And so the story begins…
1992 had seen the “grunge invasion” with lots of boys and girls from the U S of A finding themselves with record contracts, chart successes and spots on bedroom walls despite their having no recognisable tunes or melodies and being in possession of the sort of wardrobe that would make Migg from “Tom and Gerri” (Inside No.9, S1, Ep.3) turn his nose up before heading back to his spot in between the bins.
Them was rotten days.
The notion of some sort of fightback against the lank hair and lumpen melodies had begun with the release of “Popscene” by Blur in March of 1992 and the hideously titled New Wave of New Wave which, with bands like Compulsion and Blessed Ethel, had some grunge leanings but it wasn’t until the April edition of Select in 1993 that the revival of interest in British music would really accelerate and, ultimately, become Britpop.
That edition of Select has become, maybe always was, a bit problematic for some people because of what has often been described as the jingoistic nature of it; the Union flag, the use of the phrase “Yanks Go Home” and a whiff, if only that, of the sort of nationalism over patriotism which had, a year earlier, brought Morrissey into the firing line of certain journalists and musicians…correctly it now seems.
A few months ago The Guardian, the moral bastions of the nation (ahem), suggested, but not really, that Britpop may have been “responsible” for Brexit and the rise of figures like Nigel Farage. While the article in question ultimately concluded that this wasn’t the case the damage was done by the headline which had suggested it in the first place.
Brett Anderson has long rejected any connection with the label of Britpop, not because he didn’t enjoy some of the other bands I am sure, but because he saw the way things were being set up, saw the line between patriotism and jingoism being blurred and decided that Suede were not really a part of that. He was right.
The bands who were bundled together on that front cover were Suede, Pulp, St. Etienne, Denim and The Auteurs. Inside each of them, aside from Suede, were asked the same questions to gauge how closely aligned they were and, I would guess, to try and stoke up some sort of us against them battle of the bands/nations. Despite what The Guardian has had to say on it, and several others, the responses to some of those questions reveal much less support for a rule Britannia mindset or a Little Englander worldview than one might suspect.
“What’s so great about Britain and in particular British pop?”
Bob Stanley (St. Etienne): I prefer France myself.
Lawrence (Felt): The climate. It’s great to live in a country where, when you wake up in the morning, you know you’re not going to find a lizard on your forehead.
Jarvis Cocker (Pulp): The sense of the romantic in the everyday.
Luke Haines (The Auteurs): I don’t think there’s anything great about Britain as such.
It’s not exactly the For Britain election manifesto is it?
“What makes you ashamed to be British?”
Bob Stanley (St. Etienne): Letting in less than 1% of the number of Yugoslavian refugees who have been let into Germany.
Sarah Cracknell (St. Etienne): The monarchy, the House of Lords, the Conservative Party and the aristocracy.
Jarvis Cocker (Pulp): Hooligans, leftovers from the days of the Empire.
Luke Haines (The Auteurs): Plenty of things. The racism. All that despicable British Movement crap.
I think it is safe to say that none of these people believed that they were participating in laying the groundwork for a renaissance in British nationalism. Here, explicitly, key movers and shakers in this new moment in British pop music were talking about Romantic notions of Britishness, the ridiculousness of the British class system, the vulgarity of some aspects of British culture and denouncing, quite clearly, racism in any form.
Of course none of this means that jingoism, maybe nationalism, didn’t rear its head during the nineties but what it does show is that none of the bands were directly promoting any such agenda. How individuals choose to interpret art isn’t really the responsibility of the artist and if anyone is to blame for the more laddish and overtly nationalistic tone of some moments of the era it is the press and not the artists.
There is something quite depressing too in the fact that here we are nearly thirty years later and the very things that were problematic for the people in those bands about Britain then remain problematic today; the countries response to refugee crises, the rise of expressly nationalistic political movements, racism, hooliganism, the Monarchy. Same as it ever was, same as it ever was.
The person who was most clearly uncomfortable with what was being implied by Select was Luke Haines. His answers to several of the other questions show him to be fiercely intelligent and fiercely suspicious of what he could see was already forming. While some artists have renounced, and denounced, the Britpop label because they want to appear “relevant” and not be boxed in by labels, Haines was decrying the whole thing before there even was a thing to decry.
“What’s wrong with being patriotic?”
Quite a lot really. There’s not a lot to be patriotic about in a country that has put up with a Conservative government for 14 years…I’m not a great flag waver.
I can’t be critical of Select and the journalists who drove this issue…I bought into the “British Image #1” thing hook, line and sinker. The Britpop scene was a tidal wave of joy for me at the time and the music continues to bring warm feelings and good memories years later. I think the intentions of Andrew Harrison, a fine writer and good person, were entirely honourable when he wrote this;
“Yet at its best the Union Jack use to represent all that Suede, Denim, Saint Etienne and the other bands in this issue embody; tolerance, pride without hatred, humour, openness, tenacity, decency, optimism, invention and, above all, community spirit…”
This was a rallying call to those of a liberal disposition to reclaim the flag from those who had drenched it in racism, fascism and intolerance and re-purpose it as something more inclusive. That was always going to be a tough ask but, for a while at least, it did seem as though the country as a whole was finding a way to do just that. Ginger Spice in her Union Jack dress, Noel Gallagher with his Union Jack guitar and Sonya Madan with her “My Country Too” Union Jack t-shirt all displayed a version of the flag that was different to that associated with football hooligans having a tear up in some European country or other. New Labour played a part in this too, utilising the flag as a means to show floating voters, as well as Wet Tories, that they were patriots too and not evil old Trots like Michael Foot! It worked and helped to deliver a landslide victory in 1997. It all seemed to be going well.
It couldn’t last.
Brand Union Jack had been too sullied for too long.
History shows that Luke Haines was right to be suspicious at the start…not because the label Britpop was inherently toxic and certainly not because it paved the way for what has come in the last few years in British politics but because the use of the flag has allowed certain types of people to claim that anyone who walks beneath it approves of everything done when it flies. The real heart of Britpop doesn’t lie in the Union Jack backdrop but in the responses given above by key figures in the era.
Britpop was fun, throwaway, energetic, occasionally magnificent, sometimes awful, creative, spiky, retro and forward looking, often all at the same time. It wasn’t ever about being “British” either…not for me. It wasn’t about your passport or your place of birth. It wasn’t about identity but about identifying. It was a moment when outsiders, no matter where they came from, found themselves at the centre of everything. It was about youth. It was about hope. It helped to foster the energy required to oust a loathed government and usher in something we all hoped would be better. There is more to be thankful for than there is to denigrate. This was my time.