Looking Back In Fondness At '90s Britpop

BILL WOOD | MAY 26, 2023

Kung Fu poster by BIll Wood.

A recent trip to London and York got me thinking about the long and storied history of English rock music. It’s interesting how you can almost compartmentalize the different movements conveniently into their respective decades; the ‘60s British Invasion with the Beatles and Stones, the ‘70s punk explosion with the Pistols and Clash, the ‘80s electronic era with New Order and Depeche Mode.


Due to a confluence of the aforementioned genres, the waters get a bit murkier in the '90s. Excluding the ever-popular Spice Girls (for a pre-packaged concept they weren’t half-bad!), the ‘90s British music scene pretty much belonged to "Britpop," a term that still makes me wince every time I hear it. Despite the awkward name tag, there were tons of super-cool Britpop bands, including Pulp, Supergrass and The Verve. But for most fans, Britpop meant Blur vs. Oasis. England's two biggest bands had a heated rivalry that produced plenty of animosity on both sides, with all of the trappings of a Premier League derby: Working Class Mancs Clash With Posh Lads From London. The tabloid headlines made for interesting reading and surely ended up selling more than a few compact discs, but a word of caution to future rock stars and human beings in general; wishing a life-threatening illness on someone is never a good idea.


Wibbling rivalry aside, Oasis and Blur produced some of the more compelling rock music of the 1990s. Oasis had the upper hand in the States in terms of popularity, mainly due to the success of (What’s The Story) Morning Glory?, the breakthrough album which featured the MTV mega-hits “Wonderwall,” “Don’t Look Back In Anger,” and "Champagne Supernova." With over 22 million units sold to date, Morning Glory is widely considered one of the finest English rock records ever recorded. At last, a band had delivered on the unfulfilled promise of the Stone Roses, and—unlike their reluctant counterparts from the quickly-fading grunge era—these guys actually wanted to be rock stars. 'kin 'ell, they even wrote a song about it! And what rock stars they were; flashy haircuts, designer drugs, gorgeous super-models, expensive cars, and twice their fair share of attitude and swagger. And then there were the quotes. When an American interviewer queried Noel Gallagher about a rumored quarrel with brother Liam over a Quarter-Pounder at a local McDonald's, Noel promptly corrected him. "No, you've got it all wrong. It was a Big Mac."


The global success of Morning Glory transformed Oasis into bigger superstars than anyone could have possibly expected, including bandmates and eternal rivals Liam and Noel. They became MTV darlings and Rolling Stone cover stars, selling millions of records and headlining festivals in front of 250,000 fans. But as bright as the future looked for the Gallagher brothers, the fact remains that no one can foresee the future, and we all know how Be Here Now turned out. That one career misstep torpedoed the band's popularity and left Noel in a particularly contemplative mood for years after, at one point pondering "Where Did It All Go Wrong?" He half-jokingly blames it on cocaine in interviews, but there was also an impossible amount of hype to live up to surrounding Oasis' third album. They were being touted—often by themselves—as the Second Coming of the Beatles, therefore a thoroughly mediocre LP simply wasn't going to cut it. They may have lost their luster in America after Be Here Now, but Oasis were always revered as golden gods in Britain and beyond until their messy breakup in 2009.


I was fortunate to see Oasis live twice and they delivered on both occasions. And while I'm a massive fan of their early records, I also feel they were saddled with murky production. The stories behind the myriad difficulties recording their debut LP Definitely Maybe are the stuff of legend. Regardless, the Oasis sound has always been about Noel's quality songcraft and Liam’s vocals, he’s one of rock’s greatest frontmen when he’s feeling up for it. The Gallaghers combined their talents to rule the planet, but on those early records it sounds as though the rhythm section is simply falling in line, cranking out stiff chords and plodding bass lines. I suppose you could chalk this up to the band's pub-rock roots and Noel's iron-fisted direction, but these songs deserve better. The irony is that the fallout from Be Here Now arguably produced a better version of Oasis after several original band members departed, but by this time many fans had stopped listening.


Despite their ups and downs, Oasis were a truly brilliant rock band on their own terms, legendary even. They had plenty of arena-rousing anthems and were mostly solid live, although Liam had his share of well-documented episodes. They were the biggest band on the planet for a moment, and if and when the Gallaghers decide to bury the hatchet and reunite, there will be stadiums full of rabid fans ready to welcome them back. Oasis recorded two landmark LPs that became the soundtrack to millions of lives, creating music and moments that will literally live forever.


Definitely Maybe and Morning Glory are definitive albums of their generation, but great as Oasis were, they did not produce my favorite Britpop album. That distinction goes to Blur, and that album is Parklife. Brimming with bubbly pop soundscapes, lush orchestration, outstanding musicianship and genius songwriting from start to finish, this record feels like one glorious celebration of British popular music. Mod, new wave, baroque, punk, waltz...  all of these influences are fashionably blended into a single LP. It's musically diverse but also intensely focused in terms of style and direction, a Blur record through and through.


Parklife is pure joy every time I revisit it. The LP kicks off with the infinitely dance-able “Boys and Girls,” sounding every bit like Duran Duran waking up on your couch after an all-night bender. And it only gets better from there. This is the combined effort of four skilled writer-musicians at the top of their game, all contributing toward making every song shine. Guitarist Graham Coxon and bassist Alex Jones intertwine seamlessly on songs such as "Tracy Jacks" and "London Loves," while Damon Albarn delivers lyrics dripping with typical English wit and sarcasm. The chorus from "End of a Century" sums it up perfectly; "We kiss with dry lips, then we say goodnight." By writing voyeuristic songs about very ordinary people doing very ordinary things, Albarn is underlining his observation that—coining a term from an earlier Blur LP—modern life is rubbish. But be that as it may, you can still sing along.


The extended edition of Parklife is something of a mixed bag, but ultimately worth a listen. Unlike other re-releases which feature multiple renditions of the same tunes over and over, there are several interesting b-sides and outtakes on the extended edition of Parklife, including the Bowie-esque “People In Europe” and the upbeat rocker "Magpie." These songs feel like natural extensions of the original record as opposed to calculated filler, although there's a bit of that here as well. Another highlight is the Pet Shop Boys' 12" version of "Girls and Boys," if you like extended dance remixes then you'll love this.


Blur followed Parklife with the almost-equally-superb The Great Escape, a fabulous listen in its own right. After that came their self-titled Blur with the smash hit “Song #2,” a tune which I’m convinced was systematically tailored to remove currency from wallets. Or maybe it was meant to spoof loud-quiet-loud, I’m really not sure. That may sound callous, but I find it odd that Blur have penned so many fantastic numbers and yet may be remembered for two minutes of "Woo Hoo!!!" Hey, the song still gets played at football stadiums, so I'm obviously in the minority here.


Queen, Bowie, the Who, the Clash, the Smiths... there have been entire volumes written about the history of British rock music and there's no way I could touch upon every single artist that I've found inspirational. But when I’m in the mood for something distinctly English, I usually reach for Definitely Maybe, Parklife, or anything by the Beatles. Perhaps the fact that an Oasis or Blur record even gets a mention alongside the Fab Four says it all. - BW


[Postscript: Following their breakup in 2009, Liam and Noel Gallagher have gone their separate ways and although Oasis reunion rumors are constantly being touted on the Internet (many of them by Liam himself), this has yet to materialize. Blur does reform occasionally and the band is currently putting the finishing touches on a new LP.]

Send email to Bill Wood. Artist Bill Wood on LinkedIn. Artist Bill Wood on Pinterest. Artist Bill Wood on Behance. Artist Bill Wood on Deviantart. Artist Bill Wood on Instagram. Artist Bill Wood on Soundcloud.
Hey I'm Bill | www.heyimbill.com
Kung Fu poster by BIll Wood.
Kung Fu poster by BIll Wood.
The Cramps poster art by Bill Wood.