Britpop · Tony Blair

Totally Cool: Pop, Politics and the revival of Britain

Twenty years ago this week, Tony Blair hosted a drinks reception at Number 10 that seemed to capture the essence of a  “New Britain” hurtling fast towards a new millennium. 

In the 3 years since he had become leader of the party, Tony Blair had constantly spoken of his vision for a “young country” as he looked to capitalise on the most creative period in the British art world since the 1960s. The quest for celebrity would result in Britain’s top rock star taking cocaine off the Queen’s toilet, as politics and celebrity span each other to the front of the tabloid papers.

TONY BLAIR PLAYING THE GUITAR, LONDON, BRITAIN - NOV 1995

In the aftermath, Noel Gallagher would spend the rest of his life dissociating himself from the Labour party, and the drinks reception still provides ammunition for his brother Liam, who recently used his Twitter to attack Noel’s  ‘war criminal’ chum. After the decline in Blair’s popularity, many felt that the relationship between celebrity and politics had ended. But in recent years we have seen Ed Miliband gain the endorsements of Russel Brand, Martin Freeman and Lilly Allen, while Jeremy Corbyn brought in the youth vote, on the back of Stormzy and JME’s endorsement.

The pop and politics truce that had once broken down seems to be back and the quest for populism is stronger than ever. But none of the current stars match the glamour that Noel Gallagher added to the Number 10 party in July 1997, and it was an endorsement that Labour had so desperately wanted for years.

Cool Britannia

From his election in the summer of 1994, Blair and his team set out to align the party with the new wave of British pop music. In an early interview after his election, he spoke about his time in the rock band ‘Ugly Rumours’ while at university. Importantly for his image, Blair could lay a claim to being the first party leader who had grown up in the 1960s and luckily for him, the British music scene was drawing heavily on the period.

Just two years previous, the once darling of the NME – Morrissey, had been accused of racism for performing at a Madness gig draped in the Union Jack flag. Labour had just elected John Smith as leader, but by the summer of 1994, when Blair stepped into Smith’s shoes, everything had changed.

According to John Harris, who has written the seminal book on the period, everything began to change towards the end of 1993. Matthew Bannister became the controller of Radio 1 and he exiled the old guard DJs, just as a new wave of confident British artists emerged in the aftermath of the grunge era. That April, Select magazine put Brett Anderson from Suede on their cover under the patriotic headline of “Yanks go home”. Damon Albarn of Blur told the NME in 1993 that “If punk was about getting rid of hippies, then I’m about getting rid of grunge”. Albarn scrapped the original title of Blur’s 1993 album, Britain vs. America, for Modern Life is Rubbish.

The battle lines had been drawn – Old v New, Grunge v Britpop, USA v UK and hopefully for Labour strategists – Old Tories v New Labour. Just as Camden became the hub for the British music scene, Islington would be the base camp for the New Labour project. Originally Labour had looked to court the endorsement of Damon Albarn from Blur. Albarn seemed only too happy to come aboard. “I will vote for a Labour government, definitely.” The following year, he had a meeting with Tony Blair at the Palace of Westminster. In 1994 Blur had outsold Oasis records 2-1, and the rivalry had yet to be manufactured. When Blur won best band at the 1995 Brit Awards, they claimed “this should have been shared with Oasis.” Before guitarist Graham Coxon claimed “much love and respect to them.”

By 1996, the British music industry was booming, and Oasis and Blur had become serious chart rivals. The BRIT awards would be an opportunity to showcase “the most lucrative, encouraging year in British pop for decades”. It was a booming industry, teeming with fresh face and new ideas, self-made products of the post-Thatcher years. Once more, this music revival  was happening under a Conservative government, that had slowly managed the economy back out of a recession.

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Yet it was Labour who looked to capitalise on the ‘mood’ of the nation. At the awards, Blair was asked to present a lifetime achievement award to David Bowie. While Jeremy Corbyn was able to keep a Glastonbury audience spellbound, Blair managed to keep an audience of coked up rock stars on side. Blair proudly announced that:

“It’s been a great year for British music, a year of creativity, vitality, energy. British bands storming the charts. British music back once again in its right place, at the top of the world. And at least part of the reason for that has been the inspiration that today’s bands can draw from those that have gone before. Bands in my generation like The Beatles and The Stones and The Kinks. Of a later generation: The Clash, The Smiths, The Stone Roses…”

Later that night, after taking an e, Noel Gallagher told millions of TV viewers that:

“There are seven people in this room who are giving a little bit of hope to young people in this country, “That is me, our kid, Bonehead, Guigs, Alan White, Alan McGee and Tony Blair. And if you’ve all got anything about you, you’ll go up there and you’ll shake Tony Blair’s hand, man. He’s the man! Power to the people!”

Money couldn’t buy this kind of endorsement for New Labour. At this point Oasis had reached their absolute zenith and had become Britain’s biggest band since the Beatles. They had been able to capture the hearts and minds of both the tabloid press and the British public. They had also managed to transcend old class divides. When they announced that they were to play to 250,000 people over two nights at Knebworth, 2.6 million people applied for tickets – roughly 1 in 20 of the UK’s population.

In Noel Gallagher, New Labour had the perfect figurehead that embodied everything the party hoped to project. Noel was born into a traditional Labour supporting family on a council estate in Burnage, Manchester. By the time he hit the big time at 27, he’d lived through the Thatcher years, unemployed for large periods of it, falling between jobs in the black economy. At school, his music teacher had shown no interest in him and after leaving with no qualifications, he’d been seemingly written off in Thatchers Britain.

It was through sheer hard work and determination that his band made it to the big time. There had been no internship at EMI, no music lessons or silver bullet appearance on a talent show to propel them to success. Having earned his position at the top of British rock n roll, he was unashamed of his success. As he would later tell the New Statesman:

Working-class guilt – if such a thing exists – exists only in the offices of the Guardian. Only in the mind of the Guardian journalist who feels he’s let his right-on parents down by not writing for Socialist Worker. Working-class guilt is for the middle-class Observer columnist”

Noel Gallagher represented a working class aspiration and pride in amassing great wealth that had once been anathema to the values of the indie movement and the Labour party – particularly throughout the 1980s. In many ways Oasis embodied the Thatcherite dream of doing it for yourself. As Oasis’ debut single Supersonic snarled at the world “I need to be myself, I can’t be no one else.”

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The Oasis table at that particular Brit Awards in 1996, had, according to their manager Alan McGee, been fuelled by ecstasy. Indeed, the awards came just a few months before Noel created a huge media storm over his “drugs in a tea cup” comments. After the moral panic over the death of Leah Betts continued in the media, Noel claimed that taking drugs was:

 “Like getting up and having a cup of tea in the morning. There’s people in the House of Parliament, man, who are bigger heroin addicts and cocaine addicts than anyone in this room right now. As soon as people realise that the majority in this country take drugs, then the better off we’ll all be.”

Showing how far removed the Tories were from the British music scene, their MPs had called for the band to kick out Noel just like East 17 had done with Brian Harvey over a similar drugs scandal. Liam Gallagher was arrested often, and on the front page of the tabloids for most of the summer. The pair created much debate in parliament. Tom Sackville, the Home Office (Interior) Minister, reportedly said, “For someone in his position to condone drug abuse is really stupid.” Tim Rathbone told reporters that the government should “now investigate the bringing of criminal charges” against Gallagher for his comments. While The Sun said “he deserves to be locked up”.

The media storm didn’t seem to put Labour off the band. Margaret McDonagh was tasked with meeting Creation Records to understand what made Oasis so popular. Alan McGee, the owner of Creation Records, later claimed it was a huge coup for Blair, and that Gallagher’s endorsement made it “young and cool to vote Labour.” The party asked Creation for access to its huge Oasis fan database. This was a time before the internet age, and many of Oasis’ army of supporters had joined the official fan club to gain priority access to tickets for their gigs. Creation refused McDonagh’s request.

Undeterred, the majestic powers of New Labour even sought to bring the two warring factions of Britpop together to take on the Tories. Labour proposed to McGee that Noel Gallagher and Damon Albarn could come together for a campaign poster  were they would pose above the caption “The only thing they hate more than each other is the Tories.” That would have been a major PR coup for Labour, especially considering Noel Gallagher had recently declared that “I hate that Alex [James] and Damon [Albarn]. I hope they catch AIDS and die.” Unfortunately it didn’t happen either.

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Finally when McGee brought a gold disc to a Labour conference to present to Blair, the party seized the moment to align themselves with the record company:

“It’s a great company. And we should be really proud of it. Alan was just telling me that he started 12 years ago with a thousand quid bank loan and now has a turnover of thirty-four million. Now that is New Labour.”

The endorsement seemed a natural fit for the pair, and allowed Blair to project New Labour as a modern and exciting venture.  It marked a stark contrast to the limited appeal of people such as Billy Bragg who had previously supported the party in the 1980s. That it later transpired that the loan in question was raised back in 1983, when McGee took advantage of Norman Tebbit’s Enterprise Allowance Scheme didn’t seem to make much difference to the anti-Tory sentiment within the music industry.  There was a sense that things were about to change for the better. In the infamous ‘London Swings Again’ issue of Vanity Fair, the magazine opened with a call to arms to its readers:

“London Swings! Again! As it was in the mid-60s, the British capital is a cultural trailblazer, teeming with new and youthful icons of art, pop music, fashion, food, and film. Even its politicians are cool. Or, well, coolish.” “It’s been put to me by a lot of Londoners that one reason the city swings anew is that it feels liberated by the prospect of a Labour government…”There is an atmosphere of general enthusiasm among entrepreneurial people, because we see people about to lead the country who will be—we hope, we pray—enthusiastic about our ideas….and obviously John Major is completely unaware of design except for garden gnomes.”

Meanwhile, Noel Gallagher adorned the cover of the latest New Labour magazine, in which he was quoted as saying that Tony Blair’s conference speech “brought tears to my eyes”. Mick Hucknall of Simply Red and Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy offered to pen a party song for the election.

Sensing that the mood was shifting against them, the Tories desperately tried to jump on to the feel-good factor. Whilst some of their MPs had called for Liam Gallagher to be arrested, John Redwood sensed an opportunity. He penned an article for the Guardian, in which he attempted to ride the crest of the Britpop wave. Apparently, Redwood’s favourite band of the era were The Lightning Seeds. Never missing an opportunity to bash the EU, he spoke fondly of The Lightning Seeds hit single Change, remarking that:

“They are right that there is too much change. We can’t make everyone drink warm beer if they prefer cool lager and we can’t make policy out of nostalgia. But we can defend Britain against senseless change – against political vandalism which would demolish our constitution, giving away powers to Frankfurt and Brussels.”

Then, fresh from her visit to Cannes to watcg the new Trainspotting film, Virginia Bottomley invited Alan McGee to her office for tea. He refused, claiming. “With her record of closing hospitals down. I am concerned that fraternising with her may result in the closure of my record company.”

The mood had shifted. There was very little the Tories could do to prevent the ensuing avalanche. After Labour won in May 1997, Noel Gallagher was delighted that:

“..The Tories got shafted. I had a ticket for the Labour Party, but I had that much fun watching Portillo and the others done over I stayed home in front of the TV It was all champagne, brandy and cigars round our house. Meg and me got pissed and went out into the garden and played Revolution dead loud”

Two months later, on Wednesday 30 July 1997, Noel Gallagher, Alan McGee and their partners, joined Lenny Henry, Simon Mayo, Anita Roddick and Tony “Baldrick” Robinson to congratulate the new Prime Minister on his victory. Other guests included Eddie Izzard, Ross Kemp, Ralph Fiennes, Vivienne Westwood, Felix Dennis, Nick Hornby, Helen Mirren, Harry Enfield, Ben Elton and Nick Park.

Damon Albarn was nowhere to be seen, having refused an invitation, sending Blair a note saying, ‘I’m sorry, I won’t be attending as I am no longer a New Labour supporter. I am now a Communist. Enjoy the schmooze, Comrade. Love, Damon.”

It was the photographs of Noel’s brief conversation with Blair that made every tabloid front page the next day. When Noel asked ‘How did you stay up all night?” Blair showed his ‘geezer’ credentials with his reply “Probably not by the same means as you did”. That the new Prime Minister was comfortable making jokes about drugs seemed to separate him from John Major, whose government had looked to kill off the rave scene in 1992 with their draconian ‘Criminal Justice Bill’.

Yet beneath the cool exterior, Blair had been privately worried about the meeting. Like a nervous teenager who had tried to improve his street cred by inviting the cool kids round to his house, Blair now worried that he might be the victim of Gallagher’s notorious rock ‘n’ roll behaviour. According to the Alistair Campbell diaries, Blair had no idea how Gallagher and McGee had been invited;

“TB (Tony Blair) was worried that Noel Gallagher was coming to the reception tomorrow. He said he had no idea he had been invited. TB felt he was bound to do something crazy. I spoke to (Creation Records boss) Alan McGee and said can we be assured he would behave. Alan said he would make sure he did. He said if we had invited Liam, it might have been different,”

Blair had right be suspicious, as it later emerged that Gallagher had taken cocaine off the queen’s toilet. Had the story emerged, I doubt it would have affected their reputations. Both were at the height of their political and cultural popularity. Just a month later, Oasis released their most hyped album to date – Be Here Now – a cocaine fuelled extravagance that embodied the excesses of the era. Noel claimed that the song Magic Pie on the album borrows from Tony Blair’s conference speech from 1996, which looked forward to the new millennium. The lyrics contained the line: “There are but a thousand days preparing for a thousand years.” At the peak of their powers, Oasis were looking to Labour politicians for lyrical inspiration.

A month later Diana died and Blair managed to speak for the nation. As the press began to turn on the Royal Family, for a moment a small revolution seemed to be in the air. Be Here Now had become the fastest selling album of all time. But it did not become their Sgt Pepper. Two years later, with Labour comfortably in power, the deputy Prime Minister John Prescott attended the BRIT awards, only to have a bucket of iced water thrown on him by Chumbawamba.

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Noel meanwhile, would spend the next decade justifying his actions in every interview. Scarred by the vitriol he received, he has attacked politicians ever since. Last year he had a side swipe at Corbyn, claiming “communists don’t understand aspiration”. The richer he became, the bitterer his arguments have become. Having once shouted “Power to the people” at the 1996 BRITs, he asked for stronger action against the London rioters of 2007. He claimed;

“The people who are at these riots aren’t poor. These are kids with fucking mobile phones and all sorts of shit. The police and government have to take drastic measures”

Noel overlooked that he had been given a six month police caution in the 1980s for robbing a corner shop as a teenager. Interestingly, it is Noel’s brother Liam, who was once seen as too dangerous for number 10, that has come out and endorsed Corbyn, as Noel enters the rock n roll elite he had once despised.

The comedian Ben Elton quickly disowned Blair too, claiming “leaders should never ever try to look cool, that’s just for dictators”. Elton, who has been criticised by his contemporaries for his own commercial projects, has returned to the party to support Corbyn and appeared in a broadcast for him during the election campaign. It came after Elton had penned a dreadful middle of the road sitcom ‘The Wright Way’ which can be seen as an attempt to satirise the health and safety culture that had emerged under Blair.

In 2014 David Cameron, who had once anointed himself the ‘heir to Blair’ attempted his own celebrity bash. He invited Benedict Cumberbatch, Nicole Kidman, Emma Watson, Dame Helen Mirren, Daniel Craig and Chiwetel Ejiofor, the star of the years hit movie – 12 Years a Slave. But none of them showed up. He had to make do with Cilla Black and Bruce Forsyth.

That same summer, Blair held his own bash to celebrate his 50th – 20 years on from espousing his vison for a young country. No one from the 1997 drinks could make it. Only Bobby Davro had nothing to lose by performing at the bash. Even he had to fight off criticsm online and in the press. Just as the Tories had been rejected by the new generation of artists in the 90s, Blair had to make do with a clapped-out 90s TV presenter, desperate for a final publicity hit.

Davro later tweeted: “Saw Ed Miliband [sic] at the party last night I loved his brother’s music … Glen Millerband”.  It’s probably about as far away from Cool Britannia as you could possibly be.

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