Warning: This is a VERY LONG article. 2000 words-ish. If only I could channel that sort of passion into my essays…
To anyone faintly acquainted with the concept of Britpop, this introduction is entirely irrelevant; however, to those who are only aware of Oasis on account of their award at this year’s Brits (as a group of year 7s in my creative writing group last academic year were), this simplified context is necessary. In short; Blur and Oasis had become household names in 1994, the former with their third effort in Parklife and unparalleled success at that year’s Brit awards (uniquely winning four statuettes in the same evening) and the latter with their debut, Definitely Maybe, which – until Elastica released their first album the following year – was the fastest selling debut album in British history. With impending albums due out in the autumn of 1995, both groups had the first single from each album due out in the same week (Blur with ‘Country House’ from the upcoming The Great Escape and Oasis with ‘Roll With It’ from What’s The Story); the obligatory war of words sparked a media frenzy, with the chart battle being dubbed ‘The Battle of Britpop’ and presented as a war of North versus South or middle class versus working class. Blur outsold Oasis, but their victory was short-lived as (What’s The Story) Morning Glory went onto sell over four million copies in the UK, making it the third best-selling album in British history. [Thanks, Wikipedia!] History lesson over – despite the oft-quoted Britpop adage that “Blur won the battle, Oasis won the war”, it’s my opinion that Blur deserve a greater legacy.
This is not to say that (What’s The Story) didn’t deserve to outsell The Great Escape – indeed, the latter is probably Blur’s weakest album, whilst the former is a great album; not up to the same stratospheric heights of Definitely Maybe, but nonetheless mostly brilliant. What it is to say, on the other hand, is that Blur’s back catalogue effectively annihilates Oasis’s; had both bands gone back to their day jobs in 1996, this argument would be null and void – but they didn’t, so it isn’t. Of course, in terms of sales and chart positions, all signs point the other way. Oasis’s studio albums never failed to top the charts, whilst Blur’s first two records – the distinctly average Leisure and the wonderfully understated Modern Life Is Rubbish – charted in the lower reaches of the top 10 and 20 respectively. Yet, as any music fan knows, it isn’t sales that count; it’s quality. Indeed, whilst truly great albums are able to combine excellent music with sales, in terms of everyday sales, this obviously isn’t the case. Let’s face it; were the current album charts assumed to have sold well on account of the quality of their music, then Tinie Tempah – my recurrent favourite verbal punching – would be a musical maestro, along with The Script (about as interesting as a beige wall) and Mumford & Sons (see description of The Script), whilst Hole and The Magnetic Fields would be of the same quality as those ephemeral pop bands whose albums are doomed to a life of being abandoned on the shelves of charity shops with repeat copies of themselves for company (à la Three by the Sugababes – there is at least one copy of this album in every charity shop across the south of England). So, let’s look at the quality of their respective albums.
Oasis’s career trajectory in terms of quality goes something like this, with regard to studio albums: hit (Definitely Maybe), hit (What’s The Story), one of the greatest misses in musical history (Be Here Now), mediocre (Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants), miss (Heathen Chemistry), mediocre (Don’t Believe The Truth) and half-hit, half-miss (Dig Out Your Soul). Although the addition of their B-sides compilation, The Masterplan, would add another ‘hit’ to the list, it’s overwhelmingly apparent that, chiefly, two albums’ reputations have carried them to fifteen years’ worth of musical acclaim. This isn’t to say that I dislike the music they produced post-(What’s The Story). Even Heathen Chemistry stacks up as a better album than the vast majority of chart dross (sadly, I cannot say the same for Be Here Now – entertaining as its story may be, gloriously misguided as it is, it’s just a plain disaster in all senses of the word, with the one honorary exception of opening track ‘D’You Know What I Mean’). But, in comparison to Blur’s back catalogue (which, incidentally, is: mediocre, hit, hit, miss, hit, hit, hit)… well, there is no comparison; post-1995, Blur shit all over Oasis. Many music fans bemoan their favourite artists changing direction dramatically over the course of their career (Weezer, for example, have gone from Pinkerton to Hurley – oh, how the mighty have fallen), but it’s a far worse indictment of the band’s musical prowess if they stubbornly refuse to progress their style as Oasis did. They may have changed their tack with Dig Out Your Soul by cynically copying the Beatles (again), this time with an Magical Mystery Tour– style shift to psychedelia – but it’s too little, too late. Yes, Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants was a progression in terms of being far less mentally stifling than Be Here Now (nearly anything is), but many of the tracks are unmemorable (‘Little James’ is in competition with ‘(Get Off Your) High Horse Lady’ for their worst track ever); in any case, most albums would struggle to maintain the level that the gloriously tacky ‘Fuckin’ In The Bushes’ sets as the opening track.
Look, then, at Blur’s progress. Starting off with indie and conforming to the (hideously-named) ‘baggy’ scene of the time (Leisure), they progress to a discreet love-hate relationship with England (Modern Life Is Rubbish), before deciding that they’re brashly devoted to England (Parklife). The Great Escape doesn’t betray any attempt to change the Parklife template – it hides in its shadow rather – but they then go onto produce angular, American-influenced indie in Blur with more whimsical elements (‘Essex Dogs’ stretches out to eight minutes, mostly of guitar feedback, and whilst its lyrics touch on their Britpop era by discussing their home county – ‘You’re going to get a kicking tonight; the smell of puke and piss – the smell of puke and piss on your stilettos’ – the sound is far more avant garde than anything on their previous albums), then taking a turn into electronic/experimental with 13 and then ending up in the musical patchwork of Think Tank. Think Tank, like Dig Out Your Soul, delves into foreign influences – part of the album was recorded in Morocco – but doesn’t come off as something of a rip-off of one of their influences (or, with Oasis, pretty much their only influence). Surely a band who can change their sound both so effortlessly and impressively deserve more merit than a band who tried, and failed, to replicate the sound of their bestseller? In fact, this attempt to copy their earlier sound was so obvious that, as John Harris, everyone’s favourite Britpop historian, points out, “the verse of Stand By Me had the same vocal melody as Married With Children”.
If clarification is needed of Blur’s divergences in sound from album to album, listen to ‘Miss America’, ‘Parklife’ and ‘1992’. The former is resigned and wistful, the ubiquitous middle is a rowdy anthem for a lads’ night out, and the latter overshoots mere poignance and ends up somewhere in the area of being a goosebump-inducing, heart-wrenchingly atmospheric, get-me-to-therapy-before-I-slit-my-wrists mass of sadness. Not that it’s to be compared to the almost comedic depressive tone of the likes of ‘No It Isn’t’ by Plus-44 – this isn’t an emo anthem for thousands of tortured teenagers with ridiculous hair and too much eyeliner. It’s not for an easy or casual listen, or indeed for a casual listener. This song is the sound of a man losing his mind, tortured and wrecked by his broken heart (various lyrics websites debate the song’s meaning, but the desperation can only come from his break-up with Elastica’s Justine Frischmann – incidentally, if you have made it this far in the article, make a note now to listen to their debut album when you’ve finished the article). No song in Oasis’s back catalogue comes close to conveying that sort of emotion or innovation. Rarely do their songs suggest underlying emotion post-Definitely Maybe (with the exceptions of ‘I’m Outta Time’, ‘Champagne Supernova’ and ‘The Masterplan’). Not every song should be an emotional rollercoaster, but for barely any of their songs to contain any emotion…? This is in contrast to ‘You’re So Great’, ‘Tender’, ‘Beetlebum’ (which, for the record, is my favourite Blur song), ‘No Distance Left To Run’, ‘Out Of Time’ and ‘This Is A Low’ by Blur – and that’s just a short list. Whether it’s joy, despair, envy or anger, there sometimes needs to be something for the listener to hold onto – to relate to – surely? Liam Gallagher’s voice just lapses into a half-hearted sneer in the second half of their discography. Though, with reference to the first half, ‘Live Forever’ is sweet without ever becoming sickly; there’s a pang of wistful sorrow in his voice at the end as to suggest pain at the inevitable fact that ‘forever’ doesn’t really exist. So it can’t be suggested that they don’t have the capacity or necessity to write heartfelt songs; they clearly did have, but this was all lost in the mire of mindless rock stardom, mountains of cocaine and increasingly dire lyrics.
On the other hand, of course, sometimes the listener needs an arse-kicking anthem to pogo and headbang to. But even here Blur overrun Oasis, despite the latter’s more “rock star” credentials. Definitely Maybe has a collection of pogo anthems – ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Star’, ‘Up In The Sky’, ‘Digsy’s Dinner’ and ‘Bring It On Down’ – alongside the more leisurely anthems ‘Supersonic’, ‘Shakermaker’ and ‘Cigarettes and Alcohol’ (and, of course, in the ballads corner are the quintessential ‘Live Forever’ and ‘Slide Away’). Thus it achieves a balance of the necessary ingredients for a great rock album. But as the years and albums drag on (literally, in terms of the latter), sluggish tempos become more and more apparent. This contrasts sharply with ‘Song 2’, Blur’s most universally-recognised and successful song (they have apparently earned £2 million in royalties from various advertising campaigns), which is – plain and simple – a jump-around-until-your-hair’s-a-mess-but-you-don’t-care anthem. Many years before that, their career got into the spotlight when ‘There’s No Other Way’, an energetic composition, sprung to 7th place in the charts. Then there’s ‘Advert’, ‘Bank Holiday’, floorfiller ‘Girls & Boys’, ‘Movin’ On’, ‘Bugman’ and ‘Crazy Beat’… with the exception of The Great Escape, there’s one there from each album. They not only progressed their sound over time, but they continued to provide different moods and tempos for their audience, whereas Oasis just chugged. Blur just clearly beat them all over the park.
At the end of the day, they’re still two of my favourite artists; that hasn’t changed. But it’s become increasingly apparent as my Blur discography edges nearer to completion (I’m only missing their live album at the moment) that they had, overall, a far more forward-thinking plan than Oasis, and thus managed to wade out of the musical mire that Oasis were often embroiled in post-What’s The Story. I’m sure many wannabe rock stars dream of commercial acclaim. That may be. But true rock stars – ones who should be lauded – are the ones who want to make wonderful and, yes, critically-acclaimed music. That’s not to say that the critics are the be-all and end-all – one only need see the overwhelmingly orgasmic reaction to Be Here Now to see that – but critical acclaim tends to be a better indicator of quality than commercial acclaim. And therefore, yes, I believe that Blur have the upper hand over Oasis. Is XFM’s top 1000 songs of all time, with 20 Oasis songs in it (!), beginning to look a little misguided now?