Remember the 90s? No? Well, put down that Modest Mouse CD, Sally, and I’ll tell you all about it. They were heady times. The economy was rocking, and so was the White House. While the market was going up, Monica was going down and we were all having a laugh while Republicans tried to dismantle democracy in America. Yes, we were all gleefully hoodwinked by the early volleys of a culture war that is just now taking its toll.
But the real fun was happening across the pond in Jolly Old England. Brit Rock was making a splash and Lad Culture was taking off. Instead of being reprimanded and threatened with impeachment, Britain’s movers and shakers were celebrating loutish behavior with Liam and Noel Gallagher leading the way. Live Forever: The Rise and fall of Brit Pop is a DVD that looks at the cultural precursors precipitating the rise of Brit Rock and the political co-opting of a movement that led to its ultimate decay.
Britain in the 80s was politically synced up with America. Thatcherism was to Britain what Reaganism was to the United States. Conservativism was the way and you better step in line or face the wall. In Live Forever, Noel Gallagher explains it thus:
“I think a lot of young people had accepted Conservativism and dull culture and daytime telly…Britain was dead in the 80s.”
But Conservativism naturally leads to an underground swelling of creative angst; a bucking of the powers that be. The creative stew and political desperation rises to a boiling point. In the late 80s, three elements bring Britain to the edge of that boiling point: the poll tax riots, the introduction of Ecstasy into the club scene, and the Stone Roses.
In the summer of 1990, high on the massive European success of their debut album, the Stone Roses headlined the Spike Island festival.
“Spike Island was the blueprint for my band,” said Gallagher in the film.
The Stone Roses brought art and music and a hint of politics to the youth culture and energized a nation of young Brits who’d known nothing but Thatcherism. The band’s appearance at Spike Island was the gathering of the tribes and anyone who followed Brit Rock at the time could feel a change coming.
“Spike Island was freedom after being locked up for 11 years by conservative government,” said journalist Jon Savage.
But like so many flashes of brilliance, the Stone Roses were a dream ultimately left unfulfilled. A five year lawsuit and eventual personality strife kept the band from the world dominance they’d so arrogantly declared theirs. The band’s disintegration left a hole in Britain’s musical psyche; a vacuum. And nature abhors a vacuum.
Just as Britain’s music scene rebelled against Conservativism, so too did America’s. November 1991 saw the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind. And everything else paled in comparison, if only in the public’s eye. For a time, Britain was just as caught up in the anger (or apathy) of grunge as America was. Suddenly, British culture was again overcome by the exports of its former colony and Brit Rock languished for a time. There were glimmers of hope here and there: Suede’s debut album shook for a spell; Radiohead appeared but were at first written off as “the band who sings ‘Creep;'” Blur put out a good record but hadn’t yet shaken their affiliation with the Roses, Happy Mondays, or Inspiral Carpets that was soooo 1990!
But in April of 1994, Kurt Cobain ended grunge with a shotgun blast. Around the same time, Oasis released Definitely Maybe to a smattering of critical attention and a growing legion of tough fans who soaked up the Gallagher brothers’ lifestyle as much as their music. Soon, the band was too big to ignore and the NME started to pay attention.
Like all cycles, the cultural pendulum was swinging back overseas. In the same month as Oasis’ television debut in England, the Atlantic Bar in London opens. The Atlantic quickly became the gathering place for hip, young celebrities. Over the next year and a half or so, a small flood of art and pop culture pours out of England. See if you remember any of this:
• Artist Damien Hirst opens his controversial “cow” exhibit.
• The film Trainspotting and accompanying soundtrack shocks everyone and spawns a spate of gross fiction from freshman creative writing majors across the U.S.
• Verve releases A Storm in Heaven. Stoner rock is saved, and—quite impossibly—made cool!
• Pulp releases Different Class and reopens the class wars that Brits always fight, sometimes more quietly than other times.
• Kate Moss
Suddenly, England was the center of the world again, at least as far as the culture of cool was concerned. A new generation of Brits came of age who resented America’s cultural dominance and it was like the opening scene to Austin Powers all over again.
“American’s have tremendous confidence, but not much talent,” said the publisher of Revolver Magazine (whose name I cannot remember nor find online).
The spotlight was focused exclusively on Britain and particularly on the boys in the bands. Pictures were published daily in the British tabloids of one Gallagher or another picking a fight with a local in a club (or more often, with each other). Drunken nights were front page fodder. The Lad culture that gave us what is now Maxim magazine was just boys being boys.
But there’s only so much room in the spotlight, and a rivalry soon sparked—or was created—by the British media who’d grown accustomed to the phat sales whenever the face of a member of the new rock royalty graced their covers.
The Oasis-Blur battles are touched upon in Live Forever, but woefully handled. The interviewers let the Gallagher brothers off with their bawdy, flippant boasts and Blur’s Damon Albarn blows off the whole thing like it was so much hot air—which it ultimately was. But shit, we want some dirt but this film basically breaks it down to the obvious class differences between the two bands, leaving us with just one gem from Noel Gallagher on the subject, “I worked on building sites. That makes my soul fundamentally purer.”
But that’s not to say that class doesn’t play a major role in the appeal of Brit Rock. It certainly does, if to no one else, than to the Brits themselves.
“For a long time a lot of people were marginalized like you were a turd,” Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker says of the traditional class hierarchy in Britain. But the 90s saw the class roles reversed, “Now the turd was center stage.”
Oasis’ What’s the Story Morning Glory debuts in October of 1995, bringing the band to its creative and influential peak. In August 1996, they headline a show at Knebworth castle, which was the largest free standing concert in British history. That kind of pull is bound to turn some heads, and where there are people, there are politicians.
That year, the publisher of Vanity Fair convinced Tony Blair to appear in the Brit Rock edition of the magazine, since New Labour was billing itself as a breath of fresh air. Liam Gallagher and wife appear on the cover. Noel got the call first.
“[Vanity Fair tells me] ‘if you don’t do [the cover] Blur will,’ to which I laugh and hand the phone to Liam,” said Gallagher.
But Noel soon signs on with New Labour and actively campaigns for the party, as do several other prominent young stars. Like his American counterpart, Bill Clinton, Blair sold himself as a populace candidate ready to take his country across “the bridge to the 20th Century,” as Clinton was so fond of saying. Blair and his party won the majority in Parliament and many of the stars who helped get him there were invited to 10 Downing Street as a show of thanks. But the honeymoon was short and soon many of the rockers who had put their faith in New Labour found themselves out of favor with their new leadership. Albarn even claims in the film to have received a threatening call from a Blair staffer when the star criticized the Prime Minister’s decision not to send his kids to public schools.
The perceived selling out of New Labour left many stars bitter and more fans disappointed in the co-opting of their scene by hustling politicians. Noel Gallagher could hardly carry the banner of the working class hero as he’s glad-handing the Prime Minister in front of a throng of cameras. It was the beginning of what would be a long, slow decline for Brit Rock.
Britain fell slowly into a funk as Oasis’ 1997 album Be Here Now failed to impress critics or shoppers. The day after the album’s release, Britain wakes up to the news of Lady Di’s death in a car crash. Soon, ex-Take That star Robbie Williams releases the massive “Angels,” which is more or less a light rock homage to Oasis. Before the end of the year, the charts are dominated by hits from the Spice Girls and a kiddie band called S Club 7 Juniors. It is over.
Today, there are lots of good British bands, including the fantastic Libertines, the brash and flashy Darkness, and the schizophrenic Franz Ferdinand (yes I know they’re Scottish, save the hate mail), but none have captured the imagination or directed the culture of Britain’s youth like those bands of the mid 90s. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to identify them as British at all on first listen. And maybe that’s where Brit culture is now.
As Massive Attack’s 3D says near the end of Live Forever, “Today, Britain is quite anonymous.”
Live Forever is a brief look at the elements that made and broke Brit Pop/Rock in the 90s, clocking in at 103 minutes. While it falls short in going into depth about how the movement was seduced by New Labour or how Britain’s two biggest bands were duped into a war to sell tabloid magazines, it’s still an interesting look at the scene and the characters who made it so fucking fun in the first place. Besides, there’s great music, clothes, and hair throughout. And as Liam says, “you’ve gotta have a decent haircut if you’re going to be front man of a band.”
Who can argue with that?