Britpop on Film

 

I had arrived at the University of Paisley in 1993 expecting a kind of “Brideshead Revisited” affair; foppish boys, eccentrics, erudite and intellectual young women, social events involving the arts and I had fleetingly considered arriving for my first tutorial in thos pin-striped pyjamas that men wore in the the 1940’s.  I had quickly rejected that notion on the twin grounds that (a) I was fairly sure it would mark me out for a solitary life from day one and (b) I didn’t own any of those pyjamas.

The reality of life at the University of Paisely was very different from my romantic notions.  I was confronted by a sea of beige.  Beige clothes.  Beige attitudes.  Beige people.  It wasn’t that I was some sort of Quentin Crisp style bon viveur, far from it…I was a short, slightly awkward, dull boy from a coastal town where nothing ever happened and the nothing that was happening never happened to me.  That I immediately became a peculiar and colourful character around the campus owed little to my being peculiar or colourful and owed everything to the swell of ordinaryness that surrounded me.

“Modern Life is Rubbish” had been released at around the same time as I had started at University and it had changed my life…well, it had certainly changed my wardrobe and that is pretty much the same thing.  Out had gone the Morrissey and Smiths t-shirts, the quiff and the womens blouses and in had come vintage Fred Perry shirts, Mod suits and Doctor Martens along with a smart short, back and sides haircut.  Three months after it had landed on my turntable Blur released a sort of “rockumentary” film called “Starshaped”.

“Starshaped” captures blur at a pivotal moment in their career.  Caught between the crushing realisation that the baggy scene that had propelled them into the spotlight was over and the dawning of their meteoric rise to biggest band in the country (until a certain gang of Mancs arrived) it is fascinating viewing.

It starts with Damon, Graham, Alex and Dave running down the side of a motorway somewhere in England.  They are unrecognisable from the “Leisure” era.  A wonderful blend of Mod and skinhead style with desert boots, suit jackets, mop tops, Doctor Martens and work shirts they look the way every great band should look…like a gang.  As they run towards the camera Dave gives up, out of breath or bored with the whole thing already, and he puts his hands in his pockets and saunters to the finish line.  The camera zooms in and he gives a cheeky grin then looks off into the distance at something more interesting.

“The whole thing about pop music is that you are ripping off as many people as you can.  The trick is to listen to the right people.” says Damon and in one soundbite he captures the very heart of Britpop…kids listening to the right people in order that they could create something new from those influences.  You could argue all day long about who the “right people” are and, if you write for certain publications, you could talk about the narrowness of those “right people” but that is to ignore the fact that very few kids in their early twenties have what one could call eclectic tastes…most of us are listening to music that sounds a bit like the music our parents listened to or that the cool kids in the sixth form were listening to as we passed by their common room.

The first time we see the boys on stage they are at a festival, the footage is filtered to give it a grainy, hazy, lost in time feel.  Over the top of this the studio version of “There’s No Other Way” plays and we get shots of the crowd bouncing, jumping, dancing and flinging themselves around with gay abandon.  What’s most interesting about this footage is what it reminds us about…that the young Damon Albarn was a whirling, twirling, raging, rampaging, frenetic, frantic and mesmerising presence even this early in the story.  He is like a raging bull let loose.  It is fantastic to watch.

“The thing they asked us was, what was it like being in blur last year…in 1992?” says Damon as the band grab a cup of tea and a fag in a motorway service station somewhere.  After an awkward silence he answers the question “As you can see…nobody has anything to say about it.” and then we cut to a pavement covered in vomit.  Vomit that is bursting out of a suited and booted Damon…as if he were exorcising himself of the horrors of blur 92.  That is not as ridiculous as it sounds because the very next piece of music is “Colin Zeal” which is about as far removed from blur mk1. as one could imagine.

The look of “Modern Life is Rubbish” era blur is also beginning to assert itself now with Damon in his suit, Graham in a boating blazer, Alex in v-neck jumper and tie and Dave in a Fred Perry shirt.  It’s all very…hard Mod.

Two of my favourite moments in “Starshaped” involve Graham Coxon.  The first of these is when he is discussing, and dismissing, PJ Harvey on the tour bus.  It is late at night and Graham is explaining to Damon that there is nothing very complicated about Harvey.  According to Graham at this point it is really very simple…she sings about her “monthlies” and moans about dresses she cannot fit into.  The very next scene shows a more sober Graham sitting in a field at some festival or other and telling anyone who will listen how good PJ Harvey is before turning to the camera and insisting that none of the other stuff he has had to say about her is to be included.  The fact that it was included is a wonderful decision because it reveals the real truth about people who love music…that we are hypocrites and snobs.  The second moment is when Graham is trying to drink a cup of tea on the tour bus…something he finds almost impossible to do as the bus hits potholes and bumps but at the same time Alex is able to manage the task with grace and style.  It is just…funny.  Playing these two characters off against one another as if they were characters in a BBC sitcom from 1976, Alex the refined, middle-class boy and Graham as the slightly less refined, slightly more working-class yob in fops clothing.

There are other highlights too; the Postman Pat kids ride, Damon being stalked by one beautiful girl after another, the Goth at the campfire, the live footage, John Peel complaining about the presence of melody in the blur back catalogue and other moments all present a near intoxicating vision of life in a band, specifically life in a band at a time when they know that the world is about to start listening.  It makes for thrilling vieiwing even now a quarter of a century later.

“The story of the mid-1990s Britpop music scene.” is how IMDB choose to summarise the 2003 documentary “Live Forever” but that does a huge disservice to the film which is about much more than just the music scene of the 1990s.  What “Live Forever” is really about is Britain in the 1990s and how that decade has proven to be, potentially, the fierce last gasp of a once vibrant and hopeful nation.

Many people hate the idea of patriotism, they see it as being close, too close, to nationalism and I understand that fear and loathing.  Nationalism with its hatred of the other and blindness to the failings of its own character is always dangerous.  It has led to some of the darkest moments in human history.  For these, and other equally understandable reasons, some view pride in the country of ones birth as, at best, silly and, at worst, dangerous.  I think that is a point of view that could lead to equally troubling consequences.  To deny the good of a place (or a people) because of the bad leads to a sense of rootlessness and self-loathing that can be all too easily hi-jacked by extremists.  Better, I think, to acknowledge and celebrate the good and decry the bad.

In the realm of popular culture Britain has much to be proud of and much to delight in.  Fashion, music, art, literature and film in Britain from the 1960s onwards have always been multi-racial, multi-cultural and havens for diversity.

The influence of black culture from America and Jamaica in particular is undeniable, from the open adoration of the Mods for the African American rhythm and blues and soul music to the no less subtle cultural adoration of the original skinheads for Jamaican ska and reggae in the sixties and seventies the sounds of the hit parade were soaked in black culture.

What may well now be dismissed as cultural appropriation by some was, in fact, nothing more than a love letter written on black vinyl.  That love stretched right through the sounds of two-tone, rave culture, baggy and it is also present in Britpop which was a culmination and combination of everything that had gone before wrapped up in one perfect, plastic, pop, package.

Britain in the nineties was a very different place to the Britain of today.  There was an undeniable and palpable sense of hope across the country and a self-confidence that made it seem as if anything and everything was possible…arguably if the Blairite New Labour government had been bolder and less willing to involve itself in foreign conflicts anything and everything could have been achieved.

But what do I know.

Not very much is the answer.

Back to “Live Forever”.

Writer/director John Dower manages to assemble the great and the good of the Britpop scene and have them share their memories, recollections and thoughts from a distance on the whole thing.

Damon Albarn seems less than thrilled with…well, everything.  He seems aloof and, dare I say it, a little dismissive of the era.  That may well be because he has forged a career since the highs of Britpop that is a little more cerbral than “Country House” or it may be because he didn’t get enough sleep the night before.

Noel Gallagher is his usual gregarious, witty, boisterous and arrogant self, regaling everyone with tales of rock and roll excess and the joys of being boys in a band.  It is his younger brother who steals the show on this occasion though.  Liam has rarely looked anything other than cool but here as he sits (lounges) in a chair, dressed in black, sunglasses, occasionally with a fag on the go he spouts forth on anything and everything he is asked with a rakish charm.  The highlight of his contribution has to be when his inquisitor has to try and explain what he means by “androgynous”…after what seems like an age Liam finally releases the chap from his torment by agreeing, “I’m a pretty boy, yeah.”

Louise Wener, Jarvis Cocker, Massive Attack, James Brown, Toby Young and Ozwald Boateng all appear to explaining the hows, the whys and the who’s of the scene around carefully assembled archive footage from Top of the Pops, live concerts, videos, old interviews, stills and news items.  It’s a rush of memory that transports you right back to the dancefloor of Blow Up or the to the bar in the Good Mixer like some sort of Britpop TARDIS.  To date “Live Forever” is the film that has best captured the scene in its entirety.

“Supersonic” is the Oasis documentary that tracks the band from humble beginnings to record breaking climax at Knebworth.  The whole dizzy, giddy, brilliant, head mashing, mind bending, story is writ large on the screen and it is impossible to watch without reaching its end and concluding that, yes, they really were the best British band of the decade and that, yes, maybe they were the greatest British band ever.

I am deadly serious.

What becomes very clear throughout “Supersonic” is how the very thing that propelled them to heights unscaled by a British band in decades was, ultimately, the thing that would destroy them…the relationship between Noel and Liam.  The wibbling rivalry provides the spark that ignites the whole Oasis flame and it also provides the wind that blows it out.

Everything you would want from a music documentary is here; drugs, rock ‘n’roll, violence, love, sadness, joy, laughter and a near heartbreaking sense of “what if…” by its end.

What if Noel and Liam had found a way?

What if the American experience had been a fraction more positive?

What if the drugs had stayed recreational and not essential?

What if they had taken an extended break?

What if Noel could have been given the space to do his own thing?

It is all too late now of course.

I don’t think anyone really believes that the biggest band of the era is going to be back on stage.  Too much has happened.  Relationships remain fractured…broken even.  Neither one of them really needs Oasis now either.  That leaves fans with only the past and their own memories…and the music.

What each of these films manages to do, in very different ways, is to capture the spirit of the Britpop era.  A time of hope, a time of confidence, a time of thrills, a time of joy and a time that is unlikely to ever be repeated.  A fierce last stand of British youth culture.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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