Thursday night's all right for fighting

The Help! charity album was a high point in the year of Britpop. Can the kids have their music back now please? asks Ryan Gilbey
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Britpop was everywhere this year, but the band responsible were absent. When they did surface to contribute a song to the charity album Help!, their effort was proclaimed the sole bad apple in a cartload of Granny Smiths. Covering "Shipbuilding" was asking for trouble. But in a year when the most any band asked for was half a cider at the Good Mixer, that was a daring request. I rather admired Suede's foolhardiness.

Loitering around while they spent one September day recording the song provided some moments of clarity. On a visceral level, it was breathtaking to watch Brett Anderson pacing around, dabbling in different harmonies and taking a flashlight to every corner of the song; I had forgotten how his voice can prick like a needle.

I was most taken by the attitude of their new guitarist, the 18-year- old Richard Oakes, who still sounds like an admirer of the band that he's part of. "I saw Suede play on 21 May 1994," he enthused, "and a year later, to the day, I was on stage with them at the Albert Hall." That could have been well-rehearsed poppycock, packaged for the nearest journalist, but Oakes kept grilling his bandmates about their old records, right down to the brass and percussion details. Being a member of Suede hadn't dampened the lust for trivia which is the indelible stamp of being a fan; there's something refreshingly ingenuous about that.

Seeing the band play made me remember how much they are owed by most of those who have surfed into the limelight this year. Blur's Damon Albarn was recently bemoaning the reign of Nirvana, and how their popularity decreed that British bands who followed in their wake were worthless. This is true. But Blur were not, as Albarn implied, the ones who cheated that curse. Suede were. Just as Suede were the first "Britpop" band to dent the charts. Don't forget that "Animal Nitrate", their brash, provocative song about gay sado-masochistic sex in a council house, violated the Top 10 two whole years before "Park Life", Blur's brash, provocative expose of people who feed pigeons in the park.

It became apparent that the concept of Britpop was not to be trusted. Just as Groucho Marx maintained that he would never join a club that would accept someone like him as a member, so you should refrain from embracing any musical genre of which Echobelly are a representative example. Blur, Oasis and Pulp were the names on the lips of every early-evening news- reader, but it was the right-place-right-timers who milked this sickly cow dry. Pulp and Oasis would sound spirited at any point in history. But without Britpop, the likes of Echobelly and Sleeper would never have been tolerated.

They were just two bands who rode piggyback on their peers. "Britpop" itself was a swizz; it implied a cosmopolitan richness, but the sound was belligerently Engpop.

It excluded artists like Tricky and Gorky's Zygotic Mynci, neither of whom worked within traditional song structures nor took London or Manchester as their home. The thrilling young Irish band Ash hustled themselves a Top 10 position, but their lo-fi countrymen Wormhole buried some equally infectious melodies in a sludge of distortion, and so forfeited their entry into the charts, as did the experimental Baby Bird, Goldie and Baader Meinhof.

Britpop fixed it for Pulp, deservedly, though I'm not convinced that any other generation would have bought into the idea of Jarvis Cocker as a sex symbol (this was a man who elevated the epileptic fit into an art-form). And Menswear became the first band to appear on Top of the Pops before they had released a single, but only the latest to perform a single that should never have been released.

The year saw countless boundaries razed. Slanging-matches spread from the music weeklies to the Six O'Clock News. Controversy was no longer the only thing that propelled pop into the suburban front room; the music itself had become newsworthy. And if Britpop had any value, it was in exposing the insularity of the indie ethic - a battle between two young, snarling bands to reach number one would have been unthinkable in the Eighties, when just having a single in the Top 40 was the equivalent of being David Geffen's bridge partner.

But Britpop's crucial failing is that it lacked the danger that Suede had brought back to pop. Blur and Oasis bridged generation gaps, something that rock 'n' roll was never supposed to do. Bringing an album home and blasting it out of the family stereo isn't half as much fun when your mum has beat you to it. When I was eight years old, I was so sick of my parents pontificating about the Beatles that I halted them, mid-eulogy, by spitting on the floor in disgust. That's the effect music should have. It should see spatulas buried into heads, and bodies driven through sideboards like battering-rams. The sign of a healthy family is a family that explodes into civil war whenever Top of the Pops is on. But you couldn't mistake "Country House" and "Roll with It" for anything but round-the-Joanna singalongs.

You really know something's dead when a TV crew arrives to take its pulse. And, sure enough, Britpop was suspended in formaldehyde by BBC2. There were the Boo Radleys and Echobelly, grinning like finalists on Stars in Their Eyes. And the magnificent PJ Harvey, looking as incongruous as Gertrude Stein on Good Morning... with Anne & Nick.

And Sleeper, whose singer Louise Wener was at the centre of a telling indictment of Britpop when her band supported REM. Wener was invited on stage by Michael Stipe during REM's set, and the masses were commanded to serenade her with "Happy Birthday". But everyone was singing "Happy birthday dear Dolores...", having mistaken Wener for the singer with REM's other support band, the Cranberries (who, equally tellingly, were voted an Indie-Type Band of the Year by Smash Hits). The central reservation between alternative and mainstream, your record collection and your parents', had been eradicated. Which is, in the end, my central reservation.

But we shouldn't lose heart. Suede will have a new album out next year, while another group of unsung heroes, the Auteurs, release a single called "Unsolved Child Murder" two days after Christmas. There may be blood spilt in Home Counties living rooms on Thursday nights once more.

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