The Nineties may not actually be a cure for Covid – but the decade’s music, films, art and brash optimism, now enjoying a revival, can bring some much-needed fun to the grey days of Lockdown 3.0
Culture, like an emergency service of the mind and heart, has a habit of coming to the rescue in times of need. So it strikes me as no coincidence at all that – worn down by the third lockdown, and approaching the anniversary of the first (23 March) – we suddenly find ourselves in the midst of a Nineties revival.
And what a decade it was. You remember fun? There was the glory of Euro ‘96, with David Baddiel and Frank Skinner providing England with an alternative national anthem in ‘Three Lions’. The brash confidence of Britpop, and of the YBAs (Young British Artists such as Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Sarah Lucas and Angus Fairhurst).
There was Danny Boyle’s 1996 movie of Irvine Welsh’s novel, Trainspotting, and its unforgettable opening (soundtrack courtesy of Mr Iggy Pop). The Spice Girls – the manufactured pop group that went on to show what Girl Power really meant by sacking their manager, going it alone and becoming the greatest all-female act in history.
And let’s not forget Liam Gallagher’s swagger and sunglasses, the perfect counterpoint to his brother Noel’s immobilised musical genius. In March 1997, the Oasis singer and Patsy Kensit made the cover of Vanity Fair – a millennial John and Yoko in bed, with Union Jack pillows and duvet – above the headline: LONDON SWINGS AGAIN!
New Labour hugged all this cultural bravado close with the (silly-but-fun) “Cool Britannia” brand, and – hard to believe now, I know – people marched in the streets for Tony Blair. Frothy, psychedelic and sleeplessly celebratory, it was a time of ecstasy (in every sense) and, pre-social media, much less scolding and ticking off. The only tweeters in those days were massive speakers in small flats, booming out ‘Champagne Supernova’, ‘Loaded’ or ‘There’s No Other Way’ at 4am.
And what better time than these grey dystopian days to retrieve some of that spirit from our national storage locker? Cue Creation Stories (Sky Cinema, 20 March), Nick Moran’s new film about the pop Svengali, Alan McGee (Ewen Bremner), and his company, Creation Records. Scripted by Irvine Welsh, the movie is the story of a Glaswegian punk who set up his own label in 1983 and – after many years of trial and error – became the UK’s most culturally influential pop impresario.
Posterity will remember McGee for discovering Oasis and the somewhat-contrived battle of the bands which the Mancunian rockers fought with their London rivals Blur (whose bassist, Alex James, wrote a wonderful memoir, A Bit of a Blur, about the whole era – on the strength of which I hired him as a Spectator columnist).
Yet – in his own eyes, at least – McGee’s crowning achievement was his long and ultimately triumphant campaign to make Primal Scream the huge band that they eventually became. In the lanky Bobby Gillespie, who resembled a dour apprentice mortician poured into a paisley shirt, he believed he had spotted a true star – and he was right.
The Primals laboured long and hard as a standard post-punk guitar band. But it was not until they teamed up with the late Andrew Weatherall, an acid house DJ-turned-producer, that they broke through with Screamadelica (1991) – which won the first Mercury Prize and, 30 years on, still sounds fresh and exhilarating.
Weatherall was not (yet) an expert engineer, but he understood exactly what drove the punters to the dance floor, and how to marry the band’s rock origins with a more eclectic range of influences: house, gospel, R&B, Syd Barrett psychedelia.
The story of how this magical concoction was brewed is retold in an excellent Classic Albums documentary (Apple, VOD) that, with perfect timing, has just resurfaced on streaming services.
With equal serendipity, Gillespie announced this week that he has made use of the dreary days of the pandemic by writing a memoir, Tenement Kid, (White Rabbit, October).
The Nineties cannot immunise you against Covid – although AstraZeneca, Moderna and Pfizer all sound like groups that could have played at Glastonbury in those days (probably as a warm-up on the Pyramid Stage to The Prodigy, Suede or Elastica).
But that decade’s sounds, images and sheer brio can certainly make you feel better, and help you get through what we hope will be the last months of the pandemic. As the man said: choose life.
Here are this week’s recommendations:
Human Rights Watch Film Festival (18-26 March)
For its 25th outing, this excellent festival has curated a fine line-up of movies; all, in their different ways, drawing attention to human rights violations around the world and the campaigns fought to end them. Alongside the ten principal global documentaries, there will be online discussions with film-makers and other ways to participate. Don’t miss The 8th, directed by Aideen Kane, Lucy Kennedy, and Maeve O’Boyle, a remarkable account of the battle by Irish women to change the Republic’s abortion laws; or Unapologetic, Ashley O’Shay’s documentary on the campaign for justice fought by a group of Black activists in Chicago after two police killings. With a week to go until the festival opens, there’s still time to book.
The One (Netflix, 12 March)
All eight episodes of this sci-fi series will be streamable from the start, so this has the makings of a weekend binge. The premise is sturdy hokum: what if DNA mapping made it possible to find you the perfect love match? Might that not lead to some strained conversations between existing couples? And possibly some thriller-ish intrigue (all Big Pharma Drama must involve dark deeds)? You know the answers already, but don’t let that put you off. This is superior B-television.
Bruno vs Tyson (Sky Documentaries)
So much more than a boxing documentary, this is really a film about the way in which history entangles the lives of extraordinary individuals – and the price that they pay. Bruno was the lovable giant, whose devastating left jab coincided with a gentle personality that made him a national hero in the UK. Tyson, in contrast, was a self-styled machine of destruction, “Iron Mike”, as aggressive outside the ring as he was inside it. The two heavyweights fought twice, both bouts consequential in their respective careers. It is a compelling sporting saga – but the most moving sequences show the two men, both in their fifties now, reminiscing at Tyson’s home, clearly full of respect and affection for one another.
…and recommended by Tortoise member and contributor, Lara Spirit (and her flatmates Emma Corrin and Avigail Tlalim)
And Then We Danced (Prime Video)
A moving portrayal of a love affair between two traditional Georgian dancers. The debut performance of Levan Gelbakhiani, culminating in a beautiful final scene, is incredible (and includes a fantastic dance to Robyn’s ‘Honey’). Levan Akin’s film met with violence and protest in Georgia upon its release, a country where a deep religious traditionalism renders anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment commonplace.
Notebook by Tom Cox (Unbound)
Though Cox rose to prominence with a series of beautifully-written books about his cats – several of whom had successful Twitter accounts – his range is prodigious and encompasses, amongst much else, a love of the countryside, the pagan spirit of the land, music (of all sorts), and the magic of simple pleasures (trees, sheep, hats). His latest is a collection of fragments and stories, full of wit, reflection and lyrical observation.
Bright Burning Things by Lisa Harding (Bloomsbury)
In her second novel, Lisa Harding tackles the challenges of parenthood – in the first-person voice of Sonya Moriarty, a trained actress reduced to poverty and alcohol abuse, struggling to raise her four-year-old son, Tommy. The prose is taut and unsparing, and Harding has an eye for the details of indignity that are the constituent parts of emotional pain.
The Fabulists: How Myth-Makers Rule in an Age of Crisis by Michael Peel (Oneworld)
As European diplomatic correspondent for the Financial Times, Peel knows all about the underlying forces of power, and captures, with impressive precision, the role of myth and fantasy in contemporary politics and (especially) authoritarianism. As this fine book shows, it is impossible to understand the turbulent landscape of the 21st Century without grasping the centrality of narrative and storytelling – much of it ugly and distorted.
Scary Hours 2 – Drake
“I had it so long, I don’t even celebrate it,” raps Drizzy on this, his fourth EP – and there will no shortage of sceptics who say that it is time for him to call it a day (I can’t be sure, but I’m guessing that this is the first rap record to describe a parent-teacher conference). But the second track, ‘Wants and Needs’, summons up all the talent that propelled Drake to such heights in the first place. Don’t assume he’s winding down. This sounds to me like the interim report of an irrepressible creative talent, rather than the start of a long goodbye.
Fauré – Works For Violin & Piano – Jan Rautio & Jane Gordon A celebration of two decades of musical partnership between Rautio and Gordon, this collection of Fauré’s works for piano and violin is a mesmerising reminder that, as the composer who, more than any other, bridged Romanticism and modernism, he should be revered for much more than his Requiem.
Poster Girl – Zara Larsson
For a while, Larsson’s last album, So Good (2017), was the second most-streamed by a woman on Spotify. Nestling between perfect pop, disco and EDM, her follow-up is light, bright and more than occasionally reminiscent of her fellow-Swedes, Abba. Some have criticised the album for its lack of coherence which strikes me as a category mistake. This is dancefloor music to help you build a playlist for spring, not material for an earnest campus seminar on Scandinavian cultural influences in the post-pandemic era. Enjoy.
That’s all for now.
Please keep sending us your recommendations to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Take care of yourselves – and one another.
Editor and Partner
Photographs Getty Images, Netflix, Sky+, AppleTV+, Amazon Prime