Jen Otter Bickerdicke’s journey through the outlands of British Pop is a unique take on what Britpop meant and how far it travelled.
One of my grandmother’s favourite hobbies was digging into our family tree. She had tracked our roots back, finding out that we were direct descendants of the Mayflower Pilgrims. Yes, the very ones who sailed from Britain and ‘founded America’, or, to be more specific, killed off all the native people and brought their crazy Puritan values to the west. But I digress! My heritage is English (on one side), and it seems that my California born and bred ass has always had a longing and need for the ‘homeland’ of England. One of my earliest memories is going into my nursery’s library and insisting on reading An Illustrated Pride and Prejudice at age 4. This was the proverbial introduction to all things Anglo, from an obsession with the Brontë sisters to a deep founded love of all period pieces shown on Masterpiece Theatre, a serialized television show hosted by the posh, cravat wearing Alistair Cooke.
My real obsession, however, was any music served up from across the Atlantic. It started by me repeatedly playing all of my parents Beatles, Stones, Who and Kinks albums, scouring the liner notes for lyrics and staring for hours at the LP covers while lying on our bright gold living room carpet, headphones plugged into the family ‘stereo’ (how quaint!). Everything from across there seemed so exotic, so dangerous, so COOL! I lived in the sleepy beach town of Santa Cruz, far away from any industrial wastelands and endless grey days. This made the music, the people, the style, the accent of the artists seem so much more than the slow-paced, chilled out vibes I had been reared on.
A couple of my high school friends also loved this ‘weird’ music from an alien land. You have to remember, this was a time when the Beach Boys ‘Kokomo’ was topping the charts in good ole US-of-A. To discover, listen to and then admit to being even intrigued by some band draped in black with smeared eyeliner and lipstick was a hard place to be. I clearly remember playing my first The Cure album Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me (which I bought on cassette!) while me and my friend Brett cruised West Cliff Drive, the main seaside road acting as a vein from one end of our town to the other. There is something very, very different about the experience of listening to the shivery beauty of The Cure’s ‘Like Cockatoos’ while driving down a moon lit road with the top down on a balmy summer night in California (from say, wandering the misty, cold, miserable streets of London with the same song playing through your iPhone). Brett and I would argue about who was better, Echo And The Bunnymen (his favourite group) or The Smiths / The Cure (my favourite groups, depending on the day).
Yet it was not until I moved away from home to go to college that my REAL education in British music began. There was a boy who lived on my dorm floor. He had longish black hair, piercing eyes and was the crush of all the other girls in our building. I always liked him a lot though I was never sure if I really liked him liked him, or just liked him, if you see what I mean. All of the boys I had grown up with were sun-kissed beach lovers. This kid was pale, smoked clove cigarettes and was (therefore) mysterious. He would give me taped-over-tapes. These were cassette tapes that had originally been an album, but now held a mixtape he had made for me or a newer, preferred record. You could always hear the ghost of the first content on the tape between songs. I remember lying together in a single twin bed, fully clothed, being lulled to sleep by Bauhaus. Once school had ended for the summer and we had moved back to our hometowns until the fall quarter began, we would write letters to each other, using old fashioned typewriters, always mentioning favourite songs (‘Won’t you listen to “Marlene Dietrich’s Favourite Poem” and think of me?’).
As the college years slipped by, I found a handful of other people who also had become enraptured with the emerging ‘baggy’ then ‘Britpop’ scene from across the pond. It was always night time — for some reason — when these initial encounters took place, the lights always low. Looking back on it, the scenes took place entirely with boys, the music being this holy communion bonding us together. I was too naïve or too into the music to realise these may have been attempts (unsuccessful) at seduction, the twinkling of white Christmas garlands strung around the cramped rooms, and cheap wine passed back and forth as the Stone Roses sang, ‘I Want To Be Adored.’
It was not until my senior year of college that I actually got a boyfriend who liked the same music as me and was as dedicated to being immersed in what we Californians saw as ‘British Culture’. This meant for boys, having shaggy bowl cuts like Tim Burgess from the Charlatans and wide legged pants ala Shaun Ryder from the Happy Mondays. For girls, it was a bit tougher, as there were only a handful of visible women in the UK scene at the time — or at least few who made the transition on to the holy grail of college radio on the west coast. With few visual cues to go on, I dressed entirely in vintage clothing, used generous amounts of white eye shadow and never left the house without lashings of liquid black eye liner, feet always firmly in Dr. Martens, whatever the outfit. I don’t know why I thought this was an ‘English’ way to dress, but in my mind, I was emulating Quadrophenia, Diane from Trainspotting and the heavily bouffant girls on the Smiths sleeve covers.
My boyfriend and I would make-out for hours, listening to music that ‘only we knew’, ranging from New Fast Automatic Daffodils to Joy Division, drinking pots of tea and smoking pot between records. My beau was a couple years older than me and had dated Winona Ryder in high school, adding to his indie creds. We thought we were just the coolest people around. What toffs!
After leaving Uni, my boyfriend and I broke up (I should say we drifted apart, after an unfortunate night of too much beer, bad Chinese takeaway and a very hungover outing to see The Grateful Dead). I did not know anyone who knew or liked or CARED about these bands that had come to mean EVERYTHING to me. At this point, I had only ever heard the records — Pulp, Morrissey, Northside — within the confines of my house, my Walkman or my car. I had never been to a performance of any of my British heroes nor had heard any of these beloved tracks blasted out in public.
A year after graduating, that all changed. I met a boy who, with three of his friends, had started a tiny club night that played all of these groups. We were a cult, a small circle of people who knew about this amazing, special, beautiful world of music, songs, fashion and culture that our contemporaries did not. Each Thursday was our ‘Britpop’ event, and more and more folks attended what was our highlight of the week. You would spend all the days leading up to it trying to figure out what to wear, how to do your hair, what songs would be played. We would meet up at one person’s house, dance to Supergrass and drink amaretto sours (which we thought were very sophisticated, and therefore must be British). I would beg my dude to play New Order. It was Britbliss!
Looking back, it was a magical time, before the internet, cell phones, mass globalisation (and relatively pandemic free!). We were our own little tribe, our own subculture. I have more influences from those few years than the twenty years that came after. Maybe it was the age I was, and everyone has similar experiences, of moments imprinting and becoming a part of them at that time in your life. Figuring out who you are in the world, who you want to be, how you fit in — and where music fits into that.
Some of the songs on this playlist are not (just) from British acts, but they were around and influenced by other bands at the same time — part of the hive consciousness, if that makes sense. I did not even get to the UK until I was in my 30s, but in a way, that was unimportant. My mental and emotional journey had started decades before and would continue to steer the rest of my life long after I stopped drinking those damn amaretto sours.
Discover the accompanying playlist here: https://www.songsommelier.com/lost-britpop-gems
Jennifer Otter Bickerdike is a pop music historian and writer and author of Why Vinyl Matters & The Secular Religion of Fandom. The Amaretto Sour originated in the 70s, in the US-of-A.