Pop Playground
The Problem With Indie

for the rest of 2005, Stylus will be presenting a series of two to three essays each month in the Pop Playground section centered around an idea or theme related to music. These questions will be open-ended, allowing each writer to make of the subject what they will and to explore it more fully than they might do in a normal review or feature. This month: The Problem With Indie.

Start all essays with a quote. Oxford ethologist Richard Dawkins done said this:

“Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence.”

The Godbotherer-botherer may have been talking about religion, but those words ring just as true when you think about Britpop. Faith in Britpop in spite of, even perhaps because of, eight years of evidence in the form of hip-hop, grunge, Madchester, jungle, boy band, and especially house music, was personified in a massive throw-up of hands in submission, and then they claimed to have won the match anyway.

It all goes back to The Jam. Nostalgia has always had a major role to play in the charts (Sinatra was happy to be marketed as the safe throwback away from all this beat combo nonsense as early as 1963), but it was always viewed as nostalgia in music has to be: as reactionary, the musical trope of regressivism. So, during the summer of punk/disco/dead Elvis, The Shadows spent six weeks at number one on the album charts. And between 1974 and 1982, Redcoat teddyboys Showaddywaddy made 23 top 40 singles, including a disturbing run of seven consecutive top fives.

But this is nothing to worry about is it? The Shadows, Showaddywaddys… music for your parens, no? Music for those reminiscing about their youth.

The Jam were music for people reminiscing about somebody else’s youth. Paul Weller may have claimed that his “Vote Tory” declarations of the late 70s were ironic (he was living the Vice lifestyle 25 years early), but there’s no doubt that The Jam took what may have been the sole saving grace of punk music (the energy) and applied it to something utterly destructive: fetishisation of the past. Of The Kinks, of The Who, of dead white bands.

And what you have to realise is that the majority of Britpop musicians would have had their first conscious exposure to pop music, when they were six or seven, at the time that The Jam were busy racking up number one single after number one single. This isn’t a nature/nurture debate here, this is having a primary school teacher that tells you it’s OK to run with scissors.

Britpop was a strange time for the UK. Blame it on the 16th year of a Conservative government, but people were reaching. In the ten years since, the #1 single in the charts has only really been a news story twice: firstly, Sophie vs. Posh (class war vs. schadenfreude) and second Crazy Frog (frog has penis = CAPITALISM GONE MAD). However, back in 1995 the mere fact that two bands happened to be releasing singles at the same time had the entire press association on lock for seven days. Was it a North/South thing, a private school/school of life thing, a lairy/autistic thing... history will render this irrelevant. Because for all of their differences (which can effectively be boiled down to “one came from a rich background, the other from a poor”), one has to remember that Oasis and Blur were quite clearly fighting on the same side: Britpop.

Indie barely existed outside of Britpop in those few years (indeed, the obituaries for John Peel noted how in 1995 he just played drum n bass, such was his disgust for the prevailing guitar idiom). You wanted to form a guitar band? You had to be part of the lineage, you had to have followed that line from The Beatles through Slade through The Smiths through The Stone Roses to yourselves. It effectively produced a series of drones, most of whom are now mentioned only as punchlines (this is the only time in the article I’m going to mention Menswe@r).

But then, Britpop died. Nobody knows who killed it. Some blame the Spice Girls, some blame Gareth Southgate, some blame Blairism. What’s quite clear is that in 1995 Britpop was the only game in town, and by 1997 it was rocking back and forth in an old people’s home as the new kids on the block made their way up the charts.

Three bands in particular emerged from the post-Britpop years with fire in their eyes and a point to prove, the point being that the last few years had been a load of shit. Three bands who would never have been invited to the Britpop table, and who in effect stood against Britpop ideology. Those three bands: Placebo, Belle & Sebastian, and Catatonia.

Every time that the British media jump on a genre, the easiest (and usually most correct) dismissal of it is: “this music is far too London-centric” (this is the correct dismissal of grime, by the way). And yes, whilst the major Britpop bands may have heralded from the Home Counties and Yorkshire and Lancashire as well as That London, the whole genre was focused around bands playing the Lamacq toilet circuit, and never coming home unless to play a “triumphant homecoming” gig. The three bands in discussion were vehemently anti-capital, and similarly anti the waving of the flag that became a lazy shorthand for signifying your nationality during those years (surely those who went wild at Knebworth in 96 are the same people waving the same Union Jacks on Henman Hill in the 05?)

Placebo had a Francophile frontman and a Swedish bassist. Belle and Sebastian were the embodiment of Glaswegian café culture. And Catatonia attacked this archetype more fiercely than anyone, waving around the dragon rather than the Union Jack, and going as far as to record “Londinium” (possibly the most searing attack on any area since “The Bridge”).

They keep coming though. Britpop was resolutely heterosexual: the reason that (Americans can’t understand why) “Wonderwall” is now automatically considered by The General Public to be one of the best songs of the past 25 years is due to the increasing Top Shopification of the UK that started off in those years: everything in society has to be aimed at the kind of kids that played rugby at school, or follow their football team solely on Sky Sports, because they can shout louder than everybody else. And they certainly aren’t a bunch of poofs, they’re real blokes, like Liam and Noel [1]. In fact, when Britpop wasn’t being aggressively straight (Oasis, Sleeper) it was totally asexual (the majority of the rest of it) [2].

Placebo then turned up February 1997 with “Nancy Boy,” a number four single sung with helium vocals detailing quite vocal boy-on-boy fucking (“does his make up in his room / Douse himself in cheap perform / Eyeholes in a paper bag / Greatest lay I ever had”), and then they turn up on Top of the Pops and its Culture Club doing “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me” all over again, and people are staring at the TV going “It’s a bo… no, it’s a girl… no, wait”. Indeed, the parody of Placebo fans being some sort of sexually confused precursor to today’s Weezer obsessives comes from all this, but it only stood out because it was so shocking.

Britpop was always about middle class fetishisation of the working class. In fact, that’s all British guitar music has been about for time immemorial, the Libertines and Hard-Fi’s little “let’s play dress up as paupers” shenanigans of recent months just being the latest example of it. Blur’s attempt to reinvent themselves as cheeky-chirpy “Oi oi saveloy” Lahn-dahn-ers, despite coming from Colchester, sticks in the craw most from this era.

But then alone came Belle & Sebastian, who were the working classes fetishing the middle class. Some may say this was just them following in the footsteps of The Smiths, but then again there’s always been a beaten-up kid on a council estate with a Philip Larkin anthology in his pocket. So Stuart Murdoch, the sickly church janitor and failed boxer, wrote album upon album about running away from small town snoops, about middle managers getting it on in the office, and name-checked the quintessential “working class ponders the middle classes” movie in “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.”

And then there’s the gender thing. Britpop had two women: Justine Frischmann and Louise Wener. Two stick-thin Jewish girls, Justine was around solely to provide a soap opera figure in the Damon/Brett battles, whilst Louise… no, what did she do again?

Catatonia, with their proto-Charlotte Church Cerys Matthews: a hard-drinking, curved, foul-mouthed FHM cover model, wasn’t a challenge to gender roles per se: Matthews was always a laddish wank fantasy. But at least it was a different wank fantasy to the ones peddled during the Britpop years.

So what became of these three bands then? Catatonia suffered one of the most spectacular critical backlashes from the indie press ever in time for their third album, promptly split up, and Cerys went on to become an unsuccessful country and western artist.

Placebo gradually moved further and further way from the indie scene (helped in no small part by some of the most caustic attacks from the NME and Melody Maker on Molko’s character in living memory), and finally ran into the loving arms of the Rock Sound crowd. They now peddle their merry brand of Buffy-rock to top 20 sales still.

And Belle and Sebastian? Like their kindred spirits (in position on the planet, if not sound) Super Furry Animals, they’ve worked out that if the indie press (notice a pattern?) isn’t going to give them a fair throw of the dice, then they have to hedge their bets: both bands now straddle the Radio 1/Radio 2 divide like few others can (well, other than James Blunt).

So do we learn anything from this? Try to be different, and the indie inkies will run you out of town. Things are in place for a reason, and ironically enough indie is the one place where attempts to be “independent” are shut down pronto. There’s no place for mavericks in this genre. And Britpop only produced three good singles anyway. The trouble with indie? It never learns.

[1] Lad culture lived and died on the words of publisher James Brown, a man revealed in the excellent history of Viz “Rude Kids” to be some sort of ADD party kid with no emotional connection to anything. Loaded was rubbish simply because the ironic “lad” culture didn’t make sense: working class people are too busy, you know, “working” to be doing coke and spent their entire days quoting Withnail and I.
[2] Of course, an argument can be made here for Suede being a sexual act, but in fact they were just representative of Britpop’s hackneyed approach to sexual freedom: a bisexual that doesn’t have any sexual contact with men.

By: Dom Passantino
Published on: 2005-07-13
Comments (16)

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