The Last Party, by John Harris

Oi! Are you making a record with my bird?

According to a recent article accompanying the release of Live Forever, the instant nostalgia Britpop flick, deep within a branch of Notting Hill's Record and Tape Exchange, there's an Oasis room, filled to bursting with all those copies of Be Here Now which defied repeated listening.

According to a recent article accompanying the release of Live Forever, the instant nostalgia Britpop flick, deep within a branch of Notting Hill's Record and Tape Exchange, there's an Oasis room, filled to bursting with all those copies of Be Here Now which defied repeated listening.

True or not, it's a great story. For a while there Oasis were simply the biggest band the nation had ever seen. Their second album, (What's The Story) Morning Glory?, set new sales records, and there were an incredible 2.6 million ticket applications for their 1996 Knebworth shows. At the time, a friend (who coincidentally shares his name with this book's author) deadpanned: "Football is so popular now, it's nearly as big as Oasis."

From its origins on the capital's dive circuit, where Suede dragged their sorry asses around, slavishly copying Bowie when Kurt Cobain's great Nirvana were the only game in town, to, in Neil Tennant's wonderful phrase, the "imperial phase" of Oasis, Britpop remains the single time that traditional "indie" guitar rock ever managed to catch the nation's ear. Canny opposition politicians queued up to be associated with it, while record companies finally applied proven marketing techniques to previously marginal music. By 1997 it was effectively dead, as a previously exultant mood faded post-election and its main participants slipped into the druggy habits of the formerly motivated.

This depressingly catty if compellingly readable study exposes Britpop, like New Labour, as a hollow victory of surface over content. Take the astonishingly lazy Elastica. Formed by millionaire's daughter Justine Frischmann as an exercise in niche music, they actually managed the impressive feat of taking the sound of perpetual left-field favourites such as The Fall and Wire into the chart's upper reaches, adding their own feminine twist. But sadly, the effort of playing 100 shows in a year to promote a 35-minute long album drove them over the edge into heroin addiction and incipient madness. Two gigs a week? That's what rock bands do. They play shows.

Frischmann, one-time paramour of both Blur's Damon Albarn and Suede's Brett Anderson, gets off lightly, presumably as a condition of offering her time. Impressively specific on some details, she's remarkably vague on how she finally overcame junk, and Albarn. But she was certainly there and reasonably self-aware; not something you could say about the unfortunate Menswear, runts of the litter, who signed for an absurd sum at the craze's peak. Their manager compared one show to a "Bay City Rollers gig" and saw his charges as the "indie Take That" (just as Malcolm McLaren planned his unexpectedly recalcitrant Sex Pistols as serious Rollers rivals). Soon one member, Chris Gentry, started stepping out with one of Elastica. Cue drug problems and rapid dissolution.

At least they had their moment in the (land of the rising) sun, and scored four now forgotten "hit" singles. Most didn't, and it's fair to say that Britpop will never throw up any overlooked gems, unlike the fertile 1960's psychedelic scene or punk's ongoing story.

Crucially, the reader is asked to accept Harris's essentially flawed assumption that British rock follows a straight line from the 1966 Beatles/Stones/Who model to the Pistols and Jam a decade later before passing through Manchester's Smiths and Stone Roses into Britpop. Yet this path neglects other crucial influences on its two biggest bands.

Oasis were always far more Slade than the Fab Four, acknowledged with their appropriation of "C'Mon Feel the Noize"; and they never disguised the T-Rex steals behind "Cigarettes and Alcohol". Blur's Kinks borrowings were filtered through the more recent Madness and the very English Teardrop Explodes, who also managed the trick, apparently beyond Britpop, of including both middle- and working-class members. (Their keyboard player, David Balfe, signed Blur to his Food label, before selling up and moving to a house, a very big house, in the country.)

The omissions are revealing too. Britpop's only genuine social observers, Pulp, are under-served, the definitive Supergrass and the once huge Verve hardly appear, while Wales's Super Furry Animals, arguably the best British band to emerge from the era, aren't even mentioned. This is strictly the Blur and Oasis story, though sadly the juiciest rumours don't appear, such as the real reason behind the bands' mutual antipathy (Damon "shagged" Liam's bird apparently, though it now transpires everyone was "shagging" everyone else all the time).

The rest of pop culture doesn't get a look-in. Britart and the explosion of generally useless Britfilms are (merci-fully) overlooked, but more significantly dance music is entirely neglected, despite Fatboy Slim's extremely artful sample of The Who's "I Can't Explain" on his hit "Going Out Of My Head". Yet nearly all the bands involved lost their way after becoming self-conscious about their lack of modernity. Elastica's dabbling with programmed sequences proved fruitless, while "Setting Sun", Noel Gallagher's collaboration with the Chemical Brothers, remains a low point in musical and grammatical history ("How does it feel like... ").

As for the issue of exploitation, what astute politician won't want to be associated with anyone current, native and successful? Whatever your opinion of Tony Blair, if he can't fool mere pop stars like Noel Gallagher and Damon Albarn (who, tellingly, wasn't even registered to vote in 1997) then he isn't fit to run any country.

Albarn, forever rewriting his past, is probably the nearest this country has ever come to producing a Madonna equivalent, bright enough to spot and use trends to his own advantage. But such relentless ambition, at least tempered with talent, was typical. It all seems very petty at this distance. Take the reaction of Sleeper's Louise Wener, indiepop's Edwina Currie, to bad sales news: "[The early midweek chart position] was 20-something, which was totally crap for us in terms of what it meant for future record company support. I knew we were as good as done for." Luckily "everyone else started to go, so that was kind of satisfying." Whatever Britpop was about, it certainly wasn't music. (To be fair, she'd probably make a decent manager.)

Blur continue to make reasonably erudite records, which sell in reasonable numbers to a reasonably erudite audience. Oasis are now a great oldies show, while Suede keep making the same album to diminishing returns. Mr Blair starts wars, and American rock currently pisses on the local scene. Britpop's true heirs as indigenous music are The Streets and Miss Dynamite, acts who, unlike Blur, Sleeper and even Radiohead, chose their own names. For all Britpop's much-vaunted independence, its chief proponents were little more than puppets.

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