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)
Wednesday 15 September 1999
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".
The daily poem is on page 10
TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride
FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head
Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treattv
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Autistic adults could take pure MDMA to 'reduce social anxiety'
- 2 Stolen Instagram photo sells for $90,000
- 3 Before you complain about your GP, this is what you need to know about actually doing the job
- 4 Charlie Charlie Challenge explained: not a Mexican demon being summoned — it's gravity
- 5 Paracetamol Challenge: Mother of girl killed by overdose pleads with teenagers not to take part
Stolen Instagram photo sells for $90,000
Grace of Monaco film panned: Screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman as movie gets US debut
Suicide Squad: leaked footage shows first look at Batmobile chasing Joker through city streets
ASAP Rocky sparks outrage with misogynistic lyrics about Rita Ora in new song 'Better Things'
'I was raped as a child, and only now can I tell my story': How James Rhodes fought the law courts in a battle to be heard
EU referendum: David Cameron's rules are a 'democratic disgrace', says French-born Scottish politician set to be denied a vote
The day that Britain resigned as a global power
SNP fury as HS2 finds 'no business case' for taking fast train service to Scotland
Australian man punched in the face for defending Muslim women from abuse on train
A nation of inequality: How the UK is failing to feed its most vulnerable people
EU referendum: David Cameron to deny EU migrants and under-18s the chance to vote