March 30 – Pulp Said Party Life Fiction?

When we think of “Britpop” we usually think of Oasis and Blur…and then figure any other names are mere afterthoughts. However, in jolly ole itself, Britpop was a major movement and there were many hot acts. One in fact provided some competition to the big two for a few years, one not quite like the others. If Oasis idolized The Beatles and wanted to sound worldly frat boys and Blur apparently were fonder of The Kinks and The Who and reveled in their assumed working class Britishness, Pulp seemed to draw more upon early Bowie and Roxy Music and exude the persona of aging, dour psych majors. And there may have been no better example of that than their sixth album, This Is Hardcore, which came out this day in 1998.

As Pitchfork put it, “Pulp were something else! They’d formed in 1978, when the wide lapels and polyester (lead singer) Jarvis Cocker took into every student union in Britain weren’t ironic, they were standard issue.” They’d slowly motored along through the ’80s to little notice until suddenly finding their sound come into vogue in the mid-’90s with the album A Different Class. It was witty, danceable and smart… and one of the biggest records of the decade, both judged by sales and critical acclaim, in their homeland. They had a lot on their plate to follow that up. And much like Blur did through the decade, Pulp decided to go off on a bit of a different tangent rather than simply repeat the previous record. In this case, that meant realizing they were not absolute spring chickens anymore, and putting out a darker, denser album, while hanging onto Cocker’s trademark droll delivery and wit. “Just me whining about getting old,” he termed the album.

Given the success of A Different Class, it’s little wonder Island Records wanted them to at least keep some of the same game-plan for this one. Which they did by bringing back super-producer Chris Thomas. With 12 songs and 70 minutes, there was lots of time for introspection and songs that built to something, and that’s what they delivered. Songs like “TV Movie”, “Seductive Barry” (with Thomas playing piano), “A Little Soul” and the rocking but likely ironically-titled “Party Hard” (“why do we have to half kill ourselves just to prove we’re alive?”) one gets an idea of the outlook of This Is Hardcore. But nowhere was it more clear than the first two singles off it – “Help the Aged” and the title track.

This is Hardcore” is perhaps the song most obviously written about porn since the much lighter ’80s hit “Centerfold.” Cocker says it reveals both his “revulsion and attraction to porn…there’s something gone in their eyes. They’ve done it all and there’s nowhere else to go,” adding in an interview of that time his savvy prediction that the internet would change the world of pornography and make it much bigger. Then there was “Help the Aged”… a song so different that their guitarist quit the band over it! Russell Senior (could their be a better name for this story?) said he hated the song but “Jarvis was very keen on it…I guess we had musical differences.”

Rolling Stone point out that aging wasn’t a wildly popular theme in rock’n’roll songs, and “when the Beatles took on the subject (“When I’m 64”) they did it as a lark. Pulp on the other hand dive right in.” With lines like “Help the aged, one time they were just like you” and “behind those lines on their faces you see where you are headed and it’s such a lonely place” sound like they could bring the peppiest Blur-sponsored Country house party to a screeching halt, and listeners aren’t quite sure to do with the song Billboard expected to be a major rock radio hit. They loved the “deliciously introspective rock ballad…which builds to a collision course of clanging guitars, layered harmonies and pounding beats.”

The album got universally good reviews… although the majority of them were quick to mention it wasn’t as good as A Different Class. Rolling Stone gave it 4-stars, NME, 7 out of 10. Pitchfork later would rank it as the sixth best “Britpop album of all-time”, ahead of ones by Blur and Oasis that came out at roughly the same time…but behind its predecessor, which topped the list. They offered that “the sumptuous art rock of ‘This is It’ and ‘Dishes’ were among Pulp’s best songs.” Allmusic rated it 4.5-stars, noting the band’s varying influences (from Bowie to acid house to new wave) and how “even the catchiest numbers are shrouded in darkness,” making it “not a masterpiece but an artistic triumph.”

British listeners were more receptive to the record’s dark atmosphere or the biting humor of Cocker. In Canada, it got to #32, but in the all-important American market, it failed to chart and has apparently sold fewer than 100 000 copies. But at home in the UK, “Help the Aged” became their fifth-straight top 10 single, hitting #8 and “This is Hardcore” didn’t miss by much, making it to #12. The album itself went to #1 and got them a gold album… far short of the 4X platinum A Different Class had made though.

Pulp brought in a new guitarist and continued on for one more album, but called it quits in 2002, and save for a single brief reunion about a decade back, seem likely to stay in the rock retirement home.

March 13 – Fans Had Familiar Connection To Elastica

Being a woman in the rock business can be a bit of a challenge…even if your initial claim to fame isn’t being the girlfriend of a more famous rock star. It gets tougher if two of your first four singles bear so much resemblance to other songs, you end up getting sued for plagiarism on them. Do that and still have a hit record that wins the respect of the “biz” and you might have something special. Which was the case with Elastica, and their self-titled debut album, which arrived this day in 1995.

When people think of Elastica, if they do, they think Justine Frischmann, but they were in fact three women and a guy. Frischmann, the face of the band (who appeared on almost all their single record sleeves) and drummer Justin Welch formed the band after quitting Suede in ’92. They added in bassist Annie Holland and lead guitarist Donna Matthews, but with Frischmann doing the bulk of the writing, singing and adding in rhythm guitars as well, the band was almost as synonymous with her as Blondie was with Deborah Harry. Oh, and being the high-profile girlfriend of Blur’s Damon Albarn didn’t hurt either; Blur were at that time neck-and-neck with Oasis as the most popular band in Britain. Both of them would go on to have #1 albums later in the year in fact.

They put out their first single, “Stutter” (which Frischmann explains is about “drunken male impotence”) as an indie release in 1993. So popular was it that it got them named Best New Group of the year by Melody Maker, and got them record deals – with larger indie label Deceptive at home, and impressively with Geffen Records in North America.

Being young, English, creating upbeat, snappy singles and being photographed in the press constantly with one of the biggest “Britpop” stars got them instantly-labeled as such, but the album wasn’t so easy to pigeon-hole. Adding to the Britpop labeling was Justine’s boyfriend, Albarn, played keyboards on the album under the obvious anagram of Dan Abnormal. Nevertheless, it delivered fast-paced, pop-sounding, guitar-driven songs that allmusic compared to having riffs like Adam & the Ants, tease like Blondie and were tough like The Clash. The NME heard echoes of Talking Heads in their tunes. Whatever their influences or who their contemporaries were, the songs were hooky and fast, 16 of them on most versions of the 40-minute album. The BBC called it “a blueprint for what Britpop should sound like.”

Unfortunately, it also sounded a bit much like some of their British post-punk predecessors. The single “Connection” seemed a bit like a song by Wire, “Three Girl Rhumba.” They sued and reached an out-of-court settlement with them. Then, weeks later came “Waking Up” – which contains one of the great Britpop lines of all-time, “I’d work very hard but I’m lazy” – which sounded a tad like The Stranglers early hit “No More Heroes.” The band’s publishing company sued successfully and had the punk outfit given co-writing credits, something J.J. Burnel of the Stranglers wasn’t excited about. “Yes it sounds like us, but so what? Of course there’s plagiarism, but unless you live in a vacuum, there’s always going to be…if it were up to me, I wouldn’t have bothered.”

For all that, reviews were glowing. Spin and Rolling Stone both ended the year ranking it as the fourth best album of ’95; the former gave it a 9 out of 10 rating and called it “Blondie and the Waitresses minus the guys named ‘Chris’” and considered its “punky” songs “perfect for reading trashy magazines and chewing your nails to.” The Guardian gave it a perfect 4-star rating (note that most publications use a 5-star one.)

Line Up”, “Connection” and “Waking Up” all hit the UK top 20 as singles. On this side of the pond, “Car Song” got a little airplay and both “Stutter” and “Connection” were major hits on the alt rock charts. The latter made it all the way to #9 in sales in Canada, and #2 on U.S. alternative charts. It helped the album make a dent on the North American charts (although only to #66 in the States), but at home, it debuted on top of the British charts, where it was the fastest-selling debut since Oasis’. Eventually it would go gold in all those countries.

Elastica’s time at the top was as short as one of their tunes though. Although they stayed an entity until the early-2000s, they had a number of lineup changes after the album. Holland and Matthews were both gone long before the next, rather unnoticed album, and Welch devoted a good portion of his time to working with another female-fronted Britpop act, Lush, although he did stay with Elastica and eventually marry its new keyboardist Sharon Mew.

February 4 – Tim Danced James To The Top

No, his name isn’t “James”…but a lot of people might make that mistake. Happy birthday to the face and voice of James, Tim Booth. He turns 62 today.

Booth came into the music world in a strange fashion. Growing up in Manchester, he loved dancing and studied drama at college. There he made friends with a new band which were solid musically but hadn’t found a decent singer. They liked Booth’s voice and his moves, and brought him on board, at first mainly as a dancer in their shows but soon he was the singer too. He had a way with words so he was soon writing the songs for Tribal Outlook, which soon changed its name to James. He’s been with them most of the time since, and with that nearing 40 years and 16 studio albums, they’ve probably earned the title as the most enduring and resilient of the so-called “Britpop” bands.

In 1985, they signed to Factory Records (the label of New Order among others) and opened for the Smiths, whom at the time they were compared to somewhat with what allmusic described as “urgent, ringing guitar pop.” The comparison was all the more valid given that at the time, the two bands were friends. “”I saw their seventh gig in Manchester,” Booth recalled about them, “They were fully-formed, they were ready. And we weren’t. ” At the time, he says Morrissey was “a friend, when he was sweet, very shy…wanting what happened (success) and also being terrified of it simultaneously.” Now though, “I know he’s become a bit of a dick!” 

James didn’t get along well with Factory and soon moved on to Sire , and then to indie label Rough Trade where they capitalized on the popularity of their live shows in the north of England and broke through with a live album, One Man Clapping. It topped Indie charts in 1990 and helped them quickly become one of Britain’s top acts that decade, even as their sound zigged and zagged unpredictably. The song “Sit Down” made it into the British top 10 twice in the ’90s. After oddly enough opening up for Neil Young on an American tour in ’93, they broke into the North American market with the Eno-produced Laid album, thanks largely to its risque title track which made it to #3 on the Alternative rock chart and has showed up in a number of movies. Although none of their new albums have hit the top, six different ones got to #2 or #3 in the UK, and they finally scored a #1 with their triple-platinum Best Of compilation.

Along the way, Booth’s put out a couple of solo records, plus did the one-off Booth and the Bad Angel, a pairing with movie-maker Angel Bardolamanti that was a minor hit in 1995. The singer wrote the lyrics and Bardolamanti created the keyboard and orchestral music, while Bernard Butler of Suede added guitars, among other musicians. And his love of drama didn’t go to waste entirely; he’s had some bit roles on film and played the villain Zsasi in Batman Begins.

Booth has moved to California, which has in turn shaped some of his writing of late. The latest James album, All the Colours of You, was partly influenced by the pandemic and the killing of George Floyd according to him. As an outsider, he offers a fresh look at the U.S. He told a Yorkshire newspaper in 2018 “Trump operates from his wounds. He is a very damaged human being, totally reactive in his actions.” But he also notes, “In America, liberals got rather complacent and arrogant about their level of intellectualism.” However, he noted that the word for “crisis” in Chinese is the same as their word for “opportunity.”

With over 25 million albums sold, despite having only marginal success in the U.S. market, it would seem like James still has “opportunity”. “We love what we do, so we keep doing it, “ he says.

October 11 – A Rival To Oasis For Kings Of ’90s Manchester Sound

Blimey, people fancied a bit o’ Cool Britannia 24 years ago, wot? In the UK, one of the decade’s biggest albums hit #1 this day in 1997Urban Hymns by The Verve. It had only been out two weeks at the time. Doing so, it knocked the biggest of the “Britpop” bands out of the top spot (Oasis with their third album, Be Here Now) before being displaced itself by perhaps the quintessential British sensation of the decade, the Spice Girls, five weeks later.

The Verve, like Oasis, were a Manchester band formed around the beginning of the decade. It was largely the musical vehicle for singer/songwriter and sometimes guitarist Richard Ashcroft, who blended bits of straight ahead Beatle-sque pop with elements of psychedelia and soul to fashion their own sound. They’d had modest success at home with their first two albums, A Storm In Heaven and A Northern Soul, but nothing had prepared them, or the music world, for the breakout success Urban Hymns would enjoy. However, given the popularity of Britpop at the time, and the strength of about half the songs on the lengthy (13 songs, 75 minutes) album, maybe it shouldn’t have surprised anybody.

They had added in a fifth member for the album, guitarist Simon Tong, giving them three different guitarists, surprising for a band that was far from a head-banger one. And they had well-respected producer Youth (aka Martin Glover of Killing joke) come in to help them produce the record. Singles “The Drugs Don’t Work”, “Sonnet” and “Lucky Man” all were great pieces, but it was really the lead single that kicked the record into the musical stratosphere.

They can thank – and curse – Youth for that. “Bittersweet Symphony”, which became a massive worldwide hit was a song Ashcroft had written but didn’t really like. But the producer did, and convinced him to keep the recording. He also made the fateful decision to add a little bit of orchestral strings to the sound. “It was only once we’d put the strings on it that (Ashcroft) started getting excited,” Youth recalled. They really added another dimension to the already classy-sounding song, but the problem was, they were samples of Andrew Oldham’s orchestra playing an old Rolling Stones song. Even though they thought they had a legal agreement in place both Oldham and Stones’ manager Allen Klein would end up suing The Verve for plagiarism. It was a long and complicated case, but in the end, The Verve got very little money for the hit single and Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were added to the song as songwriters, even though they wanted no part of the lawsuit.

Money-maker of not, “Bittersweet Symphony” got the band attention, and the whole album won good reviews upon release. The Guardian at the time gave them a 5-star rating and Melody Maker called it “an album of unparalleled beauty”. Over here, Entertainment Weekly – not one to sing the praises of Britpop readily – gave it a “B+”, saying it was “surprising – and stunning…crooner Richard Ashcroft makes it all sound like church-worthy gospel!”.

It won over the masses, particularly the home ones. The album got to #15 in Canada and #23 in the U.S., hitting platinum in both countries on the strength of the hit single. However, in the UK, that song and “Lucky Man” were both top 10 hits and “The Drugs Don’t Work” was a #1. Ashcroft told journalists at the time that song was largely confessional. “That’s how I’m feeling…they make me worse, man. But I still take ’em out of boredom.” Boredom wasn’t something the fans were feeling listening to Urban Hymns. After the Spice Girls briefly topped it on the charts, it would return to #1 for seven more weeks in 1998. Eventually it won them the Brit Award for Album of the Year and Ashcroft an Ivor Novello Award for best songwriter. It sold well past three million copies in the UK, going 11X platinum, making it the second-most popular “Britpop” release ever, behind the cross-town lads What’s the Story, Morning Glory? And ranking it among the 20 biggest-sellers there of all-time.

The stint on top of the world was brief for them though; they’d split up within a couple more years and after a few short reunions and one later, modestly popular album, they split up for good in 2009.

August 29 – Were They Biggest Thing In Britain Since Sliced Bread? …

…Definitely maybe!

Take some of the loud, guitar rock stylings that were huge in the States at the time (ala Nirvana, Soundgarden et al), and add in some classic British pop melodies (ala the Beatles or Kinks) and throw in some unabashed cocky, upbeat confidence and you have either a recipe for a disaster or something great. In the case of Oasis, it turned out to be the latter. They put out their debut album, Definitely Maybe, this day in 1994.

The Gallagher Brothers and co. had already established themselves somewhat in their native England, with a couple of singles pre-released and an appearance on Top of The Pops a few weeks prior. So there was great anticipation for the album…to the utter relief of Creation Records, we’re sure. The indie label was already in debt and had to struggle to get the album done. Oasis had begun recording at the end of 1993, with Dave Batchelor producing, but he didn’t get on well with the lads and came up with a sound they thought “weak and thin.” Eventually they fired him, canned the demos and started over with Owen Morris, who’d work with them on their biggest records down the road. He let them use their basic approach of playing the songs live in the studio and recording that, with more guitar bits overdubbed later. They mixed it at Johnny Marr’s studio; Marr was said to be distraught at how “in yer face” the mix was…which was, of course, what Noel and Liam wanted.

The final product was an 11, 12 or more song album. The regular CD was 11 songs, 52” while the scarcer LP was issued as a dozen-song double. Then there was Japan, who got a couple of bonus tracks on their issue. Front and center were “Supersonic” and “Shakermaker”, both of which were already out as singles. Add in the singles to follow, “Live Forever” and “Cigarettes and Alcohol” and you have a pretty strong collection for anyone, let alone brand new kids on the musical block. “Columbia” was tabbed to be the fifth single, but eventually they decided four might be enough.

The reaction at home was huge and ecstatic for the most part. Q rated it 4-stars and NME 9 out of 10 within days. The former called Definitely Maybe an “outrageously exciting rock/pop album” while the latter noted Noel was “a pop craftsman in the classic tradition and a master of his trade.” A few months later, Rolling Stone perked up an ear and seemed to foretell the band’s American success to come, calling Oasis “next year’s model…heavier on guitars than Blur or Suede, they’re a simpler, catchier outfit.”

the album hit the shelves, but they wouldn’t stay stacked there long – in the UK at least. It entered the charts at #1, selling 100 000 copies in just four days, making it the fastest-selling debut ever to that point there. Both new singles off it -”Live Forever” and “Cigarettes and Alcohol” hit the top 10 and went platinum (double in the case of “Live Forever”), helping push the album to 7X platinum status quickly.

Elsewhere, reaction was a bit more restrained. It got to #3 in Ireland and #20 in France; in the States it dragged its way up to #58 eventually, although later popularity pushed it to platinum success there and in Canada.

Many still see it as one of the decade’s best British efforts. Rolling Stone eventually listed it as their 42nd best debut record of all-time, liking the “guitar firestorm that raged like primo Stones” and how it “soars from hook to juicy hook.” Topping that was the NME, where readers in 2006 voted it the “greatest album ever.” That might be tough to outdo…but the brash Gallaghers were up for the challenge, and soon delivered What’s the Story, Morning Glory which broke them internationally.

August 21 – They Were Back. Would Their Fans ‘Be Here Now’?

Take two rowdy brothers who don’t like each other much, give them a world of fame, a ton of money and almost as much cocaine and what could go wrong? Well, in the minds of everyone around the Gallagher brothers in 1996, the answer would be “nothing!” But Oasis‘ third album, Be Here Now, threw a shadow of doubt over that premise. It arrived on this day in 1997.

By then, Oasis were the biggest band in Britain and the most popular of the “Britpop” acts worldwide, thanks to the massive success of What’s the Story, Morning Glory? Never one to shy away from saying what he thought, Noel Gallagher at the time stated they were “the biggest-band in the world…bigger than, dare I say it, f***in’ God!’. His idol John Lennon would either be proud, or rolling around in his grave at how little Gallagher learned from the Beatles example.

They had a few songs written and some demos done for this one by 1996, when they played in front of one of the biggest crowds ever in the UK at Knebworth. But after that, things didn’t go well. On a lengthy tour of Europe and the States, Liam Gallagher at times refused to show up for concerts, citing things like a sore throat, or being out house shopping. Noel got frustrated and quit the band for a few days. Though he returned and resumed the tour, their label, Creation records, and their management panicked. They rushed them into the studio to make Be Here Now. Their manager, Martin Russell later said “in retrospect, we went into the studio too quickly. The smart move would have been to take the rest of the year off.”

Still into the studio they went, and things seemed like they should be good. Noel had written a lot of songs while holidaying and partying with Johnny Depp, the actor. The band, noted Beatles fans, got to use Abbey Road Studios when they weren’t at George Martin’s own AIR Studios. And they brought back Owen Morris to produce with Noel, the same combo that had done their massive predecessor. Things didn’t work out so well though. They discarded the demos, which Russell said were superior in their musicianship to the finished recording. And the coke kept flowing. One time the record label’s president visited the studio and was shocked, finding the Gallaghers and Owen Morris “out of control” they were so high. But he didn’t dare fiddle with a formula that had given him his company’s biggest-ever hit two years prior. One Oasis staffer (by then they had a large on-payroll ensemble) likened it to a “medieval court” with the Kings – the Gallagher brothers – having “lost sight of reality.”

Still, they were energetic. They delivered a dozen songs that crammed 71 minutes of music onto the disc or cassette. Among them were the singles “Do You Know What I Mean?” and “All Around the World” both clocking in well over seven minutes. There were epic compositions, funny titles (like “The Girl in the Dirty Shirt” and “Fade in, Out”, a song featuring slide guitar work from Noel’s buddy, Johnny Depp) but no follow-up to the softly endearing “Wonderwall” from their massive hit. Instead, there was a “massive attack” of sound, as Entertainment Weekly put it.

Reaction at the time was warm, but not red-hot. The influential NME gave it an 8 out of 10, Rolling Stone rated it 4-stars, while Spin was a little more hesitant, giving it 6 out of 10. EW liked the many nods to earlier British music from the Beatles to the Jam but wondered why they felt they “had to utilize every last bit of space on the recording tape.” The reason was that at the time, Noel wanted a “collosal” sound, something to make Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” seem timid. Later reviews have not been as generous. Allmusic give it 3.5-stars, Pitchfork about 5 of 10, calling it an “agonizing listening experience.” The BBC recently dubbed it an “acclaimed album that nobody listens to anymore.” Which would sit well with Noel Gallagher, who even when it came out called it bland and later elaborated “it’s the sound of a bunch of guys on coke, in the studio, not giving a f*** at all. There’s no bass on it. I don’t know what happened to that!” He also called his own lyrics “s***” and lamented the poor vocals supplemented with “Wayne’s World-like” guitar solos. Always the contrarian, Liam Gallagher still calls it his favorite record.

For all that, the album did fine. Just not …Morning Glory well. “Do You Know What I Mean?” and “All Around the World” became the band’s third and fourth #1 singles at home, with the former hitting the top 5 in Canada, and in the U.S. on the alternative rock chart. “Stand by Me” was a #2 hit in the UK and Ireland. Overall, the album hit #1 in most European countries, including the UK, obviously, and France, where it was their first #1, as well as Canada and Australia. In the U.S. it peaked at #2, but still went platinum. In their homeland, it ended up as 7X platinum, pushing world-wide sales to at least 10 million. Not bad by anyone’s definition, but a notable drop-off from their first two records. But perhaps the most telling number is that by 1999, Melody Maker did the numbers and found it the most stocked album in British second-hand shops.

August 14 – Let The Battle (Of Britpop) Begin!

It was the musical equivalent of Trump vs. Biden or the Yankees vs. the Red Sox in a wildcard game. This day in 1995 was “The Battle of Britpop”, and if you were in Britain and of a certain age, it was to quote the NME, “a focal point for the generation.” The “event” involved perhaps the country’s two hottest bands at that time – Oasis and Blur – both releasing singles off forthcoming new albums on the same day.

Now that might not sound like much, but it was in that something that gripped the nation. In no small part because both bands were fairly new (although Blur had been around for a couple of years longer) and very popular, and both were lumped into the generic term “Britpop.” Oh, and the bands were rumored to hate each other.

Well, at least in the case of Blur, it was something of a rumor. Or a slight overstatement perhaps. But in the case of Oasis, according to their record company rep Alan McGee, “Blur thought it was a game but Oasis actually f**n’ hated them at the time.” It hadn’t always been that way…and why should it have been? Both were young, exciting, popular, loved football (soccer to us) – albeit backing different teams – and loved partying even more. But that created something of a rivalry. And then Oasis had a #1 single, early in ’95, “Some Might Say.” Blur went to a party held for them to celebrate. Their Damon Albarn remembers “I went to the celebration to you know, just say ‘well done.’ And Liam (Gallagher of Oasis) comes over and he goes ‘We’re f**ing number one!’ right in my face.” McGee who was also there adds that Gallagher also taunted “you’re not! We’re number one and you’re not!” in Albarn’s face. “Liam was really mouthy,” he admits “and even rude about Justine at one time.”

Ahh yes, Justine Frischmann. Herself a rising Britpop star with the band Elastica, and at the time Damon’s girlfriend. Liam Gallagher never missed an opportunity to slag her. So, Albarn considered the gauntlet thrown down. Both bands were readying a new album; Blur’s The Great Escape and Oasis’ What’s the Story, Morning Glory. A few weeks before the initial release, Blur changed the release date of their first single from it, “Country House” to coincide with Oasis’ projected date for their single, “Roll With It.” This did not sit well with Oasis, but as the NME put it “from a journalistic point of view, it was a godsend – like a clash of the titans. Like the Beatles and the Stones again, although I don’t think they ever competed for a #1 single.”

Indeed. Although to people who didn’t listen to rock, the two were probably more or less the same, there were differences aplenty. Oasis were from Manchester, in the north of England. They wore clothes not that different than American grunge rockers and openly adored the Beatles while at the same time trying to make themselves sound as “international” as they could. Blur on the other hand came from London, cited The Kinks and The Who as favorite old acts, wore preppy clothes and had taken to reveling in their conspicuous English-ness. As the TV show This Is Pop documented, it revealed some deep-seated conflicts in the country. Much like how in the U.S., the “South” sometimes don’t like “the North” or the “Yankees” and vice versa; northern England didn’t like southern England all that much. They saw the south, including London as pretentious and snobby; many in the south saw the northerners as dumb, rowdy blue-collar types. So the Blur vs. Oasis battle was reflective of differences between regions and social classes as much as it did music itself. And people took note. The songs themselves seemed to almost play up the contrast. Oasis’ was loud, straight-ahead rock that could have come from Minneapolis as easily as Manchester. Blur’s single had British accents and talked about a rich, neurotic socialite living in a big country estate. The BBC reported it on their world news and stationed reporters outside of record stores the day the singles arrived; a NME reporter noted “my missus’ dad lives in Norway, and even the Oslo Times had it on the front cover.” London bookies took bets on which would sell the best.

And the winner was… Blur. With an asterisk. By the end of the week, Blur’s “Country House” had outsold Oasis’ “Roll With It” by 274 000 to 216 000. No question about it – that week Blur were #1. It was their first chart-topper, and it went platinum for them, and topped the chart in Ireland as well. Oasis’ song would have to settle for #2 in both those countries. But as it has been widely pointed out, Blur won the Battle…but Oasis won the war. Ironically, few consider either single to be the best song on their albums and when What’s the Story Morning Glory came out (in October, three weeks after Blur’s) it quickly set out on conquering the world. Although the Great Escape would hit #1 – prior to the Oasis album coming out – and go 3X platinum at home (a slight drop-off from the previous one of theirs), What’s the Story, Morning Glory would eclipse that. It ended up being among the five biggest-selling albums ever in the UK, going 15X platinum, and it managed to win over the States as well, being 4X platinum there. In all, it would sell close to 25 million copies, easily the most of any British album of the ’90s.

So how did the bands react when the “battle” was over? Damon Albarn played football with his mates, relieved the stress was over. Graham Coxon of Blur said “I would have liked to have had a #1 quietly…I wish the release dates had been staggered because then Oasis would have got to have a #1 as well. We don’t need this fake war.” Alex James said “I think they’re a great band… it’s not Blur vs. Oasis, it’s Blur and Oasis vs. the World,” adding “there’s few people I’d rather drink with than Oasis!”

Bonehead”, aka Oasis guitarist Paul Arthurs simply said “we could have gone to #102, who gives a s***? We get on with our music, you get on with your music, who cares?” To which Liam interjected “I cared! ‘Cuz I want number ones!” In time, of course he’d have them again, but on this day 26 years back, he was a very unhappy musical silver medalist.

July 19 – People Hit The Theater & Spotted The Trains

It’s been a quarter century since the depressing but critically-adored movie Trainspotting opened in North America, days after the soundtrack had hit record store shelves. The 1996 adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s novel about slacker addicts in Scotland featured Ewan McGregor, made over $70M at the box office on a budget of about $2M…and was noteworthy here for the music.

Showcasing the type of music drug-binging, clubbing-Scot youth would listen to in the ’90s, it had a Who’s Who of Britpop artists on it including Pulp, Blur as well as Blur’s Damon Albarn by himself, Damon’s girlfriend Justine in Elastica, a 10 minute title track by Primal Scream, New Order and some of their own influences like Iggy Pop (whose career took a jump forward with it due to the inclusion of “Lust For Life” and “Nightclubbing”) Lou Reed (“Perfect Day”) and Brian Eno. As an aside, we note that if you’re a fan of “Britpop” and use Netflix, you might want to look up their series This is Pop which has an interesting episode focusing on the “battle” between Blur and Oasis.

The soundtrack sold well, going 3X platinum in the UK, platinum in Canada and gold in the U.S., enough to spawn a follow-up album the next year with most of the rest of the movie’s music plus a few more tracks from David Bowie and Iggy Pop. Trainspotting is regarded as one of the best soundtracks of the decade. At the time Entertainment Weekly rated it “A” thinking it “Saturday Night Fever for the ecstasy generation”. They’d go on to rank it as the 17th best sound-track ever, topped by Vanity Fair which ranked it seventh-best soundtrack of all-time.  Allmusic give it a 4-star rating, noting the “entire soundtrack holds together surprisingly well.” Perhaps, some might suggest, not unlike Saturday Night Fever, better than the movie itself does.

July 8 – Yep…It Was Their World, 25 Years Back

A few days back we looked at the oddball ’90s hit “Pepper.” Today, another kind of spice. You couldn’t talk about 1990s music without mentioning this one. Although you might want to try perhaps. It’s been a spicy quarter-century; on this day in 1996 the Spice Girls put out their first single, “Wannabe.”

The quintet had been around for a couple of years by then and had just been dubbed with their famous nicknames by Top of the Pops. There was “Sporty Spice,” “Ginger Spice”, “Scary Spice”, “Baby Spice” and “Posh Spice”, who went onto some fame later as Victoria Beckham. Love ’em or hate ’em, one can’t deny their success or media presence in the second-half of the ’90s, nor fault them or their creators, Heart Management for filling an empty niche. That little entertainment company in London looked at the popularity of “Boy Bands” like N’sync and Boys II Men, and looked back on the popularity of the ’60s Girl Groups (Supremes, Ronettes, etc.) and figured the time was ripe for an all-girl group singing catchy pop songs. Add in a dash of The Monkees and make them movie or TV stars and you could have pure gold. So they put out ads in papers saying “RU 18-23, with the ability to sing and dance? (We’re) forming a choreographed, singing, dancing, all-female pop act…” Over 400 young women auditioned, and the result was the Spice Girls. The five were given alter-egos and some sort of backstory, and soon set off to the studio. British pop producers Richard Stannard and Matt Stowe were brought in to “help” the girls write songs and produce the debut record. The pair played the instruments – mainly synthesizers and drum machines – and shared writing credits with the five “girls.”

Mel B of the group says “Wannabe”, with its rap-lite provided by “Scary Spice” and “Ginger Spice” calling for girl power in their own, very un-Alanis Morrissette-like ways, came together in half an hour. “You know when you’re in a gang, and having a laugh and you make up silly words? Well, we were having a giggle and we made up this silly word, ‘zig-a-zagga’”. It took longer than that to get the final sound everyone wanted. Though produced by Stannard and Stowe, they weren’t thrilled with the mix they did. So they sent it to Dave Way, an American who worked with Sheryl Crow, Macy Gray and others to try his hand. It came out too bland for their tastes, so finally a third try was taken by pop-producer, Spike Stent, who was nominated for a Grammy for his work on Madonna’s Bedtime Stories. Third time was the charm, and that was the version they picked for the regular single and radio mix… although the Spice completist can find the others, and more in the at least eight different mixes they’ve released on several different vinyl and CD singles.

The single was an unabashed smash. It topped British charts for seven weeks and went to #1 in over 30 countries, including the U.S., and Australia, Denmark, France and Germany. Remarkably, in Canada it only rose to #9. When all was said and done, it sold upwards of six million copies and went 3X platinum in their homeland and made them not only the most famous non-royal ladies in Britain but the faces of the “Cool Britannia” movement of the ’90s, spearheading a resurgence in interest in Brit-culture old and new. Their Spice album, from which it came, featured similar upbeat dance numbers and “romantic ballads” that stressed “grrl power” and drew mixed reactions. Entertainment Weekly suggested it rated a “B” as a devilishly-good pop record”, whereas Rolling Stone gave it just 1.5-stars, calling it a “watered-down mix of hip-hop and cheesy pop balladry.” Watered down or not, it sold better than 20 million copies and led to the Girls having their own movie the next year. Needless to say though, like most fads, a combination of the public’s short attention-span and the conflicting egos involved led to a short run for them. The broke up by 2000, although they have reunited for some concerts since.

It’s easy to write them off musically, but Bruno MacDonald (who’s authored a book on Pink Floyd among other things) offers a different take. He says “grunge and Britpop (as in Oasis, Blur etc) had hammered all the joy out of music” by the time Spice arrived. “A key demographic – kids – spent their allowances on video games instead. Enter the Spice Girls, savior of the form… and the industry!” An overstatement perhaps, but one with some amount of truth to it. Yes, they might have been a bit limited on talent and wafer-thin on originality, but when it came to luring tweens and young teens back to the record stores and radios, the Spice Girls were no “wannabes.”

April 10 – Suede Was Height Of ’90s Fashion

While close to 30 years ago the grunge movement was really picking up steam and starting to dominate rock radio over here, “across the pond” a different musical sound that would define the decade was taking shape: Britpop. To whit, one of the first “Britpop” albums entered the UK charts at #1 on this day in 1993. Perhaps it’s little surprise Suede‘s self-titled debut would do so; the year before Melody Maker had already dubbed them the Best New Band in Britain and they were riding a wave of hype seldom not seen since The Smiths there.

The band began at the tail-end of the ’80s in London, with singer Brett Anderson and Justine Frichman (who later went on to have success in the band Elastica) forming a band that initially played largely covers of David Bowie and Smiths songs. They soon added in guitarist Bernard Butler, who is arguably the most famous member of the band despite being with them for only their first record. Frichman didn’t make it that far along. She was booted out for dating Damon Albarn, of rival band Blur. Anderson says “if Justine hadn’t left the band, I don’t think we’d have got anywhere.” Maybe, maybe not. But get somewhere they did.

Their self-titled debut album had all the components of most ’90s Britpop – upbeat, catchy short melodies with references aplenty to drugs and sex. Says bassist Mat Osman, “the album became about us being placed in this city of sex, drugs and poverty” after growing up in middle class suburbs. Typical of that was the biggest of four singles from it, “Animal Nitrate”. The top 10 single (in UK) “artfully combined Bernard Butler’s glam guitars with Brett Anderson’s cocky celebration of amyl nitrate and gay sex,” according to Peter Watts of Uncut. Songs like that and “Sleeping Pills”, an homage to valium, earned the album its share of controversy, as did the cover. That was a photo of a nude, androgynous couple kissing. Apparently the couple were both ladies but many thought it was two gay men. Either way, all that helped build the publicity for the record whose only real problem might have been a feeling of too much media hype in Britain.

Critics tended to like the album nonetheless. The NME gave it a 7/10 (and later on would rank it the 30th greatest British album of all-time): The Independent said of it, “it would be a shame if the eagerness to get the backlash underway stopped this album getting the respect it deserves.” North American critics sat up and took notice as well. Rolling Stone reviewed it, giving it 4-stars while even mainstream Entertainment Weekly covered it, grading it “B+”. They thought Suede “plunder the styles of their pop-fop forebears (Bolan, Bowie, Morrissey) and rock your last nerve like a fabulously inappropriate prom date.” For all that, record-buyers here yawned and said “Never mind”… it got to only #73 in Canada and failed to even make the charts in the U.S. In Britain, it was a different story, with the album being the first of three #1s they’d have and getting them a gold record. They never quite had a #1 single but came close a couple of times, most notably with ’96’s “Trash” which hit #3 at home and got a few spins on North American radio.

Suede broke up in 2003, but reunited in 2010 and have put out two albums this decade. Butler went on to have quite a good career as a producer, most notably working closely with Duffy on her smash debut album.