This piece first appeared in The Guide in 2003
There are many reasons to see Live Forever, the new documentary about the Nineties Britpop years. Mostly they involve Noel Gallagher and Damn Albarn being funny, the former intentionally, the latter unintentionally. They also include Liam Gallagher reminiscing on his scallywag days when he used to steal lawnmowers from gardens and sell them on to interested parties, which begs all sorts of questions we shan’t go into here.
However, it’s also a reminder of the gormlessly patriotic hubris which swept the pop nation during those years, a Falklands-style dementia in which it became unironically fashionable to flaunt the Union Jack at every opportunity. This was Britpop and all those who experienced that bizarre rush of blood to the head should not be looking back fondly on the episode but wincing with bowel-curdling shame.
The thesis of Live Forever is that, following an early Nineties period when music was in “the doldrums” (Radiohead, Suede, Massive Attack, My Bloody Valentine, rubbish like that), British pride was reasserted, Albion reawakened with the emergence of those Colchester cockney cocksparrers Blur and those mad for it mad bastards from Madchester Oasis. Now music was great again (Sleeper, Menswear, Now Way Sis). Key to this transformation was Kurt Cobain’s suicide in 1994. This was not an entirely unfortunate event because it meant British music could emerge from the regime of transatlantic dominance over which the hollow-eyed grungemeister unwittingly presided. With Cobain dead, American music went into decline. Now it was the Yanks’ turn to look on with helpless passivity from the sidelines, like those superfluous CIA agents in James Bond films, as Britain strode to the fore and did its bit. Sadly, explains the film, the death of Princess Diana had a direct knock-on effect on Britpop – otherwise, the likes of Louise Wener would surely have gone on to become world superstars.
It’s possible that the causes and effects of Britpop weren’t quite as outlined by the makers of Live Forever. Britpop did, however, surge on a crest of super-confidence as, following the nadir of the 1992 ERM debacle, the UK economy picked up and suddenly Johnny Brit had a couple of quid in his pocket and a spring in his step. There was a new, lagerish, Laddish, lairiness in the air. Numerous things conflated – Loaded, Gazza, Chris Evans, Euro ’96, Trainspotting. Keith Allen seemed to feature a lot, in a host of minor but noisy roles. Americans might have thought that their overwhelming dominance of the global market share gave them a certain edge but how wrong they were. When Michael Jackson came over for the Brit Awards, Jarvis Cocker usurped him, leaping onstage and flapping the bottom of his corduroy jacket at him. We showed them.
Looking back, one’s depressed at the retro-reactionary air of it all. It wasn’t so far off the world conjured up by Mike Myers (a Liverpudlian by birth who in the grand tradition of that town, got the fuck out of it the moment he could) in the Austin Powers movies. It was as if we all wanted to be bit players in The Italian Job, a Sixties world not of peace, love and counter-culture but dollybirds and cheery chancers like Michael “The Dog’s Bollocks” Caine. It was the world of The Kinks! The Moptops! Guitar bands with tunes the milkman could whistle! Memories of 1966 and Jules Rimet still gleaming! Blokes shouting “Oi”! Hardly any black people! (Sadly, in what purports to be a wide-ranging survey of Nineties British culture, only two black faces feature in Live Forever – designer Ozwald Boateng and the kid from S Club Juniors.). Indeed, you could ascribe the entire success of Oasis to a collective subconscious desire to agree upon the one band “we” all gathered together and got hysterical about, the way “we” used to about The Beatles.
Brit-pride was by no means confined to Damon Albarn ranting against “Americanisation” leading to his local pub being stripped of its horse brasses and photos of the village cricket team circa 1902 to make way for themed bars. Each year, the presenters of BBC Breakfast News would smilingly abandon their neutrality and urge viewers to “keep your fingers crossed for Emma Thompson at the Oscars tomorrow night.” To which my personal response was not to cross my fingers but form them into a “v” shape and flick vigorously and repeatedly at the screen.
Tony Blair, meanwhile, played the “Cool Britannia” card. He sensed a mood for change among young people, an end to the Tory years of dismal public services, fat cats licking up all the cream and a Government sycophantically following the American lead in wars in the Gulf. As a Melody Maker journo, I made some vaguely positive remarks about Blair prior to the 1997 election. I was immediately contacted by a Labour Party insider who noted my sympathy to the “leadership” and suggested a meet to take advantage of my presumably intimate Britpop contacts. These, he sadly overestimated – anyway, my assistance was hardly required. Accepting a Brit award, Noel Gallagher dedicated it to the handful of individuals giving hope to young people in Britain. These included himself, the rest of the band, including Bonehead, naturally, manager Alan McGee and, finally, Tony Blair.
Then there was Euro ’96, mooted as a retro retread of the 1966 World Cup, with an England team under the aegis of chirpy Sixties geezer El Tel in that blazing Summer. The forces of Britcom and Britpop combined to galvanise the nation – Baddiel, Skinner, Ian Broudie. 30 years of hurt about to be put right. Duly, we smote the Scots! Demolished the Dutch! Drew with the mighty Swiss! Such were the days. And today, one marvels at the quaintness of that over-sanguine era, its hip belief that we were on the cusp of showing the US a thing or two, of putting the “Great” back into Britain (strange conceit, that. France and Sweden’s self esteem doesn’t depend on calling themselves Fabulous France or Super Sweden). Sure enough, it all went arse-shaped. In Euro ’96, the abiding memory of England’s demise isn’t Gareth Southgate’s penalty miss but during Golden Goals, when a sluggish, lager-bloated Paul Gascoigne failed to connect with a cross which would have defeated Germany and put England in the final. Loser. Ginger goon Chris Evans, wankerish symbol of the mad-for-it era, went to America with a view to meeting and greeting his brother in iconoclasm, Shock Jock Howard Stern. When Evans burst in on him in his studio, Stern remarked, “Who the fuck is this guy?” Later, when Stern appeared on TFI Friday, he visibly destroyed Evans with a couple of caustic cracks about Evans’ ex-wife. Tosser.
Oasis and Blur laughingly attempted to “conquer” America but neither made Shea Stadium. Eventually, Blur did land a hit over there but was it with one of their jellied eels, mockney anthems? No. It was with “Song 2” a craven slice of cod-Yankee grunge. Capitulators. It’s doubtful the Americans even noticed how easily they repelled Cool Britannia’s challenge, any more than they noticed that their “soccer” team equalled England in the2002 World Cup – both reached the quarter finals. Whereas the English went into a month-long, St George flag-waving paroxysm of deluded optimism, the Yanks were unaware a tournament was taking place. Today, Blair is nestled uncritically down the back of George Bush’s trousers. Robbie Williams has to beg the American public to find it on their hearts to make him a superstar in order to recoup his absurdly generous EMI advance. Fat chance. The Billboard top 100 is nowadays a Brit-free zone. Eminem, Britney, J-Lo, Avril, The Strokes, Beyonce trounce Will Young and The Sugababes, home and away. Cross our fingers all we like for Catherine Zeta Jones, Renee Zellweger gets the Oscar and the lead in Bridget Jones. We don’t rule. And that’s good. Ruling doesn’t become us. Rueful perspective and modesty does.