Looking back in anger
John Harris, author of The Last Party, on New Labour's fleeting flirtation with Britpop
‘It’s not that long ago, yet it also seems very distant.’ John Harris, author of The Last Party: Britpop, Blair and the demise of English rock, is recalling Tony Blair’s honeymoon days.
Not Blair’s honeymoon with the hopeful voters, or even with the editors of the Tory tabloids, but with an altogether more unlikely constituency: NME-approved, drug-guzzlin’ rock stars. From his ascendancy in 1994 to his electoral victory in 1997, Blair’s New Labour courted Blur and Oasis in the hope that they would return the favour. The pop and politics truce may since have broken down – but the penchant for populism is stronger than ever.
‘I think that’s pervaded the whole of society’, says Harris. ‘There is a mistrust of doing anything that might make your brain hurt. You can see it with Blair posing with an electric guitar or saying recently that he trusts judgement more than intellect, or kicking a football round with Kevin Keegan. You can run a line through Oasis, Jo Whiley, heat magazine, Guy Ritchie and…New Labour.’
If popular culture greased New Labour’s outlook and vocabulary, Harris’ The Last Party provides a trenchantly written account of how Britpop became Tony’s cronies. As a writer for NME, Q and then editor of Britpop bible Select, 33-year-old Harris was ideally placed to marshal the whole story. There are plenty of juicy anecdotes that shed light on the Blair/Britpop love-in. Harris reveals that at the notorious champagne reception at Number 10, Blair made quips about drugs with Oasis’ Noel Gallagher. ‘From that point on, I knew he was a geezer’, says Gallagher.
‘New Labour made it easy for musicians to get involved’, says Harris, ‘because you weren’t allying yourself to anything that amounted to much, other than “meet Tony Blair, he’s a swinging guy”. That’s perfect for musicians because it doesn’t involve a great deal of commitment. When Paul Weller allied himself to Red Wedge [in the 1980s], he was trying to project some sort of radical credentials. When Noel Gallagher did it, it was just another party to go to.’
Harris notes the broader social changes that led to New Labour’s political hegemony. In The Last Party, he outlines how the 1980s were so polarised around then Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher that pop culture had no choice but to take sides. And, more often than not, indie/alternative musicians adopted a vaguely radical stance. Being accepted by the Tory mainstream had little appeal, as the mainstream was looked upon as intellectually bankrupt.
But by the early 1990s it was clear that the Conservative/Daily Mail grip on society was loosening. Even though New Labour was not elected until 1997, the transformation of Old Britain to New Britain started taking shape in the early 1990s.
The state was being reorganised around official ‘anti-racism’ and ‘anti-harassment’ measures. The media, especially the once-stuffy BBC, were increasingly preoccupied with being ‘relevant’ and ‘representative’ to the whole of British society. The popularity of Steve Coogan’s spoof chatshow host Alan Partridge summed up how laughable Tory Middle England had become.
‘I agree with all that’, says Harris. ‘Once the Cold War was gone, so was the sense of being oppositional. That is why Noel Gallagher felt perfectly okay about going to Downing Street. By that point, the idea that musicians should be suspicious of authority had disappeared along with the class struggle. That’s why Britpop took on the appearance that it did – a generational truce, music that was fun for all the family. It had a sentimental tone, with Oasis writing big populist ballads.’
Britpop was often criticised for being nationalistic, but this was to miss the point. It was precisely because British nationalism had lost its purchase that Blur could pose with a Union Jack for the The Face in 1994, without attracting the same flak that a flag-waving Morrissey had two years earlier. It was the same with social class. In their mid-90s Parklife days, Blur were criticised for adopting faux proletarian poses. But Mancunian scallies Oasis were no different. Noel and Liam’s working-class demeanor was about conforming to a middle-class caricature.
Once Oasis started embracing designer clothes, expensive restaurants and country mansions, they had become deeply unfashionable among middle-class critics. Of course, the flabby fiasco of Oasis’ third album Be Here Now spectacularly torpedoed their standing and status. Yet many argued that Oasis’ downfall was down to the perils of good living, rather than the Gallagers’ musical limitations. And this is where I would take issue with Harris in his otherwise excellent book. In The Last Party, Britpop’s demise becomes almost a morality tale on how too much money and success is bad for the soul.
‘That’s not an ideological conviction’, says Harris. ‘I think my observations were based on objective reporting. Predicating art purely on commercial success is problematic. When musicians become successful, they want to carry on being successful at whatever costs. Most of the people in the book either made rubbish music because they wanted to be successful, or retreated from it because they were repulsed by the experience of success. Either way it was bad news.’
The notion that success erodes experimentation and creativity doesn’t quite stand up. Much of rock’s old guard, The Beatles, Stones et al, managed to combine living the high life with making great music. In the 1970s, Fleetwood Mac had a serious cocaine problem, but after the 20million-selling Rumours they still managed to put out the brilliantly off-kilter and challenging Tusk.
If Oasis couldn’t handle the drugs, Harris suggests they couldn’t handle the money either. But isn’t this just the old prejudice about uppity moneyed proles putting brass knockers on doors? ‘Again I don’t have any ideological problems with success and money’, says Harris. ‘If the quality of Be Here Now was any good, then all that would be irrelevant. But they began to sound how they looked – gaudy, over-cooked and pretty poor taste. They’re not very self-aware people and they were quite graceless with success.’
There’s no denying that Britpop produced more worthless than lasting music. Yet that was a consequence, not of week-long drinking benders, but of the absence of avant garde ideas elsewhere. Because of its ephemeral nature, pop music can only adopt a thin layer of gravitas, with allusions to higher artistic traditions. And with a dearth of ideas across society, it is hardly surprising that we get rock bands that merely exhort us to ‘roll with it’.
Indeed, much of Britpop’s early fortunes came about as a result of a broader uncertainty in British society. It was because New Labour had little sense of what it was for that it was tempted to court Britpop – in the hope that some of rock’s ‘realness’ would rub off on Blair, Brown, Mandelson and co.
‘The only possibility that many of today’s bands offer is the opportunity to buy more pop records’, says Harris. ‘In the 1980s, pop culture led you to look seriously at organised society and why you were in revolt against it. Once the need for that disappears, you just get a vapid culture. I mean, what books would Coldplay inspire you to read?’
But why look for artistic or intellectual qualities in pop musicians in the first place? ‘Put it down to a misplaced nostalgia’, says Harris. ‘To me, pop culture gave us Morrissey, Rotten, Bowie and Lennon – pretty interesting and clued-up people who are as interesting to me as authors and filmmakers. The trouble is, I look to pop music with increasingly less likelihood of that coming true.’
Neil Davenport is a contributor to Uncut magazine. The Last Party: Britpop, Blair and the decline of English Rock by John Harris is published by Fourth Estate (buy this from Amazon UK).
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