Pop will eat itself

The Stone Roses reunion shows how much we love revisiting our musical past.

"The day after Man City win the European Cup"- that was bass player Mani's prediction for the day when an eager public could expect to see a reformation of one of the great Nineties groups yet to jump on the reunion band wagon. United-supporting Mani probably thought his quip, made back in 2006 following City's modest 15th place finish in the Premier League and two years before Abu Dhabi investment transformed the club, was the sporting equivalent of declaring "when hell freezes over". Well times, as we know, have changed; maybe he jumped before he was pushed.

The Stone Roses' reunion, initially two concerts in Heaton Park, Manchester next June that will be followed by a world tour, grew to seem increasingly likely, not just as the fortunes of Manchester City improved, but also as a growing number of their peers succumbed to the temptation of one last swansong and, let's face it, one last payday. Mancunian compatriots The Happy Mondays did it in 2004, as did James in 2007, when Tim Booth rejoined the band's original line-up. Blur finally set aside their differences in 2008 only to be rewarded with a headline slot at the following year's Glastonbury, as were Pulp, the band who struck lucky when they replaced the unavailable Stone Roses for the festival in 1995, who reformed in May and made a critically acclaimed cameo at Worthy Farm this June.

Going further back, the list of rock and roll second comings is pretty illustrious: Led Zeppelin, the Police, the Sex Pistols, the Velvet Underground. But given that all those reunions ended up being temporary and not a single studio album was recorded in the brief hiatus when all those hatchets were buried, are we foolish to get excited by the latest get-togethers, and what is the effect of this phenomenon on artists trying to make a name for themselves for the first time?

Simon Reynolds, author of Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction to Its Own Past, is clearly concerned about the potentially stifling impact that the "bands reunited" trend may have on creativity: "There is something peculiar, even eerie, about pop's vulnerability to its own history ... When we listen back to the early 21st century, will we hear anything that defines the epoch?" he writes. It's easy to see why, for many festival and concert organisers, booking acts made famous in days gone by is a safer option. The secret to the success of reunions like those of Blur and Pulp is that they chose to play a limited number of high profile concerts, thus maximising their appeal to their pre-existing and newly acquired fan bases. The limited edition approach to the comeback if you like. And for many fans that is the appeal: tick a box you didn't think you'd be able to, say you've seen Jimmy Page play live, never mind that he's in his sixties, not this thirties. This, though, clearly leaves the returning artists with a limited shelf-life - once the novelty of their reappearance has worn off, so will their ability to fill stadiums. Indeed, in the modern era it is only Take That who have managed to maintain their popularity in both their pre and post break-up eras, and that largely is due to the fact that they aren't still churning out the same old tunes they were 15 years ago.

Whether the Stone Roses reunion endures long enough for them to make a long overdue appearance at Michael Eavis's festival in 2013 (there is no Glastonbury next year) remains to be seen. But if it does it'll be hard to shake the feeling that the crowd is participating in the mass re-enactment of a musical era long since passed. Although there will always be those über-nostalgics on hand to tell you it's not as good second time around. Now, what odds on Oasis headlining Glastonbury 2020?

DES WILLIE/BBC
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Man alive! Why the flaws of Inside No 9 only emphasise its brilliance

A man we’d thought destined for certain death reappeared, alive and kicking.​ ​Even as my brain raced, I was grinning.

At the risk of sounding like some awful, jargon-bound media studies lecturer – precisely the kind of person those I’m writing about might devote themselves to sending up – it seems to me that even the dissatisfactions of Inside No 9 (Tuesdays, 10pm) are, well, deeply satisfying. What I mean is that the occasional flaws in Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s cultish series, those unlooked-for moments when nothing quite makes sense, only serve to emphasise its surpassing brilliance.

At the end of the final episode of series three, for instance, there came a discombobulating twist. A man we’d thought destined for certain death reappeared, alive and kicking. How had this happened? Were the preceding 28 minutes only a dream? Even as my brain raced, I was grinning. That line about Ron Mueck! In a piece that seemed mostly to be paying topsy-turvy homage to the camp 1973 horror flick Theatre of Blood.

Pemberton and Shearsmith are all about homage: a bit of Doctor Who here, a touch of Seventies B-movie there. Inside No 9’s format of twisty one-offs is a direct descendant of ITV’s Tales of the Unexpected. And yet it is so absolutely its own thing. Only they could have written it; only they could ever do this much (stretch your arms as wide as they’ll go) in so little time (half an hour).

In the episode Private View, guests were invited to the Nine Gallery in somewhere Hoxtonish. This motley crew, handpicked to represent several of the more unedifying aspects of 21st-century Britain, comprised Carrie (Morgana Robinson), a reality-TV star; Patricia (Felicity Kendal), a smutty novelist; Kenneth (Pemberton), a health and safety nut; and Maurice (Shearsmith), an art critic. Hard on their heels came Jean (Fiona Shaw), a wittering Irishwoman with gimlet eyes. However, given that they were about to be bloodily picked off one by one, at least one of them was not what she seemed. “I’m due at Edwina Currie’s perfume launch later,” Carrie yelped, as it dawned on her that the pages of Grazia might soon be devoting a sidebar to what Towie’s Mark Wright wore to her funeral.

Private View satirised a certain kind of contemporary art, all bashed up mannequins and blindingly obvious metaphors. Admittedly, this isn’t hard to do. But at least Pemberton and Shearsmith take for granted the sophistication of their audience. “A bit derivative of Ron Mueck,” said Maurice, gazing coolly at one of the installations. “But I like the idea of a blood mirror.” The duo’s determination to transform themselves from episode to episode – new accent, new hair, new crazy mannerisms – calls Dick Emery to mind. They’re better actors than he was, of course; they’re fantastic actors. But in the context of Inside No 9, even as they disappear, they stick out like sore thumbs, just as he used to. They’re the suns around which their impressive guest stars orbit. They may not always have the biggest parts, but they nearly always get the best lines. You need to watch them. For clues. For signs. For the beady, unsettling way they reflect the world back at you.

What astonishes about this series, as with the two before it, is its ability to manage dramatic shifts in tone. Plotting is one thing, and they do that as beautifully as Roald Dahl (the third episode, The Riddle of the Sphinx, which revolved around a crossword setter, was a masterclass in structure). But to move from funny to plangent and back again is some trick, given the limitations of time and the confined spaces in which they set the stories. In Diddle Diddle Dumpling, Shearsmith’s character found a size-nine shoe in the street and became obsessed with finding its owner, which was very droll. But the real engine of the piece, slowly revealed, was grief, not madness (“Diddle-diddle-dumpling, my son John”). You felt, in the end, bad for having sniggered at him.

If you missed it, proceed immediately to iPlayer, offering a thousand thanks for the usually lumbering and risk-averse BBC, which has commissioned a fourth series. One day people will write learned papers about these shows, at which point, jargon permitting, I might discover just how Maurice managed to live to fight another day.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution