Damon Albarn's band Blur and their fans felt London belonged to them. Photo: Rex
Show Hide image

Britpop: an insider’s tale of music’s last great gold rush

Twenty years ago, it felt like John Niven and his fellow indie kids had won pop's cold war. But then the madness set in.

It’s such an awful term, isn’t it? A genuinely dreary expression – Britpop. So bovine and literal, containing none of the wit or musicality of “punk rock” or “acid house”. Let’s face it, even “skiffle” – with all its onomatopoeic bounce and shuffle – was a better word to describe a genre than Britpop. Still, we’d best call it something if we’re to remain on the same page.

Exactly twenty years ago this month, in the spring of 1994, I moved from Scotland to London, renting a room from my friend John Kellett in a Georgian maisonette in Notting Hill Gate. John was the head of legal and business affairs at Go! Discs, which was enjoying huge success with Paul Weller and the Beautiful South and was getting ready to release the first Portishead album. I was moving from working at a tiny independent label in Glasgow to my first major job, at London Records, then part of the PolyGram group. Go! Discs was based in Chiswick, west London. We were in nearby Hammersmith. Most mornings that summer, John and I would race each other to work in our company cars, speeding along the Westway.

I wasn’t the only indie kid graduating up from the bush leagues that year. In the weeks and months following my move south, Blur released Parklife and Oasis put out Definitely Maybe: the two records that heralded the Imperial Phase of what would come to be known as Britpop, a movement that had been birthed a year earlier – albeit in a crude, forced, C-section kind of way – by a Select magazine cover featuring the Auteurs, Pulp, Suede, Denim and Saint Etienne. (Note to readers much under 30: Select was a kind of Q or Mojo for rave and indie kids whose existence exactly spanned the Nineties.)

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young, overpaid and living in London was very – well, heaven might be stretching it, but you certainly felt glad you weren’t in the Shetland Isles, or out in Hackensack, New Jersey.

Indie London of the Eighties had been a grim old place, a sad wasteland where you stared through your fringe at the June Brides or the Shop Assistants as they played in a brightly lit room above a pub, the carpet crunching beneath you as you frugged shambolically under the powerful spell of three Hofmeisters. In our world in 1988, to see a band like Primal Scream filling the big hall at Ulu (capacity: 700) was like seeing the Stones at Madison Square Garden in 1975. A few short years later this kind of gig would be a warm-up show . . .

By all means go ahead and cock your snook in the cold light of 2014, but it’s hard to overstate how exciting the early Oasis shows were, or the thrill of hearing Blur’s “For Tomorrow” in a speeding car on the Westway. Of hearing records you loved coming out of radios in offices and factories all over the country, rather than from the stereo in a sordid bedroom containing you and five of your mates. Suddenly the bands you liked were in the charts and you and your friends were working at major labels, and it felt like we had won the indie cold war of the Eighties. Suddenly you were in the VIP box at Maine Road, lurid with drugs and icy champagne. Suddenly watching Death by Milkfloat at the Camden Falcon felt a long, long way away as the capital came alive for us.

The street names I learned for the first time during that hot summer of 1994 are as sweet to me today as a litany: Westbourne Park Road, Ladbroke Grove, Camden Parkway and Old Compton Street. Of course, we were just doing what generation after generation before us had done – finding our feet in London and deciding it belonged to us and no one else. We painted it in our own colours: the gold of dawn, the chalky white of Ecstasy and cocaine and the bold red of New Labour.

We were in from the cold. And very soon we created an environment where Cast could have a double platinum debut album, where Blur and Oasis were discussed on the national news, where Leon from Northern Uproar could talk openly of buying a casino, and yet still aliens did not come and destroy our planet.

As you get older, you realise that every generation has its moment where impotence becomes prepotency. Where it gets its shot in office. The hippies of the Sixties swapped tie-and-dye and four-skin joints for velvet suits and gold coke spoons and ran CBS and Warner Brothers in the Seventies. The punk rockers of the Seventies wore Yohji Yamamoto suits and turned rebellion into money as they presided over the cold stream of synthetic pop music that we indie kids waged war against in the Eighties. And in our turn, in the Nineties, we untucked our Ralph Lauren shirts and talked about “having it” and “larging it” and we thought Audioweb not altogether a bad thing, and we dumbed it down and watched the cash pour in.

It was to be the last great gold rush of the music industry, when having a decent hit meant you were selling over a million albums at 13 quid a pop. As opposed to today, when you’re celebrating doing 100,000 at £7 per unit. We were selling ten times the volume at twice the price. It did not lead to reasonable behaviour or sane decisions. And, again like every generation before us, we eventually came to realise that our moment of dominance was hollow and riven with compromise. Cocaine destroyed you. We went to war in Iraq. Cast broke up. And, as John Harris sagely noted in his superlative study of the period, The Last Party, Leon from Northern Uproar did not get that casino.

As the decade drew to a close it all changed. Noel went into the kitchen at Supernova Heights one morning in 1998 to start the day with a lager and a chunky line of bugle and thought, “What the fuck am I doing?” In four short years we went from “you might as well do the white line” to Jarvis desolately singing “bye-bye” at the end of This Is Hardcore.

Britpop. Look upon its works, ye mighty, and, what? Sigh? Laugh? Shrug? Do not judge us too harshly. Like Francis Ford Coppola making Apocalypse Now – if you can picture Coppola snapping his fingers Manc-style in an untucked Ralph Lauren shirt and crocodile-effect Patrick Cox loafers – we were young, we had too much money and we had access to too much “equipment”.

And, little by little, we went insane.

John Niven is the author of “Kill Your Friends”, “The Amateurs” and “Second Coming” (all published by Vintage)

PAUL POPPER/POPPERFOTO
Show Hide image

No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain