Daniel Rachel’s A-list, A-grade oral history of the Britpop 1990s, broadly outlined here as the years between the explosion of acid house and the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997, generates a more fluid portrayal than the headlines suggest, high-calibre interviewees from music, art, comedy and politics offering mercurial perspectives on a time that began with the promise of outlaw creativity, but as the winds changed quickly hardened into a coked-up grotesque...Through this shifting, twisting narrative, Rachel creates a potent record of a time when things really did stand a chance of getting better, but somehow ended up significantly worse.
Don’t Look Back in Anger returns us to a time when music occupied a more central position in national life than it has since. Blair’s campaign strategist Peter Mandelson approached record labels asking “can you get your bands to endorse Labour?” To Blair, this wasn’t the hijacking of a youth movement but a natural union based on a shared “mood of forward-looking optimism”. The manoeuvres of New Labour supply the most revealing moments here; whether the subject is politics or pop, though, it’s a shame we don’t hear from those who weren’t invited to the party.
Rachel is a former musician and the author of two previous oral histories about pop, and he succinctly arranges his material into themed chapters (on the Millennium Dome and Tate Modern, for instance, or the death of Diana). I tore through it, savouring every high and low point of this hazy, hard-to-define epoch. I particularly loved the incidental detail. For instance, the Spice Girls’ wallpaper range had to be withdrawn because Emma Bunton’s nightie had “F*** off” written on it.
The early part of the book succeeds in identifying the unlikely strands of indie rock, club culture, sport and fashion that will eventually knit together in the mid-Nineties. I remember when I felt all of this coalescing: watching Oasis walk on stage at Irvine, Beach Park in June 1995, kicking footballs into the crowd, many of the audience wearing football tops or Stone Island clothes, many of them pilled out of their minds, punching the air – in and on ecstasy – as the band went into “Acquiesce”.
Even if you are familiar with, say, the Britpop saga, the machinations that produced the Young British Artists, the Turner prize and the Tate Modern are illuminating. If you’re in the habit of reading political memoirs, the extent to which Labour relied on Manchester United boss Alex Ferguson for advice might be revelatory... Oral histories are eminently readable, allowing for dissent and contrast. Rachel’s editorialising is confined to an explanatory introduction and his fairly blokeish agenda-setting... Perhaps the book’s greatest irritation is its repeated attempts to define Cool Britannia, which leaves everyone floundering or hand-wringing. There was a confluence and a cross-pollination of many creatives in a booming economy under a helpful government. This book is a timely reminder, though, of exactly how much messaging, perception and image counted – not so different from the Instagram era after all, perhaps.