Pop Goes Britannia

With a New Four-CD Retrospective, Rhino Records Captures the Agony and Ecstasy of Modern English Rock’s Golden Age

"I think the American audience has a romantic, rose-tinted view of that era," observes Simon White of Menswear, a short-lived Britpop band. "You get drawn to the imagery surrounding it and form your own picture of what the time must have been like. A little like Swinging London back in the '60s—people think it must have been like an Austin Powers movie, but in the real world outside of a few nightclubs, it was very gray, dark and depressing."

Similar misconceptions surround shoegaze, at least in terms of gauging how popular it actually was. The genre's presence on Brit Box is relatively small; cuts from My Bloody Valentine, Catherine Wheel, Chapterhouse, Boo Radleys and Swervedriver are highlights. But judging by the multitude of current American bands taking cues from the genre—Asobi Seksu, Blonde Redhead, Airiel and A Sunny Day in Glasgow, among others—it's easy to overstate the genre's popularity. (Consider it the Velvet Underground effect, where a band's influence supersedes their actual success.)

"Things come back into fashion because they represent something opposite to the current trends," Berenyi says. "There's a disarming amateurishness in a lot of 'shoegazing' music, which conveys a vulnerability sorely lacking in much of today's big-business, packaged, marketed, super-knowing commerciality. Much of the so-called 'shoegazing' music is more fragile, less manipulative and trusts the listener to find their own path."

Mighty Lemon Drops: "We're fookin' chuffed to be in this Brit Box fing, mate." Photo by Pete Anderson; courtesy of Sire Records.
Mighty Lemon Drops: "We're fookin' chuffed to be in this Brit Box fing, mate." Photo by Pete Anderson; courtesy of Sire Records.

Remaining sanguine and pragmatic about that time is something all musicians appearing in this piece have in common, however. And despite the rash of re-formations, no one interviewed has a desire to reunite his/her bands. (Newton produces local groups in LA, Berenyi has children and works at a magazine, and White manages bands such as Bloc Party and Broken Social Scene.) Even Mark Gardener, vocalist/guitarist of dreamy pop-psych group Ride—one of the bands most sought-after to reunite—prefers to let the eras covered by Brit Box remain in the past.

"We kept some . . . level of integrity about what we were doing, and we stopped at the right time and all that sort of thing," he says. "It seems to have paid off because the whole myth seems to be growing now." Gardener laughs. "I still see a lot of Andy [Bell, ex-Ride guitarist and current Oasis bassist] now, and we've talked about [reuniting]," he continues. "Of course, the money would be appreciated; we'd get stupid offers to re-form and play certain festivals and stuff.

"But at the same time, it's kind of done, really. We're all busy with our own projects. You can re-form, but you can't re-form that time and what's going on."

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