Britpop is back! What's behind the 90s music revival?

This summer’s Cool Britannia festival showed there is a huge appetite for re-formed 90s bands, including the Bluetones, Echobelly and Sleeper. Was the music really that good – or do people just want nostalgia during uncertain times?

Backstage at the Cool Britannia festival earlier this month, David Heartfield and Jack Gray are explaining why the moment is right for a 90s revival. But they would say that, wouldn’t they? They are the promoter and the booking agent of Cool Britannia, a two-day event in the grounds of Knebworth House that offers nostalgic punters a cornucopia of musical delights from 20 years ago. There’s a dance tent with PAs from Rozalla, Urban Cookie Collective and Alison Limerick, among others, but the main stage skews distinctly towards Britpop: Ocean Colour Scene, Cast, Dodgy, Toploader, the Lightning Seeds and something called Britpop Classical, an alt-rock equivalent of those tours where an orchestra belts out old dance hits to an audience of ageing ravers, complete with Phil Daniels reprising his monologue from Blur’s Parklife.

As we speak, Space are on stage. They have visibly been on an intriguing journey since the mainstream spotlight left them – they now have a keyboard player in a Crass T-shirt and a bass player who looks like he is moonlighting from a death metal act called something like Mildewed Crucifix – but the audience are lapping up their 90s hits: Avenging Angels, Female of the Species, Neighbourhood.

Heartfield’s and Gray’s argument about a 90s revival is, in fact, a convincing one. They used to run Rewind, the 80s nostalgia festival that grew from a one-off 2009 show in Henley-on-Thames into a global brand, with three annual UK festivals and franchises in South Africa, Thailand and the UAE. But two years ago, Heartfield sold Rewind – for £30m – convinced that the 80s revival phenomenon had reached its peak and the 90s was the new growth area. The 80s market is saturated, says Heartfield: “It’s at every sports ground, the end of every pier.” And the core audience is getting on a bit. When Rewind started, punters were in their 40s. “They’ve procreated, the kids are a bit older and they’ve reached that point where there’s more of a tendency to look back,” he adds. But now they are 10 years older and beginning to suffer from what he calls “festival burnout syndrome”. “The physical desire to go out and rave it up isn’t as strong. They probably don’t want to camp as much – however many theme bars, luxury loos and glamping areas you put in, there’s still an element of roughing it.”

Shed Seven … acclaimed new album.
Shed Seven … acclaimed new album. Photograph: Tabatha Fireman/Getty Images

Besides, says Gray, every major 80s act that was going to return has returned, “and there’s only so many times people want to see the same bands”. By contrast, there’s a novelty factor in seeing Britpop-era bands, who have been reforming in recent years (“Space are back, the Bluetones are back”), and he hopes to persuade others: “I would love to get Elastica back together, or Supergrass; I’d love to see a Welsh version of this festival with iconic bands like Catatonia.

“If you go back to the 80s thing, when Rewind started, Martin Fry from ABC or Tony Hadley [from Spandau Ballet] were playing small venues,” he continues. “Now they’re doing the Royal Albert Hall with an orchestra. I now want to give that platform to these [90s] artists.”

He starts to explain the mechanics of rebuilding an unfashionable band’s live career, but is interrupted by a disconcerting but highly distinctive sound emanating from nearby. “That’ll be Heather Small warming up,” he nods. Indeed it is: the voice of M People is practising her scales in the backstage bar. As if to complete the time-warp atmosphere, when I look up, Alan McGee walks past. He is here as the manager of Cast, but he also recently reanimated the 90s’ most celebrated indie label, Creation.

Unfashionable as Britpop may seem in 2018 – with its propensity for flag-waving parochialism (which feels discomfiting in the age of Brexit) and its laddish atmosphere (the kind of thing that gets called out in an era more wary of casual sexism) – you don’t have to search far for evidence of renewed interest. With its luxe food stalls and stately home setting, Cool Britannia is just the most upmarket of a host of Britpop-centred festivals. There’s Star Shaped, organised by a club that advertises itself as “truly the home of Britpop”. It has grown from a single event at the Garage venue in London into three annual gigs – the others are in Glasgow and Manchester.

Shiiine On, meanwhile, organises one-day events, mini-cruises and an annual three-day festival at Minehead Butlin’s, where past attractions included not merely live appearances by the Bluetones, Echobelly, Menswear and Ash, but Oasis and Blur tribute acts and a performance of Girl from Mars, a “Britpop jukebox musical” featuring “all the biggest anthems from Oasis, Pulp and Blur wrapped up in a sci-fi storyline” with a heroine modelled on Saffron from Republica.

It is clear that the era’s bands are indeed reforming or reactivating their recording careers to a noticeably warm reception. Last year, Shed Seven’s first album since 2001, Instant Pleasures, was critically well received and made the Top 10; Embrace reconvened after a lengthy sabbatical from recording in 2014 and both their subsequent albums debuted in the Top 5. “Our fanbase is amazing – they’re just so loyal,” says the band’s guitarist Richard McNamara, while waiting for his band’s turn on the Cool Britannia stage. “We’ve always been kind of the underdogs – we never really got the recognition that they all think we deserved – so that sort of magnetises them to us a bit more.”

Sleeper’s Louise Wener in 1996.
Sleeper’s Louise Wener in 1996. Photograph: Stephen Sweet/Rex/Shutterstock

Louise Wener tells me she had no intention of re-forming Sleeper: her partner Andy, the band’s drummer, sold his kit because it was taking up space in the attic and “we’d said there was absolutely no chance we’ll ever go back and do it again”. Then she received an offer to perform at the 2017 Star Shaped festival. “Under ordinary circumstances, I probably would never even have opened the email, but it came in the middle of a really sad year – someone really close to me got very ill in 2017 – and I just had this feeling that it would be life-affirming and out of our comfort zone – and I sort of agreed to it without even talking to the others.”

She says the band intended to “literally do four gigs and put everything back under the tarpaulin again”. Instead, the reaction was such that Sleeper now find themselves recording a new album with the producer Stephen Street and embarking on a UK tour, the dates carefully arranged on weekends to avoid clashing with parenting commitments. “It’s all about: ‘Will we enjoy it? Will it be fun for us?’ not: ‘What does it represent? What does it mean, what will the comments be?’ – none of us could have cared less. At this age, when you have had kids, it would seem ridiculous to have that acute self-consciousness that you develop in the music industry when you first start out. There’s none of that. Which is lovely, obviously.”

Both Wener and McNamara tell me that their current audience is almost entirely composed of people who remember them from the first time around – or, Wener laughs, “kids who have come with their parents and come up to you and go: ‘Oh my God, my dad used to play this in the car on the way to school.’ – which makes you feel completely ancient”.

It’s the same at Cool Britannia. The crowd’s age is almost entirely between 35 and 50, kids in tow notwithstanding. Every audience member I speak to cleaves to the rosy-hued slogan on one woman’s T-shirt: “It Was Better in the 90s”. I hear a lot of stuff about it being “the last great era for songwriting”, which is either evidence of people buying into Britpop’s own self-mythologising or a reflection of the fact that these are thin times for what one punter calls “honest guitar music”, crowded out of the marketplace by rap, dance and pop. Or perhaps it’s the sound of what a recent survey conducted by Spotify referred to as the “taste freeze”, a point where people stop keeping up with trends in music.

Blur in 1991.
Blur in 1991. Photograph: Brian Rasic/Brian Rasic/Getty Images

Whether you agree with that thinking or not, it’s easy to see why people may feel impelled to retreat to their youth in 2018. We live in uncertain, even terrifying, times. You can’t really blame people for wanting to temporarily wallow in a world before ubiquitous social media, 9/11 and the “war on terror”; when Donald Trump was just a blowhard American businessman, Boris Johnson couldn’t get elected to parliament and the prefix “alt” was attached to the word “rock” rather than “right”. Of course, the 90s weren’t that wonderful, musically or socially, but that’s what nostalgia is: a form of curation where you cut the crap bits out.

Cool Britannia’s Jack Gray, however, thinks the demographic for events like his will change. “It happened with the 80s revival market, where probably 20% of that audience now is 18 to 25 – children who listened to Mum and Dad’s records. It didn’t start out that way. You would never have got an 80s tent at the Isle of Wight festival holding 8,000 people. You do now and it’s filled with younger people who know that music from their folks.”

He is not the only person who thinks that a Britpop revival may find a younger audience. Martin James, a professor of music industries at Solent University in Southampton, is keen to point out that he “never got Britpop personally”, but has a wealth of empirical evidence of students enthralled by the era. He has a theory that 17- to 20-year-olds are eager to distinguish themselves from their YouTuber-obsessed younger siblings by listening to music that is considered “authentic” and slightly arcane.

Echobelly’s Sonya Madan performing at Shiiine On.
Echobelly’s Sonya Madan performing at Shiiine On. Photograph: Dave MacIntyre

Retro-revivalism is almost as old as rock’n’roll itself. The first example may have come when a record store called Times Square opened in a New York subway station, specialising in “oldies” – forgotten mid-50s vocal-group singles in a style that would come to be known as “doo-wop”. Its customers were teenagers convinced that the golden age of rock’n’roll was a thing of the past. It was 1959.

It then runs through the history of British rock and pop. There was a 50s revival in the early 70s that found its expression in everything from the 1972 London Rock’n’Roll Show at Wembley stadium to glam rock, with T Rex’s mangled Chuck Berry riffs and the teddy boy garb sported by Roy Wood’s Wizzard. The early 80s variously hosted a mod revival, Two Tone’s repurposing of 60s ska, a gush of Motown-inspired pop singles by the Maisonettes and Mari Wilson – the beehive-sporting “Neasden queen of soul” – and a short-lived psychedelic revival.

Martin James points out that “a rush to nostalgia” has a habit of coinciding with a harsh economic climate, and that Britpop’s own brand of revivalism – a reverential grab-bag of historical influences from mid-60s rock, glam and new wave – wasn’t a product of the early years of New Labour: it was fomented by the early 90s recession, a time of “mass unemployment and students graduating into debt because of the introduction of student loans”. Faced with a grim-looking present, James suggests, people tend to “stretch back to some form of safety, the things they have grown up with, trying to make it their own”.

If you buy James’s theory, it makes sense that some young people, confronted by the economic and social realities of 2018, may find themselves stretching back to music they vaguely recall from somewhere in their childhood. In the mainstream, there’s the platinum-selling success of Liam Gallagher’s solo album As You Were – from its title down, a defiant restatement of what you might call Oasis’s core values – and the fact that, when England unexpectedly reached the semi-finals of the World Cup this summer, the song people automatically reached for was Britpop-era anthem Three Lions. Clearly, not everyone who sent it to No 1 in July was a fortysomething nostalgic.

Scratch beneath the surface and James’s point becomes stronger still. The website for This Feeling – a hugely successful club night with outposts across the UK – features dozens of bands audibly devoted to a Britpop era they look too young to remember: the Novatones, Shader, the Vanities, the Spitfires.

Back at Cool Britannia, no one in the crowd seems bothered about how far a 90s revival will spread. There are more pressing concerns: Embrace are on soon. The DJ plays Blur’s End of the Century and all around me, unprompted, everyone starts happily singing along.

Contributor

Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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