Straight in at No 10

The Last Party: Britpop, Blair and the demise of English rock

John Harris <em>Fourth Estate, 426pp

John Harris belongs to that frustrated generation of music fans who missed the punk rock explosion of the mid-1970s. Entering his teens in the early 1980s, he fell in love with the Smiths, but it wasn't until the so- called Madchester cult - that defiantly northern-English hybrid of dance beats and orthodox laddish rock - took off at the end of the decade that he experienced the sweet taste of being part of a larger youth movement. As an avid reader of the New Musical Express, then still the parish magazine of pop, he bought the records, attended the gigs and read all about it the following Wednesday.

Harris wound up writing for NME and moving, via Oxford, to London. His account of the rise and fall of Britpop in the mid-1990s is informed by candid interviews with major players and by his own journey from Cheshire teenager to London socialite. Having myself met him during Britpop's heyday, I can confirm that he was in the right place at the right time - and was young enough to treat the movement as his own punk rock. This loose collection of guitar bands changed the way the music business operated, as the punks did before them, and turned the media on their heads.

Unlike punk and acid house, which divided the tabloid nation into "them" and "us", Britpop proved a powerful unifying force. It inadvertently bridged the generation gap, something no other musical movement has done. If it began life as a construct of the music press, it quickly became national news. NME fought with the Sun, GQ and the Observer for access to the same star performers.

Select magazine's Union Jack-bedecked anti-American issue of April 1993 may have marked the conception of what became known as Britpop, but the birth was in March 1994, when Blur's single "Girls and Boys" entered the chart at number five (Harris is very good at spotting cultural pivots). Blur's Anglo-themed album Parklife coincided with music industry talk of a new Manchester quintet called Oasis. The rest is history: Blur and Oasis on the BBC Six O'Clock News, Jarvis Cocker at the Brits, Blair straight in at No 10.

Unusually for a book about pop music, The Last Party, as its subtitle indicates, puts a politician centre stage. It was Tony Blair's clumsy hijacking of Britpop, as Harris reminds us, that precipitated the downfall of the movement.

Today, Jarvis Cocker is no longer the toast of the town, Oasis are bloated self-parodies and Blur have withdrawn into noble experimentation. The once-proud Q magazine, a beneficiary of Britpop's universal appeal, finds itself chasing an ever younger audience. The major record companies, having bought up the indie labels in the hope of tapping into the lucrative new underground, ended up losing a lot of money, not least because they failed to respond to the threat of internet piracy.

Like all the best parties, Britpop left a lot of fag-burns in the carpet. It has become fashionable to pretend that it wasn't much good in the first place, or to bemoan its musical legacy as "pretty threadbare", as the Sunday Times rock critic Robert Sandall recently did. Harris contests this view, and captures the heady if doomed excitement of the period without losing his biographer's objectivity. Like all the best music books,The Last Party, which is as much about politics as music, loudly proclaims: "I was there."

Andrew Collins is the author of Where Did It All Go Right?: growing up normal in the Seventies (Ebury Press)

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2003 issue of the New Statesman, The final bout