Since this album was released, some people may have been misinformed by the less reputable newspapers that cultural modernism is over, the royals are back in the centre of British life, and Buckingham Palace and its surrounds are the heart of London once again, its most fascinating and unique element. But then some people are, to be honest, weak and vaccilating practically beyond belief: weren't they previously the cheerleaders of the dotcom hype, Cool Britannia and millennium fever? They have an amazing knack for being never right but always wrong, because they think in terms of sensations and headlines and the meaninglessly middle-ground, not the endlessly evolving and constantly changing exchange of ideas and street cultures that defines the real paradoxes, uncertainties, hybrids and futures of the time and place in which they're living. Like garage, for example.
Basically this is a 2-CD compilation with a real air of collective individualism, a shared commitment to the furtherment of their shared culture coupled with a driven individual determination. The hits - effectively sprinkled into the mix on CD1 - are easily the most futurist British pop extant, most outstandingly Daniel Bedingfield's "Gotta Get Thru This", which I'm coming to think is one of the greatest accidental masterpieces ever recorded. Bedingfield himself is clearly a prick, and I'm rather hoping he never releases anything else (for it could not fail to disappoint by comparison) but he's recorded a song that people will remember this era by: so much of the old world has collapsed at once that we could be forgiven for having absolutely no idea of what comes next, but still we are inexorably self-confident, and any moments of unbearable confusion are necessary psychological steps along the way to happier and more liberal times ahead. This is the mood "Gotta Get Thru This" captures: uncertainty gloriously dissolving into elation, as it invariably does if you have an eye for the future.
There are grimmer moments, of course, especially on the instrumental tracks: Jammin's "Unstable" is as broodingly unsettling as its title suggests (also I can hear uncanny echoes of the Doctor Who theme when the track breaks itself down - chalk one more up for Delia Derbyshire!), and Agent-X's "Turbulance" has an unavoidable feel of paranoia, as though someone is always out to get every one of us. Despite the collective urge its perpetrators feel to stamp garage into the world, this is music denuded of traditional working-class socialism in favour of individual determination, and this is mainly where its bad press has come from. Sometimes I can understand why. But then it moves onto something like Tymes 4's "Bodyrock" - shimmering R&B / pop taking sheer delight in life and opportunity, distilled euphoria of the kind only a culture so utterly new and constantly evolving can provide, mixed in with typically on-point So Solid raps, and I start wondering why anyone has ever said anything against it. It has the perfect segue, as well: straight into So Solid's awesomely minimalistic "Dilemma", precisely what The RZA would have recorded when he was young and had the world in front of him, if only he'd been born in a different city, and raised among different threats, nerves and attacks.
At times in "Dilemma" the nerves and desperations So Solid seem to be feeling - should I cross that road? Get on that train? Go to that club? Just who is waiting to get us now? - might be killing them. It couldn't end that way: it would be a grossly, overtly pessimistic picture of where this country is going if that happened. The sweetness of Hi Tek featuring Jonell's "Round and Round" takes us back to the lovers' rock of the 21st Century - the hook here is so clipped and elegant it's almost twee, but in the context all the better for it, as it reminds us that these are not people willing to be brought down by fatalism and fear.
Darqwan's "Confused" is the psychological climax: a long, slow build (this is truly modern industrial music: all the production ticks sound exactly like South London estates look) leads into words of initial self-doubt inciting itself into glorious self-confidence ("flip the script and re-arrange ... searching for identity, what's the next philosophy ... let them know you're not ashamed"). The psychological thrill here is hearing the self-doubt turn itself around and emerge as self-confidence even as the words are coming through: it's true that this is the story of one particular segment of British society in particular, but it's also music that can convince anyone, from whatever social and cultural background, to turn their doubts into assertions of pride and personal identity, and walk through the world with an extra spring in their step, and thoughts of greater achievements to come. It ends up with a wonderful reinvention of the call-and-response tradition of old Atlantic / Stax records: the history of black pop is being thrown into the cauldron along with modern London, and the result is the finest recent example of the truism that all great pop is what has been called pure fusion, in that the hybridisation is so deeply bound up with the music that it is part of the music's pure essence in itself.
And the best thing of all is the fade at the end of the final track, Ratpack's typically ace cockney-rave-redolent "Get You Rockin'": just "LondonLondonLondonLondonLondonLondonLondon" over and over again on repeat, an encapsulation of what we've just heard and a moment of euphoria which defines that city's greatness and uniqueness, never standing still, often frustrated by the weight of the past and the unfairnesses of the present, yet always focused on the future and always certain that, despite everything, it will get there. This is what I love about the city where I was born and which I may well still make my home, given time. Not massive provincial crowds in The Mall.
Robin Carmody, 10th June 2002