What Does Britpop Mean to You: A TIDAL WAVE OF JOY by Paul Laird
In the latest in our series of contributions from SHE’S ELECTRIC supporters, PAUL LAIRD of the MILD MANNERED ARMY blog gives us his testimony on why Britpop matters so much to him and why it is still relevant in his life.
What you have to understand is that everything I’m about to tell you is true, or at least as true as anything ever can be. Oscar Wilde said that the truth was “…never pure and rarely simple.” and that’s the real truth, pure and simple. If anything here isn’t true, it’s not because I’m trying to deceive you, it’s because it was all such a long time ago and memory isn’t ever particularly reliable. I’m also a slave to the idea of a past that is more romantic than it perhaps ever was or ever could be. I want to be honest with you, I’m going to try to be honest with you…surely that’s enough?
I was raised in a Mormon home. That meant that regular Church attendance, prayer and quality time with ones family were important aspects of my daily and weekly life. For Mormons nothing is more important than the family. That meant that I had a very happy and loving childhood. My parents spent every minute they could with me…and every penny on me. I’m fairly sure that my two younger brothers would sing a similar song. As I grew up my Mormonism bestowed upon me a ready made identity. I was a Mormon. At secondary school for five years I was the Mormon. There were no others. It made me a little bit, well, different. I didn’t swear, I went to Church every Sunday, I didn’t ever smoke or drink alcohol, I didn’t date girls…I was a slightly peculiar presence around the playground.
This slightly monastic air was ruffled by the fact that, thanks again to my parents, I had a passion for (and great knowledge of) popular music and, specifically, popular music and culture from the 1960’s. They had both been Mods at the height of that period in British history; at “The Place” in Edinburgh (a nightclub now better known as the Liquid Rooms) my dad was a bona fide “face”. My mum had moved to London during this period and worked in Biba for a while. Their record collection was loaded with albums and singles from Motown, Stax, Atlantic and, of course, the likes of The Kinks, The Small Faces, The Who and, thankfully, was completely bereft of anything by The Beatles who my dad dismissed as a “Scouse version of The Monkees”. As important as the music was the clothing was even more so; I was impeccably dressed and took great delight in parading around the school in brogues, Fred Perry polo shirts (with my school tie worked back to front to make it a skinny tie) and a parka.
This all sounds like I’m building a vision in your minds of an eccentric, a maverick, an outsider, a rebel with, or perhaps without, a cause but nothing could be further from the truth. I was, in the eyes of my peers, a bit of an oddball. I was very short, I had dreadful acne and I was utterly dreadful at any and all sport. Girls looked at me with bemusement and boys looked at me with a sort of murderous rage. I was never bullied and I always had friends but I was never…cool. I was also a very good boy, hard working, polite and well liked by my teachers despite my not being an academic high flyer.
When I hit 15 things began to change, in subtle but significant ways. I discovered The Smiths and from the first note I fell totally under their spell. The real change came when I bought my first Smiths album from John Menzies on Kirkcaldy High Street. It was “Hatful of Hollow” and when the stylus wound its way to “How Soon is Now?” and I heard Morrissey sing “There’s a club if you’d like to go, you could meet somebody who really loves you, so you go and you stand on your own and you leave on your own, and you go home and you cry and you want to die.” I had a near Damascene experience. I wasn’t alone and their were other people just like me…I just had to find them.
Shortly after that something even more important happened.
Chris was very much one of the boys at school who was cool. He had a girlfriend. He was good at sport, so much so that he played for a professional ice hockey team. He was artistic (girls love that). He was well dressed. He had friends. Then, one day, Chris arrived at school wearing a Fred Perry shirt too. We started talking about why and there was a bit of chat about Mods and then a bit more chat about music and then…we were best friends. Chris was my passport into the world of popularity, well, he was my passport to enter the no-mans land around the fringes of popularity. Nobody else could understand why he was hanging around with me, neither could I. I still don’t know. It was 1990.
Madchester was a fading phenomenon. Grebo was, sort of, a thing. Chris liked a bit of PWEI and Ned’s Atomic Dustbin as well as The Wonderstuff. We went to see The Wonderstuff in concert together. We listened to our parents records. We bought records by people like the Hothouse Flowers and the Kevin McDermott Orchestra. It was all a bit random. We didn’t know who we were, we didn’t know what we liked and we didn’t know what we were looking for. We didn’t even know what we didn’t like. We didn’t have anything to rally around and we didn’t have anything to fight against. The idea of pinning our colours to the Mod mast had crossed our minds but we didn’t really know what that would mean.
By the time 1991 came around we were in our last year of high school. Chris was preparing himself for life at University having been accepted to art school and I was readying myself for life as a Mormon missionary…think “The Book of Mormon” musical but instead of Africa I was heading to Bury St Edmunds. By this time I already had doubts about my religious leanings but I didn’t know what to do about that so I just did what was expected of me. In December of that year I headed to East Grinstead to enter the Missionary Training Centre and start my life as a wholesome, clean cut, suited missionary bringing the good news to anyone who would listen. That was a two year commitment. Two years away from my parents (no telephone calls save for Christmas Day and Mothers Day), no contact with friends/girlfriend (other than by letter) and no time alone (other than when nature called or you were bathing).
I lasted for nine months before jumping on a train home having never felt a misery so real in all of my young life.
I arrived back into the real world just in time for Nirvana.
Chris and I, now reunited, were sat in front of the television in my parents home watching The Chart Show. It was indie chart week so we were both very happy. Number one in the chart was “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. We both hated it. We hated the greasy hair. We hated the clothes. We hated the vocal. We hated the entire thing. Instantly. We headed to the local record store to buy a copy of the single and then brought it home and burned it in the back garden. Up until this point we hadn’t been sure who we were but now we knew who we were not and that was whatever the Hell Nirvana were.
Almost immediately Chris and I started adopting certain aspects of the Mod look. Desert boots. Fred Perry. Ben Sherman. Harrington jackets. We made sure that our hair was kept unfashionably short. We were neither Manchester nor Seattle. The music in my parents record collection became the only things we listened to…and The Smiths. Nothing in the charts or on the indie scene found favour with us. Then we heard two records that changed absolutely everything.
The first of these was “Popscene” by blur. We knew who blur were and Chris had bought their first album, “Leisure”, when it came out but we were not overly enamoured with them. They seemed like bandwagon jumpers at that point, mimicking the radio friendly sound of Madchester to get attention. This though was something else. It wasn’t like anything else that was going on, it had brass for a start (something we very much approved of) and their was a harsh, almost provocative, sense of Englishness to the vocal. We loved it.
The second record was “The Drowners” by Suede. Suede were, very clearly, not Mod but they were, equally clearly, very much a British band. They were glamorous, dangerous, ambiguous and they sounded like lots of other bands and artists we had started developing an interest in; Bowie (duh), Roxy Music, The Smiths, The Velvet Underground. Importantly, like blur, they were not wearing plaid and they looked like they understood the importance of having a bath at fairly regular intervals. Oh, the front cover had a painted naked woman on it. We loved it.
Early in 1993 blur released an album called “Modern Life is Rubbish”. In the words of the Fresh Prince our lives got “flipped turned upside down”. This was what we had been looking for. It was an album steeped in the parts of the past that we loved but that sounded like a blueprint for what British music should be going forwards. It was an absolute rejection of the grunge sound and image. No bandwagon jumping this time. A howl from the heart of a nations youth searching for their voice. I was in from the first time I heard it. I had arrived late to The Smiths party and had always felt a bit glum about that, but now I felt very sure that my time had come.
What became known as Britpop was preceded by the short lived New Wave of New Wave and then an even shorter lived New Mod scene. These two scenes threw up bands like Mantaray, S*M*A*S*H and even the glories of The Bluetones and These Animal Men. But it was April 1993 and that issue of Select magazine that really solidified the idea that American dominance of youth culture in Britain was over and that there were a whole bunch of new kids on the block waiting to take their places at pops top table. A Union Flag flew in the background, Brett Anderson preened in the foreground, St Etienne, The Auteurs, Pulp and Denim were all referenced underneath an unambiguous headline; “Yanks go home!”.
Home they went.
At around about this time something very peculiar started to happen. People who, 12 months ago had looked at me with a mixture of disgust and loathing were now simply looking at me. I would find myself at the local indie night (“Bentley’s” on a Thursday in Kirkcaldy) and instead of worrying about getting punched in the face if Chris (my protector as well as best mate) left my side I was now worried by the amount of people who seemed to be taking a very keen interest in my wardrobe. I had become, unlikely as it may sound, a “face”. Chris and I were in at the start of something…not followers but originators. Yes, yes, yes I know how that sounds but come on, can’t you let me have this?
I had the right haircut.
I had the right shoes.
I had the records…that I used to bring along to the club because the DJ didn’t know who any of the bands that “the kids” were asking for were.
Up and down the country there were kids like me experiencing exactly the same thing.
Up and down the charts bands made up of people like me were experiencing the same thing too.
The outsiders hadn’t crept inside, they had kicked the door off its hinges and started dictating the new rules. Amazingly the people on the inside seemed happy to step aside for us. It was as if, instinctively, everybody knew that something important was going on…this wasn’t just a moment, it was a movement.
Blur, Boo Radleys, The Charlatans, Dodgy, Echobelly, Elastica, Gene, The Gyres, Pulp, Powder, Shed Seven, Sleeper, Supergrass, S*M*A*S*H, Strangelove, Suede, These Animal Men, Whiteout and dozens of others. I saw them in concert across the country, sometimes travelling to London on the overnight bus with Chris and sometimes on my own just to be able to say “I saw them”. I bought more records than I could name now. At one point I bought two copies of the debut Menswe@r single “I’ll Manage Somehow” because I was convinced it was going to be a collectable piece of pop memorabilia worthy hundreds of pounds. It didn’t. It isn’t. Doesn’t matter.
I spent hours making up Britpop compilation tapes for me to listen to on the way to University, or to work, or on the bus journey to Dundee on a Friday night to see my girlfriend at art school. They would feature the latest releases from the bands who fitted the label and then be bulked up with nods to the roots of the scene; two-tone bands, The Kinks, Bowie and more. Sometimes I’d give these to Britpoppy girls I would meet at gigs, composing long, and interminably dull, letters to go with them…they didn’t seem to find the letters or the tapes dull and a few of them even read between the lines and agreed to go out with me for a bit.
I felt like I had been hit by a tidal wave of pure joy. Even here in Scotland the sun didn’t stop shining. Every day was sun kissed, warm and bright. Nothing seemed impossible. Want to be in a band? Fine, no problem…just do it. I was in a couple. Neither of them were any good. That wasn’t the point. I was the singer in a band. I was going to be famous. Oh, the band isn’t a thing anymore? Next.
Girls and boys, girl a, girl b and boy c, I was a daydreamer, a rock ‘n’ roll star, I was alright, I was staying out for the summer, I was an insomniac having insomniacs dreams, I saw faces in a dream, I enjoyed the nightlife, it went on and on, I was one of the common people, there was razzamatazz, I was untouchable, I was chasing rainbows, there she was; the female of the species, I was alright, I was happy, this was the sound of youth and there were all the good, good people.
Now people like to look down their noses at the whole thing. They ridicule the blur vs Oasis “battle” as if that’s what was important about that time. They say things like; “I guess there were a couple of good bands, a few nice tunes” which simply shows that they have never been young and they don’t actually care about anything that actually matters…their record collections will be a carefully assembled set of “approved” records with nothing in them that actually makes them feel anything. Oh, you’ve got the “White Album” have you? Listen mate, I’ve got a copy of “All Grown Up” by The Weekenders and it’s a thousand times more important to me than any of your Beatles records. Why? Because I was there, I was part of it. You’re enjoying those “classic” records through a prism constructed by critics. You don’t know anything about how important pop music actually is.
Britpop wasn’t a funny little footnote in British pop history. It was, to people like me, THE most significant moment in British pop history. Everything seemed possible. Nothing was out of our reach. A government that hadn’t lost an election since the 1970’s? No worries, here’s Noel Gallagher telling us all to vote New Labour…bye, bye Mr Major. We did that. We ousted a government. How? Because Britpop had instilled in us the most powerful emotion of all; hope. We’re back to Oscar Wilde; “Nothing should be beyond hope, life IS hope.”, in 1993 very few people had any hope at all but by 1997 hope was a tangible thing, you could feel it all around you. That’s not something you can be sniffy about and it’s not something that a broadsheet journalist at the likes of The Guardian can ever understand because they weren’t there, or worse, they were there but they care more about how they are perceived than telling the truth of that time. We’ve all met them…the kid who likes a band until they start selling records and then they’re off to the next most obscure thing. Defined by their outsider status. Bollocks to that, I hated being an outsider, hated being laughed at, hated being stood on my own at the school disco, hated it…Britpop brought me in from the sidelines and made me feel part of something in a way that not even religion had managed.
I know that reads like the ramblings of a madman. I don’t care. I told you I was going to try and be honest…and that’s about as honest as I can be. Sometimes the truth can’t be well written or presented with perfect punctuation.