Friday, 1 April 2011

If you can remember the nineties, you weren't really there

The Major years witnessed the final demise of a particular kind of drug-based radical hedonism. Of course, the so-called radical aspects of drug taking have always been compromised by the fact that drugs tend to get in the way of social protest and other related important stuff like, well, critical thinking. Nevertheless, it's inarguable that the counterculture (however loosely defined) was at certain crucial moments and in certain important ways galvanized by a subversive, imaginative use of illegal substances. What's equally certain is that this particular approach to drug use is no longer with us, and that the nineties was the occasion for its repudiation.

The telltale sign that something is about to become extinct is always a hyperbolic, last-gasp flourishing of it. Reliably then, we might note the carmodism that the very same day Major was announced PM (27 November, 1990), this was released:

Within months there was this:

And about another year later, of course, this:

At this point, pre-Leah Betts (another last-gasp - this time of anti-drugs tabloid sanctimony), even the retro-conservative aspects of these records cannot cover over the fact that there is still something faintly meaningful, if not quite subversive, about invoking illegal substances. Drug culture was still vaguely an alternative one, and the nineties was going to give it one final fling.

There was an element of eighties hangover here. The unemployment pogroms of the eighties had not quite broken the spirit of the working classes and their ability to create collective identities. And one cogent response to being continually out of work and without money to even go to the pub is of course to resort to a kind of unbridled hedonism: cheap pills, powders, weed, petty larceny, playing loose shaggy music, listening to the classic records that happen to be to lying around, scrapping, going out raving. This hedonism might end up killing you, and its long-term social effects can only be utterly pernicious. But for a while you might be able to derive a large amount of radical creative energy from it. Hence acid house, and the above indie-pop reductions of it.

As with so many things the period 1995-'97 was the turning point. In September '95 Pulp release this, which sums up the opiate of the people motif pretty eloquently:

In December, Leah Betts dies. A few weeks later in February '96, the filmic behemoth that is Trainspotting descends (Carl has said almost everything that needs to be said about this, so I'll limit myself to observing that it was timely and apposite partly for being a perfect pastiche/retro-annullment of post-war drug culture, with its reifications of Iggy, heroin, etc). In 1997 Blair comes to power, and the remainder of his time in office sees a rapid removal of the taboo on public figures and drug taking, to the point that an almost Dickensianly old-fashioned Tory can be elected Prime Minister in 2010, without his fondness for cocaine being anything of an issue. That's before we've even gotten onto that early-nineties escapade involving our chancellor, the call-girl, and the white stuff:

In 1995 Oasis said "where were you while we were getting high?" and for me, putting aside the band's copious culture crimes, there's a good deal of pathos in that line. It seems to compound a past tense of collectivity ("we") with a present in which some sort of extraneous betrayal ("you") has travestied solidarity and replaced it with pleasure-seeking egotism. Oasis's ramifications were entirely negative, but it's also true that their roots lay in a much more positive context of affirmation, brotherhood, and most relevantly for our purposes, in the hedonistic culture of the early nineties. This is most evident of course in the better tunes on Definitely Maybe (Supersonic, Cigarettes and Alcohol), which were, ineluctably, actually written on the dole, whatever lucrative poisons would subsequently come to turn the Brothers G into nouveau-Thatcherite monsters. Here's the elder Gallagher on the contexts underlying the composition of Live Forever:

"it was written in the middle of grunge and all that, and I remember Nirvana had a tune called I Hate Myself and I Want To Die, and I was like . . . seems to me that here was a guy who had everything, and was miserable about it. And we had fuck-all, and I still thought that getting up in the morning was the greatest fucking thing ever, because you didn't know where you'd end up at night. And we didn't have a pot to piss in, but it was fucking great, man."

This was radical hedonism. At its best Oasis's music is ultimately redeemed, I would argue, by its ability to encapsulate this tendency at the very moment it's about to be transformed into its opposite, morphing from a means of retaining some kind of empowerment and collective enjoyment in the middle of the dark night of neolibralism, into an egocentric, acquisitive hedonism that is utterly, tragically complicit with the neoliberal status quo. The lyrical climax to Live Forever is perhaps the most compelling instance of this double-pull, as it moves in the space of a few syllables from a remarkable declaration of solidarity (maybe you're the same as me) to hubristic - but still oppositional - drug-speak (we see things they'll never see), before finally collapsing into a final, hardcore Thatcherite statement of Faustian self-regard (you and I are gonna live forever). Oasis's songs can be heartbreaking for the way they embody this shift from "you and I" to just "I". It's surely no coincidence that the promo video for Live Forever features a symbolic burial in what looks like the ruins of a council estate, as it was more than just drummer Tony McCarroll (soon to be screwed over by his band mates) that was being buried here. 

I've never been more than a very sporadic drug taker. But I've come to think recently that this is more than just a matter of inherent temperament, also a consequence of the Times. Put simply, drug taking and drug culture just isn't that interesting any more. Intoxication is still a central part of our culture, and probably always will be, but the subversive potential of opening the doors of perception seems to have been somehow nullified. Alcoholism, the eternal state-sanctioned, commercially profitable form of inebriation is rapidly approaching pandemic proportions. Meanwhile, in January, an NHS survey found that illegal drug use (cannabis, ecstasy, heroin, cocaine) had fallen significantly over the past few years. A charity spokesperson said: 

"There could well be a generational shift away from drugs going on ... Overall drug use has been declining significantly over the last six or seven years, which is encouraging, and we are seeing fewer young people reporting that they are using drugs. It could be to do with young people's culture and fashion..."

From Pete Doherty to Russell Brand to Skins to Ke$ha to David Cameron: it seems that the superficial, commodified aesthetics of drug taking and pseudo-radical lifestyle hedonism are more popular than ever. A casual admission of an appetite for drugs has become acceptable, just as an admission of one's actual wealth has become the most unacceptable taboo. The reality is that we're all impoverished, and no one's actually getting high any more, or daring to think outside the box.

[NB: credit for this post's title goes to Phil Knight.]


Anonymous said...

I heard an awesome rumour regarding a certain grieving firearms specialist (from someone in the know about these things). If I went any further, we could all get sued (or worse) so I'll stop.

Two words: David Peace. Do the math, as they say...

Anonymous said...

One measures a circle, beginning anywhere...

W. Kasper said...

Any day now, "carmodism" is going to be in the Oxford dictionary...

Paul said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Paul said...

Didn't Tony Blair make a crack about Noel Gallagher preferring a stronger stimulant when he went to number 10 for tea in the Cool Britannia days?

Culla said...

i think it's no surprise which drug in particular is responsible for these changes you accurately describe alex. as my reply kept fleshing out i decided to put it here