In August 1996, the biggest band in Britain, Oasis, staged two era-defining concerts at Knebworth House in the southern English countryside. The capacity 250,000 tickets were sold, laughably less than the 2.5 million tickets applied for by 1 in 20 of the British population. There were 7,000 names on the backstage guest-list: revolving-eyed revellers bowling through a newly-erected township of immaculate white marquees serving a spectrum of alcoholic potions, with lyrically inspired Gin Bars and Champagne Bars, flaming barbecues, roaming magicians and sketch-wielding caricaturists on-site for their amusement. It was a vastly expensive circus of excess – and it was all free.
There wasn’t one band, solo artist, superstar DJ or sound system collective who defined the sound of the 90s but there was an attitude that did: the attitude we loosely call rock ‘n’ roll, core elements of which were encapsulated by Oasis that sunny August at Knebworth. It was an artistically dynamic era characterised by audacity, the limitless imagination of the untethered creative, the thrill of the colossal communal singing experience and the life-affirming nature of hedonism, chaos, friendship, silliness and uncontrollable laughter. No wonder Noel Gallagher once said, about the very purpose of Oasis, ‘it’s a celebration of the euphoria of life.’ His younger brother Liam, meanwhile, had his own one-word idea of what Oasis represented: ‘Freedom.’
Five years later on 12 September 2001, the morning after 9/11, Noel Gallagher paced around a photo studio in north London. For one hour he decimated a mainstream dominated since the year 2000 by celebrity culture, reality TV, teen-pop commercialism, robotically media-trained non-personalities and bands as corporate ‘brands’ – all the by-products of suddenly tyrannical market forces which demanded aggressive profiteering at the expense of everything else.
‘The Man,’ he hollered, ‘has taken over the world! It’s sinister. The labels don’t care what’s coming next, it’s “get me the money, get me it now.” Ten years later it’ll be your Greatest Hits. Ten years later it’ll be your Greatest Hits Remastered and ten years later your Greatest Hits Remastered and Repackaged and then when one of you dies your Greatest Hits all over again with sleeve-notes by some geezer who walked your dog once…’
The newly-gone rock ‘n’ roll 90s was already an alien landscape, the then-towering maverick beanstalks felled by the chainsaw of short-term commerce, the last decade when outsiders like the Gallagher brothers came thundering in from the margins to redefine what the mainstream could be. Throughout the decade the weirdos kept winning, whether the nylon be-shirted sauciness of Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker, the fire-starting terror-pop of Keith Flint from the Prodigy, or the singular minds behind myriad hit singles from Massive Attack, The Verve, the Chemical Brothers and the Manic Street Preachers. Even the explosive intensity of Underworld’s Born Slippy, the synapse-rearranging lager-shouting anthem immortalised in audacious art-house movie Trainspotting, was No.2 in 1996.
But wasn’t this how things always were? Noel Gallagher merely reinforcing every generation’s prerogative to believe things were so much better back-in-their-day? Not anymore. As a music journalist since the mid-1980s, one immersed for decades in now-fossilised print magazines, from the millennium onwards I began to hear the hitherto unthinkable: the voices of young people, millennials, wondering where all the freaks, the fun and the freedom had gone, who believed everything was so much better back-in-your-day…
Youth culture in the 90s, like every decade since the birth of rock ‘n’ roll in the 50s, had music at its epicentre, the vital prism through which we discovered everything else – politically, intellectually, sexually, socially. Today, music no longer commands such a key position. The smart phone does. The prism of the internet is not so much all-pervasive as the ever-expanding epicentre of modern life itself. The music industry, in financial peril since the streaming free-for-all ascended (roughly 2013), is just one digital satellite in the universal vastness of the entertainment industry, one which chooses the tried-and-tested, creates music-by-committee via algorithmic data, pursuing not the shock-of-the-new but the bankable and dependable, the very opposite of the maverick outsider. Youthful rebellion, at least, can never be extinguished: it merely evolves, mutates, an eternally flowing spirit which fills the shape of the culture it encounters. Acutely politicised engagement exists, certainly, in today’s social justice warriors, activists and conservationists, while the planet’s greatest pop star, the enigmatic Billie Eilish, 19, is exactly as she should be: the spook-haired catalyst for the often online-related mental health issues of generation Z. They’re a serious lot, the young. But no wonder: these are serious times.
The party-hard 90s felt uniquely carefree, a generation which came of age in the post-punk uprisings of the late 70s and flamboyant early 80s, now adults let loose into perfect rock ‘n’ roll conditions: a music industry overflowing with cash, the rise of DIY digital music technology, a then-robust UK welfare system which supported unemployed creatives, the camaraderie unleashed through the most popular new drug (ecstasy), the flourishing of independent record labels, even political optimism (Tony Blair’s New Labour ended 18 years of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative rule in 1997). We are all, ultimately, products of our time.
One of the 90s most distinctive characters, Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie, wandered through London’s Tate Britain Museum in early 2019. Then 56, he was 28 years on from the ecstasy-infused transcendence of their ’91 Screamadelica album, the decade’s first sonically defining masterpiece. For over 30 years he’d been his generation’s most righteous rock ‘n’ roll believer.
‘Rock ‘n’ roll is dead, finished,’ he declared, before a lengthy discourse on long-disappeared counter-culture, on today’s right-wing political systems which impoverish the arts and how he recently heard his mum in her kitchen singing along to the Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter. ‘Rock ‘n’ roll is music for your granny now!’ he cackled. ‘It’s not a viable art-form anymore, it’s 20th century.’
But this, he added, is simply how culture rolls. ‘We’re in an art gallery,’ he mused, sweeping a skinny arm around London’s celebrated crucible, ‘and there was expressionism, surrealism, cubism, all the movements, and they had their time. And rock ‘n’ roll has had its time.’