While Britpop’s beginnings can be traced to the spring of 1992 and the release of Blur’s “Pop Scene” and Suede’s “The Drowners,” the genre peaked in 1995 when the English music press went into a full-on frenzy, reporting about Blur vs. Oasis, the new Battle of Britain. While Blur won the initial battle — “Country House” outsold “Roll With It” the week they were released — Oasis were full-on victors in the war as What’s The Story (Morning Glory?) buried The Great Escape, commercially and artistically.
A secret soundtrack of the Britpop Years
That said, this isn’t intended to be another nostalgia-filed anniversary puff piece, but rather a look at some of the bands and records that define my second novel Heartworm, a dark, music-centric book set in the Britpop years. During this time, Blur, Oasis, Pulp, and Elastica were all over the UK press and tabloids, but far more interesting music was being swept under the carpet.
First up is Dublin’s Whipping Boy and their second album Heartworm, released on November 1, 1995. This record is so important to me that I named the book after it; members of the band even make appearances as real-life characters in fictitious settings.
Whipping Boy rose out of a late ’80s Dublin postpunk scene that also spawned the likes of Into Paradise and Blue in Heaven. Their early EPs and 1992 debut album Submarine blend Isn’t Anything-era My Bloody Valentine with the artsy noise rock of early Sonic Youth. Though acclaimed, the records didn’t sell as much as they deserved, and the group retreated to a dingy, Dublin rehearsal room to create the best Irish rock ‘n’ roll record of all-time. Two decades later, many Irish radio, critic, and fan polls agree with my assessment.
The singer Fearghal McKee once called Heartworm a ‘male’ record and while true that one can see parallels to the likes of the Afghan Whigs’ Gentlemen, Heartworm is much more vulnerable and complex. It’s a soundtrack with odes to nostalgia and despair, full of references to alcoholism and drug abuse, and on their most famous song “We Don’t Need Nobody Else,” domestic violence. The interplay between McKee’s poetic, at-times Bukowski-like, lyrics and the musical interplay of guitarist Paul Page and bass player Myles McDonnell is staggering. If I could only take two records to a desert island, they would be Psychocandy and Heartworm.
While The Auteurs scrapped the UK Top Forty a few times, they were overshadowed by lesser talents like Blur, Oasis, Pulp, and Elastica. A crying shame, because Luke Haines was the most talented songwriter of the bunch. His group released four albums between 1993-1998, the best being 1996’s After Murder Park. Produced by American indie legend Steve Albini, After Murder Park is a bleak, stripped down affair with references to child murders, child brides, and fallen aircraft. The best song, “Tombstone” contains a line about taking out the garbage at the Columbia Hotel, no doubt a dig at the then trendy London hangout immortalized by Oasis on their 1994 track “Columbia.”
Haines’ Britpop years memoir Bad Vibes and an interview I conducted with Haines for my old fanzine Vendetta back in the day helped shape some of the content of Heartworm the novel — there’s even a chapter called “Cool Hand Luke Haines” where the protagonist meets Luke!
The Jesus and Mary Chain were the musical heroes of my first novel Wivenhoe Park, set in 1984-86, but by ’95, the JAMC were almost forgotten in the UK. Their fourth album, the phenomenal Honeys’ Dead came out in ’92 and not a peep was heard after until the band crawled out of hiatus three years later with the vitriolic smash single “I Hate Rock ‘n’ Roll,” perhaps the most brutal attack ever made on the music industry. Sadly the single only peaked at #61 in the UK charts during a summer dominated by vomit inducing trite like The Boo Radleys’ “Wake Up Boo!” and Blur’s “Country House.”
Dublin’s Into Paradise called it quits in 1994, one of the most criminally underrated bands of all-time. Simply put, they were Interpol ten years ahead of their time with one hundred times the talent. Into Paradise paid their dues in the same Dublin clubs that Whipping Boy frequented and, for a brief moment, had major label backing before getting dropped. They were the right band at the wrong time, playing edgy postpunk music that brought to mind the likes of Joy Division and The Sound in an era dominated by Madchester and shoegaze.
I started my fanzine Vendetta in early 1995. Britpop was in full swing and, initially, I championed some of the bands and records, but by ’96 the scene started to sour on me as bland groups like Ocean Colour Scene and Kula Shaker experienced massive success. Recently I stumbled across a back issue of Vendetta from early ’96 where I mentioned my favorite records of the moment were Heartworm and After Murder Park. My opinion hasn’t changed one bit! It was at this time that I started to listen to the Brian Jonestown Massacre.
I came across BJM when a friend who worked at Newbury Comics in Cambridge, Mass. sold me on their debut full-length Methodrone. It was an impossibly cool record that totally spoke my language. I could hear traces of everything I loved: shoegaze, postpunk, ’60s psych and garage. They seemed larger than life with their impossibly cool band name. The next year, BJM released three more albums. A lot of my indie friends were gushing over Guided By Voices, who had a similar work ethic back then, but IMHO, BJM were tons better, my secret. I would get to know the group’ s main man, Anton Newcombe, when I moved to Los Angeles at the end of the decade and we’ve stayed friends to this day. I’m incredibly proud that he’s stuck to his guns and continued to make fantastic music. His group’s most recent effort Revelation is one of his best yet, and the brand new collaboration with Tess Parks I Declare Nothing is my favorite record of the moment. BJM get name checked a few times in Heartworm as well; there’s even a chapter called “Mushrooms and Methrodone”!
So there you have it, five under the radar bands that meant the world to me (and still do) during the era of ‘Cool Britannia’.