Ohat was the soundtrack to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales? Surely Elton John’s Candle in the Wind 1997? After all, it’s the best-selling UK single of all time. But no: if you listened to Radio 1 – and in the late summer of 1997 tens of millions were still listening to it – the musical backdrop to Diana’s death was downbeat trip-hop and ambient techno. . It was Apollo 440. It was the Paradise Sabers. It was the Distant. It was relaxing music.
Radio 1 had long been sensitive to its playlists at times of national crisis: during the first Gulf War, for example, Phil Collins’ In the Air Tonight was one of many songs banned for somewhat tangential reasons. At the time of Diana’s death, there was already a feeling that the station’s “obituary CDs” (which were then literally a set of compilation CDs of tasteful instrumental music, kept in a cupboard in each studio) had need an upgrade. Not too upbeat, not too dark, and most importantly, devoid of lyrics that could be construed as offensive, chillout was the perfect music to accompany a national tragedy.
This largely instrumental genre was born in the aftermath of the second summer of ecstasy-infused love in 1988. Between bliss and melancholy, compilations of chillout and downtempo music had been providing soft landings for overstimulated ravers for nearly a decade. Now it has been reused; presented to listeners with no experience of its illicit origins.
It seems fitting that one of the strangest periods in recent British history has this tonally awkward broadcast conundrum baked into its DNA. The mid-90s was a hedonistic, casual, and slightly wild time. Cool Britannia’s excesses were reaching their speed limit, as characterized by the heavy volume of Oasis’ third album, Be Here Now, released just days before the tragic car crash in Paris. Even to non-royalists, Diana’s death looked like something painfully and incongruously real, cutting through the frivolity of the times. A hangover was probably inevitable. But what about those musicians consciously or inadvertently involved in the soundtrack of this sudden outpouring of sadness and confusion?
“The night he died, we were out at a club,” Jagz Kooner recalled of Aloof, somewhat inevitably. “The next day, I thought I should turn on the radio, to see what was going on. They were playing a few things on repeat. There was that piece of Puff Daddy [I’ll Be Missing You], then something else, then the Aloof, then again Puff Daddy! I thought the radio was broken! In the end, we were on a loop, several times an hour, for days and days. It helped feed me for a while!
The Aloof were a London-based band whose mix of electronica and dub had coalesced following the explosion of acid house. The track that became an unintentional ode to Diana was a 10-minute instrumental epic titled The Last Stand – which appeared as a reworking of their single One Night Stand. Fittingly, its origins were rooted in another aspect of mid-’90s excess – production values. Thanks to the conscious greatness of bands such as Oasis and Manic Street Preachers, string sections were de rigueur. “We recorded a 32-piece orchestra for One Night Stand,” Kooner explains. “The original track has vocals, drums, bass, synths and all sorts of things. It doesn’t let the strings have their moment. The Last Stand is a demonstration of the maxim that the less is more – perhaps an idea that the culture had forgotten about in previous years.
At Radio 1, in various ways, order emerged from chaos. The station had just experienced the Matthew Bannister revolution with older, stuffier DJs replaced by a host of younger, sharper voices. It was an overdue stable cleaning, but not without problems. Would newly arrived breakfast DJ Chris Moyles strike the right tone in a time of national mourning? Could Mark Radcliffe and Marc “Lard” Riley temper their sometimes abrasive irreverence? To prevent the nation from finding out the hard way, Jeff Smith, who at the time was head of music policy, got to work updating obituary CDs and artists such as Aloof had their moment under the projectors.
The scale and intensity of the public reaction to Diana’s death took everyone by surprise. It was not an atmosphere in which missteps in presentation or music were easily forgiven. Former Radio 1 Newsbeat presenter Tina Ritchie now looks back on the week in amazement. “I was sent to Kensington Palace to do vox pop with the people who had gathered,” she says. “I stood among these flowers, basically justifying my existence. There was a really hostile attitude towards the press. Basically, once they saw me with a microphone, I might as well have murdered him.
However, at Radio 1 there was also a tacit acknowledgment of being part of history. Ritchie’s husband, presenter Nicky Campbell, was one of the station’s big beasts at the time. While he describes the general vibe there as “polluted” by the news, he also hints, wryly, at a small, unspoken element of professional pride that creeps into the reactions of DJs. “[Station executive] Kate Marsh at Radio 1 was assigning the roles,” he says. “And she told me she wanted me to present a special two-hour program of music and memories. It was like I had been given the crown jewels. And then I found out that [Simon] Mayo had been instructed to be there on the day [of the funeral] and report it. This produced a festering jealousy from which I never quite recovered!
Looking back on that bizarre time, all parties still view it with some degree of disbelief. Campbell sees the outpouring of angry grief as a harbinger of the century to come. “You could probably mark the reaction to Diana’s death as the first significant backlash against the so-called mainstream media,” he says. “It wasn’t quite ‘The Bilderberg Group and Bill Gates are in control’ but it was definitely a case of trust starting to fade.”
Kooner, too, remains gently bewildered by the memory of the hysteria. “That week I had to go to San Francisco because I was doing a gig there,” he says. “I was sitting on the plane from LA to San Francisco next to this American. She was devastated and she was asking how we were all feeling. I didn’t mean to be rude but I can’t really share that kind of grief. Of course, it was sad that two children lost their mother, but I didn’t know her.
Even though he struggles to share the extreme emotion, the death of royalty remains an eerie footnote in Kooner’s career. In addition to the Aloof, he was also a member of electronic band Sabers of Paradise alongside Gary Burns and the late Andrew Weatherall. When the queen dies, their track Haunted Dancehall (Nursery Remix) will be among the tracks on rotation. Is there a particular component of his music that lends itself to such moments? “I don’t know, but it’s really weird and freaked me out when I found out,” he says. “Maybe I should put it on my tombstone!” Monarchical death music provider!