Wednesday Book: The paradox of our pick-and-mix decade

The Nineties: What the f**k was that all about? by John Robb (Ebury Press, pounds 9.99)
SWEARING! IN the subtitle!! Of a book published by Random House!!! When historians look back at the new horizons of cultural freedom opened in the last decade of the 20th century, this is exactly the sort of thing they will focus on. The cover of this book about Nineties pop culture - an alcopop bottle customised into the form of a Molotov cocktail - enhances the incendiary impression. But by the time a sub-subtitle has assured us that this is "a front line account", alarm bells of a kind other than those carried by fire engines have begun to sound.

The martial tone, however, implies faint-heartedness, rather than courage. It suggests that one deserves credit simply for participating in popular culture, when the notion can have validity only as something that involves us all on equal terms.

In John Robb's case, though, the bogus identity of pop-cultural combatant probably has more legs than usual. As a gruff-voiced singer with bands The Membranes and Gold Blade, as journalist, producer, independent record- label boss, occasional voice of reason on Radio1 and latterly biographer of The Charlatans and The Stone Roses, his devotion to walking it as he talks it borders entertainingly on the pathological. "While you were putting your CDs into alphabetical order," his opening chapter lectures the cowed reader, "I've been out there waving the flag for rock'n'roll".

The ensuing list of flag-waving activities suggests we may be in the hands of a professional self-publicist. (In the last 10 years, Robb has "appeared naked on Polish TV and "made love in the special room of Belgrade town hall"). Yet his is a novel combination of megalomania and modesty. He misses no opportunity to place himself at the centre of events, while deferring to a brains-trust of named sources - the editor of Select, the Radio 1 DJ Mary Anne Hobbs, the Manic Street Preachers' biographer Simon Price - whenever he feels the time has come for reasoned analysis.

But it would have been nice if Robb had relied on his own voice. For his passionate enthusiasm is often leavened with a beguiling sprinkle of scepticism. The Nineties, he tells us, was "a decade when everyone picked and mixed from the myriad of scenes for their own individual taste and then wore the same combat trousers".

His assertion that his chosen span "pissed all over the much-hyped and feted Sixties" raises the rather ludicrous spectre of a decadal championship, in which the 1830s might battle it out with the 1900s. Just as Mother's Day was invented by greetings-card manufacturers, the concept of the decade was drawn up by the media in order to fill space. Shifts in behaviour do not package themselves neatly in 10-year cycles; these units have meaning only as intellectual junk bonds through which successive generations broker shifts in cultural power.

Robb's book reflects this by doing much of its most interesting work on things that happened in preceding decades. His chapter on the antecedents of Nineties masculine archetypes in the Northern football-terrace fashions of the late Seventies and early Eighties is particularly illuminating.

What is fascinating about the way cultural change works is how old and new languages exist side by side, then fade into each other. Hence, on the one hand, Robb's world view is an old-fashioned one, clearly rooted in Sixties counterculture and battle-hardened by punk. Independent record companies are good, major companies bad; high fashion is bad, street fashion good. Yet he can celebrate the Sony-mediated Manic Street Preachers "sound- tracking the lives of the people that used to laugh at them", or the twisted genius of Steps' Svengali Pete Waterman, in ways that seems entirely modern - and, paradoxically, in tune with a decentralisation of cultural power.

Having carved out a dignified living for two decades on the lower rungs of pop's economic ladder, Robb could be forgiven the odd sideswipe at those who clambered over him. Yet there are no sour grapes in his pre- fame visions of those who made it big. Noel Gallagher, for example, the "skinny little guy with the long mop that hung around with the Inspiral Carpets", is described as "always polite, witty and a touch shy... some claimed that he was the band's roadie, but he never seemed to do much work for them".

Ben Thompson

The daily poem is on page 10