In the spirit of Harry Hill’s TV Burp, let’s have journalists Stuart Maconie and John Robb once and for all fight it out over who actually did coin the term ‘Britpop’ – wearing parkas, bucket hats and to the tune of Boo Radley‘s ‘Wake Up Boo!‘.
As entertaining as that would be, it’s all academic now because Britpop was 20 years ago and either way it was by and large the media which hoisted the Union Jack off the right-wings and draped it firmly around British music for about four years in the mid-nineties, contorting Oasis and Blur into the Beatles and Stones and humbugging us into thinking Tony Blair was alright.
Set towards the end of the putative Britpop era, John Niven’s novel Kill Your Friends has received the ultimate form of bookish flattery and in being turned into a film of the same name. Directed by Owen Harris, on his debut cinema release, it stars Nicholas Hoult as A&R man Steven Stelfox working for the fictitious Unigram record label.
Stelfox is an utter debauchee, surrounded by people only slightly more likeable than him, who will stop at nothing, even murder, to get to the top of his company. Only in hindsight can you fully understand what was going on and that by 1997 (where the film drops us in), Britpop’s flag was being yanked down with every Spice Girls holler and Oasis’ underwhelming ‘Be Here Now‘ album effectively providing the coup de grâce.
Rewind a few years to 1993 though, and things were very different. Music folklore regales Suede‘s eponymous album in the March of that year as the beginnings of Britpop – but then David Hasselhoff has also said he helped to bring down the Berlin Wall, and therefore communism entirely, through his 1989 single ‘Looking For Freedom‘. The annals of history are often a little more convoluted than a solitary cause (and no, he didn’t).
Blur debuted in 1991 with the album ‘Leisure‘ and, along with Suede, were Britain’s two main hopes of breaking an American market in the thralls of grunge; a sound that was spilling over into the UK and being thrusted by the ongoing success of Nirvana.
It was a movement Damon Albarn bemoaned as detrimental to ‘Britishness’, and Britishness, it turned out, was to be found back in the Swinging Sixties under the old guard of likes of The Beatles, the Stones and The Kinks. Where Carnaby Street was once the epicentre of happenings, Camden Town was now the country’s new cultural oracle. Bands such as Pulp (who’d already been plodding away for over ten years, largely unnoticed) and The Auteurs were being marketed as groups inherently British. Most notably, Select magazine adorned Brett Anderson against a Union Jack on its cover with the, albeit myopic and paranoid sounding, rallying cry of: “Yanks, go home”.
It was a then unknown band called Oasis though that, combined with Blur, would fall into the press’ lap like a plateful of manna. The day after Kurt Cobain was found dead in April 1994, Oasis released their first single ‘Supersonic‘; there have couldn’t be a tidier transition from grunge to Britpop if chronologists tried. While Suede and Blur were from London way and university educated, Oasis were from Manchester and dole educated. Their music felt uncomplicated and easier to consume compared to the noise coming out of the South.
These contrasts were too priceless to leave alone. Middle versus working-class; cerebral versus visceral; North versus South; Us versus Them. Blur and Oasis put out their ‘Parklife‘ and ‘Definitely Maybe‘ albums respectively before the end of 1994, but 1995 was the year hyperbole’s exhaust fumed the loudest. Supergrass, Elastica and Sleeper to name a few were busy benefiting from the media obsession with all things Britpop, while the main focus that summer was over who would reach number one on the singles chart. Record label machinations were working overtime and Oasis’ ‘Roll With It‘ and Blur’s ‘Country House‘ were being promoted by the likes of NME as something akin to music’s Rumble In The Jungle.
For anyone who doesn’t remember and cares, Blur won.
Early 1996 saw the last memorable Brit Awards since Samantha Fox and Mick Fleetwood galumphed their way through it at the end of the eighties. Messianic Michael Jackson was aptly brought back down to earth by Jarvis Cocker‘s interloping backside during a performance of ‘Earth Song‘. Promptly arrested, Cocker was legally represented by Bob Mortimer (funny man and, it turned out, qualified solicitor) and the perceived chasm between ‘ideal Britain’ and ‘others’ grew.
If one gig represented the times, it was Oasis at Knebworth that August. After that, even if they didn’t know it then, the band were slowly rolling down off their pedestal. Amidst all this, pop music was still happening. Take That split up after six years and phone lines were set up for ‘grieving’ fans that seemingly couldn’t just talk to their parents or find another pop group to obsess over (a feat even The Beatles didn’t achieve). A group of five ragtags under the name The Spice Girls soon released their first single ‘Wannabe‘ and the balderdash that was “zig a zig ah” became common parlance.
Even football didn’t escape. The belief that England could win Euro ’96 because it was being held in England was nothing more than a will-o’-the-wisp spurred on by Baddiel, Skinner & Lightning Seeds‘ ‘Three Lions‘ and the zeitgeist that the country was, like the British Empire a hundred years before, at the centre of the world. An Eastenders scriptwriter couldn’t have done better: they were knocked out by Germany in the semi-final on a penalty shootout.
A deflated England wasn’t a deflated Britain though. Likewise, the term Britpop feels something of a misnomer because it wasn’t really about being British — it was about being English. The label should have read Anglopop or, better still, Camdenpop. Kill Your Friends then, slips in, inauspiciously, around London during 1997 — the unofficial death of Britpop.
There are indeed some moments to chuckle over in this black comedy. The gab of James Corden’s clueless mess of a character (Stelfox’s A&R colleague with an expensive habit) literally runs out of breath early on, and Stelfox’s rosta of clichéd clients, from a deluded German dance artist to an even more deluded drum and bass artist, make for laughs.
Stelfox regularly breaks the fourth wall, evincing his true thoughts (always degenerate) to the audience and keeping the fast pace of the script up. And the soundtrack is almost, but definitely not, as strong as Trainspotting, duly including Blur and Oasis through to an unexpected, yet brilliant Ol’ Dirty Bastard.
There’s an appearance too from Radiohead, whose ‘Karma Police‘ – along with the aforementioned Blur and ‘Beetlebum‘ – provides a timely reminder of the dark lament of post-Britpop 1997, while the likes of Royal Blood and Bastille drag it all into the 21st century.
Despite ostensibly being about the Britpop era, music is secondary to the film’s overarching leitmotif: class A drugs. It could be set five years later, when the Gallagher brothers were certified MOR and Westlife were inexplicably popular, and no one would notice for all the powder and pills that make an appearance every other scene.
It wants to carve up an antihero the way American Psycho does yet ends up heaving out a British tosspot, because there is nothing discernibly appealing, even in a pity-on-you-for-ultimately-being-a-loser-with-issues way, about Stelfox (unlike a Patrick Bateman or a John Self), though Craig Roberts provides an antidote as Stelfox’s assistant – perhaps the only amiable character in fact – and plays the part convincingly.
And for Britpop? Come the dawn of 1998 England’s rose was dead, Girl Power had taken over the radio, Labour had taken over Government power, and the media would have to wait a few more years until they could pin the Union Jack back on another guitar band.
This time one called The Libertines.