With isolationism on the rise, Sure Start children’s centres long shuttered and the pound falling as companies desert the UK, Daniel Rachel’s oral history of the 90s, Don’t Look Back in Anger, looks back at a decade in which the owner of an indie record label could have the ear of government and bring about real change. Alan McGee, Creation Records boss and discoverer of Oasis, helped persuade a Labour administration to allow musicians to keep claiming benefits and get more targeted help with the New Deal for Musicians in 1999, the better to brew the bottled lightning that would power the nation into a new millennium. The scheme ran for a decade.
The long 90s, bookended by the second summer of love in 1988 and 9/11 in 2001, now seem very distant indeed: relatively innocent times, despite the Met Bar, before austerity and Brexit, Instagram and Cambridge Analytica. Can it really be possible that before the 1997 Labour government, the creative industries, now so much a fixture of the story Britain tells about itself, weren’t even included in GDP calculations? So recount the former secretary of state for culture, media and sport Chris Smith and Waheed Alli, ennobled at 33 for services to TV. (Lord Alli co-founded the company that became Planet 24, which produced The Big Breakfast and The Word.)
We have, of course, been here before. Guardian journalist John Harris wrote the definitive word on Britpop, New Labour and cool Britannia in The Last Party (2003). Harris’s analysis of the era gets a cameo in the discussion about when exactly Britpop started to pall.
More than a decade and a half since The Last Party, Rachel’s companion work differs from Harris’s in key aspects. As well as Blur and Blair, Rachel corrals contributions from the worlds of art, TV, books, film and comedy, drawing on the glass-tabletop-eye-view of party organisers and junior TV runners and fashion stylists, who wax eloquent about the era’s clothes and drug consumption.
Even if you are familiar with, say, the Britpop saga, the machinations that produced the Young British Artists, the Turner prize and the Tate Modern are illuminating. If you’re in the habit of reading political memoirs, the extent to which Labour relied on Manchester United boss Alex Ferguson for advice might be revelatory. It’s always salutary to be reminded of grotesques like Keith Allen (“I used to climb out of the Colony back window, come across the roof to the Groucho, tap on the ladies window, go in, have a line and a fuck and go off into the club”) – just one period figure over-enabled by lad culture
The names are big. Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell join half-a-dozen Labour party voices, many still spinning about spin, but former Tory PM John Major and former health secretary Virginia Bottomley are here too, providing context and counterweight: Britpop actually happened on Major’s watch. Unexpectedly, Bottomley comes out to bat for Trainspotting, finding it “challenging and raw” but communicating “a culture… an exempted group who needed to be understood and recognised”.
Noel Gallagher, Damon Albarn, Brett Anderson and Jarvis Cocker head a noisy chorus that also includes a particularly trenchant Tjinder Singh of Cornershop, a candid Spice Girl Mel C (“we hijacked the phrase [Girl Power] from [the band] Shampoo”), and the respective PRs who tried to manage the images of Oasis (Johnny Hopkins) and Blur (Karen Johnson).
The whiteness of the Britpop era can be blinding: Rachel doesn’t forget that Goodness Gracious Me, Bhaji on the Beach and Bend It Like Beckham were part of the era’s spectacular cultural remix. He does, however, devote needless pages to ball-by-ball coverage of Euro ’96, and gives Loaded and laddism an easy ride, allowing the confraternity of “men who should know better” considerable airtime with only mild challenges. The reality is darker: their jokey normalisation of sexism led inexorably to our routine contemporary misogyny.
You could always gripe about the absentees: Elastica’s Justine Frischmann, who hugely influenced the sensibilities of both Suede and Blur, is missing, as is Piers Morgan, the showbiz hack who became editor of the Mirror when the tabloids rebranded as purveyors of celebrity gossip first and news second. Damien Hirst would have been useful, but Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas are expert witnesses, as is former Radio 1 controller Matthew Bannister, Machiavellian PR Matthew Freud and a guy from the Football Association, all with their war stories, their post-hoc justifications and occasional bouts of rueful mea culpa.
Oral histories are eminently readable, allowing for dissent and contrast. Rachel’s editorialising is confined to an explanatory introduction and his fairly blokeish agenda-setting. He’s a mod, and mates with Ocean Colour Scene, so understands a key feature of the era: the conscious act of detoxifying the union jack, reclaiming it as the flag flown by the Jam and the Who rather than the banner of racists, something the Labour government was equally keen to do.
But various media both here and abroad seized on it as visual shorthand and soon, all subtlety was lost. Cocker leads the charge of those aghast at the orgiastic patriotism that ensued; Irvine Welsh is similarly scabrous. Perhaps the book’s greatest irritation is its repeated attempts to define Cool Britannia, which leaves everyone floundering or hand-wringing. There was a confluence and a cross-pollination of many creatives in a booming economy under a helpful government. This book is a timely reminder, though, of exactly how much messaging, perception and image counted – not so different from the Instagram era after all, perhaps.
This review is from the Observer
• Don’t Look Back in Anger: The Rise and Fall of Cool Britannia by Daniel Rachel is published by Orion (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99