Untroubled Times: David Stubbs in conversation with James Cook

by James Cook

I talked to journalist and author David Stubbs about his recent book, 1996 & the End of History, an examination of the year as it unfolded in the UK in politics, music, light entertainment and sport. We also discuss Memory Songs, my alternative history of the Brit-Pop moment, told through analysis of the music that informed the era, and recollections of my time as a songwriter during the 1990s.

JC: What gave you the idea for the book?

DS: Initially, I planned a history of the 1990s, ‘Untroubled Times’, a decade bookended by the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of the twin towers. It was to follow Britain’s emergence from a tough recession in the late eighties through to ‘92 and ‘93 when the economy started to pick up a bit . . . but this all seemed too vast, so I thought I would just focus on one year, 1996. Around that time there was a sort of perking up that was palpable in British culture. One of the first signs of it, for me, was Loaded magazine, who admitted themselves that they were appealing to this slightly more confident male, who had a little more money in his pocket; a spring in his step. There was also a sense that we’d emerged from all the angst of the 1980s, the political sternness. It was the anti-Joy Division times, which disaffected me, I suppose, being very much a child of the eighties and Joy Division. I really felt that something was being thrown out that shouldn’t be.

JC: Yes, you write: ‘with the energising lightning rod of antipathy’ that was Thatcher gone, 1996 found itself without a political conscience. Agitation, identity politics, all had seemingly been consigned to history. Can you expand on this a little?

DS: The Soviet Union had fallen, it was a post-political time. There were a few initiatives on the fringes of politics, Arthur Scargill, etc, but people just weren’t feeling it. They weren’t feeling the pinch in sufficiently large numbers. And there was a sense that the battle had been won. ‘Racism, feminism – we’ve done that; we don’t have to be tense about that stuff anymore, we get it!’

JC: So why 1996, and not 1995, say, or 1997? In ‘95 we saw the Blur versus Oasis skirmish, arguably the high watermark of Britpop; in ‘97, Tony Blair was elected, and Diana died. Why was 1996 the zenith of the nineties?

DS: It seemed as if there was a sort of crest of activity in 1996, with Blur and Oasis – although neither released albums that year. And Tony Blair being kind of Prime Minister-in-waiting, it was as if all these forces – music, politics, sport, were gathering, all coming to a head in that year. But ultimately, I think, it was the football – Euro 96, an event which had the power to unify the country for the first time since 1966.

JC: In your chapter on sport, ‘Three Lions, Sport and Resonance’, you examine why Euro 96’s semi final between England and Germany became the apotheosis of the year. ‘This really mattered’, you write. And here you deliver a marvellous tirade that manages to include Paul Gascoigne, Chris Evans, and EM Forster. But what of the dark aftermath, the anti-German hate crime that blighted some areas of the UK following the game?

DS: The tournament was the culmination of trying to replicate the year 1966 in all kinds of ways – there was a British invasion of America of sorts, the Union Jack was being touted as a fashion accessory . . . it was a moment of patriotism and pride that people wanted to share in. Something that everyone, not least Tony Blair and Oasis, wanted to be a part of. But then it became clear that certain people were taking it seriously in a deeply nasty way. After England lost, a 17-year-old from Russia was stabbed several times in Brighton on suspicion of being German.

JC: You write: ‘1996 feels like yesterday, and in other ways, quite extinct’. This is a fascinating idea.

DS: Yes. I mean, just look around this pub. The ‘stuff’, the tables, curtains, graphics, even the clothes people are wearing . . . they’re all sort of the same as they were 20 years ago. And this kind of thing [gestures to the overhead speakers where a Motown-pastiche song is playing], this could have been heard in here back in the mid-nineties. It would be easier to flashback to 1967, and within three or four seconds establish precisely where you were, rather than to time-travel back to 1997. All the revolutions that have changed us profoundly since then – the internet, social media – these have been revolutions of communication, technology; not of ‘stuff’, but the way that stuff is conveyed or disseminated.

JC: In one sense, the 20th century just sort of peters out. . .

DS: There’s a book out about 1997 [1997: The Future That Never Happened, by Richard Power Sayeed] and I think that’s the last year where there were sufficient shared experiences to write about. After that you might be really struggling. A book on 1998, or 1999, say, that would be really difficult to write.

JC: In Hanif Kureishi’s essay on the Beatles, ‘Eight Arms to Hold You’, he says that, apart from John Lennon’s, the only other public voice in his lifetime that had represented so much was Margaret Thatcher’s. ‘It was impenetrable for me that anyone could have voted for a sound so cold, so pompous, so clearly insincere, ridiculous and generally absurd.’ I remember thinking something similar about Tony Blair’s voice, once he had been in power for a number of years. Yet in the beginning, as you say, ‘he was dazzling’. His self-belief captured the sanguine, giddy spirit of 1996. Can you expand on this?

DS: After the 1992 election defeat I remember wondering how much further to the right the Labour party would have to go to get into power. There was just a sort of despair at that point. Then Tony Blair appeared. He used to pop up on Question Time a lot, and I remember thinking: what is this estate agent doing in the Labour party? He looked totally naff, ludicrous, like Cliff Richard, name-checking Oasis and the Stone Roses. But also, embarrassingly, he did dazzle in ‘96 in the sense that he blazed like a blinding light in a doorway to the future – an exit point, a day when the country would finally be rid of the Tories.

JC: There is much humour in the book, including a lovely joke about interviewing French band Daft Punk who talk mystifyingly about ‘Andrex’, until you realise they mean Hendrix. One of the funniest sections, for me, was when you write about your shock at Chris Evans’ grisly rise to fame. ‘What in the name of Holy Christ has happened to the world?’ you ask, that such a man could suddenly be seen as the arbiter of ‘indie’, and, indeed, become the highest paid entertainer in the country. Why did Evans pique you so much?

DS: [Laughs.] He was the anti-John Peel; he just seemed so retrograde. John Peel epitomised – temperamentally, constitutionally, in terms of his manner, the way he carried himself – the perfect representative of ‘indie’, in the sense of a mild air of disaffection. He had an immensely dry wit, whereas Evans very much dealt in ‘wet wit’, a throwback to the seventies. His jokes were not even jokes, just crass verbal statements: ‘I like cats . . . lightly grilled with garlic butter.’ Everything about him was obnoxious, yet we were constantly told at the time he was a broadcasting genius – I just couldn’t locate this genius! At least in the 1970s, with Dave Lee Travis and Noel Edmonds, you knew where you were, but the idea that Chris Evans should be sent out to interview Björk was just ridiculous. Yes, he was slick, fluent; he captured the times, but essentially he was a poor man’s Howard Stern, and lacking that man’s searing wit. They met once, apparently, and Stern made mincemeat of Evans. I found him utterly unappealing. Bullying one minute, fawning the next. Obsessed with money, career. A horrible force unleashed – he flooded out the counterculture!

JC: Jacques Derrida wrote: ‘There are no books, only other books.’ You adapt this for the chapter on music, ‘Only Other Records’. This section is highly illuminating on Britpop, sampling, and especially rap, but also ‘the other 96’: Alanis Morissette and groups like the Lighthouse Family, for example, who were active ‘without leaving a cultural trace’. What state was pop music in, in 1996?

DS: The Lighthouse Family dominated the British nineties the way Engelbert Humperdinck (rather than Hendrix) dominated the late 1960s, from a hit parade point of view. But in other respects, 1996 was pretty healthy – post-rock, rap, sampling . . . ‘96 was a year of multiple threads and facets. And this was one of the reasons why people wanted to settle on the one big thing – a band like Oasis. They were confused by the fragmentation, the diversity, the variegation of all this activity.

JC: You write about television comedy in the book. I can’t agree with you on the greatness of Vic and Bob, I’m afraid, but you’re absolutely right about how good Father Ted and The Fast Show were. In this chapter, one of the areas you examine is the absence of political comedy. The subtext of the day, as we’ve already established, seemed to be: ‘Can we all lighten up now, the battle is won.’ What was wrong with comedy in ‘96, and what was right?

DS: A lot of things were right, and I actually consider the nineties to be a golden age, but mainly because of what happened in the 1980s: the slightly earnest insistence – coming from Ben Elton, the Comedy Store, etc – that the racism, sexism, crude stereotyping shown in TV comedy (which was even there in Fawlty Towers) shouldn’t be tolerated anymore. Raise the bar, they said, think more naturalistically, think about what’s really funny; think about the world as it is rather than in tired old stock clichés. This resulted in the subtler, better-observed characters seen in The Fast Show, and the surreal adventurism of Vic and Bob, parodying seventies nightclub types. Vic rubbing his thighs like some ridiculous grasshopper’s mating ritual . . . Only Fantasy Football League had some occasionally unfortunate aspects to it. Essentially, political correctness said: you can’t do the old jokes. Instead, be a comedian. Think, write, invent. And it led to a wonderful era of comedy.

JC: You say of Oasis that their success was ‘structurally determined, willed into being’. Can you talk about this a little bit?

DS: The eighties had been fragmented culturally. After punk, everything seemed very localised, there was a sense of tribalism. Anything big in scale was considered remote, out of touch. But then, gradually, people started to gather together en masse as they had in the sixties. The first example was Live Aid, the rebirth of the spectacle of rock. Freddie’s in his element again, and people are thinking – actually, this is pretty good, isn’t it? And then rave comes along, and people suddenly felt this need once more, at the end of the eighties, for something big and central, in a familiar Beatles-type-of-way. . .

JC: Yes, you examine this idea in the book, the restoration of the ‘We’, this deep, national craving for communality. The need for the next big thing; waiting for just the one band, not lots of bands.

DC: So then into this context emerged the Stone Roses. North West, guitars, white – yep, they’ll do! But they became bigger than perhaps their originality or talent merited, and it phased them; they took flight from it. Oasis, the natural successors to the Roses, were far more at ease with the idea of being rock stars. But they couldn’t do a Beatles either, were limited to the now, that moment. They couldn’t progress into an avant-garde future, they didn’t have it in them. They had no sense of expansion, of potential places to go.

JC: In conclusion, to return to this idea of ‘we’re still living in 1996, but also far, far away, somewhere else’. Where are we now, and what does the future hold, ‘when the decades have no name’?

DS: We’re sitting in the same material year in many ways, it’s still Elton John and the Stones on the jukebox. Twenty years on, they seem to occupy a similar position. Rock reached a kind of stasis or terminus around the time of My Bloody Valentine and Nirvana. But today’s climate is radically different in regards to the state of the economy, peoples’ expectations, their ability to become homeowners. The inequality gap has risen, people are more ready to shift back to leftist politics than they were in ’96, hence the rise of Corbyn. Also, cultural politics have changed, with the #MeToo movement and the Weinstein scandal; the realisation by liberal men that feminism wasn’t dealt with back then, so now we can all talk about ‘birds’ because it’s ironic – it’s not.

JC: My only quibble with the book is your noisy neighbour from the introduction, who doesn’t appear again. This is Chekhov’s pistol isn’t it? Now you’ve mentioned him, I wanted to read more. How difficult for you, in a non-fiction book like this, was it to stay out of the way of your subject?

DS: [Laughs.] I appear occasionally in the book, like a Guildenstern, a very minor player, even though I was in this ostensibly central role, a staff writer on the Melody Maker.

JC: It’s probably more the sort of thing I do in Memory Songs. . .

DS: Great, now we can talk about your book. Turn the tables [laughs]. It was fascinating to get a view from the other side of the fence, a musician’s point of view. We’re slightly different ages but we seemed to have had similar musical epiphanies: the Beatles’ Revolver, Led Zeppelin . . .

JC: I wanted to examine the intense relationship that one has with music in one’s teens and early twenties, and those bands were certainly key. I borrow a phrase from Blur’s Alex James in the book: nothing stays with you like the music you loved between the ages of 15 and 19.

DS: There’s also a sense of detail that comes across in Memory Songs, of place and era, of how slightly more desolate and parched a place the mid-nineties were. And how the thrill of the chase has now been lost: it’s much easier to get hold of music these days . . . with Suede, did you feel that they were just about the size a successful band should be?

JC: Even their moderate success seemed startling at first, and then suddenly it wasn’t so moderate: ‘Suedemania’, the fastest-selling debut album for almost a decade, etc. But compared to what came afterwards in ‘94-‘96 with Oasis it was relatively small-scale. I remember the moment when Oasis truly permeated the culture, for me, was boarding a Ryanair flight to Spain in ‘96, and every seat had a copy of the Mirror with Noel Gallagher on the front page. I think the headline was that he’d walked out of an American tour. That’s it, I thought, they’ve arrived; they’re part of the furniture. Literally.

DS: Yes, but did that mean our culture, our indie thing had won; did it represent a triumph?

JC: It didn’t feel like we had won, because I wasn’t particularly keen on Oasis. I had far more affinity with the glammier side of Britpop – Suede, Pulp, the Manics. But there are some Oasis songs that I do like, ‘Some Might Say’, for instance . . . From a songwriter’s perspective, I think Noel was a better lyric writer than he gave himself credit for. Perhaps he’s being disingenuous when he puts down his own lyrics, but ‘Cigarettes And Alcohol’ was definitive. No one is going to bother writing another song called ‘Cigarettes And Alcohol’, just as no one is going to write another song called ‘Bridge Over Trouble Water’ . . . The odd thing was that, at the time, no one in any of the bands seemed to be listening to Oasis, apart from on a professional level, to check the competition, as it were. All the musicians were listening to Tricky, Portishead, John Barry. . .

DS: You talk a lot about John Barry in the book, who I think is part of the epic, visionary British tradition – British, yet global, exportable.

JC: He had an enormous reach, because everyone’s seen a Bond film! What I really wanted to do in Memory Songs was write about the artists who shaped the Britpop era – and Barry was one of them – examine the music, and why it was important to people.

DS: That’s interesting because you look at things from a different perspective to me, an intrinsic, musicological, structural way, and how songs affect people; I tend to look at things from how they arrive in the world, how they sit in the world, how they relate to other things, other songs.

JC: Yes, although I’m not really a technical writer . . . ultimately what I wanted to say in the book was – even though pop music doesn’t seem as important these days, sooner or later someone will come along with a song that restores your faith in the art form, a ‘Video Games’, say. There is a bit of hope for the future, despite the fact no one talks about the music of the future anymore.

DS: That’s because no one talks about the future anymore!

David Stubbs’ 1996 & the End of History is published by Repeater Books. His new book, Mars by 1980: The Story of Electronic Music will be published in August 2018 by Faber & Faber. James Cook’s Memory Songs is published by Unbound this week.