Blur – The Great Escape – Classic Music Review (Britpop Series)

Regular readers of this blog are aware that the proprietor approaches the work of paid music critics with healthy skepticism. Some have pretensions of grandeur (Christgau, Erlewine) while others work for publications who accept advertising from record companies (Pitchfork, Rolling Stone), assuming that readers will ignore that fundamental conflict of interest and accept their evaluations of artists working for those record companies as unbiased. In one sense, those critics are merely a reflection of the precipitous decline in professional journalism in the United States and United Kingdom—it’s all about the ratings, it’s all about the circulation, it’s all about the money, fuck the notion of journalistic standards and screw integrity. The presence of Rupert Murdoch publications in both countries has clearly facilitated the move towards inflated controversy and sensationalism in the daily journals.

The British were way, way ahead of the States in cheapening journalism; Murdoch launched his topless Page 3 as far back as 1969. The music rags soon began filling column space with outlandish opinions designed to spark controversy, and the publications made little effort to hide the fact that their #1 goal was not to provide the public with useful, carefully-researched information but to do whatever it takes to increase readership, which in turn increases advertising, which in turn makes a few self-important people very wealthy. British music critics tried very hard to identify the next big thing in music, often inflating the value of a particular artist (hello, Stone Roses) as they attempted to remain relevant and project the appearance of cutting-edge trend setters. More often than not, they lagged behind the public in that area, rallying to the support of a hot new artist in response to record sales.

The critical reaction to The Great Escape is quite instructive in this regard. On first release, it was the greatest thing to hit Britain since William the Conqueror. After all, Blur had defeated Oasis in the “Battle of Britain” when the lead single from the album (“Country House”) outsold the promotional single from Morning Glory (“Roll with It”). The message from the press was BLUR IS BETTER THAN OASIS. BLUR HAS ALWAYS BEEN BETTER THAN OASIS.

Then Oasis achieved something that no other Britpop band had come close to achieving: mass market acceptance in the United States. Q withdrew their review of The Great Escape and issued an apology; other critics piled on, accusing Blur of trying to make the British public miserable through their allegedly cynical world-view. Some accused Blur of faking their affinity for the underclasses and launched the narrative that Oasis was the real working class band. The message shifted: OASIS IS BETTER THAN BLUR. OASIS HAS ALWAYS BEEN BETTER THAN BLUR.

Even Damon Albarn got caught up in the Orwellian reassessment, defining The Great Escape as a “messy” release. As I trust an artist’s opinion of their work less than I do the opinion of a paid critic, we’ll ignore that piece of self-immolation. The truth about this shift in critical favor was best expressed by BBC music journalist James McMahon, who opined that the “critical euphoria that would prove to be short-lived – truth be told, about as long as it took publishers to realise Oasis would probably shift more magazines for them.”

Albarn wasn’t the only Blur member who lacked fond memories of the album or the experience; Graham Coxon had fucking had it with the whole Britpop scene and was ready to move on; there were also growing tensions between Coxon and the other band members. However, bad memories of the interpersonal dynamics and their mutual desire to hurry up and get to the future serve to cloud their views of the album’s worth. Regardless of tension and a pending shift in artistic direction, The Great Escape is a worthy conclusion to the “Life Trilogy.” While the quality of the album is a mixed bag (strong first half, weak middle and transitional final phase), I admire the courage of the record, captured in the willingness to call bullshit for what it is.

The album title wasn’t selected until the last minute, but it reflects the dominant theme. The characters in each story (including Damon Albarn himself) are in varying degrees attempting to avoid the truth about their lives, finding escape mechanisms in everything from sex to status, from drugs to dreams, from the latest trend to pulling all-nighters glued to the telly. To dismiss Blur’s perspective on British life as “cynical” says more about the labelers than the songs themselves; critics often use the term when they’re uncomfortable with satiric views that hit too close to home or with those who dare to disturb the status quo by exposing what’s wrong with the world. I don’t find The Great Escape particularly cynical, and only occasionally melancholy. It’s a hard look at the reality of the times, and excuse me if I’m wrong, but I think that’s pretty much what Swift, Dickens and Thackeray did in their universally honored works.

The Great Escape isn’t Parklife, and that message is communicated sonically in the edgy opening passage of “Stereotypes,” where Graham Coxon leads with a screeching B minor chord accompanied by a foreboding minor key pattern on the organ. Damon Albarn’s world-weary vocal communicates a sense of exhausted impatience with the all-too human tendency to follow a trend, to be in with the in-crowd, no matter how ludicrous the adventure. Here we have The Case of the Oversexed Divorcee, who believes she needs to fuck her brains out because . . . because that’s what divorcees are supposed to do to convince themselves they’ve still got it:

The suburbs they are sleeping
But he’s dressing up tonight
She likes a man in uniform he loves to wear it tight
They’re on the lovers sofa they’re on the patio
And when the fun is over watch themselves on video

I’ll bet she spends hours with her divorcee girlfriends comparing boyfriend dick size and bragging about the impossibly difficult Kama Sutra position she pulled off the night before. I love sex as much or more than the next person, but this is gross sex, superficial titillation designed to bolster one’s fragile ego to avoid facing the emptiness inside. The arrangement is rock-solid, with pulsating bass from Alex James, strong punctuation from Dave Rowntree and the ever-present screeching minor chord from Graham Coxon sounding the mental health alarm.

Now it’s off to . . . The Battle of Britain! From the Guardian archives:

Blur or Oasis? Oasis or Blur? Four days after the launch of Britain’s most hyped battle of the bands Manchester’s working class lads appear to be edging ahead of London’s art school trendies in the race for the No. 1 spot.

Both groups released their £2.99 singles on Monday, claiming to be bitter enemies, which led some in the music industry to compare the rivalry to that between the Rolling Stones and the Beatles.

Early indications suggest that Oasis’s Roll With It is edging ahead of Blur’s Country House in sales, so the Guardian conducted its own survey of the music critics who really matter – the fans.

In Manchester, home of Oasis, one of the city’s leading music stores was buzzing with debate about the Blur-Oasis head-to-head. Andrew McQueen, assistant at Piccadilly Records, tried to give an objective assessment. He dismissed Manchester’s alleged chauvinism about Oasis as merely a mirage in a PR person’s mind. He paid Blur some gracious compliments but his loyalties soon became obvious.

“Oasis plagiarise from the great names – the Beatles, Stones, Kinks, the Who. But they make their own exciting rock and roll. It’s not pompous and has great tunes. They wear their hearts on their sleeves. They go for the jugular and move people.

“Blur plunder the past, too, but they do it with an irony and a cleverness which I don’t like. Their music has a knowing wink. Oasis seem more heartfelt, more direct. Blur are probably better musicians. They write good songs – but you don’t feel they mean it.”

This view seems to be born out by record sales: 75 to Oasis, 25 to Blur at Piccadilly. Round the corner at the Virgin store, the tally was 300 Oasis to 250 Blur.

If only today’s journalists would report genuinely important news with such doggedness and detail.

Blur did pull it out in the end, for what it’s worth. To my ears it was a no-contest battle—“Country House” is a far stronger song than “Roll with It,” the weakest of any of the singles released from Morning Glory. Kinks fans will immediately make the connection to the anti-hero of the Face to Face trilogy and the song “A House in the Country,” but unlike that character, who “don’t need no sedatives to ease his troubled mind,” Blur’s Man of the Nineties “takes all kinds of pills” and passes the day “reading Balzac and knocking back Prozac.” You don’t really need those details, for all you need to know about this self-important asshole is contained in the absolutely brilliant line, “I’m a professional cynic but my heart’s not in it.” In the context of the theme of escape, the country house represents a complete failure to leave the rat race behind, as the gentleman in question has traded one form of stress for another in the form of health nazi paranoia (“He doesn’t drink, smoke, laugh/Takes herbal baths in the country”). The use of the phrase “animal farm” leads most people to draw a connection to Orwell, but the video for the song, full of bouncy, smiling, dimwitted babes, suggests the animalistic, mechanical sex of a perpetual orgy. The arrangement is terribly exciting, featuring an ironically jaunty beat with a stunning build to the chorus where Blur mingles rising lead and background vocals to reach a satisfying climax. I also love the high harmony bridge with its hints of Beatles and Beach Boys as the voices join together to reveal the awful truth that this wealthy, entitled prick feels terribly sorry for himself.

I’m not 100% sure where the critical perception of cynicism came from, but the melancholy “Best Days” is a likely source because it explodes the long-standing myth peddled by regret-filled old farts that the best years of our lives are when we’re young and responsibility-free. Not only is that notion total bullshit, but it sets up young people to believe that something’s wrong with them when the good times they’re supposed to be having fail to materialize. While the having-to-work part is a bit of a drag, I’m having a much better time in my thirties than I ever did as a confused, physiologically unstable and uninformed teen hanging out with other insecure people who also had no idea what the fuck they were doing. Since celebration of youth was a key component of the Britpop scene, Blur is to be commended for repeatedly pointing out (see “Girls and Boys”) that the mindless search for sex and substance-fueled good times isn’t the best way to establish a foundation for a meaningful future.

The opening verses set up the fundamental problem of modern humanity: our perpetual state of separation from one another. The bells toll at St. Mary-le-Bow church as they have on that site for centuries as Londoners exit the city hoping “someone’s waiting out there for them.” Meanwhile, a cabbie ferries the young drunks around Soho, compensating for that unpleasant, impersonal task by dreaming of sunnier climes. In a vain search for something remotely resembling intimacy, the poetic camera zooms in to take a closer look and comes up empty:

Trellick Tower’s been calling
I know she’ll leave me in the morning
In hotel cells, listening to dial tones
Remote controls and cable moans
In his drink, he’s talking
Gets disconnected sleepwalking back home

Other people wouldn’t like to hear you
If you said that these are the best days of our lives
Other people turn around and laugh at you
If you said that these are the best days of our lives

The music is quite lovely in a melancholy sense, somewhat reminiscent of the structures and norms of the baroque rock of the mid-60’s. I adore the descending figure that serves as Graham Coxon’s guitar solo, where he repeats the relational pattern of the notes as he moves down the fretboard, reinforcing the motif of disappointment. The chorus harmonies are again excellent, and though it didn’t make the cut as a single, I’d have to say that “Best Days” is my favorite song on the album.

Our travels now take us to the place where most of us go to drown our troubles to meet the “Charmless Man,” the embodiment of a person decked out in all the trappings of status with all the depth of an evaporating puddle of rain. Though he meets all the criteria of one who “has it made” (a portfolio, an expensive and empty education from a superficially prestigious school and A-list entry to all the fashionable places), it’s all for naught, as his status fails to impress anyone. I’m certainly not impressed that “he knows his claret from his Beaujolais,” which is like knowing the difference between a Guinness and a Diet Coke. The only thing he’s got going for him is that all his acquaintances are equally charmless and completely supportive in maintaining appearances:

He thinks his educated airs, those family shares will protect him
That we’ll respect him
He moves in circles of friends who just pretend
That they like him, he does the same to them
And when you put it all together
There’s the model of a charmless man

It’s no surprise that his secret role model is Ronnie Kray, the head of a notoriously brutal criminal enterprise who evaded the authorities for quite some time because his nightclubs were popular with the Charmless Man Set. Perhaps if Ronnie were around today in our more corruption-supportive environment, he’d be up for Prime Minister, and if you doubt that assertion, let me draw your attention to the gangster enterprise running the United States. Our Charmless Man would be a great fit for the Trump administration, willing to mold himself into any shape likely to result in increased status, let values and integrity be damned. The rollicking music reflects a party where the musicians are trying with all their might to keep the good times going, and while it works just fine, I think a small horn section with growling saxophones and exaggerated trombone slides would have highlighted the gangsterism more effectively.

If you were searching for clues indicating that Blur was feeling a bit restless within the confines of Britpop, you need look no further than “Fade Away.” Though the theme of suburban ennui fits nicely within those boundaries, the music is . . . well . . . certainly Latin-influenced . . . almost but not quite mariachi . . . occasionally avant-garde dissonant but not quite jazz . . . electronically-spiced . . . with flavors of cheap and cheesy. The glue that holds it all together comes from Alex James on the bass, who clearly left it all in the studio and probably wound up with some impressive blisters on his fingers. Though the musical style may be hard to pin down, the lyrics tell a story of lives lost to cultural expectations that neither husband or wife understand in the least—like robots, they just do what they’re programmed to do:

They stumbled into their lives
In a vague way became man and wife
One got the other they deserved one another
They settled in a brand new town
With people from the same background

Of course they did. These are people in desperate need of sameness, because different is threatening. The most damning sequence appears in the second verse:

He noticed he had visible lines
She worried about her behind
Their birth had been the death of them
It didn’t really bother them

Their birth had been the death of them. For these people, life is summarized in the chorus: “All you ever do is fade away.” If I were to encounter this couple in the street, it would take every ounce of strength I have to stop myself from shouting, “Get off the fucking planet, assholes! You’re wasting space, food and energy!” I’d feel completely justified in doing so, because these are the sort of unaware people who feel threatened by diversity and vote their fears . . . and we’ve had enough of that lately, in both Britain and America.

“Topman” takes its name from the trendy menswear chain, and Blur was thoughtful enough to mention Hugo and Boss to avoid any perceptions of favoritism. I think this song is a hoot, not because of a brilliant musical structure or stunning lyrics but for the deep-voice background vocals repeating the syllable “Oh” with supporting harmonica in the opening passage. The sound reminds me of Johnny Preston’s “Running Bear,” a 1959 monument to American racism that tried to capitalize on the cowboys-and-Indians fascination of the time by featuring white people using low-scale vocalizations to mimic their perception of how “Indians” communicate. The young braves of England don’t dress up in war paint but they do cling to the latest fashions and compensate for their youthful lack of wealth by powering up putt-putt cars (Clios, Saxos and Fiats) and loudly cruising through the streets (the boy-racers in the States did the same to Hondas and old-model Acuras). The Nineties were the period when “personal branding” really began, led by the garment industry when they started using clothes to sell clothes by advertising on the clothes themselves. I try to imagine building my identity around the clothing brands I choose and the cigarettes I smoke and just get fucking depressed at the thought of it.

The Great Escape isn’t cynical! This is real shit, people! Kids have killed other kids for their Nikes! Wake the fuck up! Our societies create insanity!

As was true in Parklife, the weakest part of the album is in the middle. It begins with “The Universal,” a song featuring lyrics about a future where we all go into mass denial about the ugliness of reality with the assistance of a universal drug. As Aldous Huxley had already covered the concept pretty thoroughly in Brave New World, the song doesn’t break any new ground. Worse still, the music is as un-futuristic as one can imagine, a Mantovani-esque string-heavy arrangement with Henry Mancini overtones. “The Universal” began life as a ska number (bad idea) and was headed for the crapper until Damon Albarn “saved” the song with the string section. I think early Pulp might have been able to do something with the song, given their occasional experimental leanings, but as it is, it’s a promise of something big that fails to deliver. Unlike “The Universal,” “Mr Robinson’s Quango” skips the pretentious opening but also falls flat in a too-crude attack on political appointees who fatten themselves at the public trough. “He Thought of Cars” continues the mid-album slump using a weak metaphor of “things that are supposed to get us to destinations” that only brings us to Destination: Loneliness—a theme more effectively treated elsewhere on the album. The “meh” part of the album ends with “It Could Be You,” an exposé of the absurd fantasy that a person can only be happy when they win the lottery, a topic that would have been treated more effectively had they given us the end of the story—that many lottery winners wind up broke, besieged and in therapy.

The pre-mayoral version of Ken Livingstone steps into save the day with his drier-than-the-driest-martini narration of a typical day in the life of one Ernold Same:

Ernold Same awoke from the same dream
In the same bed at the same time
Looked in the same mirror, made the same frown
And felt the same way as he did every day
Then Ernold Same caught the same train
At the same station, sat in the same seat
With the same nasty stain
Next to same old what’s-his-name
On his way to the same place with the same name
To do the same thing again and again and again
Poor old Ernold Same

Blur then launches the musical version, a nicely layered vocal ensemble that confirms Ernold’s endless loop of sameness and adds a touch of compassion to the recitation of the all-too familiar dreary routine followed by billions of people across the globe.

When your single, solitary goal in life is to become the attractive, devil-may care rich guy in the television commercial, you are by definition a hollow man—and the lead character of “Globe Alone.” Anticipating the lo-fi adventures of their next album, Blur comes close to pop punk in this high-speed romp where Dave Rountree gets a nice workout and Damon Albarn does his best Johnny Rotten imitation on the choruses. The lead character is such a disconnected, self-centered loser that he a.) gets a stiff prick when he fondles his new cell phone, b.) fantasizes about Sharon Stone (I used to see her every now and then at the Whole Foods Market on California and Franklin back in the day and she was pretty hot) and c.) takes comfort in his insistence that he “wouldn’t be seen at bedtime/Without putting Calvin Kleins on.” Logic would dictate that the people who do the laundry for him learned to slip on sanitary gloves before they picked up his crusty shorts and tossed them into the wash. The contradiction between the assertive music and the happy-slappy la-la-las create a psychological tension that simply can’t hold, but rather than opting for the classic nervous breakdown, this hero of materialists everywhere opts to believe that the outside world exists for his convenience and no one else:

He is because he saw it on a commercial break
And if he doesn’t get what he wants then gets a headache
Because he needs it, wants it, almost, loves it
He’s here on his own, all globe alone
Here on his own, all globe alone
Here on his own

Please don’t introduce me to anyone like this guy. Ever.

And I’m not sure I’d like to meet “Dan Abnormal,” aka Damon Albarn sans the rockstar regalia. In this self-reflective piece, he describes his “real life” as one combining television binging with trips to McDonald’s, where he unnecessarily threatens the employees with bodily harm unless they cough up the burger and chips. Hardly the glamorous life of a celebrity, but I believe that’s the point of the song: to blow the rockstar image to smithereens and show his fan base that he’s subject to the same petty whims and neuroses that dominate their lives. At the time, Albarn was experiencing the classic identity crisis that comes with the shift from normal life to the spotlight, one of many cultural icons who have suffered its debilitating effects in the form of nervous breakdowns (Thom Yorke, Ray Davies) or immersion in the drug scene (too many to mention). Kurt Cobain bemoaned his depersonalizing experience in “Smells Like Team Spirit” in the line, “Here we are now—entertain us,” and Albarn echoes that sentiment in the opening stanza (“Meanie Leanie come on down/Come and entertain the town”). It’s a tricky balance between complaining about the fact that the transformation has given you wealth and the fame you thought you wanted and detached commentary about the fundamentally dehumanizing process of idolization, and I think Damon Albarn struck the right tone here.

Echoes of Kurt Cobain and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” appear in the penultimate track, “Entertain Me.” For those of you who are not Nirvana fans, I’m referring to the lines, “I feel stupid and contagious/Here we are now—entertain us!” Damon Albarn’s take is somewhat similar, directed more at the general population caught in the humdrum than demanding teenagers. The most interesting diversion comes in the second verse, where he takes on the transactional nature of mating in our technologically advanced society:

At his and hers dating
Bored minds agree
Requirements to be stated
And replies awaited
She wants a loose fit
He wants instant whip
Guesstimates her arrival
Will she want it really badly?

What a weird, weird world we have created.

The song opens up with a pattern that resembles a high-speed version of “I Am the Walrus,” but that proves to be a feint when Dave Rowntree enters and slows the perceived tempo. The deceleration actually serves to increase the energy of the song, as Rowntree’s punctuation gives the song a strong, steady beat. In contrast, Albarn’s vocals on the verses are half-narrated in a mechanical, bored-with-it-all tone that strengthens the theme of human detachment. The chord pattern features those subtle changes that excite me no end—a shift from the root A major in the verses to A minor in the chorus and pattern-closing adjustment from straight G to the augmented G to emphasize the sour note. The effect of those minuscule adjustments is palpable, complementing the bitter edge in the lyrics.

The Great Escape ends with a curious song about life in the Japanese workforce, “Yuko and Hiro.” Few cultures embraced workaholic behavior as thoroughly as the Japanese, but that embrace was not the manic behavior of Americans desperately trying to get ahead of each other but an allegedly honorable exchange of extra work for lifetime employment (at least in the larger firms). Although some progress has been made in the last two decades in reducing the length of the workweek, the norm of undying loyalty to the company still inspires overwork—so much so that the Japanese have a term for “death by overwork” (karoshi). This is the environment Blur attempts to capture in “Yuko and Hiro,” a deeply sad state of affairs where love and companionship are available only one day a week and booze is essential to survival:

We work together
We work for the company
That looks to the future
We work hard to please them
They will protect us

I never see you
We’re never together
I’ll love you forever
I drink in the evenings
It helps with relaxing
I can’t sleep without drinking

The music is appropriately morose and semi-tragic, featuring loose approximations of the dissonance (at least to Western ears) of Japanese music and some lovely vocals from a female trio. What I like about the song is that it makes listeners aware that the challenges of finding a meaningful life in the context of a consumerist culture aren’t limited to the British Isles, but represent a global quality-of-life challenge. I wish they would have let the song fade into oblivion rather than tacking on a harmonium-driven music hall fragment to the end, for it interferes with a very powerful closing message.

As things turned out, The Great Escape was hardly the end of Britpop (as Pulp would conclusively demonstrate with the biggest fucking exclamation point ever), but it was the end of Blur’s uneasy flirtation with the movement. Though they still remain popular in the Isles to this day, Blur and the individual members moved on to explore different forms of music, from electronica to lo-fi to hip-hop. Regardless of their later achievements, they will always be remembered for the trilogy, and I can’t listen to the Blur of the 90’s without wishing for a tectonic shift in popular tastes that embraces intelligent, melodic and socially-aware music.

6 responses

  1. I really only agree with you here, the universal is just another mediocre string section by albarn and company that fails to impress lyrically and musically, he thought of cars is a drag and while I do enjoy mr robinsons quango, lyrically it is a bit overly harsh. Maybe I’m blind but it doesnt seem like you mentioned entertain me or fade away in your review, are there multiple versions of the album that dont have those songs or did you just not want to mention them? Thanks again for bringing up shit like the terrible state of journalism and commercialism, its always nice to reflect on the world with your blogs. Anyways, it was a fantastic, well written review.

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    1. Good point—trying to unravel the different versions of Blur albums is almost as bad as trying to figure out the Yardbirds’ catalog. My version seemed to be the original, but now I’m not entirely sure, and Discogs wasn’t much help, listing over 30 versions of the album. “Entertain Me” and “Fade Away” were missing from my version.

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    2. I have updated the review of The Great Escape to include “Fade Away” and “Entertain Me,” reflecting the original British track listing. Thanks for pointing that out!

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      1. Anytime! Fade away is probably one of my favorite tracks on the album and entertain me is a nice rocker that I feel like blur couldve done more with in their Britpop phase. I’m glad you wrote about them.

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  2. There’s a line in “Transition” by Iain Banks about “that golden age which nobody noticed was happening at the time; I mean the long decade between the fall of the Wall and the fall of the Towers”.

    Listening to “The Great Escape” now makes me think of that. At the time, it seemed like a fairly bleak depiction of appalling existential ennui. Looking back, it describes a halcyon era when the biggest problems in life were feeling a bit bored and depressed because you didn’t know what to do with your money/fame/awesome swinging lifestyle, when the worst thing anyone had to worry about was becoming stuck in a mediocre suburban existence, and when Ken Livingstone was a London folk hero and not an embarrassing anti-semite.

    So in some ways it’s incredibly dated, but in other ways it’s timeless, at least to me – the music is just so well done, endlessly varied and inventive, and there is so much wit in the lyrics. I like it better than any of their other albums. I find “Yuko and Hiro” heartbreaking. I’m surprised you don’t like “The Universal” – it’s one of my favourite tracks, although I always like that 90s-style use of strings. Also I misheard the lyrics at the time and thought it was about the doctrine of universal salvation, which possibly made it seem a bit more profound than it actually is.

    Also I was a bit worried to realise recently that I basically *am* the character from “Country House”, except without the wealth and success. So perhaps its message is a bit more timeless than I thought.

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  3. […] Blur-The Great Escape […]

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