Sunday, 28 July 2013

Caught In A Rat Race, Terminally: Blur and Country House

(originally posted in the UK No 1s of the 90s thread on Gallifrey Base so many thanks to the posters there for the discussion and debate, particularly Manannan of that parish)

Blur’s Shiny Happy People, right down to the lead guitarist very obviously hating every second of the being in that video. I saw them when they played their singles tour in 1999 and Damon at least seemed to regret the decision to play all their singles at that point.

Really it’s the key song in Blur’s career. Sure you can make a case for the initial success of There’s No Other Way or For Tomorrow, the song that Albarn wrote on his parent’s piano on Christmas Day when Food wanted some obvious hits for Modern Life Is Rubbish, or even Girls and Boys or Parklife which established them as an omnipresent Top 5 act. But they’re all about the way up, not the artistic direction. This is the pivot.

On the face of it Blur have everything at this point. They’ve broken out of the indie ghetto – there’s a sackful of Brit awards, Damon’s face adorns the walls of plenty of teenage girls, Parklife made them culturally omnipresent last year and hey, they’ve just beaten their big rivals to No 1 in a massively hyped battle which made the national news. It’s the pick a side rivalry you only usually get with boy bands, not between a load of scruffy herberts with guitars. And the reviews are in for the new albums and again, it’s a knockout win for Blur.

But they’ve painted themselves into a corner. Selling yourself to the public at this level means you’re going to get reduced to caricature to some degree and that’s what happens here. Albarn’s the lad’s mag droog, the pretty boy in the corner cutting everyone down with a witty remark. Which is fun if you’re not on the end of it. Graham’s the human incarnation of ‘piss off’, Alex is the pretty friend who’s hanging with the cool kid to get laid. And Dave is just Dave. They’ve been pigeonholed and that’s going to come back to haunt them.

The song itself? Thanks to the video it’s the indelible zenith of Loaded culture, a Benny Hill style romp with at least one genuine porn star in there and probably a shedload of high quality drugs just out of shot (I defy anyone to tell me Damon’s not off his face during that shoot). If you want to know exactly what was wrong with the triumphalism of Britpop it’s encapsulated in that five minutes. Lyrically it’s Damon at his snidest, a cheap shot at Dave Balfe, and playing up to their cock-er-nee stereotype with an oompah oompah rhythm. But it’s not entirely meritless, the Balzac/Prozac rhyme showing he’s still a smart, witty observer and the drop out to the ‘blow, blow me out’ four part harmony indicating there’s an awareness of how hollow this all is. But it’s still a largely exuberant four minutes that deserved to beat Noel’s chugging, half arsed competitor.

But here’s the trap. Three months later Wonderwall and What’s the Story… have blown Blur away. Because ultimately Noel’s not as clever as Damon but Oasis at this point are all about the communal moment, the simple anthem you can bellow with your mates at the end of a night out. Ultimately it’s more fun to join in than stand on the sidelines and poke fun. In retrospect you can see why Oasis sold by the bucketload and yet why they never particularly appealed to critics. They were a modern Slade, big, dumb, not hugely original in thought or deed but with the common touch. And that meant that Blur lost the war and Damon was faced with a hell of his own making, having Oasis songs sung at him in the street. The schtick of their British album trilogy was now an obvious artistic dead end and the band were faced with either diminishing returns or going away and rethinking everything. One opulent video for album highpoint The Universal aside you can see the band seem to be going through the motions for the rest of the album campaign. So, art or commerce? Artistic satisfaction and sanity or more of the same to the point of fading away?

Noel, of course wouldn’t entertain any notion of art, the money and the drugs meant he never even thought about the choice. But Damon had to and ultimately it sets him off on a far more interesting career.

So, fast forward to the dog days between Christmas and New Year 1996 and Mark Goodier spicing up the end of year charts with a selection of what we’re about to hear in the New Year. And here’s the new single from Blur…

But that’s another story

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