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Tracey Thorn: the unbearable whiteness of Britpop

Britpop ended up giving comfort to those who wanted to reassert “traditional” songwriting styles and band structures.

At the 1998 Brit Awards, New Labour’s love affair with Cool Britannia got a drenching when Danbert Nobacon from Chumbawamba tipped a bucket of ice- cold water over the head of John Prescott, the then deputy prime minister. It was such a comedown. Less than a year earlier, in July 1997, shortly after Labour’s general election victory, Tony Blair had triumphantly hosted a glittering music biz reception at No 10, cementing the link between the new government and all things groovy. Although, according to Alastair Campbell’s diaries, Blair was worried even then about rock’n’roll behaviour, and felt that Noel Gallagher “was bound to do something crazy”, the Creation Records boss Alan McGee assured him Noel would behave, saying only that “if we had invited Liam, it might have been different”.

Poor Tony, though, trying so hard to be down with the cool kids and yet so scared of what the cool kids might do. I was at the 1996 Brits, where he gave a speech, and the room had filled with a frisson of both approval and the opposite. The party on the table behind us were heckling and I remember turning to shout at them, “Well, who would you prefer?” feeling some sense of loyalty and gratitude towards Blair for the unexpected optimism he’d introduced into the Labour voter’s life. A row broke out, drunken and par for the course at the Brits, but it was telling that it was about politics rather than drugs or rock’n’roll.

In his ill-fitting Nineties suit and spotted tie, Blair made a speech that was a celebration of the renewed chart dominance of British bands, putting their success down to the inspiration they’d drawn from the past – “from bands like the Beatles, the Stones, the Kinks . . . or the later generations, the Clash, the Smiths, the Stone Roses . . .” Well. You don’t need me to tell you the kind of people who are missing from that list. It’s a ­version of music history that sums up precisely what went wrong during the Britpop years.

I’d attended the Brits in 1995, too, and wrote later in Bedsit Disco Queen about how proud I was to be sitting with Massive Attack: “Protection was up for a couple of awards, and though it was the height of the Britpop Oasis v Blur battle, I felt that ours was the table to be on, with Massive and Tricky and Björk. The rock kids seemed to be trapped in a dreary rehash of the past, still repetitively harking back to the yawn-inducing Sixties, while we were with a group of people who were looking forwards.”

By 1996, the two strands of the music scene were in direct competition. Our song “Missing” was up for Best Single and “Protection” the single for Best Video. Massive Attack won Best British Dance Act, while Batman Forever, featuring Massive and me singing a Smokey Robinson cover, won Best Soundtrack. But Oasis won Best Album and Video and Group, beating Blur and Pulp and Radiohead in those categories, and when Massive went up to collect their award, 3D made a sardonic comment, saying, “It’s quite ironic, ’cos none of us can dance.” It was a joke but he wasn’t laughing, and I think he was making a point. He might have said, especially given the most recent album that they’d made: “Why are we in a different category from Blur and Radiohead? Why is Protection a ‘dance’ album? What is ‘dance’ code for?”

It was a classic piece of Othering. The implication of the awards, and of Blair’s speech, was that the white boys with guitars were the Norm, and deviations from that were the Other, and certainly not the main story. How great it would have been if, for instance, in celebrating the successes of British music, Blair had cited the Stones, Dusty Springfield, Sandy Denny, the Sex Pistols, the Smiths, Soul II Soul, the Specials and Sade. That’s a list that reflects the diversity of UK pop brilliance, and it’s just artists beginning with the letter S.

The other event of the 1996 Brits was the Jarvis Cocker/Michael Jackson incident. It was over so quickly that no one knew quite what was going on, and a huge “what just happened?” rumbled round the room. But by next morning it had gone down in pop rebel history – punky Brit sticks two fingers up at superstar narcissist. Looking back now, I’m less comfortable, and can’t help wincing at the thought that in fact Cocker had insulted the only black artist performing on stage that night, winner of the Artist of a Generation Award. In retrospect, it has a whiff of archetypal lad-culture boorishness, another of the worst aspects of the time.

Britpop may have started as a reassertion of home-grown indie over American grunge but it gave comfort to those who wanted to reassert “traditional” songwriting styles and band structures in the face of the recent success of rave and dance culture. The industry, alarmed by collectives and DJs and “anonymous” guest vocalists, leapt to the defence of the new bands that looked just like the bands of yore. They recognised this genre as a type that would sell albums, where the money was. Hooray for Britpop! It presumably came as a relief after the 1994 Brits, where awards had been won by Dina Carroll, Stereo MCs, Gabrielle and M People, and where two women, Björk and P J Harvey, had performed a radically deconstructed version of the Stones’ rock classic “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”.

There was so much happening. Spectacular releases by Portishead, and Tricky, and the forming of Goldie’s Metalheadz label, and the birth of drum’n’bass. It was a progressive scene, and reminded me of the Eighties, when in the wake of punk the charts filled up with boy/girl duos, multiracial groups, androgynous singers and gay electronic cabaret performers. For some reason, though, in the mid-Nineties a form of nostalgia began to hold sway, and we let it. In 2017, with the arguments about grime at the Brit Awards, I realise that we’re still having the same conversations about how to reflect and respect successful underground scenes, and we’re not much further on. Maybe the rot set in when we let the news lead with an item about two rock bands releasing singles on the same day and pretended that it was a groundbreaking story.

So I kick against the official version of what was important, the reducing of those years to The Story of Britpop. It was a strand of what was happening, not the whole picture. The legacy of mid-Nineties music is apparent in current artists from James Blake and FKA Twigs, through Skepta and Disclosure, to Stormzy and The xx. Who, on the other hand, is claiming to have been inspired by Oasis? And it makes me think that whenever the rock-group stereotype reasserts itself, you need to look elsewhere to find what’s really interesting. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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Edinburgh in the time of Harry Potter - growing up in a city that became famous for a book

At first, JK Rowling was considered a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. 

In an Edinburgh playground, circa 1998, I found myself excluded from one of the world’s first Harry Potter cliques. My best friend Sophie had a copy of a book with a title which seemed indecipherable to me, but she insisted it was so good she couldn’t possibly let me read it. Instead, she and the other owner of a book huddled together in corners of our concrete, high-walled playground. I was not invited.

Exclusion worked. Somehow I procured a copy of this book, rather sceptically read the praise on the cover, and spent the next day avoiding all company in order to finish it. After my initiation into the small-but-growing clique, I read the second book, still in hardback.

Edinburgh at that time was something of a backwater. Although it still had the same atmospheric skyline, with the castle dominating the city, the Scottish Parliament was yet to open, and the Scottish banks were still hatching their global domination plans. The most famous author of the moment was Irvine Welsh, whose book Trainspotting chronicled a heroin epidemic.

In this city, JK Rowling was still considered to be a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. She gave talks in the Edinburgh Book Festival, a string of tents in the posh West End Charlotte Square. By the time I saw her (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, hardback edition, 1999), she had graduated from the tepee to the big tent reserved for authors like Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen. At the end we queued up for the book signing, and she told me she liked my purple dungarees.

At that time, there were no films, and what the characters should look and sound like was a constant playground debate. Another member of the Harry Potter clique I spoke to, Sally*, remembers how excited she was that “she did the same voice for Hagrid that my mum did when she was reading it to me”.

About the same time, a rumour spread around school so incredible it took a while to establish it was true. JK Rowling was moving to the street where some of our Harry Potter clique lived. We started taking detours for the privilege of scurrying past the grand Victorian house on the corner, with its mail box and security keypad. The mail box in particular became a focus of our imagination. Sophie and I laboured away on a Harry Potter board game which – we fervently believed – would one day be ready to post.

Gradually, though, it was not just ten-year-olds peeping through the gate. The adults had read Harry Potter by now. Journalists were caught raking through the bins.

Sally recalls the change. “It was exciting [after she first moved in], but as it was just after the first book it wasn’t as much of a big deal as it soon became,” she recalls. “Then it just felt a little bizarre that people would go on tours to try and get a glimpse of her house.

“It just felt like an ordinary area of town with ordinary people and it made me realise the price that comes with fame.”

Edinburgh, too, began to change. As teenagers (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2003) we liked to gather at the Elephant House cafe, on the bohemian George IV Bridge. We knew it was one of the cafes JK Rowling had written in, but we also liked its round wooden tables, and its bagels, and the fact you got one of the hundreds of miniature elephants that decorated the café if your bagel was late. It became harder and harder to get a seat.

We scoffed at the tourists. Still, we were proud that Harry Potter had put our city on the map. “As I grew older, it was fun to think of her writing the books in local cafes and just being an ordinary person living in Edinburgh with a great imagination,” Sally says. As for me, it was my trump card during long summers spent with bored Canadian teenagers, who had not heard and did not care about anything else relating to my teenage life in Scotland.

The last in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published in July 2007, a month after I left high school. Not long after that, I left Edinburgh as well. The financial crash the following year stunned the city, and exiled graduates like me. I fell out the habit of reading fiction for fun. JK Rowling moved to a house on the outskirts of Edinburgh, ringed by 50 foot hedges. The Scottish independence referendum divided my friends and family. On Twitter, Rowling, firmly pro-union, was a target for cybernats.

Then, two years ago, I discovered there is another Harry Potter city – Porto. As in Edinburgh, medieval passageways wind past stacked old houses, and the sea is never far away. JK Rowling lived here between 1991 and 1993, during her short-lived marriage, and drafted the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In the university district, students wear black, ragged gowns, and the fantastical wooden carvings of the Livraria Lello bookshop is tipped to be the inspiration for some of the aesthetic Rowling applies to the books.

I don’t know whether it did or not. But it made me realise that no city can possess an author, and not only because she could afford to any part of the globe at whim. Standing in the bookshop and watching the students drift by, I could imagine myself in some corner of the Harry Potter world. And simultaneously, perhaps, some tourists queueing for a table at the Elephant House were doing the same.

*Name has been changed

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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