John Harris, British music journalist for NME and Mojo, grew up in the pall cast by Margaret Thatcher and Morrissey – an unforgiving world of gloom. But by the nineties Thatcher had been deposed and Morrissey had lost the harmonies that made the Smiths so telling. The Last Party begins with these movements and follows the English rock scene from the late eighties to the late nineties. To tell the story of a time is fraught with difficulties and contradiction. To put the same kind of thoughts in the head of many different individuals and groups is, on the one hand, quite straightforward: people talk to one another, people act in concert, people are involved, collectively, in all the things people do. On the other hand you can’t be sure that the conversation they are having is the same conversation as others are having; people are not always in the same movie. So in many ways it is just too hard to gather together groups of people and say that they share something bigger than the coincidence of being alive simultaneously.
In the midnineties I was a britpop fan, but even to me it hardly seemed the most important thing happening in the music world, let alone the rest of the world. From the distant viewpoint of Warrawong (where I was living), London’s britpop was far from overwhelming. In generic terms britpop seemed limited: a rehash of The Beatles and a slew of Pistols quotes. From the bits and pieces that made their way to Warrawong-interesting Blur, dashing and vulgar Pulp, wacky Suede, funny Supergrass, Beatlebums Oasis, and the sublime Elastica-it was not necessarily clear that they were moving in the same circles or in the same directions or that they were connected at all aside from being English bands in a competitive and lucrative pop market.
The Last Party argues otherwise: that they were all part of a zeitgeist that included The Smiths, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, Kurt Cobain, The Beatles, cocaine, and what the possibilities were for being English in the nineties. Harris recounts the emergence of this zeitgeist with great passion and astute observation. With loving detail he describes the archaeology of britpop and the sense of connectedness the main players had to each other and their audiences.In much writing about rock music such breadth of vision is lost amongtales of personality, hedonism and excess. Musicians come from places, they live in times, and the things that they say are connected to audiences and other musicians. Rock music is not just about rock music, nor just a form of self absorption, but is about the places and times that produce it.
If anything this is the great pleasure to be found in The Last Party; the sense of landscape and community that is articulated about England and Englishness without ever evoking the horror that comes with The Vicar of Dibley, Absolutely Fabulous or Agatha Christie telemovies. Englishness certainly has its contradictions and hang-ups, but these are the stuff of people and histories rather than sitcoms and murder mysteries.Not that the characters that inhabit this particular history-Damon Albans, Justine Frischmann, the Gallagher brothers, Jarvis Cocker, Brett Anderson, Bernard Butler, Donna Matthews, Graham Coxon, Alex James et al-are without their sitcomish, or at least soapish, side. There’s a small cast and they all know each other.
They are, like most of us, flawed and insecure people, except that successful rock musicians can also become famous and pointlessly wealthy people.Famous, wealthy and insecure people are ripe for the kind of downfall that makes Spinal Tap and the last days of The Sex Pistols so entertaining for voyeuristic reasons. And in The Last Party the stories of drugs, out of control egos, and sexual adventure (mostly with one another) are all there, as is the great rock quest for acclaim and buckets’o’cash.
Damon Alban is written as a creative egocentrist who manages to lose Justine Frischmann (by far the nicest and most tragic of the bunch as she dissolves herself, her relationships, and Elastica with sleepy heroin apathy). The Gallagher brothers are refreshing and testing, Noel with his fuckitness and Liam with his insufferable self obsession. They both consume challenging amounts and kinds of drugs and drink, and say frightening and reprehensible things about each other and everyone else but somehow still present as salt of the earth. Brett Anderson is forever burdened by his and Suede’s musical theatricality, not to mention his self description as “a bisexual man who’s never had a homosexual experience” (it’s not hard to have a homosexual experience so you’ve got to wonder why he didn’t just get on with it), and never makes it to Oasis/Blur style stardom. Jarvis Cocker is, as much as anyone, is the hero: a long time indie player since the eighties, Cocker and Pulp had staggering success with ‘Common People’ (by far the best song of the whole britpop thing), took the piss out of Michael Jackson on live TV, and produced the greatest album of sheer grumpiness with This is hardcore in 1998.
But it ends badly, as we knew it had to. Blur fight it out amongst themselves, Oasis become parody, Elastica snap, Jarvis Cocker returns to grump and vulgarity, and Suede still can’t steal the audience that became Kylie’s. In the end there are celebrities but they aren’t so celebrated anymore.
There is much to enjoy as Harris moves the story along, but while the musicians and the music are discussed at great length there is precious little about the political times. We’re told Blair and Major are important, but Kurt Cobain (as bringer of the grunge invasion) gets much more space. So in the end, despite the book’s title, the politics are secondary, possibly because of the difficulty of connecting party machinations to a broader cultural field. The moments of connectedness (Noel Gallagher’s appearance at the Blair victory party in 1997) are dealt with cleverly but not convincingly.
This is the main weakness of The Last Party, which in many ways aspires to follow up Jon Savage’s masterful England’s Dreaming but without achieving quite the poetry that Savage constructs to convey the spirit of the late seventies.
The title suggests that, for Harris, the failure of britpop is the failure of English rock, but ‘English rock’ is never really elaborated as a concept except as a contingent marketing device in the title. The conceit of its demise hints at the awful tragic Englishness (doomed like Morrissey, doomed like our Granville in Open All Hours) that collaborates so powerfully with English weather and sporting mediocrity.
To his credit Harris never entirely gives in to this horrid set of tropes to make his argument. There is some awareness that English rock, britpop or ‘Cool Britannia’ are concepts articulated to sell the product rather than to represent genuine consensus or a common artistic project.
As a social and political history, which it claims to be, The Last Party lacks some punch. But as a book about the smaller world of music, musicians, and their times and places it really is very good.