Blur – Parklife – Classic Music Review (Britpop Series)
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.
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.