PRINT October 1995


the Britpop Scene

LONDON, POP METROPOLIS, is periodically celebrated in song and lyric, which in turn redraw the capital’s psychic map. You only have to hear Kinks vignettes like “Dedicated Follower of Fashion” and “Big Black Smoke,” or Clash communiqués like “London’s Burning” and “White Riot,” to freeze the city in 1966 (the spiritual emptiness beneath the “pretty colored clothes”) and 1977 (inner-urban speed surfing, social/ political polarization). Here are the twinned totems of white British pop: Mod and Punk.

In the last few years the inner city has been an unpopular pop location: those touched by the post-House explosion demanded physical and mental space—and despite a battery of legislation employed against them, ravers can still be found in places where inaccessibility is the key, on mountains and wide beaches. Too far away for most people, so the cycle turns back to inner London—this time to Camden Town, the London equivalent of New York’s St. Mark’s Place.

The new syndrome is summarized by Stephen Duffy’s new single, “London Girls,” a heavily stylized pop/rock performance that harks back to early David Bowie. Duffy’s lyrics delineate the treadmill of the latest Britpop poet laureate: “London town on Tuesday lunchtime: get the papers. Maybe this time—indiecators [sic] indicate a trend: your way. You’re front page news.”

Welcome to the curiously hermetic, overmediated world of Britpop. Initiated by Suede (who sang about “the love and poison of London” back in 1992), industrialized by Blur on their 1994 album Parklife, and fine-tuned by Elastica, this is a febrile, highly specific genre. Within a multicultural metropolis where the dominant sounds are swing-beat, ragga, or jungle, Britpop is a synthesis of white style, with any black influence bled out: the guitar-centricity of late-’80s indie rock, the social commentary of the Kinks, the laddish dandyism of the Small Faces, the smart-dumb spikiness of Wire, whose presence looms large over Elastica and the latest music-press sensations, Menswear.

Scanned closer, Britpop reveals itself as a suburban, middle-class fantasy of London street life, with exclusively metropolitan models. A petty nationalism hangs over the style, like the pollution that cloaks Camden: it’s as though techno and grunge—both of which originated outside the U.K., both of which offered a strong formal/emotional challenge—never happened. In response to the full-on emotion of Nirvana, we get . . . parlor games, uncomfortably reflective of the flyblown conservatism of John Major’s government.

When in doubt, the English retreat into formalized poses, sardonic irony, childlike surrealism: the video for Menswear's new single, “Daydreamer,” shows the teenagers spooking out amid train sets, bunk beds, ventriloquist dummies. Laughable, you might think, yet, with its queasy, claustrophobic undertow, “Daydreamer” holds a mirror up to London, a city where people “flounder drowning,” where social life is reduced to the stark choice: “pull you out or drag you under?” While tinkering around with archetypes, Menswear have hit upon a British pop absolute: the primal, privet-hedge perversity of suburbia in southeast England. Out of this seemingly arid environment, exotic blooms will grow.

Jon Savage is a writer living in London. He is coeditor, with Hanif Kureishi, of The Faber Book of Pop.