Britpop wasn’t just about pop.
Britpop wasn’t xenophobic.
Britpop wasn’t nationalistic…well, not in that way.
Britpop was outwardly inward looking.
Britpop was about the village green and spiders from mars, it was about the black and white of two-tone, it was about the technicolour of swinging sixties Carnaby Street, it was about outsiders winning over the insiders, it was inclusive and exclusive.
Britpop was a marriage.
Music. Clothes. Fashion. Style. Literature. Film. Football.
An often beautiful sport followed by often ugly people.
Football is a tricky thing to discuss in relation to subcultures and movements like Britpop because it is intrinsically linked in the British psyche to the casual and football firms of the 1980’s. Images of Lacoste and Tacchini clad boys with wedge haircuts and Forest Hill trainers running amok in various Northern towns, European cities and abandoned car parks in the East End of London…all up for a ruck, all ready to rumble, all keen for a bit of the old ultraviolence all loom large in the mind of anyone who was there and, thanks to a glut of films, television shows and articles, people who were not there.
Boys will be boys.
The problem is when men will be boys…trapped in a perpetual state of perceived grievances, territorial mindsets and dull brutalism.
Like most things football hooliganism is a statistically irrelevant number of people capturing all of the headlines and, sadly, causing untold misery for the far more statistically relevant numbers of people who attend games without feeling the need to give someone in a different coloured shirt a beating.
Unlike Britpop very many of the casuals were inward looking exclusively, nationalistic (very much in that way), xenophobic and proudly vulgar.
As a young Hearts supporter I can remember the feeling of deep shame that filled me as fellow supporters showered Mark Walters of Rangers with bananas and taunted him with monkey noises for much of the game in one of his first appearances for Rangers in 1987. It was the first time I was aware of the fact that a football stadium could be a deeply unpleasant place. It certainly wouldn’t be the last time…not just at Tynecastle (the home of Hearts) but across Scotland and in different ways. Racism, violence, intimidation, sexism…all of the very worst aspects of human behaviour seemed to be given free reign within the confines of these stadia. Despite that the fact that the majority of fans were, just like me, more interested (only interested) in the game itself and that the game was, albeit rarely and fleetingly, thrilling has maintained by interest and attendance.
Football looms large in the Britpop story but not, as certain journalists from certain one august journals claim, because of the nastier and more brutish aspects I have just described but, instead, because of a combination of the weather, Terry Venables, genuine working class football obsession and genuine middle-class football affectation.
Euro 96 arrived at the height of Britpop and, in so very many ways, captured so much of the spirit of the movement. The England squad in particular were Britpop in football form. David Seaman in goals was the gruff Northern soul of the squad…hailing from Rotherham, not too far from Sheffield where both Pulp and The Longpigs were born he was the rock upon which England’s success in the tournament was built on. Captain Tony Adams was a Romford boy who transformed himself from blood and thunder English centre-half into a ball playing European style libero defender…he’s the blur of the squad, capable of transformations that are surprising and significant. Alan Shearer is one of the most reliable and productive centre forwards in modern football history, everything he touched turned to goals. He was capable of dragging teams from defeat to victory. Shearer is the Oasis of the squad…supremely confident in his own abilities and guaranteed to provide you with at least one moment of magic every time you looked. Paul Gascoigne was enjoying a fabulous season in Scotland with Rangers, scoring goals, winning matches on his own, rarely breaking sweat, entertaining his own supporters and everyone else at the same time. In this England squad he highlighted, once again, quite how unique a talent he was…his goal against Scotland could only have been scored by him, it was laced through with magic, arrogance, mercurial genius and cheek…and I say that as a Scotsman. In Britpop terms he is…your favourite band, he was all things to all people at this point so take your pick.
England produced one of their finest ever performances during the tournament, defeating a highly rated Netherlands 4-1 and looking like a side who were about to bring to an end thirty years of hurt…sadly they were to fall just short thanks to something happening in the semi-final but we don’t need to spend too long on that.
It was a glorious summer…hot, bright and full of wonderful moments.
Under the guidance of Terry “El Tel” Venables England had gone closer than any England side since to winning a major football tournament and you can’t help but look back now and see it as just another example of the mood in the country…there was an energy and purpose to that team that was reflected in the music of the time, the fashion and even the politics of New Labour; we didn’t know any better.
I was in the corporate seats for the Scotland v England match thanks to my dad managing to blag a couple from a rep who came in to his place of work. I went with my little brother on the overnight bus from Glasgow. Once we made it into Wembley we found ourselves sitting behind a man that The Guardian would one day hail as the “overlord of Britpop” Mr Chris Evans. Because I am no respecter of persons and because I thought I was terribly charming and funny I decided to ask him to swap shirts with me…that request went down like the proverbial lead balloon. With hindsight I’m quite pleased I was unsuccessful because my memory informs me that he was wearing something in a Paisley pattern…purple? The horror.
It wasn’t just the success and swagger of England that forged a link between football and Britpop. Many of the key players were…key players in the irregular football tournaments that were littered throughout the era. One of the outstanding footballers during this period was, allegedly, one Martin Rossiter of Gene. In an interview I conducted with The Supernaturals mention was made of Rossiter’s silky skills…even while suited and booted. I never played football with Martin but I did play ten-pin bowling against him and, despite my attempts to declare myself the victor in those encounters, I can confirm that he is one of those irritating people who, it would appear, is just good at whatever he turns his mind to.
Many of the band members also had expressed their love and loyalty for various club sides; the aforementioned Martin Rossiter is a Cardiff lad with a soft spot for Liverpool thanks to the magical spell that Kenny Dalglish cast upon boys cast out in the seventies, Mark Morriss of The Bluetones is another Liverpool fan while bandmate and King of Twitter Adam Devlin is a Bee’s fan, Damon Albarn allegedly supports Chelsea, Bernard Butler is Arsenal, the Gallaghers are, of course, Manchester City through and through and, although she has never mentioned it I reckon Louise Wener supports my side Hearts…I admit this may be pure fantasy on my part but I reckon she would like the literary reference in the name Heart of Midlothian, the romance of the city skyline that frames the stadium (or did until we erected a monstrosity of an office block to replace the old stand), the fact that we are a bit rubbish most of the time and, well, nothing else really but I like the idea of the two of us having season tickets next to each other.
For the type of people who write for certain newspapers football though can only ever be associated with the most base and debased elements of its support and so a wicked lie has been spun about Britpop by tangling up football, the presence of the Union Flag, the small numbers of black and Asian people in the bands themselves and hey presto…Britpop was a bit (just a bit though) racist, or at least xenophobic. I think this is the laziest and nastiest of the criticisms of the era from broadsheet newspapers…it’s also just an outright lie.
Here is what Guardian journalist Michael Hann had to say about Britpop in his 2014 article “Britpop: a cultural abomination“;
“…Britpop became, a collection of lowest common denominators that ended up setting music back: a slavish devotion to a set of signifiers that included 60s music, mod fashion, football, and intoxication. None of those are bad things in isolation. But put together they resulted in a generation of bands and fans who resembled nothing so much as a parody of the football hooligans of a generation before. The racism of the hooligans was verboten, but the sense of Little England loomed large.”
He stops just sort of the accusation of racism…but it’s implicit in everything he does say. As I stated in my own response to this article a few days ago;
“Apparently a focus on Britishness is evidence of a sort of sub-rosa racism and a very limited racial and cultural set of influences. He fails to recognise the presence of an Asian woman fronting a band with a Swedish guitarist and a black, gay, woman on guitar…the awe inspiring wonder of Skin from Skunk Anansie…the female fronted bands…the riffs stolen from Stevie Wonder by Oasis on “Step Out”…the presence of Europe in so many blur songs like the French vocal of “To the End” with Francoise Hardy…the dance culture influence on Saint Etienne…I could go on and on and on…again. To view Britpop as some sort of “Britain’s First” of pop music, an exclusively white, male and heterosexual scene dominated by lumpen, meat and potatoes musicians is just wrong.”
Britpop, unlike the football hooligans, was never about gross nationalism and it was certainly never about violence. It was, instead, a celebration of music, fashion and youth. All were welcome and the very idea that you would find yourself on the wrong end of a beating for wearing the “wrong” band t-shirt as you would have if you had dared enter the opposing end of a football match in rival colours is just fantasy.
In football terms Britpop was very much in the Frank Sidebottom world of football obsession…happy to chant “Nil-nil…nil-nil…nil-nil…nil-nil” or “Wembley, Wembley, it’s a great big place in London and they call it Wembley!”…loving the game but happy to ridicule the fanatical and violent aspects of the support. Happy too to acknowledge how silly it is to care so obsessively about a game…I mean, it’s not like it actually matters.
Not like music matters.