Wednesday, April 30, 2014

We All Got To Go Some Time

So yes, Taylor Parkes on Britpop really is very good, whispering some poisonous truths into a few deserving ears.  Whether you love it or loathe it, it's pretty fair to cast the entire scene as basically uninterested in innovation or politics; fiercely protective of a '60s musical legacy that didn't much require protection in the first place and about as threatening as a cup of tea and a biscuit on a rainy Tuesday afternoon. 

I can't say I was much of a fan [1], the odd single here and there aside, but it does strike me as odd that TP hangs so much blame around Britpop's skinny shoulders for its own immediate co-option and commodification; for the countless sins of Blairism and the hedonistic fuck-everyone attitude that slowly solidified around it.

After all, it strikes me that insofar as there had previously been a marriage of rock or pop and politics, it had more or less died out in a fireball of its own preciousness come the mid-eighties.  If there was a lot of politics in music by 1994, it was mainly coming from the music press itself, usually in the form of angry arguments over Morrissey's latest damnfool pronouncement, or just letters pages stuffed to the arse with well-educated, white middle-class people angrily denouncing each other for being well-educated, white and middle class. 

The Rock Against Racism stuff was still going in the early 90s IIRC, but I don't remember many Clash albums being fired around, or anything in a similar vein.  I'm too young to recall now, but it strikes me that the whole Free Nelson Mandela/Racist Friend thing was wildly popular for all of five minutes, then sealed away in Room 101 never to be mentioned again except in cringey, you-had-to-be-there tones.

There was a lot of greenie activism around groups like the Levellers, but all of that was squarely and serially shat on as horrible crusty nonsense by the UK music press, with a lot of jibes about dreadlocks and dogs-on-strings that would probably get funny looks these days [2].

The incipient horrible-rap-rock fusion bands - I'm thinking Rage Against The Machine and Senser  in particular - were overtly and angrily political, and instantly dismissed as hypocrites for railing against the, like, capitalist machine of selling records etc, amongst other sins. [3]

And there was still a lot of Criminal Justice Bill activism in the dance music scene, even if I recall it mainly concerning itself with the right to get blammed out of your head on powerful pharmaceuticals and play really loud music in fields.  I recall attempts to dragoon the Britpop crowd into this, to no avail.

Elsewhere...  Well I'd remind you that Britpop wasn't really the soundtrack of the mid-nineties.  Maybe it was different down south [4] but a walk through a student halls in 94-96 was as likely to turn up Whigfield, Alanis Morrisette or Sheryl Crow as it was anything by Blur or Oasis.  Remember the horror, brothers and sisters: the Outhere Brothers; Michael Jackson's hideous Earth Song;  Babylon Zoo; Mark Morrison; endless fuck-awful Rhythm-Of-The-Night four-chord dance shitefests; Bryan fucking Adams still having hits.  Boyzone. [5]

There was a lot of bizarre, off-beat electronica around but even hip-hop was well on its way to becoming the farcical, comedy-capitalist cavalcade of bitch-slapping, gold-flaunting cash-cows that it is today.  That Wu-Tang clothing label may not have started the rot, but it wasn't exactly a predictive stretch from there to Daddy Day Care -  slim pickings for your enterprising, heavily-politicised music hack, even if it's a comparative feast to what followed.

Anyway, it's quite sad that a lot of journalists in a dying form decided to pin a lot of hope on Britpop as a saviour, because they might as well have prayed for a cultural revolution led by Gina G.  It was pretty obvious even in 1994 that the sum total of a cobbled-together, aren't-we-just-great bout of British self-love was going to be Let's get pissed, shout at each other about whether the Beatles or the Kinks were better and make a shitload of cash off advertising.

Realistically, the only phenomenon in the music scenes of the era that scared parents and politicians was the possibility that they'd end up on the front page of the Sun, sobbing about Our Rave-Drug Hell next to photos of their kid on a ventilator.

It seems to me that maybe there was a period in history when music could be a galvanising force in politics; when a teenage statement like men growing their hair long or women shoving safety pins through their hooters was enough to make the whole system shiver with horror.  That period's called "The Distant Past" and in all likelihood, any attempt to recreate it is going to be buried under a thousand pop-culture printed lunchboxes and ironic T-shirts before you can say "iTunes".

I'm open to correction here, but I recall most of the UK's music scenes being thoroughly depoliticised and hedonistic long before e.g. Suede hoved into view, and this particular crowd's figureheads were singularly ill-equipped to carry flags for anything other than pouting, competing to see who could shove the most drugs up their stupid faces and wibbling about their favourite records.

So it's kind of odd to see Taylor lamenting a grand missed opportunity in Britpop to create some kind of artistic/political national consciousness when in all likelihood, there was no opportunity of the sort.  If Britpop was all lager and pouting and taking nothing seriously, well, so was everything else, and it'd have taken a lot more than her out of Echobelly in a tight top to change it.

As far as I can tell, the true topic of Taylor's long lament isn't so much the end of an era in music, as it is the end of the relevance of music journalism.  And that's a bit of a shame, but we all got to go some time.


1.  Put it this way - I was seventeen in 1995.  At the time, my favourite album was Led Zeppelin II and I wasn't much receptive to any new artists who dared to try anything more ambitious than really angry songs about being really pissed off about nothing in particular.  If this strikes you as the initial warning signs of a perpetual adolescence, then you can pat yourself on the back for perceptiveness.

2.  I recall the Melody Maker belabouring the Levellers for Hope Street, a song which was meant to be about the false promise of the National Lottery:  "Well, guess what?  More people want to be millionaires than want to be crusties, you soap-dodging c*nts", was the response, or words to that effect.  So maybe not that surprising that politics wasn't high on the agenda.

3.  Bands who are not only responsible for their own offences, but those of the horrific pack of meat-headed, ham-fisted Nu-Metal cretins who followed in their footsteps. 

4.  And it should be recalled that, as TP observes, Britpop was really all about London.  I can't say the endless Mockney bollocks or flag-waving much stirred me, but then I was every bit as arsey then as I am now, if not more so.

5.  If any of the acts mentioned in this post are favourites of yours, there's no need to defend them here.  Trust me: whatever you were listening to at the time, I was probably totally gung-ho about something much, much worse.

17 comments:

john b said...

Political stuff, bang on.

"not the soundtrack to the 90s" - less convinced. Boy bands, terrible once-good previous generation artists still having hits, and mindless 4/4 dancery are timeless; but Britpop is what differentiates the mid-90s from other eras (in the same way that acid house did the late 80s, &c &c).

flyingrodent said...

Aye, fair enough - I meant something more like "not everybody's soundtrack to the mid-90s".

Igor Belanov said...

I think the interesting question about Britpop is how it got so big when it did. I understand your point about other awful bands that were around at the time, but that is always the case and in this period other 'scenes' were relatively minor.
Apart from possibly Radiohead and Pulp, most bands did not produce their best work at the 1994-1997 'peak' of Britpop, and many indie bands that were lumped into Britpop had their roots and influences in the more productive and creative 1987-92 era. It could merely be a matter of style or 60s nostalgia, but that could theoretically happen at any time. There have been post-punk/new wave 'revivals' since, but none has been nearly as commercially successful as Britpop or achieved as much media publicity. So it remains a bit of a mystery why Britpop became such a prominent phenomenon and, as someone who was 18 in 1996, it certainly seemed that way.

organic cheeseboard said...

Bit of a mea culpa sed tu quoque ad maximum that Parkes piece. I know the music press is and was always about hype as opposed to discerning quality but he went out with Lauren Laverne ffs. This line of "it was all shit and I never really liked any of it and even the records I kept are crap" is just too easy to take. I wonder what his review of oasis at knebworth actually said (I could probably find out since my old MM's are still at my parents'.

This was the music of my youth and I am quite wedded to it so am very much subjecrive on this. But as you say, a lot of the vitriol about it not being a specifically politicised movement is just bitter old hackspeak of which John Harris and Dorian Lynskey are also guilty. Punk was mainly about going out and getting fucked - ditto every other movement since the 1950s. This is the music journo equivalent of decency - invent a past that never existed then find everything since a pale shadow of it.

He's right that Britpop was mainly about ambition in terms of trying to appeal to big audiences (but Parklife wasn't that, really - in fact no Blur record was - The Great Escape was far too weird for that too). And really a lot of the piece is a rant about success. Parkes was first and foremost a Manics fan, and really fucking hated it when they got big not least because "someone called me a cunt in the toilets at a manics gig for doing my hair in a mirror". He and his journo chums were complicit in it all - he's having his cake and eating it.

flyingrodent said...

I think the interesting question about Britpop is how it got so big when it did.

A thriving underground scene with a lot of fans in the right places at the right time; a couple of bands get popular enough simultaneously; chuck in some traditional record industry cash-grubbing, signing up every act they could wedge onto the Britpop bandwagon, and wahey! A ready-made British pop boom.

I think it probably took on the union flag-waving character that it did because of the football/Engerlund Oasis fans and the happy/unhappy coincidence of Euro 96 in the same place. Certainly, I noticed the pissed-patriot thing picking up big time after that. Chuck in a couple of pportunistic magazine covers, and that was pretty much all it took IMO.

flyingrodent said...

This line of "it was all shit and I never really liked any of it and even the records I kept are crap" is just too easy to take.

I was hinting a bit towards this though not at TP particularly* - I don't remember much about him specifically, any more than most of the other music hacks of the day. His chat about his negative Knebworth review chimes with what I remember though - a lot of complaints about being miles away from the stage, hearing the music through a time-delayed second sound-system, and every song half drowned out by the huge, pissed-up crowd. Plus, it'd be a bit daft to say you dissented about it when back issues are still floating around and quotable.

But as you say, a lot of the vitriol about it not being a specifically politicised movement is just bitter old hackspeak of which John Harris and Dorian Lynskey are also guilty.

Yes, I think so. I think there were high hopes for Britpop, expectations that realistically, it could never possibly have met. And I suspect that even if it had, it probably wouldn't have been good enough - that's why I mention all the early 90s crusty/shouty bands, who were far more political but didn't get any respect for it because their music wasn't popular with the hacks. And to be fair, much of that music just wasn't very good. At all.

He and his journo chums were complicit in it all - he's having his cake and eating it.

This may be a valid criticism and I was kind of aiming in this direction. If this was 1999 or so, I might be able to tell you definitively - I loved all that music crit stuff, back in the day, and still bought the mags even when I was living on a pittance.

Sadly, all the bullshit I've learned since has forced all of that old bullshit out of my left ear, so I can't really judge.

*Fun fact - Like I say, I was 17 in 1995. And, Taylor Parkes was born in the same year as my Mum.

ejh said...

Not everything in that last paragraph can be true.

flyingrodent said...

Not everything in that last paragraph can be true.

Having thought a bit on this, you're right - I was seventeen, TP was born in 1958, and my Mum was actually born in 1957. This is down to me miscalculating my Mum's age, but so long as nobody tells her I messed it up, I might yet get away with it.

Also, I notice from his Wiki page that it was Taylor Parkes' birthday on Wednesday, so many happy returns to him.

Ken Eadie, the Prince of Strikers said...

In the online age, I can’t ever remember a music journalist’s article that has caused such a minor stoosh as Parkes Britpop piece, that in itself is interesting when you look at the quality of music journalism now or the depressing NME website. That we are discussing the axis of music, culture and politics is something to be cherished in this electronic day and age.

I think the criticisms of Parkes in the comments here are a bit harsh, although I do agree with rodent’s piece (written as brilliantly as ever). Parkes does have, as we all have, the power of hindsight and he does admit in parts that he bought the bullshit at the time. Does this mean he must always hold fast to his 1995 attitudes? Of course not, it’s 20 years and a lot of water under the bridge musically, culturally and politically. The Blair/Campbell/Britpop No.10 summit ensured that one can never divorce the music and culture of the time from the politics.

Parkes piece as I read it, isn’t about the disillusion after the political and cultural promise of Britpop, it’s the fact there was never any politics or awareness at all. It’s why the high heid yins of Britpop all ended up in No.10 with the king of vacuity himself. Politics and celebrity in this sceptered isle could no longer be separated. From Blair meeting Noel to Gordon Brown leading the tributes on the death of Jade Goody- it all started in the mid 1990s.

That it has taken Parkes until a ‘significant’ anniversary to bulldoze the cultural and political legacy of Britpop doesn’t lessen the impact of his polemic nor the fact he ‘was there’ and enjoyed it. So what if he was “having it” at the time? If Parkes has a ‘crime’, it is to have put naïve hope into any music trend as a force for change in the first place, but the charge of hypocrisy for having been caught up in it at the time is I think too strong.

ejh said...

I was born in 1965 and as far as I am aware Taylor is younger than I am.

flyingrodent said...

That's simply not possible - if it were true, it would suggest that somebody had put an incorrect thing on Wikipedia. Surely not.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, Taylor is 41 or 42, so was born in 72 or 73 or something.

dsquared said...

If Parkes has a ‘crime’, it is to have put naïve hope into any music trend as a force for change in the first place, but the charge of hypocrisy for having been caught up in it at the time is I think too strong.

For all that people want to go on about Noel Gallagher, I've always thought that "please don't put your life in the hands of a rock and roll band, they'll throw it all away" is 1) a pretty poetic line and 2) a spot on perfect epitaph for the Blair years

Organic cheeseboard said...

I don't disagree with the sentiment of the last comment but Parkes in that piece is not actually claiming to have put faith of hope in the "movement" - he pretty specifically says the opposite, that he never listened to any of it willingly and never thought much of any of the bands. Despite working for one of the biggest agents in the hype machine and dating a fairly well-known participant in the movement. It's not good enough - for me at least. It's one of the easiest pieces to write imaginable. The same thing is true of the John Harris book - identify a few shit pieces of music, some of the obvious excesses of the time, and pretty much write it all off largely because the hype you generated looks a bit silly in retrospect. Luke Haines tweeted a quote from Parkes, supposedly from 1994, which criticised The Auteurs for not getting on board with britpop. No idea if that's true or not, but it definitely is true that there's nothing the music press likes more than movements - Melody Maker, while Parkes was there, championed New Wave of New Wave, britpop and romo (and I'm probably forgetting others too). Like I said, it's just too easy to turn around and say "actually it was all bollocks".

On politics and musical movements - I was 13 when parklife came out, I remember where I bought it and how much it cost, I had "girls and boys" on tape single having bought "Modern Life is Rubbish" on tape on the recommendation of, well, Select Magazine. I didn't care about the politics in any of the bands I listened to at all - in fact I disliked "Different Class" partly cos it was too preachy. I don't think I'm especially unusual in that (well maybe the last sentence). when bands of musical movements are primarily political, they're generally shit and also almost always scorned by the music press. Parkes is claiming to have wanted britpop to be something he would have hated as well (incidentally it is surely unfair to have a go at Albarn for selling music to adverts when the fucking clash did it too).

As a note, it was only Noël Gallagher and Alan McGee who went to no 10 iirc. Blair and Campbell tried to "enlist" Albarn before the election but he declined.

You can probably tell that I have a real fondness for all of this, music and culture, and I bought all the music papers and mags between 1993 and 1998. And I never really remember self-identifying as a britpop fan. I liked almost all the britpop bands (though I remember disliking most of the bandwagon jumpers like cast, lush, ocean colour scene), but I was also buying American indie rock, hip hop and dance music. All of which the Melody Maker was writing about at the time - in fact I remember how big a deal it was when they put Underworld on the cover in I think 1993. A lot of these anti-britpop pieces (the Hann in the guardian was the worst) seem to forget all the other excellent music being made in the 90s and lump all guitar music in together to boot. And in the end it surely is popularity that's the problem. I remember people at Oasis gigs saying things like "it's just like Spike Island" - at the end of the 80s, particularly with the Stone Roses, there seems to have been a movement towards a genuinely big fan base for British indie that oasis in particular exploited. Like someone on here has said, there was a lot of shit music around in the 90s too. I'm happier seeing Blur winning Brit awards than, I dunno, Robbie Williams.

ejh said...

I'm happier seeing Blur winning Brit awards than, I dunno, Robbie Williams.

How ambitious is that, though?

Igor Belanov said...

The best thing to do is to disregard awards full stop.

And OC- 'Different Class' was too preachy? It was hardly openly political anyway, but the social commentary is one of its best features, and at least half the songs are Jarvis Cocker's usual take on sex and sleaze. It wasn't exactly 'Generation Terrorists'.

Organic cheeseboard said...

Agreed on Different Class, but I've never loved that album like a lot of others seem to. I think Parkes wanted every britpop album to be Generation Terrorists!

I take your point ejh. I think part of the weirdness of britpop was bands who'd typically struggle along for ten years just about making ends meet suddenly realising that if they altered their sound a little big - made it cleaner and made the hooks more obvious - they could sell in the hundreds rather than tens of thousands.

A lot of it was also about what it opposed - grunge (and I'd still much rather listen to a mediocre britpop band than a mediocre grunge one) but also 80s music per se - the synths, the earnestness, being intentionally esoteric. I'm still prejudiced against 80s music as a result in fact.