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.
A Treatise on the Hypothesis that Blur Failed to Achieve Success in the United States Due to Significant Cultural Differences between the United Kingdom and The United States; i. e., Blur Were “Too British.”
With Additional Commentary Concerning the State of U. K.-U. S. Relations
You can find plenty of discussion boards on the Internet devoted to theories about why Blur failed to make much of a dent in the U. S. market. The two most common explanations are a.) cultural incompatibility and b.) Damon Albarn’s no-doubt-about-it British accent.
The cultural incompatibility argument is nonsense. The United States and the United Kingdom are very much in sync on fundamental cultural characteristics, according to Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions. Hofstede defined culture as “The programming of the human mind by which one group of people distinguishes itself from another group,” and research demonstrates that the Brits and the yanks share plenty of cultural programming:
- Power Distance Index: High power distance means the acceptance of a hierarchy where everyone has their place. Low power distance cultures try to minimize unequal treatment. Both the UK and US score as low-power distance cultures, with the UK slightly more geared towards the pursuit of equality (UK 35, US 40, on a scale of 100). The French, on the other hand, have never gotten over the shock Marie Antoinette’s head flying into a basket or their Napoleonic pretensions, preferring a society where people know their place (68).
- Individualism vs. Collectivism: Individualist societies expect you to take care of yourself; collectivist cultures take care of you as long as you’re a loyal citizen. The US is the most individualist country in the known universe with a score of 91, but the Brits aren’t far behind with a score of 89. I guess they lost two points for the NHS.
- Masculine vs. Feminine: Putting aside the obvious classical stereotypes (Hofstede needs to come up with more modern terminology), masculine cultures are competitive and achievement-oriented; feminine cultures prefer collaboration, caring for the disadvantaged and quality of life. Individualist, masculine cultures brought us capitalism; collectivist, feminine cultures gave us socialism. The UK is a bit more macho than the US (66-62). The French are slightly feminine, and Norway is THE BEST MOM EVER.
- Uncertainty Avoidance Index: If a culture scores high, it means its members detest uncertainty and ambiguity. A low-scoring culture is comfortable with risk and the fundamental uncertainty of the future. The UK scores 11 points lower than the US (35-46), indicating the US is starting to lose its competitive edge and willingness to take risks. The French come in at a whopping 86, meaning they spend a good part of their lives pretending to know everything but really don’t know shit.
- Future-Orientation: Long-term societies plan for the future; short-term societies go for the quick fix and the quick buck. This is the one dimension where there is a significant difference between the UK and the US, with the UK scoring 25 points higher on the scale, probably because they’ve been around a lot longer. Americans can’t stand to wait for anything and are culturally allergic to anything remotely resembling a plan.
- Indulgence: This is a fun dimension that measures to what degree societies “allow relatively free gratification of basic and natural human drives related to enjoying life and having fun.” High scoring countries are where you want to party; low-scoring countries are where you go when you’ve lost your sex drive. The difference between the UK and US is a single point (69-68); the French score below the midpoint at 49. If you’re up for a good time, head to London or New York and forget that allegedly naughty place called Paris.
The US and the UK have so much in common that political narratives of both countries have been in eerie alignment for almost forty years. The Americans had Reagan; the Brits Thatcher. Tony Blair and Bill Clinton peddled the same bullshit. The Brits have the Russian-manipulated Brexit mess; the yanks have the Russian-controlled Trump mess.
The Individualist-Masculine orientation common to the UK and US was clearly manifested in the behavior of the Britpop bands. Though the most-remembered competition of the Britpop era was the pitting of Oasis against Blur, the truth is that Britpop bands were all pretty competitive and that the first big row involved Blur and Suede. We’ve already mentioned the movement of Justine Frischmann from Brett Anderson’s bed to Damon Albarn’s, but the who’s-got-the-biggest-dick argument extended to the music as well. Blur “were inclined to feel that every record Suede sold was an affront to human decency,” according to David Cavanagh, and in a retrospective interview with Mojo, Damon Albarn described the motivations behind their second album (Modern Life Is Rubbish) thusly, “Suede and America fueled my desire to prove to everyone that Blur were worth it. There was nothing more important in my life.”
The reference to “America” had to do with an extensive American tour where Blur, to put it politely, bombed with an American audience still hooked on grunge. The working title for Modern Life Is Rubbish was Britain Versus America, and bassist Alex James commented, ” . . . the whole thing was a f***ing big two fingers up to America.” What they were really pissed off about was American dominance in the entertainment fields and in consumer goods—a veritable flood of American offerings that relentlessly inundated the UK. Blur’s response hardly qualifies as garden variety anti-Americanism—they wanted to beat the hell out of the Americans. Classic competitive behavior from members of a masculine society.
Let’s move on to the accent issue. This one appears weird at first because many Americans are passionate anglophiles. The news coverage of Princess Di, both before and after her death, bordered on obsessive; both of the relatively recent royal marriages received similar around-the-clock attention from the tabloids and on the networks (I wasn’t sure how the Meghan Markle thing was playing out in the States, not having been there for years, so I called a friend who informed me that “her face welcomes you at every grocery store checkout stand”). Americans have embraced Monty Python, Doctor Who, Downton Abbey and a flood of miniseries based on early Victorian novels of dubious quality. Churchill is quoted as much as any American historical figure despite the fact (or because) he was a racist, imperialistic drunk. In music, Americans embraced Beatlemania and the Invasion, Elvis Costello, Eric Clapton and even . . . (gasp!) . . . Oasis.
Ay, there’s the rub.
Until Liam croaks off and scientists can dissect his brain, we will never understand exactly why Liam Gallagher has almost perfect enunciation when singing but forces producers to insert subtitles when he does on-camera interviews. I never had a hard time understanding the words to any Oasis song, whether sung by Liam or Noel, but I will admit Damon Albarn takes more effort than most. Liam did what most British singers do: he Americanized his singing voice. Damon Albarn declined the opportunity, choosing to go in the opposite direction and deliberately accentuate British pronunciation.
In a Babbel article that neatly summarizes America’s anglophilic tendencies, writer Thomas More Devlin makes an important distinction about British accents:
The British accent holds a certain sway over the United States. It has been called sexier, more pleasant and more intelligent than the American accent. This refers only to the posh British accent, because some regional variants, like cockney, have negative connotations because of their association with the working class.
It would appear that Americans ignored Blur despite their almost complete ignorance of British societal norms because they detected working-class status in Damon Albarn’s voice. Although America clings to the myth of a classless society where anyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps and become Andrew Carnegie or Jeff Bezos, they love to engage in one-upmanship with each other about social status. Most of that senseless competition has to do with money and ostentatious displays of wealth, but Americans have always poked fun at accents that reek of low status: hillbilly, cracker, Brooklyn, Bronx, South Philly, etc.
Having made a full commitment to British music made by British musicians about British culture sung in an unapologetic British accent, Blur’s next two albums—Parklife and The Great Escape—also bombed in the United States. Blur management ignored suggestions to market the band through college radio stations where Damon’s accent wouldn’t have made a difference and the perceptive intelligence displayed in his lyrics would have been appreciated. Trying to mass-market Blur was a serious strategic error that failed to take into account that the United States was already well down the road of dumbing down.
I know that the revelation that the UK and US are fraternal twins in a cultural sense will be distressing news to UK residents who find the United States a crass and disgusting culture and to Americans who firmly believe in their unique and special status that they are god’s gift to the world. If you want to go into denial about it, that’s your choice, but allow me to present one additional bit of evidence indicating that a cultural merger of sorts is well underway: the two countries have begun a form of dialogue designed to bring the two countries closer together on a religious level.
The National Football League plays to sold-out stadiums in London and has announced that they will increase the number of London games in 2019. Meanwhile, Americans can keep up with the goings-on of Man U, Liverpool and Chelsea courtesy of the major network broadcasts of Premier League football matches.
Citizens of the U. K! Fuck Brexit! You’re in serious danger of becoming the 51st state! Reassess your priorities!
Finally, the Review
The most shocking piece of news I discovered in my research of Parklife was Thom Yorke’s response to an audience member on a BBC broadcast who asked him if there were any songs he wished he’d written. His response was Blur’s “Girls and Boys.”
I distinctly remember the gasp that emerged from my open mouth.
It may be my limited imagination, but I can’t picture Radiohead doing anything remotely resembling “Girls and Boys.” The song sounds happy, and while I can apply several adjectives to Radiohead’s diverse offerings, “happy” is not one of them. Thom would go on to write his commentary on the mindless boozing and fucking common to youth in “Jigsaw Falling into Place,” but he accurately described the mood of that song as “caustic,” whereas “Girls and Boys” is “satirically cheerful.”
We can give Thom credit for recognizing brilliant songwriting when he hears it. The story is narrated to the music embraced by the indiscriminately horny youth of the era—drum-machine driven 90’s Euro Pop synthesizing (in Alex James’ words) “Disco drums, nasty guitars and Duran Duran bass.” James plays his bouncy bass part to perfection, and there are few guitarists as perceptive and talented as Graham Coxon when it comes to selecting the right tone and attack for a given song; here he selects an off-key counterpoint riffing off the flattened sixth of the dominant G chord that sounds like “music to accompany a brain shorting out.” Producer Stephen Street has a jolly good time fiddling with the synthesizer, inserting various odd sounds from bird tweets to mouse squeaks that take me back in time to Monty Python’s “Silly Noises” sketch and forward to the curious synthesized emanations of hip-hop and French pop artists (like Camille). The result is a musical backdrop that defines “good fun” while simultaneously underscoring how fucking irritating this style of music can get through the endless repetitions of the chorus.
The lyrics are economically brilliant and insightful; for me the key line is “Love in the nineties/Is paranoid.” Consider the American English and British English definitions of the word “paranoid,” as presented in the Cambridge Dictionary:
- American English: anxious because you do not feel you can trust others
- British English: feeling extremely nervous and worried because you believe that other people do not like you or are trying to harm you
Pretty close, with the British definition unsurprisingly featuring more nuance and the American version typically bottom-line. Now imagine approaching the act of love-making from a perspective of distrust, nervousness and the firm belief that your partner does not like you and is out to do you harm. Well, that pretty much eliminates the intimacy option! What naturally follows is objectification of the experience where one chooses a sex partner based on physical attraction and exotic variations of gender play (girls who are boys who like boys to be girls who do boys like they’re girls who do girls like they’re boys). As Damon Albarn put it, “All these blokes and all these girls meeting at the watering hole and then just copulating. There’s no morality involved, I’m not saying it should or shouldn’t happen.”
Hmm. Not sure about that closing claim. If he had no opinion on the matter, why the line “Always should be someone you really love?”
Next up is a song that would have fit nicely into any of the albums from The Kinks’ “golden period,” the character sketch “Tracy Jacks.” It’s a story about a poor bloke facing his mid-life crisis by running around naked on the beach at Walton-on-the-Naze. His vague sense of dislocation is repeatedly expressed in his belief that normalcy is “just so overrated,” a feeling that eventually leads to his bulldozing the cherished symbol of middle class pride—his own house. The introductory guitar chords echo the intro to Shocking Blue’s “Venus,” and the music that follows certainly reflects the melodic and harmonic variations common in mid-60’s British pop, as does Alex James’ McCartney-esque bass part and the insertion of a string section. Immersing himself in Ray Davies’ work proved to be an inspiration for Albarn, not in the sense of attempting to copy the master but acting upon the realization that stories about British people and British experience was a rich mine for exploration.
You’l hear me frequently mention the inherent “singability” of Britpop throughout this series, and what was particularly impressive about that feature was that the lyrics presented were often not the kind of lyrics you’d expect in a pop song. In a live rendition of “End of a Century” (below), you’ll see the crowd joyfully joining in from the get-go, singing along to these words:
She says there’s ants in the carpet, dirty little monsters
Eating all the morsels, picking up the rubbish
Give her effervescence, she needs a little sparkle
Good morning TV, you’re looking so healthy
Yucky imagery aside, that is a great and memorable opening couplet, and “End of the Century” turns out to be a gorgeous, poignant less-than-three-minute melodic poem about a couple who physically inhabit the same space but do little more to affirm the relationship beyond the occasional cuddle and goodnight kisses with dry lips. With faces glued to the TV day and night, they resist the boob tube’s repeated attempts at stimulation:
Sex on the TV, everybody’s at it
The mind gets dirty as you get closer to thirty
He gives her a cuddle, they’re glowing in a huddle
Good night TV, you’re all made up and you’re looking like me
Even the upcoming millennium fails to pique their interest or imagination (“it’s nothing special”). While the year 2000 did in fact turn out to be nothing special (hello Y2K), the line in the context of 1994 underscores the couple’s state of paralyzing ennui that defines what they know as life. Musically, “End of the Century” is brilliantly arranged and tightly played, with Graham Coxon’s contributions standing out—backing vocals, clarinet and guitar combining rough chords, slides and a nice little run at the end. As they did in “Girls and Boys,” Blur inserted an Eb chord into a chord pattern rooted in G major, certainly a more interesting way to build tension than the classic seventh chord.
Damon Albarn delegated the spoken lines of the title track to actor Phil Daniels, whose chosen cockney-ish accent and obvious appreciation of the absurd was exceptionally well-suited to commentary on the sometimes nonsensical nature of modern life. Phil nailed his part with gusto. I learned a great deal translating the anglicisms in the first verse, and have become particularly enamored with the phrase “brewer’s droop,” as it vividly describes a penile state that I have struggled to describe concisely (the obvious “he got shit-faced drunk and couldn’t get it up” is uncomfortably wordy and somewhat impolite). Now I can tell a man suffering from brewer’s droop to relax, have a few gallons of coffee and come back in a couple of hours with a stiff one.
In addition to the linguistic edification, “Parklife” features plenty of loaded humor as the narrator (with tongue firmly in cheek) attempts to keep up appearances by describing his daily ritual as if here were the richest man on earth, when it’s far more likely that he’s unemployed and on the dole (or, as shown in the video, a piss-poor salesman without a lot of prospects to dial up):
I get up when I want, except on Wednesdays when I get rudely awakened by the dustmen (Parklife!)
I put my trousers on, have a cup of tea and I think about leaving me house (Parklife!)
I feed the pigeons, I sometimes feed the sparrows too, it gives me a sense of enormous wellbeing (Parklife!)
And then I’m happy for the rest of the day, safe in the knowledge there will always be a bit of my heart devoted to it
I also love the commentary in the truncated last verse about how “it’s got nothing to do with Vorsprung durch Technik,” Audi’s corporate tagline that translates to “progress through technology.” That line took on more meaning later in the decade with the technology boom that fundamentally changed our routines, turning us into 24-hour-a-day workaholics. Ya call that progress? “And it’s not about you joggers who go ’round and ’round and ’round and ’round and ’round” is a fabulous fade line, an attempt to point out that many people who take up the latest fitness fad do so more out of fear of early demise than the enjoyable experience of permanently damaging one’s knees through high-impact exercise. It should be no surprise that “Parklife” has become a football anthem, as it’s just one of those songs that automatically lifts your spirits.
Blur shifts appropriately to punk for the absolutely frantic tune, “Bank Holiday,” an accurate depiction of the human tendency to spend those holidays attempting to drown yourself in booze before heading back to work a-g-a-i-n. People in the US face a similar challenge, particularly when the appearance of a holiday creates a three-day weekend. When that happens, they mindlessly jam the highways, spending most of the day getting to their destination; on day two, they eat, drink and cram as much stimulation into the day as possible; on day three, they find themselves stuck in historic traffic jams, bitterly regretting their entire weekend. Talk about cultural programming! “Bank Holiday” isn’t a particularly pleasant song, but I suggest you play it before you waste a good day off trying to “unwind” by engaging in manic activity.
“Badhead,” one of the prettier songs on Parklife, has to do with the lethargy that often accompanies a break-up. Damon Albarn has claimed the song was about hangovers, but I think he was being a bit cheeky when he said that. The narrator compares the experience to a “bad head in the morning,” but the previous lines are all about not staying in touch and feeling sorry for oneself: an emotional hangover. The laid back, country-tinged arrangement contrasts nicely with the intensity of “Bank Holiday,” sweetened by gentle harmonies and Graham Coxon’s equally lovely arpeggios. As is true for most of the songs on Parklife, the tune immediately imprints itself deeply in your memory center, filling your head for days.
We now arrive at a sort of intermission in the form of the village green oompah band (sans tuba) piece, “The Debt Collector.” It’s a nice little tune serving as a break in the action, but what follows doesn’t necessarily qualify as action. “Far Out” is an Alex James number that sounds like a tribute of sorts to Syd Barrett, with spacey sounds and lyrics featuring a string of astronomical objects. It’s not bad, but doesn’t seem to fit with the album’s theme. It’s followed by the quite popular “To the End,” and I have to put my foot down here, reject the common consensus and tell you that I find this easy-listening piece where Damon Albarn goes full Matt Munro positively horrid. The French version isn’t much better, as much is lost in the translation and in the questionable pronunciation. The rendition with Françoise Hardy (retitled “La Comedie”) is the best of the lot, largely because Françoise Hardy has the talent to transform even the worst piece of tripe into seductive art. This video of the Françoise Hardy version (with Damon safely ensconced in English) probably won’t last long on this site due to the YouTube licensing police, so give it a whirl while you can.
Things pick up a bit with “London Loves,” where the destructive-creative-kinetic power of the big city is played out in a deliberately stereotypical character sketch of a man who thrives on its energy. The city is described as loving the mystery of a speeding car (the thrill of danger), the way people just fall apart (the destructive cycle), the mystery of a speeding heart (caught in a loop of heightened sensibility) and the way we just don’t stand a chance (those ground to dust by the luck-of-the-draw nature of capitalism). The beat is disco-sexy, but the richness of the arrangement comes in the form of Graham Coxon’s guitar, featuring bursts of dissonance balanced by intense distortion. It’s followed by “Trouble in the Message Centre,” a sort of dialogue between the brain and a seemingly soulless minion numbed by drugs or modern lethargy whose “thoughts are just pissing away” (according to the brain, who should know). Though the lyrics could have been crisper and less opaque, it’s one of the two best rockers on the album with Coxon, James and Dave Rowntree driving at full force.
“Clover Over Dover” opens with seagulls and harpsichords, soon supported by a lovely intro from Graham Coxon. The setting is the white cliffs of Dover, a workable suicide spot, though not as popular as Beachy Head, where people have been jumping to their oblivion since the 7th Century. The character is your typical 90’s drama queen who threatens his potential lover with suicide if the doesn’t get her to “roll in the clover” (i. e., fuck). Likely seeing her blanch in disgust, he softens his offer by essentially telling her that he’d let her give him a push over the cliffs once he’s shot his wad. “Yeah, I’ll take that deal,” the girl never responds. In the end he assumes incorrectly that she has agreed to push him over (and by this time, I’m ready to give the bastard a shove) then launches into histrionics with the line “Don’t bury me, I’m not worth anything.” I’ll second that motion! Sorry to sound so cold about this, but I lived with this shit throughout the 90’s where I learned to interpret direct suicide threats from friends and acquaintances as a form of manipulation glamorized by suicide songs recorded by grunge and pseudo-punk artists. The people who are a real threat to commit suicide are the people who don’t talk about it, who put up a brave “everything’s okay” front when inside they’re experiencing deep, dark depression. Though I loathe the character, I think the characterization does capture the manipulative aspect . . . and the song itself is really quite nice.
Now we’re off to “Magic America,” a jaunty little number that brings back memories of tourists from all over the world flocking to San Francisco to see the cable cars, the Golden Gate Bridge (hopefully not to commit suicide), the crookedest street in the world, and . . . American shopping malls. While our visitors were largely Irish and French, they behaved pretty much as the character Bill Barrett behaves in this song, fascinated with the material wonders of America, the plethora of television options (unique at the time) and the incredibly large portions at shockingly low prices served in food courts and in chain restaurants. For Bill and many others, America was seen a magic place to where one could escape from the limited options dished out by the Tories of the era.
I hope NOBODY believes that now.
Meanwhile, back in boring old Britain, we are introduced to a teenage television-and-video-game addict in the song “Jubilee.” The poor kid is spotty (covered with acne), a poor dresser but a committed non-conformist, a combination guaranteed to lead to teenage angst and isolation. This the second hot rocker on the album, an absolute bash that reminds you that Blur was one tight band who could rock with the best of them.
If you had never heard Blur and I were to tell you that the most beautiful song on Parklife was based on a daily weather report broadcast on BBC Radio, you might think I’d gone barmy. I would respond, “You have no sense of history or cultural context.” England’s green and pleasant lands aside, every inhabitant of the British Isles is joined at the hip to the surrounding seas. It was sea power that forged and maintained the British Empire; it was the Channel that caused Hitler to rethink his invasion plans (with an assist from the RAF); the freighters that docked at Liverpool delivered the music that inspired The Beatles. It follows that the populace might have some interest in the coastal weather forecast, particularly one that has become a long-standing tradition (the Shipping Forecast recently celebrated its 150-year anniversary). Alex James described its appeal to a band far from home in the middle of a disastrous tour: “We always found the Shipping Forecast soothing. We used to listen to it to remind us of home. It’s very good for a hangover. Good cure for insomnia, too.”
Struggling to write the lyrics for an already-composed instrumental and scheduled to go to hospital for surgery, Damon Albarn took the one line he had (“And into the sea go pretty England and me”) and based the rest of the lyrics on a map of the Shipping Forecast printed on the wrapping paper encasing a present Alex gave him for Christmas. The result is a virtual cruise around the British Isles, images of familiar places and place names, integrated with one of the most powerful emotions known to humanity—the longing for home. The wordplay connecting “low pressure system” to the lows of depression serves as the climactic moment of the journey around the Isles:
This is a low
But it won’t hurt you
When you’re alone
It will be there with you
Finding ways to stay solo
The music is suggestively majestic without going over the top, the grand sweeps in the chorus tempered by the grounding effect of Graham Coxon’s integration of electric and acoustic guitar throughout the verses. When he moves to front-and-center for the solo, weaving together three different guitar parts in the process, the impact is stunning—a thrilling display of disciplined, intentional musicianship. The natural temptation on songs with an epic bent is to increase the grandiosity level with an orchestra, and we can thank our lucky stars the Blur never thought of going there. Graham Coxon proved to be quite sufficient.
Common sense should have told Blur that “This Is a Low” had to be the closing track—an emotionally impactful tour around the Isles to end an album full of stories about the residents. Unfortunately, Parklife is an exuberant album, and exuberance sometimes results in both excess and poor-decision making. “Lot 105” is a corny music hall tune featuring a cheesy organ that was to be auctioned off anyway. Try to imagine The Beatles inserting “Maggie Mae” after “A Day in the Life” and you’ll understand why I wish they’d avoided the temptation.
The exuberance of Parklife is also reflected in the multiplicity of musical styles. Although you can go batty playing the game of genre definition, my attempt at classification resulted in the identification of eight different genres for the sixteen tracks on the album. That’s a helluva lot of diversity, and some have accused Blur of being musical butterflies, flitting from one style to the next and never really establishing a consistently identifiable sound. Their post-Britpop adventures certainly lend credence to that sentiment.
Producer Stephen Street would disagree; in describing the recording of “Girls and Boys,” he commented that though the song wasn’t like anything they’d done before, “They could put their hands to anything, and it would still sound like Blur.” I find myself somewhere in the middle; I appreciate their willingness to explore and diversify their sound, but as is true for every band, some experiments work and some don’t. What I do know is that when viewed as a whole, Parklife is a remarkable achievement, an insightful look at the norms and ways of people living in a highly diverse culture, and the point in time when Blur really hit their stride.