Britpop was a mid-1990’s cultural movement that celebrated all things British – fashion, art, politics (Blair’s New Labour), and music – and for about five years, 1993-97, it was the prevailing sounds of that era. Musically it was bright, catchy, alternarock which was a reaction against the darker, angstier themes of US grunge, and the UK’s dreamy pop, known as “shoegazing music” (where performers were preoccupied with operating the effects pedals on their instruments and made little eye contact with their audiences) as exemplified by such bands as My Bloody Valentine, Dinosaur Jnr; Lush, etc.
Britpop’s origins were the pop music of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s – mod rock, punk, glam, and indie rock- and the most successful groups all had mononyms, Pulp, Blur, Oasis, Suede, Verve, and Elastica. Seminal albums included Suede (Suede ’93), Parklife (Blur ’94), Definitely Maybe, and What’s the Story Morning Glory (Oasis ’94, ’95), Different Class (Pulp ’94), Urban Hymns (Verve ‘97) and Elastica (Elastica ’95), it was the soundtrack of what was dubbed “Cool Britannia”. Britpop emphasized British regional accents and locations, a laddish culture of youthful exuberance, unabashed maleness, the drugs of choice were alcohol, E’s and whiz, and there was a reverence for the Union Jack, which recalled the Mods of the 60’s, and particularly the Who. Classic Britpop albums of the 90’s L-R- Oasis -(What’s The Story) Morning Glory, Blur- Parklife, and Elastica’s eponymous debut album.
In 1995 Britpop pioneers Pulp were fronted by the charismatic Jarvis Cocker (guitar, vocals), with Russell Senior (guitar, violin), Candida Doyle (keyboards, vocals), Nick Banks (drums) and Steve Mackey (bass), who all contributed to the composition of their biggest hit song, Common People, lifted off their fifth album Different Class, which sold in excess of 2.5m copies globally.Below L-R – Doyle, Mackey, Cocker, Banks, and Senior.
In 1988 Cocker was enrolled in a film studies course at the Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design while taking a break from the band, which was struggling at the time. He met a girl there during Crossover Fortnight, when students could opt to study another discipline for a couple of weeks as a taster, he opted for sculpture and met a Greek girl, Danae Stratou who was studying painting, he was attracted to her, and they adjourned to the college bar. Cocker recalled in a BBC Radio 5 Live interview in 2012 that “Although I was attracted to her, I found some aspects of her personality unpleasant, as she had said that she wanted to move to Hackney, and live like the common people.” Cocker was aware that Stratou’s father was a successful Greek textiles businessman, whose wealth would always insulate Danae from the harsher economic and social realities of working-class life, and these biographical details were poignantly reflected in the opening lyrics “She came from Greece she had a thirst for knowledge/ She studied sculpture at Saint Martin’s College that’s where I, caught her eye/ She told me that her Dad was loaded. I said in that case I’ll have a Rum and Coca-cola/ She said fine, and in thirty seconds time she said. “I want to live like common people. I want to do whatever common people do” Below-The less-than-inspiring facade of Saint Martin’s College.
Cocker embellished the actual conversation for dramatic effect by reversing the situation so that the female character declares “I want to sleep with common people like you” when in fact it was Cocker who was making advances to the girl, which she rejected. Below – Jarvis Cocker
The lyrics were in part a response to a then-dominant theme of “social slumming”, a patronising kind of social voyeurism practiced by the children of the bourgeoisie or privileged classes of the UK. Cocker’s vocals dripped with subtle sedition, and ill-concealed contempt, for those who would mythologise about the “noble savages” of the underclasses in this way- “If you walk around a council estate, there’s plenty of savagery and not much nobility going on,” he said.
Cocker used a small Casiotone MT 500-keyboard to demo the tune, and developed the lyrics later, only fellow band member Candida Doyle saw its potential, it was a simple tune but powerful in an anthemic way. Producer Chris Thomas produced a big fully-orchestrated arrangement that progressively built impactfully from a fey synth-pop sound to something more commanding and urgent, that cleverly underscored the biting lyrics, and Cocker’s increasingly manic vocals. The iconic music video was an opportunity for Cocker to deliver a scathing putdown of the posh girl in the song, played by actress Sadie Frost. They appeared with clubbers inside East London’s Stepney Nightclub, who are expressionless and dance monotonously; also in a supermarket where she wheels him around inside a shopping trolley, and on the set of a mock village, Cocker used gestures and stylized body movements to animate the acid-tongued lyrics.
Common People climbed to #2 in the UK and was a global million seller, it became a defining track of the Britpop movement and Pulp’s signature song, and fans have consistently voted it the greatest Britpop song ever, although others have contended that musically it owes a debt to Mecano’s 1988 hit Los Amantes.
In May 2015, the Greek newspaper Athens Voice suggested that the woman who inspired the song was in fact Danae Stratou, wife of Yanis Varoufakis, a former Greek Finance Minister, Stratou was the daughter of a wealthy Greek businessman and had studied at St Martins between 1983 and 1988. Her husband confirmed that there was truth in the rumour, but Danae was modest and retiring when she replied “I think the only person who knows for whom the song was written is Jarvis himself.” Below Danae Stratou and her husband Yanis Varoufakis.
Beetlebum 1997, and No Distance Left to Run, and Tender, and So You – all songs written and recorded by D Albarn/G Coxon/A James/D Rowntree – Blur 1999
The two most prominent Britpop bands of the 90’s were Blur fronted by Damon Albarn, and Oasis by the Gallagher brothers, Noel and Liam. Initially the two bands enjoyed a friendly rivalry, but that quickly degenerated into a toxic name-calling feud, encouraged by the UK tabloids, who characterized the inter-band antipathy as some kind of a civil war between the posh/privileged/pretentious South of the country as represented by Blur, and the poor but honest, salt-of-the-earth, hard-working people of the North, as represented by the Mancunian Gallagher brothers – the tabloids just loved such stereotypes. Above – Blur L-R – Top Alex James, Dave Rowntree, Graham Coxon, Bottom- Damon Albarn
Blur were first out of the gate with several UK hits in the late 80’s, the single There’s No Other Way and the album Leisure, but it would be their third album Parklife, released in April 1994 that would really put them on the map, when it sold in excess of 2.4m copies globally, and spawned the hit singles Parklife, and Girls and Boys. Below L-R – Albarn and Frischman.
Throughout the period 1991-98 Blur front man Damon Albarn and Elastica frontwoman Justine Frischman were in a relationship, both were leading figures at the height of Britpop, he would have hit albums and singles and do battle with Oasis for UK chart supremacy. She had departed the band Suede in 1992, and with Justin Welch, formed the punky new wave Elastica, who were quickly categorized as part of Britpop. Elastica enjoyed stunning success with their eponymous debut album, which became the fastest-selling album in UK history at the time, and notched up over 1 million sales globally, half of which were in the US market, they were the most celebrated British act in America at the time, much bigger than Blur, Oasis, Pulp or Suede, and became the subject of a bidding war among US record labels. Below L-R Damon Albarn (Blur), Jarvis Cocker (Pulp), Justine Frischman (Electrica), Brett Anderson (Suede)
Both Albarn and Frischman came from comfortable middle-class families, his parents were artistic and favoured a bohemian lifestyle, he attended Goldsmiths College but was an indifferent student, and formed his first band Seymour in 1988, which subsequently became Blur. Frischman’s parents were Jewish immigrants to the UK and her father was a successful engineer, she attended the Bartlett School of Architecture at University College (London) and would form the band Suede with her then-boyfriend Brett Anderson in 1989, later leaving to form Elastica in 1992. She was a tall, tomboyishly elegant, singer/songwriter/guitarist who began to cohabit with Albarn in a Notting Hill apartment in 1991, he was 23 and she was 22. She would tour her band extensively in the USA over the coming years, and Blur would become Britpop icons. Over the eight years of their relationship the two were the subject of intense media scrutiny, they were relatively young, and extensive touring meant they were often separated, Elastica’s initial success dwarfed that of Blur, and this created further tension between the pair, both would experiment with recreational drugs, and ultimately became heroin users.
Albarn alluded to their shared use of heroin in the song Beetlebum, on Blur’s 1997 self-titled album “ And when she lets me slip away/She turns me on then all my violence is gone/Nothing is wrong/I just slip away and I am gone“ where he used a metaphorical reference to a beetle’s needle in the same way that others used the expression “ chasing the dragon”. The album also referenced darker themes and such songs as Essex Dogs, Death of a Party, and the grungy energy and punky violence of Song 2 (Woo Hoo), virtually sounded the death knell for Britpop.
By the time Blur released the album 13 in 1999, Albarn and Frischman had endured several years of heroin addiction, they were splitting up, Albarn was feeling the pain of narcotic withdrawal and emotional dislocation, he was also concerned about Frischman’s continued addiction, these feelings inspired three songs on this album.
The folksy frailty of No Distance Left To Run was a surprise #1 hit, when it was the third single lifted off the album “When you see me/Please turn your back and walk away/I don’t want to see you/Cause I know the dreams that you keep is wearing me/When you’re coming down, think of me here/I got no distance left to run.” The song is like a private letter between two former lovers, Graham Coxon (lead guitarist) used open G tuning to affect a sombre sense of despondency, that made the song seem even more voyeuristic, to the casual observer. Tender was another love letter to Frischman “Tender is the ghost/The ghost I love the most/Hiding from the sun/Waiting for the night to come/…Lord I need to find/Someone who can heal my mind,” while So You was a dirge-like indictment of an incommunicative lover, enslaved by their chemical dependencies, and another song inspired by Frischman’s continued addiction, and Albarn’s frustration “Getting off it, gently/Wait until its empty/Getting through extraction/Keeping it all inside/So you…”
Frischman has admitted that her heroin years, 1996-98 were financially and physically destructive, she went to Bali with Albarn in 1998 to try to rekindle their relationship but her continued addiction, and unwillingness to commit to having children, caused the two to part, her band Elastica would wind up in 2001.Below Justine Frischman
He would begin a relationship with artist Suzi Winstanley in 1998 and they would have a daughter Missy the following year, the two remain in a steady de facto relationship, and Albarn emerged in the late 90’s as part of an experimental session-only duo with cartoonist Jamie Hewlett known as Gorillaz, and has enjoyed global success with several albums. Frischman emerged from rehab and ultimately married climate scientist Ian Faloona, and they now reside in the USA. Below L-R – Albarn, Winstanley, and daughter Missy, and Albarn and Hewlett.
Band members above – Liam Gallagher (guitar/vocals), Paul McGuigan (bass), Noel Gallagher (guitar/vocals), Tony McCaroll (drums), and Paul Arthurs (guitar).
The Gallagher brothers Noel (1967) and Liam (1972) were the two youngest children of Irish Catholic parents Peggy and Thomas who with their eldest son Paul (1965) had settled in Manchester, becoming part of the large immigrant Irish community there. Their father was abusive towards the boys and Peggy divorced him in 1982, the brothers have remained estranged from him since, but were devoted to their mother, who ruled the family very strictly. Noel is dyslexic and neither brother learnt to read or write music, but both aspired to musical careers, only doing menial, laboring, and band roadie jobs, between infrequent performance gigs, to sustain an existence. Noel would meet dental nurse Diane McGrory in 1987 at the Pack Horse Pub, in Levensholme (Manchester), she was 18 and he was 20, and they became briefly engaged, but Diane broke off with Noel, and in a revealing interview with The Free Library in 1996, she provided some revealing insights about the so-called hard man of Oasis “He would spend most of the day smoking dope in bed at his mother’s house, and writing songs…and despite his boasts about drinking, stealing cars, and burglarising in the neighbourhood, both boys were too scared of their mother to misbehave …he was skinny and very conscious of his body, and he never really liked the Beatles, despite his claims to the contrary, and only had one of their albums, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”.
Diane was the inspiration for several songs and Noel gifted her the original drafts, including Live Forever and Look Back in Anger, which she returned to him after they split up, she also claimed that she inspired Wonderwall but this is harder to substantiate. Noel and Meg Matthews at one of Tony Blair’s New Labour drinks session.
In 1988 Noel left home and moved in with Louise Jones, with whom he lived until 1994, and the song Slide Away was inspired by her, in the same year he began a relationship with Meg Matthews and they moved into a Camden love nest. Meg was a party girl who had worked on the fringes of the entertainment industry, running a DJ-booking agency, and briefly personal assisting for 90’s pop star Betty Boo. Below L-R – Meg Matthews, Kate Moss, Fran Cutler.
She and Noel counted such celebrities as model Kate Moss, designer Stella McCartney, socialite/gossip columnist Fran Cutler, actor Ryhs Ifans, and singer Lisa Moorish, amongst their friends, and they would later relocate to Supernova Heights, in Belsize Park, and throw many legendarily raucous parties there. They would marry in Las Vegas in 1997 to the accompaniment of Beatles songs and an Elvis impersonator, in late 2000 their daughter Anais arrived, but by 2001 Noel had moved onto publicist Sara MacDonald and the two were divorced in January of that year. Below – L-R Noel, Sara, Nicole Appleton (Liam’s then-wife), and Liam 2005.
Oasis would become one of the most successful Britpop bands of their generation, but in 1994 they were still playing catchup with other bands including Suede, Blur, Elastica, and Pulp, and the early 90’s were their formative years. But with the release of the singles Supersonic, and Live Forever, and their debut album Definitely Maybe in August ’94, four months after Blur’s Parklife, they were ready to take on the world.
The album notched up global sales of 3.7m copies, Oasis were praised for their hard guitar hooks, strong dance beats and memorable choruses, and were now poised for what the tabloids described as the “Battle of Britpop”, Blur vs Oasis, North vs South, and it would play out in a blaze of publicity, media speculation, and relentless hype.
The Gallagher brothers helped to fuel the fire of controversy by delivering several expletive-laced rants towards Damon Albarn and his Blur bandmates, which included “I hope they all get AIDS and die”, (Noel Gallagher), “They’re nothing but f…. art school wankers (Liam Gallagher), Liam actually had plenty more to say, but most of it was unpublishable. In August 1995 the simultaneous release of two singles, Blur’s Country House and Oasis’ Roll With It, signalled the start of hostilities, Blur went #1 and sold 274,000 copies and Oasis stalled at #2 with 216,000 copies, giving Blur a technical victory in the battle of the bands. But it would be Oasis that ultimately won the war, when Blur’s album, The Great Escape peaked at sales of 2.4m copies, and Oasiss’ (What’s the Story) Morning Glory charged to global sales of over 17.5m after it cracked the US market, something Blur never really did, and the fourth song lifted off Morning Glory, would be a monster hit, it was Wonderwall.
At the time the song was charting Noel said that he got the inspiration for Wonderwall from his then-girlfriend Meg, “It’s about my girlfriend… because she had just lost her job and didn’t have any money and all the rest of it.” – “Backbeat the word is on the street/That the fire in your heart is out/I’m sure you’ve heard it all before/But you never really had a doubt/I don’t believe that anybody /Feels the way I do about you now/You’re my wonderwall.” Gallagher also said that it was “about an imaginary friend whose gonna save you from yourself”, which could also have been a reference to Matthews, but after their divorce he backed away from attributing the inspiration for the song to Matthews, however this change of heart coincided with property settlement negotiations between the two at the time of their estrangement. The song was originally called Wishing Stone but the final title was inspired by George Harrison’s solo album Wonderwall Music.
The song intros with acoustic guitar, cello and Liam’s solo vocals, but it was also notable for its booming sound, achieved by “brickwalling” or dynamic range compression techniques which removed the highs and lows on the soundtrack. This created a solid wall of blocks of sound, to which they added tape delays and harmoniser effects on the drum tracks, tambourine samples, and guitars doused in reverb. Wonderwall became a song that defined Britpop, it was easily the most successful song from that era with global sales in excess of 5 million, Noel would marry Sara MacDonald in 2011 and have two children, Meg Matthews would emerge from rehab in 2006 and establish a design company. Below – Spice Girls
Ultimately Britpop would prove to be more of a cultural chimera than a profound new musical genre, before the decade was over it would be superseded by a wave of teen pop – Spice Girls, Westlife, Boyzone, Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and the algorithmic slickness of Sweden’s Cheiron music factory. There would however be echoes of Britpop in the music of Travis, Snow Patrol, and Coldplay in the new millennium, but Blur were a spent force by 2001 and Oasis and the Gallagher brothers would implode in 2009 after many fractious years and public brawls.