The Beatles v the Stones; 2Pac v Biggie; Harry or Niall? Fans of pop music are often divided over these fundamental tribal differences. But rarely do these polarities ever clash head on, so publicly and the disparity laid so starkly bare, as they did in the UK in the summer of 1995.
This month marked the 20th anniversary of perhaps the most public bust-up in pop music history: what has become known as the ‘Battle of Britpop’.
It was, as the cover of the seminal NME magazine dubbed, the British Heavyweight Championship: The Big Chart Showdown.
Source: NME via noneutraltalk
In one corner was Blur – four larrikins from London with an ear for quirky pop tunes about wacky characters, mundane details of everyday life and melancholic existentialist pondering.
Blur (L to R: Dave Roudtree, Graham Coxon, Damon Albarn, Alex James). Source: The Times
In the other, Oasis – five lads from Manchester who played anthems about smoking and drinking, dreaming of the rock star lifestyle and invincibility of youthful optimism.
The battle was more than a simple preference for music. With the gleeful provocation of the media gaze, it divided a nation and revealed the simmering tensions of class and regional divisions.
Britpop had been simmering under the surface for years; it had its roots in the ‘Madchester’ scene of The Stone Roses and The Happy Mondays. Oasis’ Noel Gallagher often cites The La’s There She Goes as the beginning of Britpop.
Regardless of origins, in the early 90s,a new wave of British bands started cropping up that shared a common musical identity. In retaliation to the primal bursts of introspection of the America-centric grunge scene, bands such as Blur, Suede and Pulp focused on catchy tunes, good times and a discernible British identity.
In 1994, Blur released Parklife a sprawling, giddy account of modern life that skyrocketed them to the forefront of the movement and made them arguably the country’s most popular band.
The same year marked the debut release from Oasis. Definitely Maybe became the fastest-selling debut album in British history.
The relationship between the two bands was originally mutual respect. But as the days wore on the friction took a toll and the animosity built. The two albums went head to head for the Best Album at the 1995 Brit Awards –Blur came out on top.
In the second half of 1995 both were gearing up to release their new records and in a fairly blatant marketing stunt, the bands’ record labels scheduled their promotional singles to come out on the exact same day.
So in August 1995, Blur’s Country House went head to head with Oasis’ Roll With It to prove who was number one (in the charts).
If the scheduling decision was a fairly blatant exercise in promotion, then the media turned it into another beast entirely. There was a genuine dislike between the two, but under the heavy hand of tabloid press it became about more than the music.
The battle became the lightening rod for regional differences; Oasis were the upstart, working class boys form the North, Blur represented the southerners, the middle class and privately educated kids (even though they themselves weren’t quite of that ilk).
It was a consistent source of news speculation, from the red tops, broadsheets and nightly news telecasts alike. Word spread far and wide, making headlines in countries around the world.
The countdown featured all the classic controversies of tight counts –disputed tallies and allegations of faulty barcodes which were lapped up by a frenzied horde reporting on each new twist in the tale.
The results were in, Blur 274,000 copies to Oasis’ 216,000.
The victory was short-lived. Blur may have won the battle, Oasis won the war.
(What’s the Story) Morning Glory came out a couple of months later and quickly sprang to the top of charts around the world. Off the back of ubiquitous hits such as Wonderwall, Don’t Look Back in Anger and Champagne Supernova, the album went on to sell an estimated 22 million copies worldwide and is viewed as one of the greatest of the era.
Oasis played a two-night concert to a combined 250,000 people at Knebworth. It was the largest ever concert in Britain and over 2.6 million people applied for tickets. They won the 1996 Brit Award for Best Album, taunting their rivals with a version of Parklife with the lyrics changed to “shite-life”.
Roll With It may have missed the top spot, but eight other Oasis songs peaked at number one in the UK.
Blur’s The Great Escape came out a few weeks later and went to number one in the UK. Despite its commercial success it never captured the collective imagination in the same way Oasis did and critically consensus deemed it to pale in comparison to Parklife.
But the battle of Britpop was about much more than a simple stoush over temporary chart supremacy; it also marked the nadir of a musical movement. What was lost in the kerfuffle over chart positions is that neither of Country House or Roll With It are particularly great songs, and pale into comparison to some of the other cuts from their respective albums.
It would be hard for anything to instigate the same level of public interest, and nothing ever came close. The steady stream of classic Britpop albums became a trickle; only the subsequent releases of Pulp’s Different Class and The Verve’s Urban Hymn can be placed in a conversation of great Britpop albums.
In 1997, Oasis followed up (What’s the Story) with the bloated Be Here Now – now the byword for the sonic pitfalls of hedonism and indulgent. Meanwhile Blur forsook the trappings of the Britpop sound and turned their ears to the low-fi experimentalism of independent American bands. The result was their second and last UK number one song, Beetlebum, and a two-minute blast of guitars and shouts of “wah-hoo!” that helped them finally make an indent in America.
It seemed to mark the death knell of the Britpop movement. The same year a band called Radiohead dropped OK Computer to universal acclaim, with the likes of Chris Martin, Tim Rice-Oxley and Matt Bellamy taking careful note.
With digital music becoming the standard form of distribution, it’s unlikely the hullabaloo of the Battle of Britpop will ever be repeated. But we can still remember the social and class wars played out in pop songs, the insanity of record sales being front-page news and, most importantly, the music.
So which song would you choose?