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?

JOHN OGILBY/PRIVATE COLLECTION/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Why did Britain's first road atlas take you to Aberystwyth?

Alan Ereira's new The Nine Lives of John Ogilby tells the story of a remarkable book – and its remarkable creator.

John Ogilby was a talented dancer with a bright future. Performing at White Hall Palace in February 1619, the 18-year-old leapt higher than ever to impress the watching James I and his queen. But then, crashing to the floor with a torn ligament, Ogilby never danced again. It was one of many misfortunes he overcame in a remarkable life. He went on to become a theatrical impresario, the deputy master of the revels in Ireland, a poet, a translator and a publisher of ancient classics. He even organised the public celebration of Charles II’s coronation. He was also an accomplished soldier, sailor and spy, as Alan Ereira reveals in this entertaining account of his “lives” and times.

It was a remarkable collection of lives for a man born in Scotland in 1600 and raised in poverty, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. Yet Ogilby’s greatest achievement was to put Britain on the map when he was appointed “His Majesty’s Cosmographer and Geographick Printer” in 1674. His Britannia is the first detailed road atlas ever made. It opens with a map of England and Wales showing, he wrote, “all the principal roads actually measured and delineated”. It contains a hundred or so beautifully engraved plans of roads as winding ribbons sliced into sections. Rivers, forests, villages and bridges are included as landmarks.

Embracing the new science of measurement and experiment championed by the Royal Society, Ogilby’s surveyors used a wheel with a circumference of 16ft 6in and a handle that allowed it to be pushed along, as well as a clock face that recorded journey distances. With no universally agreed length of a mile, Ogilby chose 1,760 yards. Britannia led to the accurate measurement of almost 27,000 miles of tracks, paths and roads, though only about 7,500 are depicted in the atlas at one inch to the mile.

Britannia was published in September 1675. There were few who could afford it, at £5 (roughly £750 in today’s money), and it was too heavy to carry. Instead, travellers found their way around the country by following printed itineraries, with lists of the towns to pass through on any particular journey.

Britannia is not, as Ereira explains, an atlas of commercially useful roads of the day. The first journey is an odd one, from London to Aberystwyth, then a town of fewer than 100 houses and a ruined castle. Some of the roads chosen were no longer in use, while important routes such as those to Liverpool and Sheffield were left out.

But the choice of roads in Britannia begins to make sense as being those necessary for the royal mastery of the kingdom. The London to Aberystwyth road led to mines nearby. In the days of Charles I those mines contained lead and silver that helped the king pay his soldiers during the civil war. Britannia was a handbook, Ereira explains, for a conspiracy leading to a new kingdom under a Catholic king.

Ever since the start of the Reformation, Europe had been rumbling towards a religious war. When it came on the mainland it lasted 30 years and left millions dead. The subsequent Peace of Westphalia led to a new map of Europe, one of countries and defined frontiers instead of feudal territories with unclear borders and independent cities. England was not included in the peace but shared in its vision of separate sovereignty. This led to different results in different places. In France, the king became an all-powerful despot; in England it was the ruler who lost power as parliament emerged triumphant.

In 1670 Charles I’s son Charles II decided to throw off the restraints he had accepted as the price of his restored monarchy. He wanted to be the absolute master in his land. To achieve this, he entered into a secret treaty with the French king Louis XIV. Charles needed money, an army, allies to execute his plan, and detailed knowledge of the kingdom; Louis was willing to bankroll the venture as long as Charles converted to Catholicism. Britannia was a vital part of Charles’s strategy to assert military control: he would use it to help land and deploy the 6,000 French troops that Louis had promised him to assist his forces. The pact remained a well-kept secret for nearly a century, even though it soon fell apart when the French and British got bogged down in a war with the Dutch.

No matter. Ogilby died in September 1676 and in 1681 Charles II dissolved parliament for the last time during his reign. “Britannia provided an extraordinary grasp over the business and administration of the 399 communities that it identified in England and Wales, and the crown took a grip on them all,” Ereira writes.

In this way, the atlas played a significant part in enabling the king’s revenue to grow by one-third within a few years. No longer needing financial help from Louis, Charles ruled by divine right, exercising absolute power until his death in 1685. The lesson of Britannia was that whoever controls the map controls the world.

Manjit Kumar is the author of “Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality” (Icon)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge