A Heady, Giddy Time

James Cook, Memory Songs: A Personal Journey Into the Music That Shaped the 90s

Unbound, 304pp, £18.99, ISBN 9781783525218

reviewed by Thom Cuell

For James Cook, a memory song is 'a piece of music so bound up with my past it is almost a physical part of it, like an old school book.’ In this book, which combines the memoir of a struggling musician trying to make it in the pre-Britpop boom with intelligent and sensitive critique of artists ranging from John Barry to Nirvana, Cook analyses the songs which marked important stages in his life, as well as their impact on the broader musical scene.

The bulk of Memory Songs is concerned with what we might call the short 1990s, beginning with the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind in September 1991, and ending when Noel Gallagher attended a party at 10 Downing Street in July 1997. (Interestingly, Iain Sinclair dates the end of the Nineties to the death of Princess Diana, barely a month later.) Primarily, it revisits the emergence of a new wave of British bands, including Suede, Pulp and the Manic Street Preachers. Tentatively known as either Lion-pop or the New Wave of New Wave, this loose movement was an explosion of glamour and intelligence in a moribund music scene.

At the time James, along with twin brother Jude, was an unemployed 24-year-old living in London’s Muswell Hill, furiously writing songs for his band, and facing the classic dilemmas of the aspiring musician: 'food versus cigarettes; amp repairs versus electricity bill; proper job versus an insane artistic project.’ Connected to Suede through the drummer, Simon Gilbert, who their band briefly shared, James and Jude saw Suede’s debut on Top of the Pops as a year zero moment: 'we ditched the set, the name – annihilated every idea from the last four years’, and began again.

This moment of reinvention was surprisingly appropriate. In his book on The KLF, Chaos, Magic and The Band That Burned a Million Pounds (2013), John Higgs argued that the early Nineties were a strange, liminal time – on the world scale, in the gap between the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of the Digital age; in Britain, the moribund, shuffling years between Thatcher’s resignation and the brief euphoria of Blair. For all that there was a sense of stagnation, though, there were also possibilities: affordable London rents, maverick A & R men scouting talent in dingy pubs, and the dole, ‘the true Arts Council of Great Britain’. Cook saw contemporaries such as Simon, and schoolmate Rob Newman, rising to prominence, 'people from unremarkable backgrounds achieving extraordinary things'. Without the proliferation of views enabled by the internet, the NME and Melody maker were 'an unelected committee of taste-makers that could decide if a group had a career or not', capable of making or breaking a group with one live review.

Beyond the pages of these publications, and before the rise of the heritage rock industry, tracking down information on bands was a difficult, time-consuming process. Cook’s account of his early musical loves, The Beatles, John Barry, the terrible un-hipness of being into Led Zeppelin in 1984, is given an added sense of mystery by the relative difficulty of being able to track down photos and interviews. A different sort of memory is attached to these discoveries, tied up with the labour-intensive processes of home taping and trawling through record fairs. It’s not surprising, then, that he becomes a passionate fan of ‘portal bands’, groups like The Waterboys, Roxy Music and later the Manics, who opened him to a new world of musical and artistic influences through their work.

The book charts Cook’s journey from fan to player, albeit on a small scale, and draws a parallel between the author’s own sense of disillusionment at the vicissitudes of the music industry and a wider malaise, culminating in the suicide of Kurt Cobain and the disappearance of Richey Edwards. The scene of which he was part was transient, its punkish, independent spirit soon to be steamrollered by Oasis and their 'rapacious lust for success'. For many, including journalist John Harris, Britpop was ‘the last party’, the last significant music movement – although fans of, say, grime, or the resurgent indie of the early 2000s, may beg to differ.

It’s easy to be snippy about Britpop now; a series of Guardian articles published in 2014 to mark the 20th anniversary of the ‘scene’ derided the music as an abomination, and took some perverse pleasure in the subsequent misfortunes faced by members of associated acts such as Menswe@r and Marion. What Cook reminds us of, late on in Memory Songs, is that away from the dodgy A&R guys, endless tours of Germany and meals of bread dipped in gravy, is the euphoric experience of playing to an excited, receptive audience, which everyone who has been in a band has experienced at least once. For his band, Flamingos, this was a sold-out concert at The Highbury Garage, with a front row made up of Japanese fans singing along to every word of their songs. Regrettable as it might seem now, Britpop was a heady, giddy time; the bands were stars, people fell in love at their concerts, or enjoyed big nights out with friends that they still reminisce about today. Although much of his experience is connected to the grind of trying to make it, Cook allows these moments to shine through.

Memory Songs joins an established corpus of memoirs by music fans, including Lost in Music (2015) by Giles Smith and The Importance of Music to Girls (2007) by Lavinia Greenlaw. While the musical landscape Cook describes is a far cry from the world of Spotify, YouTube and X Factor, his writing retains a sense of immediacy and excitement, and his own experiences as a touring musician are a grim counterpoint to the euphoria which marks many of his memory songs.