Two tomes filled with rather divergent types of showbiz lore: John Harris’s The Last Party: Britpop, Blair, and the Demise of English Rock (published Stateside as Britpop! The Spectacular Demise of English Rock, a vulgarly Americanized title despite the nice addition of “spectacular”); and Peter Bogdanovich’s Who the Hell’s In It?.
Harris’s book tells a story I was already intimately familiar with. The steady stream of brilliant pop music that, beginning in approximately 1992 and ending in approximately 1998, flowed from England’s green and pleasant land to our shores was the only pop music “movement” I ever wholeheartedly and consistently participated in; it fortuitously converged with a time in my life when I had the energy, leisure, and disposable income for such a pursuit. A little brigade of us (including the author Jamie S. Rich) were invariably present at the now-defunct Portland venue La Luna when linchpin Britpop practitioners like Blur, Elastica, and Supergrass-- or more minor players like Marion, Echobelly, and Sleeper-- came through town, and in retrospect I am extremely envious of the broader travels of Mr. Rich, which brought him into contact with masterful Britpop luminaries like Suede and Pulp.
Harris traces the full, glorious Suede/Blur/Elastica/Pulp bloom of nineties Britpop to its origins in David Bowie’s explicitly artistic and defiant early-seventies incarnation to the extraordinarily fecund late-seventies days of British punk (The Sex Pistols, Wire, the Buzzcocks, and The Jam much more so than The Clash, according to Harris) on through the crestfallen, politicized, staunchly anti-Thatcher independent music scene of the eighties-- atop which the Smiths’ reign is still growing in legend-- to the less political, more publicity-seeking and starmaking late-eighties decadence of The Stone Roses, Happy Mondays, and “Madchester,”-- the short-lived Northern scene immediately preceding Britpop that rapidly degenerated into drugs, thuggery, and bad vibes (Leisure, Blur’s mostly forgettable 1991 debut album, reeks of dull, bleary, thirdhand Madchesterism).
Harris’s book necessarily follows the somewhat predictable rise-and-fall arc of its subject, but he spares no detail, observation, or opinion, and though he evidently is a music journalist, his approach is quite unlike what in retrospect seems a tendency on the part of the English music press to behave like an overexcited, incontinent poodle (much like American television “news,” the weekly English music press needs more stories, hot tips, and buzz than are actually extant, and if the various English music weeklies and monthlies deserve credit for disseminating information and generating deserved hype around all the worthwhile groups in Harris’s book, he also severely takes them to task for their fickleness, faddishness, short attention spans, and misplaced loyalties). The era is full of juicy stories, all captured in straightforward narrative style by Harris: the love triangle comprised of Blur’s Damon Albarn, Suede’s Brett Anderson, and Elastica’s Justine Frischmann (initially a founding member of Suede); the disparate bios of the big players (Frischmann’s as a naive rich girl, Anderson’s as the impoverished progeny of arty parents living in a dead-end backwater, Albarn’s more high-rent version of a childhood otherwise rather similar to Anderson’s) the eventual (and, as Harris points out, seemingly inevitable in any rock milieu) deadening descent into drugs, intragroup acrimony, and creative crises, not to mention the ever-roving attention span of an inscrutable mass audience.
Harris even presents what in his view constitutes an archvillian and his crony: Liam and Noel Gallagher of Oasis, who occupy a place in these events that’s equivalent to the role given to Steven Spielberg and George Lucas by Peter Biskind in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, which is to say that Harris considers the Gallaghers (despite possessing smaller and more limited talents than their peers) to be gatecrashers who rode a tidal wave of chance notoriety and commercial success that eventually washed away the entire hotbed of creativity from whence it sprang. He makes a convincing case-- both Gallaghers come across as anti-intellectual, anti-art purveyors of well-studied pastiche who couldn’t care less if they transform any sense of solidarity with their fellow kind-of-like-minded artists into a petty pissing contest for chart placement and most-albums-sold status. They are also the most blatant example of the connection Harris draws between pop and politics in the Britpop era; their music, he implies as he relates the odd relationship between Noel Gallagher and lapsed rock poseur Blair, was a perfect match for the “New Labour” eagerness to please through an agenda of compromise, happy vibes, publicity, centrism, and the avoidance of any really strong position that might galvanize (or help) anyone. I more or less agree with this assessment: I would never part with my copy of Definitely Maybe or (What’s the Story) Morning Glory, but I could easily do without my seldom-played Be Here Now CD, and I haven’t bothered with subsequent efforts.
Harris’s implicit hierarchy seems reasonable-- he’s impressed with the evolution of Blur after their denunciation of what was fast becoming by-the-numbers Britpop, gives Suede their due as the godfathers of it all, and cites Pulp’s “Common People” as the biggest artistic/commercial success to arise from the melee. The only really neglected figure is Luke Haines, whose usually brilliant work with The Auteurs exemplified the best of Britpop and who nimbly, through his later work with Black Box Recorder and as a solo artist, perfectly captured the endless abyss of Britpop’s morning after (Harris picks Pulp’s great This is Hardcore as the salient document of Britpop’s steep decline; I think Black Box Recorder’s England Made Me should have at least gotten a mention when it came to this kind of designation). Still, Harris is consistent in his focus on those acts that “made waves,” and he can’t be blamed for the public’s failure to embrace Luke Haines or to appreciate that, strictly on the artistic level, he occupies the same rarefied space atop the lyrical/melodic heap as Brett Anderson or Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker.
I experienced all this thousands of miles away and fifth-hand from import CDs and music magazines, record store clerks, and astute friends (this was all before the internet was as commonplace as it is now), and it’s fascinating to read about the day-in, day-out struggles, frustrations, doubts, songwriting, rehearsals, tours, recording sessions, etc. behind the sounds that (still) come through my headphones. Reading The Last Party made me feel old momentarily-- it can only reinforce the feeling that the richness that once was Britpop is now a far-flung diaspora at best, its glory days receding further into the past with each year-- and I wonder if the day will come soon when my most treasured and impassioned musical experiences will seem fusty, old hat, irrelevant. But the book also has renewal and reassurance built in: not only is the American edition of recent enough vintage to mention the promising wave of postmillennial Brit and Brit-inspired music (The Strokes, Franz Ferdinand, The Libertines, The Tears, etc.), but nobody who owns any of the numerous ‘92 to ‘98-era recordings mentioned in its pages could resist taking them out for a revisitation. And when the strains of Pulp’s “Razzmatazz” or Sleeper’s “Inbetweener” or Blur’s “Death of a Party” or The Auteurs’ “Chinese Bakery” meet one’s ears, it creates a playlist to which there can only be one finale, both obvious and inevitable: The Smiths’ “Rubber Ring.” You know the preemptive, chastising, immortal lines: “Don’t forget the songs that made you cry/And the songs that saved your life/Yes you’re older now, and you’re a clever swine/But they were the only ones that ever stood by you.”
If only Bogdanovich could have seen his way to giving Who the Hell’s In It? a more tongue-in-cheek, self-effacing title: Starfucker would have been exactly perfect. For all its indispensable quotes and anecdotes from or about movie acting legends from Lillian Gish to John Wayne to Jack Lemmon to Jimmy Stewart to the late River Phoenix, there is no overlooking the persistent, rather annoying and self-aggrandizing presence of tireless, relentless hanger-on Peter Bogdanovich in every story. This director, who before a notoriously long and rough string of personal and professional misfortunes gifted us with a beautifully executed trio of nostalgically cinephilic Americana (Last Picture Show, Paper Moon, and What’s Up, Doc?) has little trouble shaping an interesting story involving both himself and his more interesting subject, and I suppose he could even be commended, if he’s self-aware enough (and I think he is), for making very little effort to conceal the way he has evidently jammed his foot into every available door in pursuit of the legend and stardust with which he has filled this book, a companion to his earlier Who the Devil Made It? (1997), which covered his long roster of director friends/acquaintances (I hope Orson Welles and John Ford weren’t too uncomfortable having the shape of Bogdanovich’s lips permanently imprinted upon his ass).
The book is long on surface detail and short on analysis and opinion, so we learn in-depth about John Wayne’s tempestuous relationship with John Ford, or the Sidney Poitier’s dislike of “walking and talking” shots-- interesting enough-- but not much about them as people, or exactly why and how they do what they do. It’s a series of magazine profiles (in many cases literally: more than a few of the pieces are recycled from pieces Bogdanovich has done for Esquire, etc.), and they’re best read one at a time with a break in between: Bogdanovich fawns, gushes, reminisces, and name-drops at great length, and it all could have been removed to leave us with a leaner, more essential volume. As it stands, and despite dust jacket endorsements from Wes Anderson and Martin Scorsese, Bogdanovich’s celebrity stew is very thin indeed when compared to his more fortunate and beloved peer Scorsese’s thoroughgoing efforts at elucidation of cinema history: no budding cinephile can afford to miss Scorsese’s Personal Journey Through American Movies, but Who the Hell’s In It? can easily be tossed into your beach bag and read whenever you happen to get around to it.
On April 21, the Washington State Senate failed by one vote to pass house bill 1515, a piece of LGBT rights legislation. The bill would have done nothing more provocative than guaranteeing LGBT citizens protection from discrimination in employment, real estate/housing, public accommodations, credit, and insurance. That this could happen in a supposedly liberal “blue” state like Washington is a real blow, especially coming directly on the heels of Oregon’s official invalidation of 3,000 gay marriages. I’m sure the nail biting, overachieving little apple-polisher in me will make sure it never happens, but right now the real-life opportunity for some sort of political involvement through, say, attending weekly Monday night “Marriage Equality Now” meetings somehow seems a bit more pressing and important than the relatively trivial classes and homework that currently have a stranglehold on that time (not to mention energy). As the wise old anthem goes, “Freedom is merely privilege extended unless enjoyed by one and all.”
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