“Patriotism is not enough”: Depictions of Englishness in Late 20th Century Fiction and ‘Cool Britannia’ Rhetoric
A long time ago (just over 6 months ago), in a galaxy far, far away (Cornwall), I wrote my dissertation. It was never going to be about Dickens, Austen or Shakespeare, because they’ve been done to death, and there’s no fun treading on eggshells looking for a tiny niche of an author to cover without plagiarising what’s gone before. Needing a subject that would captivate me through 8,000 words (with a 10% more or less allowance) and countless hours of reading, writing, editing and researching, I decided to stick with the devil you know and do it on the 90s. No point going for something different if you’ve already done a load of research on Cool Britannia already.
In spite of half of it decidedly not being about literature, it got a First. Unsurprisingly, the Britpop section was deemed better than the literary stuff. There’s a shocking dearth of “proper” academic work about the 90s, especially the Cool Britannia movement – so, if any madman is scouring the internet for research so they can add to it, maybe my little project will come in handy for them.
In 2002, English novelist Hilary Mantel opined that “The English sense of identity is beginning to fracture” (104). Following a turbulent century in which the British Empire disintegrated, widespread immigration to the UK saw a newly multicultural society rocked by racial tensions, and the British Parliament devolved powers to independent Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish regional parliaments, a drastic shift in perceptions of national identity was inevitable. Critics, as a result, have widely agreed with Mantel.
Despite this alleged fragmentation, a cultural movement espousing a nationalist agenda emerged during the 1990s. Referred to as ‘Cool Britannia’ in the press from 1996 onwards, it celebrated homegrown successes in the arts. Several of the scenes under the ‘Cool Britannia’ banner accrued distinct genre tags prefixed with ‘Brit-’ to highlight their nationality; ‘Britpop’, the rock music scene of the time, and ‘Britart’, work by the period’s clique of artists that rose to prominence as a result of Charles Saatchi’s ‘Young British Artists’ exhibitions, are two of the most well-known examples. Such was the influence of this movement that New Labour, following their landslide General Election victory in 1997, sought to rebrand Britain on the strength of it. This initiative sought to reinvent Britain’s image overseas by rejecting outdated, heritage-based signifiers of British identity in favour of a more modern depiction of what Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, described as “a dynamic, self-confident, outward-looking society, proud of its place as a leading partner in Europe and a pivotal nation in the world” (Ward).
However, in spite of the movement’s support for British contributions to popular culture – almost exclusively English contributions, a confusion to be critiqued in due course – contemporary English literature was alienated from the movement. Accordingly, it has largely been overlooked in literary scholarship thus far. Yet the movement’s promotion of an Anglocentric agenda brought discussion of contemporary English identity to the fore, making it relevant to ongoing critical debates about national identity. As critics of both contemporary literature and ‘Cool Britannia’ agree on several key issues – including the aforementioned confusion of ‘Britishness’ with ‘Englishness,’ thereby reinforcing English domination of British identity, and the problem of exclusivity posed by the existence of a homogenous ‘English’ identity – there is clearly scope to fuse these debates and consider the two fields in tandem.
This paper will attempt to bridge the gap between these two areas of scholarship by examining London Fields by Martin Amis and England, England by Julian Barnes alongside key works from the ‘Cool Britannia’ era and contemporary journalism. In doing so, I will compare the ‘Cool Britannia’ depictions of England and English identity with those portrayed in late twentieth century literature. I will argue that literature was alienated from ‘Cool Britannia’ rhetoric because the latter’s proliferation of reductive forms of English identity sought to promote a coherent, reified English identity, whereas Barnes and Amis used postmodern theories and techniques to challenge both established signifiers of Englishness and the notion of national identity itself. These two ideologies were therefore not only disparate, but incompatible.
Neither author was aligned with the ‘Cool Britannia’ movement; indeed, London Fields was published in 1989, long before ‘Cool Britannia’ emerged. Nevertheless, its appropriation as a major inspiration for the Britpop band Blur’s 1994 album Parklife – the first ‘Britpop’ album to push a coherent English agenda into wider public consciousness – proved that Amis’s ideas on national identity were as relevant in the mid-1990s as they were at the tail-end of the 1980s.However, the distance maintained from these ideas allowed them to use satire to exploit and undermine flaws in the traditional English identities, such as those advocated by the movement. These flaws include the lingering taint of Imperialism, the tendency to marginalise communities outside of London, and the tendency to reduce English identity to lists of disparate signifiers.
My argument will be developed over three sections. The first section will establish the ‘Cool Britannia’ depiction of English identity using political, journalistic and musical rhetoric from the 1990s, as I believe they were the three most influential sectors to proliferate the myth of ‘Cool Britannia’. The following sections will focus on outlining the ways in which late 20th century English fiction questions the English identity projected by ‘Cool Britannia’. The second will examine how Martin Amis’s London Fields distorts established tropes of English identity, particularly class-based stereotypes and the centralisation of London, using an unreliable narrator and narrative fragmentation. In this section, Parklife is used to illustrate how the ‘Cool Britannia’ celebration of London, which endorses its centralisation, is at odds with Amis’s vision of the city. In the third section, England, England by Julian Barnes will be scrutinised in tandem with Mark Leonard’s 1997 pamphlet Britain™: Renewing Our Identity, the primary inspiration behind New Labour’s ‘rebranding of Britain’ policy. This section discusses the notion of English identity as a global brand, replication and authenticity, using Jean Baudrillard’s theory of simulacra and simulation to argue that the replication of stereotypes associated with Englishness projects a depiction of English identity with no basis in reality.
It is important to clarify my definitions of ‘Cool Britannia’ and ‘Britpop’ in advance. The Oxford English Dictionary Online defines ‘Cool Britannia’ as a cultural movement associated with the perception of “Britain… as a stylish and fashionable place, esp. (in the late 1990s) as represented by the international success of and interest in contemporary British art, popular music, film, and fashion” (‘Cool Britannia’). While I largely agree with this definition, I will challenge one detail of it. I would suggest that the time span specified be widened to include the early and mid-1990s, as the different scenes that comprised ‘Cool Britannia’ developed at different rates. ‘Britart’, for example, gained popular momentum from 1992 onwards as a result of the ‘Young British Artists’ exhibitions – the very name of which suggests a collective British identity. ‘Britpop’, on the other hand, had originated in the patriotic manifesto originally embraced by the bands Suede and Blur in 1992 as a reaction against the pervasive American ‘grunge’ culture, but did not reach mainstream public consciousness until August 1995. The early 1990s are, therefore, crucial to the accumulation of patriotic sentiment that resulted in the construction of an overarching ‘Cool Britannia’ rhetoric.
While ‘Britpop’ has sometimes been used to describe British pop music generally, it will here describe the 1990s rock music scene that, despite its name suggesting a scene encompassing Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish artists, consisted entirely of English bands. The bands who most vociferously endorsed an Anglocentric ethos in the press and their lyrics were Suede, Pulp, and Blur, whose support for the English cause manifested itself in a trilogy of albums from 1993 to 1995 whose lyrics consistently centred on the minutiae and absurdity of English life. However, the most successful of these was Mancunian quintet Oasis, whose 1995 album (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? is, at the time of writing, the fourth biggest-selling British album in UK history (Lane).
With the exception of Pulp, preeminent Britpop bands invariably featured all-male line-ups. Yet women were not necessarily excluded from the Britpop narrative. Several successful bands, including Sleeper, Echobelly and Elastica, had line-ups that were either female-led or female-dominated. Yet ‘Cool Britannia’ became associated with ‘lad culture’ – a phenomenon fuelled by the popularity of ‘lad’ magazine Loaded magazine, launched in 1994. Sheila Whiteley suggests that:
The media focused more on the regional rivalry between Oasis and Blur, stressing a musical family tree which was rooted in territorial fraternalism. As such, its female bands, Elastica, Echobelly and Sleeper could only be relegated to second-division players if Britpop was to retain its identity. (271)
She also points out that the objectification or overlooking of women in ‘Cool Britannia’ was “partially rescued by the Spice Girls’ girl-power fun feminism” (271), although the band’s divergence from the Britpop sound – that of “guitar-led groups… drawing on specifically British influences… such as the Beatles, mod [and] glam rock” (‘Britpop’) – would arguably prevent them from being considered a Britpop band.
While Minister for Culture, Media and Sport Tessa Jowell’s dismissal of the ‘Cool Britannia’ in 2001 explicitly marked the end of New Labour’s exploitation of it (Laughlin), the movement had fizzled out long before this. John Harris suggests that Britpop had collapsed by late 1997, as Blur had abandoned their support of both New Labour and a pro-English schema, while alternative music journalism began to focus on more musically iconoclastic bands such as Radiohead and Spiritualized (Harris 347-8). Both this and the post-General Election disillusionment felt by the pop cultural press with Tony Blair by 1998 (Harris 358), whose administration had been bound up in ‘Cool Britannia’ discourse by its propaganda efforts, resulted in celebrations of nationality in the press beginning to wane. Following the failure of New Labour projects intended to help ‘rebrand’ Britain, such as the Millennium Dome, Tessa Jowell summarised that Cool Britannia “failed because it did not realise that ‘our national culture is something amorphous, something changing, and something complex’ defined by and open to external influences” (Laughlin) – a statement that, I believe, fairly reflects the limitations of attempting to comprehensively define national identity in a tumultuous period of history.
 Prior to the election, the party associated themselves with some of Britpop’s leading figureheads to appeal to younger voters. Examples of this, such as Damon Albarn of Blur meeting with Tony Blair at the Houses of Parliament in 1995 so he could be cajoled into supporting the party in the media (Harris 196-200), are outlined in more detail in John Harris’s comprehensive guide to Britpop, The Last Party: Britpop, Blair and the Demise of English Rock.
 This is not necessarily an exhaustive list. At times, national success in sport also contributed to patriotic rhetoric, particularly during the England-based UEFA European Football Championship in 1996.
 In 1995, rival Britpop bands Blur and Oasis released singles on the same day in what became known as the ‘Battle of Britpop’. The polemic potential of the bands’ disparate backgrounds, satirised by Pat Kane as “North against South, middle against working class, fops against thugs” (15), sparked a media frenzy.
. My mother asked me this question last week, squeezing a word in edgeways as I babbled on about my Britpop-related dissertation ideas. I was gobsmacked – how could she not know what Britpop was when she lived through it? (Answer: Concentrating on having and looking after children, apparently.) Seeing as it’s not the first time I’ve been asked this question, and having quite a few articles on here about it, I’ll try to explain it. Possibly in too much detail, for which I apologise; it’s difficult to condense one’s favourite topic…
. Having said that, if you’ve got a spare few days, more than a few pounds and are actually interested enough to spend both of those on enlightening yourself about Britpop, buy John Harris’s ‘The Last Party: Britpop, Blair and the Demise of English Rock’. This is the book that turned me from being interested-enough-to-write-a-novel-about-the-era-but-who-are-Suede? to I-WILL-BUY-A-PARTICULAR-ISSUE-OF-NME-FOR-FIVE-TIMES-ITS-ORIGINAL-PRICE-ON-EBAY-AND-TOUR-LONDON-LOOKING-FOR-THE-PLACE-WHERE-SUEDE-HAD-THEIR-FIRST-GIG*. It’s well-written, ceaselessly entertaining and, in many places, proof that real life is truly stranger than fiction. Honestly, who needs Dickens and his obese prose when you can have a Mercury Music Prize-winning band recruiting a 17-year-old schoolboy from Poole to replace their erstwhile guitarist? (Or you could read this very good blog article by someone who was actually around when Britpop was. I don’t count being in playschool as being around when Britpop was.)
When?: [Tl;dr rough answer: Spring 1992 – summer 1997.]
. As with any movement, there’s no concrete beginning or end. Most estimates consider the release of Blur’s ‘Popscene’ as the advent of Britpop, so technically the 30th March 1992 – but of course Britpop didn’t just spring out of the woodwork fully formed. It had been percolating in response to a lacklustre British music scene at the time, which celebrated ‘shoegaze’ bands, and as a result of the explosion of Nirvana’s Nevermind with the music press’s resultant focus on American grunge. Personally, I regard Suede’s ‘The Drowners’ [11th May 1992] as a more important release than ‘Popscene’ in terms of garnering media attention, as it began a hype-snowball around Suede which brought the focus away from Seattle and back to new homegrown talent.
. For your average Joe, who listened to the charts but didn’t read NME or Melody Maker – well, Britpop could’ve begun for him at various points. Public consciousness was originally invaded by Britpop at the 1993 Brit Awards [16th February 1993], when Suede caused a furore by performing ‘Animal Nitrate’, an ode to violent, gay sex and drugs (the name is a play on the drug ‘amyl nitrate’), then more prominently at the 1995 Brits [20th February 1995] when Blur won four awards as a result of chart-topping album Parklife. If average Joe really hadn’t been paying attention to the music scene, its most defining moment, the ‘Battle of Britpop’ [14th – 20th August 1995], took the British press (both tabloid and broadsheet) and even the po-faced TV news by storm. [The Battle of Britpop is explained here.]
. The end point, again, varies. Commonly held views are that the release of Blur’s angular, Pavement-inspired self-titled album [10th February 1997], Oasis’s plodding misfire Be Here Now [21st August 1997], Radiohead’s OK Computer [21st May 1997] and, weirdly, Labour winning the 1997 General Election [1st May 1997] can all be seen as Britpop’s denouement. If you couldn’t bear to leave the party until the last fag-end had burnt out and shrivelled up, perhaps you’d consider Pulp’s album of angst and paranoia This Is Hardcore [30th March 1998] the very end of the movement. I’d say it ended with Be Here Now, largely because it was über-hyped, misguidedly, which warranted a mass-buying session from the British public before they realised it was kind of rubbish. Oasis were no longer the template for new bands to model themselves on, the other major bands had moved onto new styles, and the minor bands were cleared from labels’ rostra to make way for either more commercial bands, or more creative ones.
. Who?: The tag of Britpop has been applied to the likes of Coldplay, Travis and Keane (though they’re more like ‘borepop’, if you ask me). In those instances, ‘Britpop’ refers to the far more vague notion of British pop music. Acts synonymous with the Britpop movement, however, are Blur and Oasis, usually seen as its main players. Other key bands of the time included Pulp, Suede, Sleeper, Echobelly, Elastica and butt-of-Britpop-jokes Menswear. Or ‘Menswe@r’, if you want to get technical about it. (You can tell it was the 90s, can’t you?) Although many of these have receded from public consciousness – including one-time ‘fastest-selling UK debut album of all time’ record holders Elastica – all enjoyed some amount of chart success and media attention, not to mention (in the cases of Blur and Menswear, anyway) a near-religious fervour from Smash Hits-reading teenage girls. As a joke from the time suggests (“What’s 40 foot long, has no pubes and goes “Aaaaaaah!”? The front row of a Blur concert”).
. On the other hand, not all British bands of the mid-90s tapped into the Britpop market. Some, like Take That, were just your generic dancing-puppet boyband troupe, the sort that makes you forget there was a time before The X Factor; others, like Radiohead, shunned the pervasive sense of ‘Britishness’ (or, it’s been asserted, Englishness masquerading as Britishness) and the prevalent nostalgia for the ‘golden age’ of the 1960s. The espousing of ‘Englishness’ resulted in British-but-not-English bands feeling alienated from the scene and developing their own sound, aspects of which opposed Britpop values – among them, Mogwai in Scotland (who sold ‘Blur are shite’ t-shirts in 1999, post-Britpop), the Manic Street Preachers in Wales and Ash in Northern Ireland.
. Other important, non-musical figures of the time included Alan McGee, founder of the Creation record label which signed Oasis, and future Prime Minister Tony Blair. Blair’s past as the lead singer in a rock band (Ugly Rumours) and fondness for rock and roll made him a VIP at various music awards, while his aides attempted to secure the support of Blur and Oasis to appeal to the younger electorate – leading to the famous ‘Noel Gallagher at 10 Downing Street’ pictures.
. What/why?: I’ve already mentioned that it was a reaction to and against grunge and, to a lesser extent, shoegazing. The Britpop rhetoric centres on the promotion of a quintessentially English ideal that defines itself in opposition to the self-loathing of grunge, combined with a sense of nostalgia for Britain’s musical progeny. It doesn’t have to be the lyrics that reflect this; some bands used regional accents to steep themselves in Anglocentrism, while others used the prevalent imagery of the Union Flag in pictures or on their guitars (Noel Gallagher, cough cough). The nostalgia’s discussed in the ‘Influences’ section below.
. There was also an espousal of the commercialisation of indie. Chart placings began to matter in the wake of the Battle of Britpop, with record companies becoming increasingly ruthless towards artists who hadn’t had a top 20 hit. In order to hit the mass market that was required for that yardstick of success, many artists compromised the experimental tendencies that would mark them out of the chart game. They instead sought ‘tunes the milkman could whistle’ (The Boo Radleys’ ‘Wake Up Boo!’ being a prime example) to ensure that Top of the Pops performance that would get them further recognition by the public.
. Britpop has often been associated with the rise of lad culture and creation of ‘the lager-eater’, a bullish young male who enjoys stereotypically masculine pursuits like drinking beer and going to the football. As such, it’s become associated with rampant misogyny, although this is not necessarily true. Elastica were three-quarters female, while Lush and Echobelly were not only half female, but Echobelly’s singer and guitarist were rare examples of black women in rock, with their guitarist Debbie Smith upping the rarity factor by also being a lesbian. Justine Frischmann, lead singer of Elastica, also championed women’s choice to appear in lad’s magazines if they wanted to, seeing potential for women to empower themselves through it rather than adopting the raging-feminists-with-pitchforks discourse that it’s misogynist pressures that drive women to become involved in the adult magazine industry. It’s also been noted that Britpop’s female lyricists (Frischmann, Sonya Madan in Echobelly, Louise Wener in Sleeper) imbued their lyrics with more wit than many of their male counterparts, a forebearer of the ‘girl power’ that the Spice Girls would promote as Britpop derailed.
Where?: London was the epicentre of Cool Britannia. Many of the places that became synonymous with Britpop were in or around Camden (The Good Mixer, The Dublin Castle), while various clubs housed Britpop’s key players at different stages of its life, from Syndrome in its gestation period to The Groucho Club as the bands and their entourages became more famous (Alex James, Damien Hirst and Keith Allen in particular became part of their furniture in 1995-6). Plenty of bands embraced Mockney accents or referenced areas of London in their lyrics.
. Obviously, not everyone was London-based. Manchester, still clinging onto its Acid House-era [see below] ‘cool’ status, of course spawned Oasis, who made no attempt to hide their origins in either interviews or vocal style. Similarly, Jarvis Cocker’s strong Sheffield accent distinguished Pulp from the legions of Laaaahndaaahn-based bands, and the band never relocated from their native city. Liverpool, whose influence held strong in the shape of quasi-music gods The Beatles, produced fringe players Cast and proto-Britpop band The La’s, best known for classic ‘There She Goes’.
Influences: The most obvious point of reference for Britpop artists was the British Invasion of the 1960s. The Beatles, Kinks, Small Faces and Rolling Stones were all mentioned time and time again by the artists and the press (The Beatles/Stones myth particularly being applied to Blur/Oasis during the Battle of Britpop). Oasis in particular pilfered from The Beatles and their respective members’ solo careers – ever noticed how much the opening of ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’ sounds like John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’?
Closer in years to the 90s, David Bowie influenced Britpop’s forefathers, Suede, immeasurably – both in sound and style. (At 3:10 in their debut video, Brett Anderson looks exactly like Bowie.) Later, Suede’s more populist third album, Coming Up, sounded markedly more like 70s glam rock pin-ups T Rex. The Smiths were also a common port of call for influence, with most of the most important bands being inspired by Morrissey’n’Marr in their youth. This worked both ways, with Morrissey attending several early Suede gigs and including a cover of Suede B-side ‘My Insatiable One’ in his 1992 live shows.
. Britpop can in some ways be seen as a reappropriation of the ‘acid house’, or baggy, scene, spearheaded by the Happy Mondays and Stone Roses. Centred in Manchester (the movement sometimes being called ‘Madchester’) and rising at the end of the 80s before being blown away by grunge, ‘baggy’ saw, ideals-wise, a move away from the threadbare indie ideal of the early 80s and a move towards capitalist mores. Musically, it was mostly a celebration of hedonistic excess and braggadocio, though The Stone Roses were far less dance-y and more soft-spoken than the Mondays. Oasis were especially influenced by the scene, though Brett Anderson was an unlikely Mondays disciple, while Jarvis Cocker recounts a rave-gone-wrong scenario in Pulp single ‘Sorted For E’s And Whizz’. Blur, on the other hand, were latecomers to the baggy party, with their debut album Leisure being released towards the tail-end of the period and hugely indebted to its indie-dance sound.
. More obscure influences included Scott Walker, an idol for Pulp (he later went onto produce their swansong album We Love Life in 2001), while Blur’s Anglocentric ‘Life’ trilogy – Modern Life Is Rubbish, Parklife and, analogously, The Great Escape – drew on ‘quintessentially English’ music hall traditions of the late 19th and early 20th century with B-sides like ‘Daisy Bell’ and ‘Let’s All Go Down The Strand’. Elastica referenced Adam and the Ants, Wire and The Stranglers as references, settling in court with the latter two due to blatant musical plagiarism from each. Indie legends The Fall were Albarn-, Anderson- and Frischmann-beloved, with Damon Albarn revisiting his love for Mark E Smith by collaborating with him on Gorillaz track ‘Glitter Freeze’ in 2010 and one of Suede’s earliest tracks, ‘Implement Yeah’, written while Justine Frischmann was still a member, being written about him (incorporating an anecdote about Smith calling Suede’s label’s manager, Saul Galpern, a ‘Scotch homo’). Finally, Graham Coxon’s well-documented love of independent ideals meant that some of his early influences included barely-heard-of indie acts like Talulah Gosh, The Cardiacs and The Pastels.
Consequences: The aftermath of Britpop saw a move away from the ‘Oasis-by-numbers’ everyman music that 1996 had nurtured, and towards more intellectual bands like Radiohead and the Manic Street Preachers. (Not to be elitist, but can you imagine Oasis singing a lyric like “Libraries give us power”?) The commercialisation of alternative music continues to affect perceptions of success; although independent artists are flourishing in the age of the internet, you can’t read NME these days without at least one band bemoaning the ‘death of rock’ based on the lack of singles chart influence that rock bands have. Several long-running music publications, such as Select and Melody Maker, closed after Britpop’s heyday due to falling sales, and even now, indie harbinger NME is reportedly facing crisis for the same reason.
. As for its legacy, a second wave of Britpop emerged in the mid-00’s, with the Kaiser Chiefs, Franz Ferdinand and the Arctic Monkeys becoming incredibly successful. Attempted Britpop revivalists, Viva Brother, weren’t as lucky last year and ended up being reviled by, well, pretty much everyone, leading to their split earlier this month. The current trend for reunions means that many of the original Britpop bands – Suede, Blur, Pulp, Shed Seven, Dodgy – are riding high on festival line-ups again this year. Yet, even as a Britpop-lover, I’ve found myself wondering if this nostalgia is strangling opportunities for new artists to get themselves heard. How many people are going to festivals this year so they can watch The Inspiral Carpets?
That said, the finest albums from the period continue to do well in ‘Greatest Albums Ever’ lists in magazines, especially Definitely Maybe, Dog Man Star, Parklife and Different Class. Oasis’s seminal sophomore album (What’s The Story) Morning Glory, meanwhile, remains the third biggest-selling album in the UK of all time (though, given Adele’s 21’s glory, for how much longer…).
. You may not agree with the overt patriotism or the accusations of sexism within the movement. But as someone writing in the 2010s, when soulless dance tracks wind round the singles chart like poison ivy, the thought of a bygone era where people got seriously het up over which rock song would top the chart is a pleasant daydream indeed. It’s only been relived in recent memory by Rage Against The Machine’s Christmas #1 victory over Joe McElderry in 2009, and wasn’t that bloody exciting?
*Tragically, I did just that earlier this month. It involved going up to Hampstead Heath and wandering around for ages, either because Google Maps’ instructions are over-complicated or because I’m a terrible navigator. (You decide.) Incidentally, here is the place in question. It was called The Sausage Machine at the time:
If you genuinely like music, chances are you probably hate the Brits. Despite occasional moments of brilliance (KLF in 1992, Suede in 1993, Jarvis Cocker invading Michael Jackson’s set in 1996), minor altercations (any time Liam Gallagher has been there) and deserved awards (Blur’s unsurpassed four gongs in 1995), it’s usually a lacklustre affair that prompts as much joy from the non-deaf as castration without an anaesthetic. Last year’s ceremony saw an upset as Laura Marling beat walking wardrobe Cheryl Cole to Best British Female, which in itself was enough to save it from disgrace, but could this year better it? With Blur winning the Outstanding Contribution to Music award and warranting a 3-song set at the end, things were looking promising… that is, until the show started.
A lot of hype from alternative music sectors had surrounded this year’s competition, with the likes of Bon Iver, PJ Harvey, Anna Calvi, Laura Marling (again) and Florence + The Machine up for prizes, but needless to say, the sea of Heart FM-playlist-filling dirge washed them away awardless. Adele and Ed Sheeran dominated proceedings, winning two each (Best British Female and Album of the Year/Best British Male and British Breakthrough Act respectively), while those old favourites of mine* Bruno Mars and Coldplay also had a delightfully* tacky statuette to take home (*sarcasm). It’s difficult to argue with these on a sales volume level, if not an originality or musical quality level – although, having said that, Adele’s performance of ‘Rolling In The Deep’ was musically spot on and arguably better than her critically-fapped-over Grammys set – but the lack of surprises meant that even the meatball korma meal that accompanied my Brits viewing had more flavour than the show did. The closest there was to a shock victory was for One Direction’s ‘What Makes You Beautiful’ winning Song of the Year over Adele’s ‘Someone Like You’ – that I think the right song won this category gives you an indication of quite how appalling its contenders were**. The only other shocks were the fact that someone didn’t tell Jessie J her dress was disgusting before she went out in it and that the event organisers managed to resist the temptation to turn Rihanna’s microphone off mid-performance. Her vocals were the sort that make you long for miming. (**…This song definitely isn’t a guilty pleasure for me. Definitely.)
Naturally the Righteously Indignant Police, otherwise known as the bulk of social networking sites’ users, found cause for scandal when Adele’s Best Album acceptance speech was cut short in favour of Blur’s Outstanding Contribution set. Quelle dommage! It’s not like she’d already thanked half the universe in her first acceptance speech. It’s also not like she’s been overexposed in the last year to the point where her screechy Cockney accent doesn’t induce homicide in anyone with a pair of ears. Who the hell are Blur, screeched the Righteously Indignant Police, (average age 13, average IQ negligible). Why are we letting a bunch of granddads run around shouting when we could have Adele squawking like the lovechild of Phil Daniels and a female parrot? Having said that, Blur weren’t exactly brilliant; Damon sounded incredibly hoarse and I’d have liked their performance of ‘This Is A Low’ to have made the ITV1 show instead of being relegated to ITV2. But their energy and enthusiasm defibrillated the show, even if it was too little, too late. Ah well lads, there’s always the Olympics Closing Ceremony.
So there we are. 1992’s Brits was notable for machine gun blanks being fired into the crowd and a dead sheep being left at the aftershow party, 1993’s was memorable for Brett Anderson misappropriating the microphone as a spanking device, 2000’s for an impending fracas between Liam Gallagher and Robbie Williams. 2012’s Brits will be remembered for very little, except Adele’s-Winning-Speech-Being-Cut-Shortgate™, Jessie J’s quite hideous bloodstained lace tablecloth dress and Blur having a fluorescent kebab spit in their set design. But I’m sure I’ll be back in front of this insipid snoozefest again in a year’s time, moaning to my heart’s content and wondering why I wasn’t born 20 years earlier.
Some people get over heartbreak like they get over not having enough cheese in the fridge to make a whole portion of cheese on toast. Upsetting as that is – what’s the point of cheese on toast if you can’t slather the entire slice in hot, bubbling cheddar? – it’s not the end of the world. They wake up the next day, ready to waltz back into the dating game and already unable to remember what their previous flame’s face looked like. But some people prey on it for months. Even when it’s been over for months, they’ll still find themselves name-dropping so-and-so and using ‘that total bastard’ as an epithet for said heartbreaker. Damon Albarn had a reason for being melancholy over Justine Frischmann – they’d been together for eight years, he’d stuck with her through her addictions, and then as soon as she got clean, she ditched him. But instead of sobbing over Elastica’s first album or having an uplifting pep talk from Graham Coxon, he wrote 13. 13 is an album that in its 66 minutes manages to echo every molecule of heartbreak that the more attached of us endure after Heartbreaker utters those awful words, “You’re not really my type…”.
It’s by far their least accessible album, and many critics have pejoratively labelled it “messy”. It is messy, but that’s because heartbreak is a messy feeling – it’s a patchwork of emotions, which is how I like to interpret the random riffs at the end of 13’s songs. It also sounds completely different from the laddish joviality of Parklife, the resigned eye-rolling of Modern Life Is Rubbish and the detached cool of Blur – all brilliant, with even the latter being mostly straightforward. Only its closer, ‘Essex Dogs’, hints at how thrillingly deranged 13 is going to be. But it still takes you by surprise. My first reaction to the whole album was “What the hell was that?”. But now I know it was the sound of heartbreak; something that Mogwai blasted after the album’s release in 1999. They referred to Blur using the heartbreak angle to get sales as “disgusting”* – completely bypassing the fact that a lot of artists have used heartbreak to write and sell songs, just so they could sell some t-shirts with the slogan “Blur are shite” on them. Using a feud with another band to sell some merchandise – who’s “disgusting” now?
But don’t get the impression that this is an album of Albarn sobbing about Frischmann’s lipstick marks still being on her coffee cup, a la Take That. It’s more than that – and it’s indefinitely more subtle. This isn’t merely about feeling sorry for yourself and wondering how you’ll ever trust anyone again. This album details the type of heartbreak that makes you drift through months feeling everything and nothing, by turns crazed and numb by insomnia, feeling hollow after another 3am crying session. It also follows the attempts to get out of that rut – the days where you wonder how you ever let it get to you like that, feel empowered enough to delete their messages, and go out with your friends to forget your troubles… but then find yourself feeling maudlin in a corner as you realise nothing’s changed. Don’t worry, it has a happy ending! This album is the musical equivalent of (500) Days of Summer, something you’ll realise after you’ve got over the fact that it sounds crazy on first listen.
It begins by wrong-footing you with a soundtrack to a hand-holding group therapy session, one where you’d say “Hi, I’m ___ and I’m a loveaholic!”. But ‘Tender’, with its gospel choir and self-motivating lyrics, is more sincere than hippy hugs, plus it probably smells better. The choir in particular bestows it with an evangelical quality in the best possible sense; it’s so upbeat and positive that you want to join their chirpy, ‘it’s going to be ok!’ cult that never sounds annoying. It’s a great mood booster on a bad day, or for dispelling pre-exam demons. Except it’s all a brave face. The facade is uncovered as soon as Damon croons after three minutes that “Tender is my heart, you know, for screwing up my life…”. Soon after, “Kill me” is added to the “Oh my baby…” Graham Coxon parts. He’s not really a happy hippy after all! You’ve been misled! How cruel! And it doesn’t get any simpler on the next song…
I once read that ‘Bugman’ is about child molestation. But I’m going to go with an interpretation of it being about avoiding the love ‘bug’ and going out to fill the void that a break-up has left (“I got no sense of existence”) while denying that the relationship ever had merits (“I think I was in a coma”) before the song launches into a deranged Pixies-esque guitar part which perfectly embodies the broken mind of the heartbroken wannabe-hedonist, going out to drown their sorrows. Just as you’re beginning to adjust to the wailing guitar feedback, it turns into a stoner soundtrack and Damon falsettoing “Space is the place…” over the top, and then you find yourself dragged back into more familiar Blur territory with ‘Coffee & TV’, a nice little number with an indescribably charming video which calls for your ex and you to “start over again”, imploring her to “take me away from this big bad world and agree to marry me”. Judging by the return to rocking on ‘Swamp Song’, replete with woozily hedonistic shrieks of “Stick it in my veins!”, one can only imagine this proposal didn’t materialise. And then we get onto the first truly, gut-wrenchingly emotive song on the album, ‘1992’.
‘1992’ is an unbelievably depressing song. From the quiet, wounded singing voice to the muttered fragments of betrayal (“You loved my bed/You took the other instead”), begging for an apology (“What do you owe me?/The price of your peace of mind”), to the wavering, screeching guitars that kick in around the two-minute mark, it’s impossible to remain unmoved by it – if it is possible, I’d recommend you don’t go near any magnets, because you’re clearly a robot. Just how emotive the guitars manage to be during the whole album is incredible – it takes the pressure off the lyrics, taking all the parts that would make them an angst-fest and translating them into a sound of sheer despair. In the same way that classical music and Icelandic post-rock bands can build musical landscapes and emotions without words, so these three minutes of guitar make you feel like you’re drowning under the weight of someone else’s/your own [delete where appropriate] melancholy, which is both suffocating and beautiful. Before you can go hunting in the cutlery drawers for some emotastic relief, though, you’re disarmed by the sudden energy of ‘B.L.U.R.E.M.I.’, which bops around partly to dissipate its predecessor’s misery, and partly as a representation of an ‘up’ day when you wake up feeling more real than you have in three weeks, ready to take on the workload that piled up whilst you were spending your days listlessly ploughing through multiple episodes of Peep Show, because even being Mark from Peep Show is better than being a heartbroken zombie like you.
‘Battle’ is a languid ambient piece that, to me, innately sounds like empty nights out when you’re jigging along unenthusiastically to the worst songs in history as the lights unrelentingly flicker above you, and yet you don’t leave because, even though all this is so meaningless, it’s got to be better to feel numb here than feel everything all over again in your room… though this is an incredibly subjective and personalised view. It’s followed by ‘Mellow Song’ – in my opinion the worst song on the album – with self-reflective lyrics (“Running away in my machine/Where have I been…/Is this where I’m going to?”) and, true to its title, a mellow ambience. A moment of epiphany? It’s hard to tell whether he’s miserable, detached or deadpan mad in ‘Trailerpark’. His constant refrain of “I’m a country boy/I got no soul/I don’t sleep at night/The world’s growing old/I lost my girl to The Rolling Stones/I lost my girl to The Rolling Stones” is tragicomic, not to mention the first absolutely explicit reference to Frischmann – ‘The Rolling Stones’ being a reference to how her life began to resemble the infamous Mick Jagger-starring film Performance.
The following two tracks are, along with ‘Tender’, the highlight tracks on the album, albeit for entirely different reasons. I would be entirely happy to listen to the opening 2 minutes of ‘Caramel’ on a loop forever. As the pining guitars in the intro fade out and an organ becomes the song’s sole focus, it sounds as though the song is being recorded at an evening Mass with candles. Albarn’s voice, vulnerable and quiet, sounds like he’s confessing to the guiltiest secret of all – what we knew all along; that he has “to get over” his heartbreak. The church-factor is added to by his piety towards the ex, and self-flagellation of his own flaws (“I’ve gotta stop smoking/I’ve gotta get better”). As it progresses, there are traces of ‘1992’’s guitar-misery, until it becomes explicit after four minutes, with guitars screaming as though some aching wound has been opened and lemon juice squeezed into it. As Albarn chants “Low, low, low…”, a broken-hearted listener can only feel similar despair. The motorbike sound and funky riff at the end bridges the leap from kneeling on the tiles of a church floor to a night out on the tiles; ‘Trimm Trabb’ is a cynical perspective on a night out, alcohol and fitting in with the crowd by owning the right kind of trainers (the title being a brand of trainers), and essentially, it’s unbelievably cool. No longer do we have the anaesthesia of ‘Battle’: the disparaging commentary of the other revellers is indicative of ‘waking up’ after drifting. All interpretation pontification aside, though, it just sounds incredibly cool and makes you want to walk through your hometown with sunglasses and a leather jacket on, pretending you’re James Bond.
‘No Distance Left To Run’, the penultimate track, was difficult for Albarn to record, saying that “It upset me singing it… To sing that lyric I really had to accept that that was the end of something in my life.” Listening to it, you can see why; it’s soothingly lullaby-like, but the lyrics are uncompromising – “It’s over, you don’t need to tell me/I hope you’re with someone who makes you feel safe when you’re sleeping tonight/I won’t kill myself trying to stay in your life/I’ve got no distance left to run”. He sounds so defeated and exhausted by his attempts to woo her back, party the memory of rejection away and get over her that you’ll probably feel a strange compulsion to hug him and sing ‘Tender’ to up his mood. Considering it’s such a downer (but a genuinely touching one, something that My Chemical Romance haven’t quite managed yet), you’d think that the album ends on a miserable note – but ‘Optigan 1’, the album’s weird and wonderful wordless closer, proves you wrong. Although it’s really just some weird noises and a bell tolling that together make a strangely ethereal effect, it somehow manages to convince you that everything’s ok in the end and you can float off, enlightened by the whole crappy experience of Being Rejected/Dumped™.
Laugh at my attempts to transcribe the feelings and concepts in the album all you want, but don’t rubbish them until you’ve really listened to ‘13’. Once you’ve felt Albarn-Frischmann-esque heartbreak, there’s nothing flimsy about those interpretations. If you find yourself at uni, away from the friends you’d normally use as free therapists, and discover that the ones you’ve made on campus don’t quite get why you’re still sit-in-your-room-thinking-about-what-if-I’d-done-this-differently miserable six weeks after the betrayal/rejection, this album’s the best you’re going to get as far as support is concerned. It’s one of those albums where you truly do feel like the songs apply to you. At least, that’s what I found, and I’m sure I’m not the first or last to think that. And, seeing as I’m not sure I’ve done the album justice by concentrating on just the misery and confusion aspects of it, let me say one last thing before I finally shut up; this is a bloody brilliant album. If Mogwai listened to Parklife and then listened to this, they wouldn’t come back saying “Blur are shite”. That much, I guarantee.
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?