Tuesday, September 6, 2011

From The Library: Britpop! by John Harris

Condensing the origins of a musical movement is never an easy task, especially when the movement in question is as broad and nebulous as my beloved Britpop. John Harris, contributor to such music rags as Mojo and NME, took on this monumental challenge, and being so enthralled by Britpop as I once was (hell, still am), I couldn’t possibly not read his tome (given the title Britpop! for American audiences). What awaited me was 400 pages of sex, drugs, politics, and no shortage of music (some good, some bad, and some utterly forgettable).

Initially, I was dubious. After all, here was a book that felt it necessary to explain the existence of 10 Downing Street in its introduction. I know Americans are oft woefully under-informed, but I’m pretty sure most readers of a book on Britpop would probably be well aware of 10 Downing Street and its politico resident (for much of the book, former Prime Minister Tony Blair). I was also a bit underwhelmed by the heavy emphasis on politics throughout the text, because despite the Cool Britannia experiment of the Britpop era, the book felt tedious when it came to those politics-heavy chapters. Though, of course, I can’t pretend finding out about Blair’s rock’n’roll past wasn’t a pleasant surprise.


However, Harris certainly knows his stuff. As a insider during the period in question, Harris enthusiastically dishes out quite a story. From the dawn of Britpop with bands like Suede reacting to the Thatcherian excesses of the 80s and grunge bands like Nirvana topping British charts, the need to bring Britishness back to music was the initial caveat for the bands that launched the movement. Blur, too, was heavily involved in crafting the shape of Britpop, and soon forged a heavy rivalry with Suede because of the dangerous love triangle in the form of Suede’s Bret Anderson, Elastica’s Justine Frischmann, and Blur’s Damon Albarn. Their storyline was omnipresent in the Britpop era, and those days saw the changing fortunes of all three bands.


Inevitably, along came the band that would, in their own way, lead to the downfall of Britpop: Oasis. Harris is at times rather hard on those Mancunians, but he speaks much truth. As the band got bigger, they became more and more a parody of themselves, and their excesses eventually became worse than those that the early Britpop bands were rebelling against to begin with.


All told, Britpop! is full of deliciously sordid tales and learned insights. The content is extensive, and Harris leaves few stones unturned in his quest to impart as much knowledge and opinion as possible in a few hundred pages. I certainly don’t agree with him on everything, but Harris has done a fine job in giving us Britpop fanatics a valuable resource and a fond reminiscence of a time that was full of golden years.

m4a: Girls & Boys (Blur from Parklife)

m4a: Common People (Pulp from Different Class)

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