COOL BRI­TAN­NIA ACHIEVES LIFT-OFF

A self-con­fi­dent Bri­tain holds sway, with the Spice Girls and Oa­sis to the fore. SOPHIA DEBOICK re­ports

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Los del Río’s Macarena was an un­likely smash hit, but it be­came the big­gest sin­gle of 1996. The mid­dleaged Latin pop duo from Seville had been knock­ing about since the early 1960s, but when this rumba from an old al­bum was remixed by Mi­ami record pro­duc­ers, the Bay­side Boys, the song

– and its ac­com­pa­ny­ing dance moves – swept the globe.

The sin­gle hit US No.1 in Au­gust and stayed there for a whop­ping 14 weeks. Like Franken­stein’s mon­ster, this record’s power came from it be­ing a com­pos­ite of dis­parate parts, and as hyp­notic vo­cals from The Farm’s Higher and Higher, as remixed by house duo Far­ley and Heller, were joined by the much-sam­pled ‘Moyet laugh’ from Ya­zoo’s Sit­u­a­tion, this Span­ish ef­fort via Latino Mi­ami wore very Bri­tish colours. In­deed, even in the most un­ex­pected places, Bri­tain was the premier hit-mak­ing na­tion this year, and as Cool Bri­tan­nia took hold, a new all-girl group took over the na­tive charts and stood poised to take their home-grown sass to the world.

The Spice Girls were also a phe­nom­e­non that was far more than the sum of its parts, and they claimed the Bri­tish sum­mer of 1996 as en­tirely their own, ably keep­ing the Bay­side Boys’ un­con­trol­lable cre­ation off the top spot with their own col­lage-ap­proach sin­gle. Wannabe – less a song, more a se­ries of slo­gans that priv­i­leged per­son­al­ity over mu­si­cal­ity – en­tered the chart at No.3 and sat at UK No.1 for seven weeks from late July.

It was the first of a record-break­ing run of six No.1 sin­gles, with Say You’ll Be There and 2 Be­come 1, the Christ­mas chart-top­per, fol­low­ing be­fore the year was out. Wannabe would top the US chart in early 1997 and world dom­i­na­tion fol­lowed – Septem­ber’s de­but al­bum, Spice, would go on to sell 31 mil­lion copies world­wide.

Like the early Bea­tles and their im­i­ta­tors, the Mon­kees, the Spice Girls’ USP was their tongue-in-cheek sense of hu­mour, but for a girl group, this made them un­stop­pable. Their ap­par­ent in­abil­ity to take them­selves se­ri­ously cut through their sex­i­ness, mak­ing them re­lat­able to a gen­er­a­tion of girls whose other op­tions were the im­plied se­duc­tion of boy bands or the turbo-charged sex­ual ag­gres­sion of the likes of Madonna (Erot­ica was only just giv­ing way to a cleaned-up im­age via Evita this year).

That their in­nate ta­lent was ques­tion­able was of course of no con­se­quence – they worked on force of per­son­al­ity alone – and al­though all five proved their abil­ity to bother the top 10 as solo acts, noth­ing they did in­de­pen­dently had the cul­tural pen­e­tra­tion of what they achieved to­gether.

The Spice Girls’ as­sault on the charts was in de­fi­ance of the blokeish grip on record sales of Brit­pop. Still rid­ing the wave from Oc­to­ber 1995’s (What’s the Story) Morn­ing Glory?, Oa­sis scored a sec­ond No.1 with Don’t Look Back in Anger in March, and con­tin­ued their epic tour of the al­bum, play­ing huge open air gigs at Manch­ester City’s Maine Road sta­dium in April, Loch Lomond in Au­gust, and crown­ing their year by play­ing to a quar­ter of a mil­lion peo­ple over two nights at Kneb­worth House, Hert­ford­shire, a week later.

Two and a half mil­lion peo­ple had ap­plied for tick­ets, sug­gest­ing the ar­ro­gant bom­bast of their songs re­flected the na­tional mood, while the scale of the Kneb­worth con­certs – a crew of 3,000, the big­gest video wall ever con­structed at that time, and full hos­pi­tal­ity laid on for a guest list of thou­sands – rep­re­sented a time of mu­sic in­dus­try ex­trav­a­gance now passed.

Al­bums from Sleeper, Lush, Space, Ash, Dodgy, Kula Shaker, Shed Seven, Baby­bird, Long­pigs, Mar­ion, The Blue­tones, Ocean Colour Scene and Su­per Furry An­i­mals made it a vin­tage year for Brit­pop, even if they made a shorter-lived im­pres­sion than LPS from Suede, mak­ing a pop come­back with

Com­ing Up, and the Manic Street Preach­ers, whose an­themic com­mer­cial smash Ev­ery­thing Must Go saw them go main­stream. Brit­pop names also found ex­po­sure through the re­lease of

Trainspot­ting in Fe­bru­ary. One of sev­eral no­table Brit flicks that year, from Mike Leigh’s mul­ti­ple award-scoop­ing Se­crets & Lies, to adap­ta­tions of Jude the Ob­scure, Ham­let and Wind in the Wil­lows, the drugs saga was that year’s cor­ner­stone of cool and was joined in the sum­mer by a sound­track al­bum of un­usual qual­ity, fea­tur­ing Pri­mal Scream, Sleeper, New Or­der, Blur, Pulp and Elas­tica, among oth­ers, as Danny Boyle showed his fine-tuned feel­ing for us­ing mu­sic to emote, later per­fectly demon­strated in his Olympics open­ing cer­e­mony.

Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life was re­dis­cov­ered and be­came ubiq­ui­tous there­after, while Lou Reed’s Per­fect Day,

Blur’s Sing and Un­der­world’s Born Slippy made for a trio of tran­scen­dent tunes that cap­tured al­tered states of be­ing.

All of this mu­si­cal wor­thi­ness be­lied the fact that the Spice Girls’ pop re­vival was sup­ported by a vi­brant ar­ray of Bri­tish pop­u­lar hits that year. Boyzone made a big­ger hit of Words than the Bee Gees had man­aged in

1968, while Take That also cov­ered a Gibb broth­ers song, as How Deep Is Your Love

topped the chart be­fore their split.

Rob­bie Wil­liams, con­trac­tu­ally obliged to hold off re­leas­ing solo ma­te­rial un­til the demise of his old band, had a No.2 hit with his Mad­ch­ester-flavour cover of Ge­orge Michael’s Free­dom. Michael him­self made a come­back with the first No.1 of the year, the earnest Je­sus to a Child, al­though fol­low-up Fast­love

showed his pop sen­si­bil­ity was still strong.

Male solo acts did well for them­selves as Baby­lon Zoo’s Levi’s ad-fea­tured Space­man spent five weeks at the top, and Peter An­dre scored con­sec­u­tive No.1s. The Prodigy’s sin­gles Breathe and Firestarter

took big beat, techno and rave sounds to the top of the chart, and as Euro 96 gave the whole coun­try a feel-good fac­tor, Three Lions be­came the sing-along hit of the sum­mer.

For the US’S part, rap and hip hop was in the as­cen­dant. The Fugees’ The Score

was a crit­i­cal suc­cess and Killing Me Softly was an in­ter­na­tional smash. De­but al­bums from Jay-z and Lil’ Kim were joined by Outkast’s break­through Atliens.

Ex­actly two months after dou­ble A side How Do U Want It/ Cal­i­for­nia Love

topped the Bill­board charts, and seven months after the re­lease land­mark dou­ble al­bum All Eyez on Me, Tu­pac Shakur was fa­tally shot and be­came in­stantly trans­fig­ured as a le­gend. The wider hip hop in­flu­ence could be heard on Beck’s Ode­lay as he melded his lo-fi sound with the ap­proach of Beastie Boys pro­duc­ers, the Dust Broth­ers. The Beastie Boys them­selves, mean­while, or­gan­ised the first Free Ti­bet con­cert in San Fran­cisco in June. Among the per­form­ers were Rage Against the Ma­chine, whose rap me­tal LP Evil Em­pire courted con­tro­versy with its po­lit­i­cal polemic. For real con­tro­versy though, it was me­tal proper that tri­umphed, as Mar­i­lyn Man­son re­leased An­tichrist Su­per­star and found his Dead to the World tour pick­eted by Chris­tian pro­tes­tors as the ‘sa­tanic panic’ of the 1980s re­turned.

But even against the big­gest Amer­i­can acts, the UK held its own in 1996. Ala­nis Mor­risette’s Jagged Lit­tle Pill had ob­scene com­mer­cial suc­cess, but Wannabe equalled the record of Ironic for mak­ing the high­est en­try on the Bill­board Hot 100 for a de­but act.

Jarvis Cocker’s stage in­va­sion at Fe­bru­ary’s Brits, punc­tur­ing Michael Jack­son’s self-glo­ri­fy­ing Je­sus act, seemed sym­bolic of Bri­tish in­vin­ci­bil­ity against ev­ery­thing the US could of­fer.

Do­mes­tic strife dur­ing 1996 – royal di­vorces, the re­sump­tion of the IRA’S bomb­ing cam­paign, the hor­ror of Dun­blane, the BSE cri­sis, and Eng­land crash­ing out of the Eu­ros via Gareth South­gate’s in­fa­mous missed penalty – couldn’t stop the feel­ing that Bri­tain was on top of the world.

Cool Bri­tan­nia would go lum­ber­ing on into 1997 to reach its peak, sym­bol­ised by that dress at the Spice Girls’ Brits per­for­mance and Liam Gal­lagher and Patsy Ken­sit be­neath Union Jack sheets on the cover of Van­ity Fair. The Spice Girls’ orig­i­nal reign took place in the at­mos­phere of op­ti­mism be­fore the

Labour gen­eral elec­tion vic­tory – one later de­clared a false dawn by many, in­clud­ing one-time Down­ing Street guest, Noel Gal­lagher.

When they do their come­back tour of Bri­tain in May and June next year, they will have the un­en­vi­able task – if Bri­tain has left the EU as Theresa May plans – of try­ing to re­dis­cover the con­fi­dence of times when a neb­u­lous sense of fu­ture change made hope pos­si­ble. The re­al­ity af­ter­wards is al­ways harder to bear.

Pho­tos: Mick Hut­son/ Si­mon Rit­ter/ Red­ferns

CROWN­ING GLORY: 250,000 Oa­sis fans flocked to Kneb­worth for the band’s two huge shows in Au­gust. Be­low,Liam Gal­lagher on stage at Kneb­worth

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