Saturday, 26 April 2014

MUSIC NOSTALGIA: THE LIBERTINES, BRITPOP AND MOVING ON...

It might have been a while since I bothered updating my blog but the recent swath of Britpop nostalgia - which has culminated in reformations of bands that I never, ever imagined wanting to hear again (including Menswe@r and Republica), and seems to have swept into even a Libertines gig this summer, has had me mulling over my own take on the whole phenomenon.

You see, Britpop was the first music I ever got into. I didn't know who The Smiths or The Stone Roses were. Sorry. I was too young. But at high school I did learn a little about Suede and, later, Blur and Pulp - and by the time I was at university (my first year spent on a drama course I ultimately disbanded in Cardiff) the whole 'genre' was in full swing. I didn't really know what I liked or disliked yet - my CD collection comprised of some Kinks and T-Rex (ironically) and a few soundtracks - but I ultimately gravitated towards Pulp and Suede. Regardless, some of the stuff I remember being on TV/ radio the most (unless my imagination is playing tricks on me) are the ones that got away - Slight Return by the Bluetones, Stars by Dubstar and Oh Yeah by Ash. Each gives me an unavoidable rush of the past: including my old white radio alarm clock, virginity, VHS tapes and the smell of my student dorm.

I even recall the unsuccessful would-be comeback by Menswe@r getting ridiculous amounts of radio and TV play. That one got stuck in my head as I wandered around my local shopping centre (Glenrothes) - aimlessly - in 1996 hoping that life would take me somewhere more interesting.


Most of the recent articles speak, inevitably, about Blur and Oasis but those lads always appeared to be in a different league from the other bands. At the time, as something of a novice to the charts, they were akin to U2 or another similarly sized stadium act. They were superstars - but both bands sounded so completely dissimilar to one another that I never grabbed the comparison in the first place. Oasis sort of did a 'chug-rock' that was laddish but glaringly anthemic - at least insofar as it allowed closing time at the pub to warrant a singalong of daft, nonsensical lyrics. The saddest thing is that Oasis never had to be like this because their B-sides were frequently excellent: from the Smiths-style balladry of Listen Up to the delicacy of Talk Tonight and The Masterplan and the punk thrash of Headshrinker. Given that, since Be Here Now, it has been more and more accepted (outwith their beer bellied fan base) that Oasis were never much cop anyway - and we were all just a bit too delusional at the time to realise it - those early flipsides indicate a group that might have been better served with less popularity, less NME covers and less drugs. 

Certainly, neither Oasis or Blur appealed to me as much as Pulp or Suede. This is Hardcore, by the former band, is one of the greatest records of all time - although it indicated commercial suicide for Jarvis and company. Meanwhile Suede, who lost a lot of their verve when guitarist Bernard Butler left, hit a peak with 1994's Dog Man Star. Still my favourite LP to date, Dog Man Star remains an amazing, tragically romantic and yet subtly angry, journey across dank and dingy Major-era Britain. So much so that in 2011 I went to London to watch them play both that, and their debut album, in their entirety. It is doubtful that anyone listening to either LP could make a sonic association between Suede and the 'alright guv'nor' cheer of Parklife by Blur or the sunshine and booze singalongs of Dodgy (who were irredeemable). 

Pulp and Suede have lasted as the critic's choice, I suspect, because they worked against the grain and straddled the sort of artistic heights that some passing of years - and the separation of the various different Britpop bands - makes more and more apparent. Sometime in the future, one suspects, Elastica might also be rediscovered by a larger audience. Again, though, their Wire-inspired act sounded as removed from Blur as Oasis did from - say - Menswe@r. If it wasn't apparent at the time, it should really be stressed now: Britpop was nothing more than a label to grab various English (and it was predominantly English) guitar bands together. Some were good, some were great and some were not. And no amount of nostalgia can alter that.



I was in Fife when Britpop began to hit and - as mentioned - I was studying drama in Cardiff when it really took off. The Super Furry Animals even played my local student union at around the time of Something 4 the Weekend. The local night clubs actually didn't play a lot of 'Britpop' music - it was really just on 'indie night' that you would find yourself dancing to Sleeper or Echobelly. History seems to have indicated that everyone was into this stuff but that wasn't entirely true. In 1996 my dorm-mates were just as likely to be into The Smashing Pumpkins or Metallica as they were to have a Louise Wener poster on their wall.

And it wasn't until well after-the-fact that I came across the comparative nihilism of Gene and found them to be one of the best bands of the period. Did they even get much radio play? Not if I remember...

I never thought about patriotism or nationalism or the 'flag' - I was too young to honestly give it a second thought. My mind was fixated on trying not to show my inability to handle large quantities of booze and plucking up the nerve to speak to girls. Given that Britpop was all about this, I think its resonance across all of the British isles - and in some cases abroad, even in America - was down to these themes: crap sex, unrequited love, drinking and, erm, more drinking, outsiderdom, breaking up and general teenage insecurity. Like it or lump it, these are songs of everyone's youth - and it was probably because we were the generation of four consecutive tory governments that Britpop was, generally, full of bleak and beaten lyrics about failure and even impotence.

Even Oasis, despite expressing words of largely nonsensical gibberish, couldn't resist closing their most famous album with a tune of such melancholy that you wonder if even they knew that Blair's Britain wasn't going to be much better ...

You and I, we live and die, the world's still spinning around, we don't know why...

That's deep Noel.

Looking back at Noel Gallagher and his Union Jack guitar - and later the pro-Thatcher soundbites of The Spice Girls - I can feel a shudder of disgust, but Britpop probably succeeded more because if anything united these bands which sounded little alike it was the Morrissey recipe of simply singing songs about yourself and your whereabouts. The biggest success of the movement was probably that those of us who happened to enjoy some of the bands - in my case I liked Sleeper more than Shed Seven and Echobelly more than Powder - cast our net wider. I discovered The Smiths, Joy Division, The Stone Roses, Roxy Music and numerous glam, punk and Madchester groups thanks to that era. In the Britpop years my CD collection multiplied at a crazy rate.


So why this article about Britpop nostalgia?

Well, more because - now living in Edinburgh (and Scotland never had any sort of look-in during that time, unless you count The Supernaturals or the emergence of Belle and Sebastian - who the music press didn't know what to do with) - I don't feel some of these bands ever left me. But, in the same breath, I cannot associate with a popular press that refuses to move forward. As some of my generation has gone on to become journalists there has been a real "I was there" approach to the recent Britpop revival. It happens to all generations: those who first saw The Sex Pistols, The Smiths and so on and so on.

But all Britpop really led to was a fiercely conservative music mentality. Oasis were the big hitters and that is what the record labels wanted more of: radio friendly dirge with a large chorus and lyrics that were neither here nor there. This article celebrates Britpop as being the reason we got The Arctic Monkeys, Coldplay, The Kaiser Chiefs and The Stereophonics as if that is actually a good thing.

In reality, and coming full circle, the one band that seemed to capture some of the excitement of the first time we all heard Animal Nitrate or Common People was, to me, The Libertines. I still recall hearing Up the Bracket for the first time and really embracing the vibrancy of it. I was working a nine to five temp. contract at my local civil service at the time, and in a relationship with someone who was a bit of a walking personality clash with me (she loved Coldplay - which should have been my first warning). The White Stripes had been my preferred 'new' band but The Libertines provided - as Britpop had - a different sort of escape: their songs may have been set in London but there was a thread of social division, urban displacement and general resentment in their work that resonated. Even with me in little old Kirkcaldy. It sounded exciting and it should have been - but, as we all know, a largely awful second album, The Babyshambles, The Dirty Pretty Things and Kate Moss put paid to most of that early promise. Indeed, a Libertines reunion also makes me wearisome because it is Pete Doherty's quite vulnerable solo stuff that has really fulfilled that initial explosion of talent.


But make no mistake: The Libertines reformation undoubtedly has something to do with the current nostalgia towards the music of Britain's past. However, having seen the band twice during their heyday, I wouldn't personally go near their Hyde Park concert. I admit there is some contradiction there, being I saw Suede in 2011 (although revisiting my student days of 1996 is infinitely more appealing to me than revisiting 2003) but in the nineties I promised myself I'd never become like the older people I seemed to know or meet (including a couple of punk rockers who acted and dressed as if 1977 never ended).

Additionally, at the time I was getting my foot in the door of freelance film journalism. Mostly it was fantastic - but I did get some kicks in the arse from those who felt I was too young or too naive about their various 'scenes'.

Growing up in a small satellite town I didn't give any of that a second thought: I knew what I liked and what I didn't. I had films and songs that meant something to me but I tried not to hang onto them. To me, grasping onto the past was never something I cared about - I wanted to move forward. I hoped that the many movies and music that hadn't been made yet would provide me with my biggest thrill. I didn't want to think that the best had come and gone. I never understood why anybody did. 

What was there to look forward to if everything great had already been done? If every scene that was important had already concluded? If new friendships didn't replace old ones?

I try and keep that in mind because I sure as hell don't think anybody would want to have somebody in their thirties talking about how music never evolved past Dog Man Star. I definitely don't want to be that person which is why the Britpop nostalgia was a little painful for me and inspired me to write this: it did bring back memories but I also sensed a lot of "oh if only it was still the nineties" nostalgia in the articles.

But is music now really so bad? 

And was it honestly so good back then? 

I would say no. 

Followers on my Twitter will know about my enthusiasm towards the joys of K-pop - a scene which has as much diversity and intrigue (to me) as Britpop did back in the nineties (and Crooked by G-Dragon is, in its own strange way, as skillful at blending furious pub-punk with indie rock - albeit with its own hip hop flavouring - as The Libertines were with Time for Heroes). British indie is still capable of producing bands as loveable as Veronica Falls and the indigenous accents and plink-a-dink-choruses never went away, really. You might have to look a little harder for them but they are still there (and the latter link leads to a Britpop-sounding American band!). And can anyone honestly say they would rather have Cast or Ocean Colour Scene than Bat for Lashes or Goldfrapp?

It might be unfortunate that lack of interest killed some of the better post-Britpop bands (The Long Blondes The Hot Puppies and We Start Fires) but they still exist on youtube - and hopefully one or two of you might have clicked on these links. Meanwhile, that pre-Britpop shoegazing sound of such bands as The Jesus and Mary Chain has provided us with ace Danish group The Raveonettes and New York's The Pains of Being Pure at Heart.


These are bands who will, probably, never fill stadiums like Oasis did but that's what blogs are for, right? I found out about some of my favourite bands, in university, from my flatmates. Now I tend to discover new bands from random youtube videos posted on social media (often with enthusiastic babble like "this is the most amazing song you'll ever hear") or from friends.

In the Britpop days the best of the bands aimed to take on the establishment. Thus, the fact so many of those who grew up listening to them now seem happy to look back on that era as the best it ever got is - in its own way - treacherous to the entire ethos of that 'halcyon' indie era. Staying in the past is, ultimately, only kinda pathetic.

Which is maybe why - in 1996 - that poster of Jarvis Cocker flicking the v's - which hung on many student bedroom walls (including mine) - was more prophetic than we probably comprehended...