One of the remarkable things about many of the songs on the This is England 90 soundtrack is how fresh they sound. Not so much because so much time has passed, but more because their time had passed so much. Or so we thought in the late ’90s and early noughties: first everything was pushed aside for the bright lights and political handshakes of Britpop, then we were buried under landfill indie. In the last decade or so, though, old bands have reformed and recorded new material, and new artists have stretched never-the-twain boundaries that once felt so strong.
What’s going on tonight? Is there a discotheque?
Or am I just old and nostalgic? Has watching Shaun Ryder on I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here and warming to his gruffness and charms bridged a generational gap between then and now? I didn’t see The Stone Roses play Spike Island, but I did see them play the Sziget (translation: “Island”) festival, Budapest in 2012. It was exciting, of course it was, so much so that Ian Brown could have had an off day (as if…) and I wouldn’t have cared. But I was enjoying it as a late thirty-something with a small part of his mind on hoping not to have to wait too long for a train back to the city afterwards, and with 20+ years of Stone Roses listening to fall back on to fill any auditory gaps in the live performance.
Still, there’s no diminishing the glory of the opening bars of “Fool’s Gold”, no matter how much time passes; a preceding snatch of dialogue from the series sets it up perfectly. And no matter that it’s only the single edit, it remains the apotheosis of that glorious indie/dance melting pot. The odd snippet of dialogue are one of the ways This is England ’90 manages to rise above the normal retro-compilation crowd. And it needs to, because the compilation industry has been making hay with some of this material for a long time. “There She Goes”, for example, is no stranger to the compilers, or indeed advertisers, and “classics” radio stations. The problem with these songs is that you don’t really ever need to consciously choose to listen to them: someone will do that for you at some point. See also: Beats International, Adamski, 10CC (the one track here that I am mostly skipping most of the time), and to a lesser extent Happy Mondays. “Come Home”, by James, on the other hand, gets a pass for its appearance on the legendary but flawed Happy Daze compilation.
The album’s running order means “Step On” gives way, jarringly at first, to “Underwood”, the first of three Ludovico Einaudi pieces on the soundtrack. In their every bar they are the essence of twenty-first century soundtrack: sparse melancholy, simple construction, and more moments when This is England reminds you that life isn’t all larks and funny Bez dances. It’s the modern way of signalling misery: keening strings are out, suspense, anticipation, quiet dread are in.
There’s just enough time to for it all to sink in: this is basically still the 80s in all but name. And then you’re into Kiko Bun’s cover of Toots and The Maytals’ “54-56” and the across-decades sampling “Dub Be Good To Me” crash in…
It also demonstrates another win for This is England ’90: even if you can find most of these tracks on plenty of compilations, you probably won’t find one with all of them on. You might, however, find a playlist or two somewhere on some streaming service that comes close: something curated; something with feeling and love, even if it is just the e-talking. Which is maybe how you get “Cubik” by 808 State alongside Billy Idol’s “Eyes Without A Face”, next to a final Einaudi composition.
And then at the end, there’s “God Song”, a rumbling, pounding new track by Toydrum. It’s fitting that it should close the soundtrack to what Meadows has hinted marks the end of This is England, given songwriter Gavin Clark’s longtime influence on Meadows’ art. After Clark’s death earlier this year, Meadows wrote:
He’s penned at least one unforgettable song for pretty much everything I’ve ever made and his latest, as yet unreleased songs, are his greatest and have once again become the emotional heartbeat of my latest project.
It’s a final reminder that this is not so much a nostalgic genre piece as a time capsule. The clever trick is that in some way it’s all our soundtracks, whether you were at The Hacienda or just mentally in madchester. For me, tracks by The Stone Roses, James, The Las kick off all sorts of reminiscences. My indie birth certificate puts me slightly after this time – 1991 was where it all kicked off – and I was very much in the indie guitar camp, looking across at the daft dance crowd. If the likes of 808 State, Adamski and The Scientist crept in, it might only have been through some random compilation backdoor – the sort of album where the compilers either had diversity targets or a preternatural desire to demonstrate their cool chops. Here they’re together for all the right reasons.