Parker Burwell Toop credit Jak Kilby

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The 1990s Show! Part Two

These two blogs were prompted by my purchasing, after a Waterstones browse, ‘’1997: the Future That Never Happened’’, the first book by Richard Power Sayeed, which came out last year. It follows on neatly from another Nineties-leaning work by an author whose work I greatly like, David Stubbs’s ‘’1996 & The End of History’’, a rather self-conscious title to be sure, but a wonderfully concise booklet that can be filed next to his equally concentrated ‘’Fear of Music: Why People Get Rothko But Don’t Get Stockhausen’’ (why indeed? My immersion over the past year in the work of Barry Guy has sharpened my interest in such questions and explorations) and this year’s ‘’Mars by 1980: The Story of Electronic Music’’, another book that posits the importance of certain key 12-month periods.

Stubbs uses a Cultural Studies approach, so ‘1996…’ posits the year as being ‘’…a subsconscious recreation of the year 1966′’, setting up a nice intertextual relationship between the two. Not only was there the football (or ‘fitba’ even, Irving Welsh being such a prominent name to drop at the time) of Euro ‘96, to provide a convenient parallel to the year of the two sixes (itself an distant echo of the sevens-clash of eleven years later), but there was also a Labour Prime Minister-in-waiting, who was pictured on the cover sharing (but with him in the driving seat!) a Lambretta scooter with 1996′s version of John Lennon (he so wished!!), Noel Gallagher, whose band Oasis had their fifteen minutes of being (close, but no cigar) to being as big as the Fab Four (whose very last live paying gig was at Candlestick Park in the summer of 1966).

It could be argued that, as Jon Savage suggests in his book about the year, that 1966 was perhaps more perfect in pop terms than the more lauded 1967, and that, mutatis mutandis, 1996 was, in turn, a greater pop year than its successor. Both David Stubbs and Richard Power Sayeed (the title of whose book does rather give it away!) seem to set up the years of 1996 and 1997 as “a time of vibrancy and optimism, when the country was united by the hope of a better and brighter future’’ (quoted from the book cover). The cover of the book further rubs in the disappointment embedded in the time (from our modern-day perspective), featuring as it does yet another Blair/Gallagher portrait,, a picture of the two big-shots shaking hands at the infamous and very brief love-in between Downing Street and Brit Pop at the former address, just after the sweet Labour victory of May 1997. The future relationship of two such colossal egos was always doomed from the outset - Blair proved to be Tory-light in his economic and NHS policies (never mind about Iraq) and Gallagher steered the bloated ‘Be Here Now’ into a massive-selling dry harbour, surely one of the most-anticipated and most-rapidly-disposed-of recording project of all time? Charles Shaar Murray’s fawning praise of the album in the NME stands as one of the great Emperor’s New Clothes moments of rock journalism, and seemed somehow to sum up the febrile atmosphere of the time: ‘Cool Brittania’ was a truly asinine attempt to convince the public of the Emperor’s impressive wardrobe, but by 1998, the true state of its contents were revealed - Pulp’s ‘This Is Hardcore’ somehow signified this creative depletion more than any other recording of the time.

I haven’t read the Sayeed book yet, but these are my initial thoughts on the almanac approach to popular music criticism. From a personal point of view, this period was probably the last one in which I felt that I had a handle on the contemporary rock scene. I do wonder which post-2000 years will eventually present themselves as worthy of canonisation. Or perhaps we have moved beyond this sort of commodification now, in a post-album/download era? It seems, for example, that Kindle hasn’t replaced traditional book format, as was predicted a few years back, so who knows? There were definitely some good ‘uns from ‘97 that do help its representation as a vital year, so here are a few of my own choosing- Prrimal Scream’s ‘Vanishing Point’ (the first of a great late-90s trilogy), Radiohead’s ‘OK Computer’(but ultimately an over-rated album, very much of its own time?), The Charlatan’s ‘Tellin’ Stories’, Spiritualised’s ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space’, Blur’s eponymous come-back record (the one with the speeding hospital trolley), Supergrass’s ‘In It For the Money’ and The Verve’s mighty ‘Urban Hymns’.

Not a bad bunch when you look at them.

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Banner and book cover photo credit: Jak Kilby