The Brits Are Alright

With a new four-CD retrospective, Rhino Records captures the agony and ecstasy of the golden age of Modern English rock.

"I think the American audience has a romantic, rose-tinted view of that era," observes Simon White of Menswear, a short-lived Britpop band. "You get drawn to the imagery surrounding it and form your own picture of what the time must have been like. A little like Swinging London back in the '60s — people think it must have been like an Austin Powers movie, but in the real world outside of a few nightclubs it was very grey, dark and depressing."

Similar misconceptions surround shoegaze, at least in terms of gauging how popular it actually was. The genre's presence on Brit Box is relatively small; cuts from My Bloody Valentine, Catherine Wheel, Chapterhouse, Boo Radleys and Swervedriver are highlights. But judging by the large number of current American bands taking cues from the genre — Asobi Seksu, Blonde Redhead, Airiel and A Sunny Day in Glasgow, among others — it's easy to overstate the genre's popularity. (Consider it the Velvet Underground effect, where the band's influence supersedes its actual success.)

"Things come back into fashion because they represent something opposite to the current trends," Berenyi says. "There's a disarming amateurishness in a lot of 'shoegazing' music, which conveys a vulnerability sorely lacking in much of today's big-business, packaged, marketed, super-knowing commerciality. Much of the so-called 'shoegazing' music is more fragile, less manipulative and trusts the listener to find their own path."

Remaining sanguine and pragmatic about that time is something all musicians appearing in this piece have in common, however. And despite the rash of reformations, no one interviewed has a desire to reunite their bands. (Newton is involved in producing local groups in LA, Berenyi has children and works at a magazine, and White manages bands such as Bloc Party and Broken Social Scene.) Even Mark Gardener, vocalist/guitarist of Ride — one of the bands most sought after to reunite, if not the group whose dreamy pop-psych and reverb storms remain the most vital — prefers to let the eras covered by Brit Box remain firmly in the past.

"We kept some sort of level of integrity about what we were doing and we stopped at the right time and all that sort of thing," he says. "It seems to have sort of have paid off, because the whole myth seems to be growing now." Gardener laughs. "I still see a lot of Andy [Bell, Ride guitarist/current Oasis bassist] now, and we've talked about [reuniting]," he continues. "Of course, the money would be appreciated; we'd get stupid offers to re-form and play certain festivals and stuff.

"But at the same time, it's kind of done, really. We're all busy with our own projects. You can re-form, but you can't re-form that time and what's going on."

Contact the author annie.zaleski@riverfronttimes.com

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