It’s the beginning of the Queen’s Birthday long weekend and I’m reminded of my incredible life in London in the 90s, when “Cool Britannia” was the catch-cry and I was in the thick of what was, arguably, the coolest city in the world, in a pre-terrorism era (although London was still a war zone with the Northern Ireland Troubles).
I’d been a huge fan of the Madchester music scene in the early 90s whilst still in Melbourne thanks to Triple R – The Stone Roses, Happy Mondays, Ocean Colour Scene, Primal Scream – and I’ll throw Jesus Jones into the mix. It was music I could dance to. Some of it had seriously kick-arse bass. But the shoe-gaze sound was starting to fade out by time I went to London in June 1994. I’d thought I’d be there for six weeks, maybe six months, but I stayed over six years.
While the Britpop wars between Oasis and Blur were waging on mainstream radio, I was more into drum and bass and the Bristol Sound – bands like Portishead, Massive Attack, Goldie and Roni Size. My favourite club night was at the Blue Note in Hoxton Square – Talvin Singh’s Anokha, which fused Asian instruments like the tabla with wicked drum and bass rhythms. Goldie also had a regular drum and bass night there. When drum and bass died down, I only went to a few more club nights with Fat Boy Slim and Carl Cox on the decks – those guys made sure there wasn’t a motionless body left in the house.
I had a friend who was a graphic designer at The Face magazine and one year she took me to a massive party they threw. Brit Pop stars, super models, and celebs were everywhere. No smartphones back then – no doubt just as well. The Face was still one of the coolest mags in mid-90s, even after Jason Donovan sued them for libel.
Looking through my CD collection there are other favourites of the era like Lamb, Groove Armada, Everything But The Girl, Faithless, many more. (I’m so glad I kept my CDs.) Ironically, I saw far less live music over there than I do (and did) here in Melbourne. I went to a few festivals, quite a few warehouse parties, and the odd live gig (stand-outs included Roy Ayers at Ronnie Scotts). I probably went to more lock-ins – secret nights at a local pub which would pull down the blinds at closing time, bar the door, and turn into a mini nightclub. There was one we went to regularly for a while on Essex Road in Islington with Andy Weatherall on the decks.
By the late 90s a bar scene reminiscent of Melbourne lounge bars with DJs and old Chesterfields had slowly emerged. There were only clubs or pubs when I’d first arrived, so it was a welcomed change. And I was living in the heart of it – Shoreditch. I used to love leaving work in Soho Square on a Friday night, avoiding the crowds, to go home and change then head out to a cool bar. There was Home, Electricity Showroom, another small bar down the lane run by artists Jake and Dinos Chapman, and a few more opened up around Brick Lane.
When I was back in London a few years ago, my old apartment in Cheshire Street (off Brick Lane) had tourist groups hanging outside gawking at the Styx artwork on the wall. Shoreditch is now a tourist attraction.
Art was a huge aspect of the Cool Britannia era. Charles Saatchi’s Sensation Exhibition in 1997 was eye-popping. Controversial artists like Damien Hirst, the Chapman brothers, and Tracey Emin were amongst the YBAs (Young British Artists) causing a stir. One of the most jaw-dropping pieces of art I saw at that exhibition was a hyper-realistic sculpture called Dead Dad by Ron Mueck, originally a puppeteer and model maker from Melbourne.
I found little echoes of Melbourne in many corners of London, from the muddy brown of the river Thames to the cobbled laneways. I’d lived in Sydney for a few years before I moved there so I think that’s why I felt so at home and stayed so long. During the few times I’ve been back, it still feels like home. And I only need to spin one of those CDs to hear London calling again.