By the time the popular image of Mod culture made the national press, the original Mods had already abandoned ship. Originating out of Beatnik culture, soundtracked by American jazz and blues, draped in Ivy League and Italian tailoring, they were originators, not copyists. As that style and sense of “other” began to dominate High Streets, and adopted a more uniform and utilitarian look, those cool cats moved on, putting as much distance between themselves and their bastard offspring as they could.
Who could blame them?
Being part of the in crowd brings a real problem for anyone who wants to express their sense of self and make a grab for being unique - the crowd. Nobody with any real sense of style, with any creative drive, with any care for the importance of image, wants to be part of a crowd. A crowd is a flock in human form. Baaaaaa baaaaaa baaaaaa. No thanks.
Before “Britpop” overwhelmed the mainstream culture in Britain between 1994-1998, something else had been bubbling and brewing under the radar - a heady mix of sixties/seventies fashion, skinhead/Mod colliding with seventies punk/glam, and with bands who were pilfering from Syd Barrett (but not Pink fucking Floyd), Berlin era Bowie, Can, Wire, the New Wave, and classic English indie-pop. Dubbed the New Wave of New Wave, and captured on Fierce Panda’s “Shagging in the Streets” (ironically just as the scene collapsed and was replaced by Britpop), it included the likes of These Animal Men, Suede, Elastica, Blur, Mantaray, S*M*A*S*H, Action Painting! and a handful of others.
There was some thrill when Britpop exploded in the spring/summer of 1995 - most of us who were involved in the New Wave of New Wave were kids who had always been “outsiders”, a status we revelled in, but which was underpinned by a sense of longing…who doesn’t want to be the leader of the pack? We had a feeling that we were right and that the boys on the rugby team were wrong, Britpop showed we were indeed right…we were cool.
The problem is that when our scene became everyone’s scene, we were left with nothing of our own. There was something upsetting, and distasteful, about watching the same boys who had been waiting outside of the school gates to kick the shit out of us for being “poofs” because we wore eyeliner and loved the Manics, now standing beside us in 1995 watching the Manics and bellowing “weonlywannagetdrunk” in our ears. No trigger warning or safe spaces for us - we just had to put up with it.
Cultural tourists - bandwagon jumpers.
And take it they did.
They took it and they forced it to morph into something more palatable to them.
They wanted more things that sounded like things they already liked and understood - and a group of bands arrived to give them exactly that. Let’s name no names, what would be the point? Out went the things that mattered as much as the music - the words, the discovery of genuinely new inspirations, style, outrage, sex and sexuality, and in came bland.
As 1995 dawned, some of the bands who had been the key movers and shakers back in 1991-1993 found themselves desperately trying to please an audience who didn’t understand them, who hadn’t ever been interested in them when they were sixteen, clumsy, and shy, and who only wanted them to be something they recognised, not something that challenged or provoked them. That led to some wildly successful, but creatively and artistically, moribund albums, as well as a collapse into drug addiction and mental health crisis for some of the artists.
“If you dance with the devil, the devil don’t change, the devil changes you” (Joaquim Phoenix, “8mm”)
Then as 1995 drew to a close the Melody Maker ran a front page that offered something new, something that was designed to upset the right people, something that would delight the very people who had been shuffling around indie night at the local Dancetaria in 1992 along with 7 other oddballs.
A new scene for kids who didn’t want to look like they were dressing up for a spot on “Stars In Their Eyes” as Paul Weller when they went out on a Friday night. New music for young people who didn’t want to listen to their grandads record collection being covered by people with less talent. A scene for people who found Kula Shaker inexplicable.
That scene, and it really was a scene and not, as some people want to suggest, a contrivance on the part of certain journalists, was championed by the Melody Maker. Simon Price, one of the best writers on music in the country at that point, had observed that the mood around London was shifting. A certain disdain could be felt amongst the next wave of bright young things, the same fey, camp, eccentric, literate, and plain peculiar sorts who were never going to be accepted at the front, or back, of a Cast gig, were striking out on their own. They were defiantly disinterested in the ugly terrace fashions of the second wave of Britpop, and were positively disdainful of “lad culture”. They were, as with the New Romantics in the early part of the eighties, a natural reaction to the mainstreaming of what was once the alternative. For the New Romantics it was punk, for these kids it was what Britpop had become as the decade wore on.
Goodbye to the heavy souls and ugly shoes of Britpop.
Hello to the fantastic that was plastic.
All hail Romo.
The future pop explosion!
Looking back at that November 25th 1995 edition of Melody Maker it is interesting to see the line that the paper was trying to tread. Pulp, Blur and Weller are all present and correct as well as the likes of Garbage and McAlmont and Butler - Britpop clearly wasn’t dead, or if it was its corpse was being continuously reanimated to prop up sales for the music press and record labels. The bands represented on the front cover look like they were created in a lab to ensure maximum offence to the sort of people who thought that Noel Gallagher wishing AIDS on Damon Albarn was “top banter” as opposed to vile homophobia.
Britain in 1995 was not a place where being openly gay was easy…the gay age of consent had been lowered the year before from 21 to 18, but that still meant that there was no equality under law for gay and straight sex. Adam and Eve could make the beast with two backs on their 16th birthday - but if Adam and Steve thought about it they may well fall foul of the old Bill.
Casual, and not so casual, homophobia was anywhere you wanted to find it, including at the very heart of lad culture. If the boys in the bands hadn’t been dressed in leopard print, Barbie pink, black lace, and their faces not plastered in make-up…the reaction to the Romo scene would have been very different.
Give Tim Chipping a Beatles haircut, a Fred Perry shirt, a pair of Levis, a sneer on his lips instead of lippy, and have him holding a guitar under a heading about how much he loved Led Zeppelin and he would have been lauded as the next big thing, and may well have gone on to prove it.
Same story with any other member of the bands who defined the scene.
The fact that the NME decided not to get on board and instead continued to try and milk Britpop for all it was worth - which by this point was very little - meant that the idea that this was a press battle, and not a pop culture moment worthy of the same level of interest and support as Britpop, took hold and the whole thing was over before it really started.
Writing on Twitter back in 2020 former Savidge and Best PR bod, Polly Birkbeck, wrote the following:
At S&B Sexus tried to get Phill to do their press and sent him a video. It became an office joke to leave it on someone else’s desk and say they had to watch it and write a press pitch. Anyway YOU HAD TO BE THERE I guess.
In a later tweet on the same thread she described the video as being “pretentious”. Hmmm.
Worth pointing out that S&B had no such issue writing press pitches for the likes of The Verve and The Auteurs who were no strangers to pretentious - and they also carried out press campaigns for Kula Shaker and Menswe@r who no one could describe as being more sincere or serious than any of the Romo bands. Certainly not a single one of the songwriters in any of the bands on the books of S&B could match the genius of Dickon Edwards of Orlando - and yes that does include Brett Anderson and Jarvis Cocker.
The opening gambit of the Romo scene was laid out by Price when he wrote this:
We are afraid we have to announce a death. Britpop, having served its purpose, has just been executed. This is a revolution. Boys and girls,, introducing ROMO, pop’s newest flash dash into style, glamour, romance, and the excitement of fashion and synthetic culture.
Who doesn’t want to be part of that?
Price was right.
Britpop was dead.
The fact that it lumbers on in 2023 thanks to the Herculean efforts of some of the bands, a gaggle of promoters - and people like me, who wrote a bloody book on it that should have been the final word - is a terrible indictment of how little creativity and imagination there has been in the years since, and a terrifying look at how dreadful the impact of social media has been for both those things too.
A few months ago I wrote an article decrying the Britpop “revival”.
Revivalism is, more often than not, a hammer blow to imagination and creativity. Romo was not a Romantic revival. It was, as Price put it, a “renaissance…a rebirth of pop’s dormant futurist impulse”. Futurism.
The past was yours…the future's mine.
But Britpop stopped looking forward at just about the same moment as the people involved in it started staring at the mirror and clutching a razor blade. It became violently retro. Out went the irony and the inspiration, and in came lazy, by the numbers, buy a songbook and learn the chords, songwriting.
Britpop had become a campaign for real rock.
When Richey Edwards cut “4 Real” into his arm he wasn’t attempting to resurrect interest in “Rubber fucking Soul”, he was talking about spirit, heart, and soul. When Rockists talk about “real music” they mean music they already know, music they have been instructed to like through its use in adverts for beer and aftershave, music that doesn’t threaten or challenge.
That attitude led to rampant Romophobia (thanks to Price for that one). Nothing was going to stop the rise of Rockism. That would have been fine if the rock that was rising was interesting - but it wasn’t, it was the same old hoary rock, sans the roll, that had given rise to punk. This time far from inspiring a wave of resistance, Romo (the punk of the nineties) was mocked, ridiculed, starved of any serious acknowledgement, and then trampled under the feet of a million pairs of Wallabies.
A cultural war crime.
Whenever you listen to the talking heads on any music documentary about music in the seventies you always hear at least one person discussing the impact of seeing Bowie on Top of the Pops. They never mention the structure of “Starman”, they don’t talk about the lyrics, they express no interest in Mick Ronson’s guitar playing - instead they talk about the impact of seeing someone who looked like Bowie. They will often mention the horror expressed by their parents over Bowie's physical appearance and wardrobe choices. They didn’t want to play guitar like Bowie - they wanted to be like Bowie.
Bowie understood that pop music was as much a visual medium as it was an aural one. He gave great care to his appearance, constantly changing his look, drawing inspiration from anywhere and everywhere. He was the antithesis of the prog rockers, he was the only one of the old guard to be accepted by the punks, and he was revered as God by the New Romantics in the eighties - as much for what he looked like as for how he sounded.
When the Romo bands appeared on that front cover of the Melody Maker the sort of kids who had so embraced Bowie in the seventies didn’t find them exciting or inspiring, they just laughed.
“It’s so easy to laugh, it’s so easy to hate, it takes guts to be gentle and kind” (I Know It’s Over - The Smiths)
I don’t blame lots of those kids for not wanting to say what they really felt about Plastic Fantastic, Sexus, DexDexter, Viva, and Orlando - they were surrounded by a pop culture that was celebrating the “lad”, they knew that to dress the way the Romo dressed, to shake your arse to the delights of “Lights Camera Revolution”, to weep when Tim Chipping sang; “I don’t kiss and tell, I’m too fond of kissing”, was to condemn yourself to ridicule, and worse, from the lads.
By 1995 the awfulness of what Loaded and the celebration of Oasis had visited on the pop scene was evident everywhere - the world of indie had become the school playground, with the big boys laughing and bullying the freaks and the weirdos. Individuality was out - conformity was in. Look at the Manic Street Preachers in 1994 and then check them out in 1995 - gone were the appearances on Top of the Pops looking like terrorists in balaclavas and Situationist slogans, and in came something much less threatening.
A similar tale could be told of Paul Weller. Throughout the eighties under the banner of The Style Council he had released a stream of glorious, sun soaked, pop singles, and a clutch of albums that were experimental and challenging. Then at the start of the nineties with the Paul Weller Movement and “Wild Wood” he was releasing classic pop/folk music. He was a fascinating performer, capable of releasing wildly different music from his peers, and of morphing into some new version of himself with each new work. But by 1995 he had started hanging out with Noel Gallagher and he was releasing albums like “Stanley Road” and “Heavy Soul” - fine, well produced, classic songwriting…but boring.
Everything was just - the same.
Pop music is all about magpie eyes of course, at one point that meant turning your eye to shiny objects in pop’s wild history, finding something nobody else knew about, and then passing it off as your own! Talent borrows - genius steals. Pop history is littered with people who used the library…and who usually returned the books. But by the middle of the nineties it wasn’t magpie eyes - it was a vulture's talons. Clawing at the obvious corpses from rock ’n’ roll, stripping the bones bare, then spewing it up in the studio. Very few acts were even attempting to hide what they were doing. It was pop music produced by a Xerox copier.
Romo was different.
Romo wasn’t just an excavation, or exhumation, of New Romantic. It wasn’t an attempt to write something that sounded a bit, or a lot, like “To Cut a Long Story Short” and then cash in. Those bands were looking at, and listening to, everyone from Adam and the Ants to Kraftwerk, Duran Duran to The Smiths, Pet Shop Boys to Spandau Ballet. It was terribly exciting - not something one could say, honestly, about Dodgy or Cast.
A good rule in life is to be distrustful of people who in one breath talk about their indie credentials and how much they love music, but who in the next breath dismiss Pet Shop Boys, The Smiths, Soft Cell, Duran Duran, ABC and the like. Those people have no interest in pop music, and indie culture is a foreign land, they are interested in guitars and rock music.
In 1996 David Bennun (Melody Maker) interviewed Plastic Fantastic, it is a fascinating insight into the world of Romo, and the difference between the leading lights of the scene and their “contemporaries’ over in Britpop corner.
Beauty, glamour, style, taste, class, are all covered within the first couple of questions. The band reveal themselves to be witty, knowing, intelligent, camp, and hilarious…
Keyboard player Shadric states “I don’t think you can ever disguise someone’s character. If you talk to somebody who’s a complete cunt and plaster them in make-up, they’ll still be a complete cunt.”
Ain’t that the truth.
At one point Bennun attempts to draw a line between the Plastics and the likes of Northern Uproar who he places under the banner of “trainer rock”. God, was there ever a better description of where Britpop went wrong than that? Trainer rock. It captures, perfectly, the precise reason why Britpop after 1994 stopped being a pop music movement…people started wearing trainers. Worse, people in bands started wearing trainers. I mean, really.
“Retro” suggested bassist John “seems a pointless word in itself. Any creative act, there’s no laws for the sources.” Stuart, the band's singer, carried on the theme; “Some people regurgitate things better than others. The only problem for me is that people want to be others.”
Ocean Colour Scene were not just copying The Beatles or The Small Faces, or borrowing from them, they wanted to be them. That’s not good enough is it? Eventually a walk down that path is going to lead you to a cultural, and creative, dead end. You have to want to be yourself, to at least attempt to figure out who, or what, that is, if you want the art you are producing to be any good at all.
Another problem faced by Romo lay in the fact that the music press had been peddling a lie for over 20 years by this point - that the 1980’s was a terrible time for music. Go and ask any of the trainer rock blokes what they think about the eighties and their response will show you how easy it is to convince people of the truthfulness of an obvious lie.
“Dare” Human League
“Computer World” Kraftwerk
“Tin Drum” Japan
“Architecture and Mortality” Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark
“Nightclubbing” Grace Jones
“Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret” Soft Cell
“Prince Charming” Adam and the Ants
“Penthouse and Pavements” Heaven 17
“Avalon” Roxy Music
“Rio” Duran Duran
“The Lexicon of Love” ABC
“Big Science” Laurie Anderson
“Upstairs at Erics” Yazoo
“Power Corruption and Lies” New Order
“The Hurting” Tears for Fears
“Touch” The Eurythmics
“Welcome to the Pleasuredome” Frankie Goes to Hollywood
I could go on and on…I’ve only reached 1984.
The truth of the matter is that the eighties provided some of the greatest pop music ever to come out of this sceptic isle. One hit wonders, experimenters, originators, curiosities, legends… inspirations for generations of musicians, including the bands who were the most interesting during the Britpop dawn.
This awful idea that pop music starts and ends with The Beatles and that only “real” music matters, or has any value, is evil.
At one point in 1996 The Sunday Show (BBC 2) ran a short piece on Romo. Introduced by the glorious Katie Puckrick, it stands as a testament to a scene that should have obliterated what Britpop had become.
The piece starts with Puckrick decrying the likes of Liam Gallagher as being pop stars who look like they need a “flea bath”. “Whatever happened to the days of the New Romantics when glamour was Queen and we could be heroes just for one day?” Then Puckrick steps inside Arcadia, the London club where the very idea of wearing trainers would not have been thought of, let alone accepted.
Simon Price tells her that Live Aid killed pop music - turning it into something that was more interested in being soulful and “humane” than glamorous. “Since when has pop between humanity? Pop is about being plastic and being a freak.”
There were acts in Britpop who understood this of course; Shampoo, Strangelove, Elcka, Rialto, Pulp, Suede and the like.
Dave Savage of Sexus told Puckrick: “I think pop music is like fashion…there are a lot of pop groups who want to look like pop groups, not like they are down the allotment digging for potatoes.”
While Romo failed to capture the attention of the public, and while it became nothing more than a punchline for trainer rock championing journalists, it was also responsible for some of the most exciting, shocking, provocative, and beautiful music of the entire decade.
There is not a better album than “Passive Soul” by Orlando.
Not a single one.
Lyricist Dickon Edwards had the ability to reduce me to tears in a single line; "I can't bare to be where there isn't you", "Just for a second, you lowered your defences and confessed what the world had guessed, deep down I fear, I might actually be, unremarkable", "So you lie afraid again, cos freedom brings only, half lives as half lived as ours".
Here was the natural heir to Morrissey...here was a band that you could believe in. It wasn't to be of course. How could it be.
Where Dickon was writing things like “Natures Hated”…
I don't kiss and tell. I'm too fond of kissing.
I become unwell, so there's SOMETHING missing.
Another stifled sigh "please catch my eye."
You're not like the rest, they have never WONDERED.
What if I confessed that my heart is plundered
Every time you smile, every time you speak?
Noel Gallagher was writing things like “All Around the World”…
All around the world
You’ve gotta spread the word
Tell ‘em what you’ve heard
You’re gonna make a better day
All that wasted beauty.
“All Around the World” currently has over thirty-nine million plays on Spotify, and “Natures Hated” has 2017.
AHA bellow the Rockists, VICTORY!
But it is a hollow victory.
Rhyming dictionary drivel triumphing over the perfect encapsulation of love unrequited is not a victory I would wish to claim.
Before they landed a deal, singer Tim Chipping took advantage of some contacts he had thanks to his occasional work at BBC Elstree and made a short promotional video for the band - a “Popumentary”. Chipping himself describes it as “pretentious”, but I don’t see being pretentious as a bad thing. I want my pop stars with a side order of pretence.
That promo starts with Chipping and Edwards lying on the floor, watching West Side Story, two dreamers, high on ambition, fuelled by the camp aesthetic, and desperate for someone to pay attention to them. It is a wonderful calling card.
“Being in a pop group is all about…REVENGE” declares Chipping.
He is right.
All of the best pop music is made by people who want to be able to say “SEE! I told you I was special.” It isn’t made by people who want to win awards, or who wear tracksuits. Style is crucial to great pop music. Dickon Edwards explains it like this: “Style is being what you want yourself to be, fashion is what other people want you to be. We are stylists.”
When the band are shown watching Sally Potter’s 1992 “Orlando”, and adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel, starring Quentin Crisp as Queen Elizabeth, it is worth trying to imagine anyone from a trainer rock band doing the same thing.
Try to imagine any of them hunched in front of the television in 1992 watching Quentin Crisp dressed up as Queen Elizabeth.
Here is the dividing, possibly the defining, moment of nineties culture - do you want pop stars who have read Virginia Woolf, who know who Quentin Crisp is, and who want revenge on a world that has mocked them, or do you want Oasis?
I made my choice.
(Dickon Edwards - Quentin Crisp - Tim Chipping)
Most of the bands who went out on the road for the doomed “Fiddling While Romo Burns” tour were better ideas than they were bands…but that is where their greatness lay! I don’t need everything to be technically proficient, in fact I prefer it when they are not. The bands I love don’t need to be able to play their instruments even…the Manics were always at their best when Richey was on stage pretending to play a guitar!
I was in the Cathouse on the 11th March 1996 along with, maybe, a couple of dozen other hardy souls. I looked fabulous in a dark navy three buttoned suit, loafers, a crisp white shirt with spearpoint collar, pillar box red socks, and a skinny tie…of course with a tie pin. My hair cropped short. Eyeliner applied by my girlfriend, and a touch of lipstick. A wonderful mix of Mod, suedehead, and New Romantic. I skulked around in the shadows at the back of the venue and danced to every note.
“If at first you don’t succeed - failure might be your style.”
Ask someone in another venue that night, watching the last gasp of some lad rock act and they will tell you I’m an arsehole, that the whole thing was shit, that it wasn’t real music. Ask me and I will tell you that watching Tim Chipping and Dickon Edwards play the songs from “Passive Soul” live was one of the greatest moments of the entire decade.
Perhaps the thing that confirms the greatness of the Romo moment lies in the fact that in 1993 the divine/Divine Leigh Bowery started a band with his friend, knitwear designer Richard Torry, Nicola Bateman and Matthew Glanmore.
Bowery would die in December 1994, with Minty having recorded just one single; “That’s Nice”. Following his death the band would carry on, releasing three more singles in the nineties, as well as an album which included material recorded with Bowery.
Minty were so outrageous that an early residency in Soho was shut down by Westminster council on grounds of indecency - this wasn’t just related to the moment in the show when Bowery would “give birth” to bandmate Nicola.
The sort of boys who drooled over the “babes” in Loaded, who spilled out of pubs after drinking loads and loads of pints, and then bellowed “Wonderwall” all the way home, would have been horrified, terrified, and petrified by the sight of Bowery - and they would have shown all of that by screaming abuse at him, physically attacking him, and mocking him.
Not kids like me.
We saw Bowery and felt total adoration and admiration. We saw a man who did exactly as he pleased, who lived his life according to the desires of his own heart, and not by the diktats of “polite society”.
The case for the defence of Romo would point to glamour, artifice, pretence, art, plastic, camp, shock, the rejection of “authenticity”, the embrace of the disposable, sex, sexuality, emotion, and guile. The case would further argue that the mainstream at that point in time had become, at best, bland, and, at worst, moribund. Pop music is never bland. Pop music has no need for authenticity. Pop music should be romantic, plastic, modern, retro-futurist, and ridiculous. If it isn’t, then it isn’t pop music.