Beyond Britpop: Whatever happened to the class of '95?
Pulp are just the latest Britpop band to re-form. What happened to the other musicians who defined the Nineties? Alice Jones meets the retired rock stars
Saturday 02 July 2011
Do you remember the great war of August, 1995? If you were a teenager at the time, of course you do.
I can still picture that Sunday evening when my sister and I hunched over the radio at 6.54pm, waiting to hear if it was Blur or Oasis at number one. I loved both bands. Oasis were from my neck of the woods and I'd been the first in my year to buy Definitely Maybe. But it was a poster of the boys from Blur at the dogs which held the top spot above my bed. And that week, I was partisan, refusing to let my Oasis-supporting sister tape "Country House", playing the très sophistiqué B-side ("To the End" in French) on a loop and whining Mark and Lard's parody of "Roll With It" ("I wanna a roll with it. I want a chicken pie. I want some beans and an egg...") at every opportunity.
When Blur won, selling 274,000 copies to Oasis's 216,000, I was smug – and a little bit sad. Britpop had peaked. Even my parents knew about Liam and Damon's slanging matches, having seen them on the Nine O'Clock News. At its height, between 1994-1996, you couldn't walk into Woolworths without tripping over a new band – Ash, Boo Radleys, Cast, Dodgy, Echobelly, Gene, Kula Shaker, Lush, Menswear, Powder, Space... – all releasing songs which prized witty lyrics hymning quirky British aspiration. Camden was the new Seattle, its pubs, The Good Mixer and The Dublin Castle, stuffed with guitar-toting wannabes wearing suits with slogan T-shirts and Adidas trainers. Scrawny art-school rejects became pin-ups; mouthy girls in Doc Martens became cool. Blur and Oasis played to hundreds of thousands in stately homes and stadiums. The fringe became mainstream; the Brit geeks had inherited the rock'n'roll earth.
It was Britpop that kick-started Cool Britannia, from the ascent of the YBAs and Naomi Campbell catwalking in a Union Jack flag to the heartbreak of Euro '96 – until Tony Blair sounded its death knell when he invited Noel Gallagher to sip champagne at Downing Street with Ross Kemp and Mick Hucknall.
No matter, when Pulp headline Wireless festival in Hyde Park tomorrow, there will be plenty in the crowd who remember the first time. Pulp are the latest to reform in search of Britpop's glory days, following on from Blur's tear-stained reunion two years ago. Now Suede are back, too, while Cast, Bluetones, Dodgy and Shed Seven continue to tour.
Other staples have left the stage but remain behind the scenes. Chris Gentry of Menswear manages bands including Noah and the Whale; Suede's Bernard Butler works with everyone from Duffy to Fyfe Dangerfield, and Gene's Martin Rossiter teaches at a music college. Some have parlayed Britpop into a media career. Lauren Laverne is far more successful as a BBC presenter than she was in Kenickie, Blur's Alex James is a columnist and cheese-maker, while Catatonia's Cerys Matthews and Pearl Lowe (Powder) continue to generate column inches.
But what of those figures who left the charts, the music and the media behind for good? What did Britpop teach them? Are they all reading Balzac, knocking back Prozac and living in a house in the country? Not quite, as it turns out.
Then: Lead singer, Sleeper. Poster girl for Britpop. Sleeper's big break came when they supported Blur on their Parklife tour in 1995. They went on to score three UK Top 10 albums, including 1996's platinum-selling The It Girl. They split up in 1998.
Defining Britpop moment: The video for "Inbetweener", shot in an overlit supermarket and featuring a cameo from Dale Winton, shaking tins of Pringles like maracas.
Now: Novelist. Since 2001, Wener has written four well-received books, including The Big Blind about a female poker player. Her memoir, Just for One Day: Adventures in Britpop is out now.
Lives: Brighton, with her husband, Sleeper drummer Andy MacLure, and two children. She is 44 years old.
'When I look back at Britpop now, it was like a bonkers holiday that we all went on. It was mostly enormous fun. We toured the world and played amazing places. It was the culmination of a lot of things I'd wanted to do as a kid, and as such it had a dreamlike quality. It was also insanely druggy – who had the most cocaine was the definition of who was your best mate. Generally the atmosphere was one of hyper-competitiveness and schadenfreude. The women in particular were encouraged to be competitive, I think because there were fewer of us.
The way people access music now is so different. The idea that you would have a big movement that a whole generation was listening to at the same time, a whole summer that was defined by a certain band or album, is fading. It feels like Britpop might have been the last of that. But there was an innate arrogance to the movement – a belief in its cultural importance and relevance, above and beyond what its real worth was. My tendency is to deflate things like that; even at the time, I felt that people were really puffed-up about it. As for politics, I think it's the most naff thing a musician can do. The job of a musician is to stand on the outside and look in, criticise it and jab away with a pointy finger – not hang out in a posh suit and quaff champagne.
When Sleeper split up in 1998, Britpop was sort of falling apart. Our third album wasn't very successful and we thought, 'Let's pull our own plug. Step out before we're thrown out'. It seemed like the sensible thing to do. The first thing I did was work on a solo record but my heart was not really in it. So I bought a second-hand typewriter and started writing on the quiet in my little flat. It was the perfect way to step away from the music industry madness. I'd always wanted to do it; having written lyrics for so long, to suddenly have this empty canvas of 90,000 words seemed incredibly liberating. And having been written about for so long, the idea of owning words felt really tantalising. I wrote two half-novels that weren't good enough and junked them. Then I started on a third and felt it was good enough. So I sent it off, signed an agent and got a publishing deal. It was a slow burn. You can't just ditch one thing and immediately leap into another.
Now I write two-and-a-half days a week because one of my children is at school and the other is at nursery. I'm insanely disciplined. Publishing is much more sedate than music and the people working in it seem to be much more mature. There's something about the music business which attracts eternally childlike people – even those who are controlling it. It's been quite refreshing to have proper conversations with people.
These days I mainly listen to CBeebies theme tunes. Andy, who teaches electro at a music college, keeps up with music much more than I do. I've let that go and that feels right. When I see a great gig, of course I miss it. I get a real Proustian feeling. It's like going back to school where you recognise everything but it all looks a little bit smaller. It's a world I utterly know how to inhabit. I know what's gone on backstage, what the band have been doing that day – and I just feel a little ache, I suppose."
Then: Drummer, Blur. Blur have released seven studio albums, including the Britpop-defining No 1 albums Parklife and The Great Escape which sold 2.15 million copies worldwide. Having effectively split up in 2003, they reunited in 2009 for a run of successful gigs, headlining Glastonbury and playing to 100,000 emotional fans over two nights in Hyde Park.
Defining Britpop Moment: Winning the 'Battle of Britpop', beating Oasis to No 1 in August 1995 with "Country House".
Now: Trainee Solicitor. Having worked as an animator for several years, setting up his own company, Nanomation, and producing two series of Empire Square, Rowntree enrolled at law school and is halfway through his training contract at Kingsley Napley, a London firm.
Lives: East London with his girlfriend, a music publisher. He is 47 years old.
'Around five years ago, I was having a mid-life crisis. I lay awake at night thinking, 'Haven't I wasted my life? Hasn't it all been rather trivial? Hitting things for a living, isn't that rather stupid?'.
Then I talked to a friend who was a lawyer. He said his grandfather had sent him to the Old Bailey, saying 'Go and sit there for two weeks and, at the end of it, you'll know if you like law or not'. So I did that and it was brilliant. Everything that my mid-life crisis was telling me I needed, I found in that courtroom.
The space between things with Blur was growing quite wide so I went to one of the leading legal aid criminal firms in east London and did a bit of work experience. I fell in love with it. It was everything I was looking for – genuine hands-on helping of people with serious crises. I went to law school, passed all my exams and in a year I'll be a qualified solicitor. Now I work five days a week. Crime is what I love but I'm unusual in that I quite like tax law, too.
Around the same time I started to get more involved in the Labour party. I'm a local activist and helped David Miliband on his leadership campaign, which was very exciting. I also stood for parliament in Westminster at the last election, though I had no hope at all of winning. It's all part of trying to bring some kind of meaning to my life, arranging it so I'm a giver rather than a taker. What stuck in my craw was the feeling that my life was selfish. I was turning into somebody that I despised.
The band wound down without my permission, because of Graham and Damon falling out. It wasn't being in the band that I hated. I still love doing that and I'm pretty sure that if I could still do it full time, that's what I would be doing. It's all speculative, because to be able to do it full time you have to be a bit younger.
At the time, it was very hard to gauge the scale of what was going on. First we were a tiny indie band and suddenly we were the mainstream, at number one. We became pop stars which wasn't in the plan. Some of us accommodated that better than others. At the height of our success, I used to fly the band around on tour in my plane. It was brilliant – proper rock-star behaviour. These days I share a plane with a few friends. It's an incredible luxury, really, my one nod to stardom.
Otherwise, I felt about a mile from being involved in any kind of movement, even Britpop. The idea that we were involved in a movement, especially one with such a terrible name, definitely wouldn't have appealed to us.
The Hyde Park reunion [in 2009] could have been a disaster. When Graham and Damon put their differences to one side we decided to go into the rehearsal studio and see if the old magic was there. It was clear immediately that it was. But we all had misgivings. I was very surprised at how quickly the first show sold out. It was really nice that people still felt that way about us.
We keep in touch with each other and there are always plans for Blur. But it's quite fragile. We're grown men now and we don't want to ruin anything. If we do anything else, it's got to be interesting. There has to be a good reason."
Then: Lead singer and guitarist, Elastica. Britpop's cool head girl who dated Brett Anderson and Damon Albarn. Elastica's eponymous first album entered the charts at No 1 in 1995, then the fastest-selling British debut in history. They split up in 2001.
Defining Britpop moment: Starring on an NME cover alongside Thom Yorke and Brett Anderson in 1994, before Elastica had released an album.
Now: Artist. A graduate of the Bartlett School of Architecture, Frischmann co-presented a BBC series called Dreamspaces. She also collaborated with her old flatmate MIA, co-writing songs on her first album Arular. Last year, Frischmann had her first solo exhibition at the Michelle O'Connor Gallery in San Francisco and this year showed her work at New York's Sloan Fine Art.
Lives: North Bay, San Francisco with her husband, a climate scientist and professor at the University of California-Davis. She is 41 years old.
'Music never felt like a sustainable career to me in the emotional and physical sense. I was never that comfortable in the spotlight. I'm actually a pretty quiet kind of person who needs a lot of peace, calm and stability around me.
When I think of Britpop, I remember how exciting it was to see friends breaking through in such a short time. At first the media's attempts to pigeonhole us all together seemed forced. But the concept of 'Britpop' soon gained momentum and it became clear that it had become an entity in its own right. That redefinition of English music and identity felt important at a time when so much of the popular culture seemed to be coming from America. There was a desire to make work that celebrated where we were living, using our own imagery, vernacular and humour. There was also a softening of boundaries during that era – in a way, Damon working with Phil Daniels had some parallels with Tony Blair representing the Labour party... a reappropriation of traditionally working-class iconography by middle-class intelligentsia.
I left the UK in 2005 to study Fine Art at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. I was ready for a total change, I wanted to leave the UK and go back to school. When we were touring I loved the land in the American West and felt drawn to come back. Naropa is the only Buddhist university in the US. I thought it would be interesting to look at the creative process from a contemplative point of view.
I have a parent who is a Holocaust survivor and the Holocaust is something that, I think, has driven me all of my life. My love of Modern design and aesthetics also comes from my parents, who were influenced by the Modern movement, partly, I believe, because we had lost our family history on both sides.
The only Elastica member with whom I'm in touch is Donna. Last time we spoke she was working as a music therapist. Brett [Anderson] is still a good friend. In terms of the music scene today, I still think that Maya's work [MIA] is interesting. But I'm the wrong person to ask. I live in rural northern California where there are coyotes wandering in the streets. And I don't own a TV."
To see Justine Frischmann's artwork, go to artslant.com
Then: Bassist, The Boo Radleys. NME named Giant Steps album of the year in 1993 but their commercial breakthrough came with their fourth album on Creation Records, Wake Up! in 1995, which entered the charts at No 1. They split up in 1999.
Defining Britpop moment: Summer 1995 when "Wake Up Boo!" stayed in the singles charts for two months.
Now: IT Teacher and senior manager, St Louis Grammar School, Kilkeel.
Lives: Hilltown, Northern Ireland with his wife and two sons. He is 42.
'Straight after the band split in 1999, I had my own studio in Liverpool for a year and a half, but at some point the cash ran out. Our accountant had run off with some of our money, which we never got back. That was a wake-up call; I thought I'd better get a job. I moved back to Wallasey and worked for the Ordnance Survey. By this time I had a kid and was wondering what to do for the next 20 years. I was always into computers and IT so I went for a job in music technology, but I didn't get it. Teaching was the next option, so I did a two-year course in IT at Liverpool John Moores University and taught at the same school as my sister in Birkenhead before moving back to Northern Ireland, where my wife is from.
I've been teaching for seven years now and I really enjoy it. I was the head of IT and in the last six months have been made a senior manager. I wouldn't call IT proper teaching because most of the children enjoy using a computer anyway. I've never learnt to read music, so I couldn't teach music but I help some of the sixth-formers out with their recordings.
I don't tell the kids about my musical past but every year one of them finds out. I can't tell them what it was really like because it's not age-appropriate. It's nice that they're interested. I did a bit for the school concert, a night called 'Shame Academy', about four years ago .
Teaching is a world away from being in a band, but you've still got to perform. What I miss is not doing very much. When I was in the band it would be six months of touring and then six months of nothing much. But it's a young man's game. I could never go back to things like transit vans, now. I spoke to Sice [Rowbottom, singer] recently who is enjoying his new career in psychology. We talked a bit about reforming – I'd be up for it, if we could do it electronically.
I never thought we were part of Britpop, only in terms of the attention, which didn't do us any harm. At that time, any band had the potential to do anything and become part of the mainstream. With "Wake up Boo!" we got to experience it for ourselves. I always found that song really hard to play but I never got tired of it. The reaction was great; when we did it on Top of the Pops, all these 11-year-old girls sang it back to us. That was some experience."
Then: Guitarist, Echobelly. The band's debut album, Everyone's Got One was released in 1994, followed by On which reached No 4 in 1995. Madonna and REM were big fans, the latter asking the band to support them on tour. Smith left the band in 1997 and they finally split up for good in 2004.
Defining Britpop moment: Gamine lead singer Sonya Madan performing the insanely catchy "King of the Kerb" on Top of the Pops in 1995.
Now: Works at Intoxica, a record shop in London's Notting Hill. She plays in three bands, The Nuns, The London Dirthole Company and Blindness.
Lives: Tulse Hill, London with her younger brother. She is 42 years old.
'I t was the best of times, it was the worst of times. There was a lot of carousing, but there was also a huge amount of backstabbing. I knew that we were being lumped into Britpop but it was a scene that was created by music journalists. I wasn't particularly enamoured of the Britpop tag; I slipped out of the scene just when Blair co-opted it. If he'd had any nous, he'd have done it two years before when it was hot instead of when it was on the slide. When you've got musicians cosying up to politicians there's something seriously wrong with both sides. Noel Gallagher is a lovely guy but he had no business being in Downing Street. It all smacked of self-reverence.
I left Echobelly in 1997, for a number of reasons – musical differences, the credit the rest of the band were not getting for the writing of the songs. Straight after, I started playing with Night Nurse, a Riot Grrrl-type group. I played Reading with them in 1997 and broke my ribs. I didn't realise I'd done it until the day afterwards. After that I was in Snow Pony from 1998-2005 and another band called Bows.
Then I stopped for a while and got a job working at the Music & Video Exchange in Notting Hill. I'd had a bad accident and couldn't walk for three months and got quite depressed. I decided I ought to get out and do something. It was only supposed to be a temporary measure. And here I am.
In 2006, I moved to Portobello Road and Intoxica. We're a collectors' shop – vinyl only – selling gospel, Fifties and Sixties soul and R&B, jazz and psychedelic, US garage, punk. I'm in charge of the mail-order side of the business; when the boss is away, I'm the de facto manager.
I've recently got back in the saddle with playing. In 2006, I was talking with a few friends about a band called The Monks, wondering why no one had done a tribute to them. We're all girls so that was the name sorted out; we're The Nuns. We play at garage clubs in London. I'm not in touch with the rest of Echobelly but there's no animosity. A couple of weeks ago I was in a pub and Emma Anderson from Lush walked in – that was amazing. I don't go out a huge amount. We're all getting on a bit."
Additional reporting by Morgan Durno
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