October 6, 2007

Live Forever & the Britpop explosion (“I’ve been on the shelf too long / now it’s time to hear my song”)

Britain in the mid-90s was a chaotic, creative, music-centric place to be. As Thatcher’s tenure as PM ended and a fresh start began under Tony Blair and the New Labour party, there was a simultaneous crackle and thrum of musical vibrancy that is explored in the 2003 documentary Live Forever (by filmmaker John Dower). On the surface it’s the story of the music, the “Britpop sound” and those who made it, but it also tries to get deeper underneath to look at the society at that moment and what fed this burgeoning supernova.

As a complete outsider to this specific moment in world history myself, but a fan of the music that ended up on my plate because of it, I thought it was fascinating to see one view of the context behind it. As Louise Wener from the band Sleeper says of those days, “There was a sense of a kind of excitement that something was changing — perhaps this music was foreshadowing something else.” The documentary undertakes the Herculean task of trying to examine the music through the social and political context of the mid-90s, teasing out its larger implications to the fabric of a generation. This is always tricky.

The story is mostly told through first person interviews from those who were there. You’ve got the big three represented in Oasis, Blur and Pulp, but also a number of other musicians and commentators. These conversations were illuminating and entertaining — not counting a few statements of general unfair snobbery related to my own culture, like “Americans have tremendous confidence, but not much talent,” and one remark that I obviously vehemently disagreed with regarding Seattle music of the time: “The only really decent group were Nirvana” (I said “Unh!” to myself and looked around at no one else sitting there with me, in indignation).

Along with snippets of music videos, concerts, newsclips and articles, the interviews carry the bulk of the story. Damon Albarn seems to have grown up quite a bit, his segments were pensive and thoughtful, accompanied by his strumming on a ukulele. Jarvis Cocker had some fantastic stories of those years and I enjoyed hearing his articulate reflection (but really, whatever he says, I just love his voice – deliciously smarmy and all rich velvet molasses). Liam was a complete wanker for most of his bits –so secure in his obvious awesomeness, relentlessly turning questions back around on the filmmakers, giving evasive answers, sitting there with that haircut and those mirrored shades sounding like he’s got a mouthful of marbles– but Noel was hilarious and awesome. Example: Towards the end, Noel’s talking about how they were in a studio one day next door to the prepubescent dance-pop of S Club 7, and how he seriously thought they were “special needs kids” there for a tour of the studios and for the free food. Touche.

The film goes through the peak years of the Britpop sound, which were right smack in the middle of my high school years — a time when pretty much every single act coming out of Britain making pop/rock music was tagged part of “The Britpop Movement.” As surely as so-called “grunge bands” of ’90s Seattle shrugged away from the label, many of these Britpop bands weren’t thrilled with the simplistic categorization, but it did create a crackling excitement and level of buzz for their music that took them places they otherwise wouldn’t have gone just a decade prior.

So which Britain was it?

Is it the carefree abandonment of youth epitomized by Supergrass frolicking on the beach, singing lines like:

We are young, we run green, keep our teeth, nice and clean
see our friends, see the sights, feel alright

We wake up, we go out, smoke a fag, put it out
see our friends, see the sights, feel alright

But we are young, we get by, can’t go mad, ain’t got time
Sleep around, if we like, but we’re alright

The disaffected uncertainty (yet faith in music) of The Verve in “This Is Music”?

I stand accused, just like you
for being born without a silver spoon
Stood at the top of a hill
Over my town I was found

I’ve been on the shelf too long
Sitting at home on my bed too long
Got my things and now I’m gone
How’s the world gonna take me?

. . . Well music is my life and loved by me
I’m gonna move on the floor with my sweet young thing
Down down down, down we go
till I reach the bottom of my soul
This is music

Blur’s cocky questioning of having it all in “Parklife”?
The paranoia and ‘the sound of loneliness turned up to ten’ of Pulp’s “Fear”?
The indomitable conviction that you and I are gonna live forever?

Listening to the variety of sounds coming out of Britain at the time –all classified by someone or another as Britpop– shows you a bit of how meaningless the term really was. In the film, an interviewer asks Jarvis Cocker of Pulp as he sits on his bed by an open window, curtain fluttering in the breeze, about how his song Common People was called by one reviewer, “the perfect encapsulation of the Britpop aesthetic.” Jarvis just shakes his head, sighs a little, and says, “Oh no.”

Regardless of what it all means (and really, who knows what it all means), this is good music, and the film is 86 minutes well spent.

I had a lot of fun putting this mix together after watching the documentary, combining songs I remember liking the first time around with new discoveries and recommendations from friends on that side of the Pond. According to the film, the Britpop sound inhabited a relatively ephemeral period of time, starting ’round 1992, hitting boiling point in April ’94 with the release of Blur’s Parklife, followed in August by Oasis’ Definitely Maybe. In a similar scene that echoes the film Hype!, bands were getting signed at the height of the frenzy after having played together for mere weeks, with only a handful of songs written.

Some say that the death of the era came with a resounding thud in August ’97 with the release of the cocaine haze manifesto Be Here Now by Oasis. Other say it ended more around the time that footballer Gareth Southgate missed a penalty kick in the Euro ’96 semifinals against Germany. Come on. Is an era that exact? Go ahead and argue either way, influences started before then and the sound carried on after, but I’ve tried to mostly focus my own little mix in the thick of things, from ’94-’97.

And as with any label, you can debate it til the cows come home who fits into the category or not, so some of these may not gel in your mind as Britpop. I lack the immediate expert knowledge in this area, being more of a “grunge rock” girl myself when this was all going down (I shudder at that term, see?!). Snag the whole zip, enjoy the flow for some perfect weekend listening. In general, these make me feel a jaunty sense of optimism — and maybe slightly disaffected, but such were the Nineties, right?

Waterfall – The Stone Roses
Alright – Supergrass
God! Show Me Magic – Super Furry Animals
This Is Music – Verve
Parklife – Blur
Kelly’s Heroes – Black Grape
Common People (live at Melkweg 1995) – Pulp
Interview clip from Knebworth ’96 – Noel Gallagher

(discussing Kula Shaker & Liam’s Musical Tastes)
Hey Dude – Kula Shaker
Alright (live at Glastonbury) – Cast
Change – The Lightning Seeds
Faster – Manic Street Preachers
Wake Up Boo – The Boo Radleys
Lenny Valentino – The Auteurs
Line Up – Elastica
Step Into My World – Hurricane #1
Animal Nitrate – Suede
Hundred Mile City – Ocean Colour Scene
Getting Better – Shed Seven
She Makes My Nose Bleed – Mansun
Girl From Mars – Ash
Be My Light, Be My Guide (live) – Gene
The Fear – Pulp
The Only One I Know – The Charlatans
Live Forever (live at Glastonbury) – Oasis


It’s worth noting that although some of these groups didn’t survive the end of the decade, many of them have gone on continue recording music that is just as good (and in may cases better) than their mid-Nineties output. Verve is reuniting and touring, Jarvis Cocker has a swanky euro-cool solo album out now, I rather liked Ocean Colour Scene’s last one, and Ash just rocked my world with their newest single. Media frenzy or no, the talent lasts.

It’s as James (the band from Manchester) said in the fantastic smack of their 1998 song “Destiny Calling”:

So we may be gorgeous, so we may be famous —
come back when we’re getting old.”


  • Heather, that’s a great mix, thank you for posting this! Catherine Wheel and James are sad that they didn’t make the cut.

    - Neil

    Anonymous — October 6, 2007 @ 5:09 pm

  • Gotta check this moive out, thanks for posting. Pulp is and was one of my all time favorite bands from that era but I feel Suede never got the glory they deserved like the other bands did. Bret just came out with a new album but one of the best songs he recently recorded is not on it, it’s a single called “back to you” his latest masterpiece in my opinion.
    To add to your comment on why Brit Pop ended is what I feel became over saturation of mediocre bands being signed and the onset of Trance taking over at that time. People just switched gears to the latest trend in music, thank Paul Oakenfold for that one.


    Anonymous — October 6, 2007 @ 6:11 pm

  • Brilliant tunes – so hey, are Travis & Colplay latter day Brit Poppers?

    Ed from Concord — October 6, 2007 @ 8:19 pm

  • Nice post. I was a bit young to experience the whole Britpop thing… funny enough, I got into Oasis around the Be Here Now era. They introduced me to a whole new world of music. I meant to check out this movie awhile back and totally forgot about it till now!

    Megan — October 6, 2007 @ 9:02 pm

  • Oh and a fun fact:
    Andy Bell, the guitarist from Hurricane #1, is now the bassist in Oasis.

    Megan — October 6, 2007 @ 9:06 pm

  • Nice catch, Megan. I did know that – I had another Oasis song right after that tune to underscore it, but the mix was too long….

    heather — October 6, 2007 @ 9:25 pm

  • Kula Shaker has also reunited and is putting out a new album. I’m stoked to see how their sound has evolved.

    vjb2 — October 6, 2007 @ 10:58 pm

  • I’m in lima and am somewhat randomly checking the internet at 106 am, my friend is dragging and i wander your way and well, you are a brilliant writer. this blog is great for music, this is well known but i’m learning more and more that the writing, the craft if you will, is also excellent.


    Anonymous — October 7, 2007 @ 12:09 am

  • heather, britpop was all of these things and more. many of these songs perfectly soundtracked my nineties experience in england, from the highs of definitely maybe, blur’s ‘girls & boys’, and ‘i should coco’ era supergrass to the inevitable comedown at the end of the decade.

    up to 97 i partied hard (the usual trappings, if you know what i mean), but then i became much more consciously aware of myself and the world around. this came from many of the records released around that time – spiritualized ‘ladies & gentlemen…’, the verve ‘urban hymns’ (and to a greater extent, ‘a northern soul’, which i discovered as a result), but mostly radiohead’s ‘ok computer’.
    maybe this was replicated across my generation, i don’t know. what is certain is that it was fantastic, awful, exciting, scary, confusing, and it partly made me who i am today.

    quite rightly you have kept your focus on the music, much of which was simply brilliant. some of it wasn’t though (gay dad!!). for the uninitiated try john harris’ book ‘the last party’ and soon to be released boxset (here in britain, at least) ‘the brit box’, which looks at the scene from it’s late eighties roots, to the late nineties/early noughties decline. it could be argued of course, that it continues in the likes of the arctic monkeys & kaiser chiefs.

    dom — October 7, 2007 @ 3:37 am

  • As usual, another great write-up, Heather. One standout band is missing, however: Spiritualized. Let me know whether you’d like a few samples.

    Take it easy,

    Anonymous — October 7, 2007 @ 3:08 pm

  • Interesting post – the Brit Pop diversion probably ends with the election of the Labour party in ’97.Although,it has to be said the the empty revving engine that is ‘Be Here Now’ also played its nefarious part.How many people have trusted Oasis since? What a falling off was there….

    A social context for the Brit pop moment could be the political lense of John Major’s government.Major reminded everyone in the UK of the inept leadership and confusion experienced in the 1970′s and so for Brit Pop, a little bit,read glam rock;loud,brash and party driven, designed to banish the sheer grey of Major and the rotting vegetables of the Tory years.When the election followed in 97, relief at the change made the the rebellion and the ‘party’ unnecessary;Noel Gallagher famously hob nobbing at number 10 sealed the envelope of Brit Pop.Whilst the Roses giant album(‘I wanna be adored’ being one of the great returns of popular music to its heartlands of human joy) set up the decade, as Hendrix had the 70′s,the Oasis/ Blur games led it into a Slade/Sweet style cul de sac of cocaine,image and meek musical surrender.

    Fun while it lasted and at least it showed the door to a lot of worthy but deadly dull stuff like The Levellers.However,its aftermath was as indigestible as the mid 70′s bloat fest of prog rock and ten minute horror fills on drums or guitar;Cold Play,Travis and the too purple prose and mirror enacted woes of OK Computer;a record designed like war to make you old before your time.

    Thank heaven for the John the Baptist role played by Franz Ferdinand whose sharp guitar lines,pin high lyrics and sheer verve brought the smile back to the face of Brit(ish) Pop.

    Here endeth the lesson.Should be doing something else really but you sure can write.

    russell — October 7, 2007 @ 3:26 pm

  • heather, i love you for this mix. i didn’t grow up during the nineties (i was in 6th grade in 98), but i recently discovered all this great ‘brit pop’ earlier this year and it just made me so happy to discover so much great music. all of it is so great and fantastic. and relatable. so thank you, for this mix. much love!


    Anonymous — October 7, 2007 @ 8:47 pm

  • a great post about a great scene. I saw the Verve on the Urban Hymns tour and I was an awesome show. I even saw Kula Shaker. I Missed Oasis on the first tour before they broke.

    FYI..this BRIT POP boxset is coming out in a few weeks

    Jay — October 7, 2007 @ 10:18 pm

  • great post. i agree with dom, “the last party” is an insightful book of the behind the scenes look at britpop and the british government at the time.

    also, there is a 2 cd soundtrack to live forever. it covers most of the music in the documentary and then some.

    last but not least, if you want more britpop, check out the great 6 part comic book called “phonogram”. excellent material plus lots of music references with a glossary!

    Anonymous — October 8, 2007 @ 12:12 pm

  • This is a stunning mix… nicely sequenced and thoughtfully representative (though some of these tracks will appear on Rhino’s forthcoming Brit Box). It made my day! Good work, Heather!

    I love Oasis and Blur (and Gorillaz, for that matter). God save the Kinks, too!

    Dean — October 8, 2007 @ 1:59 pm

  • Haven’t posted here before, but I’ve read and really loved your blog for some time now, so thank you for that. I was on my honeymoon in London in ’94 and remember feeling like a stranger in a strange land witnessing the hype surrounding Oasis (I’d heard bits and pieces, but didn’t realize what was actually happening) and I felt like an old man at the age of 27.

    I ended up loving Morning Glory, and it helped revitalize my interest in new music that continues to this day after I’d experienced a short lived dormant phase (due in main part to post-college lack of funds).

    Pulp was the really great discovery for me from this period, so thank you much for the live version of “Common People”. That song is one of the most moving and rousing singles ever recorded, imho. It always irks me a bit when people reference the Shatner cover as a personal favorite (and it’s sadly happened more than once) as Cocker’s gorgeous vocal is every bit as important to the song as the brilliantly incisive lyric and surging, anthemic music.

    Also, I really think This is Hardcore is a seriously underrated album and “A Little Soul” is one of the great lost tracks of the 90′s.

    Thanks again for the great blog.


    pq910 — October 8, 2007 @ 5:27 pm

  • I haven’t listened yet – tomorrow at work should be fun – but this looks great. I started college in ’94, and so I think I was just the right age for almost all of this music. It’ll be good to hear Kula Shaker again. Great job and thanks!

    Anonymous — October 8, 2007 @ 10:17 pm

  • love Charlatans…. i thought their album “wonderful” (is that the name?) was brilliant.

    JETHRO — October 9, 2007 @ 12:56 pm

  • I love it when you zip up.

    Dan — October 10, 2007 @ 12:49 pm

  • strong set – but how could you leave out the britpop anthem of this era/genre? milltown brothers: which way should i jump?

    bonus track: ned’s atomic: happy

    Jorgen — December 30, 2007 @ 10:12 pm

  • Britpop was great music, but was sullied by bands like Menswear blatantly trying to cash in on the success of Oasis, Suede, Blur etc. Be Here Now by Oasis was a disappointment, but wasn’t as bad as it is made out be, its just that it was made out to be this huge, triumphal album that would put them up with the likes of the beatles. Britpop died around the release of OK Computer by Radiohead, bands like coldplay started to pop up in place of say, new bands like Ocean Colour Scene would have a few years earlier.

    simmo — July 10, 2008 @ 7:13 pm

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Bio Pic Name: Heather Browne
Location: Colorado, originally by way of California
Giving context to the torrent since 2005.

"I love the relationship that anyone has with music: because there's something in us that is beyond the reach of words, something that eludes and defies our best attempts to spit it out. It's the best part of us, probably, the richest and strangest part..."
—Nick Hornby, Songbook
"Music has always been a matter of energy to me, a question of Fuel. Sentimental people call it Inspiration, but what they really mean is Fuel."
—Hunter S. Thompson

Mp3s are for sampling purposes, kinda like when they give you the cheese cube at Costco, knowing that you'll often go home with having bought the whole 7 lb. spiced Brie log. They are left up for a limited time. If you LIKE the music, go and support these artists, buy their schwag, go to their concerts, purchase their CDs/records and tell all your friends. Rock on.

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