An '80s Britpop pre-history

Early echoes
By DANIEL BROCKMAN  |  August 17, 2011


Prior to the '90s, "Britpop" as a concept would probably be met with a quizzical shrug: are we talking about the British Invasion of the mid-'60s? Or maybe the full-frontal assault of British rock acts of the early '70s that make up the bulk of the non-country portion of any classic-rock radio playlist? But by the '80s, UK rock — after the initial Flock of Seagulls shock of MTV's disruptive influence — was seen as a wasteland for what was known in the States as "college rock." Except that it wasn't a wasteland so much as a cornucopia of mindblowingly awesome acts, all viciously competing with each other to top the UK singles charts with one epoch-defining tune after another, paving the way for the mid-'90s Britpop global assault.

The pre-history of Britpop can be traced to the early-'80s Liverpool grudge match between Echo & the Bunnymen and Julian Cope's Teardrop Explodes. The Oasis and Blur of their time, respectively, neither band would be satisfied until they were Beatles-level huge (with the Bunnymen almost actually getting there). Similarly striving for pop perfection, but with a biting mid-'80s post-punk snarl, were Glasgow's Orange Juice, whose wry delivery and snotty outlook would be a sneak influence on almost every Britpop band. But none of the aforementioned would be a match for the UK phenomena that were Steven Morrissey and the Smiths: they set the blueprint, from the twisted storytelling that would become Pulp's stock-in-trade, to the veddy English preciousness that a band like Blur would take to the bank a handful of years later, to the stadium-rocking relatable hooks that would propel Oasis to super-duper-stardom.

On the other end of the spectrum were bands like Jesus and Mary Chain and Spaceman 3, taking an obsession with '60s Brill Building songcraft and running it through a tenderizer of chainsaw guitars at recklessly shrill volumes. The influence of these bands is gargantuan, especially on the sound of '90s rock — they paved the way for Britpop's twin obsessions with classical songsmithing and distorto-kicks. It wasn't all just pure noise, after all. Britpop was a pop phenomenon, where the song was king and singing presided over shouting — creating space for the emergence of the roots of twee. Croydon's Saint Etienne were trailblazers, merging romantic themes and vaguely retro dance beats. Meanwhile, Sundays' gauzy and lilting tunes took the torch from the Cocteau Twins and brought dream pop into the '90s.

Ultimately, though, Britpop was about a British musical redemption, and its knight in shining armor was a ragtag group of baggy-pants'd goofballs called the Stone Roses. Although little more than college-rock darlings in the US, across the pond they were titans, pummeling the UK music world with single after single of undeniable majesty. "She Bangs the Drums," "I Wanna Be Adored," "I Am The Resurrection" — these were songs that not only defined an era, but made British youth stop caring about what was going on in America, at least for a while. It would be a few years before the Oasis would pound Britpop's war drums — but first there was a decade-long rumble that grew increasingly hard to ignore.

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  Topics: Music Features , Music, Echo & The Bunnymen, rock,  More more >
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