Somehow 15 years have passed since VICE arrived in London and the editors would have to push piles of magazines around the city asking pubs to please take them. Since then we've grown, conceiving tiny content babies that have grown into leading industry voices (see us, here—Noisey—recklessly tooting our own horn). To mark this anniversary, this week VICE UK is throwing a bunch of events and we're running a series of content about a time in British music that most of us shouldn't, but weirdly do, struggle to remember.
Like Morrissey nearly said—and possibly would have done if he hadn’t allowed himself to slip into a sordid fantasy about Anthony pouring bottles of bitter down Cleopatra’s throat—some years are better than others. And so, to be as blunt as possible about it: 2002 was a bad one.
It may seem arbitrary, when you really think about it, to divide chronology into neatly divisible chunks but years are actually really useful. We use them as both a kind of memorial mnemonic, allowing us to neatly create an autobiographical narrative with some kind of shape and sense, and as a means of structuring our relationship to the wider world.
“2001,” we think on our deathbeds, “was pretty bad for globally resonant geopolitical reasons related to the US, but I did get a yellow belt in judo, so it wasn’t all terrible. 2002, on the other hand…”
And because the world’s really just a succession of events that have and will unfurl endlessly until the whole thing implodes or explodes or whatever happens and our distant relatives feel the heat prickling at their skin as their hair slides off their melting skulls and their teeth fall out, not one by one, but in clumps, you can probably find semi-interesting events in any year our ancestors have had to live though. 1816 was the global North’s Year Without a Summer. A three-year, hail-related famine began in northern France in 1194. Even 1336, a year I’m almost certain you’ve never, ever thought about before in your entire life, saw Aberdeen burnt to a crisp by the English.
2002, though, is a struggle. OK, so Michael Jackson decided to dangle an infant off a Berlin balcony, Robbie Williams became rich beyond his wildest dreams, and Silverchair withdrew from the Gone South festival in Australia after lead singer Daniel Johns contracted reactive arthritis. Oh, and some Canadian punk magazine opened a British outpost in pre- Nathan Barley Shoreditch—all of which eventually lead to the creation of Noisey, this here website, which is helping to celebrate 15 years of VICE UK.
All of which means, with the benefit of hindsight, I can now see that 2002 was a pretty terrible time to start taking music seriously in the UK. It was a year that saw me devouring the NME, week on week, trying to convince myself that The Cooper Temple Clause or the Ravonettes were as good as I was being told they were. I’d also rotate my pocket money between Q, Mojo, and Uncut, inexorably drawn towards the idea that maybe Bob Dylan’s latest album really was a stunning return to form when, in fact, I had never heard a Bob Dylan album. Having yet to be fatigued by the aches and pains of adolescence, the music world seemed impossibly glamorous and improbably brilliant.
From the confines of my bedroom it felt like things, big things, were happening, things that I’d surely be able to grasp and possess as soon as I could consign my school blazer to the dustbin of personal history. Angular-haired proto-hipsters were eating champagne and drinking caviar at Miss Kittin PAs at Trash! So Solid Crew were terrifying local councils! Mike Skinner was mumbling about Reeboks and skunk-induced paranoia! A bunch of lads in Detroit decided that what the 21st century desperately needed was a slew of records that sounded a bit like something from the Nuggets box-set!
What I didn’t realize then was that 2002 was an oddly static year, one where retromania and empty-headed faux-futurism became entwined and the mainstream result was boring as fuck. There was an alleged New Rock Revolution, spearheaded by British magazine NME and bands like the Datsuns and the D4, groups for whom the post-9/11 present was so terrifying they had to scuttle into greasy late 70s. The mash-up movement, lead by 2 Many DJs, was re-inventing Jive Bunny for marketing executives who’d just discovered cocaine and semi-affordable ex-warehouse spaces in Hoxton. Electroclash, which in my head felt beyond huge, let about six people in Hackney live out their monochrome New York penthouse fantasies. And for reasons that were never fully explained, the Polyphonic Spree were a thing. Does any of that fill you with anything but total inertia? No, didn’t think so.
Mediocrity was the order of the day in 2002, and as everyone knows, mediocrity is a sin bigger than offensive awfulness. The excitement of 2001—a year that saw the release of Is This It, Since I Left You, The Blueprint, Drukqs, Survivor, The Argument, Visioncreationnewsun, No More Shall we Part, White Blood Cells, and Discovery, among others—found itself in the bin alongside the sparklers and half-eaten hot dogs on New Year’s Day. And so, in a world that was heading towards an increasingly fearful future, unsure of how to process what was to come, we decided to cling to visions of the past.
The Libertines, a group almost universally and breathlessly hailed that year as exciting firebrands, potential saviors of rock n' roll, are a prime example of this. Clad in pristine military jackets, they harked back to a mythical vision of Albion, sounding like the Jam with a battered copy of Rimbaud in their back pockets, espousing the kind of Englishness that never existed, an Englishness out of time. 15 years on that feels, like most of 2002, oddly depressing. Remove whatever cloying teenage feelings you have towards it and Up the Bracket is a painful reminder of just how static things had got. We were unblinkingly burrowing into a more boring world.
There are years that, rightly or wrongly, become canonized, lionized. 1977, say, or 1997. Those are years where you can point to cultural, historical, or societal watermarks, years where eras amass into a totality, where narratives are fleshed-out and rounded-off. Then there are the years like 2002, the years where nothing happens but a fireman’s strike and the release of a Red Hot Chili Peppers album.
Not even nostalgia, that most bittersweet of drugs, is a potent enough force to make anyone with half a mind look back fondly on such a dismal 12 months. Rarely, if ever, has a cursory scan of a year’s news made it seem to banal, so empty, so much like nothing more than another pointless revolution around the sun. Rowan Williams becoming Archbishop of Canterbury? So what? The Rochdale Canal reopening for leisure traffic? Big deal! BT Cellnet changed their name to 02? Please, rid me of this wretched earth!
Blame Bush or Blair. Blame shifting global tectonic plates of ideology. Blame Carl Barat. Blame whatever: 2002 sucked.
2003, luckily, was quite good. But that’s a story for a different time. And as for what happened to that Canadian punk magazine? You’d never believe it.
You can find Josh on Twitter.
This article is part of VICE UK’s 15th anniversary series, presented by VANS.