Where did you first come across London Grammar? Perhaps on the radio, though of course you could also have found it on Spotify, or via a shared link on Facebook. Where did you first get an earful of German Whip? It might have been on DAB, but equally it may have been Tumblr, or via Playlister, or on YouTube. However, ask anyone who can remember Britpop where they first heard the anthems of that era, and the answer is usually a great deal simpler: Radio 1.
There may be some who first stumbled across Blur's Modern Life Is Rubbish on a piratical predecessor of Xfm, or encountered Ocean Colour Scene on a cassette exchanged with a friend, but for the vast majority of the UK, it was Radio 1 that debuted the soundtrack to the scene. The time has come then, on the 20th anniversary of its commencement, to give credit to one of the other - albeit accidental - horsemen of the Britpopalypse. A man who saddled up alongside Albarn, Gallagher and Cocker and without whom it may not have even happened at all, Matthew Bannister.
Bannister's Radio 1 might not whet the mouth of the music fan in the way that McGhee's Creation Records might, but his reinvention of 'The Nation's Favourite' into, well, 'The Nation's Second Favourite' from 1994 onwards made Britpop possible. Without a platform and without the support of the presenters on that network Britpop would never have reached the audiences required to become a genuine phenomenon. With the stations support however - and the attendant tabloid profile and record company investment - those bands became superstars.
In the years '94 to '96 Radio 1 was looking to lay down a marker about what it stood for and what it wouldn't stand for - and the support of Kula Shaker and Cast is simply the other side of the Status Quo coin. Like Status Quo, many of the artists subsequently struggled with the notion that a radio station wouldn't install them as a regular feature for many years irrespective of the quality of the output. Radio 1 hadn't replaced Chris Rea with Sleeper - it had replaced what young listeners found irrelevant with those that they felt were exciting. Once started that cycle couldn't be allowed to stop.
This effect wasn't unique to UK bands, and the somewhat aggressive Year Zero approach to music of Bjork benefited as much as, say, Gene. The consequence of giving new UK music the sort of support it hadn't received since the sixties, along with the removal of heritage hosts, was that the audience shrank. Those many millions that remained were galvanised by this new musical ethos, and as with C86 or NWOBHM, it was somewhat inevitable that journalistic licence would find a way to conveniently package the product.
There is more to Radio 1's Brit credentials than songs that were played on the radio station however. The face of the quintessential Britpop TV show, TFI Friday, was the station's morning host, and the script was written by the presenter of the Saturday lunchtime slot Danny Baker. There was the evening session of course, and John Peel's persistently inquisitive and challenging approach, and let's not for a moment ignore the Mark Radcliffe show who punctuated it's musically smart playlists with contributions from then unknown comedians Sean Locke and Bill Bailey and a confident new film critic by the name of Mark Kermode.
What remains curious about Britpop is how little anyone wanted to be associated with it, even at the time. The fella from Menswear could be found trying to slip the confines of the Union straight-jacket the moment they were signed, and if you'd walked into Camden's Good Mixer and found a flop haired art-school drop out in a John Bull costume hammering out a song about Sunday roasts and asked him if he were Britpop he'd have flounced out in a red white and blue huff. The record buying public meanwhile were besieged by articles telling them that the songs they were hearing were Brit-pop, and in the absence of any other loud voices to the contrary, we believed them. It was, in every sense I can think of, 'something and nothing'.
So what the hell was Britpop then? It's universally accepted that it's no more a genre than 'Swinging Sixties' is, and nigh on impossible to define a legacy as a result. It was more a handy bucket into which various zeitgeisty things could be lobbed by the media. 'This art isn't any old modern art, it's Britpop Art!' (Hirst). 'This isn't any movie, it's a Britpop Movie!' (Trainspotting). 'This isn't any paparazzi up the skirt photo, it's Britpop up-the-skirt photo!' (Spice Girls) 'This isn't any football tournament, it's a Britpop football tournament!' (Euro 96). All of which points to the truth that Britpop wasn't a style, or a sound. It was a time. A time when, somewhat by chance, one radio manager said 'I'm not sure the young people of the UK need to hear the new Michael Bolton single', and in turn helped make Britpop happen. From a diet of the predictable he embarked on a mission to put new musical discovery back into the day-to-day life of the UK. It's a journey that Radio 1, and with new digital methods, the young people of the UK have been on since. And that's a legacy to be proud of.Suggest a correction