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Memorable moments but fundamentally flawed
on 5 August 2004
A well written romp through the Britpop years, this is a great nostalgic read for those of us who turned 30 around the same time as Noel and Damon in the mid 90s.
But Hammer of the Gods it ain't. ...
Harris's elegant rehash of received critical wisdom from the pages of Q and NME (in particular David Cavanagh and Stuart Maconies' writings on Creation and Blur) may make for an entertaining read, but ultimately is fundamentally flawed.
Although well researched (I had heard years ago from a North London flatmate about Brett Anderson living with the Mennonites but until I saw this in print, never quite believed him,) Harris lacks genuine perspective and originality.
His narrow obsession with the blur/elastica/suede triangle trips him up more than once into a pedantic "being harder on Oasis than Blur" bias. Given that Noel Gallagher is eloquent enough to defend himself even within this author's cuttings, this won't necessarily spoil anyone's enjoyment.
Ultimately however, the book's biggest weakness is failing to do what it says on the cover - whilst acknowledging the early 90s Madchester phenomenon, the lack of any further historical context on record and export sales figures for British Bands means that it fails to fully chart the 'demise of English rock.'
Likewise, the focus on the guitar milieu means that the book also fails to fully convey the sheer 'anti-Tory vibe' of 90s popular culture. Random cursory mentions aside, there is precious little acknowledgment of how deeply the (justified) political scepticism of programmes like the Day Today and Drop the Dead Donkey and HIGNFY embedded itself in the national consciousness. The parallel successes of rave culture in forging a more diverse inclusive vibe and its interaction with Britpop via festivals and the likes of Massive Attack and Talvin Singh, are also wholly ignored.
Without this context, Harris's eye for detail is insufficient to fully convey the spirit of the period about which he writes. He is also weak on racial politics - the partly British Asian heritage of Cornershop and Echobelly would have seemed like a dream to anyone growing up in the 1980s and yet, amidst his clichéd reminiscence of student union politics, (Mandela bars and the like,) Harris fails to acknowledge this type of progress - which was just as visible amongst northern/working class band members as among southern artschool types.
It is typical of the book that whilst referring to it in passing, Harris fails to appreciate the political significance of the War Child album released in mid-1995 - featuring the likes of Pavarotti, U2, Weller and McCartney as well as various Britpop collectives, not to mention dragging the Stone Roses away from their 4 year 'second album' break - to raise money for victims of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia.
The album, coming so shortly after the Srebrenica massacre and a groundswell of global anger at the one-sided UN arms embargo enforced by the likes of Douglas Hurd, to the detriment of the multi-faith Bosnian government in Sarajevo, was almost as much a political statement as the Concert for Bangladesh in 1971. Given Blair's penchant for armed intervention ever since, even when not so universally popular, one wonders about the album's longer term political influence?
Significantly for readers of this book, despite enthusing about Warchild's importance in raising awareness amongst "the indie kids of England", Brett Anderson's choice of track for the album - Shipbuilding - Costello's brilliant anti-Falklands war hymn - was in a way a handy metaphor for his career.
By choosing a pacifist piece about a maritime war for citizens of a landlocked country desperate to defend itself against ethnic cleansers, Suede magnificently missed the point.
But then as a wise man once said, "Please don't put your life in the hands of a rock and roll band, they'll only throw it away." And of course, the same goes for politicians.
Niaz Alam August 2004