Friday, May 09, 2014

This was a low

Two decades on from Kurt Cobain's death and the release of Blur's Parklife, a recent discussion thread on Drowned In Sound pitched grunge against Britpop, inviting commenters to evaluate the merits and particularly the legacy of each.

It will probably come as no surprise to regular readers of this blog that my feet are firmly planted in the grunge camp. Indeed, that will certainly come as no surprise whatsoever to anyone who participated in or read the In The Dock feature over at sadly dormant collaborative music blog The Art Of Noise, for which I both attempted to defend Nirvana (and, by extension, grunge) and prosecute Britpop. While my defence of Kurt Cobain and company was successful, I was unable to convince the jury that Britpop was responsible for a whole host of crimes against music (not to mention humanity).

Seven years on, with the benefit of additional perspective and hindsight, I wonder if their verdict might now be different. Some of the articles prompted by the twenty year anniversary of those two key events suggest that critical opinion may be hardening in consensus against Britpop - the music, the people behind it, what it stood for or came to represent, its broader significance and cultural impact.

Take Michael Hann's piece for the Guardian, for instance, in which he brands Britpop as "a cultural abomination", "a grotesque simplification ..., a collection of lowest common denominators that ended up setting music back". I still stand by my case for the prosecution, but this is superb stuff, the sound of a nail being hit repeatedly on the head, touching as it does on all the most heinous crimes of Britpop and its protagonists: arrogance, parochialism and jingoism, narrow-mindedness and fear of innovation, cynical and lazy pastiche passed off as homage, loutish laddism, political naivety (at best) or matey collusion (at worst) with New Labour.

Better still is Taylor Parkes' retrospective review of Parklife for The Quietus, in which he uses the album as a springboard for a critique of the whole period and phenomenon. While it covers much of the same ground as Hann's article, Parkes' piece is substantially longer and even more satisfyingly venomous, and contains some memorably acerbic observations - see, for instance, his description of Oasis as "the most disastrous misunderstanding of The Beatles since Charles Manson" and of their battle with Blur for the number one spot being fought "with singles that were almost supernaturally shit".

Parklife itself is carefully considered, praised in some respects but also damned for repeatedly saying nothing of value and for flitting between a sneering or patronising attitude towards working-class culture and an equally unpalatable (not to mention clumsy and cringeworthy) appropriation of that same culture. Just think of 'Bank Holiday' ("a massive, grinning, lagery piss from a private jet into someone's rockery") and the reference to "following the herds down to Greece" in 'Girls And Boys', juxtaposed with the chipper cor-blimey-guv'nor title track and the fetishisation of the dog track and the greasy spoon.

When I finished reading, I wanted to give Parkes and his article a standing ovation. In truth, however, neither of the two pieces really say much that's new - both are undoubtedly indebted to John Harris' The Last Party, a book I've been meaning to review for some time and one for which Hann's article in particular serves as an appetising precis.

I approached The Last Party with caution, having heard it was prejudiced against Oasis in favour of Blur - not because I harbour any great affection for the former, but because I don't for the latter. (At least Oasis never pretended to be anything they weren't.) I needn't have worried, though - while Harris does clearly prefer Blur to the boorish Mancunians, he doesn't shy away from presenting them in a negative light. So Alex James is portrayed as a brainless hedonist and Damon Albarn as a cynical and calculating egotist, one who could spout such preposterous claims as "I know it's a very flippant thing to say, but if Kurt Cobain had played football, he'd probably be alive today". Even Graham Coxon, the band's anchor in the real world and sole voice of conscience during the execrable Great Escape era, is depicted behaving like a brattish toddler at times.

Like Hann (if not Parkes), Harris ventures that the nascent phenomenon that became known as Britpop had some merit, and indeed embodied many of the virtues that would later be obliterated (musical catholicism, wit, intelligence). But the release of Parklife and the arrival on the scene of Oasis changed all that and soon, though record sales were zooming into the stratosphere, the whole scene was creatively, intellectually and morally bankrupt.

With the exception of Pulp, the pioneering bands Harris deems most interesting (Suede, Elastica) were shoved to the margins and teetered on the brink of self-destruction through drugs, personality clashes and musical differences. Into their place came Menswe@r, whose £90,000 record contract after just five gigs and subsequent £500,000 publishing deal stands as perfect testimony to the absurdity, excess, folly and copious cocaine consumption of the period. By the time of the press-hyped chart battle between Blur and Oasis, in the summer of 1995, Britpop was dead in the water as a potentially valuable cultural force, and by 1997, the year of Be Here Now and New Labour coasting to electoral victory on the "Cool Britannia" wave, it had been cold for some time.

As a chronicle of Britpop's meteoric rise and long and messy fall, The Last Party is a tremendous read, highly recommended if you're intrigued by the thrust of the articles by Hann and Parkes and want the bones of their arguments fleshed out. However, if you're concerned that it might still be too objective an account, or too much of a lament, then Luke Haines' Bad Vibes is the book for you.

The Auteurs may have featured on the "Yanks go home!" cover of Select in 1993 that signalled Britpop's arrival, but they merit barely a mention in The Last Party. So it's with characteristic arrogance that Haines insists his band released the first Britpop album. This is not through any desire to claim responsibility for what followed, though - his egotism also results in the book rejoicing in the only-partially-self-mocking subtitle Britpop And My Part In Its Downfall.

Haines' inflated opinion of The Auteurs' music should be ignored, and he's a bitter, vicious, pretentious, snide, prejudiced narrator, coming across as just the sort of person you would never want to meet in real life - but as your man reporting from (just) inside the Britpop bubble, he's ideal.

While the likes of Menswe@r's Johnny Dean and The Bluetones' Mark Morriss felt like they'd gatecrashed a party but were more than happy to go with the flow, Haines was dragged along kicking and screaming in the undertow against his will and devoted his energies to kicking against the pricks - whether that meant recording with Steve Albini, writing a song called 'Unsolved Child Murder', naming his side project Baader Meinhof, deliberately crashing a bus to cut short a tour or calling TFI Friday host and Britpop kingmaker Chris Evans a cunt.

Add in a few astute observations (that Kurt Cobain's suicide was responsible for "[t]hat Britpop thingy that has been bubbling away ... finally [being able to] stand on its own two feet", for instance) and a sprinkling of choice anecdotes (how's about getting attacked on stage by a drunk dwarf, and spending a quiet night with friends in Surrey that begins with Haines' host asking to be trepanned by a one-time associate of Timothy Leary and ends with Haines off his face on acid, "standing there naked, waving a branch from a tree, going on about Kula Shaker and a musket"?) and you've got another marvellous book on a subject that, as you can probably tell, fascinates me as much as it appals me.

(Thanks to Simon for the Quietus link.)

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