Wallace Wylie

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

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It is my dream that one day a proper history of British music in the 90s will be written and it will be an accepted fact by all that Britpop was an embarrassing farce. The 90s were supposedly my peak music years. I began the decade aged 14, the perfect age for musical obsessions to begin. Right now I should be shaking my head at 16-year-olds and telling them that they have no idea what music is and how the music of my youth was so much better. Except that I can’t because the music I was exposed to week in, week out by the British music press has only become more hollow with age. British guitar music in the 90s was, in the majority of cases, a puffed-up phantom, a petrified ghost trying to follow approved behaviours from the past and expecting to get the same artistic results.

Primed by The Stone Roses I became a Creation Records’ disciple, believing it to be the ‘keeper of the flame’ in regards to the true spirit of rock‘n’roll (they were one of the prime movers in the shambling indie-rock scene of the ‘80s) [no they weren’t. They were putting out shit records by The Weather Prophets and The House Of Love – all-knowing Ed] when in fact by the 90s they were a huge reactionary force that transformed itself into a monster after Oasis became superstars. Groups like Teenage Fanclub and The Boo Radleys moved (or were pushed?) into a more classic, Oasis-influenced direction as Creation flexed its muscles, seemingly intent on extracting some kind of revenge for the synth-dominated 80s (never forget, it was this environment that allowed for the success of Kula Shaker). Creation was undoubtedly the biggest benefactor of The Stone Roses’ success. When Ian Brown and company vanished for several years, it did not merely add to their legend, it fueled the idea that rock music could still be legendary, could still matter. A thousand mediocre wannabes later, it seems like nobody has learned their lesson.

In June 1980, The Soft Boys released Underwater Moonlight. It was, in its way, a brilliant creation, but its heart was in another era and it was all but ignored. Rather than seeing this as an outrage, I see it more as poetic justice. The UK was in no mood to look back and when albums such as The Raincoats’ debut, Metal Box (Public Image Ltd), The Pleasure Principle (Gary Numan), The Correct Use Of Soap (Magazine), The Affectionate Punch (The Associates), Colossal Youth (Young Marble Giants), The Voice Of America (Cabaret Voltaire), Travelogue (The Human League), Cut (The Slits) and Closer (Joy Division) had either just been released or were about to be, why would anyone have wanted to? The Soft Boys were tied up in the past while others were looking to the future, and Robyn Hitchcock’s outfit suffered as a result. (Underwater Moonlight eventually found something of an audience as music fans became more comfortable listening to 60s-influenced pop and rock).

Imagine a UK press and public that had treated The Stone Roses in the same way, as a great album mired in the past that could certainly be enjoyed but which nevertheless paled beside the forward-looking musical experiments of the time. True, British electronic music did not have an armful of classics under its arm in 1988 but, with enough support, the 90s could have been so different. Instead, as the experimental guitar wave broke around ’85 and bands began to indulge in more and more retro-isms, the classic rock paradigm was resurrected by the very institutions which had once sought to destroy it (maybe the NME was indulging in some knock-‘em-down/build-‘em-up for a change).

The success of The Stone Roses and what happened immediately afterwards represent the moment when both the British alternative music press and the British alternative music fan lost their nerve and lost faith in pop music’s ability to reshape itself amid changing times (the emergence of Uncle Tupelo in America represents a similar moment for US alternative music, with the difference being that I cannot stand Uncle Tupelo). They rallied to the classic rock flag and in doing so helped destroy the forward momentum of alternative music, along with its allegiance to the most radical musical innovations, and made the 90s a decade in which almost all of the headlines were grabbed by acts whose albums are not even worth dusting off anymore. That’s assuming most of you haven’t sold them already.

Punk, for all its faults, drew a line in the sand, making people move forward while Britpop was a delusional gateway to a distant past. To anyone aged between 14 and 23 I’m going to hand out a little bit of hard-earned advice. If anybody ever, and I mean ever, tells you that the music from this day and age doesn’t compare to the music of their youth treat their comments suspiciously. If, however, the person in question starts throwing out names like Oasis, Primal Scream, Supergrass or even Blur, then smile politely and be on your way as quickly as possible. You’ve encountered somebody who has bought into a terrible lie and are still the victim of it. If good music happened in the 90s, it was in spite of Britpop not because of it, and the vacuum that was filled by desperate musicians and journalists in the absence of The Stone Roses (compounded by the success of Nirvana and the need to show the Yanks that the Brits could still make relevant guitar music) remains nothing to celebrate. What we should be doing is turning away from it in shame. Not maybe, definitely.

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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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