Are you old enough to remember the moment when the people who made fun of alternative music started listening to alternative music?
It’s not like somebody flipped a switch and turned the jocks on to Sonic Youth, Mazzy Star, the Cure, Pixies, Dinosaur Jr. and Nirvana’s first album. But almost overnight, what radio called “alternative” had changed. All of a sudden, dude-bros were listening to (and loving) Smashing Pumpkins, Stone Temple Pilots, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains and Nirvana’s second album.
Comedian Chris Hardwick perfectly articulates how the alternative rock of the early ’90s sounded in this hilarious bit. Weird as it was at the time, I didn’t really care what the locker room towel-snappers were into because at least we had something in common now that we were all listening to the same radio station. Also, I had just fallen in love with the Stone Roses. To my ears, the band’s triumphantly jangly anthems and confident lyrics were the ideal respite from rock stars in cargo shorts yarling about meatplows, roosters, rusty cages and latchkey kids. Like anything that piques my musical interest, I inhaled everything related to the group and fell straight down the Manchester rabbit hole, which paved the way for my obsession with Britpop.
Characterized by catchy, guitar-driven rock and pop that celebrates British culture, some believe that the birth of Britpop was a cosmopolitan reaction to grunge’s American macho trappings. Others claim that the advent of bands like Oasis and Blur was a reaction to shoegazing’s tendency to be overly precious.
By 1995, the Roses’ future was uncertain and Britpop was now in full swing. I chopped my mid-length man-bob into a Supergrass haircut, replete with fuzzy sideburns. Aside from the occasional Pavement or Sleep CD, I was barely listening to any American music because all the best recordings seemed to be coming from the UK. Still, going out to see bands like Pulp, Suede, the Verve, Spiritualized and the Charlatans wasn’t enough. My Anglophile cohorts and I wanted to be able to dance to this music regularly.
That same year, my friends Aaron, Jeremy, Omar and I started club Popscene. Now a San Francisco institution, Popscene is a thriving weekly nightlife event where DJ dance parties and live music collide. On our opening night, we hosted a record release party for the Verve’s second album, A Northern Soul. We had no idea how successful Popscene would become. With all four of us promoting and DJing weekly, it wasn’t long before we outgrew our original South of Market club space and had to move to a bigger venue. Even then, lines stretched around the block as we drank and danced to Britpop, indie, new wave, mod, post-punk and ’60s soul. With our favorite record store Mod Lang co-presenting, and thanks to Aaron’s job at the local alternative radio station, we were able to host some of our favorite bands. On any given night, you could get your copy of Parklife signed by Blur at a Popscene meet-and-greet; talk about guitars with Johnny Marr; drink with Echo & the Bunnymen or dance with members of Elastica. Original members of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club (back then they were called the Elements) purportedly met at an early Popscene. One of my favorite memories involves Anton Newcombe from The Brian Jonestown Massacre decked out in an all white outfit and furry hat, stumbling around the sidewalk on rollerblades and handing out vinyl copies of his single, “Not If You Were The Last Dandy On Earth.”
Some music historians claim that Britpop died 20 years ago, in 1998. That seems a bit hyperbolic, but as the band Pop Will Eat Itself predicted with its moniker, Britpop’s sounds were slowly being cannibalized and co-opted. Many of the bands I loved started releasing predictable records, and my English friends told me about the loutish UK football fans who were turning up at their favorite shows and festivals to start fights. Nothing like that was happening in San Francisco — at worst, we had Midwestern transplants decked out in Adidas gear affecting fake British accents. But by 1998, I had overdosed on three years of shag haircuts, bouncy songs and English tour managers.
In “Bittersweet Symphony,” Richard Ashcroft sings, “I need to hear some sounds that recognize the pain in me.” By age 27, Britpop wasn’t giving me those sounds. I was having a harder time connecting with the genre. My own band had just been signed, and we were really inspired by older recordings from groups like the Small Faces, Big Star and the Byrds. I understand that it’s an apples and oranges comparison, but once you really soak in the depth and grandeur of Chris Bell’s mid ‘70s masterpiece I Am The Cosmos, it’s hard to follow up that listening experience with the “Woohoo!” sports anthem of Blur’s “Song 2.”
But I never really outgrew Britpop — how lame would that sound coming from a middle-aged man who still rides a skateboard? Still, a lot of the selections on my Britpop and UK Indie of the 1990s playlist are songs I simply wanted to hear again for the nostalgia. Sure, these tracks take me back to some crazy fun times. But they also leave me feeling overwhelmingly thankful that this particular genre of music gave me some lifelong friends – especially my beautiful wife, Jenny who was introduced to me at Popscene’s second event, a record release party for UK indie band Mojave 3.