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'Brit Box' Collects Rock from Across the Pond

<em>The Brit Box</em> is a four-CD collection of rock and pop music over the last 20 years from Great Britain.
The Brit Box is a four-CD collection of rock and pop music over the last 20 years from Great Britain.

In the past 20 years, Great Britain has produced a huge quantity of popular music that's gotten very little attention in the U.S. So much, in fact, that it's practically impossible for American fans to keep up with it. In an attempt at a crash-course, Rhino released a four-disc collection titled The Brit Box late last year.

The British music scene is very different from the American one. Britain is, and always has been, the home of pop--music which revolves around the three-minute single, produced by fresh new faces promoting fashions in clothing and lifestyle, who may or may not have staying power. It hardly matters: There are always more where they came from.

Once punk became established on the U.K. charts by the early '80s, the question became "What next?" and a young man named Steven Patrick Morrissey decided to answer it directly. Fortunately, in Manchester, where he lived, there were plenty of young musicians eager to upset the city's traditional rival, Liverpool. One was a guitarist named Johnny Marr, who was a genius. Their band, The Smiths, released a single, "How Soon Is Now," which sounded like nothing which had come before, and a new era in British pop was born.

By the end of the '80s, pop was influenced by dance music, and the music was almost inevitably released on small labels, at least at first. An awful lot of it was from the city that had become known as "Madchester." The Inspiral Carpets were typical, starting their own label, Cow, and getting lots of press in London before signing with a larger indie label, Mute, where they had success for a while.

Scotland was another fertile area for the new pop sounds. The Jesus and Mary Chain, fronted by brothers William and Jim Reid, introduced a sound classic enough to give it a string of hits.

The British rock press — weekly papers like New Music Express and Melody Maker — stirred up controversy, pitting "rockist" bands which relied on traditional guitars against the ones who used keyboards and synthesizers, and often had their singles remixed by dance-music producers. But the reality was that the fans were listening for songs that stuck in your head. The bands only needed one to achieve fame.

The La's, from Liverpool, were a perfect example. The song "There She Goes," from 1988, was a pop masterpiece, but the band is still working on its second album. Others never even got that far: Creating an album's worth of material was hard, and although most did it, it didn't mean the fans had to buy it.

The American music business of the time was more conservative, looking not only for singles that were well-defined in terms of melody, lyrics, and structure, but also for bands that could tour and play their stuff live. Not all the kids with a well-produced single who were catapulted to fame on a small island had the right stuff to sustain a career. Still, some of them did.

Noel Gallagher had been a roadie for The Inspiral Carpets, and, with his brother Liam, obviously worshipped at the altar of The Beatles. Putting together a band called Oasis, they were able to conquer not only Britain, but also the U.S. At home, they were in heated competition with a band called Blur, but, in a pointed illustration of how Britain and America had drifted apart in the pop world, Blur made a much smaller dent in the States.

One other band from this era deserves mention, if only because it broke all the stereotypes. Jarvis Cocker had had a band called Pulp since he was in college, and after nearly a decade of getting nowhere, he was about to pack it in when one of his singles was raved about in the press. Suddenly, Pulp was hot. Its six-minute extravaganza of a single, "Common People," proved that in 1994, British pop could still come up with something both old and new.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Ed Ward is the rock-and-roll historian on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.