I came of age in London during the Britpop boom of the late 1990s. I still remember 14 August, 1995, the day that Blur and Oasis both released long-awaited singles and it made the national news. Even though these bands were the definition of “mainstream”, it was the first time that I had paid attention to something that sounded like an alternative to the stuff that was all over the radio. (For the record: the biggest-selling single of 1994 was a cover of a 1967 Troggs tune which was in ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’, and its successor in 1995 was a cover of ‘Unchained Melody’ by two dudes who played soldiers on a TV show; one of whom was recently on ‘Game of Thrones’).
That’s all I was listening to up until that point. Yes, it wasn’t trendy, but I was twelve. What do you want? I’m always leery of people my age who try to sound cool by saying things like “Oh yeah, I was totally into ‘Nevermind’ when it first came out.” Really? That’d make you the world’s most unpleasant eight year-old, and also your parents must have been monsters.
I got in on this burgeoning trend of Cool British Guitar Bands immediately, and a couple of years later, began an online fanzine called The Brain Farm. Funnily enough, you can still read a cached version of the site here. These were the days before literally every person had a blog, so press companies were pretty eager to send me CDs and put me and my writers on the list for gigs. I’d estimate that I witnessed over 200 shows over a two year stretch. At its peak, In December 2001, I saw six gigs in five nights. This mini-marathon ended with a set from Mogwai at Brixton Academy which ended with a rendition of ‘My Father, My King’ that was so loud, it made rubble fall from the ceiling. I spent the next few days in a monastery in stone-cold silence. I was a teenager, living near a tube station in North London, and just about every music venue was less than half an hour away. (Go to hell, Shepherds Bush Empire!) It was the greatest.
Here’s the thing, though. Of all the bands that sprouted up during that time, and there were many, few are still around, but even fewer are still even remembered. It’s fascinating to me how an entire wave of bands could fall into, and then fall out of, fashion so abruptly. Was it just a bubble bursting? Were they all just terrible? That’s what I’d like to investigate.
Each story in this column is going to focus on a band that was active during this golden age of 1997-2002. I moved to the United States in August 2002, and fell out of touch for a while. I was too busy discovering the films of Wes Anderson, ‘Full Collapse’ by Thursday, Yuengling, and women who find British accents attractive. Some of the bands became pretty big in the UK at the time, some remained pretty obscure. I don’t plan on writing about “The Big Three” (Oasis, Blur, Pulp) as their exploits during this time period are sufficiently well-documented, but I may change my mind at some point. I have a dynamite story about meeting Noel Gallagher at the men’s room at Dingwalls during an Alfie gig.
Some you may be familiar with, others you may never heard of before. Most are British, but a few aren’t. A handful did break up, but have since reformed. A surprising number have “Best Of…” compilations. One thing that they all have in common, though, is that at some point, I quite liked all of them. It’ll be interesting to see how they hold up. I’m not trying to write biographies of each band; this is just how I saw them, what I liked about them, and whether I can still enjoy them a decade later.
Let me leave you with a story that illustrates how my own tastes have evolved. The day that Tupac died, I went with my friend Tom to Wembley Arena to see a charity gig put together by Top of the Pops Magazine. We were thirteen years old, and super excited to see the following bands: Sleeper, Kula Shaker, Terrorvision, Ocean Colour Scene and Cast. Today, as a grown man with a wife and a beard, I can look back and say that only one of those doesn’t mortify me. You’ll have to wait and see which band it is*. Not a big deal: everyone enjoys music and later moves on to something else. But that show had a very special guest headliner, who we had no interest in seeing, and whose set we left during. It was Bjork, and it wasn’t until my big Bjork phase, sophomore year of college, that I realized how dumb of a move that was. I justify it to myself by saying “It was pre-‘Homogenic’, so Bjork wasn’t all that great then.” I know it’s a flawed excuse, but it works for me.
These are the groups of my youth, but not of my adulthood. I’m not ashamed that I was into these bands at the time, but listening to some of them now may be a little cringeworthy. Every week I’m going to post about another band that, for however long or short a time, held my attention back then. I might even get guest writers in here to shed some light about what tickled their fancies. I’ve also got a Spotify playlist, which you can subscribe to here, which I’ll update each week with some of the tunes that I mention in that week’s column. Fun!
When I moved to Florida, I gave The Brain Farm to a new editor, who kept it going for a couple of months, before allowing it to sit stagnant for a while, before it disappeared. I feel like there’s a parallel to be made here with Britpop itself, but I’m not smart enough to see it.