Pop: It's over (definitely maybe)

The founders of the record label that was set up on a shoestring and went on to discover Oasis have bailed out. What went wrong? By John Harris
On 10 and 11 August 1996, Oasis gave two performances at Knebworth Park, the aristocratic estate just outside Stevenage that still stands as a byword for rock success. On each day, 125,000 people came to pay their respects - but the most telling spectacle of all was hidden in the backstage guest area. A vast marquee had been erected: the kind that is usually seen at race meetings and polo matches. Within, specially-invited members of the music business made merry, while a clutch of VIPs - Kate Moss, Mick Hucknall - partied behind a length of scarlet rope. A vast sign above the tent's entrance spoke volumes about the barrel-chested confidence that underpinned the whole event: "Creation Records," it read. "World Class."

Yesterday, however, came news proving that that world is long gone. Alan McGee, the 40-year-old ex-railway clerk who began Creation on a garden- shed budget in 1983, announced that he and his partner Dick Green were exiting the label - the Sony Music Group, it seems, will now take full control. The latter has owned 49 per cent of Creation since 1991 - now, it seems, the label is destined to be little more than one of several Sony imprints. Whether Oasis will remain part of any Creation set-up is unclear. A statement yesterday from Oasis's management said: "Any talk about new labels is pure speculation at this juncture."

A recent deluge of sour-faced claims suggest that 1999 has been one of British music's worst ever years - and Creation's effective demise only backs up such pessimism. Operating from a rather shabby set of offices in London's Primrose Hill, it was the last refuge of the "indie" ethic, frequently issuing records with little thought for their market potential, and laying constant claim to disdain for balance sheets and profit forecasts.

Indeed, there have been occasions when McGee's fondness for the inexplicable, taste-driven project seemed to get the better of him. In 1997, he issued an album of light orchestral music conducted by his father, a Glaswegian ex-panel beater. This year, he indulged in quite the most spectacular folly of all: an album called My Beauty by ex-Dexy's Midnight Runners frontman Kevin Rowland - who had emerged from the career doldrums wearing stockings and suspenders, singing nothing but cover versions. The disc is reputed to have sold less than 500 copies in the UK, but McGee seemed unconcerned. "I don't give a fuck if it's a commercial disaster," he spat, "because it's one of the most beautiful records I've ever heard."

One of Creation's founding maxims was "Doing It For The Kids" - but there were times when McGee and his associates seemed to be in business for no one but themselves. Still, the label's track record entitled him to more than a little indulgence. Creation's cultural potency peaked three times: in the mid-Eighties, when they pioneered the nascent culture of indie, put the tin lid on the canonisation of the Velvet Underground, and made tight black trousers a totem of cool; in 1991, when Primal Scream's Screamadelica successfully embodied the height of the UK's love affair with ecstasy and scooped the Mercury Music Prize; and during the Britpop era - the time when Oasis made McGee his fortune and fleetingly put Creation on the world stage.

According to legend, McGee discovered them quite by accident. Visiting relatives in Glasgow, and keen to kill a couple of hours before getting his train back to London, he strayed into the King Tut's Wah Wah Hut venue and clapped eyes on his ideal band. The Gallaghers had reputedly turned up unannounced, and threatened to smash the place up if they weren't allowed to play - such hard-faced assurance, coupled with their songs, instantly convinced McGee that he should sign them.

Back then, he was all but dissolving in the effects of cocaine and alcohol abuse. Indeed, even among his own musicians, he had a reputation for unfathomable behaviour: "When we played Alan `Supersonic'," said Noel Gallagher, "he poured a bottle of Jack Daniel's over his head and said he was going to phone up each and every one his bands and fire them." Instead, it was McGee who had to temporarily exit the music business. In February 1994, just as the ascent of Oasis decisively began, he boarded in a plane in LA after a huge drug binge and had a convulsive fit. The result was a year-long period of rehabilitation, during which he was absent from Creation altogether. Oasis paid reputed tribute to his talents: while he was away, they would dedicate renditions of "Live Forever" to him.

Britpop eventually kick-started the politico-cultural moment known as Cool Britannia. The newly-straight McGee was in the forefront, advising Tony Blair on arts policy, and accompanying Noel Gallagher on his post- election visit to Number 10. One of the photos taken at the event embodies an occasion that looks like something from another era: Gallagher, dressed more like a footballer than a rock star, shaking hands with Blair while McGee looks on, oozing pride. It represented both the highpoint of British music's cultural impact, and its effective castration - for, if rock stars were now friends of the Government, how could they continue to be truly exciting? Such, arguably, was one of many factors behind the bursting of the Britpop bubble. Whatever, the charts are now dominated by teen clones and safe American imports, and the success of the next Oasis album is by no means assured.

According to rumour, McGee has decided to throw in the towel because his brand of maverick business - not to mention the guitar-rock in which he has always specialised - is simply proving untenable. Churlish minds would argue that Creation Records hardly helped its own cause, but its effective demise is undoubtedly part of the banalisation of the UK's music scene. Couldn't its friend Mr Blair indulge in an act of state intervention and preserve them as a national treasure?