Grunge Vs. Britpop

20:47, May 12 2013

Last week the inmates were running the asylum. You'll remember that I asked people to Right This Blog! I asked for a "wildcard" too - in case one (or two) of the five chosen didn't front. I asked Joe The Boxer because his idea seemed to get rather cruelly voted down. Joe The Boxer delivered his wildcard blog. So here, to start this week, is one final Guest Blog, the last in 2013's Right This Blog! series...take it away, Mr. The Boxer...

Guest Blog: I have a question for you. Scroll through the list of band and artist names on your iPod. Roughly, what percentage of these bands or artists is from the USA or Britain? I had a quick look at mine (OK, I just spent the last 45 minutes counting them up and using an Excel spreadsheet to keep track and calculate percentages - I'm a massive dork).

I was pretty shocked when I realised that 80 per cent of my music came from these two areas of the world. I'm not sure if that would be higher, lower or about the same as the average music lover, but it did make me realise that the UK and USA really do dominate popular musical culture.

In the early 90s, these two musical powerhouses went through periods that managed to resonate enough in culture to be given names that will instantly recognisable to anyone reading this blog: Grunge and Britpop. But which of these two eras was better? This is what I've been spending way too much time trying to figure out. I have decided the best way to do this is to make up categories and figure out a winner for each one, then an overall winner at the end.

Before I get started, a few things I want to mention.  I have to acknowledge the excellent John Harris book The Last Party: Britpop, Blair and the demise of English Rock as a primary source, and also various friends of mine for helping to bounce some ideas around. I'm not including Radiohead in this, because they were never a Britpop band - they were a British band around at the same time as Britpop. In fact, Creep, with its alienation lyrics, loud/soft dynamic and crunchy guitar, was more of a prototypical grunge song. Pavement and Sonic Youth are out as well. And I'll avoid using the word "iconic" to describe anything, because, well, I just really hate that word. Does anyone else hate this word or is it just me? It really irritates me. Can everyone stop using it all the time? Can we all agree to stop using the word "iconic" to describe stuff?

OK, I've calmed down now. On to the first category:



Both came as reactions to long periods of conservative rule: Reagan/Bush Sr. with grunge, Thatcherism with Britpop. Grunge took a pretty cynical and nihilistic approach, something along the lines of "there is no point in trying to change anything, because that is what the previous generations tried and now they are as much part of the problem as anything. The world is basically completely screwed, and when you think about it, everything is basically bulls**t anyway. It's easier to just have stoned philosophical arguments among your friends and listen to angst-ridden music (which is also bulls**t)." The problem was this created a contradiction, because if you are cynical of everything, then eventually you have to be cynical of your own cynicism, and that makes you eventually feel like a fraud, so grunge was essentially pretty confusing.

Britpop was founded on a kind of cheeky nationalism, a response to the Thatcher-era Americanisation of British culture. Bands like Blur wanted to hark back to a form of traditional British culture by embracing "British" things like soccer hooliganism, Benny Hill and dog-racing in their lyrics, album covers and videos. Liam Gallagher called the Union Jack "the greatest flag in the world", and his brother Noel's Beatles worship linked Oasis to the glory days of British music. Blur's album Modern Life is Rubbish was originally titled "Britain vs America". The press latched on and named the movement "Cool Britannia".

Enter opportunist politician Tony Blair. He wanted to appeal to the youth of Britain, saw the popularity of these new bands and tried to jump on board. He invited Blur and Oasis to various functions (his opening line to Damon Albarn was reportedly "So, what's the scene like out there?"). Noel played along, stating at the Brit awards that Blair was one of only seven people in Britain who cared about the kids - the others being the five members of Oasis and their manager Alan McGee). The whole British revival thing eventually became so mainstream it even got highjacked by the pro-Thatcher Spice Girls, thus completing some kind of tragic loop and becoming the thing it set out to destroy. So overall the whole national pride thing didn't go too well, but then again, it never really does.

So grunge had the more successful worldview, by being cynical and distrusting of everything it made itself less open to coercion. Can you imagine Bill Clinton ever trying to get down with Eddie Vedder?



Question: What is the first image you think of when you hear the word Grunge? For me it is this Rolling Stone cover - possibly the grungest thing ever. For Britpop, it's probably the awful Country House music video (directed by Damien Hirst!).

There is no question which single image from either genre has been the most resonant in culture though - it's the cover of Nevermind in a landslide. No Britpop album cover even comes close. As far as clothing went, Britpop was all over the place - The guys in Suede dressed nothing like the guys in Oasis, for example, though a lot of minor Britpop bands tried to dress exactly like Jarvis Cocker. Grunge was much more uniform - the flannel shirts and ripped jeans or shorts were pretty much standard. So although Britpop may have had a slightly slicker aesthetic, Grunge was more of a singular "thing".



What is the first band that pops into your head when you hear the word "Britpop?" - I'll wager that for most people, it is Oasis. My take:  I always thought they had a good bottom end that gave them a swagger that's hard to fake or imitate (I'm thinking of Supersonic, Live Forever, and Morning Glory), but Champagne Supernova drives me insane and All Around the World was a total embarrassment - it's basically the sound of cocaine going into the studio, picking up a guitar and recording a song. So overall I'd say they were "good". But if the defining band of a specific movement is merely "good", then that is a problem. If you put them up against the first band that pops into your head when you hear the word "Grunge" (most likely Nirvana for the majority), then it is no contest - there are not many arguments that could be made to say Oasis were a better band than Nirvana.

However - I think Britpop may have been deeper. Here is a basic list of prominent Britpop bands in a rough order of success: Oasis, Blur, Suede, Pulp, The Verve, Elastica, Supergrass. For grunge: Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, Stone Temple Pilots, Soundgarden, Hole, Alice in Chains, Mudhoney. Looking at those two lists, I see a lot of bands I still occasionally listen to in the first one (Pulp, Suede, Blur, Elastica), and a lot of bands I liked at a particular point in my life, that I'm not really interested in revisiting, in the other (all of them apart from Nirvana).

So for me, Britpop bands were better.



Here is an incredibly easy prediction: Sometime between 2014 and 2020, the original Oasis lineup (the one with the bald guy on bass) will reform to headline Glastonbury. They will play Wonderwall, everyone will sing along, and it will be remembered as the defining and best song of the Britpop era. Again, this is a problem. Wonderwall may be the most successful and well known song of Britpop, but it also completely sucks.

There were heaps of other Britpop songs that were great, and came closer to defining the sound. Lyrically Britpop was defined by its observances on British life, and Gallagher-isms like "The sink is full of fishes, she's got dirty dishes on the brain" don't quite cut it. For me, when I think of Britpop songs, I think of Suede tearing through Animal Nitrate at the Brit awards, or I think of the bass line to Girls and Boys. But Common People will always be the ultimate Britpop song, the one that should go down as defining the sound.

As for the defining song from the grunge era, the most obvious answer is probably the correct one. However, for me, the "grungest" song would be Hunger Strike. And my favourite grunge era songs would be either this or this. But yeah, Britpop again.



It's common knowledge that one of the last things Kurt Cobain ever did was to quote a Neil Young song in his suicide note - "it's better to burn out than to fade away". When things started to go wrong for both eras, bands took different paths to their own oblivion. The Grunge bands tended to burn out with drug-related endings (Nirvana, Blind Melon, Stone Temple Pilots, Hole, Alice in Chains). Britpop bands tended to fade away, with either the public losing interest after mediocre albums (Elastica, Supergrass, Suede), or the bands deciding the creative well was dry and calling it a day (Oasis, Blur, Pulp, The Verve).

But this very neat little argument I've come up with is kind of stupid. No bands are ever allowed to actually permanently break up anymore - as there is no money in selling music, the only way for many of these bands to continue receiving income is to reform and hit the road. So in a way, with the reformation of Blur, Suede, Pulp, Stone Temple Pilots, Soundgarden, Hole and Alice in Chains, we are still in the Grunge/Britpop eras, only a kind of revisionist cabaret version of it. Everything has a long, drawn out ending these days. It could take another 40 years, but for a band like Supergrass, reformation is always an option. So legacy, in that regard, is hard to assess.

As far as influence on other bands goes, the legacy of grunge that immediately comes to mind can be summed up with one noise: "URRRRRRRR!" This is also known as "the Vedder voice" and it's been borrowed/ stolen by various "worst band ever" contenders from Creed to Daughtry to Nickelback. Another contender for worst band ever, perhaps even the odds-on favourite, combined grungy guitars and angst with hip-hop and came up with the Limp Bizkit sound. So yeah, the musical influence of grunge isn't too flash. As for Britpop, it immediately spawned groups like the Arctic Monkeys, Franz Ferdinand and the Kaiser Chiefs, who are all harmless enough, and the Libertines, who were great, if a little inconsistent.

Looking at legacy from one more angle, let's compare the careers of two of the big names of the respective eras: Damon Albarn and Billy Corgan. Both were seen as genius songwriters at their peak in hugely successful bands. Both helped kick-start their eras, had breakout albums (Siamese Dream and Parklife), followed by more ambitious follow-ups (Melon Collie, The Great Escape), followed by creative left turns (Blur and Machina). They had controlling influence over their bands, which led to other members leaving (Graham Coxon for Albarn, everyone for Corgan). They both eventually went on to take on other musical projects (ZWAN and a solo career for Corgan, Gorillaz, The Good, the Bad and the Queen and operas about scientists for Albarn). One of these guys has produced arguably the most interesting body of work by any musical individual in the last two decades, the other has basically become a walking punchline.



Grunge was probably more influential overall (for better or worse). Its biggest band was better than the biggest Britpop band. The next biggest Britpop band, Blur, released a grungy-sounding album at the height of their fame (and it had their best song on it). Isn't this kind of like admitting defeat?

But I've gotta go with Britpop. It's held up better. When I listen to Nevermind, I hear an album full of great songs, but with irritating, dated production (I wish Albini had produced it). When I think of all those grunge bands, I have no real desire to listen to them again. I might have been more into Grunge in 1995, but I left it back there. Anyway, my favourite album of either era is Pulp's This is Hardcore, so that seals it.


What do you think?

Blog on the Tracks is on Facebook and Twitter.

You can also check out Off the Tracks for The Vinyl Countdown, reviews and other posts.