Aging out of Britpop

Former luminaries of 1990s British rock have mellowed with age, and three of the best swing through S.F. this fall.

Now that Blur can play the Hollywood Bowl and former Oasis frontman Liam Gallagher can almost sell out The Warfield on his own, it’s easy to forget just how insular Britpop, the marketing tactic-slash-cultural phenomenon, really was. Britpop was for the Brits, and American audiences in the 1990s were otherwise occupied anyway: boy bands, Riot Grrrl, the golden age of R&B, hip-hop’s sledgehammering into the mainstream, some flannel-wearing guy named Kurt and two of his pals.

However irked the Britpop bands that defined the era — Oasis, Suede, Blur, Pulp, and Elastica among them — may have been over their inability to break through across the pond, they were also proudly British and well-suited to superstar roles at home. A new, youth culture-obsessed British pride had taken hold, helped along by the charismatic Labour Party leader Tony Blair and his vision of “New Britain.”

Cool Britannia set in. The Spice Girls went nuclear. Damien Hirst and Alexander McQueen scandalized the art and fashion worlds. Vanity Fair splashed “London swings again!” across its cover, featuring a photograph of Gallagher and actress Patsy Kensit wrapped up in the Union Jack.

If hindsight is 20-20, here’s the view from 2018: Britpop fizzled. Oasis lost the plot with 1997’s overstuffed Be Here Now. Post-garage revival found a foothold via the very American Strokes. Blur frontman Damon Albarn turned his attention to Gorillaz, his original band having entered the American charts and psyche only by abandoning traditional British influences and embracing grunge on 1997’s self-titled album. Blair made it to 10 Downing St., rocketed to popularity after the death of Princess Diana and served longer than any other Labour Prime Minister in UK history, but resigned following his decision to back the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Times changed. London swung out.

Its stars changed, too. Gaz Coombes (at Swedish American Hall, Sunday, Sept. 23) is the frontman of inexhaustibly zippy pop-rock outfit Supergrass who rode the trio’s usable life into the new millennium. After calling it quits in 2010, Coombes traded Supergrass’ ultra-catchy, youthful exuberance for solo albums filled with mature, measured, and complex indie-rock. His latest, this year’s folk-inflected World’s Strongest Man, comes loaded with rhythmic and sophisticated meditations that lean far heavier on songwriting craft than piano bombast.

Although content to allow bandmate Albarn to remain Blur’s most public-facing member, guitarist Graham Coxon (at August Hall, Sunday, Sept. 30) has been comfortable in his own skin and solo career since he began releasing his own albums in 1998. Among his generation’s most talented guitarists and an increasingly nuanced songwriter, he most recently scored the Netflix series The End of the F***ing World.

But most surprising is the return of Jarvis Cocker (at The Chapel, Thursday and Friday, Oct. 4-5), the frontman for Pulp and Britpop’s most perverted public intellectual. His solo output is both erratic and eclectic: two solo records, one full-length collaboration with Chilly Gonzales, and some co-writing credits on Nancy Sinatra and Charlotte Gainsbourg songs. Now he’s rolling out a new alter ego, dubbed JARV IS. We know better than to hazard a guess at what it entails — age has made Cocker unpredictable and more experimental than ever.

Aging typically involves mellowing out, and Britpop’s former stars are no exception. Removed from the mania of the era by two-odd decades, they’re inhabiting a new creative space neither sonically bound to the history of British rock nor aesthetically bound to the image and sound of their given band. And it’s something worth taking note of, regardless of national affiliation.

Other Shows We’re Excited About

Eleanor Friedberger
Wednesday, Sept. 26 at The Chapel
There comes a time in many a contemporary rock songwriter’s life when they inevitably shimmy toward the dancefloor — Currents by Tame Impala, anyone? — often to varying results. Friedberger’s own foray into the discoball-lit fray arrived in the form of Rebound, her fourth record and the first to use languid 1980s-inspired synths and drum machines with abandon. If there’s a case to be made for the return of groovy goth-pop, Friedberger’s newly liberated sonic visions are it.

Oh Sees
Tuesday and Wednesday, Oct. 2-3, at Great American Music Hall
Despite having left the Bay for Los Angeles years ago, Oh Sees’ John Dwyer is still no stranger around these parts. More garage-punk’s cool uncle than its elder statesman, Dwyer and company put on loud, sweaty, and deliriously enjoyable shows, packing venues wall-to-wall with career-spanning setlists that sound as ferocious as ever. Bring shoes you can mosh in.

Monday, Oct. 8 at Café du Nord
Regional rap styles don’t quite mean what they did in, say, the ’90s, but we’re more than happy to claim DUCKWRTH for the West Coast. A rising star with an Anderson.Paak cosign, the L.A.-born, Bay Area-educated rapper and visual artist makes unpredictable, genre-mashing hip-hop-loaded snappy rhymes punctuated by blink-and-you-missed-it one-liners. Take that, East Coast.

Kamasi Washington
Friday, Oct. 19 at The Warfield
He formed his first band with Thundercat. He was recruited to play on Florence + the Machine’s latest record. He’s simultaneously a musician’s musician and adored by listeners who don’t otherwise dabble much in contemporary jazz. He’s a creative force as a composer, producer, and multi-instrumentalist. He’s Kamasi Washington and he’s not to be missed.

Saturday, Nov. 3 at The Warfield
Although she has been something of a critical darling since 2014’s Bury Me at Makeout Creek, Mitski now appears to be dangerously close to achieving household name status. Her just-released fifth album, Be the Cowboy, bends her gorgeously raw indie rock into glorious pop-infused shapes. Expect it to soundtrack several thousand breakups.

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