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4 September 2019

How the Nineties dream turned sour

By John Niven

It was a time when we chose life. When football was coming home. When a new day was dawning, was it not? When we Thanked Fuck It Was Friday. When Superstar DJs, uh, there they went. And a zigga zig ah.

My own Nineties began on New Year’s Eve 1989, everyone dancing to the first Stone Roses album at a party in our one-bedroom flat in Glasgow, where I was entering the final year of my degree course and living on the student staples of tinned tuna pasta and bargain lager. They ended with me living in Maida Vale, west London and earning a six-figure salary in the music industry. More specifically my Nineties ended somewhere around dawn on New Year’s Day 2000, out of my mind and fully dressed in a sauna in a hotel in Cardiff, having watched the Manic Street Preachers bring in the new century in the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff.

This book aims to help with the question of what happened in between.

Your appetite for the oral history obviously depends very much on your curiosity about the times represented. If you’re in love with the New York rock scene of the 1970s then Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk will be indispensable. Similarly, if the Strokes are your idea of a musical peak, you’ll find much to enjoy in Lizzy Goodman’s Meet Me in the Bathroom. Like all such books Don’t Look Back in Anger must stand or fall on the quality of its interviewees. To his credit Daniel Rachel gets many of the major players among the 68 voices in these pages, including Tony Blair, Jarvis Cocker, Mel C, John Major, Noel Gallagher, Katie Grand, Damon Albarn, Tracey Emin, Steve Coogan and Irvine Welsh.

The big guns don’t disappoint: Jarvis is endlessly quotable and prescient. But there are also star turns from bit-players, such as Oasis’s press officer Johnny Hopkins (Noel Gallagher himself is sprinkled liberally throughout, but sounds increasingly, in the words of the comedian Daniel Sloss, “like someone who has already completed Grand Theft Auto and is playing it again just so he can drive around shooting people”), while at the more hilarious end of the spectrum we get “party organiser” Fran Cutler saying “it was just fucking greatness”. She is not talking about Oasis’s 1996 Knebworth performance. She is talking about the VIP hospitality tent she organised that weekend with Noel’s wife-to-be Meg Matthews. God love her.

Inevitably the words “Cool Britannia” feel like a greasy coin in the mouths of the cooler kids in the class and the likes of Jarvis and Damon do everything they can to run away from the phrase. It’s only the politicians who have no problem embracing it. Witness Tony Blair saying: “Cool Britannia represented fresh, more equal, getting rid of old attitudes and traditions that had no place in the modern world; a Britain that was young, vibrant and forward-looking and exciting.” Reading this is not unlike having the opening sequence of Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery tattooed inside your eyeballs: coppers doing the twist, Minis all over the shop and Beefeaters on every corner. But Blair gets closer to the mark when he goes on to say: “I had a strong feeling that that mood of forward-looking optimism was victorious and increasingly uncontested. But you have to say today that that judgement looks wrong and it wasn’t as uncontested as I thought.” Well, quite. Looking around at the country right now, it feels about as young, optimistic and forward-looking as a Daily Mail convention sponsored by Saga.

The early part of the book succeeds in identifying the unlikely strands of indie rock, club culture, sport and fashion that will eventually knit together in the mid-Nineties. I remember when I felt all of this coalescing: watching Oasis walk on stage at Irvine, Beach Park in June 1995, kicking footballs into the crowd, many of the audience wearing football tops or Stone Island clothes, many of them pilled out of their minds, punching the air – in and on ecstasy – as the band went into “Acquiesce”.

Football, club culture, MDMA and Sex Pistols-influenced rock ’n’ roll had not been natural bedfellows before this point.

If there’s a little too much attention paid to the apparently resurgent role of football in British life in the 1990s (football, like LSD and heavy metal, never really goes away), there is a more welcome, detailed account of the rise and fall of the Young British Artists, although without the voice of Damien Hirst this does suffer from Hamlet-without-the-Prince syndrome. However, Hirst (like Keith Allen) pops up hellishly throughout the text, snorting and romping, throwing plastic bags of cash around and urinating in the ice-machines of private members’ clubs. And the world would surely be a poorer place for not having the blow-by-blow account of the making of Vanity Fair’s “London Swings” cover story, with a cocaine-crazed Hirst making the life of Toby Young (whose brainchild the piece was) an utter misery, reducing him to tears (according to Allen) by refusing to sign the release forms for his photo shoot, finally scribbling the words “suck my fucking dick and drink the spunk” where his signature was required. We may yet live to see the original of this form hanging on the wall of the Tate.

Some of the time-frames still astonish today. Oasis went from fourth on the bill at King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut in Glasgow to playing to a quarter of a million people at Knebworth in a little over three years. And, inevitably, as the decade unfolds, the pages become increasingly awash with that perennial handmaiden of success – cocaine.

The story of any era is one of innocence into experience, of moving from your twenties into your thirties. Of young, aspirant creative people succumbing to all the vices those before them succumbed to. It goes from “Were you still up for Portillo?” to the invasion of Iraq. From Emin saying she won’t sell her work to Charles Saatchi because he “did that campaign that put Thatcher into power” to Emin thinking “I’m not going to change anything by being broke” and, well, selling her work to Charles Saatchi. From David Baddiel making a case for claiming “a version of Englishness that was inclusive and hopeful” to appearing with a scantily clad model on the cover of Loaded.

But there is always that fleeting moment just before the apex and the slide down. Noel Gallagher catches it well when he says, “There was a magical six months when we were the biggest band in the world but we hadn’t been properly paid, so we were still dressing like football hooligans. Then the money came in…” And, with the money, everything changes. “I couldn’t write for the man in the street because I wasn’t the man in the street. We had everything. Anything we wanted, we got.” Enter Oasis’s third album, Be Here Now. Curtain falls.

When looking back over an era, you come to the question of what images will define it. What will be on the cover of the Trivial Pursuit edition, or that birthday card with the decade of your birth on it? The Sixties get boiled down to the Beatles, JFK, Marilyn Monroe and Christine Keeler. The Eighties might be Thatcher, Wham!, Live Aid and Madonna. So what of the Nineties holds over today? My son (aged 23, born in 1996) and his friends still listen to a lot of Blur and Oasis. My daughter (11, born in 2008) and her friends are all obsessed with Friends, leading one to think that if you were to chisel a Mount Rushmore of 1990s Britain you’d have the Gallagher brothers, Geri Halliwell in the Union Jack minidress, and Ross and Rachel. Maybe Chris Evans.

There are some glaring omissions here – whither Radiohead? – and, being an oral history, there’s no opportunity for the kind of critical insight John Harris brings to his superlative study of the same period, The Last Party, or the late David Cavanagh’s My Magpie Eyes are Hungry for the Prize, his peerless account of the rise of Creation Records and Oasis. But Don’t Look Back in Anger is eminently, moreishly readable. And it might just make you ache for the Nineties, arguably the last time when it felt like British culture – music, fashion, art, film and football – was at the centre of everything, when Britain was viewed as a “trendsetter”, rather than what you suspect we’re viewed as now – an isolated, suicidal little island.

Where were you when we were getting high? Indeed.

Don’t Look Back in Anger: The Rise & Fall of Cool Britannia, Told by Those Who Were There 
Daniel Rachel
Trapeze, £20, 528pp

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This article appears in the 04 Sep 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The new civil war