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.
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.