England Falls to The Melody Makers
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
In the early 1980s, as the punk rock revolution hurtled helplessly into the “die young” portion of its “live fast, die young” credo, a generation of musicians decided to drop the razor blades, grow back its hair, and devise a way to alchemize the musical enema that was punk rock and the multi-hued acid trip that had characterized the pop music of the 1960s. For all its artistic upheaval and critical respect, punk had for the most part failed to alter the mainstream blueprint of what made a hit song. In 1983, Phil Collins, not the Sex Pistols, throttled the charts in Britain, and Huey Lewis, not the Ramones, ruled in America. As Mr. Lewis sang in his top 10 hit of that year, young music lovers with a hunger for punk’s rude populism and for the ’60s’ melodic majesty wanted a new drug. Apothecaries sprang up on both sides of the Atlantic, crafting elixirs for punk’s resounding kick in the guts.
Guitar rock, which many defeatists figured had peaked with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, was about to embark on its triumphant reunion tour. In America, bands such as Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. stripped away the excesses of ’70s rock but retained much of the minimalist noise and chaotic distortion that had defined such Yankee punks as the Germs and Black Flag. But in Britain, where American rock had been polished to a smooth sheen only two decades before, the postpunks all but entirely pawned that chaos for shimmering guitars and a startling new interest in rhythm.
These bands constituted what was at first called new wave, then slowly splintered into the unfortunately named “shoe-gaze” period, and finally congealed into the Britpop movement, which spawned the most popular British bands (Oasis, Blur, Radiohead) of the past 30 years. On a new four-CD boxed set called “The Brit Box: U.K. Indie, Shoegaze, and Brit-Pop Gems of the Last Millennium,” Rhino Records has narrowed those 10 centuries down to 15 years and 68 tracks that either altered the course of the movement or, more simply, embodied its aesthetics. The set rightfully begins with the Smiths, who, together with the Jesus and Mary Chain and the Stone Roses, laid the groundwork for the 20 years of British music to follow. Though they never quite broke through in America — not that any of the 78 bands collected on this set ever truly did — the Smiths were anointed superstars across the pond when the darkly potent guitar hook from their 1985 single, “How Soon Is Now,” rang with both the defeatism and the hope channeling through Thatcher’s tightfisted England. Rain clouds gather as Johnny Marr’s echoing guitar pulses with minor chord melancholia and Morrissey croons about needing to be loved — the kind of naked vulnerability that punk largely rejected.
Other touchstones on the first disc include the Stone Roses’ “She Bangs the Drum” and Primal Scream’s “Loaded,” both of which borrowed the Smiths’ jangly guitars and the brighter melodies of the Beatles and laid them over skip-step drums and record samples (a nod to the burgeoning hiphop scene taking shape in America), pointing the way to the dance heavy “acid house” that would soon come to define British pop. Newcomers to these acts — none of which made it out of the 1980s with anything worth recording — will find a roadmap to Coldplay and Radiohead. But for those for whom “How Soon Is Now” already conjures a vivid time and place, the real gems to be mined from “The Brit Box” are the forgotten craftsmen who filled in the mortar between the Brit movement’s bricks. The Shop Assistants’ “Somewhere in China” flutters with a druggy three-chord melody, while the Wonder Stuff’s “Unbearable” melds punk’s jagged guitars and rapid-fire vocal delivery with a distinctly ’80s lead riff. As revered, if underappreciated, American bands such as R.E.M. and Hüsker Dü were delivering the keys to underground to such messiahs-in-waiting as Nirvana, the Smiths and the Stone Roses were doing the same in England for more experimental “shoe-gazing” (so named for the inordinate amount of time they spent considering the effects pedals at their feet) bands such as My Bloody Valentine and Lush, and eventually to Britpop bands like Blur, Pulp, and Suede, which were finally able to codify 20 years of underground music and sell it millions of times over. The key to the boardroom, as monolithic bands like Oasis found, was to push the guitars up in the mix, crank the gain, and sing about the locals. (Rhino could easily release a second box chronicling the groundbreaking bands (Portishead, Chemical Brothers) of the same era that veered down the trail blazed by the Happy Mondays and Primal Scream and pioneered the dance-heavy house music that dominated the London clubs as Oasis was filling the arenas.)
“The Brit Box” includes a hefty booklet featuring a brief biography of each band and a handful of pious essays to help connect the dots from “indie” to “Britpop,” but a thorough listen will offer a much more satisfying self-guided tour.