The Brit Box and the Nature of Britpop
It's smaller on the inside
As both a collection of music and a fetishistic conversation-piece, Rhino's new Brit Box, a mammoth collection of Britpop and its offshoots, is pretty much crap. I can't quite figure out why the packaging dwells so hard on red phone-booths and dirty ashtrays and Buckingham Palace guards, all traditional, cartoonish symbols of square mass-market Anglophilia, when a collection of subcultural music should really instead focus on the fetishistic totems of that particular subculture: in this case, Vespa scooters and green anoraks and those plastic sunglasses with the yellow lenses like Spud wore in Trainspotting. There's certainly a built-in audience of American Britpop dorks whose existence should justify a compilation like this; witness the early-00s popularity of Britpop dance nights, like the one where I met my wife in 2003. But it's hard to imagine the Americans who packed indie-rock clubs to dance to the same New Order songs month in and month out a couple of years back to get much out of 78 tracks of Inspiral Carpets and Curve and These Animal Men and Ocean Colour Scene.
The box focuses on a really myopic, limited idea of what, exactly, Britpop was, and it leaves off damn near every great dance-rock hybrid that the UK produced in the 90s to make room for more jangle-fuzz guitar bands. Looking at the tracklist before I heard the thing, I was all set to love the Brit Box, just on the basis of how many great songs it holds, songs I haven't heard in forever: Charlatans' "The Only One I Know"! Suede's "Metal Mickey"! James's "Laid"! I've got fond, fond memories of songs like those breaking up the grunge hegemony on early-90s alt-rock radio at the exact brief moment that early-90s alt-rock radio actually meant something to me. But when songs like those, along with your canonical standard-bearers like "She Bangs the Drums" and "Only Shallow" and "Common People," are surrounded by a whole bunch more songs that sound exactly the same except much, much shittier, the whole concept turns bad way faster than you'd expect. The first disc, with its messy pre-Britpop landscape, is a blast pretty much throughout, but everything else is a godawful slog. When Ned's Atomic Dustbin has one of the best songs on your shoegaze disc, you're in trouble.
It didn't have to be this way. The box's compilers (all American, which probably matters) wouldn't really have had to reach outside their parameters to include stuff like the Beloved's "The Sun Rising" or the Chemical Brothers' "Setting Sun" or Underworld's "Born Slippy." All those songs have guitars on them, and all of them are sung by dudes who sound like they probably have bowl-cuts, which means they'd fit neatly amidst all the retrograde power-pop on display here. But they also have beats, which would offset the monotony of that same retrograde power-pop. Britain's guitar-pop has always maintained close ties to the dance music that surrounded it; it couldn't very well not, since Britain's a small country with an incestuous musical scene set up around a few huge annual festivals. All the Madchester bands, most of whom show up on the first disc, drew something or other from it, and plenty of bands followed suit in the 90s, but you wouldn't know it to hear this collection. Even the staunchest Britpop dance-night DJs always knew well enough to throw on the occasional Daft Punk track to keep things moving, but the danciest song on any of these four CDs is the Happy Mondays' "Step On," which basically sounds like "Groove Is in the Heart" if Deee-Lite had replaced Lady Miss Kier with a fat soccer-hooligan junkie who couldn't sing and which I imagine made the cut mostly because of Shaun Ryder's battle-scarred folk-hero status. (I really like the song; I'm just saying.) I would've also loved to have heard a song from the Levellers, the cultish hippy-punk scuzzballs who played a lot of the same festivals as the better-dressed bands represented here. (Most actual British critics barf at the mention of the Levellers, but fuck them.) Andrew Perry's stunningly clumsy booklet essay spells out pretty well why none of that stuff made the cut: "At the more credible end of the spectrum, through the 80s there was a shocking air of defeatism, a belief that pop's golden age was long lost, that the industry structure now made it impossible to be both brilliant and successful, that in this field at least Britain would never be great again ... However, as this collection ably chronicles, there was majesty in the music that upheld the classical values of the 60s and provided an alternative, however subdued, to the plastic pap of the mainstream." So: in compiling this thing, Perry's cronies were drawing battle-lines, and they were drawing battle-lines that put the likes of Gay Dad and Kula Shaker on their side.
Writing about the box in Salon a couple of days ago, Simon Reynolds said that the fetishistic Anglophilia of the packaging appeals to "a younger subset of the exact same [Masterpiece Theatre-worshipping] demographic (college-educated upper middle class), and it's based around an identical syndrome: the equating of England with a superior level of refinement and literacy." The weird thing is that the compilers of the thing seem to feel the same way; that's the only logical explanation why this set would make room for Cast and the Bluetones, bands that barely any actual British people gave two shits about for more than two minutes. I can only speak for myself, but as a college-educated upper middle class onetime Britpop devotee (I named my college radio show "This Is Hardcore," for fuck's sake), I can say with some certainty that the cleverer-than-thou aspect wasn't what attracted me to Britpop. (Or at least, it wasn't the main thing; Pulp's majestic fashion-victim word-games were admittedly always a selling point.) Here's what I liked about Britpop, as briefly as I can manage: the music press in that country (of which Reynolds was a part during the years represented on this set) had a power that absolutely dwarfed its American equivalent, so critics could actually turn a band into major stars, however briefly, by enthusing about them, which seemed a smarter king-making structure than America's byzantine system, driven by payola and mammoth tours. And people in England actually seemed more consumed by pop music than Americans; they actually pay attention, for instance, to what song ends up topping the singles charts on Christmas. When I was nine, my family lived outside London for a year, and during that year, pop music pretty much replaced baseball as a kids' obsession. A huge part of the reason was Top of the Pops, a weekly TV show that made chart-watching as easy to follow as baseball. The British also have tendency to turn unknown bands into transcendent stars and then to completely forget about them. I went to one day of the Reading Festival in 1997, and I vividly remember seeing a few tens of thousands going apeshit for Space, the third-tier Britpop lounge-lizards whose one hit, "The Female of the Species," isn't even on this fucking box set. Add to that a tabloid-driven fixation on nice clothes and the sorts of drugs that caused starry-eyed euphoria rather than clouded depression, and you had a music scene that looked pretty goddam inviting once all those California pop-punk bands started to get old.
As an end-to-end listen, the Brit Box actually makes a pretty good aesthetic argument against Britpop; I sure don't remember it sounding that monochromatic back when I actually bought NME. That's probably because it wasn't. There's still a great Nuggets-esque set to be made out of what could nebulously be called Britpop; this just isn't it.
Voice review: Barry Walters on the Brit Box