An appreciation of the 1990s from someone who was there (but hated them at the time)
My hunch is that every generation thinks they’ve got it bad, they’ve culturally missed the boat on something spectacular. I was a baby of the 70s, a child of the 80s and a teenager of the 90s. When I was growing up a toddler every single person in Britain – male or female – seemed to have weird feathery hair (I don’t know why), and occasionally you’d be walking down the street and you’d see people glue sniffing in public as if to remind you that all of the luminous neon colour applied to the 1980s was mainly to gloss over how awful life had become.
I personally began the 1990s a shocking shade of beetroot red after my mum took me to the barbers and asked them, out loud, publicly, to make me look like Jason Donovan (didn’t happen). A couple of years later everyone started having their hair like Liam Gallagher and walking with floppy, swaying arms. Or some had wedges taken out of the back so it looked like they were wearing a wig. By the mid-90s I’d taken to shaving my hair into a do-it-yourself crew cut, and I’d already raised a defiant finger to the stupid 1990s because it felt like a nondescript decade that time had already forgotten.
I thought the music was naff – I was too young for free raves, I didn’t like Nirvana and I couldn’t stand Britpop (see the swaying, lifeless arms from earlier). I now know that spectacular things were afoot, that horizons were being broadened, but at the time the only genre that appealed to me came from MasterCuts compilations, which themselves were a reflection of the trendy London Rare Groove scene from a few years earlier that had slowly filtered its way into Middle Class Oxford. Fact is, back then being in the right place at the right time was an unimaginable lottery. There wasn’t an internet to school you on the coolest trends, so if there was a soul and funk scene in my orbit, it was because we had to invent it ourselves. It consisted of schoolboys who thought James Brown was king, or that Marvin Gaye was some great undiscovered soul star, or that Donald Byrd, Roy Ayers, and Bobbi Humphrey were the true geniuses of our time – we’d sit around in bedrooms nodding our heads (probably off beat), our knowledge limited but constantly expanding as we came across records with these familiar names on them. We learned to find out what was good by listening to as much as we could, and forming organic opinions. Sounds mad now.
Entire afternoons were spent in record shops looking for inspiration. Fashion was found out on your own too. My mate Sam sported Arctic camouflage, indie kids wore jumpers that draped wimpishly over their hands, there were loads of ravers in baggy trousers and hooded tops (before hoodies became scary). We had a vague idea of what we liked, but there weren’t consumer brands in the way there are now, telling us what to do, and fashion certainly wasn’t aimed at kids with no money to spend on clothes anyway. So, like most of my records, the clothes I bought were second hand. My mum might occasionally treat me to some jeans from The Gap or a sweater from M&S, but mainly I used to buy short-sleeved shirts from charity shops and wear them over dead man’s trousers. I’d wear a navy Kappa tracksuit top, or occasionally my granddad’s sheepskin coat because I thought it made me look like Matt Dillon from Drugstore Cowboy. You could express yourself without being self-conscious. I once twisted all of my hair into spikes and went out in public. No one cared.
You could smoke down the left-hand side at the cinema too, and though the 1970s had seemed much grander and artsier with films like Apocalypse Now or Taxi Driver and the 80s trashier with Stallone and Schwarzenegger and all that bullshit, now we had the perfect balance of high and lowbrow in the form of Point Break and True Romance, Pulp Fiction, Dazed and Confused, Boogie Nights, Scream. TV was great too. Richard and Judy became a student staple, early reality shows like The Living Soap or The Real World on MTV put together intriguing casts of misfits, golden era Eastenders followed Top of The Pops on a Thursday, then the holy Saturday night trinity of Baywatch, Gladiators, Blind Date. You bookended your week with The Big Breakfast and The Word, shows that tell you everything you need to know about the 90s. It was a kind of anti-culture culture, a shattering of convention and professionalism that was echoed in magazines for men who weren’t heroic, or Sky Magazine with its vicious problem pages, or Viz that was at its peak of hilarity. Even football was different, more characterful, knockabout and optimistic. Euro 96 was the best tournament of my lifetime by a long way.
We didn’t know it then, but the 1990s were a great time to be alive. British culture found itself. Free university education, pound-a-pint nights. I have no idea how I met new people or made arrangements because we had no phones, no emails, no internet dating. Yet we got together in pubs, we went to parties, we rode bikes and had kickabouts and occasionally wandered around Kwik Save looking for chicken burgers, we ate pizza, we managed to stay a part of each other’s lives despite all of the obstacles in our way. I even used to receive long letters from friends telling me how they’d been and asking how I was. I’d send them a letter back. It was a decade when you had to invest real time into people, and real time into the things you liked – you couldn’t download treats on a whim, you had to brave the outdoors, you couldn’t buy your image wholesale, everything about you was cultivated, at least in some small way.
Truly, it was the last great time for humanity.
And notice I never once said zig-a-zig-ah! Or New Labour.
It was close though.