Unless you’ve been hiding under a stone for the past month you’ll have noticed the media, and in particular the BBC, working itself into a frenzy over the 20th anniversary of ‘Britpop’. To many this level of nostalgia for a musical movement which was, if anything, merely the collection of a handful of zeitgeist wresting retrograde magpies sticks in the craw. ‘Britpop’ wasn’t a cohesive genre, less still a cultural movement, it was a confection – a label for ideas at best, a marketing tool at worst.
This is right, to a degree. Britpop was a label. As Alexis Petridis noted in the Guardian last week, there’s little to sonically link the titans of the era in the way that there was with grunge, its direct precept. But that ignores the collective consciousness of the time, which began with Brett Anderson’s infamous ‘Select’ cover and ended as Noel Gallagher shook hands with the newly minted Prime Minister Blair in 10 Downing Street. ‘Cool Britannia’ may, in hindsight, have been unspeakably cringeworthy but it was a movement and to deny it is to deny having lived through it.
The role of football in this movement is well documented, and quite probably overstated. Years of exposure to the ‘Premier League Years’ have caused those of us who lived through the era to intrinsically link Rick Witter to Tony Yeboah, Chris Helme to Paul Rideout and Martin Rossiter to Eddie Newton. True, the Lightning Seeds may have soundtracked ‘Match of the Day’ and penned the ubiquitous terrace anthem ‘Three Lions’ whilst the crossover was at its zenith, but what more was this than the public celebration of working class culture?
Two rough, photogenic boys from the backstreets of Burnage in Manchester had crossed over to become bona fide rock and roll megastars, everyone and his wife read ‘Loaded’ (even if it was a 6 month old back issue purloined from an unsuspecting cousin) and they let women with accents on TV to talk about popular culture. Terrace-based quaffing of industrial strength Belgian lager was merely an incidental, inebriated stagger away.
My contention is that this isn’t quite true. Football and music in 1990s England were mirror images of one another and bound by fate to intertwine and leave a collective and enduring cultural imprint. These two Doric columns of society are merely reflective, both of one another, and of general social consciousness.
Some argue that ‘Modern Football’ as a concept was minted the day that Rupert Murdoch’s Sky TV took a monopoly of live coverage of the domestic Premier League. The truth is rather bleaker and rooted in tragedy; the genesis of football as we know it now, and knew it in the 90s, occurred 25 years ago this week at Hillsborough stadium. Ninety six people lost their lives that day, each never to be forgotten in their own right, nor collectively for the positive impact and influence which they had, through the Taylor Report and its consequences, on football in the UK.
Fast forward five years, almost to the week. Another tragedy. This time a gunshot heard around the world. Kurt Cobain, frontman of Nirvana, had killed himself at home in Seattle. With him died grunge music as a commercial concern.
What followed in his wake, as in football, was the triumph of an idea which was equal parts integrity and commercialism; a sanitised product attractive to both the trend making young and their trend following elders.
As with all movements the ‘Premier League Era’ and ‘Britpop’ needed outriders. Luckily they appeared in the early 1990s in the form of a pair of outré iconoclasts – Eric Cantona and Brett Anderson.
To hear Anderson’s breakthrough single with Suede, ‘Animal Nitrate’, or watch Cantona slaloming through defenders as he led a workmanlike Leeds United to the title for the first time evokes the same reaction – that of a deliriously exciting, and slightly otherworldly presence announcing itself to the public.
Anderson and Cantona shared with one another a breathtaking level of insouciance which set them out from my peers. They knew that none of that generation’s young had ever seen or heard anything like what they were offering. So what if they pilfered from Bowie and Maradona; who needed to know when what they had was so arresting?
Without Anderson there would be no ‘Britpop’ as we know it. His role is often downplayed in favour of the bigger and more socially normal characters who followed but he and Suede, through their lascivious sound and channelling of youth culture, opened the door for the magpies who captured the day.
Cantona’s impact, especially with Manchester United, is more fondly remembered, but his impact no less profound – without this superstar around whom to cement their stronghold Sky’s Premier League era may have been stillborn. ‘King Eric’ made Sunday afternoon football unmissable in the same way that Anderson commandeered the 1993 BRIT awards, announcing a new regime to the world.
Beyond the early pioneers it’s always tempting to remember ‘Britpop’ as a sludgy musical hinterland, all three chord riffs and brooding machismo. There certainly was plenty of that, but the real ‘landfill’ didn’t appear until the tail end of this cultural phenomenon. It wasn’t until the onset of Twitter punctuation in band names (think Meanswe@r and Hurricane #1, the Britpop equivalents of Tomas Brolin and Erland Johnsen) that the musical game was up.
What went before, as Petridis notes in the Guardian, was diverse, and united only by a slavish attachment to guitars and the past. Oasis’s best work was Slade gargling buckfast and fag butts, Supergrass’s first album a Ritalin-spiked splicing of The Monkees and Talking Heads. Radiohead, so often placed on a pedestal by hindsight, were making heavy guitar chugs, heavily indebted to Neil Young and Howard Devoto.
Looking back now though, everything is tinged by two particular albums. Unsurprisingly they’re the ones which have, perhaps, best stood the test of time – Blur’s ‘Parklife’ and Pulp’s ‘Different Class’. The former came first and brought the ubiquitous Adidas three stripe, Walthamstow Dogs and Phil Daniels back into the public sphere. It is the ultimate document of the era.
Pulp’s breakthrough record remains the ‘ying’ to Parklife’s ‘yang’, a satirical antidote to its middle class celebration of low culture. These two records, along with Oasis’s magnum opus (What’s the Story?) Morning Glory, defined the ascent of lad culture – their authors were the biggest celebrities of the day, their lives a matter of public property and their actions, insights and interests able to set, and extinguish trends. And this despite the fact that the merest of musical threads bound them together.
Back then, 1995 seemed a pretty good time to be 12 years old.
On the pitch the impact was no different. Football had never been away, but the mid-90s was its true crossover period; the point at which it became socially acceptable, almost expected, to be a football fan. A time when even Conservative minister David Mellor made cultural capital of his allegiance to Chelsea through his inexplicable stint at the helm of BBC 5 Live’s flagship ‘606’ phone-in.
History will probably only pause to report this as the first ‘Fergie Era’, coloured by the domination of Manchester’s red giants, with Cantona, then latterly Beckham, Keane and Giggs at their forefront. In the mid-90s the red terror was so ubiquitous and all consuming that it’s easy to forget that Blackburn’s Shearer and Sutton inspired title win came right in 1996, at the very height of Alex Ferguson’s power.
Similarly, this was the first era of the celebrity footballer – from Liverpool’s ‘Spice Boys’, to United’s feted ‘Class of 92’ – they were as much public property as their musical peers the Gallagher brothers, Damon Albarn and Jarvis Cocker.
And they behaved equally appallingly – as Cocker wagged his arse at Michael Jackson in an infamous BRIT awards cameo, Liverpool’s Robbie Fowler drew undue attention by questioning Graeme Le Saux’s sexuality and miming the ‘snorting’ of whitewash after scoring a penalty in front of the Anfield Kop. Just as Cocker’s backside baring and the antics of Blur’s Alex James in mid-90s Soho were lapped up by the public, so too were footballers’ own contributions to the dominant culture of the day, ‘laddism’.
However, just as the music of the mid-90s was, on reflection, more nuanced and idiosyncratic than we choose to believe, so it was true of English football’s contemporary megastars. Nowhere was this more apparent than the national team at Euro ‘96. Where the modern footballer seems homogenised into two tropes – petite metronome or statuesque speedster – and characterised by a sense of detachment, that generation of stars were perhaps the last truly remembered for their individual characteristics and grounded in the same place as the fans.
Some of this was about character – where is the modern day Stuart Pearce or Ian Wright? – but not all of it. England’s attacking impetus at Euro ‘96 was provided by Darren Anderton and Steve McManaman, the latter a lithe, once in a generation talent and the former a seemingly workmanlike presence whose ability with the ball at feet and sense of anticipation could stop you in your tracks.
Beyond the national squad Matt Le Tissier’s individual brilliance continuously saved beleaguered Southampton, Dalian Atkinson’s impish talent lit up Saturday evenings week-on-week and Ryan Giggs reinvented and reinvigorated the concept of wing play almost single-handedly. All their talent and tricks pilfered from the past, recast and presented with personal flourish. Heck, even the underachieving Dutch golden generation of Davids, Seedorf, Cocu, Bergkamp and the De Boers had its seeds in the wonder teams of the 1970s.
What characterised both football and music in the 1990s, perhaps even more than its foundations in previous generations, was an overwhelming feeling of emancipation. That period between 1993 and 1997 was a coming out party for popular British culture. Guitar music was no longer the property of the middle brow classes who so cherished the Smiths, the Cure and My Bloody Valentine and football, by the same token, was passed back the other way like a huge Panini sticker swap.
This mirrored British life in the mid-90s. Thatcher was gone, and with her the need for popular culture to hang out at the margins, through illegal raves or hooligan culture. People of all classes could have, do and be what they wanted to, and they generally did. In this climate the sharing of these two vital organs of British cultural heritage must have seemed the most natural of actions – navel gazing, worry, introspection, bombast, the cult of self and neoliberalism were, for a moment, all yesterday’s news. As one youthful chameleon saw it, in an unparalleled act of zeitgeist channelling, ‘things could only get better’ – and for most of us, for a long while, they did.