Noel Gallagher was once fond of telling this story. It was July 1997: The monobrowed guitarist of the British band Oasis was at his home, swirling on acid, when his mail slot spit forth a magical letter with the return address 10 Downing Street—it was from the prime minister’s house. Gallagher had been an avid supporter of Tony Blair’s campaign; as a show of thanks, he was invited to a cozy reception of party elites and supporters at Blair’s new residence. The evening yielded an unbelievable photo opportunity: the young, cherubic, and eminently trustworthy face of New Labour meeting the young, cocky rock star amid a huddle of bureaucrats. Gallagher asked Blair how he managed to stay up the entire night to watch the election results. “Probably not by the same means you did,” Blair replied, gently nudging Gallagher about his famous cocaine habit. Gallagher thought it was hilarious.
Oasis’s third album, Be Here Now, was released the next month. On the heels of the Downing Street encounter—and building on the band’s colonization of the U.K.’s pop charts—the record’s release became a national event. Here was the record that would push the homegrown, in-progress musical revolution known as Britpop to new heights. Here was the soundtrack to “Cool Britannia,” a faddish term that renewed British identity as more than bad teeth and world affairs also-rans. Unfortunately, Here was the sound of a bubble bursting. It was an exercise in cocaine vanity, replete with multi-multi-multitracked guitars, too much treble, and really, really long songs. Oasis would spend the next seven years shuffling in and out of the U.K. music tabloids; they had become old news without ever reaching maturity. We know, more or less, what happened to Blair. As time passed, he seemed to have less time to meet Gallagher in the middlebrow.
Outside of a few out-of-contexthits from Blur and Pulp—as well as the universally familiar loutishness of Oasis—the core of Britpop had little effect on the American pop imagination. But in the U.K., Britpop and the idea of Cool Britannia it inspired brought forth a fascinating shift in what it meant to be young, British, and more often than not, white. It was power to the people in four minutes or less, it was uplift without the aid of America, and it was going to be bigger than the Beatles and God. Britpop is the subject of two wonderful retrospectives: journalist John Harris’s keenly researched Britpop! Cool Britannia and the Spectacular Demise of English Rock (Da Capo) and a hilarious documentary entitled Live Forever: The Rise and Fall of Brit Pop. Each attempts to convey this moment of extreme promise, and each pins the moment’s failure on the one man who was supposed to make everyone’s dreams come true.
Britpop as a unified idea emerged around 1994. There were two main commandments: Thou shalt love the Beatles, the Jam, the Smiths, Blur, and/or Oasis; thou shalt love them more than anything from America.Often the artists themselves were aware of this zero-sum nationalism—Blur nearly named their second album England vs. America,before settling on the no less Brit-sounding Modern Life Is Rubbish. Wittingly or not, pop stars were doing the work of the ruling class: They were making it all right to care. Even if you didn’t like the music, the synergistic coupling of pop and patriotism offered a reason to keep your head high.
In the mushy discourse of charisma, the Tony Blair of the mid 1990s had given many young Britons the greatest reason for hope. Part of this was due to the well-manicured ties Blair and his made-over New Labour camp kept with the nation’s most credible pop stars—one of the most entertaining characters of Harris’s book is a plucky Labour aide who turns up at every gig wearing a suit. But much of it was just a general effervescence, a sense that something was in the air. In one particularly poignant scene of Live Forever, the journalist Jon Savage recalls seeing Oasis on Top of the Pops performing the heartening “Some Might Say” in 1995, right after Labour had trounced the Tories in the council elections: “I remember watching them and I just cried. Somehow, by accident, by design, somebody captured the mood of the moment with a song.”
The proudly working-class Gallagher was the kind of apathetic young person that 18 years of Conservative rule had created. In February 1996, Blair attended the Brit Awards. When Oasis sauntered onstage to accept an award, a blissful Gallagher exclaimed, “There are seven people in this room tonight who are giving a little bit of hope.” He named all five members of the band, the president of their label, and Blair. “If you got anything about you, you go up and shake Tony Blair’s hand. Power to the people!” (Gallagher later revealed that he was on two drugs at the time of his impromptu speechifying.) You could not manufacture this kind of publicity, and Blair ran with the baton. Later that year, Alastair Campbell, Blair’s press secretary, wrote: “Something has shifted, there’s a new feeling in the streets. There’s a desire for change. Britain is exporting pop music again. Now all we need is a new government.”
In April 1997, Blair won the general election. He had remade Labour by calling it “New” but moving it toward the center. And he had revitalized it by aligning himself with the hard-playing working-class lads and the by-thy-bootstraps dreams of their pop idols. Though the ideas were inherently conservative, it wasn’t until years later that the photo op came into full view. The lightning of youth collided with the needs of the elected, and all the kid got was a gracious handshake.
Today, Downing Street signifies a far more serious scandal. The recently leaked Downing Street memo contains the minutes of a secret 2002 meeting of high-ranking U.K. officials. One of the items discussed was the American attempt to “fix” intelligence data on Iraq to conform to military objectives. The story hasn’t exactly made waves stateside, but in the U.K., it became a symbol of the nation’s tumbling prestige and a sad remark on Blair’s pliancy.
There is nothing worse than the relinquishing of cynicism for idealism, only to return to cynicism. One hears this slow retreat toward disappointment in the latest album from Oasis, entitled Don’t Believe the Truth. It’s a surprisingly great record that alternates between Liam Gallagher’s rainbow-chasing love songs and Noel’s middle-aged tales of disappointment. It is hard to imagine a band known for such corny, infinite cheer as “Live Forever” and “Wonderwall” sounding so deflated. “The Importance of Being Idle” struggles to find peace of mind in loneliness, while the Velvet Underground-riffing “Mucky Fingers” wonders about all “the lies you’ve learned.” The twirling “Part of the Queue” finds Noel escaping to the city, only to find that the city isn’t so great after all.
According to Harris, there was one thing Gallagher wanted to ask Blair that day at 10 Downing. “I did ask him about the Liverpool dockers,” Gallagher remembers, referring to a group of striking workers who were dismissed for refusing to cross a picket line in 1995. “His words were ‘We’ll look into it.’ And I said, ‘Yes, you probably will, won’t you?’ And that was the end of that.”
Hua Hsu is a student in the history of American civilization at Harvard. He writes for Slate and The Wire.