging from art-rock (David Sylvian, Kate Bush) to ambient (Eno) to the black avant-garde (Public Enemy, Miles Davis); both made the Top 5 of the Album Chart. Reflecting what is really going on in Britain in 1995,
Maxinquaye and Timeless offer two versions of a modern  inner city blues. Dark, discomfiting, devoid of the callow cheer of yer Blurs and yer Supergrasses, yet it's these records (and, believe me, a horde of other trip hop, jungle and post-rock releases) that are the real reasons to be
cheerful about British popular music in 1995.

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