The Battle Of Britain
By Tom Parker
As the 80's gave way to the 90's, millions of hair-sprayed American youth crowded the eastern shore of Great Britain, rinsed their eyeliner in the surf and looked West for a way home. New wave was long dead. The Clash was long gone. New Romanticism wasn't new anymore (again) and Goth was slithering back into its coffin. Even the new wave of British heavy metal had run its course.
Attitude, raves and Hawaiian shirts? Fuck it all. Get us off this fucking rock.
And soon the rescue began. By way of rap, punk, grunge - whatever could float for fuck's sake - the Americans fled the tiny but mighty musical empire even as the Madchester generals turned their shoegazing guns on the deserting beachhead.
Before you could say Charlatans UK, the Americans had slipped through their fingers and were gone.
Back across the pond to the land where a new day was rising. Where girls bumped to the sound of sampled rap beats and boys slammed to the revamped sounds of punk and hard rock, stripped down and reborn.
"Ha!" the editors at NME laughed. "They'll be back. Wait 'til they hear Suede." And they waited.
"It's all shite," Melody Maker proclaimed. "Except for Nirvana ... of course. And Beck." And they waited some more.
"Still on vacation with grunge," they persisted mid-decade. "The Americans will soon come 'round." And they kept on waiting.
But guess what?
They didn't come back. The American contingent had moved the fuck out.
Oh sure, maybe a few visits here and there - a quick holiday for a bit of Oasis ... maybe a dash of Radiohead. A conjugal visit or two for a quick quaff of Scary Spice's Union Jack knickers. But that's about it.
For 10 years British pop music has continued to rank in America as only slightly more popular than Hawaiian folk music and just a hair less cool than Foghat cover bands.
It's all too bad. Because for the last 10 years the Pearl Jam, Bush, Limp Bizkit loving Yanks have been missing out on some fantastic music (yes, I know Bush are Brits - but the Brits don't).
To give you some background, I was lucky enough to spend a semester at the University of London during the heyday of British pop - early 1995. "Britpop" they called it and god DAMN if it didn't rock my world - guitars and hooks, sweet melancholy vocals, strange horns and synthesizers (hadn't heard one of those in years!), all drenched in poppy Englishness.
Fantastic albums, one after the other, crammed the UK charts like a fish-locked boat for the entire duration of my stay (and then long after). Blur, Oasis, Suede, Gene, Supergrass - these were the names that plastered the fronts of NME, Melody Maker, Q and all the rest of the UK rags.
"Supersonic" blasted from BBC Radio One AND Two. "Parklife" and "New Generation" videos blared from the TV. "Caught by the Fuzz" and "Wake Up Boo!" fueled my jogs through Hyde and Kensington parks. "Boys & Girls" had me shaking my hips for the first time since junior high dances. The English pop landscape was abuzz and full of energy. Everyone knew something exciting was going on. Finally, there was a soundtrack for the 90's and it was called Britpop.
So, with all this great music, why are UK artists still so fucking uncool in America?
Well, it's a combination of factors.
Part of it is a backlash not unlike the anti-disco 80's (forget all those 70's parties you went to in the 90's - remember just how fucking uncool anything from the 70's was back in the Reagan days?). This time the backlash is against pale, brooding, mascara wearing, effeminate Limeys synonymous with Brit bands from the 80's. "That Depeche Mode sound is out." "That Cure look is out." Therefore the English are out.
It's also our rejuvenated love for big guitars, throaty vocals and the American Sound (although in reality that American Sound is about as American as Led Zeppelin or Cream - which is another story altogether). We rediscovered our love for tough guy, Bud drinking, testosterone-fueled rawk. And while thankfully the macho jerk-off guitar solos of the 70's and 80's never really came back, the essence of the whole genre was, and still is, back in black (if you think there's really much difference between Grand Funk Railroad, Soundgarden and Kid Rock, think again).
Toss in a bit of jingoistic flag waving from a nation that's currently enjoying one of the most prosperous periods in its history, and you've got a recipe for eyes and ears turning inward - "We like our country. We like our music. We're sick of depressing, cheesy English shit. We want to party. We want to kick ass. We want to turn up the amps to eleven and we want to fuckin' RAWK!"
Rah rah, fucking rah.
Do yourself a favor. If you like melody, if you like great hooks, if you like songs that bend and curve and sometimes have funny instruments in them, if you like the Beatles, if you like great voices and are totally sick of metal rap - check out some of these records. They're wonderful, every one of them. Promise.
Blur; "Parklife" & "The Great Escape" - Two concept albums spanning two years. The pinnacle of Blur's greatness. One explores the underbelly of British working class life ("Parklife") and boasts a delightful cast of colorful characters. The other views the English landscape from the top, introducing the listener to a host of offbeat upper class twits and their absurd lives. The music bounces from fast, punky rave-ups to dramatic, sweeping ballads and hits everything in between - not to mention more instruments than Fat Albert's junkyard band. As Peter Buck would say, a must (and if you must pick just one, go with "Parklife").
(The London) Suede; "Dog Man Star" - Another masterpiece from the class of '94. Heads up the list along with "Parklife" and Oasis' "Definitely Maybe." Talk about drama - fuck, Shakespeare wasn't this melodramatic. Grand, emotional ballads and soaring guitar riffs - the duo of Brett Anderson and Bernard Butler was a partnership to behold. Take the brooding shadow of Morrissey, throw in the Top 40 hooks of the Cure, add the grandeur of Pink Floyd and turn the guitar amp up 'til the riffs get loud and fuzzy - and you've got "Dog Man Star." "New Generation" might just also be one of the great singles of the decade. As said in the year-end issue of Q, "'Dog Man Star' deserves a place in any serious record collection." Without question.
Manic Street Preachers; "Everything Must Go" & "This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours" - Okay, the purists love the old shit (what else is new?). They love the old Guns N' Roses metal shit and they love the old "Holy Bible" era shit. Me? I love their latest shit. The Manics, like old TSOL, have managed to reinvent themselves on an almost yearly basis. But losing guitarist and founding member Richey James to suicide (they think - he's still classified as missing) in early '95 was a change they probably weren't anticipating. Still, the remaining boys regrouped and promptly put out one of the best singles ever - "Design for Life" - followed by an equally great album, 1996's "Everything Must Go." Big sound; big hooks; big, soaring vocals - the band that was slated for the archives started anew and blew everyone away. "This is My Truth Tell Me Yours" is more of the same.
As for the rest of my list, it's far too long to go into any more detail.
Here's the short and clever rest of the story ...
Pulp; "Different Class" - Fronted by the man who lampooned Wacko Jacko in front of the alleged king of pop himself, as well as the entire English recording industry, Pulp is like Blur but sometimes even better. Clever songwriting, incredible variety, memorable hooks - "Different Class" is a keeper.
Supergrass; "I Should Coco" & "Supergrass" - More fun than a barrel of skanking monkeys on ecstasy. "I Should Coco" was my best album of '95 and I still think so. Their self-titled latest record is more mature as they say, but still has all the great riffs and sing-along choruses we've come to expect from the lads from Oxford.
Elastica; "Elastica" - What can I say? Wire meets the Donnas. Fast, snotty, catchy and really fucking cool. Another best of for '95. Keep your eyes out for their follow-up. That's right, 5 years later. The No Doubt of the UK in proliferation.
Boo Radleys; "Wake Up Boo!" - What an arse I am. You can't even buy this 'cause it's fookin' deleted. Bastards. Scour your local used record store. Title track is the infectious tune of the century. I dare you not to sing along.
Travis; "Good Feeling" & "The Man Who" - Okay, now we're getting up to speed. Scottish darlings who are currently making a dent in the US market with the melancholy "Why Does it Always Rain on Me?" Sweet, earnest ballads with the occasional rocker. "Turn" from "The Man Who" might have the anthemic chorus of the year.
Stereophonics; "Performance" & "Cocktails" - Not the most original lads, but see them live and they'll restore your belief in straight-ahead, pour-me-a-pint pub rock. Singer sounds like Rod Stewart but looks like Jeff Mallet. Might also have the greatest drummer since Keith Moon - keep fingers away from this guy's mouth.
James; "Millionaires" - Like "Laid" but better. Britpop at its finest. Hugely catchy songs with hooks you can chew and choruses you can hang your hat on. Bit of the Eurotrash beat thrown in for occasional spice.
Ocean Colour Scene; "One From the Modern" - So these guys never left the 60's. So what? The world can never have too many Beatlesque melodies. Dig it, man.
Cast; "Beat Mama" - Bass player for the La's went on to form his own group when the aforementioned band imploded after one record. Catchy, poppy, beat-infested guitar masterpiece. Perfectly crafted pop. Can't get it here, but it's worth the $26 from Amazon.com.