This account of the rise and fall of radio station XFM (by Ray Burdis and co-director Ian Jefferies) will bring rheumy tears of nostalgic wistfulness to the eyes of Gen Xers and older millennials who were living in London in the 1990s. Not that it’s especially sad: if anything it’s a classic story of cool kids who get to live the dream then either sell out to the man or be betrayed by the guys who sold out, but still end up doing all right in the end. Nobody dies, apart from poor Princess Diana who was killed the morning that XFM was starting its first day of legal broadcasting, thus rather dampening the exultant mood.
Founder Sammy Jacob recalls the station’s roots in pirate radio, operating out of his mum’s flat in the east London district of Clapton around 1992. They had to discourage DJs from showing up with too many records lest that tip off fans or the authorities about where the studio was. After an early coup in persuading the Cure, or more precisely the band’s manager Chris Parry, to participate in the station launch, the station grew its audience and reach until it finally acquired a license in 1996/97.
A number of XFM alumni contribute fond and sometimes angry memories of the old days: these include Steve Lamacq, Claire Sturgess, Gary Crowley and, perhaps the most famous former employees, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, who took inspiration from their time there to create TV series The Office. Elsewhere, there’s fond reminiscing from an assortment of famous artists and associates, from Pete Doherty and Carl Barat of the Libertines, to Creation Records’ Alan McGee and Sonya Madan from Echobelly, one of a notably small handful of women interviewed here. The music scene was still very much a boys’ club back then. The package is all tightly assembled but sticks to the traditional talking heads and archive clips format.
The film makes a big fuss out of saying that there was virtually no other station at that time devoted to the alternative music scene and the Britpop darlings who were emerging then; it also argues that there would have been no BBC Radio 6 without XFM. But that’s a tiny bit misleading: the BBC’s GLR was in its heyday then and though there was more speech and less Oasis, GLR’s playlist and programming were arguably every bit as good, if not better, than XFM’s. (I’m biased having worked there as a film critic at the time.) A fair chunk of GLR’s staff went on to work at 6 Music and contributed just as much to the scene. Where’s their documentary?