Friday, 15 November 2013

Terrible Music of the Late 1990s

A few weeks ago my girlfriend and I went to Cornwall for a late summer holiday in a caravan park, the kind where there is a round of bingo every night and an Adele tribute act as a "special treat" on a Friday.

It being September, the weather was ambivalent, to put it mildly. One day we found ourselves in Newquay in the middle of a rainstorm. Sheltering in the local Poundland, I came across a rack of CDs priced at a quid each, nearly all of which seemed to be from around 1996-'98. Aha! I thought. Here's my chance to turn this veritable cliche of a miserable British holiday into something truly lugubrious.

When the rain cleared (briefly, as it turned out) we walked back to the campsite with a fiver's-worth of terrible late-nineties music in a thin red-and-white stripey bag, and the way was prepared for an afternoon of painfully frustrated in-caravan boom-box listening that went some way towards curing my nineties nostalgia itch once and for all.

A couple of years back, we surveyed the years 1999-2002 on this blog and judged it to have been some kind of peak for something or other. Whether or not this is the case, my Cornwall koshmar made me think that the preceding period was unquestonably a great cultural nadir of incomparable shitness. Indeed, in comparison with '96-'98, the later "noughties nightmare" we have discussed elsewhere seems like a time of heady artistic flowering redolent of the high years of the Florentine Renaissance.

Yes friends, these may have been the years of Mogwai, Beta Band, Timbaland, Underworld, Stereolab, and all manner of diverse EDM artistry, but this was also the heyday of bands like Ultrasound and Dawn of the Replicants.


Those Poundland purchases were as follows ...

Arnold, Hillside (1998)

Creation Records folded the year after this came out.

Marion, This World and Body (1996)

Somehow, this manages to combine the worst features of Suede, Oasis, and, err, Mansun, which is no mean feat.

The Unbelievable Truth, Almost Here (1998)

Wow. To think I was once envious of my bezzie pal Graeme for owning this.

Delakota, One Love (1998)

Wait, this is actually really good.

Tricky, Pre-Millenium Tension (1996)

And this is clearly awesome. What was I trying to argue again?

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Brand A

The oldest kind of branding the nation knows, to paraphrase.

Britannia reaching towards reclaiming a genre that was ditched a hundred years ago, only that Military Wives tune despite marking a sea-change (when else could it have reached Christmas No 1?) is a bit of an outlier. In the British experience at least after the First World War, war songs came pre-packaged with melancholy and a different sort of sentimentality: that British society of boundless optimism and great-game playing was to a degree 'destroyed' as Paul Fussell has it here.

Of course since the Second World War there hasn't been a war of enough magnitude to require uplifting songs, and this seems to have stuck for a time: unlike in the US everyone from country singers to rappers didn't immediately make their contributions. Post-2008 this gradual re-branding of the nation with it's base components has accelerated faster than it would have done otherwise: it is two of the oldest British (English) institutions that have found themselves doing the most well, Army and Church. One has found itself become a beloved public institution able to dodge most of the criticism in-coming by appropriating emotion and anti-war critique along with the usual dogma; the other has found itself in it's 19th century role as most-often heard critic of the ills of the poor, a role that Robert Tressell and Joe Hill skewered around the same time.

The audio of the patriotic hymn comes accompanied with a pre-packaged "sort of controlled despair" that is as much a selling point as John Bull-ism. A youtube subgenre however exists consisting of jocular squaddies larking to pop tunes in the desert, gritty in-action footage, and video montages set to either ethereal melancholia or blood-thirsty dirge depending on temperament.

What happened this week is unremarkable in the history of the British army. The audio recording however is, something feeling very odd about both the awareness and performativity of what's being done, and the indifference to which it was treated by those who years before would have had at least something to say.