Looking Ahead, The Day You Die: Growing Up With Trainspotting
April 21, 2016, 1:12 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized


Much like all massive cockheads, the only thing i’ve ever really wanted out of life was to be cool. Never quite got there, though. Nope. And given that unless your Gianni Agnelli, Bill Murray or in Swans, no man aged 34 year or older can ever truly be cool, it’s clear that ship has sailed.

I tried cool dancing, but the end product was too camp for the purposes of heterosexual union (two bars into The Sunshine Band’s “I’m Your Boogie Man” and my ass grows a mind of its own), or doing cool things like a ski season in France when I was 22, until I developed a lower back skin infection my unnervingly glib Alpine doctor explained was essentially medieval in nature. I flirted with hip hop culture but was too quarter-Jewish (my mum’s side), and being a rave-geezer, but ecstasy gave me depression, and Manc monkey, but bucket hats made my massive head looked positively Merrick-like.

Yes I even tried fashion, until it quickly became apparent I’d inherited my Dad’s sense of style, a dyed-in-the-wool Ulster Presbyterian who for some reason when in jeans simply cannot look like anything other than a Weeble in dungarees. We can never get it quite right, me and my dad. The man has a red Christmas shirt like the Piper Alpha disaster while for a short period in the early Noughts in an effort to get in on the 80s revival thing I took to sporting a white headband. I looked like a slightly rotund man sporting a white headband. All told, when it comes to fashion I’m Don Cheadle’s character in “Boogie Nights”, sitting alone at a party dejected, garbed in Rik James soul-beads. Even as I write this, my new white jeans are riding a bit at the crotch. It’s my belief that all so-called “creative” types are basically psycho chameleons shuttling from skin to skin without a true self to call their own and when during one of my many dark nights of the soul I ask the darkness “Who am I, darkness. Who is John Calvert?” one thing that always comes to mind is, believe it or not, Hannibal Lector’s description of serial mischief maker Wild Bill: “Billy is not a real trans-sexual, but he thinks he is. He tries to be. He’s tried to be a lot of things, I expect.”

So I’m not cool. I’m just not, especially on paper. There’s the eczema, a pretty bad nut allergy and the permanently wheezy chest (my flatmate recently claimed she can hear me breathing from the next room), a bottom shape that some have described as womanly and features too bulbous to be considered classically handsome (imagine Bobcat Goldthwaite with a low white blood cell count). Too teary for aloofness, too itchy for wit, too silly for insouciance, my track record with the opposite sex reads like a history of mental illness in Soviet Hungary. I once dribbled on a first date. Not like a teardrop type dribble – a massive stringy phlegm which, after hanging momentarily from my chin, landed on the table with an audible drip like a bad joke. There I sat, an idiot Rudi Völler with a dreggy pint and fuck all to live for.


On occasion, however, against my better judgement, I have felt cool. Like when I was in a punk band for a bit, or when I got better at smoking inn 1997. Invariably though, down the years I have felt at my most cool when confusing hipness with watching hip films or listening to hip music. As an 11 year old in 1991 I had been cognisant of the fact that hip hop and hardcore were in fashion. But to the 11-year-old me, grunge, alt rock and the pains of Generation X – for all intents and purposes American counterculture’s last hurrah – was cool; the slouching, the fatalism, the soul-vomiting, the self loathing…mind blowing to a child of the 80s where cool had meant Tom Cruise in a letter jacket, wet look Rob Lowe, yuppie self-actualisation, 50s nostalgia. To this day it’s still my opinion that iconoclasm is never as righteous as when delivered in the form of complete and utter give-a-fuckness. That Cobain could be famous and cool and talented yet not give a fuck about any of it was staggering to me, and when the blonde one did finally check out in April 1994 to me it wasn’t a tragedy so much as the ultimate act of non-conformity, the ultimate shrug, a bored sigh, in the face of Reaganite self-improvement. As a statement it was the opposite of self-improvement: total and final self-destruction.

I so wanted to be sensitive 90s man, or one of Gus Van Sant’s beautiful boys: the pretty freaks lost in the American heartland in some dream of themselves, or Billy Corgan in the ‘Today’ video, Kiedis singing about heroin on the streets of L.A, Kurt Cobain, whatever, never mind. So sad, so weird, so deep, to my teenage self. Somewhat problematically, however, I was never really a very sad teenager, or particularly weird. My parents weren’t divorced, I had no drug problem to speak of and I was never bullied, unless you count the time my mates and I had a falling out and I spend a whole summer with a 1st year from next door called Brian McFerran. He taught me ping pong that summer, and oh how we laughed. And the only time I ever remember being sad was when my older brothers had a fight on the kitchen floor and my mum wept screaming “You’re a beast you’re a beast!” at my eldest brother and swatted them with a rolled up Women’s Weekly as if they were a couple of horny dogs.

Nonetheless it never stopped me trying to act sad, which I did by wearing a black heavy hooded raincoat around the house until my mum explained to me that it had once belonged to my Jewish Grandma, or pushing my too-frizzy curtains away from my face like a slo-mo River Phoenix. In the end though I was shit at depression in the 90s, but I really thought it was so glamorous to be fucked up. Of course, the real thing would arrive in good time, which was a bout as glamorous as chasing a pig.

But I never felt cool the way I did when, aged 16, the holy trinity of Danny Boyle, producer Kevin McDonald and screen writer John Hodge introduced me and probably a large chunk of the British teen populace to the idea of British cool: squalid, self-destructing, self-serving, filthy, cold, severe, cruel, pitiful and vulgar British cool.

Where I grew up, in Northern Ireland, British (or “mainland”) popular culture is in fact broadly speaking something the Northern Irish don’t relate to very easily. Rather our affinity has traditionally been with American culture. We like are dancing in lines, our politics Christian Right, our rock Southern-fried, our alt-rock sylvan Seattle-bred and our pop stars strictly Elvis and/or Bruce-shaped. Gentlemen soldiers, withering cads, irony, English dandyism, sartorial sophistication, literary erudition, afternoon tea, kinky aristocrats, androgynous synth pop boys, art-school posers, bands named after Italian Futurist manifestos, Suede: theses thing don’t fly in Puritan Ulster; too posh, too mince-y, too conceited for a country where tallest poppy syndrome is epidemic and where being a funny person and one of the gang is the only yardstick that matters, and too precious and too decadent for a nation of shipbuilders and farm boys where the acoustic guitar is king, where there is only family, work and death, and where art is humble, hard, heavy, honest, substantive, worthy, blue, real, raw and always literal. Flyover America in six counties or less.

But Trainspotting changed everything, for me anyway. Almost immediately anything American, including American underground music, was about as cool as Noel Edmunds in hell. Which incidentally is probably where the bastard belongs. Firstly, by 1996 the American underground wasn’t what is used to be. The slacker culture part of the movement began life as both an exciting new voice in American counterculture and an authentic freak scene (see the life as lived by the cast of proto-Harmony Korine weirdos in Linklater’s quite bizarre eponymous debut), but by the around 1993, which was just around the same time as post-grunge first reared its ugly head (second only to acid jazz as the least cool and most irritating sub genre of all time; Matchbox 20 rot in hell) and the Fade To Black-inspired, nihilistic Melvins-through-Mudhoney punk element disappeared from grunge, slacker-ism had in actual fact begun to smack a little too much of 60s revivalism.

There’s a reason why it’s Iggy, Reed and the doomed, dangerous flip side to the hippy dream and not Simon & Garfunkel that features on “Trainspotting” (aside from the heroin connection of course). Because, the 60s and the hippy movement were a lot of things, but cool they were not. All those notions of egalitarianism, humility, mutual respect, aspiration, nature worship, happiness and altruism were too noble to be cool. Vanity, anxiety, greed, desire, boredom, violence, meaninglessness…this is the stuff of cool. As Burroughs once wrote on “Would you rather be a snake or a poisoned snake?”

Being weird and fucked up like Cobain was cool, but after Trainspotting, being a bad person was cooler; especially when unapologetically, when the final outcome is your own complete self-annihilation, and when framed in Trainspotting’s sense of the absurd and the film’s cunty pitch-black humour that could only be British: too petty and self-defeating to be Scandi in origin, too nervous and bleak to be Southern European, too, well, funny to be French, and basically not fucking bonkers enough to be Balkan.

Suddenly Cobain was a mumbling Emo complainer compared to the puckish laughing boys crashing out of Trainspotting extremely savvy, pretty fucking cool marketing campaign. It was love at first sight. There must be a clean score of Kodaks from the late 90s in which I’m giving it the full on Macgregor two-fingers-to-the-camera thing, regardless of the occasion. Quite embarrassing, really, though decidedly not as embarrassing as my “Fight Club” stage when I wore a Hawaiian polo shirt two sizes short for me like a palm tree-printed Honey Boo Boo and got beaten up by my flatmate.


Far cooler, you see, was the music of post-ideological, post-morality hedonism: British electronica and dance music, which Boyle was the first director in cinema to have the good sense to harvest, for massive cinematic returns. Anything new is automatically cooler than what came before it, especially when you consider that alt rock had by 1996 resorted to reactionary Baby Boomer nostalgia (stand up, Evan Dando).

But British dance music was fucking cool: stylishly sheer, thrillingly cold, impossibly vital, illicitly crepuscular, chicly avant but brutally hooligan with it, and most importantly modernist, both in its technological nature and its amorality, More than that, it was NOW, back when ‘now’ in music meant exactly that. Moreover, there’s nothing teens love to do more that call bullshit on bullshit. It’s the essence of hipness. And saving the world, Cobain-style, was now bullshit, of the cheesy American variety.

Dance music was truer to the realities of life (like, REAL, man), more honest in its unashamed dedication to the pursuit of pleasure and in its anonymity, which prohibited the creation of false idols and grand myths. It was also a drug culture, and as every teenager knows, drugs are cool.

Above all else, the establishment hated it. For the 90s teen, what was not to love? For all the self-loathing on show there was always a decidedly rockist idea underpinning American alt-rock that Cobain were the good guys and their enemies in the mainstream the baddies, making the world a better place; the implication being that ‘they’ on the margins were better than the squares, with their M Bolton records and G’n’R T-shirts. All told, it was too much like heroism, or triumphalism masquerading as humility, and essentially narcissistic. In Britain though, and in the great tradition of British miserabalist art, there are no goodies and baddies, only cunts. Cunts having a fucking great time. Or as Renton puts it, our boy peering out onto a strobing dancefloor scene of futuristic revelry sound tracked by Bedrock’s “From What You Dream Off” in one of Trainspotting’s most iconic lines: “The world is changing, music is changing, drugs are changing, even men and women are changing. One thousand years from, now there’ll be no guys and no girls, just wankers.” As Richard Corliss said of the film at the time is his review for Time Out, “[Trainspotting] is a film about joy, in conniving and surviving it.” By the 90s, joy was the new and self-serving religion of Britain’s first post-political, post-modern generation: the chemical generation.

Underworld’s “Dark And Long” fires the cold turkey sequence. A very British kind of dance track, or certainly European, it’s the type of feel-bad, highly-strung, frigid aesthetic that American house producers see as futile and self-defeating but which contains the right measure of amphetamine thrust us pasty Brits need in our dance music in order to expel our dense frustrations through the medium of slightly angry body movement. Suffice to say, voyaging and hallucinatory the track also provides a perfect backdrop for Renton’s fractured terror-ride through junky limbo.


Sleeper’s cover of Blondie’s “Atomic”, sound tracking Trainspotting’s brilliant shagging sequence, though neither British in origin nor technically a dance song seems in the context of the film somehow cut from the same cloth. There’s something very ‘dance music’ about “Atomic”s flat new wave structures, it’s square 4/4 rhythms, its stiff white funk and its overt synthetic-ness – a sound formulated in what is essentially America’s European satellite state and homaging the Europhile wonder-producers of disco – and something decidedly British about the song’s weary doom, its refinement, its tacky glitz, Harry’s suburban Saturday girl dreams (“Tonight, make me magnificent”) and the way the singer’s dispassionate vocals undercut her band’s gleaming pop, to speak of so much joyless decadence and pleasure-fatigue. It’s basically the dirty, nervous neon oblivion of last orders provincial Britain made sonic, and so therefore played beautifully with the scene; a scene which in turn came to enjoy a symmetry with Pulp’s epochal “Common People” released the year before Trainspotting, and its most brilliant of lyrics: “And then dance and drink and screw / because there’s nothing else to do.”

But of course it’s Underworld’s other contribution that will be always be best remembered. Reportedly named after a greyhound the Barking duo once bet on, “Born Slippy” traced a lineage between the punk experience and rave’s lumpen heart; the eight minute apotheosis of what began in baggy, its lairy but beatific, rabid but rapturous wave of unstoppable freeform evoking spidery casuals raging through Balearic beauty, shouting LAGER, LAGER LAGER.

And no one it coming. Who could have predicted that a relatively formless, overlong B-side studio-jam could go on to bottle both lightning and the Brit zeitgeist in one fell swoop, while sneakily subverting the same 90s lad culture it aggrandised. If Britpop alienated you, with “Born Slippy” you felt proud to be British. It was a national anthem in the dictionary definition of the word: a rousing patriotic song adopted by a country in expression of national identity. The dance anthem was born.

We were too late for rock and roll, rave, glam, disco, synthpop, and the best part of grunge, but those who would dub us 90s teens as generation too-late were never sixteen the summer “Born Slippy” came out; the type of song that brings your whole life into sharp focus.

Every time I hear those iconic opening notes it’s 1996 all over again. I’m sat in my backyard in the glorious late afternoon sunshine of that hot June, pretending to revise. Just a perfect day. England Euro ’96 is turning London into the biggest, happiest party in the world, Oasis are about to play Knebworth and finally I’m leaving boyhood behind me, indicated by the sudden meteoric growth in the size of my neb. I feel like a man. A very cool, albeit very little, man, because that’s how listening to the exotic, mysterious sounds of adulthood can make a teen feel. And I’m watching as my big sister’s mates, tanning themselves beside the birdbath, their school shirts rolled up to expose vanilla forearms, flirt outrageously with my older brother, who at this point is beautiful, crowned with a shock of black-brown hair, and who incidentally had four months prior at the exact moment the needle perforates the smooth skin of Renton’s forearm passed out in a cinema in Dundee.


As for the electronica, we were offered up two absolute gems. Primal Scream, taking a break from peddling massively overrated “dance rock fusion” and/or ripping off The Stones, lent the film the eponymous “Trainspotting”, from what in my opinion is really Bobby and co’s only good album – “Vanishing Point’. Playing over the park scene, where Renton and Sick-Boy talk shit and shoot a dog with a high powered air rifle for their mild amusement, with its trip-hop rhythms, woozily surreal FX and the sense of inertia conjured by its Morricone-esque percussion and flat, droning trajectory the track captures perfectly the daytime ennui particular to British summertime, when the lingering fug of dark activities dulls the sunlight. I’ve always thought the photography is fascinating in that scene, those summer colours muted to the oranges and greys of sick psychology by some invisible filter.

“One Last Hit” meanwhile, from Leftfield, which was released as a split single with “Trainspotting” is just pure inner city Britain: subterranean, dank, oppressive, dread filled dubtronica shot through with bad intentions. Written for the film, the track chimes beautifully with the sense of impending doom Boyle’s clipped, heightened direction creates (see, for example, the ever so slightly sped up establishing shot of the coffin like coach), as the friends make their way to London down a Stygian motorway and Renton presses the self-destruct button once again. “There’s final hits and final hits. What kind was this to be?”

But arguably the film’s coolest moment arrives comes in an unlikely form in the soundtrack’s very least cool dance track: eurodance rapper Ice MC’s ‘Think About The Way’ deployed to ironic effect over the tonally jarring tourist vid of booming 90s London, all bright eyed euro teens, scampish Pearlies and 90s optimism as Renton arrives in the capital to get him some of that neo-Thatcherite action. Forget the Iggy tunes, this is Trainspotting at its most punk, in the most mean-spirited sense of the word, with Boyle sneering at the happy idiots and their ignorance to the truth: that the 90s was just the 80s with better PR. Fucking each other over to get ahead is as British as red busses and queues. So why indeed would you ever ‘choose life’, the rat race, when it is no more or less worthy a life to be a junky?

Trainspotting was a morally ambivalent film; full to the brim with smart arse cynicism every bit as chic, acidic, sickly and angular as its smart-arse protagonist. The Britpop movement some say was a bit cunty; espousing of a reactionary, fundamentally middle class, all too white concept of painfully retro Britishness right at a time when rave, 80s synth, trip hop and a nascent jungle scene where moving Britain and British music into the future, while at the same time uniting class, sexuality and race (See the Libertines and their Albion, ten years later; indie’s inevitable backlash to UKG perhaps?).

Professional crybaby but good writer, and leader of eminently average Britpop also-rans The Auteurs, Luke Haines famously described Britpop as something like a bunch of art school pricks feigning working class laddishness because they felt emasculated by Thatcher. In my opinion, however, the Britpop bands were right to hit back at the so-called American cultural imperialism of grunge. Even if their version of Britishness was bogus, British it remained – restoring a much-needed sense of campness, sex, wit, irony, glamour and humour to guitar music. And neither do I begrudge Boyle for including the Britpop bands in his film. The director rightly recognised that, for better or worse, these bands defined the era, and so were an essential inclusion for any film about Britain in the mid-90s.

However, Boyle does overplay his co-option of trendy Britpop on a few occasions, most notably in the inclusion of Elastica (“2.11”) led by the deeply unpleasant Justine Frischman, who represented all the worst aspects of Britpop. A self-regarding dour pseud who thought that making self-regarding dour post-punk put her on a par with her hip, eminently less self-serious post-punk heroes while elevating her above Supergrass because her 2-d retro-ism was built from the work of more obscure bands, Justine was the poster girl for the drearily mediocre London art-rock side of Britpop. These days, whenever it feels to me like the capital’s music scene is full of wankers, I remind myself that the Britpop era must have far worse with narcissist frauds like Frishmann in power.

“This looks easy” narrates Renton “But it isn’t”. For all its edgy nihilism, Trainspotting was a sad film. One thing Welsh understood implicitly is that while dropping-out is rebellion, the marginal life is also one of melancholy; the melancholy of alienation, purposelessness, of dislocation, and oblivion – the oblivion into which Renton dives headfirst from the wall behind the pub (my very favourite sequence in the film and Boyle’s finest ever slice of visual poetry; lacking in the directors work of late), to the stylings of Blur’s sighing ‘Sing’ and eventually “Trainspotting”s saddest sonic cue, ‘Perfect Day”, as Renton is swallowed whole by his poison, only to be returned to his childhood bedroom in the arms of his father. The end of the tracks. Did Boyle’s film glamorise heroin? Of course it did. This was a cool film set to cool music, populated by dangerous punks and chic wastoids. Even the cold Turkey scene, what should be a sombre cautionary moment in the film, was played out to the stylings of killer techno. Only, in Trainspotting the real tragedy of junkiedom isn’t death, but the misery of the living ghost, who is neither dead nor truly alive.

The book’s title, Welsh drawing a parallel between the existential stagnancy of the junkie and that of the forever waiting metrophile, also derives from a chapter towards the end of the novel. In the chapter, Renton and Begbie are approached by a frail wino while pissing up against Leith Central station, who asks the pair if they are trainspotting and is duly set upon by Begbie. In a truly poignant bit of writing, the man, it transpires, is Begbie’s father. It’s a rare moment of pathos in Welsh’s otherwise stony oeuvre. Boyle picked up on this vein of melancholy running through Welsh’s novel and ran with it. Gus Van Sant’s comparable “Drugstore Cowboy” is imbued with this same sense of anomic deflation, as is the film adaptation of Luke Davies’ heroin memoir’ “Candy: A Novel of Love and Addiction”, another great entry in the drug-movie canon which, like Boyle’s film, conveys the surreal, amnesiac nature of junkiedom when you’re out of time with the world, with reality, and no longer care either way. Camus’ line from “The Stranger” – “Today mother died. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know” – could easily be the words of Renton were it delivered in a strong Scottish accent. Note the similarities in Renton’s “I think Allison had been screaming all day, but it hadn’t really registered before. She might have been screaming for a week for all I knew.” Like the trainspotter, recalled Davies, the junkie orders his life in units of longueur: “They say that for every ten years you’ve been a junkie, you’ll have spent seven of them waiting.”


In many ways, nowhere in British popular art is melancholy more keenly felt than in the good old British pop song. For a pop golden era, Britpop was unusually flush with melancholy, whether it was Pulp channelling the faded glamour of post-industrial Sheffield or Blur and their fusion of Kinks-ian blues and sour post-punk tracks about English banality. Both bands were selected for Trainspotting’s soundtrack, but not just for the fact that a soundtrack featuring hip acts would shift units. Contrary to contemporary critical consensus, these were important bands, essential in documenting and defining what it was to be young and British in the afterlife of Thatcherism, and whose rich and textured literariness and knack for social commentary is unimaginable in white British pop today in this our blank Coldplay-wracked lyrical wasteland. Pulp’s “Mile End” with Cocker detailing his squalid working class existence in pre-gentrified East London, is as good an example of the pop song as tragicomedy as any produced in the post-punk era and therefore serves as the perfect soundtrack to the Trainspotting’s most wretchedly hilarious chapter when a fugitive Begbie and a bored Sickboy gate-crash Renton’s new London dream. Is there anything more British than having a bunch of cunts for mates? When, following the drug deal, the friend’s short-lived bonhomie ends inevitably in a terrible act of violence, the tragic side-on shot of Begbie and Renton, bathed in the jaundiced afternoon half-light of a grotty boozer, captures them in their shared and lowly fate, a condemned Renton staring his future, his enslaver, in the face, as slowly Begbie exhales. The shot sags with a heart-breaking resignation.

There was Eno’s synth inversion of cowboy ennui, “Deep Blue Day”, and Heaven 17’s “Temptation”, a glittering 80s melodrama with oodles of Saturday night desperation beneath its shrill grandeur. Like the dying vestiges of more innocent times, or a fading memory of Rent’s childhood, New Order’s sad-pop classic “Temptation” floats around the periphery of the film – an echo of the 80s which indeed is a decade whose shadow looms large over Trainspotting – with Sumner’s girlish, smitten lyrics cooed nursery rhyme-like by Diane in the shower during the ever mysterious ‘girl on a bicycle’ shot and again in the cold turkey sequence. “Ooh you’ve got green eyes / ooh you’ve got blue eyes…”

But it is Pulp’s “Sing” – in my opinion Alburn and co.’s masterpiece – that cuts closest to the film’s sad soul. Baby Dawn has died, Renton cooks a shot for her grieving mother, but not before he gets his; that goes without saying. If there’s any one moment in Trainspotting that conveys heroin’s toll on the soul, on the user’s humanity, it’s this one. And so on and on they go “piling misery on misery” stealing, running, cooking, falling, as alongside the looping piano line and Alburn’s sweetly sorrowful falsetto – the numbest, faintest expression of hope in 90s guitar music – the vicious cycle of addiction turns over once more, returning the film to its opening scene. “Sing”, like “Perfect Day”, is all about the impossibility of redemption when you’re a honest-to-goodness, card-carrying heroin addict. Happiness is for the normal. Even the film’s upbeat ending – an era-defining film closing with an era-defining track, seems infused with the suggestion of imminent catastrophe. Looking ahead, the day you die.


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