Sunday, August 22, 2010

Britpop!: Cool Britannia and the Spectacular Demise of English Rock

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Britpop!: Cool Britannia and the Spectacular Demise of English Rock (US edition: Da Capo, 2004)

Is it possible to write a "review" about a book like this without injecting your own experiences and feelings about the subject into your article? No, probably not, and I'm not going to try. John Harris's Britpop is an incredibly fun book. I bought it when it was first released in the US and I finished my third reading of it last week, this time aided by YouTube clips to give me better understanding of the music that I missed at the time. I had a ball. This is a great story with a tremendously good soundtrack.

I came to a lot of the Britpop-era music (roughly 1992-97) late, because radio here played very little of it. I recall seeing "There's No Other Way" on 120 Minutes before I moved to Athens on a permanent basis, but by the time Suede and Blur went to war, the commercial radio here was stuck playing that hotdamned "Runaway Train" song every hour for something like 28 months, and the college radio in Athens was playing stuff I either never identified or later learned was early Elephant Six. I didn't discover Suede and Pulp until after each band had crested. I enjoy the heck out of each group, and now that I've finally seen the terrific video for "The Universal," as you should right now, I've started to really like Blur, but it would have been so much more fun to experience all this music, and all the bitter rivalries between the bands, when it was new.

Just as the popularity of these hitmakers ebbed and flowed in the early nineties, so does the focus of the book. It begins with Brett Anderson and Justine Frischmann starting their relationship and the formation of Suede. Before long, Justine has left him for Damon Albarn of Blur and started her own band, Elastica. Pulp makes the scene after a decade in obscurity, apparently just to steal Alex James's girlfriends, and then, just as Suede starts missing the top 20 under the weight of their pretentious second album, things go to hell when Oasis shows up to crash the party, all swagger and shouting.

Now, I was familiar with Oasis at the time, because commercial radio here did play some amazing songs from them. This gave people in the US some understanding that there was a rivalry going on between them and several other bands, but we never experienced it. The madness that surrounded the same-day release of Oasis's "Roll With It" and Blur's "Country House" sounds like the most fun media spectacle in the world. It's a shame that we missed it.

Harris's book is so darn good that I'd call it almost perfect. I do think he gives a little short shrift to Suede's roaring resurgence with the Coming Up album and all its hit singles, and Pulp's mammoth Different Class. Compared to the juicy detail in other areas, these seem sidelined in favor of spending a little more time on the party politics of the time and the rise of Tony Blair. That's the only quibble that I have. With a good mix of interviews and research, he really shows us the whole story of the period. Seriously, sit down with this book and let YouTube show you all those videos by Menswear and Sleeper that you missed and you're in for a fine, fine time. Highly recommended.

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