One of the most unpleasant aspects of entering the management ranks is that your bosses will always recommend their favorite business books. Luckily, I learned pretty quickly that you actually don’t have to read the damned things. All you have to do is skim a couple of chapters or glance at the liner notes to get the essence of any business book and dazzle your superiors with the meager nuggets of wisdom dispensed by self-styled management gurus:
Now Discover Your Strengths: Do what you’re good at (assuming you can find a job that pays for whatever it is you’re good at).
Situational Leadership: People are different and need to be managed differently. Duh.
The Leadership Challenge: Stuff your ego up your ass and listen to your employees. Double duh.
The Five Dysfunctions of Team: People can’t work together unless they trust each other and stop being assholes. Triple duh.
The tome I found most offensive was Who Moved My Cheese? An Amazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life. It is neither amazing nor revelatory that human beings resist change. “The quicker you let go of the old cheese, the sooner you can enjoy the new cheese,” advises Dr. Spencer Johnson, ridiculous advice for people who happen to like cheddar and gag at the smell of gorgonzola. He assumes that all change is good, which is so far from the truth that I wonder if he received his doctorate from Trump University.
Yes, some people resist any change with every fiber of their being because they’re either too lazy or stupid to learn new things or see things in different ways. But what Dr. Johnson (who has a vested interest in kissing management ass) fails to acknowledge is that people who actually work in organizations resist change because most of the changes initiated by management are dumb fucking ideas.
Speaking of dumb fucking management, the suits at EMI didn’t like the idea that Blur wanted to move their cheese away from Britpop towards a post-grunge, lo-fi American indie sound. They were terrified that Blur’s stylistic metamorphosis would alienate their loyal fan base. Some argued that Blur were about to commit commercial suicide [gasp!].
Huh. A couple of years ago I would have said “Blur was” rather than “Blur were.” I’m sounding more and more like a Brit every day. I’m gobsmacked.
And that’s a good word to describe the reaction of EMI management to the news that the lead single, “Beetlebum,” went straight to #1 and Blur followed suit on the album charts. Blur also did reasonably well in the United States (#61), where “Song 2” made it to #6 on the alternative rock chart.
Though producer Stephen Street claimed that “Blur had decided that commercial pressures and writing hit singles wasn’t going to be the main consideration anymore,” a glance at the timeline suggests otherwise. Oasis had moved the needle on Britpop to a harder rock sound with Definitely Maybe and What’s the Story, Morning Glory?, becoming the darlings of the British music press in the process. Damon Albarn had already dismissed The Great Escape as a “messy release” and was looking for a way forward. Graham Coxon had gone into full rejection mode as far as Britpop was concerned, filling his ears with fourth-generation Pixies-influenced American bands and urging his mates to let loose.
The most noticeable difference is in the band’s attitude towards the music. Graham Coxon noted, “It was the first time we sort of jammed. We’ve never really jammed before. We’ve been quite white-coaty, overall about recording, like in a laboratory. Yeah, we did actually feel our way through just playing whatever came to our minds and editing, which was really exciting.” Modern Life Is Rubbish had already indicated the band could rock pretty hard when they felt like it; on Blur, they would devote a whole lot of recording space to letting it fucking rip. Sometimes the looseness goes too far, resulting in energy-sapping, self-indulgent crapola, and in the end, Blur is something of a mixed bag, more an escape from Britpop than a coherent artistic statement.
Speaking of Modern Life Is Rubbish, I have the same quibble with Blur that I did with that album: the selection of the opening track. In this case, my quibble may be more controversial because it involves the vastly popular “Beetlebum.” To put it as gently and respectfully as possible, I hate this fucking song. Perhaps it’s the dumb words (even Albarn couldn’t tell you what a beetlebum is); perhaps it’s the faux-sexy, heroin chic a la the Velvet Underground (Damon and Justine were in their “white period” at the time); or maybe it’s the obvious late-period Beatles influence—Stephen Erlewine of AllMusic claimed the song covers “The White Album in the space of five minutes.” I like The White Album about as much as I like “Beetlebum,” and though I don’t often agree with Erlewine, I think he was onto something here. “Beetlebum” is also something of an outlier, as it bears little sonic connection to the other songs on the album, and generally you want the first track to set the tone. I would have gone with “M. O. R.” or maybe “Movin’ On” to get things going . . . but I also could see “Song 2” if Blur had wanted something with greater shock value in the pole position.
Opening with “Song 2” certainly would have qualified as a statement, though not the statement Blur intended to make. Alex James told Q Magazine that the band was just fucking around, essentially satirizing heavy grunge: “It was kind of a throwback. We’d always done brainless rocking out, though maybe it’s not what we’re known for.” In this case, the satiric nature of the song completely escaped the listening audience, particularly in the U. S. where millions were still in mourning for Kurt Cobain. “Song 2” became an international hit, the song that finally broke the wall of ice between Blur and the U. S. audience. To this day, the “Woo-Hoo Song” is the first song that comes to mind when you play word association using the word “blur” with a Millenial yank. As one who loves gritty, dirty power, I have to say they pulled off the con with the necessary aplomb, especially Alex James with his madly distorted bass. With typical hyperbole, NME referred to the nifty opening as Graham Coxon’s “finest moment,” and while the strummed chords are certainly ear-catching, if a shitty guitar player like me can reasonably duplicate it, no way in hell is it Graham Coxon’s finest moment. Satiric or not, the song is an absolute gas, a Pixies-perfect duplication of soft-LOUD dynamics and grunge/post-punk form.
“Country Sad Ballad Man” is one of those songs that sounds charmingly quirky on first listen, but turns into something as welcome as a root canal the more you listen to it. As in “Beetlebum,” Albarn’s lyrics emerge from a heroin haze as he slips in and out of consciousness (“VIP 223/I had my chances/Or did they have me”). Coxon did notice the less-than-stellar lyrics Albarn contributed to the album, concluding that “he’d obviously gone off his head a bit more”. That’s a very polite interpretation—one could say that John Lennon was completely off his rocker when he wrote “I Am the Walrus,” but the delightful wordplay reminiscent of his two poetical works hardly indicates a songsmith completely disconnected from his language center. Albarn’s effort here is more like post-India Lennon, so let’s call “Country Sad Ballad Man” Albarn’s version of “Yer Blues” and move on.
The most energetic rocker on the album originated in the musical laboratory of David Bowie and Brian Eno while they were experimenting with the concept of writing several songs with the same chord progression while recording Lodger. If that sounds like a stupid idea likely to result in one helluva boring album, well . . . it’s theoretically possible to vary instrumentation, tempo, vocal style, and even genre to a point where the results might prove slightly interesting. I guess we’ll never know for sure, as only two survived to make it to Lodger: “Fantastic Voyage” and “Boys Keep Swinging.” Blur borrowed—no, flat-out stole—the chords and call-and-response pattern from “Boys Keep Swinging” to create their very own contribution to the repetitive progression movement, a song called “M. O. R.” (duly crediting Bowie and Eno after the long arm of the law stepped in). As to which is the more successful effort, Bowie wins by a landslide in the lyrics category but Blur takes home the gold in the rock-the-fuck-out race.
Graham Coxon’s intro to “M.O.R” is far more impressive to my ears than the intro to “Song 2,” flipping from strong clear picking to muted-string shuffle in a heartbeat. The build itself is pretty fabulous, with each instrument adding a little more tension in turn, the piano serving as a nudge to Albarn to step up to the mike. Damon breaks out of the fog to deliver a clear, clean vocal that rises in excitement as the band explodes in rock ‘n’ roll ecstasy. The lyrics aren’t half bad, reflecting Blur’s experience in the pop-star grind, likening the experience to the ups-and-downs of a relationship in the chorus:
Here comes tomorrow (Here comes tomorrow)
One, two, three episodes (Three episodes)
We stick together (We stick together)
Go middle of the road (Middle of the road)
‘Cause that’s entertainment (That’s entertainment)
It’s the sound of the wheel (Sound of the wheel)
It rolls on forever (Roll, roll forever)
Yeah, you know how it feels (Know how it feels)
Here comes a low (I’m a boy and you’re a girl)
Here comes a high (The only ones in the world)
Here comes everything (Like monkeys out in space)
Here it comes (We are members of the human race)
I don’t know what the monkeys have to do with it, but I love that line.
Albarn follows his solid effort on “M. O. R.” with an even more enthusiastically felt performance in “On Your Own,” a piece he would later refer to as the first Gorillaz song. Though still clearly imbued with rock sensibilities in the form of Coxon’s superb work throughout the piece, the drum machine (honorably handled by drummer Rowntree) hints of the repetitive beats of hip-hop, while the loosely-delivered, heavy-on-emphatic-rhyme lyrics are only loosely connected to the melody. The message in the lyrics seems to be “follow your instincts, for whether you wind up as prime minister or sucking your toes in the shade of a redwood forest, who gives a fuck because WE’LL ALL BE THE SAME IN THE END.” I rather like that message, because I’ve always suspected that our definition of success in life is as arbitrary as fuck. And I more-than-rather like the song—the laid-back feel is balanced by strong forward movement, with just the right amounts of this instrument or that vocal and not a peep more.
“Theme from Retro” has been described as “obligatory space-rock trip-hop,” something that presents Blur in dub,” and “an unyielding, lovely row. Like, say, a Blur B-side.” Those are phrases concocted by critics who couldn’t get their heads around it, had to call it something and decided that it was time for clever phrases. The title is actually quite informative: the words “theme from” imply a cinematic experience; in this case, a theoretical film entitled “Retro.” I can see this piece working in soundtracks supporting darker productions (what comes to mind immediately are the dystopian, alternative realities of Mr. Robot). The organ-synthesizer mix is brilliantly constructed to create a sense of “something wicked this way comes”, and Damon Albarn’s wordless vocalizations cause me to visualize being locked in a room with no lights and hearing voices on the other side of the door that I can’t quite make out, amplifying the frustration of feeling trapped. I’ve read that many people find “Theme from Retro” a bore; I think it’s one of the more successful experiments on the album.
The first solo Coxon composition and performance appears next in the form of “You’re So Great,” a lo-fi love song of sorts framed in stereo acoustic guitar with two disparate electric solos. The first solo is loaded with dissonance, as it sounds like Coxon is either using the ultimate in slinky strings or that he’s deliberately de-tuned the guitar and using his nimble fingers to approach but not quite reach the proper notes. The scene involves Coxon waking up, and that warped guitar sound mirrors exactly how I feel when I wake up—sort of like I’m walking on thick foam rubber while navigating this irritating thing called reality. “Tea, tea and coffee,” sings Coxon; “Coffee, coffee and a cigarette,” sing I, but either way, we’re on the same page. I have come to fucking loathe mornings, especially workday mornings.
What kind of species would create a world where we are forced to spend most of our time doing stuff we don’t want to do in order to earn the privilege of survival?
Mini-rant out of the way, we move on to “Death of a Party,” an effort that is simultaneously mesmerizing and off-putting. The music—a mix of lo-fi guitar, booming reverb-coated beats, hard-picked bass and Hammond organ on the horror film setting—establishes the perfect setting for a gothic funeral, underscoring the “death” in the song title. In keeping with the theme, Albarn sounds positively bored to be at this or any other party on the planet, but his I-can-hardly-find-a-pulse vocal, combined with dull lyrics short on sardonic wit, results in a tremendous chasm between band and vocalist. The frustrating thing is I don’t think he’s that far off—clip this phrase here, shift to a loud whisper there and he might have nailed it. As such, I’ll yearn for an instrumental version and hope to hear it in a soundtrack someday.
But definitely not as part of a soundtrack to a Bruce Lee movie. As a practitioner of the martial arts (recommended for all women who want to survive in toxic masculine cultures), I love the integration of physical and mental discipline I experience when I’m training, but have no idea why anyone would want to watch a martial artist for purposes of entertainment. Or a boxer. Or those idiots in whatever that fight club thing is. And I’m certainly not entertained by Blur’s tongue-in-cheek homage to the late Mr. Lee, my nomination for the longest minute and twenty-five seconds in music history—a stunningly undisciplined performance, rather like vomiting.
I have no idea what Blur were trying to achieve in “I’m Just a Killer for Your Love” except to fill the album with the requisite fourteen. The tagline bears no relationship whatsoever to the lyrics, something we’ve learned is not an uncommon experience on Blur. This time the lo-fi and prominent guitar string noise become quite irritating, and the song plods along like a heroin addict coming down from a high.
Huh. I wonder why.
“Look Inside America” is notable for combining bits of two of their more famous Britpop songs: “End of a Century” in the intro and “Country House” in the build. Once I get over the obvious similarities and get ready to enjoy the song . . . what the fuck is that? Orchestral support? Are you guys out of your fucking minds? And shit, there’s even a fucking harp waiting for us around the next bend! Gee, I hope Damon Albarn has something meaningful and important to say about his problematic relationship with the United States . . . uh, no. And he’s lying like a Trumpian bastard when he tries to tell us, “I don’t know if it means that much to me.” Bullshit! Graham Coxon, on the other hand, is ab-fab on this piece.
“Strange News from Another Star” feels more Bowie than Blur, a tale of psychic collapse in the context of dystopia a la Diamond Dogs. The source for the title (and mood) is a story by Herman Hesse, an author who also had little truck with reality. The music combines sweetly-played acoustic guitar, wild dissonance and sharp guitar echoes in one of the more ambitious arrangements on the album. Unlike the disconnection experienced on “Death of the Party,” Albarn’s lethargic vocal feels more in sync with the bleak landscape (and equally bleak lyrics). This one foreshadows Blur’s later explorations with electronica . . . one of their many shifts in style that more than a few listeners find frustrating.
The band gets back to down-and-dirty in “Movin’ On,” a pretty straightforward rocker featuring full power and Albarn’s voice channeled through a lo-fi filter. Coxon ramps up the effects pedals on his solo, which is one of his wildest efforts. It’s kind of like an updated version of The Byrds’ “So You Wanna Be a Rock ‘n Roll Star,” adjusted for changes in fashion:
We’re sticky eyes and sticky bones
You get no time on your own
You get a dose and get a ghost
You get it coast-to-coast
Dye your hair black
Get Satan tattooed on your back
Pierce yourself with a coke can
Put yourself in fake tan now you’re in a band
Ah, the glorious nineties and all that we pissed away in an orgy of nihilism.
The final curtain takes a long time to unfold as Damon Albarn relives his youth in Aldham, Essex in “Essex Dogs.” If you can make it through the factory-like soundscape (not the most pleasant listening experience), you’ll be treated to a Damon Albarn narrative poem that forms the best set of lyrics on the album. In an interview, Albarn described his hometown as “One of those burgeoning Thatcher experiments where they were building loads of small estates,” communities without souls, and with little for teens to do but fuck up the dreary sameness of it all:
I remember thinking murder in the car
Watching dogs somersault through sprinklers on tiny lawns
I remember the graffiti
We are your children coming near you with spray cans of paint
I remember the sunset and the plains of cement
And the way the night just seemed
To turn the colour of Orangeade
In this town, cellular phones are hot with thieves
In this town, we all go to terminal pubs
It helps us sweat out those angry bits of life
Those angry bits of life drove Essex (historically a Tory stronghold) to vote overwhelmingly for Leave (remind me not to schedule next year’s holiday there). Given his comparative lack of lyrical effort on the album, “Essex Dogs” reassured me that Albarn hadn’t gone completely to the dogs (pun intended) and still had a gift for writing vivid poetry with Keatsian negative capability (see a dozen other posts for an explanation of “Keatsian negative capability”).
Blur’s final fuck off to Britpop appears after several seconds of silence following “Essex Dogs.” On Parklife, Blur introduced an intermission midway through the album in the form of “The Debt Collector,” a village green gazebo piece with a real brass band . . . so very, very stereotypically British. On Blur, they place the intermission at the end, a pattern-breaking message all by itself. The faux string section struggles against bursts of dissonant guitar chords and a weirdly-fitting guitar counterpoint, described by Q’s Andrew Collins as “a distressed instrumental sign-oft that goes nowhere.”
A worthy competitor to Pulp’s This Is Hardcore as the album that killed Britpop, Blur is clearly a transitional album without a conclusion. Their next album (13) would still find them in transition, a production featuring a couple of echoes from Blur but much more introspective. None of the seemingly endless changes in style have in any way damaged relations with their fan base; 13 went immediately to #1 . . . as did Think Tank, as did The Magic Whip. While debate concerning the quality of their work from an artistic perspective is certainly valid, Blur certainly mastered the art of connecting with listeners to ensure commercial success.
All of which adds credence to my theory that line staff are just as likely (if not more likely) to make sensible decisions than management. I can now picture my father reading this and ringing me up to suggest that I end the essay with one of his favorite quotes: “Don’t follow leaders, watch the parking meters.” As he has consistently rejected all things Britpop over the years, I refuse to give him such satisfaction.
Shit. I just did.