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30 September 2002

What Blur did next

Labour Party Conference - Alex James recalls how, after a call from Tony Blair's office, hi

By Alex James

What happened to Cool Britannia? Britpop , which was the start of it all, was a reaction to the Americanisation of British culture. Blur’s first big tour of the States began the very day Nirvana’s Nevermind was released. After a minor infatuation with bouncy English pop bands in the early 1990s, Jesus Jones and EMF both having No 1 singles, America’s youth regained its own identity – the clothes, attitude, drugs, everything. A new pop culture crystallised around Nevermind: it was a phenomenon.

We spent two months schlepping around from Florida to Oregon – English, irrelevant and ignored. Being rejected and redundant made us cynical about America. The fatties, the sheer ghastliness, the crass and meaningless spunk blizzard of the media machine. We were proper cheesed off. We got home at last, to find the British music and fashion media swamped with American grunge bands.

After all we’d been through, a bunch of scruffy smackheads were spreading their nihilistic gospel over here. We started wearing suits and grinning. Our second album, Modern Life is Rubbish, attempted to evoke the quintessentially British songwriters of yore and deliberately eschewed any American influences. The record company went spare, told us we were mad and threatened to drop us. We felt we had found ourselves and stood firm. To fly in the face of fashion and know you are right is the best training you can get for being a proper rock star. When Parklife, our third album, was released, for about two months all the music papers had either Blur’s singer, Damon Albarn, or the Nirvana singer and Blur fan, Kurt Cobain, on the cover. A month after that, one of them was dead and suddenly there was something that was fully formed and fully British that was cool.

We were in the Top Five. Fuck my nose, they were happy days. Nineties pop culture had arrived. The music that would define the decade was being made. The pop mainstream was in the hands of drunk and dangerous fools; just as it should be, in the shape of ourselves and the delightfully vulgar Gallagher family. Charles Saatchi had forsaken the Conservative Party and was bringing the artist into power. The Art Brigade, who were equally drunk but slightly sager, were a completely new cultural force, and they had their own visionary in Damien Hirst. There was a sense of new horizons.

When you’re top of the pops, you can get everything for free if you are willing to make enough phone calls (except taxis). Cool people have a lot of power. Fame has more authority than money or even the law. Success and celebrity are the elixir of marketing and everybody wants a piece. When Damon called and said he was going for a G&T with Tony Blair and John Prescott, the then opposition leaders, it didn’t strike me as at all unusual. I think what had happened is that the Labour Party market research showed that the people who were buying Blur records were unlikely to vote; but if they did vote, it could be enough to tip the balance in Labour’s favour.

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We were all invited for drinks at the Commons. It impresses your mother-in-law and it’s a pretty good night out. It was nice to give Clare Short a Christmas kiss and Mo Mowlam totally rocked with the best of them. It would have been churlish to reject the opportunity of meeting the people who will run your country, but every time I met a political figure there would be a large-ish piece in the Standard, subtly suggesting an allegiance. Boy, these guys had their shit together. This was expert covert marketing, Nineties style. When I worked out these people weren’t my real friends, I returned to the Groucho Club, which was a lot more fun and where, surprisingly, you can make real friends.

By the time of the elections, the press had recreated swinging London. Cool Britannia, though, was a false dawn. A mirage created out of photographs of things that didn’t really exist. When we were doing the photographs for Vanity Fair‘s “London swings again/Cool Britannia” issue, pissed at 9.30 in the morning, the writer begged us to tell him about other “cool” dudes they could photograph for the story. The only one I could think of they’d already done, and we couldn’t come up with anyone else.

Cool Britannia’s defining moment ended up in an insubstantial American glossy, full of advertisements for hair replacement cures and liposuction.

By the time the present government was in power, we were sceptical. Damon became a communist when he got a call from Blair’s office telling him not to say those things he was saying, if he didn’t mind. To see a grinning prime minister shaking hands with a smug-looking Gallagher was politics reduced to pantomime.

The upshot of all this bollocks was we realised we could use our celebrity/ cool haircuts to market anything. We decided to kick-start a space programme. Couldn’t think of anything more important. It’s 2002 and we deserve spaceships. The all-British Beagle 2 Mars lander blasts off next June and lands in Isidis Planitia near the Martian equator on 23 December 2003. The tiny spacecraft will announce its arrival by playing music (“cool” music). We want to answer the biggest question of all: are we alone? That’s “a story”. That’s “Cool Britannia”.

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