The top end of 1995's Glastonbury bill (Oasis, Pulp, Prodigy, Portishead) provided a perfect snapshot of the state of the Brit-pop nation. It's a great tribute to the crisis management procedures of the Michael Eavis organisation that - in conditions reminiscent of a full-scale reconstruction of the Napoleonic retreat from Moscow staged in a vast vat of urine-marinated chocolate cake-mix - 1997's headliners somehow do the same again. And as they do so, every law-enforcement officer's favourite West Midlands real rock reactionaries (that's Ocean Colour Scene again, to you, sonny) find themselves at the front line of an ideological pitched battle.
Are OCS's heritage pub-rock stylings a living embodiment of the awful retro virus gnawing at the innards of British pop music? Watching the buffoonish arm-waving of guitarist Steve Craddock and listening to singer Simon Fowler's emotionally constipated white soul bluster, it would be easy to come to this conclusion. But feel the genuine pop thrill in the air when tens of thousands of people pick up the killer melody of "The Day We Caught the Train", and it's hard to be quite so certain.
Of course it's absurd that a band who believe The Faces were the final stage in the evolution of pop music should present themselves as the voices of their generation, but no one is obliged to take them seriously. And is the Chemical Brothers' barn-storming fusion of acid noise and hip-hop methodology - supposedly the acme of now - any less dependent than OCS's heartfelt Spencer Davies Group tribute on the sounds of yesteryear? I don't think so. It's just that the Chemical Brothers' particular year zero is 1987 instead of 1967. And on the evidence of Saturday night's oddly delightful Colour Scene/ Chemical Brothers double-header, there is room for more than one kind of flower in the garden.
One thing there is no room for, however, is New Labour trying to run off with the gnomes. When grandstanding Arts Minister Mark Fisher observes on Friday night that no government minister has been to Glastonbury in all its 25-year history, it does not seem to occur to him that there might be a reason for this. The festival gods respond to his painfully condescending intervention ("We're going to back British bands because they're good!") by removing a wheel from the previously infallible Prodigy dance/ rock juggernaut. A cruel 20-minute power-cut teaches a band, now teetering dangerously on the brink of hubris ("Smack My Bitch Up" is no more acceptable festival fare than Nirvana's "Polly" was), a hard lesson about where the real power resides: it's on the end of a plug.
The unsatisfactory conclusion to the previous night's proceedings redoubles the pressure on Radiohead's Saturday night headline set, but the Oxford chuckle posse carry it off with great aplomb. Thom Yorke may cultivate the air of a fledgling who has fallen from the nest, but he has taken wing now as a main-stage performer. He is humble without being unctuous. His band are well-organised without being clinical. And the broad canvas of strung-out highlights like "Exit Music" and "Paranoid Android" is sufficiently impressive that it hardly matters that his emotional palette only has one colour on it.
Watching Radiohead on TV, in the trench-crotch-free comfort of their living rooms, armchair festival-goers might wonder exactly what it was that they missed. Well, they missed the sigh of the night air as Horace Andy's voice echoed into it, the twinkling sinew of Placebo's Brian Molko as he wielded his strumming hand as if it longed to hold a tapestry needle, and the total rout of Sunday lunchtime snooze inclinations by the orgiastic fervour of Gorky's Zygotic Mynci's "Blood Chant". As the NME's air-balloon dawdled forlornly over the backstage media-whore complex (the weekly music paper's traditionally aggressive and self-regarding sponsorship having been happily superceded by the new, more demure model of monthly rival Select), it was possible to conclude, happily, that great pop music belongs to no one except the people who like it.
*Part II will appear on Friday's Pop pagesReuse content