Wednesday, August 17, 2005

BBC FOUR'S JOHN HARRIS NIGHT

So, BBC FOUR cleared an evening of programming to celebrate the career and ideas of John Harris, what with it being ten years since Blur battled Oasis and so on. What we got was mostly a shake-down of old material, including Live Forever, the official move history of; Britpop Now, the 1995 BBC TWO music special, Pulp's No Sleep Till Sheffield and (long after everyone had gone to bed) another chance to see the Later Paul Weller Stanley Road special. Kicking off the line-up, there was also a new half-hour recap of Britpop from Mr. Harris. Poor John; where some music presenters get to fly out to Barbados, or maybe a trip to CBGBs, he was lumbered with the taxi ride to the Good Mixer and a schlep down to the Astoria for his tale.

It was nice to see Britpop Now again; ten years ago we were watching TV on a nine inch black and white screen, although they'd decided to put TOTP2 style captions all over the place. It's curious why they thought this would be appropriate - we've watched classic dramas on BBC FOUR and they didn't feel the need to slap banners over the picture with them (You can picture it in Threads, can't you: "Nuclear war is one of five ways people expect the world to end"); they could have put them behind the press red button, as they'd done with the Prom notes - and the extra expense that would have incurred might have caused them to think a little more deeply about just how much value "Dave is still Dave" style observations provided the viewer.

What stuck out most in the evening was what was missing - no word from Steve Lamacq or anyone from Select, who surely would have more useful insights than Toby Young; barely a sniff of Suede, besides in a still shot of the Who Do You Think You Are Kidding Mr Cobain Select cover. And, most striking of all, not a single word of dissent.

You'd have hoped that, ten years on, BBC FOUR might at least have turned up someone who wanted to offer a different perspective on what is fast becoming part of our national myth. It's been a decade; must we accept Harris' view of those time so unquestioningly?

There are several claims about 94-95 which are now accepted wisdom that, really, don't add up. Key amongst these are the very idea that Blur and Oasis were at the heart of a coherent and cohesive scene. Louise Wener was allowed to utter a small objection to this, suggesting that Oasis were totally unlike anybody else - "they were like a thing on their own" - but, as at the time, nobody paid her very much attention. But if you look at the ragbag of cultural ephemera both Harris and Live Forever assembled, it's a venn diagram with very little in the parts where the world intersect.

This is partly why Suede's presence in the 90s music scene gets written off quite swiftly in this sort of retrospective - trying to suggest that Britpop could easily include Brett Anderson spanking his arse with a microphone, Loaded magazine and Liam Gallagher bent double with his big orange coat on really throws doubts onto how wide the foundations of this scene really were. You can make out a good case for Menswear and Supergrass being part of a continuum; but in what way were Pulp and Oasis fellow-travellers?

It's no surprise they built the night around the time Oasis and Blur released records on the same day: there's precious little else that, viewed from this distance, links the two bands together.

The Britpop narrative also demands that the bands suddenly appeared from a vacuum - the accepted wisdom being that before Britpop, British acts had withered in the face of American opposition led by Nirvana (although, at one point in the evening, we're informed that they were the only grunge band who were even worth paying attention to, apparently - news to Pearl Jam, we guess). The bands who had battled on bravely, of course, are snorted at as being shoegazers, with barely any stage presence; equally, we're told that prior to Parklife, no British acts were singing about their lives, their country. Because, see, we were all in thrall to the Americans. Even although only Nirvana were any good. Then, of course, Britpop came from nowhere to save us all.

But this is arrant wasp toss, in virtually all directions. The shoe/scene that celebrates bands did have stage presence, of course, and did write songs which reflected the Britain in which they lived - Lush were singing about drinking in Camden before Graham Coxon had ever heard of the Good Mixer; Ride even wrote a hymn to their OX4 postcode.

More crucially, there was certainly no sense of a new wave hitting when Suede turned up - they were exciting, but because they were beautiful and considered rather than something so totally different in a world filled with Boo Radleys and Auteurs and Pale Saints and Saint Ettienes; Blur, of course, snuck in the back door disguised as the last wave of baggy and part-shoe anyway. However much it might spoil the story, the Good Mixer scene wasn't a year zero; it was much more business as usual than might be comfortable for some to admit.

Much more to the point, one band was not mentioned at all during the evening, because they did sing about the everyday and the ordinary; they did have stage presence; they had ambition writ large. They're still going, too. The 90s were as much about the Manics as they were about Oasis, and yet the Britpop frame really collapses if you try to factor them in. They were the reason why Brett Anderson wasn't alone in dressing soft and girly and talking a bisexual storm; they were the reason why Damon Albarn wasn't alone in stomping around the stage like he owned the place. And when you start to wonder about the Manics, you find yourself also questioning how the pre-Britpop void was able to accommodate the Primals as well, and where abouts Teenage Fanclub's bandwagonesque fitted into things. And how there could have a lack of groups singing about their home country before '94 when Gene turn up on Britpop now some ten years into their career.

And all that, of course, assumes that you accept that dance music doesn't count at all, as if the kids who liked guitars were totally separate from the dance music fans.

Britpop as a Beano style scrap between the Blurites and the Oasises is a fine, cartoon view of the times, and it worked for the too-early, superficial I Love The 90s franchise. But from BBC FOUR? It would have been nice to have had something a little more considered.


11 comments:

Iain said...

Kind of funny how Live Forever shows a clip of the Street Spirit video but Radiohead otherwise didn't get mentioned at all, too.

Simon said...

Good post. I'm not sure there were ever claims made at the time that the leading bands under the Britpop banner were stylistically connected - indeed, there's probably never been another movement where the two leading bands were publicly dead set against each other. Certainly the early ideas of Britpop as a home for glamour and irony don't stand up when put against quite a few of the bands who came to be labelled under the banner - The Bends was sold as a Britpop album even though it was clearly coming from another place.

This idea that pre-Britpop was just grunge must be the new equivalent of the still often repeated claim that punk saved the world from prog and there was No Other Music. In the accepted 1994-96 canon Suede are always the difficult ones to fit in because compilers accept that they have a place on the basis of the Select cover (don't forget the Suede hype came off the back of the Manics hype, which traded on much the same dark glamour about to change the pop landscape idea), which is why Britpop is almost presented as their fait accompli single-handedly winning the war back, but by early 1994 Bernard had left and people were looking again after the initial unswerving support of Dog Man Star - similarly the Manics, as The Holy Bible was hardly going to win future Mondeo drivers over. Then the problem is they realise they can't just claim one band were responsible for single-handedly changing the minds of the kids so they throw in Modern Life Is Rubbish, which was if not derided then pretty much overlooked (chart peak 15) at the time. I'd also take issue with Harris' conclusion that the only bretheren of Britpop is Thelikesofcoldplaykeaneandsnowpatrol, ignoring that the Libertines and Kaiser Chiefs both formed in the mid-90s and Franz Ferdinand's ideas were already coming together. Who ends a glowing tribute to a phase of music history by claiming its influences are only malign?

To be fair, there's a NME piece by Harris from the start of 1995 reprinted in that new NME Originals which makes much the same facile points, except with more about These Animal Men, so it's not like he's rewritten history.

tomsk said...

This post is interesting but really doesn't make much sense. Most TV producers give their programmes a single "theme" in the name of coherance. A melange of clips of half-forgotten acts shoehorned together into some kind of alternative take on the UK scene 1990-2000 may be fine on the internet but doesn't sound like terribly compelling viewing.

'Britpop' such as it was represented a moment when 2-3 bands crossed over and you had students, kids, parents, middle class, working class, toffs, whoever listening to the same thing, having common ground. Oasis were one of the few bands who ravers got into too The point of Harris's programme was : guitar music escaping the indie ghetto and getting back into mainstream culture. Like it or not Oasis and Blur (and also, a bit later Pulp) did this - no one else. "Precious little else bind them together" does it? Well apart from the co-manufactured rivaly, the releasing singles on the same day, the attempt to stage bigger/better gigs, mentioning each other in every single interview .... no connection at all.

1995 - the height of Britpop was about them, the big three - no-one else, and certainly not Suede. Would a token sequence along the lines of "oh yeah, Suede eventually made a comeback but were a bit less popular than before and had a child playing lead guitar" improved matters? When the annals of British music are written, Suede will be nothing more than a very, very minor footnote! The Manics are irrelevant too - they were nothing, on the verge of being dropped in 1995 - it wasn't til Richey's disappearance and Everything Must Go a year later that they briefy got very big by basically imitating Oasis and doing stadium rock, supposedly with more intelligence but certainly with a lot less excitement. Also Lush singing about "drinking in Camden" wtf? - did the Lush songbook even contain words other than "thighs" "eyes" "sighs" "skies" "whys"? I'm struggling to think what might rhyme with snakebite or marguerita. Anyone who thinks shoegazing was actually a hotbed of barely restrained sexual charisma and audience participation leading to a lasting bond betwixt singer and crowd has clearly never attended a Pale Saints gig.

If you want to criticise Britpop, then showing it up for allowing tailending shite such as Echobelly, Powder and Sleeper their fifteen minutes is the best angle of attack. A more interesting account on the music industry manufactures 'scenes' and why the media has become obsessed with lists - and compare a successful scene to one of the many failures ("romo"..."new acoustic movement" ..."Andrew WK" anyone ?) ... is still waiting to be made.

simon h b said...

The point is, though, Tomsk, that it isn't just the BBC Four's Britpop night which takes this line - it's the heart of John Harris' Last Party book, and every single broadsheet article that has been written since 1996.

===quote
"Precious little else bind them together" does it? Well apart from the co-manufactured rivaly, the releasing singles on the same day, the attempt to stage bigger/better gigs, mentioning each other in every single interview .... no connection at all.
===end quote

well, erm, yes - that's precious little in my book: apart from a half-arsed battle, there's nothing that really links the two bands - you might as well say that America and Japan are virtually the same place as they had a war sixty years ago. It doesn't make Hello Kitty anything like Mickey Mouse.

See, if you do accept the Harris model - that Britpop was, at heart, a battle between Blur and Oasis, then, yes, you would say that August 1995 was the high water mark. On the other hand, if you see Oasis as the last hurrah of Madchester, as it finally worked its way back to its source material, and the Good Mixer crew as something separate, then that scene had already started to wane long before then.

As for your dismissal of the Manics position - again, if you accept the Harris model, you're spot on. They were irrelevent if you judge a contribution to culture solely by the size of sales. [Although when Richey disappeared, they were due to leave on a massive stadium tour of Europe, which is hardly a spent force in most people's books] What's undeniable, though, is that they certainly didn't fit a mould of apologetic, floor-staring mimsies wishing they were American.

Lush? "Here we go, I'm
hanging out in Camden/Drinking with my girlfriends on a Saturday night"

Pale Saints? If you don't think there was sex and passion and anger and all those other things in a Pale saints audience, you clearly never saw them on their co-headlining tour with the Boo Radleys. I barely escaped with my thumb intact (long story).

And in what way were Sleeper "tail-enders"? - they were the support on Blur's first major headline tour (as Louise keeps telling us).

I even liked Afrodisiac me, though, so what would I know?

.kelvin said...

rightly or wrongly its simply a case of lazy journalistic shorthand, music scenes never really exist in the way that these retrospectives would like to have us believe.

The NME starts it off with its rent-a-feature these bands are all gonna be big and we've invented a label for them and the broadsheets and these kinda programmes keep it up for eases sake....

Tomsk said...

Ah, but sometimes emnity is a far stronger bind than common cause !
I don't remember the Manics being on the verge of a 'massive stadium tour' in 95. I remember a band in crisis on the verge of splitting/being dropped but I'm probably being unkind.

And yep - 'Ladykillers' - but that's from 1996, a whole three years after the (ahem) 'social realism' of Cocker's 'Inside Susan' or Albarn's "sugary tea" in Chemical World. If you're claiming Lush were there first, surely it would be there coursing through the veins of the likes of 'Deluxe'...

"Some say i'm vague,
And i'd easily fade,
Foolish parade of fantasy,
Drink in your eyes,
Drink in your sighs,
Grass in my thighs my aching legs."

hmmm...

In the end I reckon it comes down to how you define 'Britpop'. To me its a fake concoction of the music industry, the media and the three main bands were bound together. All three elements as an equal part of the same phenonenon - thats why the likes of Lush, Suede etc are only footnotes in a programme about the whole dirty scam for what it was. I think J Harris would freely admit that. He didn't set out to present a consideration of music-in-general through the 90s. He's writing about Britpop and as such I think you have to accept and judge him on those terms.

We didn't even mention Verve...

And I'm not John Harris, btw :)

simon h b said...

Ach, of course you're not John Harris - we blocked his IP address months ago...

The Manics had been booked for a massive tour of Europe when Ricjey disappeared - I've told the tale before of how i found myself in Prague the day after they'd been due to play there, asking a Praguian (Perugian?) if he'd gone to see them; he shook his head sadly "cancelled... Richey's apparently ill..."

Ladykillers might have not been released until 96, but they'd shifted to doing stuff like that long before it reached records - they were certainly well into their reinvention by the time they toured with Spitfire, which would have been what, 92, 93 ish? And let's not forget that Lush aren't (for some arbitrary reason) counted as Britpop, they're always pegged as shoe/scene that celebrates itself, despite having more in common with Pulp and Elastica than Pulp would ever have in common with the Gallaghers.

See, I take your point about how if you use Britpop as a definition of something cooked up by the press one dull summer to try and put a handle on what was happening; as that, it does fit really well. But Harris' programme and books don't say that at all - they're clearly suggesting that there really was something to Britpop as he defines it, a musical scene coalescing round the twin suns of Oasis and Blur.

I don't really have a problem with John getting to eat good steak and drink fine wines off the back of such an idea, it's just that if we don't have any putting a counterpoint, it's going to become the only history we have of the age.

Tomsk said...

Oasis and Pulp have a lot in common I think - N Gallagher and J Cocker both northern, both authentically working class, both 'meant it', both coming from an initial position of outsider looking in, both with a stinging anger at class tourism, one articulate enough to express it words, the other with a guitar ...

I agree on the need for an alternative view though, something which also takes in the massive impact of the dance music, which to my recollection had much more of an impact than a few guys with guitars wearing sausage neck jumpers. The death of the scene too also has something to do with this seeming realisation from the music and media industries that breaking music into genres doesn't shift product, but lumping everything together under a banner 'lifestyle' of bland, generic cool does. So if you're not an eclectician seamlessly, 'ironically 'shuffling between Black Sabbath and Basement Jaxx, you're not 'it'. Thats why cults, cliques, purism and tribes are dead: we now like everything and anything. That, I think is something worth at least a BBC4 theme night. One day...

simon h b said...

There did seem there was going to be a proper consideration of dance music a few years back when there were a rash of books - but it seemed to die out; you're right that that is crying out for someone to actually trace what really happened.

But Noel and Jarvis kindred spirits? Surely Mis-shapes is aimed against Oasis and their worldview? (Although, I do accept, part of the early Gallagher myth was that they were raised on a diet of broken biscuits ctsy of Peggy Gallagher's job at the McVitie factory)...

Anonymous said...

I'm just wondering if anyone taped the night, specially the documentary on Pulp, and could post files somewhere like bowlie or uknova: I'm in the US, and I've seen Live Forever 'cause it's available on DVD, but all the other stuff I can't get...

Anonymous said...

pfrrmphThe fact that no one seemsto remember and I started to get into indie music in 89 (Madchester) is that there was a Britpop movement, I went to the clubs, the gigs and festivals, it was a mad time. OK the press got hold of it and created a monster, that was before New Labour rebranded it Cool Britannia. But their was a genuine reaction against the crap dull music of the 80's and America and a feeling of no we are not going to live in our parent's shadow of the 60's anymore.

Post a Comment

As a general rule, posts will only be deleted if they reek of spam.