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

Chris Ball/UNP
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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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