Thursday, August 13, 2015

Blur and The Great BritPop Showdown

20 years ago this week two songs vied for first place on the UK Charts: Blur's single "Country House" - in advance of their LP The Great Escape - and Oasis' single "Roll With It" - from their upcoming LP (What's The Story) Morning Glory. Diffuser has a short look back, "20 Years Ago: Blur and Oasis Face Off in the Battle of Britpop": http://diffuser.fm/20-years-ago-blur-and-oasis-face-off-in-the-battle-of-britpop/:
"NME’s August cover pitted the bands against one another under the headline, “British Heavyweight Championship,” and later, it would become known as the “Battle of Britpop.” The face-off was just as much a display of the bands’ respective chart successes as it was a virtual regional showdown, with the Manchester-hailing Oasis representing northern England and London’s Blur standing in for the south."
Oasis lost - that first week. "Country House" outsold "Roll With It" by about fifty-thousand singles - Blur won! But Oasis would go on to become the bigger band worldwide, and Morning Glory would ultimately outsell Great Escape - and get awarded greater accolades.

Blur enjoyed repeated success with hit songs in the UK, Europe and Japan, but the US market was a tough nut for them to crack. "Girls and Boys" from Parklife ('94) was their biggest chart hit here. "Song 2" from the album after Great Escape, the self-titled blur ('97), was also a big US smash - you still hear it at sporting events to this day - "Woo-Hoo!!" Overall, Blur enjoyed a decent amount of fame in the US but never quite caught on the way Oasis did.

Lead singer Damon Albarn's next project Gorillaz has done better here. And "Mr. Tembo" from his solo album Everyday Robots made the radio last year - often billed as being from the guy from Gorillaz... and Blur. Blur was the past - or so it seemed. Aside for some reunion appearances and an anniversary single, they'd been mostly inactive since 2003's Think Tank and its tour - and Graham Coxon, lead guitarist, vocalist and co-creator with Albarn, left the band during the making of that one.

Coxon came back for the reunions. He also turned out to be the one to work with their old producer Stephen Street to fashion a new album out of sessions the band recorded in 2013 while killing time in Hong Kong after a cancelled gig - sessions Albarn publicly dismissed as "nothing".

Surprise! At the end of April, a reunited Blur released their first major release in 12 years - The Magic Whip - teased in advance with "Go Out" in late February and "There Are Too Many Of Us" in late March. Got my attention - "There Are Too Many Of Us" was awesome! Being in radio - "the industry" - I reached out to the record label for the track. They sent it but warned "It's NOT the single!" Didn't care. Loved the song and we started playing it on The Point.



A week later the "Official" single "Lonesome Street" arrived. Liam Gallagher - ex-Oasis - proclaimed it "Single of the Year" - the BritPop war is apparently over. That first week in April I didn't really know Blur that well, and didn't "get" "Lonesome Street" - we kept playing "There Are Too Many of Us" instead. I still like "There Are..." better, but? I love "Lonesome Street" now, too.

Because now, I "get" Blur.

Been drawn in and become a fan, 20 years late. The Magic Whip is one of my favorite albums, if not my favorite album, so far this year (Ryley Walker's Primrose Green is right up there). The second half of The Magic Whip, from "My Terracotta Heart" on to the end, flows beautifully. It's gotten completely under my skin.

Into the new album, I wanted to explore their past. Found a great article at The AV Club: http://www.avclub.com/article/v-club-boils-blurs-entire-career-down-one-hour-mix-219168 - one of their "Power Hours" where they boil down a band's career into an hour-long mix. Marah Eakin's article and playlist from mid-May was great - made a mix of it began to listen. Made me realize I didn't really know Blur. The mix along, with the new album, made me think they were a band whose music I just might love.

Decided to take the plunge and ordered the Deluxe Edition of Parklife - remastered and re-released in 2012. If I liked it, my plan was to order one of their older albums each month. Blur announced two dates in the states in the fall, and I secured tickets for the New York date in late October. An album a month would work nicely, an entertaining education, discovering more music to love.

It turned out Parklife was fantastic! Almost a survey of British music, dancehall to Europop, with Blur wearing their influences on their sleeves - XTC, The Kinks, Madness, the Jam, Psychedelic Furs, Sex Pistols, many more. Yet a new distillation - though musically dissimilar, in some ways Blur's exploration of British rock reminded me of how Phish fused their various influences from American music.

My limited knowledge of the Blur catalog hadn't prepared me for that! Sure, they were cheeky and bratty mid-twenty-somethings back then, but they crafted a brilliant bit of work, a joy to listen to. And "This Is A Low" became a new all-time favorite - I think one of Coxon's lead guitar tracks on the song was recorded entirely in reverse. Not sure, it might just sound that way. You know, awesome.

Listened to Parklife through June, and ordered the Deluxe Edition of The Great Escape for July. Then, a funny thing happened. Comparing notes with my record promoting friend Dave on how we both still bought music - even though, being in "the industry", we get a shit-ton for free - he talked about some 12" he'd picked up, and I mentioned the Blur re-issues. He asked me if I'd opened them yet. "Yeah?!" I answered, confused. He told me his label had released them here in the states - the whole catalog of Deluxe Edition reissues - he still had some in his office. "Which ones do you need?" he asked. So this happened:

Despite getting their whole catalog at once, I'm sticking to my monthly plan. Kind of. Parklife was still in rotation as I listened to The Great Escape, and both refused to leave as the self-titled album stepped up for August. Though the self-titled's "On Your Own" is one of my new favorite songs, too. But Great Escape is too good to put down! My friend Rachel - a Blur fan from way back - calls it Parklife on crack. It is kind of addictive...

The Great Escape is a further refinement of the fusions found on Parklife, with a slightly more jaded, crueler edge. Or maybe that's the influence of the video for "The Universal" - been a while since I've enjoyed a video quite this much:


Great song - loved it more after the video! That's unusual for me, but this video amps up the subtle threat underneath the album's shiny exterior. Unlikely songs have lodged in my brain, like "Mr. Robinson's Quango" - had to look up "quango": (ˈkwaNGɡō) noun, BRITISH, derogatory - a semipublic administrative body outside the civil service but receiving financial support from the government, which makes senior appointments to it. OK... I like the horn breakdown a la Madness - sudden ska?

Of course, The Great Escape contains "Country House" - released 20 years ago this week, its release date moved up to match Oasis' "Roll With It" in deliberate provocation by Albarn, they say. With a line like, "He's got Morning Glory an' life's a different Story... " that's probably true.


Discovering it now, 20 years on, it's been relentlessly stuck in my head for the last month or so - "Lives in a House, a very big house in the countreeee..." Sounds like a big hit, even if not here in the US.

"Country House" did help Blur win the first battle in the BritPop wars. Got ugly for a while there. Horrible things - horrible, drunken things - were said on both sides. Seems all to be bygones, now, though, with Liam praising "Lonesome Street" and Noel Gallagher playing a Blur tune live with Albarn and Coxon for charity a couple of years ago. Then again? As I got into Blur and tried to share my new enthusiasm with my music-loving friend Matt, he stopped me cold: "Mike - I'm an Oasis fan." End of story.

Morning Glory? Up to that point as I was getting into Blur, I'd forgotten there had even been a  feud - after all, although old and a fan, I'm not an "old fan". Old fans don't forget! Still, old Oasis fans can celebrate - as the music press likes to gleefully point out, though they lost the first battle, Oasis later won the war.

Or did they?

Which band is still standing? Reunited? Who has a brilliant new album out? Who's playing festivals across Europe to rave reviews? Whose old fans can still see them live?

Maybe Blur won after all.