Music

Published on May 10th, 2014 | by Heath McCoy

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Britpop VS. Grunge

Britpop and Grunge each step into the ring, with Heath McCoy as referee, judge, jury, and executioner.  Winner takes it all —- Britpop vs. Grunge.

The so-called Britpop movement, which was born 20 years ago, around this time, meant so much more to me than the so-called grunge movement, which effectively died 20 years ago, around this time.

Grunge, an angst-ridden punk metal hybrid born out of the Seattle area exploded internationally with the success of Nirvana’s brilliant ‘Nevermind’ album, the blast forever altering rock’s landscape. Alternative music moved into the mainstream and the Hollywood hard rock bands, who so dominated the latter half of the 1980s, were blown off the map.

The grunge movement lost its momentum with the suicide of Kurt Cobain on April 5, 1994, but the impact remained and depressive, self-loathing rock — most of it lacking the raw honesty and inventiveness of Nirvana — became the order of the day in the late 90s. In North America, that is.

Across the pond something different happened. On April 25, 1994, the British band Blur released its eclectic third album ‘Parklife,’ with influences ranging from The Kinks and XTC to punk, new wave and dance music. A backlash of sorts to American grunge, ‘Parklife’ painted a vivid portrait of working class British life, for all of its quirks,  frustrations, and laddish charm, and the album was embraced in the U.K with a fervour that bordered on nationalistic.

The British music scene was experiencing a surge of fresh, inspired bands at the time, and, on the heels of ‘Parklife,’ they were all lumped under the label of Britpop. This included the Manchester band that would soon eclipse Blur in popularity at home and abroad, Oasis. Far less arty than Blur, with a rockier sound and a cockier, tougher swagger that was too fun to resist, they became the loutish face of Britpop to the world.

As a North American kid, and a hard rocker at that, my allegiance, by rights, should have fallen to grunge. And, to be sure, I counted myself a fan of a lot of the music in that genre. I was as blown away by Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ as any member of my generation. I dug the first three Pearl Jam CDs, I loved the heaviness of Soundgarden.

But there was something about grunge’s overall vibe that I could never fully warm to. It was that despairing mentality that Cobain summed up so perfectly with the title of one of his songs, “I Hate Myself and I Want To Die.” (He later claimed it was a joke, but given the way the guy checked out, it’s hard to read it as such). Then there was that earnestness typified by Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, and the way most of the grunge artists pretended to shun rock star excesses, both on and off stage, as if they were embarrassed by the whole game.

This attitude, which often came with a heavy dose of  political correctness, was a huge turnoff for me. I bought into the fantasy. I wanted my rock stars to be larger than life — consummate entertainers onstage and animals off.  I cheered when Oasis’s Noel Gallagher said of Vedder: “Lad, if you hate your job so much, why don’t you fucking go work at a carwash or McDonalds or something?”

There was an infamous backstage scene at the 1992 MTV Music Awards where Cobain’s wife (and Nirvana’s Yoko) Courtney Love, supposedly called out Guns N’ Roses singer Axl Rose, because she hated his misogynistic lyrics and image. Rose, so the story goes, threatened Cobain with a beating if he didn’t shut her up.

While there’s no denying that Rose was a raging asshole, I knew where my allegiance lied in the rock world and it wasn’t with the grunge camp. Truthfully, I wouldn’t have minded if Rose had busted Cobain’s jaw. May lightning strike me down, but when Kurt Cobain ended his life, I was sick of the guy. And I was sick of grunge. When Britpop came along, it felt, for me, like a breath of fresh air, after having been immersed for so long in the smoggy fatalism of grunge.

The fact that I was living in London for the greater part of a year when Britpop was at its peak, between 1995 and 96, had a lot to do with the huge impression the genre left on me.  It was such an exciting time to be on the scene for this Saskatchewan hayseed, even if my status as a broke backpacker largely limited my Britpop involvement to the telly, the weekly NME, and the odd pricey concert ticket.

The Battle of Britpop was being waged between Oasis and Blur, via the country’s lascivious tabloid press. Time has proven Damon Albarn to be a superior songwriter to Noel Gallagher, but that didn’t stop the papers from cruelly turning on him, casting him as the posh twat receiving his comeuppance from the witty working class Gallagher brothers. Noel and his brother Liam are masters of the snarky jab and they peppered Albarn with shot after shot knocking him off the pedestal he was on only a year prior. There was a hooligan meanness to the whole spectacle, but, in their outrageousness, Oasis would leave you snickering, despite yourself.

The Gallaghers weren’t the only Britpop hellraisers. Who can forget eccentric underdog turned hero Jarvis Cocker of Pulp, who wrote what was probably the most poignant song of the Britpop movement with ‘Common People,’ which skewered the British class system? Cocker was disgusted with the Messiah complex demonstrated by one Michael Jackson, who was performing at the 1996 Brit Awards, and, in mock protest, he rushed the stage, shaking his bum at the audience. Jacko’s bodyguards scrambled to remove the intruder, knocking children from the stage, and Cocker found himself in the back of a squad car, and on the cover of the nation’s tabloids the next morning. Eventually he was released without charges, but debates raged in the press as to whether Cocker should be lynched or knighted.

jarvis cocker pats his backside

It was all such fun. Beyond that though, the Britpop movement produced a great deal of music that was every bit as inspired as grunge. More so, I thought, in many cases, as it lacked that oppressive baggage of grunge, both sonically and in spirit. There was a lot of great pop craftsmanship at play too, which greatly appealed to this Beatles worshipper.

Not to oversimplify things. Kurt Cobain possessed impeccable pop instincts too, and Britpop certainly had its sulky side. Gloom was a big part of Cocker’s arsenal and Blur was already singing about the Britpop hangover, “knocking back Prozac” beneath the cheery exterior of their 1995 single ‘Country House.’

In the big picture of the 90s, grunge certainly outranks Britpop in terms of influence and era-defining moments, but when I think of the decade, I will always look most fondly on the Brits.

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About the Author

is a journalist, author, pop culture/trash culture junkie, and communications pro. Former music critic/pop culture reporter for the Calgary Herald. Wrote Pain and Passion: The History of Stampede Wrestling. TV show host and movie critic (seriously, once upon a time, a show you've never seen). Lover of comics, pro wrestling, and metal. He also enjoys scotch.



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