The summer of Britpop

Exactly a decade ago the British pop revival reached its zenith when Blur and Oasis battled it out for the number one spot. Nick Hasted recalls a time when it seemed the high would never end
Click to follow

When the chart rivalry between two young indie bands was deemed worthy of the Nine O'Clock News 10 years ago this week, Britpop was officially born. Like the current frenzy around Ashes cricket, the report on the simultaneous release of Blur's "Country House" and Oasis's "Roll With It" reminded the general public about a world they'd almost forgotten: one of melodic, sharply dressed guitar groups battling it out in the Top 40, as if pop music was the most important thing in the world.

This Indian summer for traditional British pop would begin its decline only a year later. For any fan who was around then, it was a wonderfully thrilling 12 months. But what's striking, a decade on, is how little remains of a swaggering scene that once seemed so central.

Like all crazes, Britpop was sparked by a convergence of cultural forces. Musically, it had been building throughout the early Nineties, in cult releases by bands such as Saint Etienne, Blur, Pulp and Suede. But the album charts were ruled by doomy US grunge bands led by Kurt Cobain's Nirvana, while singles had been ceded to Take That and dance music. British guitar pop seemed marginalised and dying. Blur's March 1993 "Girls and Boys", which with its perky Europop sound and dirty 18-30 holiday lyrics seemed designed to reach out to Take That fans, was an early beachhead back into the mainstream. But it was the next month, when Kurt Cobain shot himself, making grunge's relentless misery all too real, that signalled the true sea-change. That same April, Oasis released their first single, "Supersonic", a laddish, melodic burst of hedonism which, alongside the quirkily anglophile Blur, served as an instant rejection of Cobain's depressed end.

For a brief moment in the summer of 1994, British pop suddenly seemed alive with possibility, as artists as diverse as the blues-wailing PJ Harvey and E'ed up Black Grape came to the fore. But marketing narrowed this to the simpler "Britpop": a genre of Modish Target T-shirts, 1960s-reviving sounds, and an un-Cobain-like hunger for chart success.

1995 was the real high water mark, with Pulp's "Common People", a bitingly intelligent, catchy single worthy of any era, hitting number two, before the Blur vs Oasis battle caught the masses' imagination. Dozens more bands came through in their slipstream, from the lasting (Radiohead, Supergrass) to the fleeting (Sleeper, Menswear). But it was Oasis's second album, (What's the Story) Morning Glory?, out that October, whose soaring anthems became inescapable wherever you went for the next year. When their heroes the Beatles released a new single the next month, the Sixties' euphoric second coming seemed complete.

With Blur bringing the girls, Oasis reeling in the beery lads, and the familiarity of their traditional, brilliantly catchy sounds luring older fans back into the fold, Britpop brought a badly schismed pop nation back together. With Trainspotting (1995) in the cinemas, the Tories gone, and a burgeoning economy, that New Labour marketing man's phrase "Cool Britannia" seemed briefly real, as if we'd all stepped into some knowing, laddish parody of a Swinging Sixties movie.

When Oasis played Knebworth in August 1996, and 250,000 people roared themselves hoarse to their songs, it seemed the high might never end. But backstage, over-reaching cocaine excess signalled the fall to come, and Noel Gallagher privately pondered splitting his band there and then, knowing the only way left was down. I remember walking through a park that year with a friend, excitedly discussing how Oasis would prove they were our generation's Beatles by taking their music on in some mighty new direction. The turgid, tired Be Here Now (1997) proved that dream, and Britpop, was over.

Ten years on, most of the genre's main players are spent, or in retreat. Pulp's Jarvis Cocker, almost destroyed by fame, has returned to the margins. Oasis have become the stadium rock dinosaurs they always wanted to be. Supergrass's new album, Road to Rouen, shows them trying unconvincingly to mature. Only Blur's Damon Albarn, who so brilliantly helped to mastermind the movement in the first place, is still a force, finally breaching the old enemy America's chart defences in cartoon form, as part of Gorillaz.

The thrill of Britpop as it was happening has proved so ephemeral, it's sometimes hard to believe that it happened at all. A movement itself so based in revivalism, nationalist fervour and hedonism was probably never built for the long haul. But in its catalogue of sharply intelligent singles and joyous spirit, it was pop at its purest: fleetingly fantastic.

Top of the pops: Singles chart, 26 August 1995

1 COUNTRY HOUSE, BLUR

2 ROLL WITH IT, OASIS

3 YOU ARE NOT ALONE, MICHAEL JACKSON

4 I LUV U BABY, ORIGINAL

5 THE SUNSHINE AFTER THE RAIN, BERRI

6 I'LL BE THERE FOR YOU, REMBRANDTS

7 WATERFALLS, TLC

8 NEVER FORGET, TAKE THAT

9 HIDEAWAY, DE'LACY

10 EVERYBODY, CLOCK

11 HAPPY JUST TO BE WITH YOU, MICHELLE GAYLE

12 KISS FROM A ROSE/I'M ALIVE, SEAL

13 GREAT THINGS, ECHOBELLY

14 SCATMAN'S WORLD, SCATMAN JOHN

15 SOMETHIN' 4 DA HONEYZ, MONTELL JORDAN

16 TRY ME OUT, CORONA

17 SON OF A GUN, JX

18 ON THE BIBLE, DEUCE

19 JUST, RADIOHEAD

20 SHY GUY, DIANA KING

Comments