Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Britpop On The Now albums - A post-Bank Holiday Special

It clearly won't be the Bank Holiday by the time you read this, but with Definitely Maybe back in the Top 5, it seems as good a time as any to dust off one of the posts I didn't do last year.

One of the hardest things about trying to track the history of Britpop on Now albums (or, indeed, anywhere) is choosing a starting point. You can argue that the first Britpop single was 'The Drowners' (22 years ago this month) or 'Popscene' a couple of months before that, but there's no trace of that on Now 22, where indie is represented by the old guard of Carter USM (their only appearance), Electronic (another one-off) and The Cure (who were there on Now 1). Looking out for the sort of songs that would show up on Britpop compilations would take you too far back, to 'Sit Down' on Now 20, 'There She Goes' on Now 18 or even 'Shine On' on Now 17, and trying to go by sound I wonder why Kingmaker's 'Ten Years Asleep' isn't thought of as a Britpop track. So let's get totally arbitrary and declare our starting point as 1994.

Now 27: First item in the series from the year when everyone seems to have decided Britpop took off and there's no sign of it all here, unless you count 'Rocks' by Primal Scream. Suede had their second Top 10 single in the period covered by this album, appearing on the same Top Of The Pops as Elastica, but I don't suppose they were quite mainstream enough, or they were just too difficult to licence. One other track was just a few weeks too late though.

Now 28: Yep, here's our first copper-bottomed, dead cert Britpop track in the shape of 'Girls And Boys' by Blur (their first appearance, in fact) though it's lumped in between Stiltskin and M-People with nothing especially similar for company.

Now 29: Blur are back with 'Parklife', and we also see the debut of Oasis with 'Cigarettes & Alcohol'; already their fourth hit of the year and their second Top 10. To avoid violence, the two are kept safely apart on different discs. I suppose you could make a case that Shampoo were fellow-travellers of a sort, making their one appearance with 'Trouble', but the only other concession to UK indie is the remix of New Order's 'True Faith'.

Now 30: No Blur on the first Now of 1995, but Oasis return with their non-album Christmas hit 'Whatever' (making this the easiest way to get that track between the deletion of the single and the release of Time Flies. Their labelmates The Boo Radleys also make their first and last visit to the series, no prize for guessing which song it is.

Now 31: Things start to kick off a bit here; although the album starts with a Wet Wet Wet song nobody remembers, it picks up with Edwyn Collins (no, he probably wouldn't thank me for counting him as Britpop, but 'A Girl Like You' is certainly part of the story) and the debuts of Pulp and Supergrass with their Number 2 hits 'Common People' and 'Alright'. Further into the first disc Oasis even have a Number One to throw on with 'Some Might Say'.

Now 32: There's a kind of Britpop party on Side 2 of the vinyl and cassette versions. Admittedly, it starts with the definitely-not-Britpop Sacred Spirit but it follows that with a Radiohead track that didn't even make the Top 40 ('Lucky' from the Help! charity album) and Pulp's 'Sorted For E's & Wizz', the less commercial half of their double A-sided near-chart-topper. The Blur v. Oasis chart battle is played out here, with Cast acting as a buffer between the two tracks (second album in a row with a song called 'Alright', there). Then Bernard Butler becomes the first member of Suede to make it on here with the excellent McAlmont/Butler hit 'Yes', and even the returning Paul Weller and Suggs from Madness (covering the Beatles) seem to fit right into this company. The closing track, in which the Smokin' Mojo Filters (including Paul Weller and Noel Gallagher) cover a Beatles song for the Help! album, is almost like a summary.

Now 33: Into 1996, arguably Britpop's biggest year, and we get double Oasis with both the current single 'Don't Look Back In Anger' and the aptly-titled 'Live Forever', which would chronologically have fit on Now 28. Blur, Pulp, Weller, Supergrass and Cast all return, as do Radiohead with the much bigger hit 'Street Spirit'. It's also hello to Lush (arguably more of a shoegaze act but 'Ladykillers' is a pure Britpop song) and Terrorvision (if you don't exclude them as Britrock). The second and last appearance of the Levellers doesn't seem out of place and for the first time since Now 29 there's an incursion onto Disc 2 by the electronic wing of the movement, Dubstar and Saint Etienne (both one-offs unfortunately).

Now 34: Though neither was quite a newcomer by now, Dodgy and Ocean Colour Scene make their first appearances on Disc One, and I almost feel I should give an honourable mention to 'Born Slippy'. Most of the relevant content is sprinkled onto Disc 2, including a sequence that features the biggest-selling Oasis single ('Wonderwall' - yes, still out of chronological sequence), the biggest hit by the Bluetones, and the highest-charting solo track by Paul Weller, the little-remembered 'Peacock Suit'. Blur and Cast continue to recur and it's also hello to Space and, at last, Suede. There's even a ghostly return of 'Girls And Boys', sampled on Pianoman's dance hit 'Blurred'.

Now 35: At this point they'd finally run out of big Oasis hits for the time being, and there's no new material from Blur either, but there's still some interest on the last album on 1996. Dodgy, the Bluetones and Suede, all fresh from their first appearances on the previous volume, make their last here, Cast are still around with their unremembered biggest hit 'Flying' and we get late arrivals from Ocean Colour Scene's 'The Riverboat Song' (which came out before 'The Day We Caught The Train') and Pulp's 'Something Changed' (not out of sequence but it was released much earlier in the year). Throw in Space with the re-release of 'Neighbourhood', and there's just room for two one-off appearances: Babybird's 'You're Gorgeous' isn't surprising, but Shed Seven crop up just this once and not even with their biggest hit. Still, 'Chasing Rainbows' might be their best single and, at the end of the sequence, it has the honour of being the last track ever pressed on a vinyl Now album.

Now 36: As 1997 dawns it's harder to tell what is or isn't Britpop. I'm pretty sure Boyzone aren't but is White Town's 'Your Woman' part of Britpop? Or what about Monaco, who effectively date back to the 1980s and featured a member of Joy Division but sound rather Britpoppy on 'What Do You Want From Me?'. Even Ant & Dec are having a go with 'Shout', which was even remixed by Steve Lamacq, while Cathy Dennis of all people goes back to the source by covering 'Waterloo Sunset'. Meanwhile, Blur's second Number One 'Beetlebum' is trying very hard not to sound anything like Britpop; Mansun and the Divine Comedy are doing things that sound different and yet somehow they both feel like they should be Britpop.
Luckily there's always old reliable Cast to avoid ambiguity, and 'Dark Clouds' is one of the less bad Space singles. I was never sure what to make of the returning James with 'She's A Star'.

Now 37: In consecutive weeks in April 1997, singles by both Blur and Supergrass were narrowly kept off Number One by the same R-Kelly single; and they're both kept off here too, in favour of the less-remembered (but still Top 5) follow-ups. Oddly enough, the Shine albums made the same decision and you can't get more Britpop than that, can you? The other victim of 'I Believe I Can Fly' was Robbie Williams, pastiching Oasis on his first proper hit 'Old Before I Die', and with that and 'Bittersweet Symphony' showing up together, there's already a sense of the two strands of music that effectively replaced Britpop in the public's affections. Even Radiohead's 'Paranoid Android' is only getting a mention here because I've included them earlier in this post. On the other hand, the short-lived Seahorses are also trying to be Oasis and we see the return of Ocean Colour Scene and - of course - Cast.

Now 38: By now Britpop is banished to the second disc (unless you count Chumbawamba) and even them we're arguably in more post-Britpop realms with Radiohead and The Verve again, plus Embrace who always insisted they weren't Britpop, but with hindsight it's hard to believe them. At least Oasis are back, not with the overhyped comeback single but the more user-friendly 'Stand By Me' and we get a seemingly late arrival from Ash. They have Ocean Colour Scene and the seventh consecutive appearance of Cast to keep them company.

Now 39: Finding an endpoint to Britpop is even harder than identifying a start, and many would argue that 1998 is already too late; I've pressed on because we have the last major debuting act of the style with Catatonia's 'Mulder & Scully'. In fact it's a double debut for Ms Matthews, who also shows up in "Space With Cerys Of Catatonia". But there were no Cast singles available, so unless you count tenuous links like 'Brimful Of Asha' and Brett Anderson's appearance on 'Perfect Day', the only other interest is the trio at the end of Disc One: Radiohead, The Verve and Pulp's last Top 20 hit 'This Is Hardcore' (the radio edit, of which I think this is the only commercial release). We won't see them again, although at least two of the people in the video turn up on Now 43.

Now 40: Catatonia come straight back with 'Road Rage' and The Verve are now big enough for the non-hit 'Sonnet' to merit inclusion, alongside their glum chums Embrace. The second and last sighting of Mansun comes with 'Legacy', no less miserable but not so humourless. Still the most Britpop thing on here is the 1998 version of 'Three Lions'.

Now 41: The last album of 1998 and we're onto the shopworn likes of Embrace, with their re-recording of an old B-side and if you are going to count 'Sit Down' by James as Britpop, there's a remix of it on here. You've probably repressed the memory but it went Top 10 at the time. Meanwhile Space are covering 'We Gotta Get Out Of This Place' which seems a good time to end.

Needless to say, some of the acts I've mentioned above keep appearing on the albums into this century and if you're trying to go by sound you could ask why I'm not including Kaiser Chiefs but a line has to be drawn somewhere after all. It's a patchy kind of list we've got there, and apart from Catatonia's late run it's quite male-dominated too, no room at the inn for Sleeper, Echobelly, Elastica, Kenickie... But then there's no Charlatans, Super Furry Animals, Menswear, Gene or Kula Shaker either. And in case you were wondering, Manic Street Preachers make a one-off appearance in 2007.