SHEDNOTES 123: Modern History – the Battle of Britpop

The Shed enjoyed Laura Barton recalling 1995, at

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/may/05/pop-lost-tribal-fever-liam-gallagher-new-blur-single

She wrote:

All that summer and on into autumn, a kind of fever seemed to grip the nation, as if we were living under a perpetual midday sun, making mad dogs and Englishmen of us all.

The battle of Britpop began simply enough with a single release: Blur’s Country House thrust up against Oasis’s Roll With It on the very same mid-August day in 1995. They were very different songs – the former a semi-cautionary tale about a record executive who retires to the country, peppered with references to Balzac, Prozac and Animal Farm and carried on a jovial gait, the latter a more lyrically opaque account of lost feelings and lingering ambition drawled over sludging guitars.

There was surely room for both in the musical landscape of the time, and yet the manner in which those two bands squared up to one another suggested otherwise; it carried with it a kind of wildness, the sort of posturing and bravado you might find on football terraces or at provincial nightclubs. It became about more than just the rush for the No 1 spot – it was about identity and belonging and long-held grudges. It became about the north and the south and the long-held animosity between the two.

The events of this week, then, still seem startling to me: on Monday Liam Gallagher tweeted his opinion that Blur’s new single, Lonesome Street, was “song of the year”. It was the kind of statement that would have seemed preposterous in 1995, but that, 20 years on, reflects not only the mellowing effect of time on ageing rock stars, but also perhaps a shift in the tribal way we approach music.

Britpop itself was stirred out of something anti-American, an apparent reaction against the grunge acts that had dominated the charts in the early 90s, a move back towards the familiar Britishness of the Smiths or the Kinks or the Who. That this movement should then subdivide further should not have been surprising. Blur, like many of the bands of that era, represented London and the scene that swirled around Camden Town – from a distance they seemed to be androgynous pretty boys who sang with London accents. Oasis, on the other hand, were surly, dry-witted Mancunians, burlier and hairier than their southern rivals. In the north, people clung to them.

The year that the battle of Britpop raged, I was working in a record store in the north-west of England, and I recall seeing at close quarters the sheer ferocity of it all: the furious northern allegiance to Oasis, and how the customers queued out of the door to buy Morning Glory CDs and posters and T-shirts, how at the local indie disco people walked off the dancefloor in disgust when the DJ played a Blur song. People dressed like the Gallaghers, walked like the Gallaghers, talked like them. For months, they struck up conversations at the record store counter, on buses, in pubs, about why Oasis were better than Blur. It wasn’t, you quickly sensed, just about two bands, it was something deeper than that – something guttural.

At the local indie disco people walked off the dancefloor in disgust when the DJ played a Blur song

History states that if Blur won the battle – selling 274,000 copies of Country House to Roll With It’s 216,000 – then Oasis won the war, their album (What’s the Story) Morning Glory outselling Blur’s The Great Escape that autumn.

But it seems peculiar now – odd that any band rivalry could ever have tipped the nation into such a breast-beating frenzy. Part of this is that the old tribes don’t seem to exist quite as fixedly as they once did. Mainstream and alternative cultures have washed together in a quite unexpected way, so that all of these once unthinkables now seem no great shakes: Tory MPs going to Glastonbury; Sufjan Stevens soundtracking Radio 4’s Food and Farming Awards; everyone shopping at Topshop. We have become a smudge of music festivals, vinyl, street food and bicycles; we go to gigs with our parents, swap music tips with strangers online, where once we had John Peel and the Evening Session, now we have 6 Music, and iTunes and music blogs to lead us into a great wide musical land beyond the Top 40 and the singles chart in Woolworths.

And it’s a wonderful thing, this variety, this opportunity, this appetite and equality. But I can’t help but wonder where all the tribes go, where the desire to belong will settle. And sometimes I catch a glimmer of it, still, turned uglier now and sour of face – in the petitions to stop Kanye performing at Glastonbury, say, or before him Jay-Z. And in those moments I think back to the summer of 1995, and the queues out the door of a northern record store, and I wonder if perhaps the midday sun shone a little warmer, a little kinder, then.

A couple of postscripts to all that …

1) In Guardian on May 7, Garry Cobain of Amorphous Androgynous recounted working with Noel Gallagher on an album which was never released. Report by Paul Lester …

We had remixed the 2009 Oasis single Falling Down and turned it into a 22-minute odyssey, which he loved, and then he invited me to DJ at the afterparty for one of Oasis’s Wembley Arena gigs that October. That’s when we began talking about a solo record.

It started out promisingly. When Noel first came round to my house with a bunch of demos, he was strangely subdued and insecure. Oasis were past their sell-by date. I saw a guy with a guitar who needed something exciting. We were all over the press with our new vision of psychedelia and he leaned very heavily on us. He went into it with all the right intentions.

Between 2009 and 2011, I was obsessed with Noel Gallagher. During that period, we spent four weeks in the studio with him. The rest of the time it was just Brian [Dougans, the other half of AA] and me, in control of the budgets, all the music and the musicians. We got in Gary Lucas from Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band and Virgil Howe, son of Steve Howe of Yes, to give an idea of how far-out we were going.

The first day, a lorry arrived with 87 guitars and 200 effects pedals, and I looked at Brian and said: “Wow, this is gonna be fun!” And yet within a week there were reports that Noel was considering dropping the album because we’d asked him to play the same guitar solo for five hours. Actually, all that happened was I thought he’d like to experiment with an idea we had, but after 30 minutes he was lost and angry that we weren’t telling him exactly what to do. We assumed he would want to let loose – after all, George Harrison spent 12 hours doing the backwards guitar solo for I’m Only Sleeping.

The studio wasn’t disharmonious, but I did have to work around his limitations and it quickly became apparent that rather than singing and playing differently, he wanted to do things exactly the same as ever as ever. He did the same vocal take five times. I said: “Imagine yourself as a voice actor.” He said: “Don’t ever fucking talk to me about being a voice actor!” I knew it wasn’t going to be easy.

We were just finishing off the mixing of the album when we were invited to the press conference on 6 July 2011. I watched it online. That’s when he announced that there would be two albums: the one that became High Flying Birds, and our one. High Flying Birds had the same running order as the album we’d been working on, even if the tracks themselves were a lot straighter. At the press conference you could see he felt trepidatious about High Flying Birds. He seemed more interested in ours. He said it would be an 18-track album ranging from vaudeville to “space jazz” to krautrock, and as out-there as The Dark Side of the Moon. That album is the holy grail to me, and I was embarrassed by these proclamations. They put me in a real quandary because there was no way, with respect, that his songs were anything like Dark Side.

It’s odd because Noel loves the Beatles, the masters of experimentation. But Oasis thought they just needed to sing lyrics of love – it was all surface and no depth. To me, psychedelia isn’t just tasteful songs about the sun and phased guitars; it’s a radical form.

In August 2012, Noel said he was considering scrapping the collaboration because he was not completely satisfied with the mixes – by that time only one of our tracks had come out, the B-side Shoot a Hole into the Sun. But this wouldn’t have been an album of remixes. It would have been his first solo album proper, under the name Noel Gallagher, possibly with “Amorphous Androgynous” in the title. It wouldn’t have been High Flying Birds.

Noel is loved by middle England. Would I turn his four-minute songs into prog-psych music? No, I was prepared to meet him halfway. My mandate was to do the most difficult thing: bring my psych and prog influences to bear on pop songs. It was never going to be as way out as Pink Floyd. But I did think I could make his songs as free as Cosmic Dancer by T Rex.

We tried to force him to write new material. But he dragged his heels and failed to stretch himself. Eventually, we came up with two new backing tracks for The Right Stuff and The Mexican to justify it being “like Pink Floyd”, the two songs that ended up on Chasing Yesterday. We spent six months on them. Now people are citing The Right Stuff as one of the best things he has done, and proof of how good he can be when he explores.

There’s not much colour on his two albums; it’s just the same old Noel. He has tried to send out this message that he’s pushed himself, but it’s just the same generic stuff. We had kids’ choirs, harpsichords, mandolins. We really went to town with orchestras and all sorts of crazy instrumentation. He just needed to cut the pie to suit Noel the solo artist – we left some excess pastry on it so he could trim a bit off.

I believe ours is the album people wanted him to make – a liberated, exploratory Noel Gallagher, cutting loose from Oasis, enjoying his freedom; the Noel who name-drops our Monstrous Bubble albums and krautrock, and who had hits with the Chemical Brothers. He obviously loves that kind of music, but has no idea how to make it.

We still talk. But he has been asked about our album a lot, and his rebuttal of it is a disgrace. It’s doing me a lot of damage. He became too afraid to be weird. But, still, when Noel is ready to collaborate, I’m here.

* Amorphous Androgynous have a new album out, A Monstrous Psychedelic Bubble (Exploding in Your Mind).

2) Also of interest in the history of Britpop was Sophie Heawood, Guardian, introducing a Greek rich girl, Danae Stratou, as the likely catalyst for Pulp’s classic Common People. She probably met Jarvis Cocker at art college. Full story at

http://tinyurl.com/mlmczkr/

endsfornow

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