Women in Britpop

British female indie voices that defined the '90s

Tuesday 11th April 2017

Blur, Oasis, Pulp, and Suede are the major names often associated with the indie explosion of 1994 to 1996 that gave the press cause to coin the phrase 'Britpop'. The Spice Girls were proclaiming their Girl Power but Damon Albarn and the Gallagher brothers dominated music headlines. It might seem as though the lads were cornering the market, but looking back at the era twenty years on a surprising number of the bands that flooded over from the indie charts into mainstream success relied on female members for their voice and attitude.

Elastica
Perhaps the band that many will immediately name if asked to recall a female Britpop band, despite having a mix of male and female members. They proved that Britpop was not so much a genre as it was a movement, with their post-punk sound and image being anything but 'pop'. Elastica formed around key members Justine Frischmann and Justin Welch in 1992 following time as members of Suede. Much was made in the gossip columns of Frischmann's relationship with Damon Albarn, which detracted from the fact that their dynamic eponymous debut album sold faster than Oasis' 'Definitely Maybe' on its release. The album's big single 'Connection' with its opening guitar stabs and angular, yet accessible melody was everywhere from '95 onwards, though it could have been written in the '70s or '80s with its new wave feel. 

At the beginning of 2017 online rumours began to circulate that Elastica had been back in the studio for the first time since 2001, which it now appears was a remastering session for a reissue of 'Elastica' to be released on through Rough Trade on Record Store Day.

Sleeper
Again, not an all-female line-up, but Louise Wener was arguably the female face of Britpop. Sleeper's debut LP 'Smart' had a sound that fitted perfectly into the Britpop movement, with its light yet edgy wit and guitar-driven songs such as 'Inbetweener' that typified the indie stylings of the period. As if to illustrate this fact, Sleeper provided a soundtrack song for the defining film of the moment, 'Trainspotting', in the form of their cover of Blondie's 'Atomic'. Produced by Ian Broudie of The Lightning Seeds, 'Smart' was followed by 'The It Girl' in '96 and 'Pleased to Meet You' in '97, the latter two albums recorded with the masterful Stephen Street.

The band recently announced that they are reuniting for the Star Shaped Festival taking place in July and August (2017) across in Birmingham, London, Glasgow and Manchester.

Echobelly
Along with Sleeper and Elastica, Echobelly were one of the big three female-fronted bands to be acknowledged by the press from the early days of Britpop. The band's personnel included Sonya Madan on vocals and Debbie Smith on guitar, Smith having played with indie/alternative pioneers Curve. Their debut 'Everyone's Got One' was released in 1994, followed by 1995's 'On' hitting the charts at Britpop's peak moment.

In terms of comeback, Echobelly went one better than Elastica and Sleeper in 2016 by going into Abbey Road studio to record a new album, 'Anarchy and Alchemy'. The superb lead track of the same name is out now and well worth a spin.

Kenickie
Sunderland punk-pop band Kenickie were active between '94 and '98 though their debut album 'At The Club' didn't come out until 1997. It was Kenickie's debut single 'Punka' that landed them plaudits that included Courtney Love. Although they emerged later than many bands that come under the Britpop umbrella, Kenickie's influence is still felt, not least, in the form of singer-guitarist Lauren Laverne who would become a mainstay of BBC Radio 6 Music.

Catatonia 
Another band whose female figurehead would eventually find a radio home at 6 Music, Cardiff's Catatonia managed to fly the flag for Britpop and Cool Cymru. Cerys Matthews et al had a string of EPs and singles from 1993 with their first LP 'Way Beyond Blue' including songs up to that point such as 'For Tinkerbell', 'Bleed' and 'Whale' along with new songs such as 'Sweet Catatonia'. It was the later 'International Velvet' though that saw the band become even bigger commercially after the Britpop heyday, its singles 'Mulder and Scully' and 'Road Rage' becoming the endemic earworms of that year.

Powder
A relatively short-lived band, Powder are none the less an interesting example from the period. Notable for their inclusion in the BBC's 'Britpop Now' compilation show in 1995 which featured a studio performance of their second single 'Afrodisiac'. The band only released three singles with their run reportedly being cut short by singer, Pearl Lowe's pregnancy. Lowe would go on to form the band Lodger with her partner Danny Goffey (drummer with Supergrass), and of course went on to be a successful textile and fashion designer.

Dubstar
With a more electronic sound than their guitar-led contemporaries, Dubstar still managed to get in on the action. Vocalist Sarah Blackwood joined the band relatively late on in the band's formation, but quickly became one of the most recognisable women on the scene. Their 1995 album 'Disgraceful' and its lead single 'Stars' benefitted from the production skills of Stephen Hague who had previously worked with Pet Shop Boys and New Order; the accompanying artwork and press advertising with its playful approach to sexuality sealed the deal.

Lush
A band that made headlines in 2016 when they reformed briefly for live shows and a new EP, 'Blind Spot', Lush formed well before the wave of Britpop with initial releases through 4AD as early as 1989. Miki Berenyi and Emma Anderson graced the covers of the music press as Lush's liberal fuzzy distortion, and association with the riot grrl scene saw them do well in NME columns and American festival billings. It wasn't until 1996 that Lush fell in with the frenzy of British guitar bands when their third album 'Lovelife' saw them change musical direction with a string of guitar pop hits that included 'Single Girl', 'Ladykillers' and 'Shake Baby Shake'. The band eventually split following the sad death of drummer Chris Acland. A firm fixture of the '90s independent music scene, Elastica's Justin Welch would play drums for the Lush 2016 reunion, while Lush's bassist Phil King would lend his skills for one of The Jesus and Mary Chain's live reunions.

Salad 
Marijne van der Vlugt and her band Salad were active from 1992 until 1998. Often overlooked in the history of indie/Britpop, the band did enjoy success with their first album 'Drink Me' in 1995, though perhaps as a result of shifting music buying habits, never managed to score a big single. One of the most notable Salad recordings from the period was their contribution to the War Child charity's 1995 'The Help Album', in the form of a duet with Terry Hall on their version of 'Dream a Little Dream Of Me'.

Like Sleeper, Salad have reunited to take place in the Star Shaped tour around the UK this summer.

Saint Etienne
Whether or not Saint Etienne can be considered part of the Britpop movement or not is a matter of opinion. The band had released three acclaimed albums by 1995, with Sarah Cracknell being a permanent song writing member from 1993's 'So Tough' onwards. 

What is certainly true, is that songs such as 'You're In a Bad Way' were regular appearances at club nights catering for the movement's followers. With their mixture of swinging London vibes and solid floor-filling beats, Saint Etienne sat well among the DJ sets and CD collections of mid-1990s Britain, but also to the present day.

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