Was Britpop ever a real sound? Possibly not, but under a media-coined umbrella phrase many Brit bands made waves in the early ’90s. It arguably started with Suede, 20 years ago in 1992. It faded when Oasis, 15 years ago in 1997, released Be Here Now. There wasn’t a great deal in common between the bands – they fought each other verbally, sometimes even physically – but the brief “Britpop” era was a ripe time for U.K. guitar bands and debuted some brilliant guitarists and songwriters. Here are five of Britpop’s best.
Flamboyantly fey yet confrontational, Suede were stars waiting to happen. The U.K.’s Select magazine ran a cover with singer Brett Anderson imposed on a British Union Jack flag with the slogan “Yanks Go Home” at the height of grunge. The band actually hated the cover, as some of them loved Nirvana at the time.
Suede’s trump card was mercurial guitarist Bernard Butler. Heavily influenced by The Smiths’ Johnny Marr, Butler took arpeggio-led rhythm/lead playing to new realms: on a sunburst 1980 Heritage Gibson Les Paul and also a Bigsby-loaded 1960s Gibson ES-355 that he bought in the U.S. Butler left in ’94, during recording of the epic Dog Man Star album. Butler is now a Brit Award-winning producer.
And in this more recent BBC video, Butler explains how he played “Animal Nitrate,” Suede’s biggest hit from 1992.
Forming as students at London’s arty Goldsmith’s College, Blur were the most archetypal of Britpop bands. Their second and third albums – Modern Life is Rubbish and Parklife – are so “English” it’s no wonder they never translated into huge global success. But while the spectre of The Kinks, The Beatles, Syd Barrett and XTC loomed large; guitarist Graham Coxon was also a fan of U.S. lo-fi acts such as Sebadoh and Pavement.
Coxon’s a lithe player and on early albums a Gibson Les Paul was a mainstay. And his “solos” were often quite “avant garde,” to say the least. “I always do this thing of making the worst guitar solo,” he recently told Total Guitar. “The kind of thing that would make our friend Slash think: ‘S--t, a f---ing nine-year-old has played this.”
Blur’s sound changed much over the years, but it’s those early albums that helped define what Britpop was. Here’s an acoustic version of 1993’s “For Tomorrow.”
Diverse bunch of people, too. Coxon is still a prolific solo artist, singer Damon Albarn is even more prolific (his latest project is an opera based on the life of Elizabethan scientist John Dee called Doctor Dee), drummer Dave Rowntree is a Labour union activist in London and qualified pilot, while bassist Alex James is now a farmer and acclaimed cheese maker.
Blur are so British, they will reunite for the closing concert of the 2012 London Summer Olympic Games at Hyde Park, London, on August 12.
Ocean Colour Scene
Although lumped in with the Britpop “movement,” Ocean Colour Scene were the most mod- and R&B-influenced of any of the bands. Their breakthrough was second album Moseley Shoals – a pun on their neighborhood of Moseley, Birmingham with a nod to the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section of the ’60s. OCS were part mentored by U.K. “modfather” Paul Weller – OCS guitarist Steve Cradock and bassist Damon Minchella simultaneously played in Weller’s band while Weller played guest guitar on OCS albums.
They grew into an impressively muscular band, with Steve Cradock cranking a variety of Les Pauls and ES-335s to impressive effect. OCS’s retro stance and possible lack of “glamor” didn’t win a lot of critical favor, but even the haters would probably agree on one thing – Steve Cradock was one of the outstanding British guitarists of the 1990s. OCS still tour, while Cradock has also forged a solo career.
Watch him rip it up on a Les Paul Gold Top on “100 Mile High City,” from OCS’s heyday in 1998.
West London’s Bluetones were never as big as other guitar bands here, but remain a treasure of the Britpop era. They were classically English – the opening song on their debut album Expecting to Fly, “Talking to Clarry,” was about going to the pub (The Clarence Arms, near where they lived.) Undoubtedly influenced by The Stone Roses, they were still great players. Guitarist Adam Devlin favored Rickenbackers, unusually overdriven for a rich sound: bassist Scott Morriss mostly played Gibson basses. They split in 2011, after six albums, but bowed-out with a farewell tour concluding in Japan where they were always popular.
Obviously, Oasis became the band of the Britpop era. Their arrogance and boorish behaviour might have grated, were it not for the songs of Noel Gallagher. Gallagher wasn’t the most talented guitarist of the era, but he had tunes – Definitely Maybe, (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? and b-sides compilation The Masterplan demonstrated an astonishing run of hit anthems. Their “brickwalled” production – everything louder than everything else, if you like – also made U.K. guitar bands unafraid to once again rock hard. Early albums were all about cranked Les Pauls, Sheratons and ES-335s culminating in the Epiphone Supernova signature model for Gallagher. 1997’s Be Here Now was perhaps too much overload and personnel cracks got worse, but Oasis remain the defining U.K. band of the Britpop era.
Cast, Pulp, Shed Seven, Ash, Sleeper and Supergrass were also stars of whatever “Britpop” was. But who was the best?