Tuesday, July 26, 2011

How It Looked from Over Here: Cool Britannia as Seen from American Shores (Part 2)

Def Leppard's Hysteria, one of the rare British albums Americans were tapping their feet to in 1988, featured a song called "Gods of War," also known as "The Song on Hysteria I Usually Skip." This heavy-handed anti-war tune ended with samples of the then-leaders of the English-speaking free world, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, wrapped in the song's unflattering context. I remembered thinking, "That's so cute, how they put dear-old Maggie in there, as if she were an equal in fuck-headedness to our president."*

Thatcher presided over the UK during the entirety of the 1980s. She was a titanic conservative force, but during the last years of her reign a drug-fueled counter-cultural revolution swept the country. Ecstasy and LSD propelled a new dance music scene and a psychedelic rock scene. In 1990, a trippy indie dance group called The Times sang on their rave scene celebration song "Aurore BorĂ©ale" "It's the morning after the 1970s," as if purging the memory of the "Iron Lady's" decade in a burst of ecstasy bliss. The song ended with a voice intoning atop a psychedelic roar of sound, "This…is…LONDON."

John Major succeeded Thatcher in late 1990. Britain entered a recession that year from which it would not recover until 1993. As I traveled around Britain in 1992 I met some of the unemployed youth who complained about the Major government's role in their unhappy predicaments. I was also around for Black Wednesday on 16 September, when the British government suffered the embarrassment of having to pull its currency from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (since I'm no economist, it's better that I link to piece about that here).

Dance, shoegazer, and other British music scenes continued to evolve in relative isolation. Meanwhile, America experienced another internal music revolution that, along with rap and R&B, would guarantee that our attention would remain focused on ourselves for a while longer. Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" roared up the charts in late 1991, and in 1992 a year of grunge commenced.

Without the widespread availability of the Internet to join our two nations, America's exposure to UK culture came largely from the nightly news, music, and film. In American cinema, the early 90s saw a parade of crafty villains speaking in sinister British accents (real and fake); titles included Silence of the Lambs, Sneakers, Cliffhanger, and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Oh sure, it makes sense that the Sheriff of Nottingham would speak in an English accent, but one must remember that the titular hero of Robin Hood: POT was played by the American Kevin Costner--with an American accent.

This would suggest a certain level of Anglophobia in the U.S. But we also had our Anglophiles. A few U.S. bands even had a sort of English manner about them. In 1991, Chicago's Material Issue sported moddish hair cuts, and the fonts on the album cover to their debut International Pop Overthrow seemed to mimic the druggy imagery associated with Britain's drug scene. That same year, The Ocean Blue, a group long fond of covering British tunes, released Cerulean, which sported the sorts of abstract, dreamy song titles indie UK fans associated with Britain's shoegazer scene (e.g., "Marigold," "Mercury").

But to American audiences, these bands' efforts seemed to emphasize the divide rather than bridge the gap. "Oh, they're trying to sound English," many of us said dismissively. The fact that these groups also drew inspiration from such American cult bands as Big Star was lost on us. We were ignorant and mean. Maybe that goes some way toward explaining why Material Issue's frontman committed suicide in 1996.

In 1992, the election of Bill Clinton was met with rapture in the U.K. The American flag was hoisted over Oxford because our president had not inhaled there. Compared to saxophone-playing Clinton, Major must have looked especially stuffy to his own younger subjects--essentially, he embodied the worst stereotypes of staid, conservative Britishness, the sort that had been mocked for decades in films like Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines. Along with news that Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson were splitting in the spring, followed by more bad news of Charles and Diana parting ways in December, recession-era Britain must have felt that, generally speaking, and by all measures, things were going horribly wrong with the old order.

Somehow, from all this mess, came the warning shot of impending Cool Britannia: Blur's 1994 Brit-centric masterpiece Parklife. The album was not a success in the United States, nor was it expected to be (it even featured an uncomfortably bitter anti-American song called "Magic America"), but its explosive impact in the UK was a critical moment in the aligning of elements that would bring Britainization to the United States a few years later.

Parklife was a varied affair musically, a mish-mash of styles and sounds held together by its intensely self-aware Britishness, right down to a tune entitled "Clover Over Dover" and a lyric about the Queen leaping off Land's End (the powerful "This is a Low"). If Suede had been crushed by the disappointment they encountered while touring the U.S., Blur's reaction seemed to be to abandon ideas of American conquest altogether and to seek satisfaction in exploring and celebrating the world that they knew best. It was nationalism, but a peculiar brand of it, at times affectionate, but at others weary and ironic. If there could be such a thing as sad nationalism, Parklife had it.

This examination of Britishness had been anticipated in Blur's previous album, Modern Life is Rubbish, and it also informed the personality of two excellent St. Etienne releases. Parklife felt like the final, triumphant words of a great thesis. But while Britain raved, and students in T-shirts emblazened with RAF bullseyes roared the lyrics to "Girls and Boys," there must have been an awareness that this display of British spirit was not going to break Blur in the U.S.

Parklife was released in April 1994 as Oasis finished up recording their debut album, Definitely Maybe. The Oasis record shot straight to number 1 on the British charts a few months later. Where Parklife had been an eccentric pastiche of musical styles and poetic musings, Definitely Maybe was a rock album, musically unified, confident, and a tad prickish. There was nothing John Major about Oasis. Perhaps, British critics said, Oasis might be the British band to break America.

In fact, right around that time, a British band did break America, but the British media was reluctant to say much about that because most UK music journalists felt that the group's music was crap. The London group Bush had formed during the grunge year of 1992, and they sounded like a perfect clone of the bands in the Seattle scene. Their debut album, Sixteen Stone, sold briskly in the U.S. during 1995. They were, effectively, the Ocean Blue of Britain, and their act of cultural treason earned them a mulitplatinum album and the fetching Gwen Stefani, who married the band's frontman.

With two wildly popular bands (neither of which were Bush) now ruling the UK, one group representing British middle-class values and a certain intellectual cockiness (Blur), the other working-class rock and roll swagger with some appealing meatheadedness (Oasis), a slugfest was inevitable. In 1995, dueling singles from the two groups were released on the same day, with Blur's incredibly irritating "Country House" somehow coming out on top. But it was Oasis's album that triumphed in the album sales competition that followed. And then, in October 1995, came "Wonderwall."

"Wonderwall" did it. The third single from the Oasis album climbed into the top 10 of the United States singles chart. Select, a UK music magazine, breathlessly celebrated. At last, after a multi-year absence, a British rock band had successfully scaled the dizzying heights of the unforgiving, xenophobic U.S. music charts. Oh yes, there had also been Bush. And Jesus Jones--did I forget them? Hey, don't ask me why they don't count; ask a 1990s UK music journalist!

In November, Pierce Brosnan made his first outing as James Bond in GoldenEye. The film opened at number one that weekend, and remained in the top ten for four more weekends, going on to earn over a hundred million dollars at the U.S. box office. Perhaps the villains-with-English-accents trend in American cinema would finally abate.

* In fact, some have argued she was worse.

(To be continued)

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