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Sunday, November 27, 2005
Sunday Morning Playlist: A Britpop Primer for Yanks 1990-2005
Disclaimer: uao is an American.
And then there's the British. Where would we be without the British?
The short story of British rock, as seen from America:
1950's: Nobody ever heard of 'em.
1960's: The British Invasion. One minute our backs were turned, and the next, we were overrun. Beatles. Stones. Kinks. Pink Floyd. The Who. Deep Purple. The Hollies. The Animals. The Moody Blues. Donovan. Cream. The list goes on and on. American rock barely registered a heartbeat in 1963; then the British arrived. They saved it; they dominated it. In the process, they redefined rock in its current modern sense; we all know the story of the 60's.
1970's: The blind American Anglophilia era ended. Perhaps it was due to a certain foppishness in the British, which translates into big hits there, but not here. The dandified Mods never hit big in the US in the 60's, nor did the genderbending, makeup-wearing glam rock scene in the 70's, beyond a few hits. Queen, while big in the US, was much bigger in the UK. Ditto T-Rex, Gary Glitter, even David Bowie. The most successful British acts of the 1970's in the US were the titans like Led Zeppelin, Yes, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, Genesis; progressive rock/metal holdovers from the late 60's.
1977: Punk. Here is where the US and UK really began to split. U.K. punk's political concerns and agenda were irrelevant to U.S. punk's political concerns and agenda for the most part, and vice versa. While many Americans loved the Sex Pistols and the Clash, neither band had the kind of sales they had in the U.K. Seminal long-term U.K. punk acts like the Damned, the Stranglers, Wire, and The Fall, are barely known in the US.
1980's: New Wave & MTV. Musically hip Americans continued to support many British post-punk and power-pop bands, but England's commercial muscle on the US charts had waned considerably; within the mainstream rock universe, it began to disappear completely. As synth-pop, techno-pop, and more foppishness in the form of Culture Club, Spandau Ballet, Duran Duran and the like quickly came to dominate MTV, they very rapidly rendered older, less-photogenic acts obsolete. However, the US fans for these new British groups tended not to be rock fans; they were pop fans, clubgoers, or MTV viewers. The US roots rock movement, which was a true renaissance in every sense of the word even as it was ignored by MTV for years, preoccupied American rock fans throughout the 80's; while bands like the Smiths had fans in the US, and specialists always kept tabs on England's newest, the UK and US rock music scenes became quite different and independant of each other.
The 90's: Madchester/Shoegaze/Trip-Hop/Britpop. So, by the time the 90's started, Americans had largely lost interest in England. The homegrown grunge explosion and subsequent alt-rock phenonenon were almost entirely American in America. Plenty of British hits were played and found audiences, but for the most part, Americans were largely unaware of British trends. So many were unaware of Madchester, the organic, crucial development in rock that restored it as dance music without making it any less rock. Shoegaze was similarly missed; it provided the crucial concepts of layered guitar, managed noise, and bent song structure into rock; it redefined dream-pop and helped establish space rock; many Britpop bands began life as shoegaze. Trip-Hop, an electronica hybrid of hip-hop, psychedelia, soul, and funk is considered very much the cousin to rock in the U.K., where it sold in huge quantity; in America, it was barely a radar blip through most of the 90's except in clubs; few rock listeners have ever really given it a listen.
Britpop: It's a pity so many Americans were so tuned out, because the 1990's were a special renaissance for Britpop bands; the spiritual heirs to the original British Invasion. They play guitar-driven British Invasion-style verse-chorus-verse rock songs, like the truest rock of all, they have character, they provide sonic thrills, most of them aren't foppish. They aren't retro; they freely borrow from the shoegaze, trip-hop, and Madchester palettes, which were often absent in American alternative rock's DNA. The best known Britpop bands in the U.S., like Oasis, The Verve, and Charlatans UK aren't usually known in the US for their best songs; leaving those who do check them out wondering what the fuss was all about. However, in the 00's, Britpop, once again, is one of rock's last hopes; as rock as a genre has fallen below a quarter of CD sales in the US, current Britpop bands like Radiohead, and the Doves continue to provide forward-looking rock midway into the 00's. Will they keep the flame alive during the second half of the 00's? Hope so.
The scope of this overview is roughly from 1990-2005.
Some important/influential Britpop artists/songs:
1. Oasis: D'You Know What I Mean?
Oasis is one of those bands that are extremely loved and extremely hated, and nothing I say here is gonna change anyone's mind. I will say that at their peak, they were capable of dynamite, although much of their best work is hidden on B-sides and EP's. A lot of the anti-Oasis camp seems personal; the Gallagher brothers have longstanding reputations as being pricks, and they even seem to loathe each other at times. Which is fine by me, I love snotty attitudes and in-fighting, it makes the music more alive. Musically, what more can you ask for in a rock group? "D'You Know What I Mean?", from Be Here Now, released in 1997, is a personal favorite. Liam Gallagher's vocals, which have often been compared to Lennon's, out-snot Lennon by a mile; the guitars build into a dense mountain of sound, the beat has a sway and a swagger to it, the lyrics are anthemic. One of the best slabs of heavy rock of the 1990's, grunge included. "Acquiesce" is another great one, as is "Champagne Supernova"; while their newer stuff may not measure up, Oasis is OK by me.
2. The Verve: Lucky Man
This is a grandiose and gorgeous piece of shimmering guitar based rock, full of deliciously icy guitar textures from Nick McCabe atop a bed of rhythm guitar, while Richard Ashcroft delivers an ambiguous lyric with presence and attitude; the instrumental, vocals, and strings crescendo towards the end is a particularly breathtakingly beautiful one that ultimately dissolves, leaving Ashcroft's vocal alone among swirling textures that regroup for one last crescendo. It's the kind of song that keeps on ringing in your ears all day after you've heard it. All of Urban Hymns, from 1997, is like this; the familiar hit "Bittersweet Symphony" is on it, as well as the hypno-propulsive druggy guitarfest closer, "Come On", which also effectively closed their career; Ashcroft and McCabe, who were always at each other's throats, broke up for good. Ashcroft's solo career is pretty good but he needs a better guitarist. Where are you, Nick McCabe?
3. The Stone Roses: She Bangs The Drums
Along with Happy Mondays, Charlatans UK, and Inspiral Carpets; Stone Roses were principal architects of the Madchester sound of 1989-1991, which vied with shoegaze as the dominant genre of British rock at the turn of the 90's. "She Bangs The Drums" sounds like The Hollies, with its gentle harmonies; however the guitars are a good deal harder; in a propulsive psychedelic late 60's fashion. While the Stone Roses and Madchester in general marked a return of rock to the dance clubs; as beats were modified while leaving the guitars and vocals essentially untouched, not all of their work is really danceable; this fits much more closely in the category of jangle pop, with a folk-rock lilt to the British Invasion core. "I Wanna Be Adored" is their best known number from their massive selling 1989 debut, but 'She Bangs The Drums", the second cut, is a great one too. The Stone Roses essentially marks the starting point for the modern Britpop era. They disbanded in 1996, after releasing only two albums.
4. Doves: Caught By The River
Can the Doves be rock's great hope? They might be; few bands have been able to come up with such satisfying, multi-dimensional guitar-based melodic rock songs in the 00's as Doves. "Caught By The River" boasts a very lovely melody, ringing acoustic guitars, a sensitive vocal that never once sounds "emo", sighing male/female backing vocals, a swirling, texture-rich lead guitar, and a nice swing to the beat. It recalls the Verve at their best, and is both sonically pleasing, and lyrically solid. Its somewhat depressing air is in good neo-psychedelic Britpop tradition, and the guitar crescendo during the break should satisfy anyone who likes crunchy Britpop guitar. From the 2002 album, The Last Broadcast.
5. Charlatans UK: The Only One I Know
Like the Stone Roses, The Charlatans UK were a Madchester band. However, they never accumulated nearly the hype the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays did at the time; they were sometimes looked upon as second tier artists. "The Only One I Know", from 1991, opens with what sounds like a 70's prog-rock organ riff that recalls the riff from Deep Purple's "Hush" and belies the spurious claim that the Charlatans UK were somehow the lessers of their peers; the psychedelia vibe on top of a danceable rock that steals from the Stones, funk, and prog-rock while adding an echoey jangle pop guitar and vocal, it's an instant classic that should have 60's rock fans somersaulting. Sadly, the Hammond organ player responsible for this unlikely sound, Rob Collins, was killed in a 1996 car crash. The rest of the band carries on without him, releasing their most recent album Up at the Lake in 2004.
6. James: Laid
James pretty much is only known for "Laid" in the States, making it tempting to vouch for another song in its place. However, "Laid" is such a simple little piece of perfection, it has to be included. An almost ridiculously simple acoustic based little folk-pop tune, accompanied only by muted organ, snare-heavy drums, and a bass somewhere down there, it has a disarming familiarity; the first time I heard it, I swore it was a cover of a Donovan song, or something. The casual but honest vocals steal the show, especially when they get to yodeling the verses. The usual suspect foppishness does make an appearence in the somewhat cutesy gender-bending references, but who cares? It was one of the most infectious pieces of pop in the 1990's.
7. Coldplay: Yellow
Here's another band people love to hate, despite its obvious assets, which include a re-amalgamation of influences borrowed from the Stone Roses, My Bloody Valentine, and even Neil Young and Bob Dylan. As songwriters, they've always been solid and fairly adventurous; as a latterday Britpop band, they carry the torch well. "Yellow" was their big American breakthough in 2001; it comes from the 2000 debut album Parachutes. Their ambitions may be lesser than competitors like Oasis and Radiohead; they seem neither determined to take over the world, nor recontextualize it. "Yellow" is charming in its elegiac tunefulness, its admirably upfront guitars, which have a discordant edge even as they make tuneful; Chris Martin's vocals might be a little on the Dave Matthews/John Mayer soft and sentimental side, but they are touching; "Yellow" was one of the most distinctive radio hits of 2001.
8. Catherine Wheel: Sparks Are Gonna Fly
I do blame the British for killing Catherine Wheel to some degree (since most Americans were unaware of them during the 90's). They emerged out of the shoegaze movement in 1992 with "Black Metallic", a glorious celebration of noise and texture that is compared to "Like A Hurricane" for the central nervous system pleasures it consistently delivers. The band hated the 'shoegaze' tag, and went out of their way to lose it, evolving through a variety of sounds and styles, and touring relentlessly. Over the years their sound went from gentle and precious sadcore to aggressive, sinister art-hard-rock unseen since the days of Blue Oyster Cult. Wishville, released in 2000, was almost universally panned; it was derided as a "heavy metal" move, while some fans were also angered by the sacking of bassist Dave Hawes prior to the sessions. Nontheless, "Sparks Are Gonna Fly" is brutally propulsive hard rock, with art-pop/psycho outsider lyrics about a drifter character undergoing some kind of satori involving delusions of grandeur. The song takes off like a rocketship and turns on its boosters, sparks really do fly; this is great. Best rock single of 2000, in my book. Another great song from the album is the intense "Gasoline". They went on haitus after the disappointing reception to Wishville and its weak sales, and have produced nothing collectively since.
9. Manic Street Preachers: A Design For Life
In 1995, Manic Street Preachers frontman, Richey James, suffering from alcoholism and mental instability, vanished off the face of the earth; left behind were his passport and credit cards in his Cardiff apartment, while his car turned up near a bridge known for suicides in Bristol. His body has never been recovered; nobody really knows what happened to him during his last few hours of life. Obviously, this came as quite a blow to Manic Street Preachers, who had burst onto the scene with Generation Terrorists in 1992, which established them as top-40 stars in England. Once it became clear that James was gone for good, the Manic Street Preachers went about trying to salvage their career without him. Everything Must Go, from 1996, was their first album without him; Nicky Wire became the de-facto leader. The album is comprised of half Wire songs and half James songs; "A Design for Life" was one of their first post-James numbers. It is a wistful song that rests on a forwardly propulsive bass and guitar framework; the chorus is fat and rich with a lot of guitar crunch, while the bittersweet undertow gives the song its tension. Despite some synthesized strings, this could almost qualify as power-pop. The album established them as worldwide stars everywhere except the US, where a 1997 tour openeing for Oasis was cancelled due to infighting within Oasis. They're still out there, though; their most recent release Lifeblood, appeared in 2004.
10. The Boo Radleys: Wake Up Boo!
This opens with sweet Beach Boys style harmonies chanting "Wake up, it's a beautiful morning", before a brassy synth kicks in, and the song is transformed into an uptempo harmonic pop song. The vocals recall Paul McCartney, the guitars jangle, and the synth horns don't dominate; there's a harder guitar on the crescendo leading to the bridge, which almost sounds like an entirely different song, before returning for the last verse. Overall, the song is a tight, complex little pop gem that's in the best tradition of British pop/rock. The Boo Radleys were a shoegaze band from Liverpool, but never really hit big during the shoegaze era; it wasn't until 1993, when they released Giant Steps (a title audaciously borrowed from John Coltrane) that saw them gain the sales and critical support many of their peers received. The Boo Radleys broke up in 1998.
11. Blur: Parklife
Blur's biggest hit in the US was the gender-bent dance-pop hit "Girls and Boys", which featured a slick, electronic production job that really isn't representative of the band's sound, which was much more in the swirling/crunching guitars tradition of their rivals Oasis and the post-shoegaze Britpop bands. That hit was taken from the 1994 album Parklife, which also yielded the title single which better represents the band. "Parklife" begins with smashing glass and the sound of brawling over a jaunty guitar-and-bass rocker with 60's style harmonies; much of it sounds like an updating of the Small Faces sonically; lyrically it recalls the Kinks' surreal 60's character sketches. Parklife's major success in England helped open the door for many similar-sounding Britpop acts; Oasis became their chief rivals and ultimately won. Also on the heels of Parklife came rapid success by The Boo Radleys, Supergrass, Echobelly, and Gene.
12. Radiohead: Karma Police
Radiohead experienced a different kind of breakthrough than the others here, insofar as they actually had their first real taste of success in America before they did in England. Pablo Honey succeeded in 1993 largely due to heavy touring from Radiohead in support of Tears for Fears and Belly. A re-release of "Creep" in the UK secured it hit status in 1993, after it had become a radio favorite in the US. Radiohead has remained a very restless band ever since; The Bends, a better album than the debut, didn't sell as well, and the band has embarked on a journey of re-invention ever since. OK Computer, from 1997 and Kid A, from 2000, marked something of a highpoint, even as they were very controversial releases among their hardcore fans. "Karma Police" is one of the most accessable songs from the former, and it is a stately number, with a White Album vibe, noticeable in its dirge-like piano. The lyrics are a nerd's revenge anthem, and are given a suitable wavery vocal by Thom Yorke. Radiohead remains one of rock's most interesting bands, as evidenced by the excellent Hail to the Thief in 2004.
13. Elastica: Connection
This opens with a straight-from-techno dancefloor synth riff, before a crunching guitar bursts into play; guitarist/singer Justine Frischmann sings like a cross between Debbie Harry and Chrissie Hynde; the band's instrumentation is trashy punk/glam with a danceable beat; they're much more of an updated late 70's British power-pop/new-wave band than updated Kinks/Small Faces/Beatles. Frischmann had originally founded Suede with boyfriend Brett Anderson, but she departed in 1991 when that relationship went sour and formed Elastica. She later hooked up romatically with Damon Albarn of Blur, which got Elastica some added publicity; "Connection" was a big hit in 1994. Their debut album got them sued by both Wire and The Stranglers for plagiarism in 1995, but both cases were settled out of court. Wire's objection was that "Connection" stole its prominant keyboard riff from "Three Girl Rhumba." That debut album, Elastica, made its debut at #1 in England, breaking Oasis' 7-month-old record for fastest breakout in rock history. The band was never destined for stability; the lineup started to crumble almost immediately afterward, and by 2000 they were finished, having recorded only one more album.
14. Supergrass: Alright
Supergrass were a precocious bunch of teenagers who came up with a remarkably assured debut while two of them were still under twenty; the trio of guitarist/vocalist Gaz Coombes, bassist Mickey Quinn, and drummer Danny Goffey come up with what seems like an unassuming pop rocker along the lines of Elton John meets David Bowie meets The Jam; after a few giddy pop verses, the band launches into a particularly good guitar rave-up in the middle that recalls harder influences like the Small Faces and even the Rolling Stones. "Caught by the Fuzz", their 1994 debut single, earned them the praise of Blur and Elastica; I Should Coco, their debut album, went top-10 upon release in 1995. "Cheapskate" was their biggest hit in the US, in 1997; the band continues to release well regarded albums to this day; Road to Rouen appeared in 2005.
15. Suede: The Drowners
"The Drowners" opens with a great, twisted glam-rock guitar and settles into a downer of a melody, woozy and slimy. The guitars chime and grind, while singer Brett Anderson does a great Bowie/T-Rex xtyle vocal. Glammier and trashier sounding than many of their contemporaries, Suede benefited from the partucularly solid mix of Anderson's vocals and Bernard Butler's very vocal guitar. The song was a big surprise smash, and the music press glommed onto Suede, promoting them as the next big thing. Their 1993 album Suede became the fastest selling debut ever (a record Oasis would eclipse in 1994, and Elastica would beat in 1995). Having conquered the UK, they were foiled by bad luck trying to break through in the US. Butler's father died, resulting in the cancellation of a tour; when they finally did tour, they were upstaged by opening act The Cranberries. An insult came when they had to change their name to London Suede because of a lawsuit from an obscure lounge singer using the name. Their last album appeared in 2000.
16. The Auteurs: Show Girl
The Auteurs and Suede tended to add some glam-rock into the British Invasion cues they and other Britpop bands relied on. "Show Girl" does display a T-Rex style vocal and some flashy guitar crunch, as well as a trashy lyric; however its biggest charm is its rolling, hummable chorus over a roil of echoed guitars, which echo the White Album-era George Harrison and the Small Faces; the often invoked Kinks comparison applies to the Auteurs as well. Two long, languid, fuzzy, psychedelic but melodic guitar solos give the song a good framework, too. "Show Girl" is from the Auteurs' 1993 debut, New Wave. For whatever reasons, the British press never took to them with the fervor they did to most of the others; the band forged ahead with four albums, but disbanded in 1999.
17. Ocean Colour Scene: The Riverboat Song
"The Riverboat Song" opens like a long lost Traffic or Dave Mason song; it has a great bluesy guitar that recalls the psychedelic British jam-bands of the late 60's and early 70's. Singer Simon Fowler sounds like Eric Burdon crossed with Van Morrison. As such, it is set apart from the others on this list for its more free-form soundling lead, which wails, and the blues progressions, which are largely absent on the others. However they also owe much to the Stone Roses; the members met at a Stone Roses concert, and adapt elements of their sound as well. "The Riverboat Song", released in 1996, was actually considered a comeback single of sorts for the band; thier debut had been in 1990, and they first gained recognition in 1991; Paul Weller hired them to back him in 1993 following an ugly dispute with their record company. In 1994, Noel Gallagher of Oasis began championing them; the 1996 album Moseley Shoals, turned out to be the biggest ever. Their most recent studio album, A Hyperactive Workout for the Flying Squad appeared in 2005.
18. Spiritualized: Come Together
"Stunning" is a word that shouldn't be thrown around too much; it loses all meaning after a while. But "stunning" is what "Come Together" is, perhaps the best realization ever of Spiritualized's hardcore space rock wall-of-sound propulsive pseudo-gospel druggy epic head rockers, for which Spiritualized are renowned. Their third album Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space, is their most realized offering, with not a bad cut on it, but "Come Together" outshines them all. It pulsates with intensity, with an ascending, anthemlike vocal from Jason Pierce as a heavy gospel chorus chants, organs swirl in the background and forefront, horns sway and swing, the bass bounces and bobs towards hyperspace, and the guitars are full of grit and psychedelic verve. Plus, there's the Spector-esque wall of sound flourishes. A tremendous sonic tour-de-force. Spritualized was formed in 1991 when space rock architects Spacemen 3 split into two; Pierce forming Spiritualized, and Sonic Boom forming Spectrum.
19. Ash: Girl From Mars
Ash actually formed in Ireland, in 1989 (as Vietnam), but deserve a slot among the Britpop bands of the era. A punk-pop trio, their music had a noisier edge to it, in the manner of My Bloody Valentine and shoegaze, although its music was generally perky and punky, and didn't wallow in modalities or musique concrete. "Girl From Mars" is a fuzzy power-pop number from the album 1977, released in 1996. It has some glam elements and some grunge elements as well, but what's really striking is its economical tunefulness, which carries the song. The members were still in their teens during the band's first releases; their later releases saw a broadening and thickening of their sound; Butch Vig produced their 1998 release, Nu-Clear Sounds.
20. Pulp: Common People
Pulp are an oddball entry to this list. They are much older than anyone on it; their debut dates all the way back to the synth-pop days of 1983 (in fact, Jarvis Cocker formed Pulp in 1978, at the age of 15). They never really found an audience, but sold just enough to keep on plugging away. Their career took off after an unexpected boost when NME praised their single "My Legendary Girlfriend", in 1991. "Common People" was from the 1995 release Different Class, their first album after His 'n' Hers turned them into bona-fide superstars in 1994, and Cocker into a sex symbol. It is an ornate rocker with a lot of electronica trappings, but also a very organic guitar and a great Cocker vocal with very wryly delivered lyrics that raise class issues. Their most recent album, We Love Life, is from 2001.
Sunday Morning Playlist is a weekly feature.
Listen to The Verve: Lucky Man (1997)