While we’re currently being treated to a wave of Britpop nostalgia as a succession of seminal albums turn 20, it’s worth reminding ourselves how the Cool Britannia party turned sour, writes Alex Nelson
This week sees the release of Kill Your Friends, the film adaptation of John Niven’s ode to the darker side of Britpop; all shady A&R men and crushing your music industry competition by any means necessary.
We’ve spent a lot of time recently talking about the glories of the Britpop age, and there’s a lot to shout about, whether it’s the 20th anniversaries of Pulp’s Different Class, or Elastica’s debut record, imagining what This Is England would look like in a mid-90s setting, or testing our knowledge on the album covers of the time.
But what about the stuff that doesn’t get much attention? The dank, seedy underworld of the music industry that exists at every turn, yet often gets forgotten about?
Admittedly, Kill Your Friends‘ tales of murder and psychotic industry men are perhaps a little exaggerated, but there is surely some truth in the goings on (Niven worked briefly in A&R himself). Were the glory days of Britpop not all they seemed to be?
For all the big hitting bands featuring prominently on nostalgic compilations today, there were countless also-rans put through the gauntlet of the national music press and the pressures that that can bring. Very few made it out unscathed.
Here, we take a look at some of the unhappier stories that Britpop has to offer: the bands torn apart by drugs, the acts thrust into the limelight well before they were ready, and a few who left fame and fortune all behind for a happier life.
The drugs don’t work
It’s no secret that wherever music goes, drugs follow closely behind, but Britpop and the ’90s seemed to be a breeding ground for serious Class A action, with narcotics seeping into every facet of musical life and destroying a whole host of promising young bands far too early in their careers.
While the demise of Kurt Cobain is the most commonly cited music tragedy of that decade, on this side of the Atlantic an almost irresponsible demand for something new from the music industry led many youthful musicians to drugs – whether it was stress or simply naivety that was really to blame.
It’s a rock’n’roll cliché, but for those whose brief moment of stardom came overnight, a sudden influx of cash meant irresponsible spending, usually on vices that hampered further musical development.
Marion were a Cheshire band who formed a few years before Britpop really took off, but were nonetheless swept up in it all after an appearance on the BBC special Britpop Now, and found an early hit in 1995’s ‘Sleep‘.
It was all fairly plain sailing for the five-piece, described as a heavier, northern Suede by some, until debut album This World & Body went Top 10 and set in motion a gruelling 18-month international touring campaign, adding strain to a band already feeling the pressures of new-found fame.
“In the ’90s there was a lot of money going around and there was a lot of… cheap drugs, basically. That’s the thing. It’s totally different now, but back then you could get good strong drugs cheap.” – Marion singer Jaime Harding (NME, 2011)
It was around this time that singer Jaime Harding first tried heroin. Telling the NME in 2011 that he “used to take it to come down off loads of coke, because I used to like coke”, Harding’s habit developed, until his regular absences at rehearsals split the band under fairly dire circumstances.
It was to be a habit that would stick with the singer until a valve in his heart stopped working in 2006. Luckily, the open heart surgery went well, but a metal replacement valve and heavy medication must serve as stark reminders.
“‘Sleep’ was used in a Citroën car advert. We ended up getting about £150,000. I spent my share on clothes, drink and drugs.” – Jaime Harding (The Guardian, 2014)
The bigger they are…
Suede’s Brett Anderson in 1992 – TSPL
Some of the bigger bands fondly remembered today also had their run-ins with narcotics, and inter-band struggles.
Suede were riding high on the Britpop wave. A more sophisticated alternative to the brash swagger of Oasis and the laddish commentary of Blur, their androgynous frontman Brett Anderson injected an aura of high-camp glamour into a scene that, on reflection, can seem quite boorish.
Their three albums up until 1997 had all graced the Top 10 (and two had secured the No.1) spot. Suede were kind of a big deal.
But in 1997, Anderson had become addicted to crack and heroin. It wasn’t his first experience with illicit substances (he’d later claim in an NME interview that 2002 album A New Morning was “the first ever Suede record that wasn’t influenced in its making by drugs”), but his behaviour become more and more erratic.
His once famous lyrical dexterity was replaced by lazy songwriting and completely insane attempts at reinvention (1999’s Head Music still makes for an uncomfortable listen), met with steely criticism from the press, and dwindling chart performance.
Eventually, the band disbanded after all creativity had seemingly stalled.
With Suede back together again and kicking out great new albums once more, it’s easy to forget the troubled latter part of their first incarnation, but it’s proof that not even the biggest bands of the time were immune to the pressures and dangers of outside ‘influences’.
‘The behaviour was monstrous’
London act Menswear were hot Britpop property. The buzz around Blur and Oasis was starting to build by the time of their 1994 formation, and many were eager to sign the next big thing, feeling that already some may see those two bands as ‘old news’.
Menswear signed to London Records for a reported £90,000, and secured a publishing deal worth half a million – ludicrous sums of money to be throwing at a new band by today’s standards.
“Melody Maker put us on the cover very early on, which was the reason we became whipping boys. We did more interviews than write songs. It was too much. Everyone seemed to lose it. Record companies were throwing money around like crazy. There was a lot of heavy Class A action. The behaviour was monstrous. I saw a lot of things that would make other people’s hair curl. We were kids, with an average age of 19. We had no idea how the music business worked and it can be a nasty place.” – Johnny Dean, Menswear singer (The Guardian, 2014)
Menswear stayed pretty clear of the drugs train, though the pressures of stardom and seeing the effects it had on others around them certainly took a hold. Mental exhaustion meant that somewhere along the line, they decided their second album should be country rock – a baffling artistic decision reflected by the fact it was released in Japan only – and a split was inevitable as members spiralled further into pits of depression.
After a “massive” breakdown, singer Johnny Dean was put on a psychiatric ward, and eventually diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. He now works with the National Autistic Society in between musical projects.
“Specifically for me, it was pretty traumatic to be honest. I’m proud of what we did, but when it ended I just wanted to get away from it. The music industry attracts the worst type of people and I just didn’t want to be around them. I still don’t.” – Johnny Dean (The Quietus, 2013)
Britpop was rarely kind on those who got tarred with the brush, and with only so many people able to claim international super-stardom, inevitably others got left by the wayside.
The Bluetones formed in Hounslow, London in 1993, and quickly fell in with the Britpop crowd, despite their protestations against becoming “part of the Britpop club – all that Cool Britannia shit”.
After ‘Slight Return‘ proved their biggest hit, reaching No.2 in the charts, the band were sent on a whirlwind touring excursion, going from small gigs in dusty backrooms to arenas in a matter of weeks. For a young band in their early 20s, that kind of alien experience has an effect:
“We were getting used to playing gigs of 250, so to go from that to playing to thousands was mindblowing. A big hit single elevated us to a league where we didn’t feel comfortable. We went from one party to another. We had tables at the Brits next to Prince and Sheryl Crow. We didn’t have to go and score. We had people offering us drugs left, right and centre. All of a sudden we were big news. You do that to a 24-year-old and there are going to be consequences.” – Mark Morris, The Bluetones singer-guitarist (The Guardian, 2014)
The band managed to survive until 2011, though had quickly fallen out of favour with Britpop almost ten years previously due to a shift in styles, and the general collapse of the scene.
Stop this train…
Then of course, there are those for whom the trials of tribulations of fame and glory brought them straight back to reality.
When most people envisage the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, they usually have a (false) mental picture of glamour: plush hotels, endless after-parties, beautiful people hanging off your every word.
But the reality is usually very different, especially for those swept up in someone else’s bubble.
After Pulp‘s ‘Common People’ hit No.2 in 1995, their legacy as one of Britpop’s greats was more or less cemented overnight. But with such interest being thrust upon their enigmatic frontman (and a certain incident at the following year’s BRIT Awards), it quickly became the Jarvis Cocker show.
“Suddenly it was all gold discs, condos, famous mates and people whose reality comes from cocaine, telling you you’re great, night after night. I felt a revulsion for it. We were doing songs about Common People and it was, “Jarvis, Prada’s on the phone, they’ve got your outfit.” – Russell Senior, Pulp guitarist (The Guardian, 2009)
Guitarist Russell Senior quickly found that the touring lifestyle wasn’t for him, especially one so false and so centred around just one part of an artistic unit:
“There were … awards ceremonies where somebody’s coke dealer has nicked your limo and you have to walk home because the record company are looking after Jarvis. We had become his backing band.” – Russell Senior (The Guardian, 2009)
So he made the decision to leave the band, putting himself up in a small London hotel and inviting Cocker round for a cold breaking of the news at the height of the band’s fame. To many, walking out on a band when things seem to be at their peak would seem ludicrous, but Senior obviously wasn’t one to put up with the crimped artistic freedoms and press hubbub that surrounded Pulp.
In his own words, “it would’ve hurt more if they’d been successful”, though Pulp only made one album after his departure before fizzling from mainstream media attention. Though his ‘Common People’ co-writing credit brings in some money through royalty cheques, it’s not enough to sustain a comfortable living, and Senior works as a producer to keep himself funded.
He’s not the only one to leave the Britpop bonanza behind.
Paul ‘Bonehead’ Arthurs left Oasis’ three years after their triumphant Knebworth gigs (the biggest in British music history), telling The Guardian:
“I wasn’t feeling it any more. I would have been lying to the band and the fans.”
Time to set the record straight?
Despite the Cool Britannia image, the endless tales of fun and excess in the music papers, and the best selling singles, Britpop had a much darker side – one largely hidden from public view by a blend of glitzy media coverage, positive upbeat connotations and, latterly, a wave of rose-tinted nostalgia.
For those who lived it, things could often be less than rosy. Perhaps it’s time we took a more balanced view of a widely celebrated era.
Kill Your Friends is out now.
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