Blur, 2023 (Credit: Reuben Bastienne-Lewis)

Britpop's bright new era: 'People just want to feel that optimism again'

With Blur and Pulp both experiencing joyful reunions in 2023, M Magazine examines why this era-defining movement is enjoying a resurgence.

Mark Sutherland
  • By Mark Sutherland
  • 20 Jul 2023
  • min read

Blur releasing a brilliant new album and playing the biggest gigs of their career. Pulp headlining massive outdoor shows. The media celebrating Suede’s stunning debut album. Shed Seven releasing a banger of a new song. That would have been a pretty decent month in the Britpop heyday of 1994, but this is 2023: proof that Britpop is back and ruling the summer.

The original Britpop era lasted for a surprisingly short time: roughly from the release of Suede’s self-titled debut album – recently re-released in an expansive 30th anniversary edition, hence the recent accolades – in March 1993 to Oasis’ gargantuan Knebworth shows in August 1996. But the fascination with the music of that era has, if anything, grown since those heady days when British guitar groups seemed to rule the world.

Louise Wener, singer/guitarist with one of the movement’s biggest bands Sleeper, puts that down to modern life being rubbish compared to the relative positivity of the mid-nineties.

‘We’re living in an age where, everywhere we look, we’re told things are catastrophically worse than they were,’ she tells M. ‘But [Britpop] was cheerful, unburdened music. There was this freedom about it, and a lack of angst. It represents an optimism, something that’s missing in people’s lives. People just want to feel that again – and that happens at these [reunion] gigs.’

Sleeper reformed in 2017 after nearly two decades away, and Louise says she has been taken aback by the passionate response at gigs to classic songs such as Sale Of The Century and Inbetweener, almost 30 years after they were written.

‘The lyrics have a different kind of resonance than they did at the time,’ she says. ‘They have more emotional heft with the distance of time.'

'Britpop represents an optimism, something that’s missing in people’s lives.'

Producing genuinely great fresh music also helps. Sleeper’s 2019 comeback record, The Modern Age, hit the Top 20, while Blur’s excellent new The Ballad Of Darren album is likely to top the charts next week. Indeed, Damon Albarn, Graham Coxon, Alex James and Dave Rowntree’s seismic Wembley shows earlier this month were notable for a crowd that featured large numbers of young people alongside more gnarled veterans of the Britpop era. No wonder Damon exclaimed: 'I didn’t expect it would be like this.’

Mike Smith was the leading Britpop music publisher at MCA and EMI Music Publishing – signing the likes of Blur, Elastica, The Verve and Supergrass – and went on to senior roles at the likes of Columbia Records, Virgin EMI, Warner Chappell and Downtown. He says he always thought the music of the era was built to last.

'I always really hoped that people would still be listening 30 years later,’ he tells M. 'It was all about trying to work with artists that were writing genuinely great songs that could endure; that notion of a golden copyright. I always wanted to get the whole country feeling the way that a bunch of us at [proto-Britpop club night] Smashing felt on a Friday night.’

Despite emerging from the indie rock left-field, Britpop took over the mainstream as it ruled the charts, dominated the music press and even adorned newspaper front pages and nightly news bulletins. But not everyone views those days through rose-tinted glasses: it’s been accused of being partly responsible for Brexit, while the laddish culture of the era caused problems even for some of the scene’s main protagonists.

On the excellent new BBC podcast, The Rise And Fall Of Britpop, Jo Whiley – co-presenter of the series alongside her former Radio 1 Evening Session colleague Steve Lamacq – revealed that she sometimes felt ‘vulnerable’ interviewing bands, due to the culture of ‘traditional masculinity’ of the time.

‘On my own stage with my own band I felt in control of it most of the time, but interviews were difficult,’ says Louise. ‘It was always men who interviewed you. There was this incredible eruption of female-fronted guitar band stuff that felt quite important, but the level of judgement and objectification that we came up against was really difficult.’

On the more positive side, Louise believes the Britpop groups represented more relatable role models than the stars of today.

'We were all pretty good-looking, but you could be us,’ she adds. ‘You could dye your hair, put on a leather jacket and be me, or put on a Fred Perry and be Damon. But it’s quite hard to be Dua Lipa! You probably felt more connected to your pop and rock stars than you do now. There’s such a distance [now] and such a sense of having to filter the way you live and be impressive in a social media way.’

‘Britpop was all about trying to work with artists that were writing genuinely great songs that could endure; that notion of a golden copyright.'

It seems unlikely that the Britpop summer of 2023 will change that attitude, but there may still be more to come. The Oasis reunion seems inevitable and, if and when it arrives, that could take the current revival into overdrive. But those who were there the first time around remember how quickly Britpop’s initial optimism toppled into excess, before an almighty comedown kicked in at the end of the decade.

'There was a definite moment where everybody got completely caught up in the imperial stage and the hubris of the moment,’ says Mike, who now lives in Spain and bills himself simply as ‘a music enthusiast’. ‘You look back and wince slightly at that.’

Nonetheless, modern indie bands would surely kill for the sort of connection we’ve been seeing at stadiums and festivals all summer long. Mike believes that, for the modern songwriter, there are plenty of lessons to be learned from Britpop, noting that most of the genre’s stars were given time and space to develop their songwriting craft before they broke through, while they were also trusted to write their own songs.

‘I find it profoundly depressing the way that songwriting has gone over the last 10 years,’ he says. 'A young artist will be signed on the back of three great songs that they and a collaborator have written, and then they’ll be sent out to write another 150 songs with another 30 or 40 writers. And guess what? The first three songs they were signed on were the best ones.

‘The industrialised process is a real issue,’ he adds. ‘I encourage songwriters to hone their craft and not feel the need to run to people who’ve already had success in the hope that, if you write a song with that person who’s written a hit, you’re going to have a hit too. If you’re going to do that, find one person you like and really dig in deep and form a songwriting partnership.’

Louise doesn't think we’ll see a modern equivalent of the movement any time soon, because people ‘just consume music differently; it’s about TikTok and single songs rather than having that sense of a tribe’. But, she says, the long-lasting effects of the era still offer some pointers for modern musicians.

‘Great songs touch people,’ she adds. ‘This whole game is about communication. Have some fun, energy and hope infused in your songs and people relate to that. And write a decent chorus! That will always help…’

If people can follow that advice, you suspect this summer’s Blur-inspired Britpop revival might have some distance left to run after all.