Between the pop and the party

It may be a compelling read, says Will Brown, but ultimately The Last Party by John Harris is a disappointing analysis of the relationship between pop and politics

It may be little older than Blair’s leadership of the Labour Party but in John Harris’ The Last Party Britpop has had its post mortem. Ten years is a long time in pop and much of the hype and hysteria which surrounded the mid-1990s British music scene now seems a long way away. Many of the bands which feature in Harris’ book have fallen by the wayside, including two of the leading lights, Elastica and Pulp. Of the others, Suede have spent most of the intervening period in hibernation only to emerge to mixed critical response, and Oasis seem stuck in a musical cul-de-sac. Even Blur, who gained some of the best reviews of their career for the 2003 album Think Tank, don’t trouble the charts in the way they once did.

Indeed, Harris conveys well some of the personal and musical come-down that followed in the tabloids’ wake. Much of Harris’ book is an account of the interlacing love affairs, relationships, and petty and bitter personal jealousies which ran among its main protagonists. And an intriguing tale it is: Suede’s pioneering move from the fringes of alternative rock to mainstream success; Blur’s triumphant challenge to Suede’s leadership of British indie-rock (echoed by Justine Frischman, Elastica frontwoman-to-be, leaving Suede singer Brett Anderson for the up-coming Damon Albarn); and the tabloids’ dream-come-true of the Blur-Oasis stand-off.

But Harris also wants to explore the connection between the rise, zenith and decline of Britpop and the ascent and subsequent tarnishing of new Labour. It is this aspect of the book that holds out the most enticing promise, and is its biggest disappointment.

Harris’s book doesn’t quite hit the mark in exploring the link between Britpop and Blairism

Combining pop and politics in this way was always going to be a tall order, particularly given that Britpop and Blairism had very distinct driving forces and trajectories. As Harris notes, by the time of Blair’s 1997 triumph Britpop was already on the skids. It is perhaps no surprise then that the book’s centre of gravity rests on the narrative carried forward by the varying backgrounds, personalities and successes of Suede, Blur, Elastica and Oasis.

The book begins with a telling portrayal of the British music scene in the late 1980s, divided between mindless mainstream pop dominated, as if punk never happened, by the dinosaurs of British rock; and the Thatcher-hating, committed, but commercially unsuccessful, ‘alternative’ scene. It was from this latter field that all the main players in Britpop emerged. Britpop’s success in storming the charts and mass media was the culmination of an assault on the cultural mainstream led by the emerging dance music, rave culture and ‘Madchester’ scene of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

It is perhaps not surprising, then, that there should be some affinity between a suddenly popular left-field pop and a newly-successful Labour Party led by one-time student rock wannabe Tony Blair.

Red Wedge

Yet, as Harris points out, the 1990s encounter between pop and politics was markedly different from the post-miners’ strike, post-two election defeats, Red Wedge of the mid-1980s. That earlier alliance between lefty rockers like Billy Bragg and Paul Weller and the rather desperate popularity-seeking of Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party had combined political pop with leftish graphic art, benefit gigs and political speeches in a rally-the-troops tour. But it was preaching to the converted and to the defeated (although it’s still entertaining to remember the now EU Commissioner Neil Kinnock in that Tracey Ullman video).

A picture disc showing Neil Kinnock in that Tracey Ullman video

Two more election defeats and a crumbled Berlin Wall later, Britpop’s defining encounters with politics were, as Harris says, very different. A carefully planned meeting between Albarn and Blair in the House of Commons in 1995; the infamous, glamorous soiree, when Noel Gallagher and Blair supped champagne at Number 10 in 1997; and dinner at Chequers with the Blairs for Alan McGee, the head of Creation Records (Oasis’ label) who later served on the government’s Creative Industries Task Force.

The Blairites’ desire to be associated with something new and British (New Labour, New Britain, now buy the record) saw leading politicians attending music industry award ceremonies and record industry figures attending Labour Party, and later, government, events. Whereas in Red Wedge, meetings between record industry figures and Labour were subject to formal meetings and minutes, as Harris relates, under new Labour the industry men would emerge from informal chats thinking ‘what was that about?’.

But this relationship between Britpop and Labour politics rarely got beyond the superficial. Most of it was about image, media coverage and creating the right headlines. For the control freaks in the Labour leadership a closer association was dangerous and they were wary of the potential for unpredictable and embarrassing happenings when loud-mouthed pop stars were around.

This was perhaps wise. Harris relates how Blair surpassed himself, praising Creation records for turning a £1,000 loan into a £34 million turnover. ‘Now that’s new Labour,’ Blair gloated, seemingly unaware of the industrial quantities of drugs consumed daily by some of Creation’s leading lights. For the pop stars who had emerged from the anti-Tory milieu of the late 1980s, lending support to new Labour was attractive. After years on the fringes, the association provided ‘a chance to take part in mainstream society’, as Jarvis Cocker put it.

Things cooled

However, in terms of more concrete political activity, little actually happened. Apart from Alan McGee donating to Labour’s coffers and a proposed, but unfortunately never realised, election poster featuring Albarn and Gallagher (with the words, ‘The only thing they hate more than each other is the Tories’) that was about as far as it got. Once Labour got into office, things cooled. As Harris claims, by 1998 Labour had less need of the popularity boost, and the realities of governing (the New Deal, single parent benefit cuts) did little to keep semi-committed pop stars on board. The end of the affair was symbolically marked by Chumbawamba who threw a bucket of ice over John Prescott at the 1998 Brit Awards.

And in some ways that is precisely the problem for Harris’ book. As a study of the link between Labour and Britpop in the 1990s, there isn’t that much to go on and it doesn’t take 400 pages to cover it. Had Harris engaged with a wider study of pop and politics in the 1990s he would have found a lot more, away from the headlines and Westminster, in dance culture and environmental protest, for example. But Harris is a rock journalist and it is with the narrative of Britpop that he is most comfortable.

Indeed, it is the Blur and Oasis head-to-head that not only provided the central tension and newspaper copy for Britpop but also the central axis of this book. Harris makes much of the mirror images of Blur and Oasis: Blur’s middle class wit and intelligence undermined by a ridiculous aping of working class laddism, versus Oasis’ genuine, but unthinking lumpen, working class bravado. Harris doesn’t really hide his bias towards Blur. Given the lack of originality of Oasis’ music, the obnoxiousness of some of the Gallaghers’ outbursts (Noel stating that he hoped Blur’s Albarn and Alex James ‘catch AIDs and die’), and the boring boorishness of Liam, it’s hard not to sympathise with him on this.

Liam Gallagher: boorish

Yet, arguably, it was neither Blur nor Oasis who provided Britpop’s finest moments but Pulp, a band who had both the working class credentials that Blur could only dream of, and the intelligence which Oasis probably never realised they lacked. In Common People they had a song oozing enough class hatred to make every lefty heart beat faster, combined with the kind of anthemic crescendo which was Oasis’ trademark:

You’ll never live like common people,

You’ll never do what common people do

You’ll never fail like common people

You’ll never watch your life slide out of view…

You’ll never understand, how it feels to live your life,

With no meaning or control, and with nowhere left to go

From the same 1996 album, Different Class, another song, Sorted for E’s and Wizz, managed both to define an era (‘…is this the way they say the future’s meant to feel?/Or just 20,000 people standing in a field…’) and generate a classic media and generational moral panic in rock’s best traditions. To cap a fine year, Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker was arrested for protesting at Michael Jackson’s dreadful ‘messiah’ performance at the Brit Awards and created a pop stunt worth its name. Alongside the banality of the Blur-Oasis stand-off, as Harris acknowledges, and at Britpop’s very zenith, Pulp ‘proved that success could come with a moral subtext’.

As the 1990s drew on, Labour and Britpop began to go their separate ways. For the Britpop stars, the experience had taken its toll. The cocaine-fuelled euphoria of its heyday slid into the dark addiction (and inevitable breakdown and rehab) of heroin. As personal relationships fell apart, maybe it was this experience which was later reflected in Blur’s song Out of Time:

Where’s the love song to set us free?

Too many people down

Everything turning the wrong way round

…Tell me I’m not dreaming

But are we out of time?

Oasis stagnated around the time of the second album and have since seemed incapable of changing anything other than the line-up. Blur and Suede receded to the background and Cocker retired to France. The charts have been left in the clutches of groups who are as manufactured and mindless as any in pop history. And, back on the sidelines, the new indie guitar bands making an impression are mainly American in origin.

Published at a time when Labour-led Britain followed all too faithfully on the heels of the US into an ill-considered war in Iraq, this tale of the ‘demise of British rock’ (Harris argues that Britpop was a failed challenge to the hegemony of US popular culture) seems to be trying to say something more about the political and cultural subservience of the UK to the US. But ultimately Harris shies away from saying anything very specific about this, or about the broader issue of the relationship between pop and politics. For an analysis of the intertwining of pop and politics, The Last Party is something of a disappointment. For a history of a particularly energetic era in British pop, the book is a compelling read.

The Last Party: Britpop, Blair and the demise of British rock by John Harris (2003)