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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

Quiz recreates the atmosphere of the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? studio. Credit: JOHAN PERSSON
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Quiz is a fast-paced, hi-tech retelling of the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? cheating scandal

This tale of the “coughing major” is a nostalgic romp through the rise of reality television.

As the interval began at James Graham’s new play, Quiz, I turned to my companion and said: “Wow, this is like telly – in a theatre.” (For clarity, this is a compliment.) This fast-paced, hi-tech production tells the story of the “coughing major” Charles Ingram, who won the top prize on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and then had it taken away again after being accused of cheating.

It provides a nostalgic romp through past ITV shows and the rise of reality television, involves the only audience participation not to make me cringe straight through my seat and into the row behind, and, y’know, also asks whether our memories are so fallible that they are essentially useless, undermining the very nature of truth itself. There’s also a cracking impression of Chris Tarrant.

James Graham is on a roll: last year, the Almeida’s production of his new drama Ink transferred to the West End to the Duke of York, while the theatre next door hosted his original comedy Labour of Love.

The latter, but not the former, won an Olivier Award on 8 April, which is nothing short of a travesty. Labour of Love was a perfectly serviceable romcom ported to a constituency office, but its lighter elements somehow jarred with its ambition to Say Something About The Left. In Ink, on the other hand, the comedy bolstered the play’s moral message rather than undermined it. The play showed how the fun and excitement of the early days of the Sun swelled and distorted until the cheeky smile became a rictus grin; the second half then plunged us into darkness with a grisly murder and the collection of a Faustian bargain.

In Quiz, the comedy performs the same function as it did in Ink: it lulls and seduces the audience, leading them invisibly down a particular path, so they can then be shown how easily they were influenced. The first half is styled as “the case for the prosecution”. We hear that Ingram’s wife Diana and her brother had already appeared on the show, having devised a way to beat the supposedly random selection process. Mrs Ingram had phoned another contestant, college lecturer Tecwen Whittock, whom she vaguely knew, the night before her husband’s second appearance; he was then recorded coughing suspiciously the next day whenever the right multiple choice answer was read out. Hearing all that meant that when we were asked to vote at the interval – using keypads attached to the seats – on Major Ingram’s guilt, the audience delivered an unambiguous verdict: send him down.

Then we discovered that there was another side to the story. Diana Ingram knew Whittock through her brother, so the call could have been innocent; in any case, he claimed to have a dust allergy that made him cough almost uncontrollably. (It would have been like setting up a fiendish conspiracy based around blinking with someone who finds it hard to tolerate contact lenses.)

The hints of disquiet about the manipulative qualities of television present in the first half then bloomed fully with the revelation that the “cough tape” was supplied to the court by the TV company Celador – which gained a million pounds by not paying out the prize, remember. It had been heavily edited, with numerous other “irrelevant” coughs removed. Voting again at the end, a majority would have let Major Ingram walk free. (In real life, the jury were not so swayed; Charles and Diana Ingram and Tecwen Whittock were all found guilty.)

This is one of those productions where everything is just so. The ensemble cast switched neatly between roles; the set design was modern (recreating the bear pit of the Millionaire studio, itself meant to evoke a colosseum); the staging was fluid and surprisingly experimental; and director Daniel Evans extracted larger-than-life comedy performances that teetered on the right side of mugging. The courtroom framing also allowed for quick, shameless exposition dumps. Even better, the flashes of deeper meaning – a reference to the Iraq War’s truth-denying Comical Ali, or the Apprentice-driven presidency of Donald Trump, reality TV’s worst spin-off series – never felt forced.

Evans is artistic director at Chichester Festival Theatre, where this play had a short run last year; he and Graham have tightened and quickened it since then. Like Network at the National Theatre, it forces the audience to think about their own reaction to the play even as they’re watching it – just as the unlikely innovation of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? was to let the contestants see the questions before deciding to play, tormenting them with doubt. As Graham pointed out in an interview, we should always mistrust ourselves: the case is known as the “coughing major” scandal, when the major wasn’t even the one doing the coughing.

Quiz runs until 16 June.

Noël Coward Theatre, London W1

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge