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A chat with Reach For The Stars author Michael Cragg
Most books are boring but this one isn't
An oral history of me writing this newsletter:
Peter Robinson: I’d known the music journalist Michael Cragg for some years — we’d first met when he’d shown an interest in writing for Popjustice.
Peter Robinson: So Michael ended up working with me on Popjustice during some of the 2010s, but his words also appeared some rather less glamorous locations (The Guardian, Vogue, GQ etc).
Peter Robinson: When he told me he was writing an oral history of British pop between 1996 and 2006 I thought it would be brilliant and, to my credit, I was spot on.
Peter Robinson: Yes, I was right about that.
Peter Robinson: I remember at the end of March 2023 I’d been at the launch of the book, which he’d called Reach For The Stars, and it struck me that evening that I should interview Michael for the Popjustice Substack. So I messaged him the next day and got him on a Zoom.
Peter Robinson: Introducing the interview with an oral history of me writing the newsletter was ambitious and, on reflection, a mistake.
So, just to get this out of the way: what's this book?
This book is an oral history of 90s and noughties pop, specifically 1996 to 2006. In the UK only — sorry Britney. I spoke to about 110, 120 people including popstars, producers, songwriters, journalists, PRs — anyone I thought would have an interesting angle on it, or was directly involved in it.
When you were asking people to be in the book, who was the quickest to say yes?
I think it was Steve Brookstein. I got his email, emailed him, thought he was going to say no and he replied fairly quickly to say: ‘Shall we do it on Zoom?’ He was one of the few people I went to directly, because nearly everyone has management or PR because they're still together or they're still on the circuit, which I guess is linked to the nostalgia loop that we're in now. Another quick one came when I was speaking to Iain from Triple 8 and he suddenly said: ‘Oh, I'm married to Kelli from Liberty X.’ So I said: ‘Please can I interview your wife?’ And that was that. Other people would fall into place because everyone sort of knew a way of getting hold of someone else, which was very handy.
Was there anyone you really wanted to speak to, but it just didn’t happen?
Will Young felt like he was crucial to this period. And I think the timing was just not right, because he had his own look back at this period going on with the 20th anniversary of Pop Idol, and a greatest hits, and a podcast, and he was busy with that. It was a polite no, but it was still a shame.
I expect everyone who gets this newsletter, who then goes and buys a copy, will also end up getting at least one copy for Christmas. The book’s got ‘ideal Christmas present for a person who is known to have enjoyed pop music’ written all over it. What should people do with their second copies?
Leave it on the bus for someone else to pick up and read, or give it to a charity shop, so that they can make some money. But I do like the idea of someone picking it up randomly on a bus, maybe not having had any interest in this era of pop music, and then hopefully enjoying the various narratives involved. I do think it maybe says more about… Well, it's not just for people that like this music — hopefully, it does say a lot about where we were back then.
Does it hold a mirror to society Michael?
I think it does hold a mirror up to society actually. It shows that we were quite awful, I think, to each other, and to people who were not straight white men. And that we were quite snobby, generally. But is also shows that pop music brought a lot of joy to people. I should say that I started this idea in lockdown at a point when I just wanted to be listening to fun, joyful pop music. And so that's what I did.
How old were you during the period covered by the book?
I was 14 when Wannabe came out. I think people expect that I loved all this when I was young and that it was the music of my childhood, but in truth I loved Michael Jackson for so long that I sort of ignored a lot of other pop music…
So is this book basically the soundtrack of your journey into adulthood, through your teens then university and into working life?
Yes. But even at university, I was not listening to this music very much — I mean, I did love Sugababes, and I did love Girls Aloud, and All Saints before that, but at that point I can see now that I was trying to be someone else, not really knowing who I was.
Who do you think you were trying to be?
Like, someone cool, maybe? I was just like: if I like certain kinds of music I can sort of get on at university — I didn't really know how to be at university and not be into guitar music. So I was finding my way, I guess. I did love pop, but I didn't really talk about it openly. I don't know where I would have put that love for it anyway. My housemate at uni loved Five and Blue and I talked about it with them, but I still felt like maybe I should keep this love of pop a secret.
When did you come to your senses?
I think it probably was Girls Aloud. I used to love reading about pop music in Top of the Pops and Smash Hits and then later when the internet was happening on Popjustice, but I suppose even with acts like Girls Aloud and Sugababes this was stuff that was still kind of credible. I guess then I just stopped caring once I started writing about it and working in it and seeing it and enjoying it for what it was. The walls came down.
Who do you think was the worst huge band of this period and who was the best not-huge band of this period?
I don't think they're the worst but I struggled to connect to S Club 7. It’s so glossy and managed in a certain way. I think the songs were well done but I don’t feel a desire to fall into the world of S Club 7 like I could with some of the other bands.
Well what better reason, then, to name your book after an S Club lyric…
Well, yes. They've got a whole chapter in the book because I do find the whole thing around S Club fascinating. And I still listen to Rachel Stevens’ Come And Get It album, like any self-respecting homosexual of a certain age.
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And I suppose the idea of reaching for the stars in the context of the book is about, what, reaching for something you’ll never get to? I’m thinking about the idea of being both a successful and a happy popstar: for most people, is that a myth?
Well there is that idea of: do you ever reach where you want to be? If you get a Number One, for instance, are you going to stop reaching for the next thing?
So it's less reaching for the stars and more chasing rainbows, which makes me think of Chasing Rainbows hitmakers Shed 7, which in turn makes me wonder if you could do a sort of mashup tribute band called Shed Club 7, where the first half of the concert is S Club 7 songs in an indie style, then the second half is Shed 7 songs in an S Club style. Do you think that could work?
Yeah, no, I think that would be awful. And I would pay money to see it.
And who were the best not-big band from this era?
I’m going to say V — their album was brilliant, and there were people like Xenomania and Steve Anderson working on the music… They spent a lot of money on that album. I think it's worth a listen, and it's a shame that their timing was not quite right.
What’s the main narrative arc of this book, and what would one look like for a book covering 2006-2016?
This one’s like, CD singles, really important chart stuff, downloads coming in, the internet coming in but no social media, then TV talent shows coming along right at the end and just sort of just destroying everything, although to be fair in 2010 I don't think any of us expected a One Direction-style boyband to emerge and become bigger than anything that happened since the Spice Girls. So obviously, I think that would be a huge part a book covering the decade afterwards, particularly with how they did use social media…
There's some happy stories in the book, and there's some sad stories too. If you could go back in time and hand a copy of this book, Back To The Future-style, to one person who's featured in it, who would you give the book to?
The person who springs to mind is Sean from Five — I wish he was in a better place to enjoy it, and I just think it’s incredibly sad that he was very young and was struggling and he didn't really know who to talk to. But I do also want to say that while I do understand that people are interested in how horrible some of all that period was, what I really wanted to make sure I captured in the book was also how fun some of it was, and how incredible it was for bands to, say, perform in front of 250,000 people or whatever.
In your opinion what’s the funniest bit in the book?
For me, I think the funniest bit is Simon Jones, PR extraordinaire, revealing that Martine McCutcheon was reluctant to appear on the cover of very big magazine. And when Simon was like, ‘Oh, I think this is a good look for you’, she said: ‘What would Barbara do?’ And obviously with Martine having been in EastEnders, Simon thought she meant Barbara Windsor, but actually she’d meant Barbra Streisand. That really made me laugh, and even though it wasn’t really connected to anything else in the book I knew I had to squeeze it in.
What's your next book going to be?
I have received an email today, actually, asking that question. And I do have an idea. But I need to get this one out first, then I'm going to go on a holiday.
Reach For The Stars is out now in hardback. Twenty quid on Amazon, can’t say fairer than that.