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The Britpop years

In the rosy Blairite dawn, it seemed that New Labour and Britpop were made for each other. After the break-up, the true story came out: the drugs, the cynicism, the betrayal. John Harris looks back on a doomed affair

Wednesday 07 May 2003 00:00 BST

In February 1996, Tony Blair made one of the strangest speeches of his career. Those were the days when he had yet to take on the onerous responsibilities of government, so he found sufficient space in his diary for a visit to that year's Brit Awards. There, in addition to watching Jarvis Cocker's celebrated send-up of Michael Jackson, he was charged with the responsibility of presenting a Lifetime Achievement statuette to David Bowie. When he arrived at the podium, he dispensed sentences that were predictably light on verbs, and assumed a facial expression that suggested an amateur-dramatics enthusiast's attempt at statesmanlike destiny. The meat of his speech, however, was hardly the stuff of standard political oratory.

"It's been a great year for British music," said Blair. "A year of creativity, vitality, energy. British bands storming the charts. British music back once again in its right place, at the top of the world. And at least part of the reason for that has been the inspiration that today's bands can draw from those that have gone before. Bands in my generation like The Beatles and The Stones and The Kinks. Of a later generation: The Clash, The Smiths, The Stone Roses..."

We should pause there to consider, in retrospect, just how surreal that moment seems. Tony Blair – friend of Bush, chum of Rumsfeld, international agent of Christian neo-imperialism – was celebrating the influence of The Clash, authors of such songs as "Hate And War", "Clampdown" and "Rock The Casbah". His nod to The Smiths perhaps implied a recognition of the brilliance of their best album, The Queen Is Dead. If The Stone Roses seem a rather less incongruous choice, it should still be noted that the peak of their fame, five years beforehand, had been founded on the collision of rock music and the drug ecstasy. The church-going Blair would also surely have bristled at their most fondly loved anthem, a rather blasphemous tune entitled "I Am The Resurrection".

Twenty minutes prior to his Brits speech, Blair had been trailed by an unexpected warm-up act. Oasis, for whom the ceremony had been little short of a coronation, had received three awards. After being handed their gong for Best Group from The Who's Pete Townshend, Noel Gallagher stepped up to the microphone and paid tribute to himself, his group, Alan McGee – the boss of his record company, Creation – and the Leader of the Opposition. "There are seven people in this room who are giving a little bit of hope to young people in this country," he said, while visibly steadying himself on his feet. "That is [sic] me, our kid, Bonehead, Guigs, Alan White, Alan McGee and Tony Blair. And if you've all got anything about you, you'll go up there and you'll shake Tony Blair's hand, man. He's the man! Power to the people!"

Both Noel and Blair's words were emblematic of the Britpop era, the period that stretched from 1994 to 1998, and – as Blair noted – saw the UK's rock music achieving sky-scraping commercial success while proudly drawing on the influence of the past, and the Sixties in particular. There were times when, scanning the acres of newsprint devoted to Britpop, one rather got the impression that London had mutated into some Austin Powers-esque film set, crowded with bright young things, and soundtracked by successors to The Beatles and The Stones. It is testament to the Blairites' canniness that the Leader of the Opposition was included in this fantasia: compared to JFK, applauded for his wish that Britain should reinvent itself as a "young country" (whatever that meant), and sent invitations to all the right soirées.

Of course, his glad-handing of Britain's newest musical celebrities came with the odd risk. Regular and pretty extreme intoxication was de rigueur for the Britpoppers – and, as was well known, the Gallagher brothers were particularly fond of chemical refreshment. When the Blairs approached Oasis's table, their demeanour suggested they had been warned. "They were very sheepish," says Paul "Bonehead" Arthurs, then the band's rhythm guitarist. "Cherie Blair was like, 'Would you mind awfully signing something for my kids? They're very big fans." We just went, 'Waaaargh'. We were fucked." In the recollection of Tim Abbot, who was one of Oasis's closest associates, "There were literally ounces of cocaine, just a couple of feet away from them."

Blair's rock'n'roll credentials had been established in May 1994, when he announced that he would be standing for the Labour leadership. To the palpable delight of those charged with compiling quickfire biographies, it was discovered that he had briefly been the singer with a college band called Ugly Rumours, who had benefited from a mincing performance style akin to that of Mick Jagger. At the end of that year, Blair paid a visit to Q magazine's annual awards ceremony, and was photographed in animated conversation with the likes of Bono from U2 and Pink Floyd's Dave Gilmour. The following spring, he made his first Britpop contact, when – after making the right noises in a run of interviews – Blur's Damon Albarn was invited to meet the Leader of the Opposition for drinks.

By 1996, thanks chiefly to Oasis, Britpop's red, white and blue colours had seemingly been wrapped around the whole country. When they announced that they were to play to 250,000 people over two nights at Knebworth Park, near Stevenage, 2.6 million people – one in 20 of the UK's population – applied for tickets. "Wonderwall", the balmy ballad of redemption that had set up camp in the singles chart in November 1995, was still blaring from car sound systems and building-site radios. As if to give the ring of truth to all the comparisons to the 1960s, that year also saw England's hosting of the Euro 96 football championships – when the national team was mentioned in the same breath as Hurst, Moore et al, and the terraces bellowed that fondly loved de facto Britpop anthem "Three Lions": "It's coming home, it's coming home/ It's coming/ Football's coming home".

Looking back, what's particularly astonishing about this period is its air of all-embracing unanimity. In the 1980s, Thatcherism had bisected the UK both politically and geographically, and the division was reflected in Britain's pop culture: left-wing refuseniks such as Paul Weller, Billy Bragg and Morrissey waged war on conspicuous consumers such as Duran Duran, while thousands of their disciples expressed their dissent through boycotting the Murdoch press, wearing second-hand overcoats, and expressing their distaste for words such as "tits". A decade on, Britons suddenly seemed to be freshly glued together: albums such as Blur's Parklife and Oasis's What's The Story (Morning Glory?) were bought by both Sun readers and students, and lad culture encouraged even the most haughty bourgeois to embrace such proletarian totems as fried breakfasts and Sunday morning kickabouts.

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New Labour's endless good fortune seemed to reflect all this. By early 1996, with Labour ahead in the polls by anything up to 25 percentage points, it was to Blair's benefit that Britain was, to use John Major's phrase, at ease with itself. And of course, the Blairites made sure he pushed all the requisite buttons: the 1996 Labour Party conference saw Blair being presented with an Oasis platinum disc by Alan McGee, and – in his drooled-over speech – working the delegates into a pre-election fervour by craftily rewriting "Three Lions": "18 years of hurt never stopped us dreaming – Labour's coming home".

In the meeting rooms of the Millbank Tower, meanwhile, McGee was courted by the likes of Peter Mandelson and Margaret McDonagh. Accompanied by Andy Saunders, Creation Records' director of communications, he found himself being tapped for his supposed youth-cultural nous. "We never actually sat down and said, 'Let's get down to it'," says Saunders. "We'd walk out and go, 'What was that about?' But they'd probably got loads out of us. They asked all the right questions, like, 'How many are Oasis selling?', but it was never anything overt. I suppose they saw Alan as a point of access to pop culture: someone they could go to and say, 'Is this cool or not cool?'''

In the wake of the Blair landslide, McGee was rewarded for his co-operation with an invite to a still-infamous Downing Street reception. On Wednesday 30 July 1997, he and his wife Kate, along with Noel Gallagher and Meg Mathews, joined the likes of Lenny Henry, Simon Mayo, Anita Roddick and Tony "Baldrick" Robinson to congratulate the new Prime Minister on his victory. Photographs of Noel's brief conversation with Blair made the following morning's front pages, though the substance of their chat only emerged a couple of years later. Noel spoke about his experience of election night, in response to which Blair suggested that – given the right company – he was a little more relaxed about the scourge of narcotics than his public pronouncements suggested. "I said, 'Oh, it was brilliant, man, we stayed up till seven o'clock in the morning to watch you arrive at the [Labour Party] headquarters. How did you stay up all night?" Gallagher later recalled. "And he leant over and said, 'Probably not by the same means as you did.' And at that point I knew he was a geezer."

Unfortunately, the Gallagher brothers' fondness for expensive pick-me-ups would soon prove, in artistic terms at least, to be their downfall. Three weeks after the Downing Street party, Oasis released Be Here Now, an album that initially sold by the cartload, but soon revealed itself to be a cocaine-addled disaster. By that point, Britpop had lost its lustre: in place of the excitement that had characterised 1994 and 1995, the music scene was dominated by increasingly moronic bandwagon-jumpers, peddling bland xeroxes of the Gallaghers' brand of populist, Sixties-indebted rock.

For a time, however, New Labour ill-advisedly prolonged its Britpop period. Alan McGee, along with Paul Smith, Richard Branson and Waheed Ali were appointed to a short-lived and long-forgotten body called the Creative Industries Task Force. The buzz-phrases among excitable Blairites were "cool Britannia" and "the rebranding of Britain": in April 1998, for example, the BBC reported that the then-foreign secretary Robin Cook had announced the formation of Panel 2000, a group of people "chosen to help give Britain a 'cool' image abroad". They included Peter Mandelson, Zeinab Badawi, Stella McCartney, and a former member of the cast of Gladiators.

As if to announce that even the holiest of government holies was now open to the Britpop world, towards the end of 1997, Alan and Kate McGee were invited for dinner at Chequers. "We drove up to the house and there were Swat teams everywhere: guys crawling around on the grass with guns," he recalls. "He [Blair] answered the door wearing jeans, with a pint in his hand. We went in, and then it gotreally psychedelic. Judi Dench was there, a guy from Psion computers, that author, John O'Farrell, and Jimmy Savile. I introduced him to Kate, and he started sucking her fingers. It was totally weird."

Though surrealism was the hallmark of Blair's dealings with the likes of McGee, it was eventually replaced by rancour. In March 1998, the NME called time on the concordat between rock music and New Labour with a cover story that aimed to explode the idea that the Blair government was youth-friendly. Thanks to the imposition of student tuition fees and the so-called New Deal, their case seemed convincing – and droves of musicians were happy to back them up.

Alan McGee, convinced that the government's welfare reforms would cripple the hopes of young rock groups, managed to use the NME's coverage to squeeze out a massively unlikely concession from the Department of Employment: the New Deal For Musicians, according to which aspirant stars could convince DSS advisers of their talent and commitment, and continue to receive unemployment benefit. It remains the only example of Britpop legislation.

But by 2000, even McGee was railing against New Labour. His mooting of Malcolm McLaren as an independent candidate for London Mayor – though conceived as an art joke – led to a breakdown in relations with his old allies. McGee suspected he was, in classic Blairite style, being briefed against. He wrote a furious piece for The Independent: "The Labour Party is a joke, and I was conned into helping their cause."

By then, in any case, the days when musicians and their associates would be invited into Downing Street had gone. Britain was surely in need of something a little more thoroughgoing than "rebranding"; Tony Blair, to no one's great surprise, seemed to have slightly more pressing things to do.

John Harris's book, 'The Last Party: Britpop, Blair and the Demise of English Rock', is published this week by Fourth Estate (£14.99)

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