still crazy after all these years

SEX, DRUGS AND ROCK 'N' ROLL Introducing our three-week exploration of sex, drugs and rock'n'roll in the Nineties, Dylan Jones asks whether British culture has rediscovered the power to shock

a fairly typical night at a fashionable members club in deepest Soho: two famous comedians, one notorious contemporary artist and the lead singer of an enormously popular Britpop band have just disappeared into a cubicle in the men's loos; not to write a pop song or a TV sketch, not to draw up contracts for a new media collective, nor to discuss the demise of the Late Show. No, these four famous men are huddled together for the sole purpose of taking cocaine. "I do so much these days," says one of the comedians, "that when I go to the cashpoint the notes come out already rolled."

Cocaine is now the populist drug of choice in London's pubs, nightclubs and private members clubs from Notting Hill to Bow Quarter, not to mention the City's square mile. "It's frightening," says Richard Benson, the editor of the Face, "you can't go anywhere these days and not have it shoved at you." Cocaine is the binding agent of what many are now calling Swinging London, a classless (or at least class-variable) drug which has brought the worlds of pop, art, film and fashion (not to mention the building trade) together once again. Cafe society never had it so good.

During the late Eighties, London seemed to be suffering from the same hangover which affected the lumpen, featureless Seventies, with matt black turning grey before its time. But if you believe the buzz you'll believe that the city is once again a crucible of self-expression, the centre of anything and everything.

The predominant reason for this attention is the resuscitation of British pop music. For the first four years of the 1990s, the only music which somehow captured the spirit of the times was grunge, with nihilist rock groups such as Nirvana, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam reflecting the apathetic nature of young America, and consequently young Britain. We came close to witnessing the death of British youth culture: drugs - and in particular ecstasy - had become unreliable, British rock was almost non-existent, and fashion had followed grunge into the gutter. But 1994 brought a sea- change, as the release of Blur's monumental album Parklife coincided with the birth of the New Lad (an idea born in Arena magazine which found a home in Loaded). British teenagers got bored with being bored, started dressing up again, and began to take notice of the dozens of young white British rock groups waiting in the wings.

"When Britpop happened there was definitely something in the air," says Adrian Deevoy, contributing editor of Q. "After the release of Parklife, British music seemed to become fun again, people began dressing better, you certainly felt that something was going to come off. Music became an important part of people's lives again." In May that year the Face put Blur on its cover, along with a Union Jack, and things began to make sense.

Meanwhile, in the world of fashion, Britain's love affair with US-style, down-at-heel grunge was beginning to wane. For the previous five or six seasons grunge had taken over the runway, adopted by stylists and designers anxious not to be left behind. But grunge, by definition, did little for fashion sales. Time for the British fashion industry to come up with something new, a conscious return to glamour, orchestrated with great success by Robin Derrick, art director of British Vogue.

"In 1994 there was only one way for things to go," Derrick says. "You could feel there was a change in the air, not just on the street but also within the industry, too. It was a time for something fresh, for something glamorous to reflect what was going on in London. Fashion was becoming more upbeat, more sexual, Britpop was about to happen in a big way, and London seemed exciting again for the first time in years. It really is a fascinating time."

It's not surprising, then, that the last two London Fashion Weeks have seen more activity and more interest from foreign buyers and press for nearly a decade.

As for press attention, the London art world has not seen anything like it, not for years. Damien Hirst and Mark Quinn have generated banner tabloid headlines all over the world with their sensationalist work (dead sheep in formaldehyde, human busts filled with blood). A huge exhibition of British artists is currently running in Minneapolis called "Brilliant! New Art from London", including work by Hirst, Sarah Lucas, Tracey Emin and Jake & Dinos Chapman to name only a few. "The whole British scene is totally exportable," says Sadie Coles, director of London's Anthony D'Offay Gallery. "It's gaining momentum all the time. The great thing is that not only has this attention made stars out of people like Damien, but it has forced critics from all over the world to cast their net a bit wider and take into account some of the younger artists in London. The whole thing's just starting, art has rediscovered its power to shock."

In the cynical, complacent Eighties, it was easy to believe that culture could never again produce anything to shock. But a new sex culture which believes that self-mutilation is the last vestige of self-expression is ensuring that the generation gap is alive and well. The nose-ring, lip-ring, eyebrow-ring or cock-ring has replaced the tattoo as the bullish society-snub of the day. And far from fading into the nether regions of suburbia, a new upfront sado-masochism has found a home among a whole new generation. "Sex has become a far more volatile issue than it ever was before," says one self-determining S&M aficionado. "People seem to have realised that they have control over their own bodies. In fact, their bodies are the only things they have control over."

If you judge how much London swings by the amount of attention it creates abroad, then the flash points are easy to see. It first happened in 1966/67, when London was rubber-stamped as the trendiest city in the Western hemisphere; it happened again 10 years later in 1976/77 when punk rock reared its ugly, peroxide head, and then again in 1983 with the New Pop, the year in which over a third of American chart places were taken by British acts.

And now it's happening all over again. Pick up any major American newspaper and the arts and metro sections will be full of references to London's resurgence as a fashion capital, Damien Hirst's offal delights, or the almost pan-global feud between the two new kings of pop, Oasis and Blur.

Richard Benson puts his finger on it when he says, "Swinging London exists as much as it did in the 1960s, but whether or not the Sixties actually meant as much as it was supposed to is open to question. There is certainly a great deal of energy coming from London, and the cross- fertilisation is fantastic - Damien Hirst directing a Blur video, for example - but apart from that it's a bit of a cliche. If you accept that the singer from Menswear, the guitarist from Pulp and two NME journalists playing pool in The Good Mixer [the trendy Britpop pub in Camden Town] is interesting, then you've got Swinging London."

It seems that the major difference between the 1960s and the 1990s is marketing, and if truth be known, perhaps this melting-pot of cultures, this cross-pollination of ideas is nothing more than a lot of grandstanding by another generation of uppity renaissance lads.

But then was London ever really any different? The author Jonathan Green was in the eye of the storm during the 1960s, and has written about it extensively. "London was the most amazing place in the Sixties," he says. "It became democratised, and worlds which had hitherto only been available to certain sets of people became accessible to, if not everyone, then at least anyone who was interested. Of course it was never as much like Blow Up as people wanted it to be, but the media peddled it hard, so it stuck.

"As for now, London does seem to be an exciting place again, though if I'm honest I don't get the feeling from my children [13 and 18] that I am missing out on too much. It's so much more difficult to shock people these days, everything goes by in a bit of a blur."

The Sixties was a totemic era, that period after the war and before post- modernism when we believed that anything was possible. But now that we know that not only is anything possible, but also inevitable, change becomes less interesting. And as for Swinging London, as an American journalist once told Jonathan Green, it was just an excuse for Time magazine to run dozens of photographs of young girls wearing miniskirts. It's reassuring to find that some things never change.

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