Living Forever: Why is the BBC celebrating Britpop’s 20th birthday?

Live Forever Britpop album coverBritpop. Britpop, everywhere Britpop. An orgy of mid-nineties nostalgia is in full thrust right now (you might have noticed), the fetish for the great, the good and the best forgotten dominated by good old Aunty.

But as much fun as it is to remember the last great mass experience of music before the internet polled up and fractured genres into infinite niche scenes, is it justified? And why the heck is the BBC so keen to push the good ole days upon our ears again?

In his first piece for Louder Than War Chris Holding muses on the current media obsession with the culture of two decades ago.

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A Celebration

In March the BBC announced a season of shows celebrating the 20th birthday of Britpop. Beginning April 6th, a week of programming will be dedicated to the era on Radio 2, BBC 6 Music and BBC Four.

Upon hearing the news it immediately reminded me of a particularly self-aggrandising moment in the recent history of our most revered broadcasting institution and made me wonder, at a time when its cultural stock is dangerously low, is it wise for the BBC to invest so much in such a recent epoch?

I Love…

In July 2000 old Auntie Beeb began the, I Love… series of programmes wherein assorted (debatable) luminaries recalled the (debatably) defining events of yesteryear. Though not a ground-breaking format the series gave rise to a drunkship of similar cobblers, culminating in Channel 4’s arduous top 100 lists.

I Love… was a premise built upon solid foundations but the mortar between the bricks fashioned shit-house entertainment.

Often the strength of talking-head TV hinges on the heads. In this regard I Love… was always on the back foot.

Bearing witness to Miranda Sawyer’s hair or Terry Christian’s interminable face was bad enough, let alone suffering their recollections of Dubreq Stylophones, Monster Munch or The Joy of Sex. While Stuart Maconie’s opinions became the world’s most ubiquitous detritus since scientists discovered the Pacific Trash Vortex.

What really rankles, when watching back, is the smugness conveyed by many of the contributors. There’s a continual impression that, because these people are famous, their experiences are somehow more important: as though they were at the vanguard of each cultural zeitgeist for three decades.

While I concede that some contributors may have chimed in with real insight on a subject of relative interest this was fleeting relief from yammering, fountain-mouthed, oxygen-thieves, spouting disingenuous bullshit.

Further issues occur among the vast array of subjects covered in each show. Rather than cherry pick the era’s defining moments, viewers were treated to the likes of Tara Palmer Tomkinson and Ainsley Harriott sharing their deepest ruminations on subjects including: Ice Lollies, Mark Spitz, Skateboards, Hubba-Bubba and Trivial Pursuit.

A most disturbing example occurs in I Love 1975 when Kathryn Flett proudly recalls writing to Jim’ll Fix It asking to do the Can-Can at the Moulin Rouge. Later, archive footage of Jim fixing it for two girls to see their favourite dolls manufactured becomes truly squeamish when, back in the studio, they are given dresses to match their Barbie. It exemplifies a typically British propensity toward nostalgia and romanticising aspects of our past that should have been condemned long ago.

Fading Out

Three years before I Love… aired, Britpop died. 1997 is the most significant year of the decade in so far as it heralded a shift in focus from the dominant six string centric sound to hip-hop and R&B.

For the first time since the death of Kurt Cobain, the UK music scene was looking across the Atlantic at two more tragic, young men: Tupac Shakur and Christopher Wallace.

Even if you don’t believe that, there are five significant albums from British bands released in ‘97 that evidence the Cool Britannia was over: Spiritualized – Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space, The Prodigy – Fat of the Land, Blur – Blur, Oasis – Be Here Now and Radiohead – OK Computer. Four of those albums are angry, introspective, brutal/beautiful records that owe nothing to T-Rex or any other Britpop touchstone. The other is Be Here Now.

I cannot think of another album that has experienced such a negative shift in critical opinion. Rolling Stone magazine gave it four stars, Q a full five out of five. With the exception of the manic Fade In-Out nothing on the record stands up today.

Between April 1994 and August 1997 (when Be Here Now was released) Oasis had made rock n roll stardom a possibility for 3 chord wonders across this sceptred isle. While it’s as easy to laugh now at the music of Menswear and Kinickie as it was in 1995 you only have to look at the talent roster of BBC 6 Music to see that these bands made a lasting impression.

Run, Come Save Me

In 2010 I joined the thousands who signed petitions and rallied behind social media campaigns to save BBC 6 Music and remain one of the stations 1.9 million weekly listeners. Like many others I feel a sense of shared ownership and pride in this achievement.

Prior to the stations near extinction I do believe there was an ingrained elitism, similar to that which infected the, I love… series and the resultant reprieve brought out the best in everyone (except George ‘sacrificial’ Lamb) concerned. I even like Stuart Maconie now.

Following the recent 6 Music festival in Manchester it’s safe to say there will be no more talk of closure in the coming years, which is why the Britpop celebration seems so counter-intuitive.

Lauren Laverne, Jarvis Cocker, Matt Everitt, Miranda Sawyer, Gaz Coombes, Steve Lamacq, Cerys Matthews, Stuart Maconie, Mark Radcliffe and many other stalwarts of the Britpop era all present and contribute to the station daily. Do we really need a reminder of how they got there?

What’s more do we really need to look back at one of the most over-analysed periods in our recent history, once again, only to realise there was a lot of dross in between the electric white lines?

I could write a thousand words on the music I loved (good and bad) from that period, the shit clothes I wore and my own god awful attempts at re-writing Cast No Shadow: but it’s been said before, time and again by the same journalists, musicians, label bosses and hangers-on. Britpop will live forever in the memory of its children; but for now, surely, those memories should be celebration enough.

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All words by Chris Holding. This article was first published on Chris’s blog on 18 March 2014. You can read more of his articles on his blog.

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2 comments on “Living Forever: Why is the BBC celebrating Britpop’s 20th birthday?”

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  1. I can understand celebrating bands like Pulp and Eslastica, but I don’t understand why anyone would want to celebrate a scene that spawned so much lad culture.

  2. Dave Hutchinson

    What was apparent to me was after 20 years Jo Whiley still knows absolutely nothing about popular music, what is she paid for?

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