104.9! XFM! People cared less about Nirvana and Britpop than they did about Diana!
In the first ten minutes, you get a John Peel reference in Kick Out the Jams: The Story of XFM, we get a 60’s cliché regurgitated about the 90’s from the singer of Echobelly and a doff of the cap to OK Computer, plus all Quentinen and Tarantined by the Directino.
It starts on cassette like any obsession with 90’s indie. It blooms into Britpop very quickly. Such is the way with this sort of thing. The key talking point of the talking heads talking about post Talking Heads indie in the 1990’s UK radio scene was that ‘This was before the internet, you youngsters wouldn’t understand’, which doesn’t exactly put the casual viewer on its side.
The pirate radio origins of the alternative station are told with animated hilarity by those who were there. ‘Putting out fires while broadcasting The Cure live from a Walthamstow Bedroom’ sounds like just the sort of japes destined to snowball a plucky band of scally wags from dodgy transmitters to glossy zeitgeist capture like lightning in a bottle of Hooch. You can understand why they had their own vibe.
The case that XFM (in all its previous incarnations) are akin to Radio Caroline in the 60’s might feel like a stretch at first but as their reputation burgeons and you consider the names attached Gervais, Lammo, Noel Gallagher, Liam and his swear box, The Medici’s in Renaissance Italy? Yeah, it’s a bit of a push.
(Just like in the 90’s) by the time we get to Knebworth it’s clear there’s extraordinarily little of substance here, except the substances. For a documentary about cheeky piracy, a radio station, everyone’s obsession with music and their heyday; there is very little music, very little actual footage and nary a bottle o’ rum or a plank walked. But Stephen Merchant did go hard on the Red Bull one day.
There’s a fair amount of geek trivia to be had. A lot of talk about licences and paperwork and a narrative that doesn’t really have a clear lead protagonist, but that’s where the comparisons to 1999’s The Phantom Menace cease. As a historical footnote the fact that their first day of legal official broadcasting paired playing Kick Out the Jams with announcing the death of a Princess is a pub quiz answer worth keeping in your skyrocket for a rainy day. It gives the film its name at least.
This is a nice, polite documentary about a place and time. If you were there, you’ll love it. If you listened along while wearing your POP KID t-Shirt or a mod jacket it might spring the odd nostalgic lip bite and far away stare. Your enjoyment of the XFM documentary will depend entirely on if you are a fan of BBC6Music in this century or if you remember The Family Cat. Me? I had a good time. They could have turned the music up a notch though. Kick Out the Jams? They’re reaching with that title too.