Christopher Owens 🔖 The passage of time is akin to having the carpet pulled out from under your feet.


Vivid moments in your life reduced to long forgotten anecdotes. Historical events reduced to kitsch. And things that you had considered appalling have now been reappraised as cultural milestones by people two decades younger than you.

At the ripe old age of 37, that’s started to happen to me. Back in February, I had called into a friend’s workplace (a vintage clothes shop) to leave in a few records for him. There were a few teenagers in the shop, whom I overheard declaring a standard French Connection to be “old school”. I nearly died from both shock and amusement at the passage of time.

And the same applies to pop music.

Having written for the likes of The Guardian, Vogue and Popjustice (as well as being a few years older than me), Michael Cragg is in the perfect position to deliver an authoritative tome on this period in pop music, as well as making sense of the pitch battles between the poptivists and the real music bores. In the introduction, he makes the case that:

Rather than accept that two competing ideas can both offer up positives and negatives, the pop vs indie debate became a war. Frankly, in book-form at least, it feels like the indie side has had its say. Part of why I wanted to do this book…was to add some extra weight to a hugely important period of UK music that often felt ignored in the stream of chin-stroking think pieces on Britpop, the post-Strokes UK indie resurgence or the post-MySpace Arctic Monkeys chatter.

More than honourable reasons for such a work. But how does it stack up?

Beginning with the demise of Take That in 1995, Cragg takes the reader through British pop’s descent from cultural dominance (with the likes of the Spice Girls, Steps, S Club 7 and Sugarbabes leading the charge) through to its self-implosion via deconstruction (The X-Factor), advancements in technology (downloading ending the CD single) and the death of established outlets (Top of the Pops, Smash Hits). It’s a tall order, and one that is a lot more fascinating than you may think.

As someone who was 10 in 1996, this music (whether I like it or not) was part of the soundtrack of my teenage years. Visually, the acts were as phony as a £15 note, looking like they’d escaped from Butlins. But there were times whenever the music would capture the moment of being a teenager in the late 90’s perfectly. A period where Friends was aspirational TV, where there would be discussions on public transport about Bridget Jones’ Diary and the future seemed one of utopia.

And despite what you may recall, this was an eclectic period. Does ‘Black Coffee’ by All Saints sound like ‘Reach’ by S Club 7? Do the two of them sound anything like ‘Keep on Movin’ by Five? They were all undoubtedly pop, yet the musical diversity that has always been a strength of the UK top 40 (as opposed to America where there are separate charts for separate genres) meant that the likes of ’21 Seconds’ by So Solid Crew would be broadcast alongside New Order and Sophie Ellis Bextor. Some going.

Told as an oral history, with each chapter focusing on an act/label/programme, it’s an exuberant read as Cragg observes everything form how the acts were put together, the tensions, the highs, the many lows and the aftermath. Reading about Pete Waterman still being bitter over Belle and Sebastian beating Steps at the Brit Awards, Craig David Still blaming Leigh Francis for his career downturn and the Sugarbabes admitting that someone should have advised them to smile a bit more gave me hearty chuckles for a variety of reasons.

One aspect that I would have liked Cragg to discuss in further detail was how, in spite of traditional media outlets like Top of the Pops and Smash Hits gaining a new lease of life thanks to the likes of the Spice Girls and Steps, there was still a notable decline in their consumption (Top of the Pops had peaked, ratings wise, by 1979 with 15 million viewers. In May 2004, it was picking up 2.6 million viewers). It does mention that Smash Hits went through an identity crisis towards the end of its life, and more discussion around that would have been cool.

Alongside Ian Winwood’s excellent ‘Bodies’, ‘Reach for the Stars’ acts as a love letter to music and also as a cautionary tale of how the industry consumes, adapts and sets the agenda without any regard for the artists.

Look back in anger, but with a wistful smile.

Michael Cragg, 2023, Reach for the Stars: 1996–2006: Fame, Fallout and Pop’s Final Party. Nine Eight Books. ISBN-13: 978-1788707244 

🕮 Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland. He is currently the TPQ Friday columnist and author of A Vortex Of Securocrats.

Reach For The Stars

Christopher Owens 🔖 The passage of time is akin to having the carpet pulled out from under your feet.


Vivid moments in your life reduced to long forgotten anecdotes. Historical events reduced to kitsch. And things that you had considered appalling have now been reappraised as cultural milestones by people two decades younger than you.

At the ripe old age of 37, that’s started to happen to me. Back in February, I had called into a friend’s workplace (a vintage clothes shop) to leave in a few records for him. There were a few teenagers in the shop, whom I overheard declaring a standard French Connection to be “old school”. I nearly died from both shock and amusement at the passage of time.

And the same applies to pop music.

Having written for the likes of The Guardian, Vogue and Popjustice (as well as being a few years older than me), Michael Cragg is in the perfect position to deliver an authoritative tome on this period in pop music, as well as making sense of the pitch battles between the poptivists and the real music bores. In the introduction, he makes the case that:

Rather than accept that two competing ideas can both offer up positives and negatives, the pop vs indie debate became a war. Frankly, in book-form at least, it feels like the indie side has had its say. Part of why I wanted to do this book…was to add some extra weight to a hugely important period of UK music that often felt ignored in the stream of chin-stroking think pieces on Britpop, the post-Strokes UK indie resurgence or the post-MySpace Arctic Monkeys chatter.

More than honourable reasons for such a work. But how does it stack up?

Beginning with the demise of Take That in 1995, Cragg takes the reader through British pop’s descent from cultural dominance (with the likes of the Spice Girls, Steps, S Club 7 and Sugarbabes leading the charge) through to its self-implosion via deconstruction (The X-Factor), advancements in technology (downloading ending the CD single) and the death of established outlets (Top of the Pops, Smash Hits). It’s a tall order, and one that is a lot more fascinating than you may think.

As someone who was 10 in 1996, this music (whether I like it or not) was part of the soundtrack of my teenage years. Visually, the acts were as phony as a £15 note, looking like they’d escaped from Butlins. But there were times whenever the music would capture the moment of being a teenager in the late 90’s perfectly. A period where Friends was aspirational TV, where there would be discussions on public transport about Bridget Jones’ Diary and the future seemed one of utopia.

And despite what you may recall, this was an eclectic period. Does ‘Black Coffee’ by All Saints sound like ‘Reach’ by S Club 7? Do the two of them sound anything like ‘Keep on Movin’ by Five? They were all undoubtedly pop, yet the musical diversity that has always been a strength of the UK top 40 (as opposed to America where there are separate charts for separate genres) meant that the likes of ’21 Seconds’ by So Solid Crew would be broadcast alongside New Order and Sophie Ellis Bextor. Some going.

Told as an oral history, with each chapter focusing on an act/label/programme, it’s an exuberant read as Cragg observes everything form how the acts were put together, the tensions, the highs, the many lows and the aftermath. Reading about Pete Waterman still being bitter over Belle and Sebastian beating Steps at the Brit Awards, Craig David Still blaming Leigh Francis for his career downturn and the Sugarbabes admitting that someone should have advised them to smile a bit more gave me hearty chuckles for a variety of reasons.

One aspect that I would have liked Cragg to discuss in further detail was how, in spite of traditional media outlets like Top of the Pops and Smash Hits gaining a new lease of life thanks to the likes of the Spice Girls and Steps, there was still a notable decline in their consumption (Top of the Pops had peaked, ratings wise, by 1979 with 15 million viewers. In May 2004, it was picking up 2.6 million viewers). It does mention that Smash Hits went through an identity crisis towards the end of its life, and more discussion around that would have been cool.

Alongside Ian Winwood’s excellent ‘Bodies’, ‘Reach for the Stars’ acts as a love letter to music and also as a cautionary tale of how the industry consumes, adapts and sets the agenda without any regard for the artists.

Look back in anger, but with a wistful smile.

Michael Cragg, 2023, Reach for the Stars: 1996–2006: Fame, Fallout and Pop’s Final Party. Nine Eight Books. ISBN-13: 978-1788707244 

🕮 Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland. He is currently the TPQ Friday columnist and author of A Vortex Of Securocrats.

6 comments:

  1. Fascinating and informative review, Christopher. I confess to having always been slightly behind the curve on popular music before settling on soul, modern jazz, fusion jazz - hope you get the picture! As I get older I now make a point of listening to the lyrics of a song as opposed to being immersed in the trance of the beat. But do not underestimate the power of "catchy" tunes like Reach for the Sky. The elevation of the banal to the sound tracks of contemporary life. Sad.

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    1. Barry,

      thank you for the compliment. Greatly appreciated.

      It can certainly be argued that the charts are a partial reflection of society at that time, and the current malaise of faceless dance pop is a comment on the apathy of the general public. However, I suspect that there will one day be a book that will argue that the 2020's were a halcyon period for pop. I'll be more than happy to read it but I wonder what the argument will be.

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  2. Very sorry to hear of the death of Paul of S Club 7.

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    Replies
    1. Yes, very eerie that this review goes up on the day of his death. A troubled man whose humiliating fall from grace was well documented in recent years.

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  3. PaulJPMN writes:

    Wouldn't have expected you to review this Christopher. Very perceptive piece you’ve written and it is now on my list. Pensive Quill is the most unpredictable site in terms of content and that ’s why it’s always worth a daily visit.

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    Replies
    1. PaulJPMN - that is a gracious comment about the blog. Glad it is viewed that way.

      Delete