“The man who is a pessimist before 48 knows too much; if he is an optimist after it he knows too little.”—Mark Twain.
“Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” Johnny Rotten, announcing the break up of The Sex Pistols.
My name’s Middlerabbit, I’m 48 and I’m a pessimist. Not because Mark Twain told me to be, it just sort of happened.
I don’t have a tragic life particularly, but nor am I very optimistic in general, which can be a bit wearing for other people. I can dig that.
This post is about optimism and pessimism and how I went from one to the other with the help of the popular culture of my youth.
It’s also an attempt to explain why the music of the Britpop era has dated so terribly badly and is, on the whole, not remembered with much fondness.
In England, most people don’t really go to church anymore. A fair few priests in the Church of England were recently found to not really believe in God and say that maybe God wasn’t even that important because it was about community and helping people, which sounds alright to me. (https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/survey-finds-2-of-anglican-priests-are-not-believers-9821899.html)
I’ve been thinking lately that maybe the modern equivalent of believing in God is optimism. Recently, optimism has even been subtly rebranded as positivity. Pessimism remains lumbered with its old handle but I suppose that the pessimistic view is that rebranding it wouldn’t make any difference, so why bother?
This post is about optimism – or positivity if it makes you feel better (which is, after all, the point of it) – and how it can feel like a good idea at the time but how that feeling tends not to last very long into the future. As you may have guessed, I’m a pessimist.
The classic test for optimists and pessimists is the, “Is the glass half full or half empty?” question.
My response is that it depends what’s in it. If it’s something great, it’s half empty, if it’s something horrible, it’s half full. And that’s how you do pessimism properly.
Part 1: The Optimist – Pessimist Buddy Movie
Having said all that, my favourite film (at least when I was a kid) was Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, which, between the ages of about twelve and eighteen, I watched three or four times every Sunday while my parents were out. It’s not the most highbrow film in the world and it’s not the most action packed either. I don’t think there’re all that many subtexts and themes going on, although it’s not entirely bereft of those either. What attracted me to Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid was the same thing that most fans of it are drawn to: the relationship between Butch and Sundance which is, above everything else, funny and it rings true. A lot of people, including the director of the film, George Hill, thought that it was the chemistry between the two actors, Paul Newman and Robert Redford, which is why he put them together again a few years later in The Sting. I’m not suggesting that George and everybody else is wrong, but mainly I think it was the writing, by William Goldman, that was just perfect. It’s the father of feelgood buddy movies, which is a terrible thing to accuse a film as beautiful as Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid of, but that’s what happens when somebody does something that people love. The Beatles get the blame for Freddie and The Dreamers and Oasis; The Stone Roses get the blame for Candy Flip and Northside. That’s just the way it goes. It’s a pessimistic viewpoint – that great things inevitably result in shitty Xeroxes that make you wonder whether the original was any good or not – but at least I’m well prepared, eh?
The characters of cowboy bank and train robbers Butch and Sundance are polar opposites. Butch is affable, garrulous and not much good with a gun. Sundance is prickly, taciturn and the fastest gun in the West. To reduce them to even cruder, blunter, crayon sketches, Butch is an optimist and Sundance is a pessimist. This pairing of opposites has continued through Starsky & Hutch, The Professionals, the Lethal Weapon series, through Twins and pretty much everything else with a pair of protagonists ever since.
William Goldman’s skill, like most writers’, is that he shows us that this is true rather than telling us. Although, this being a Hollywood production, at one point Butch comments to Sundance that, “For a gunman, you’re one hell of a pessimist.” It’s an isolated incident and Sundance never refers to Butch explicitly as an optimist but, as Hollywood goes, it’s pretty subtle. Having thought about it, the famous scene in which Butch takes Katharine Ross for a ride on his new bicycle is soundtracked by the, possibly even more famous, Bacharach & David song, Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head. A song that possibly represents the resilience required to be an optimist more explicitly than any before or since. Melodically it shares quite a lot with its composers’ earlier hit, I’ll Never Fall In Love Again which is, lyrically, the polar opposite of Raindrops. I suppose that shows how well suited Burt and Hal were suited. Burt recycles bits of I’ll Never in the coda of Raindrops but Hal’s sterling work in presenting the opposite point of view in the two songs means that you don’t really notice it. During the Britpop era, in addition to his claims of Beatle-esque songs, Noel Gallagher similarly suggested that he was influenced by Bacharach & David which is an even more ludicrous claim. Still, it was regularly parroted by people who really ought to have known better. As usual, Damon Albarn, being Britpop’s true master of the pastiche, did a far better job of aping Bacharach & David, first with To The End, and then, less successfully and charmingly with The Universal. Beetlebum by Blur is infinitely closer to White Album era Fabs territory than anything Oasis ever managed. However, the Blur/Oasis thing comes later.
Butch’s charisma and optimism are infectious and he’s the only one who can get Sundance to do anything much. Yet, at almost every turn, Butch’s optimism is shown to be ill-founded because absolutely everything he says will work doesn’t.
From robbing the same train on the way there and back to his numerous plans for losing the super posse sent out to catch and kill Butch and Sundance, from going to Bolivia and going straight to his plan to evade the Bolivian army at the end, Butch’s optimism leads them deeper and deeper into trouble until it kills the both of them.
But The Sundance Kid doesn’t think of Butch Cassidy as an optimist. Sundance mainly views Butch as being intelligent. Sundance is the divvy with a God given skill with a gun, so to speak. That’s how we’re encouraged to view him too, but I consider that to be misdirection on the part of William Goldman.
At one point, Sundance responds one of Butch’s plans with a dopey laugh and chuckles, “You just keep thinking Butch, that’s what you’re good at.” and he says it like a moron. Which he is, because Butch isn’t good at thinking, he’s just too stupid to realise it and start getting somebody else with brains to do the thinking. Such as Katherine Ross, Sundance’s girlfriend, who predicts their doom and tells them both what’ll happen if they keep doing what Butch keeps telling them.
In another way though, he’s far less of a moron than Butch Cassidy because what The Sundance Kid knows that Butch doesn’t is his limitations. And what that means is that Sundance is a pessimist. If he’s not confident about something, he doesn’t think it’ll be alright, he thinks it’ll go to shit. He doesn’t want to jump off the cliff into the river to escape the super posse, he doesn’t want to go to Bolivia because he doesn’t speak the language, he doesn’t want to be a farmer or a cowboy because he’s no good at being a farmer or a cowboy. The reason he ends up jumping off the cliff, going to Bolivia and going straight is because Butch convinces him that at of those things’ll work out fine. Because he’s an optimist.
Diversion – Everyday examples of bullish optimism.
These days I don’t go out too much. Well, I do: I go to work, I go walking, things like that, but in terms of social engagements, not really. I’m not socially awkward and I’m not anxious, I just can’t really be arsed with it. However, I did go out last week a couple of times, one of which was a friend’s birthday in a pub in town. I say ‘a friend’ because she is, but really she’s the current Mrs Middlerabbit’s friend more than I am.
As I don’t go out very much, I’m often the last one to meet new people who enter the wider social circle which, again, I keep contact with only through the far more gregarious Mrs Middlerabbit. Anyway, there was a woman who’d I’d not met before who I was introduced to because she’s doing a teacher training course and I’m a teacher and, like a sort of quarantine situation, presumably somebody thought that if you stick the teachers together then that’ll be doing everybody else a favour. Which I can understand, to be honest. I don’t like it; I don’t like to think of myself as your typical teacher but maybe I am and most people are happy thinking of their friends’ husbands with fairly broad strokes and I don’t blame them for that either.
Anyway, this woman told me that she was training to be a Maths teacher even though her degree is in English. I didn’t really think anything about that but I think I was supposed to, judging by the look on her face which was a bit “Hey! Wild, eh?“
I said earlier that I wasn’t socially awkward (I don’t think I am but I also don’t think everybody else would necessarily agree with me about that either) and what I take that to mean is that I gathered I was supposed to pursue that “Hey! Wild, eh?” thread and I did. I asked her how come she was training to teach Maths even though her degree was in English and she told me that if you signed up to teach Maths you get given a load more money than if you sign up to teach English.
Now, even though I consider myself to be a man of principle, at least in comparison to really bad people, I’m not averse to people doing things for money, especially if they don’t involve screwing other people over and I don’t consider teaching Maths instead of English to be that. However, in making a statement to somebody you’ve just met is a bit of a, well, statement, I suppose. She was telling me that she wasn’t following her passion for literature, if she had/has one, she was telling me that she was going into teaching for the money which is often the opposite of what most people who are teachers will tell people.
I don’t have the best reason for going into teaching myself and I also don’t teach the subject that my degree’s in at the moment, so I thought I’d tell her that so that, you know, she’d think, “Oh, it’s do-able. If he can do it, I can too,” you know? In fact, my degree’s in Psychology, my teaching certificate is in Science and I teach English, so it’s even worse I suppose.
Then she started nodding at me and smiling this knowing sort of smile at me and she said, “You just blag it, yeah?“
“Oh no,” I told her, “I don’t blag it. I don’t blag anything.” Because I don’t.
“I don’t even have GCSE Maths,” she then told me. “I’m having to do a GCSE in it while I’m doing my training.“
I didn’t know what to say about that either. Then she said, “You just have to have the confidence, don’t you?“
“I don’t know,” I said, “I think the reason I don’t blag it is probably because I don’t have the confidence.”
I’ve already talked about not being anxious and not being socially awkward and you might have gathered why some people probably wouldn’t agree with me from my recollection of that conversation, but I mean I don’t have any form of social anxiety in terms of things like public speaking which is a big worry for a lot of people, so I mean I’m confident enough to talk to classes of kids and not have to worry about it.
About some things. Meaning, I wouldn’t fancy teaching French to anybody because I don’t really know any French. Well, not enough at any rate. If I had to suddenly start teaching French, I’d have to learn how to speak French and I would. I mean, ideally, I wouldn’t, but if push came to shove, I suppose I could but I wouldn’t fancy blagging it.
To draw an analogy between Butch Cassidy, The Sundance Kid and this trainee teacher and me, she’d be Butch Cassidy and I’d be The Sundance Kid. Except I wasn’t overly convinced by her show of optimism and thought she seemed a bit busy trying to convince people she’d just met that she was simultaneously super pragmatic in terms of money and also a bit of a chancer in terms of going to teach a subject that she had evidently shown no aptitude for at any previous point in her life – I’d guess she’s about forty and just blabbering on a little bit because she’s nervous about what she’s signed up to do and that’s often what people who are nervous do, isn’t it? Overegg it a bit to compensate.
End of Diversion.
Butch’s optimism lead to his and Sundance’s death – even if it didn’t really – and while I dare say that this woman’s optimism isn’t going to end in her death at the hands of the Bolivian army, I wasn’t convinced that it would end anywhere good either. Mind you, being a pessimist, I wouldn’t, would I?
I view optimism and its modern rebranding ‘positivity‘ as being the modern, western religion of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Positivity, to me, means fucking inspirational quotations on people’s kitchen walls.
But it’s not just that (it never is with pessimists, is it?), it’s that my perspective is that nothing dates as badly as optimism. Which is what this post is about, specifically relating to what is known, in England at least, as The Britpop Era.
Part 2: Britpop
In the early-ish to late-ish 1990s, at least in England, Britpop was a big thing. Despite the use of the suffix ‘pop’, Britpop didn’t exclusively relate to pop music. Britpop comprised most of the arts, although not so much things like ballet and opera, but certainly the visual arts, including cinema and television. In terms of dates, I expect somebody’s narrowed down more accurately than I have but my estimation is from around the recording and release of Denim’s Back In Denim (November 1992) in to (The) Verve’s Urban Hymns (September 1997).
I’m not suggesting that Denim’s debut album came out of nowhere. St Etienne’s Foxbase Alpha, despite having virtually no musical similarities with Denim at all, nevertheless was built on a similar sort of feeling, at least in part. A feeling that St Etienne explored in greater depth on their follow up album So Tough in 1993.
Nor am I proposing that (The) Verve’s Urban Hymns nailed the Britpop door shut completely because it too retained, at heart, most of the features that were heard throughout the Britpop era, primarily emanating from the semi-tethered flapping widescreen of Oasis’s records. And it wasn’t even just the sound, it was, for want of a better expression, an attitude, or at least the remnants of an attitude that had begun with The Stone Roses’ debut in spring 1989.
If we are to accept those debatable dates as the start and end of Britpop, I would have been 21 years old when it began and 26 when it ended. The years between 1992 and 1997 were years when I also went to pubs, clubs and gigs most frequently and I was exposed to, if not all of it, then certainly most of it, in the context of the times which, I think, gives me some perspective on it.
All eras have scenes that represent and define them, especially in terms of popular culture which, by its nature, doesn’t remain in one place for very long but also in terms of everything else too. In addition to those scenes that define and represent certain eras, there are some scenes that never really define any era in particular and which also never really go away, such as Heavy Metal and LSD, to pick the first two things that popped into my head.
With hindsight, some scenes are remembered with greater fondness than others and, consequently, some eras are remembered more fondly than others and my perspective is that the two things aren’t mutually exclusive.
For instance, 1979, culturally, is remembered generally with great fondness, specifically the Two Tone music of The Specials, Madness, The Selektor, The (English) Beat. However, it’s not just that genre, there’s also Blondie, Elvis Costello & The Attractions, The Jam, The Police and other new wave bands that toned down the ironically fascistic Punk laws to a more palatable degree. Dinosaurs such as Pink Floyd had their last big hurrah with The Wall (which I can’t stand, but you know, it was a big, important record even though I don’t like it because it sounds like Disprin tastes: unpleasantly metallic), Disco wasn’t quite dead, although it soon would be, and the late period Disco records are some of the best examples – and not just the singles, some of the albums were fantastic: Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall and Sister Sledge’s We Are Family. Electronic music that would dominate the 1980s was just getting going. At the cinema, Alien, Monty Python’s The Life Of Brian and Apocalypse Now were very big deals.
And yet, while all this fondly remembered cultural stuff was all over the place, Thatcher had just come to power in Britain, the Irish question was still being violently addressed by both sides and Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in Iran, which also prompted violence and suffering.
And that’s, sort of, my point for those TL:DR people (And I don’t blame them). The popular art of 1979 through the 1980s is largely thought of as being a golden era. Even though the political climate was entering a phase of lunacy from which there has only been sporadic relief ever since. 1979 and its era of Two Tone/New Wave was a pessimistic time on the whole, politically. The Britpop years, on balance, was an era of political optimism.
Noel Gallagher, not often noted for his ability to verbally articulate anything very well (apart from coming up with often funny insults for his peers) verbally articulated exactly that at the Brit awards of 1996, the year before (New) Labour stormed the general election. “There are only seven people in this room giving a little hope to young people in this country. Those seven are (our band), Alan McGee and Tony Blair.”
Hope = optimism, right?
Once Tony Blair and his rebranded Labour party came to power, ironically, the popular arts almost instantly stopped treading the positivity path – a similar time to the death of Princess Diana, whose popularity had slumped with her interview with Martin Bashir, following which most people had no time for her poor little rich girl pleas. After her death, the hysterical outpouring of national grief seemed to be a conscious and opposite reaction to how she was widely viewed before it. The nation protested a bit too much if you ask me – as if the howling and weeping that followed her death was to compensate for how unpleasantly people viewed her globetrotting prior to it.
But prior to those two events bands wrote jaunty songs that commentators of the time fell over themselves to compare positively to the swinging sixties, the last time optimism seemed like the only reasonable attitude to hold in Britain. And that’s important, the comparison with the swinging sixties. Oasis were the Rolling Stones because they were a bit lairy, even though Liam Gallagher wasn’t a recent graduate of the London School of Economics like Mick Jagger was. Blur were The Beatles because they were a bit artier, even though most of the rest of the world failed to fall under their spell, unlike The Beatles. I suppose John Lennon’s put on Scouse accent was similar to Damon Albarn’s mockney drawl in terms of how genuine they both were.
They were the big two, like The Beatles and The Stones had been in the swinging sixties but you need more than that for a scene and, sure enough, once record companies had realised that they could make money from bands who would previously have sold 2000 copies on Squirrel Records and reached the Indie top ten for a few weeks, they signed them up, put a lot of money behind them and Britpop was a mainstream thing.
I’ve written a long piece about how that was largely due to the success of The Stone Roses, so I’m not going to dwell on that here, although I am going to talk about some of the other bands whose popularity exploded on the back of Britpop.
Prior to (New) Labour’s election success, something was in the air, musically. I put that down to The Stone Roses’ absence and the music press’ (N.M.E. and Melody Maker primarily) sales shooting up as a result and they had to find other bands to write about for the next five years.
Pulp, Supergrass, Dodgy, Cast, Ocean Colour Scene ,The Charlatans, Shed 7, The Boo Radleys, Manic Street Preachers, Ash, Black Grape, (The) Verve, St Etienne, Catatonia, The Auteurs, Denim, Lush and, of course, Blur all benefitted from mainstream exposure and being the next big things even though every last one of those bands had released records that got pretty much nowhere in the proper charts prior to Britpop being anointed as a thing and benefitted from it, at least in terms of sales and popularity. Well, most of them did. Denim didn’t, naturally.
Not all of them produced jaunty singalongs either. Well, not intentionally. Manic Street Preachers, having started life as, more or less, a Clash tribute band didn’t exactly rewrite Knees Up Mother Brown, but they certainly made an effort to have lyrics that scanned reasonably*
Along with these old soldiers from the Indie wars, there were new bands too. The Bluetones, Elastica, Longpigs, Sleeper, Stereophonics, Kula Shaker, Echobelly, Mansun, Menswear, Embrace, Northern Uproar, Kenickie and probably millions more that I’ve tried to forget.
They were all on television and not just at two o’ clock on Wednesday mornings. Friday teatime was TFI Friday, which was the Britpop era’s Ready Steady Go! Saturday Morning kids’ television, following years of manufactured boybands and pop fluff now featured Britpop bands. There were live music shows on all (four) channels because – and this seemed important all of a sudden – the Britpop bands were proper bands who wrote their own songs instead of Stock Aitken & Waterman writing them; who played proper instruments (not synthesisers) instead of having dance routines; bought their own clothes from normal high street shops instead of having stylists who dressed them up like they were go-go dancers from the future.
In short, the Britpop years were contemporaneously seen as being authentic and that was seen as a welcome relief from years of, presumably, inauthenticity.
As always happens, once the formula has been identified as a successful one, then the old guard take note and adapt to survive, even if only temporarily. Madonna’s hit records of the period featured psychedelically treated guitars (Beautiful Stranger, Ray of Light).
Part 3: The Black & White Sixties vs. The Colour Sixties.
Earlier this year, I wrote a post about Scott Walker and The Walker Brothers in which I touched on the concept that, around late 1965, the sixties stopped being black and white and turned to colour.
That may seem like a trite statement to make as that’s also about the time that colour television was happening but, as anybody who was there at the time will tell you, virtually nobody had colour televisions at that time. I wasn’t there, no. However, I was around in the 1970s and we didn’t have a colour television until well into the 1970s and neither did anybody else I knew.
The early 1960s – the black & white sixties – weren’t optimistic really, at least not in Britain. British films that are most representative of the era were shot in black and white, but it’s a mistake to assume that all films were black and white then because they weren’t. Black and white was a stylistic choice as well as a financially motivated one. The kitchen sink dramas of the time such as The Loneliness of The Long Distance Runner, Billy Liar, Room At The Top, Saturday Night & Sunday Morning, A Taste of Honey, This Sporting Life, A Kind of Loving, Georgie Girl, The L Shaped Room and all of those great films were black and white in more ways than just the film stock that they were shot on. They were all influenced by the French and Italian new wave cinema of the late 1950s and they were all gritty representations of everyday life for ordinary people of the time. They were bleak and they were miserable. Although a lot of them had plenty of humour in them, it tended to be gallows humour. They were also pretty successful and rejuvenated the British film industry which had, mainly, Hammer Horror and James Bond films going for it – all of the James Bond films and most of those (great) Hammer films were in colour. To hammer (ho-ho) the point home about black and white being a stylistic choice of those particular films.
The music of the early sixties that I consider to be black and white similarly tended towards bleakly miserable: big, sad, ballads. Dusty Springfield, The Walker Brothers, Englebert Humperdink, Roy Orbison, Sandie Shaw. Even the poppier end of the market was black and white in terms of suffering: Del Shannon and Frank Ifield.
The Swinging Sixties were most definitely in colour though and that reflected the optimism of the times. Bolstered by the success of the Kitchen Sink films, the British film industry moved over to colour film stock to better represent the optimism and jauntiness of the times. The films looked different, certainly, but it was more than just reds and blues and yellows and greens – they bore no resemblance whatsoever to the black and white films being made only a few years earlier. Smashing Time, Blow Up, Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush, Alfie, Toomorrow, Kaleidoscope; To Sir, With Love; The Jokers, The Touchables and so on. The Knack (And How To Get It) might have been shot in black and white but, at heart, it’s a colour film.
The important thing about those two separate lists of films from either half of the 1960s is that the black and white ones are still held up as great and the colour ones are seen as inconsequential fluff. The black and white sixties films are obviously representative of that bleak post war era as much as the colour films represent the optimism of the second half of that decade, but the first half’s films hold up and the second half’s don’t really.
I’m not averse to a bit of inconsequential fluff, myself. I like all of the films I’ve listed but I’m under no illusions that, in terms of critical acclaim and fond memories, the black and white films hold up and the colour ones don’t. And, let’s face it, it’s not just because black and white seems artier than colour, is it?
The black and white sixties films showed people enduring grim realities and getting on with it. The colour sixties films showed people having a swinging time, safe in the knowledge that everything was great and would continue to be great.
In short: black and white sixties = pessimism. Colour sixties = optimism.
The 1970s were a reaction, in a way, against the sixties in general but by the early 1980s, when enough time had passed for people to enjoy them nostalgically, the sixties were being re-evaluated. In the early 1980s, the black and white sixties underwent a revival, not least due to the similarities in the respective political landscapes. The early 80s under Thatcher were, like the early 1960s, bleak and grim and pessimism was the only rational outlook. The black and white films of the era were regular sights on television. The Beatles were re-evaluated, not least due to the assassination of John Lennon in 1980 but what you heard on the radio and saw on the television went from Love Me Do (1962) up to (just about) Ticket To Ride (early 1965). In short, Britain remembered that The Beatles – up to but not including Rubber Soul – were fab. Not like their weird psychedelic records. Not when they all went druggy. Dusty Springfield and Sandie Shaw were fondly remembered and cover versions of their iconic records were recorded by young bands.
Britpop, the swinging London of the 1990s?
However, by the Britpop era, The Beatles’ later records – from about Revolver (1966) onwards were re-evaluated and now those were seen as being the great Beatles’ records and the earlier besuited, moptop shaking “Oooohhh” records were seen as a bit trite. Oasis fell over themselves to tell everybody how, actually, their records all sounded like The Beatles’ psychedelic era. And the press repeated it, despite there being no evidence to support that particular claim.
American comedian, Mike Myers’ spoof films of the colour sixties era, Austin Powers were widely loved and watched. Trainspotting was held up as a gritty representation of heroin abuse in Edinburgh but, really, was nothing of the sort because it had more in common with the carefree colour romps of the sixties, featuring cheeky chappy protagonists and dolly birds. It’s not quite as clear cut as that, as it does feature a heroin related death, a baby dying, possibly as a result of neglect from its heroin addicted parents and heroin withdrawal but, these events were diversions from the principal cast of good looking, witty young people who went on adventures. Later, Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels wasn’t a million miles away from it in terms of being considered quite gritty but actually being a jolly up in swinging London. Four Weddings & A Funeral was about as colour sixties as you could hope for despite, again, featuring a death – this time from AIDS. Again, good looking, carefree, witty, cheeky protagonists having a swinging time. On the other hand, there are always exceptions and The Full Monty was, to an extent, more of a throwback to the Kitchen Sink dramas of the black and white sixties, but that was set in the Thatcher era and it was still a bit of a jolly up by the end of it.
In 2019, Trainspotting is still remembered relatively fondly although Trainspotting 2, the much later follow up did it no favours in terms of its lasting legacy. Lock Stock & Two Smoking Barrels and Four Weddings & A Funeral similarly seem to provoke a comparable sense of nostalgia that Britain holds for, say, Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush. Which is to say, some people still like them but, on the whole, probably not as much as people at the time they were made might have expected them to be, given the love and admiration they received at the time.
Which brings me back to the music of the Britpop era which, again with exceptions from some people, isn’t viewed with an awful lot of love, twenty five years after the event.
The music was jaunty alright. It may even be the epitome of optimism, Britpop music. Wake Up Boo, by Liverpudlian former sonic terrorists The Boo Radleys was ubiquitous on morning radio for months and months. They appeared on children’s television programmes and acted like The Banana Splits on them. Alright, by Supergrass was the aural Prozac – and the video was reminiscent of The Prisoner (the colour sixties television programme, despite that being about paranoia and untrustworthy authorities). Country House, by Blur was practically a Chas ‘n’ Dave cockney knees up with a video featuring page three girls that had more in common with the Carry On… films of the colour sixties. Yes, McAlmont & Butler’s big (to all intents and purposes) one hit wonder was, as the title makes explicit, pure positivity. Edwyn Collins’ comeback record A Girl Like You was as colour a sixties pastiche as you could hope to hear, lyrically and aurally.
Some of these records are, in my estimation, great – or at least very good – pop records. You could make an argument for the idea that things go in and out of fashion and, of course, they do. Like I said, I Am The Walrus was as unfashionable record as you could imagine in 1981 and that doesn’t make it a bad record. However, some people were listening to it in 1981 and they might have considered themselves to be super cool. You know, the squares dig what’s fashionable. And that’s fair enough too. However, I’m not altogether convinced that there are many super cool kids hanging around today listening to Wake Up Boo!, telling themselves that they’re the edgy ones and that it’s the mainstream’s loss. Maybe they are, but I doubt it. Maybe there’re groovy young dudes swapping Cast b sides among themselves and engaging in a bit of mutual backslapping but, again, I’m not convinced.
My daughter’s fourteen and considers herself – on the quiet – to be in with the cool crowd. Not, as she calls them, the popular kids, but with the alternative crowd. The kids who will, in a few years, be hanging around Spiders in all likelihood. Some of them are learning to play instruments and the songs they’re learning tend to be old indie songs. She and her mates listen to, among other things, The Smiths, The Bunnymen, The Cure, Radiohead, Arctic Monkeys and things like that. If asked, she tells me that they’re into 80s and 90s indie music. It’s notable that their retrospective enjoyment of British indie guitar bands largely skips the Britpop era entirely. Maybe the odd Blur track, maybe the odd Oasis song here and there but, on the whole, they’re not into Britpop.
Not to suggest that a fourteen year old who’s, like most fourteen year olds of all eras, trying a little bit too hard to be groovy is the arbiter of what’s cool but, in a way, yeah, sort of.
The achingly cool fourteen year old British indie kid tends to be drawn towards the miserable end of the musical spectrum because everything’s shit when you’re fourteen, isn’t it? Especially adults and how phoney they all are. And the music you’re into tends to reflect that misery and existential suffering you carry around on your shoulders, hence The Smiths, The Bunnymen, The Cure and those bands.
Or, to put it another way, they’re pessimistic in a lot of ways. Partly because it’s just cooler to be down on happy clappy, jaunty stuff because it can seem a little bit shallow and what you want, at that age at least, is to have depth. Plus, the classic reason for being pessimistic remains that, if you’re wrong about whatever you’re pessimistic about, you’ll be pleasantly surprised and if you’re right, at least you won’t be disappointed.
The other thing about positivity is having to act enthusiastic about stuff and that’s anathema to the uber cool teenager too. ‘Cringe’ as they say these days. I’d rather they went for ‘cringeworthy’, but you can’t have everything, can you?
Hence, I suppose, they’re not going to listen to The Boo Radley’s greatest hit because, “Wake up, it’s a beautiful morning…” is an optimistic statement, as is, “Alright!” and they’re not listening to Supergrass either.
Leaving aside the teenagers’ perennial lament – which is in and of itself just self-preservation in the face of fear, there’s a much more solid reason why Britpop music and films have dated especially badly.
The morning after.
The thing about optimism and pessimism is that, at some point, you’re going to have to assess whatever it was that you were optimistic or pessimistic about and decide whether you were right or not.
And therein lies the rub, doesn’t it?
Tony Blair’s (New) Labour was, with hindsight, a false dawn. I’m not suggesting it was all bad. Getting the Conservative party out of power was a cause for celebration. Sure Start centres provided worthwhile care for the vulnerable, some public services improved as a result of their policies and there were plenty of other good things that happened too.
On the other hand, (New) Labour started selling off the NHS and schools were given away to private companies so that they could become academies, the numbers of students getting into university increased from about 10% to about 45%, devaluing degrees at the same time as massaging the unemployment figures. And, of course, Tony Blair decided that Saddam Hussein was stockpiling Weapons of Mass Destruction despite there being no evidence to support that idea and the Iraq war (part 2) began. Which has turned out to be a disaster in the long term.
The net result of (New) Labour was that they turned out to be a slightly less aggressive form of Conservatism. Meaning, it wasn’t about looking after ordinary people and trying to even out an unfair society. Peter Mandelson’s famous statement, “We are intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich…” said it all, even though his qualifying statement, “…as long as they pay their taxes.” Tends to be forgotten. Perhaps because (New) Labour had every opportunity to amend the laws about tax evasion and they didn’t.
Following his reign, Tony Blair became filthy rich and took advantage of the tax loopholes he left in place in order to avoid paying tax. (https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/tony-blair-tax-avoidance-trust-consultancy-earnings-a6987351.html)
In short, the optimism that Britpop expressed turned out to be unfounded because (New) Labour were, in effect, the Conservative party, but slightly less bad in one way (Sure Start, etc) and slightly worse in another way (at least you knew what you were getting with the Conservatives, and even they didn’t start selling off the NHS and schools).
Consequently, looking back on all that optimism and positivity and evaluating it resulted in what? We were wrong. We were suckers.
And who wants reminding of that?
Ironically, for all the talk that London, 1994-6 was the equivalent of Swinging London, 1966-7, actually, it turned out it pretty much was.
What followed Swinging London? Student riots of 1968, because of the Vietnam war, Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech which resulted in his dismissal from Edward Heath’s (Conservative) opposition party, despite opinion polls showing that a lot of British people agreed with him (unfortunately). Civil rights marches in Ireland in 1968 led to the start of the Troubles in 1969.
In short, the optimism felt during the Swinging Sixties soon dissipated, just as it would thirty years later, leaving behind disappointment, disillusionment and a desire to fall into the distractions provided by Glam, Prog, Heavy Rock and Folk music, all of which specialized in focusing not on commenting on the world around them and how great it was going to be, but zeroing in on mystic fairy lands and boogie-fucking-woogie.
Again, with hindsight, Britpop collapsed in on itself almost the instant that (New) Labour came to power. Blur had blown it with The Great Escape, misjudging the mood of the nation by putting out a miserable album of pastiche-by-numbers, Oasis blew it a month or so later with the cocaine bloated Be Here Now. The next big things were Radiohead’s OK Computer, which was an altogether more pessimistic outlook, and (The) Verve’s Urban Hymns, which took the big choruses of Oasis’s glory years and welded them to miserable lyrics about heartbreak, death and social alienation. Pulp blew it with their miserable This Is Hardcore. Then came the third and fourth division chancers such as Embrace, a former heavy metal band from Huddersfield whose positive vibes (All You Good, Good People) rang hollow in the face of a relatively unchanging society.
In short, Britpop was all over by winter 1997 and with it went the mood that everything was on the up that had burgeoned since around 1993-ish.
Like Johnny Rotten asked at the end of The Sex Pistols, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”
At the end of Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, they both get killed by the Bolivian army because Sundance believed Butch when he told him everything was going to be great in Bolivia.
The optimism of the Swinging Sixties turned out to be just as much of a false dawn as the optimism of the Britpop era.
And what happens when you’ve been optimistic about a future that turns out to be no better – or maybe even worse – than the present? You learn, don’t you? “Once bitten, twice shy and all that.” “Hurt me once, shame on you, hurt me twice, shame on me.” That sort of thing.
Well, you do if you’re smart, I suppose. Learning.
And while you might learn from being mistakenly optimistic about something, you probably don’t want reminding about how optimistic you were before you learned better, do you? Certainly not as a leisure activity.
Some songs remind us of bad times and put us off listening to them again. You know, a relationship that went badly, and once the relationship’s over, you don’t want to listen to that song ever again because it just reminds you about how wrong you were.
And that’s what happened to Britpop music: all that jaunty positivity that we believed in just reminds us how wrong we were to hope that the future was going to be any better.
But, you can’t live your life like that, can you? Well, you can, but it’s a pretty miserable existence.
Jaded, you know. I get accused of that quite a lot.
They say that cynics are all former optimists who’ve just had their illusions shattered and are just trying to protect themselves and I can dig that. I’m a bit of a cynic and it’s not great a lot of the time.
I get accused of negativity when I ought to be embracing positivity but it’s hard after being disappointed, isn’t it?
I was optimistic about music after The Stone Roses because I thought they’d changed popular music, I was optimistic during Britpop because it really did seem like everything was going to be better afterwards. And neither of those things turned out to be true.
Maybe I just lack resilience which might explain why I’m generally such a cheerless bugger but when you’ve been through such times of optimism as Britpop and come out the other side and thought about it, no wonder, eh?
That’s my excuse anyway.
* The big Manics hit, A Design For Life, irritated me because of the emphasis on the wrong words of the chorus. It should have been “A design for life.” and instead it was “A design for life.” The perils of having a non musical lyricist, I suppose.