Damian Beeson Bullen’s retrospective
adventure thro’ the Birth of Britpop
Ah, 1994, good times! Writing this a quarter of a century later, those sweet, ebullient days of youth hang like foggy blossom in the memories of my mind… my first beers at 14, my first lay at 15, my first spliff at 16, my first rave at 17…. it was a time when everything was exciting & life was filled with promise. Ah 1994, I remember it well… resin was £15 an eighth, pills a tenner in the clubs, acid £2.50 a tab, speed £7.50 a gram & skunk weed £25 on yer eighth. Beyond my little Burnley bubble, it was the year when Robert A. Lopez of Westport, NY State experimented with obtaining ear mites from cats & inserting them in his own ear, carefully observing and analyzing the results. It was also the year when Barbara Windsor joined the cast of Eastenders, taking over the Queen Vic as Peggy Mitchell, mother of the bald-pated Mitchell brothers. Meanwhile, the Japanese Meteorological Society were concluding their seven-year research on whether Catfish caused earthquakes by wigglin’ their tales. And the National Lottery was born.
On the telly you had your usual fare. In the morning GMTV vied with the Big Breakfast to set up the viewers’ day (never saw them myself, far too early). In the land of the soap opera it was Neighbours & Home & Away at tea-time (or twice a day for doleys & students), followed by Corrie & ‘Stenders. The Crystal maze was still on, as was Play yer Cards Right with Bruce Forsyth & his bevvy of sexy birds. Have I got News For You catered for the bankers, while Frank Skinner & David Baddiel entertained the footy fans with their Fantasy Football League! In comedy Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced bouquet) made all the pensioners laugh & a certain fat, mouthy lesbian bird called Jo Brand amused everybody else. At the dawn of his career Alan Partridge gave us Knowing me, Knowing You, & the Fast Show had us in stitches. From across the pond The Yanks were giving us pre-Trump Roseanne Barr at her peak, BBC 2 had imported the mad-dash Ren & Stumpy (Mondays, 6-25) while Channel 4 offered the stony huh-huh-huh’s of Beavis & Butthead. As for the all-conquering Simpsons, the family had invaded every home in the isles. As BBC2 were showed us repeats of the first series, Sky One kept us up to date with the latest hysterical adventures of Homer, Bart, Marge & Lisa.
In the celluloid realm of the movie, dem dere Yanks seemed to be havin’ a good day. With Raiders of the Lost Ark Steven Spielberg had apparently made the greatest film ever, but he called my opinion into question when he gave the world his Schindlers List. A haunting, emotional & yet very entertaining portrayal of the Jewish Holocaust, he brought that heinous crime to life in a masterpiece of cinematic experience & history. His decision to make it in Black & White only added to the atmosphere, excepting one sublime moment. After seeing a little girl wearing a scarlet coat during an urban clearance by the Nazis, we would come across that same coat later in the film… only in a cart full of bodies being hauled through the death camps. Other films that year included the Shawshank Redemption, released to a tidal wave of apathy, soon to become recognized as one of the great movies of all time… & Quentin Tarantino’s follow up to the startling & curiously unsettling Reservoir Dogs… Pulp Fiction! In it John Travolta became cool again, Uma Thurman was proper fit like, dancin away til she overdosed on coke, leadin’ to a wicked scene. Near comatose she was given a direct shot of adrenalin through the breast-plate & into her heart… she sat up with the needle stickin out of her chest… cool! I leave you with a memory of one particular scene. Bruce Willis walked in on his boss being botteyed by a copper called Zed & his rubber-clad gimp… evidence enough to prove that the Yanks are definitely WRONG! Nearer to home Britain produced the interminably silly Four Weddings & a Funeral, where once again Hugh Grant played a slightly embarrassed, yet vaguely cool Englishman trying to get laid.
In 1994 the Nineties at last began to express themselves. Being able to draw on the Sixties for it’s music, the Seventies for it’s fashion & the Eighties for not what to do (man learns from his mistakes) suddenly the age had projected a persona… nothing particularly new, but a subtle blend of all the cool bits that had gone on before. There was definitely something in the air, a sense of escape from the shackles of the Eighties… to be poor was cool, and all of Thatcher’s yuppies were now holed up in Surbiton des-res. From the many tribes came the many vibes, it wasn’t just Mods & Rockers anymore, the fashion industry fragmenting & it seemed that now, as long as you had a style you were cool. Look at Jarvis Cocker… a tall, gangly, thirtysomething, bespectacled geek was now an urban hero. The people were taking to the streets once again, more peaceably than the Poll Tax riots, their agendas more for Gay Pride & against the cutting down of student grants. There was a problem tho. The music scene, which is in the very fibre & blood of the British, was being taken over quite insidiously by America.
After the miracle of Madchester, with the Roses in hiding, the Mondays on crack; with James, The Charlatans & the Carpets past their peak, there came no new band to get us grooving. Suede shone ephemeral for a while, & their first album still possesses that classical guitar swirl which got us all excited. But then came Kurt Cobain. Based in Seattle the ‘grunge’ sound had rocketed round the world, leaving a trail of long hair & dodgy t-shirts in its wake. Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam & Mudhoney are all famous names from the era, but it is Nirvana & their release of Nevermind which suddenly thrust alternative music into the mainstream. Nirvana were pretty damn good, actually; very clever, with simple song structures, quiet & roaring juxtapositions & hypbotic lyrics. To the world the band’s frontman was the iconic figurehead of grunge, clad in a Freddy Krueger jumper & wielding his gee-tah like a Celtic axeman. Heroin addiction, a dark temperament & being married to Courtney Love was his downfall.
The story begins at the end of March. Kurt was in Rome & Courtney was in London, reviewing singles for the Melody Maker. That night she flew to Rome, & by the morning Kurt was in Umberto Prima Hospital hospital, overdosing. She did make the SOS call, btw, after finding him on the floor of their room in the Excelsior Hotel, but this sharp & conniving sociopath knew what she was doing. Her band, Hole’s, album was being released the next week, & it was time to ditch the stepping-stone-to-fame that had been her attachment to Kurt Cobain. In an interview made a few years later in the film ‘Kurt & Courtney’, Eldon Hoke, or El Duce, describes the background to the Courtney’s murder of Cobain at the hands of as certain ‘Allen’ – ie Allen Wrench. “Let the FBI catch him,” he had said, & it is no coincidence that two days after half-naming Cobain’s murderer, Hoke was found decapitated on the railroad tracks in Riverside, California. In a recent blogpost of mine, the wife described Courtney Love as, ‘an awkward hero. I was there. She’s no hero. She’s a narcissistic junkie who reaped the benefits of her dearly departed to mutilate her body with Hollywood surgery.’
The discovery of Kurt’s body at his home at 171 Lake Washington Blvd East Seattle, on April 8th 1994, sent shockwaves across the planet. In Seattle, a spontaneous coming together of the Grunge scene kinda summoned folk at the Fountain under the Space Needle by the Seattle Centre, where kids played Nirvana songs on guitar & lit candles & drank beer. Some would have found a corner to take, I presume, so rife was the drug in the city at that time. My wife is actually from Seattle – her partner at the time played bass for The Geffen-signed band The Posies – & she remembers going along to the vigil, & was taken aback by a young fellow wearing the famous smiley-face Nirvana t-shirt, to which had been added a red-daubed bullet hole in the head. ‘That’s crass,‘ she had told her best friend in disgust. Also quite crass was Courtney Love’s pre-recorded reaction, reading extracts from her own faked ‘suicide note’ & her emotional outburst that Kurt was an asshole for doing this to her family. The ultimate two-faced betrayal of the ultimate two-faced bitch!
So, where were you in Spring ‘94? Some of you were at school, some of you weren’t even born. Some had crap jobs, some had good jobs, some were on the dole. Some were in prison & some were pregnant. Some were in hospital while others were abroad. All in all, everyone was doing something & was somewhere. Me? I was dossing about in Burnley, Lancashire, & that’s where my adventure begins. I had moved into the front room of a two up, two down terraced house in Burnley. The electricity had recently been cut off, forcing me in front of a gas fire for light, heat & cooking (half an hour for toast). All around me lay the unkempt mess of a seventeen year old (messy as fuck)… to top it all off my band had recently split up & mi bird, Jane, had just got spots. For entertainment I was learning bass guitar on three strings of a beaten up acoustic, each one promising to snap at any moment. At this point I could play the entire bass line of Wild Thing & three others… I Wanna Be Adored, She Bangs the Drums & I Am the Ressurection… all by my favourite band, The Stone Roses.
Now then, the Roses. Evidently ace, Manchester’s finest & easily the greatest band since The Beatles, whose influence may not have been as wide as that of the Scousers, but is of a more subtle type that has affected an entire generation. Every decent band since those heady days of ’89 has drawn inspiration from their mix of majesty & groove… Richard Ashcroft of the Verve had their poster shadowing his teenage years, Liam Gallagher was inspired to act after seeing The Roses play, & so on. For me & many others they were the soundtrack of youth, if not life, & whenever I hear one of their tracks, be it on an advertisement or in a club, a special familial moment always occurs. Tracks like Fools Gold are as famous as the National anthem & are as much a part of the country’s psyche as are the drums at the end of an Eastenders episode.
So, it was time to do one. It was Easter 1994, the trees were sprouting leaves left, right & centre, the ducklings were clogging the canals & twinkles began to return to the eyes of the birds. Within me I began to feel a stir, which I can now recognise as the Spirit of Adventure, an instinctual impulse that has driven men from the safety of their homesteads on various crazy missions, where death, or at least a serious accident, await. I was first filled with the spirit as a young boy following the adventures of Asterix & Obelix as they took on the might of Ceaser’s legions. Later, in the weekly Sunday morning race with my sister to see who woke up first & got control over the morning’s choice of video, I became addicted to mister Indiana Jones. Over the years I think I edged it, but through my sisters choice of video I now know all the lyrics to every song in Grease, and all the dialogue of Dirty Dancing… Nobody puts Baby in a corner.
Adventuring is great fun, exciting & educational, a life being led. In early ’93 I left Lancashire for my first proper adventure & had a wild teenage time touring England as far as Minehead, where I got a job as a burger boy at Butlins. Unfortunately my boss was a Bastard Rovers fan, & I was soon sacked. The money I saved up took me as far as Tarragona, near Barcelona, which was then stolen while I slept on the beach. My mum had to fly me home & I found myself back in Burnley… my adventure over but the thrilling taste of the tour still tantalising my essence & I was still only sixteen. So where to go this time. A stint at Butlins had served me well before, so I thought I’d try again…. this time closer to home in Yorkshire, & sunny Skegness.
It was time to do one from Burnley. Because of the recent success of the town’s football team, the whole world has now heard of my hometown. For those who have never actually been, Burnley is a misty, old industrial centre of about seventy thousand inhabitants nestled under the gaze of Pendle Hill, that lofty mound where the Lancashire witches would gather & cast spells on pregnant cows. Burnley is predominately working class, which means it’s full of good people, pies & pubs. As a teenager it had everything I needed… clubs, drugs & birds. My family lived there also, including the wonder of my life, mi Grandma Joan. Before I left for Skeggy she gave me a good dose of her home baking & a fiver, which coupled with the thirty quid income support money gave me £35 quid for the road. I spent my last evening in Burnley with my girlfriend Jane; smoking weed, making love & chatting about the future, the innocent enthusiasm of youth bubbling beneath our talk. We slept in a warm embrace til morning, when it was time to set forth. Jane’s mum dropped me off at the train station & they stood on the platform waving as my train pulled away. I waved back, not knowing when, or if, I would see them again.
Of course I didn’t pay on the train. Almost exactly a year previously I became a Fader (Fare Evader), inducting myself into a wonderful art, skill, sport & blag that has been a constant feature of my nomadic life. I remember my first jump well. After spending three hours in the rain at the top of the M1, waiting for a lift down South, I thought fuck it, lets try the trains… & have never looked back (or paid) since. The train wound through the gorgeous green valleys of Todmorden & Hebden Bridge, past the steep slopes of Halifax, the curry houses of Bradford, the grey megalopolis that is Leeds & into view of the stately Minster at York. Now already I’d seen far too many Yorkshiremen for my Lancastrian liking, but the situation was eased a little as we reached the desolate Moors. A little while later, beyond a windswept wilderness, the train pulled into Skegness & I breathed in the salty air of the coast.