The death that shocked me most that Spring wasn’t Kurt Cobain, or even Ayrton Senna. It was the passing of an owlish man in his 50s who people assumed – and hoped, in many cases – would be running the country before too long. Later on, John Smith’s heart attack became a locus for all sorts of counterfactual speculation – after the landslide of ’97 you heard people saying, well, tragic of course, you understand, but as things turned out not all for the bad…? And later – as the golden era of the Great Empathiser sank into a miasma of gossip, inertia and war – the wondering and what ifs turned sad and angry.
At the time – and since, really – what hit me was a sense of unfairness, based mainly on how hard Smith and his colleagues had worked. Also – and this didn’t last, at least not in this form – an irrational gloom, the feeling that things would never change, and that somehow the moribund, comical Tories would pull through again.
But then everything did seem to change, and quickly, with the facts of politics shifting last of all.
Two summers ago, as the phone-hacking scandal spread through the British establishment like fire through cobwebs, a friend tweeted that this was like “Britain: the season finale”. It was a moment where everything seemed connected and fragile and impossibly dramatic. The Summer of 1994 didn’t feel like that. In fact it felt torpid – the same films, the same records, the same bloody record from the same bloody film crowding out anything else – but with hindsight it was more like “Britain: the season opener”. It introduces charismatic new stars, it teases fresh plots, it establishes a few themes.
The theme of the 1994-1997 season of Britain – there’s no real question of what the finale was – was somewhat inward looking. It was Britain itself – what kind of country it was, could be, and wanted to be. This is the sort of thing politicians always want as the theme, but in this case politicians weren’t in charge: the ideas kept bubbling up through culture. On the day after John Smith’s death, Four Weddings And A Funeral was released. Four Weddings isn’t explicitly about Britishness, and “Love Is All Around” – its soundtrack hit – is no Britpop anthem, but the film plays fondly with types and stereotypes of Britishness, suffuses matters in a British marinade that’s essentially a feelgood strategy. Britpop was precisely the same, though with enough distance to allow an ironic getaway if things turned nasty. Four Weddings is at the cosy end of mid-90s British culture, but still feels like its product.
By the end of May, “Love Is All Around” had reached No.1. During that song’s smothering reign, Tony Blair became leader of the Labour Party and Oasis released their debut album. Blair, Hugh Grant, Noel Gallagher – the new cast of Britain taking intriguing shape, with more in the wings.
Politically, the mid 90s seem like a phantom prelude to the Blair Administration, where a paralysed Tory government could do little except let its citizens daydream about good times before and good times to come. Culture, not politics, took centre stage, and pop was (for the last time?) at the centre of culture. So for all sorts of reasons – mostly dramatic neatness – it’s very easy to take things one step further and make Britpop the centre of pop, to turn the narrative arc of the mid-90s into the narrative arc of Britpop. Doing this makes for an excellent story.
But is it the right story? The great thing about doing Popular is that its merciless slicing of the charts into their most successful records takes decisions of focus out of my hands. By this time the charts themselves aren’t an accurate fossil record of UK cultural concerns – and, if you just look at No.1s, Britpop ends up underrepresented – but at this particular moment they do a better job than storytelling.
Because what we see over the next few years is that wider cultural spasm – all those jostling dreams of “British” – pushing through into the charts again and again, giving a sense of something far wider happening than a bunch of indie bands trying to work out how to cope with fame. It’s not a bad story, exactly – but the bigger picture, British Pop not Britpop, holds so much more. Ravers, actors playing old soldiers, boyband heretics and true believers, second-generation immigrants, comedians, and most importantly and successfully young women – all shouldering their way to number one; all offering ideas, stated or implied, about Britain; all shown in the topsy-turvy mirror of the charts. What a time!
We’ll get to them all, but first of all I have to decide whether that pesky Wet Wet Wet record is actually any good….