Wallace Wylie

Death Rattle – The Stone Roses, Primal Scream, Oasis and the travesty of British Alternative Rock in the 90s

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If Primal Scream took the dance approach, then Oasis ran with the classic guitar rock angle. Exuding arrogance and inviting ‘belief’, Oasis blew up the British indie scene and effectively destroyed it in the process. With Brit music weekly Sounds having already gone under, the NME and Melody Maker became the victims of the Gallagher brother’s success as the UK press were forced more and more to give both favourable and excessive coverage to Oasis and whatever band they happened to be hanging out with that week (Melody Maker took a more critical stance than NME which is probably why it went under too).

It should be obvious to almost everyone by now that Oasis really weren’t very good, and this is coming from somebody who bought into the hype early and even attended their monster concert at Knebworth. Definitely Maybe remains their best release, with the album coming across as rather varied (by Oasis standards) and tuneful. This was before Noel settled in to writing all his songs in the same Let It Be-derived tempo. It isn’t really necessary to go into detail as to why Oasis were substandard. This has been done elsewhere and will continue to be done for a good while yet. Their limited talents soon ran dry but not before they had kicked open the door to a million soundalikes who popped up every other week on the front cover of NME.

The knock-on effect of all these blokes with guitars was the resurrection of the cocky British male. Whereas the UK in the ‘80s had put forth a more sensual, less defined version of maleness, with The Modfather himself Paul Weller seen lounging about in homoerotic poses, the 90s did away with this more complex view of masculinity and sent us hurtling back to the pre-feminist 60s; being a man was once more seen as a one-dimensional, moronic, insensitive condition. With the publication of men’s ‘lifestyle’ magazine Loaded (named after the Primal Scream song), Britain fully embraced its cheeky chappy, get-‘em-out-for-the-lads, knuckle-dragging persona (just take a look at Blur’s ‘Country House’ video for evidence). Paul Weller was making ‘proper’ rock music again and even that prophet of the fourth sex Morrissey took on a more physical presence, waxing freely about his love of boxing and obsession with British underworld figures. The whole country seemed to be regressing.

With guitar music now in freefall, the second half of the 90s produced practically nothing of note for UK fans of the six-string variety. The next big shot in the arm came by way of America, as The Strokes wielded an unnaturally large influence on British music with both The Libertines and Arctic Monkeys citing them as an influence. At heart, even The Libertines and Arctic Monkeys are simply more of the same with all of their songs dealing with laddish misbehavior, street wisdom of the “eh mate, you’re a right phoney so you are” variety, romanticised views of English life and troubles with girls. In other words, it was the stuff of arrogant rock‘n’roll legend. Like Oasis and The Stone Roses before them, The Libertines and Arctic Monkeys seem to inspire that selfsame ‘belief’ that produces multitudes of copycat acts, and as a result British guitar music remains bereft of inspiration. Perhaps it was doomed to happen no matter what the circumstances, but I can’t help but feel that a large part of the blame must be laid at the door of the UK music press in the 90s who did more than simply bombard the public with second-rate product; they betrayed an emerging UK music scene in the process.

UK electronic music in the early ‘90s was both exhilarating and revolutionary. With acts such as Aphex Twin, Orbital, A Guy Called Gerald, The Orb, The KLF and Massive Attack all breaking new ground, the music press had an embarrassment of riches to choose from. For the most part, however, electronic acts were pushed to the sidelines in order to make way for a classic rock revival and Britpop. Even worse, no-hopers Primal Scream were actually portrayed as the real groundbreakers and were certainly the act that reaped the most benefit from dance music’s popularity. Small-minded rock music collectors with a penchant for excessive drug use, they stole the thunder from electronica’s real innovators with complete backing from the music press. It appears as if the NME and Select (a UK monthly magazine) only considered a musician influential when they made an album palatable to indie fans.

What was even more frustrating was the fact that most UK music journalists had a limited understanding of electronic music’s origins. Synth-pop acts such as Gary Numan, Visage, Depeche Mode and Yazoo had actually been a huge influence on America’s emerging hip-hop and dance scenes. Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson all considered UK synth-pop to be an essential element of their musical fusion, while Frankie Knuckles regularly mixed the aforementioned bands in with the more up-to-date House music that Chicago and New York were producing. To all but a few UK journalists, however, none of those bands mattered. Only New Order could be mentioned proudly as an influential UK dance act and only then because of their post-punk roots. The whole thing reeked of laziness and classic rock prejudice. Oasis were congratulated for the very thing Depeche Mode were ignored for – selling millions of records. The difference was that Depeche Mode were making electronic music with influences outside of the accepted canon while Oasis were churning out monkey see-monkey do re-treads of overly familiar rock standards.

The rock music collector mentality of Primal Scream and the lazy everyman outlook of Oasis had no place for synth-pop. It wasn’t ‘proper’ music. Britain’s emerging electronic scene was not only pushed to the sidelines but its influential past was purged from the history books so that a rock‘n’roll lineage could be created and in doing so the press could declare bands like Primal Scream and Oasis to be the natural heirs to The Rolling Stones, The Small Faces, Led Zeppelin, The Sex Pistols, The Jam and The Smiths. British music has never fully recovered and to this day you’ll find both nostalgia-hungry males in their mid-forties and strutting teens desperately looking for a guitar band to emerge and reconnect the current generation to the classic rock music canon.

Only guitar music made by three to five everyday males can provide people with something to ‘believe’ in, or so it seems. (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? and Screamadelica are still regularly placed higher than the infinitely superior Violator by Depeche Mode or Very by The Pet Shop Boys on “best album of the 90s” lists, if indeed Depeche Mode and The Pet Shop Boys are placed at all. OK Computer by Radiohead almost always wins such best-of lists, another example of a rock band being seen as credible for putting electronic innovations in a rock context (to be fair Radiohead’s ambitions and motives are more noble than those of Primal Scream but that doesn’t mean I don’t find them boring a lot of the time, although they do allow Q readers to feel more edgy and less like dinosaurs). More interesting guitar bands such as Suede and The Boo Radleys are also ignored or banished to the lower reaches of such lists, as the 90s canon becomes more solidified with each passing year.

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65 Responses to Death Rattle – The Stone Roses, Primal Scream, Oasis and the travesty of British Alternative Rock in the 90s

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