Updated: May 6
I’ve just managed to get my hands on this old issue of the NME for a fairly cheap price online while my British Library membership remains on a COVID-induced hiatus. There’s some eye-opening information in its yellowing pages, couched in the slightly boisterous and braggadocious journalistic tone of the times.
The government was hardly shaking in its boots. And what's going on with that lower-case 'i'?
I wasn’t much of a fan of the years when ‘indie’ went overground in the 1990s – not because I only rate obscure music but because much of the ‘breakthrough’ music seemed unimaginative to my admittedly long-abused ears. But NME cover from 14 March 1998 – which, of course, borrows John Lydon’s sarcastic comment from The Sex Pistols’ final gig in San Francisco in 1978 as its headline – illustrates a key moment in the decline of the welfare state and its ability to act as a safety net for all, let alone those attempting to kickstart careers in music.
The point of my On The Rock’n’Roll book is that it’s about the whole snowball. That is, the entire swelling mass of pop music created on the dole (and via squats and art schools) since the 1960s – the welfare state has overwhelmingly benefited all forms of music in this country. Whatever genre their work falls into, there’s no denying that most musicians are roughly on the left side of the political divide – at least when they’re in what is often their most productive years: their twenties. So, it’s no surprise that the election of Tony Blair’s New Labour government in 1997 was greeted with a collective relief from the world of music after 18 solid years of painful Tory rule.
The Conservative Party’s traditional mix of judgementalism and mammon-worship made them the worst party to have in power during the rise of AIDS (see also: COVID-19) and the violent oppression of the organised workforce had been loudly proclaimed, protested and fought by musicians as well as miners during the latter’s long strike in the mid-1980s.
However, despite these ideological ogres being in power throughout the 1980s and most of the ‘90s, their attempts to massage the massive unemployment figures their policies created inadvertently led to an expansion of the opportunities available to find state support for one’s creative endeavours. The ability to get off the dole for a year as part of the Enterprise Allowance Scheme was particularly welcome – if you could get £1,000 put into your bank account for the one day the Department of Social Security demanded to see it there. Often the money was returned to a generous friend or relative the very next day, but the scheme meant that a budding or struggling musician (or manager, record label or sound engineer) could start their own business and be mostly left alone to write, record, tour and promote the results. If you could show some financial or business progress or actual success over that year, then all the better.
This was as true of bands in the ‘90s as it was in the previous couple of decades. Very few could have existed without the time and space afforded by signing on and the skin-of-the-teeth security provided by cheap (or free) housing and supplementary benefit – or a non-returnable student grant for art school or uni. Things could only get better with Labour in charge, right?
Oh, dear. Less than one year in, and the scales are now falling from almost every indie band’s eyes. On its election, Labour had committed to a ‘New Deal’ for unemployed youth funded by a windfall tax from recently privatised communal assets. One of the departing Conservative Government’s recent acts had been to rebrand Unemployment Benefit as the more positive-sounding Jobseekers Allowance. This was stricter but also guaranteed your benefits after a certain period of unemployment. With the employment rate now falling, Labour outlined their commitment to consolidating this direction with a ‘new contract for welfare’.
One result of this new direction would be to make it a lot harder to claim benefits. To the Britpop musicians who felt part of the burgeoning ‘Cool Britannia’ pop culture renaissance, this felt like the ultimate betrayal.
NME interviewed numerous contemporary indie musicians for an issue intended to take the new Labour government to task – or at least make it realise that it might lose its precious youth votes by following this path. I mean ‘indie’, too – there are very few black or brown musicians featured, and even less women. Of course, this cultural exclusion may have been the result of the magazine’s editorial department targeting a perceived or focus-grouped niche, though such a closed shop would do nothing to broaden minds.
That’s not the topic here, though. The resulting eight-page feature was mostly a display of pissed-off guitar and haircut wielders – essentially a cross-section of those who were deemed to matter at the time. There are comments from everyone from Jarvis Cocker and Bobby Gillespie to, um, Pete Voss of Campag Velocet. Alan McGee – who was famously invited to Number 10 with his mega-protégés Oasis shortly after election day on 20 July 1997 – is particularly scathing.
The assembled musos have spent anything from a few months to 18 years on the dole (‘Tiny’ from Ultrasound deserves the George Cross for this last monolithic achievement). In fact, I might extract these figures in total and lay them out in an Excel graph for the book. I’m nothing if not scientific.
The NME sets a mildly iconoclastic tone. One of the set questions asked of their subjects refers to the “level of spiritual fulfillment gained by sitting on arse". There is some insight to be gleaned. Mark Morriss of The Bluetones (three years on the dole), for instance, points out that “We didn’t have a job to take all of our physical and mental chutzpah away”. The Verve (length of time on the dole unknown) demonstrate erudition in their collective statement: “The way things work in a band is not like any other job – you have to be ready before you can earn any wages. How can you get ready if you have to graft six days a week? You’d never have the time or the energy.” Someone should tell Bruce Springsteen. Conversely, Luke Haines (five years) is being either rather unreflective or contrarian when he says: “Dole as arts grant is a myth. It’s not a God-given right” but sees no difference between the Labour and Conservative administrations other than their educations (now, even that difference has been 'leveled up').
Jarvis Cocker (six years) says: “I wouldn’t recommend it as a lifestyle choice for anyone” but says that Pulp wouldn’t have survived without it. Ian Broudie of the Lightning Seeds (“years”) is of a similar mind, as are Tjinder Singh (three weeks) and Ben Ayres (six weeks) of Cornershop, and Bobby Gillespie (six years) of Primal Scream. The only other brown people than Tjinder interviewed, Asian Dub Foundation (up to three years), say as one: “being on the dole was a time of musical learning and creativity”. Cerys Matthews (five years) states that she would be “claiming anti-depressants from the NHS” if she hadn’t had the dole buying her time to be a singer. Two of The Charlatans (up to one year) left work deliberately to sign on so that the band could succeed.
I’m not sure that I’d literally like to see “The Lightning Seeds, Dodgy and Space chew Jack Straw a new arsehole”, as the article says, but you get the point – New Labour is now persona non grata. Ther has been a massive betrayal and the indie scene is mightily pissed-off. It looks like the party is about to remove the right to claim Jobseeker’s Allowance and force unemployed people into college courses or to work for their money; to finally phase out grants and introduce a loan to pay for college fees of £1,000 (little did we know); reintroduce ‘stop and search’; and they’ve welched on their agreement to have a debate over the decriminalisation of drugs. Keir Starmer would find much to inspire him here.
Alan McGee notoriously donated £50,000 to help fund Labour’s pre-election campaign. A year later he’s very reluctant to throw good money after bad. “I was in the Enterprise Allowance Scheme for a year after I left British Rail and that’s how I got Creation together in 1983. If I had been forced to take a job, then I would probably still be at British Rail now … I suppose I was one of the kids who the government is trying to fix – a kid with no future. For someone like that, it’s good to get them into some sort of employment, but if you actually know what you want to be and you’re inspired to be a musician, then you shouldn’t be forced into having to do a job that you don’t want to do.
“Labour … is making it worse for musicians. On this issue, they’re worse than the last government. On one hand, you’ve got Tony Blair and Chris Smith making this thing about Cool Britannia, but on the other hand, they’re taking away the means for the next generation of artists and musicians to go away and create.”
In February 1998, McGee – then a member of the Music Industry Task Force – refused to attend a meeting with then Employment Minister Andrew Smith, citing the Welfare to Work policy as his reason. Things did indeed get worse and the days of being able to plot artistic world domination full time while having the basic wherewithal to get by were almost over.
The buffer zone between poverty and survival for aspiring working and lower-middle-class musicians was being eroded by the party they thought would defend them. The exponential explosion of the internet is just around the corner and that will represent a killer blow to many careers – just before Brexit dances on their graves.