Author of "The Birth And Impact Of Britpop: Mis-Shapes, Scenesters And Insatiable Ones"
The high/low point of the Britpop era was the chart battle between Blur and Oasis. Not since the 1960’s and the heyday of The Beatles and The Stones had two bands defined an era like this. That both bands were releasing career low singles didn’t really matter. This was war.
“Our generation has had no great war, no great depression. Our war is spiritual. Our depression is our lives.”
Chuck Palahniuk is a fine writer but the idea that my generation has had no great war is just plain wrong.
In August of 1995 my generation was plunged into a war that was to be defined, in the short term, by a short but brutal battle that would leave one side bruised but victorious and the other battered, licking their wounds but, crucially, not fatally wounded. What was to follow was an epic conflict of the sort that Tolkien would have dismissed as being too fanciful.
When Damon Albarn sneered at Graham Coxon’s shoes in the playground of their secondary school it was to prove to be the starting point for a relationship that would lead to the formation of one of the biggest, brightest and most influential bands of the past thirty years.
When Peggy Gallagher welcomed her youngest son William into the world it was to prove to be the starting point of a wibbling rivalry that would grow into the greatest rock and roll band of the past thirty years and, arguably, the last great rock and roll band. Blur announced their arrival on the UK pop scene as part of the Madchester scene. A loose gaggle of bands mainly from up North and all with a desire to cast their eyes back to the sixties while being hugely influenced by the ecstasy fuelled dance scene that was central to a second summer of love in 1990 and 1991. The music was labelled as baggy...thanks to the Joe Bloggs flares and loose fitting t-shirts sported by bands and fans alike but the music, while certainly free and easy in spirit, was as tight and sharp as a Saville Row suit. “There’s No Other Way”, “Bang” and “She’s So High” were Blur's contribution to the baggy catalogue...all three were perfectly fine pop songs but none were the match of their contemporaries; The Charlatans, Happy Mondays or the mighty Stone Roses. They were, if we are all being honest, floating in the slipstream of much better bands.
Their debut album “Leisure” was, largely, disappointing. All three singles featured but aside from the trippy “Sing” and “Come Together” (which, to my cloth ears, is the best track on the album) nothing suggested that you were listening to anything other than nearly men.
What happened next was like an atom bomb from a hostile nation...except its impact was even more devastating on the youth of the nation.
From the sewers of Seattle a gaggle of grimy, grungy, whining, whinging, terribly dressed American boys with nothing to say and an aurally offensive way of saying it arrived and, for reasons not even the most lauded anthropologists and sociologists could explain, captured the hearts of a certain type of journalist and most of the adolescent middle-class. Of course, the explanation for the success of Nirvana is actually quite simple...posh kids and posh journalists are suckers for anything they think might irritate mama and papa. With coverage for grunge at saturation point there was no room to breathe for British bands and it looked like it was game over for melody, style, finesse and panache...all key features of every major musical movement in Britain from the 1960’s on.
A lot of brave boys fell on the battlefields of the music scene in the early 1990’s. Fine young men and women. Dedicated to the principles that had made the music of this island great. But now, tragically, they were being cut down in their prime...sacrificed as the major labels fellated the Sub Pop American boys, convinced that they were backing the second coming of punk when in fact they were doing nothing of the sort. To those who fell...we remember you.
At this point it would have been a very brave soul who would have backed blur to be anything other than names on pops Cenotaph. To save themselves they fled to, of all places, America.
It was to prove their salvation.
Trapped in a series of never ending gigs in nowhere towns in middle America and with those in attendance seeming to be increasingly unimpressed, Damon Albarn had an epiphany...he saw the world as it really was, he saw the future for his home country in these depressing plastic burger joints and endless shopping malls and he didn’t like it.
He didn’t like it at all.
The first fruits of this fear and frustration arrived in March of 1992 in the shape of “Popscene” a single that fumed, raged and bellowed against everything that he saw as being wrong with modern life... chrome coloured clones, imitation, queues, panic, no way of life and a lack of lustre. It was all just... rubbish.
Not the song!
The world it presented.
Guitars lashed and raged, horns blasted, the bass pounded and the drums beat harder than the hearts of the teenage girls who had fallen for Damon’s doe eyed splendour.
The world wouldn’t listen and the single crashed into the charts at number 32 and disappeared almost immediately.
Blur were finished.
Back in the studio they set about recording what was surely going to be their final album and started browsing the job pages of the Colchester Gazette, readying themselves for a life more ordinary. They had tried. They had tasted success. The world had turned and left them behind. There was no shame in any of their efforts.
Then something remarkable happened.
Melody Maker popped a band called Suede on the front cover despite the fact they hadn’t released a single note of recorded music. They said they were the best new band in Britain. They looked distinctly British...all high camp and glam rock. They sounded like a best of British compilation tape. Bowie, Bolan, Morrissey and the suburban documentary writing of Davies.
They were really good.
Their singles were glorious.
Their debut album arrived in March of 1993...just two months before Blur were slated to release their second album.
Suddenly the seemingly endless tide of moaning and dingy guitars that had been omnipresent for what seemed like an eternity was over...Suede were everywhere, on the telly, on the radio and on the record players of teenagers up and down the country.
A door that had been locked, bolted and then locked again had been kicked off its hinges by a bunch of slightly effeminate young boys with fringes and melodies.
This was blur’s chance.
It was now or never.
They ran for the open door and found something they hadn’t believed existed stood on the other side...an audience.
Meanwhile, in Manchester William Gallagher (now known only as Liam) had decided that he wasn’t all that keen on having what his teachers called a “proper job” and had started a band. They were called Rain and they were, by all accounts, not much cop. Liam didn’t care...he wanted to be a rock ‘n; roll star. No, scratch that, Liam knew that he was going to be a rock ‘n’ roll star he just didn’t know how to make it happen. He had an idea that his big brother Noel might be able to help...he was a roady for the Inspiral Carpets so must know someone who could help them out in some way. He was going to speak to him about it.
Blur released “Modern Life is Rubbish” in May of 1993. It had been preceded by a single called “For Tomorrow” which marked a major shift in their sound. Out had gone the baggy affectations and in had come the sort of classic English song writing that had previously been mastered by the likes of Ray Davies, Paul Weller and Morrissey. It was, to be frank, the best thing they had done and, to be equally frank, was just about the best thing any British band had done in years...only the Suede singles could be placed on a similar pedestal at that point.
The album was a towering, dizzying, startling and astonishing work of genius. One of the best albums by an English band since The Smiths. It was, in many ways, a concept album that equalled “The Village Green Preservation Society” by The Kinks as a terrifyingly accurate documentary of the world it was representing. The production was perfect, the songs were beautiful, the artwork was magnificent and the lyrics put Albarn in a league of his own.
The impact of “Modern Life is Rubbish” wasn’t felt in the charts where it failed to match the success of “Leisure” but on the high streets of suburban towns across the United Kingdom. I was living in a small coastal town in Fife and the moment that I saw the band photographs that accompanied the release of the album everything in my life changed.
Off went the quiff.
Out went the clobber of the indie kid.
In came the Doctor Martens, the Levis, the Fred Perry, the Harrington, the suits and the tousled hair.
Modern life may well have been rubbish (it was) but Mod life was ace.
I wasn’t alone.
mop tops appeared here, there and, I’ll wager, everywhere.
The dreadful plaid shirts, greasy hair and torn jeans of the grunge generation now looked as awful to everyone else as they had always done to kids like me.
A revolution had begun.
Noel Gallagher had agreed to come along and listen to his little brother and his mates “rehearsing”. Even before Liam had asked him he had heard a tale of what was going on but had dismissed it. Liam? In a band? Noel didn’t think so. But he wasn’t busy tonight so he was ready to listen and dismiss in about 5 minutes before heading back to his flat to play guitar and, in all likelihood, get stoned.
It didn’t take 5 minutes.
From the first few bars he knew that Rain were rubbish.
But...it was obvious that his little brother was a star.
Noel realised in just a few moments that his own, hitherto undisclosed, dreams of pop stardom could be realised simply by marrying his songs with his brother's attitude and voice.
First things first...they needed to change their name.
It was 1991 when Oasis took the stage at the Boardwalk in Manchester.
18 months later in May of 1993 they were signed by Alan McGee of Creation Records. Coincidentally this was just about the same time that blur had released “Modern Life is Rubbish”... this is what Carl Jung would have called a “meaningful coincidence”.
Blur took “Modern Life is Rubbish” out on tour...”The Sugary Tea Tour”.
Small-ish crowds grew to mid-sized crowds which in turn, by the climax of the tour, had grown to sell- out crowds. This smelled like teen spirit...of the very best kind. Sharp looking kids bouncing, chanting and singing along to songs like “Colin Zeal” and “Star Shaped” proved a wonderful sight to behold. It was impossible not to feel like something bigger than just the critical and creative resurrection of one band was taking place.
Then in March 1994 Blur released a single that was to signal a seismic shift in British popular culture...”Girls and Boys”. With its Casio keyboard coda at the start and a melody that demanded you get up off your rockin’ chair and dance, it was a song that seemed to have been created in a laboratory by pop scientists. It was impossible not to be won over by its charms. As Damon banged on about the glories of a Club 18-30 holiday where girls like boys who like boys to be girls or something indie dance floors, mainstream radio playlists and everywhere else thumped and throbbed to a song that brought the New Wave of New Wave and mini-Mod revival of “Return to Splendour” crashing into the mainstream.
The spring of 1994 saw Oasis release their debut single, “Supersonic”.
The band had already amassed a loyal and large fan base without a single note of recorded music thanks to a series of deadly live appearances, some alongside Scottish indie rock ‘n’ pop whippets Whiteout, across the UK.
Hot on the heels of other nascent Britpop acts who had made an impression on the covers of N.M.E and Melody Maker as well as on the charts “Supersonic” dented the top forty at number 31. For a band on an indie label like Creation this was a huge success. What nobody realised though was that for Oasis this was simply a calling card... a gentle introduction.
They already knew that they were going to be the biggest band on the planet.
They intended to make sure that everyone else knew by kicking the music world in the bollocks with a series of singles and a debut album so terrifying in their might and majesty that only the strongest would be able to resist bending their knee in an act of supplication.
“Supersonic” brought to mind The Smiths, Sex Pistols, glam and old school rock and roll. Despite the constant references to them from lazy journalists and the band themselves there was no hint of the Liverpool group.
It was a terrific record.
Girls called Elsa sniffin’ alka seltzer, a declaration of the power of being true to yourself...it was a song that had more attitude than, well, anything or anyone in British popular music since John Lydon. The stage was set now for something magnificent. 12 months on from the “Yanks Go Home!” edition of Select magazine that fired the starting pistol for what was
to become known as Britpop we now had two bands who seemed capable of anything. There was no humility in the claims being made about their bands from Damon Albarn or Noel and Liam Gallagher.
There was no sense of gratitude at just having a record deal.
There was no sense at all that these were indie bands.
No, blur and Oasis were much bigger, bolder, braver and brasher than anything that had come before them in the previous thirty years. These were bands who not only laid claim to being the best band in the world, as the Stone Roses had done at the start of the decade before collapsing under the weight of the pressure that brought, but were determined to prove it. Relentless touring, omnipresent in the print media, on every radio station playlist across the country, music and mayhem in equal part, loud proclamations of genius and brilliance...the British music scene hadn’t seen anything quite like it, not even in the heyday of the Stones and the other lot from Liverpool.
By the time the Brit Awards for 1995 arrived both bands were big deals.
“Definitely Maybe” had sold enough copies to make sure that every person on the planet was never more than 3 feet away from one while, at the same time, “Parklife” had turned blur into the biggest pop band in the world.
When blur won the award for best band in the face of stiff competition from Eternal, M People, Pink bloody Floyd and Oasis, Damon Albarn said “I think this should have been shared with Oasis” with Graham Coxon chiming in with “Much love and respect to them.” Author of the weighty Britpop era tome “The Last Party”, John Harris said of this, “I never knew if he was joking” but a look at the video of the night shows that neither Albarn nor Coxon look smug or like they are poking anyone and even Alex James mentions Oasis in his remarks as they pick up the gong. At this point it looked like there was some, perhaps grudging, respect between the two groups.
That’s how it may have seemed to nice boys like blur but for the slightly rougher, tougher and harder lads from Oasis the feeling was very far from mutual. As 1995 wound on public confrontations and private resentments began to grow ever more frequent and ever more hostile. The nadir of these skirmishes arrived later in the year when Noel said that he hoped both Albarn and James would catch AIDS and die. For a man who is ready with ready wit at any time this was a rare example of vulgarity. He retracted the statement but it cast a long shadow over the interactions between the bands for a long while after.
The cold war was over.
Things were about to become very hot.
Both bands (and both labels depending on which version of events you prefer) decided to go head to head...to step out into the no man’s land of the charts and release singles on the same day.
For each band there was a desire to defend their own islands of pop, whatever the cost may be, they were ready to fight on the shelves of HMV, on the radio stations of provincial towns, in the fields of rural England, on the High Streets of Scotland... neither was prepared to countenance the idea of surrender.
If war there was going to be it was vital that each band choose their weapons carefully in order to ensure victory.
Blur have had twenty-six top forty singles. Twenty-six.
The song they chose to release in their battle for number one against Oasis...and to secure what they believed would be a conclusion to hostilities was “Country House”.
Nope, I’m not joking.
A song so dreadful that it makes “Mr Blobby” sound like “Love Will Tear Us Apart” by comparison.
It’s a novelty record.
A comedy song.
This wasn’t the first time that Blur had chosen a song like this as a single. “Parklife” was just as bad. Both were the sort of thing that should have been secreted away on a B-side to something better. The fact that neither was can, I think, be attributed to Damon Albarn believing his own hype at this point.
“Country House” also came with one of the worst music videos in the history of the medium...a weirdly sexist “homage” to the even weirder and even more sexist Benny Hill.
The best way to describe this whole thing is... tacky.
Blur were better than this.
Forthcoming album “The Great Escape” had many better songs that could have been released as singles...actually, every song on “The Great Escape” was a better choice for a single than this. Including that one with Ken Livingstone on it.
Lots of people have been equally critical of the choice that Oasis made...”Roll with it” and have used words like “lumpen” to describe it. It’s true that it, like “Country House”, is far from being prime cut Oasis but, by comparison with “Country House” it sounds positively epic.
Tim Burgess, who knows a thing or two about writing pop songs, described “Roll With It” as “... flat pack Oasis...” and it’s true. If No-Way-Sis had released this as a single, when they inexplicably secured a record deal, people would have laughed their socks off at their brazenness. But...crucially...it wasn’t as awful as “Country House” and it seemed obvious which song would reach the top of the pops at the end of the week. Now an important confession.
I bought “Country House”.
Not only did I buy “Country House” but I bought it on all three formats.
You see, I had naively decided that Blur were a Mod band and in the heat and general giddiness of Britpop I thought that I was a Mod too. I have no idea why I thought either thing but that’s the truth of it. I saw Oasis as something...else. I liked them a lot, I had all of their singles and I had nearly worn out my copy of “Definitely Maybe” but when push came to shove and I was called to the frontline to do my duty...I plumped for blur.
I’m really sorry.
Thanks, largely, to the extra CD single that blur were able to offer thanks to the might of a major label behind them they found themselves at number one in the charts at the end of the week.
They really knocked Oasis out.
The battle was over.
Blur were victorious.
Oasis were left to return to camp...their noses bloodied, their egos knocked, their pride bruised and, most importantly, still standing.
The truth is rarely pure and never, according to Oscar Wilde, simple.
This time the truth really is pure and simple. Following the battle for the number one spot Oasis mounted an offensive campaign that left blur reeling and that, ultimately, put them into a different league when it came to the traditional measures of success in the music business... record sales, tour revenues, wider public recognition and acceptance.
“(What’s the Story) Morning Glory” was to become one of the biggest selling albums by a British act ever...shifting, at last count, nearly five million copies and going fourteen times platinum in the UK alone. It hit the number one spot in nine countries and broke the top ten in America.
“The Great Escape” by comparison, although there really was no comparison, sold less than a million copies (still no mean feat) and reached the dizzying heights of number one hundred and fifty in the US charts.
Of course the “truth” does become more complicated and murky when discussion turns to which album is “better”...that is all about personal taste. At the time of release I was, again, very definitely (no maybes) in team blur. I saw “The Great Escape” as further evidence of the genius of everyone involved in its creation and, while I enjoyed “Morning Glory”, I dismissed it...for no other reason than everyone else apparently loved it. Yuk...I was that guy. I’m sorry...again.
The war was over.
Oasis had won.
They were the biggest band in Britain.
They were one of the biggest bands in the world. They had left their contemporaries from
Britpop far behind and had delivered the sort of beating to Blur that could have finished other bands completely…
Blur though are not “other” bands and Damon Albarn is nothing if not competitive, ambitious and convinced of his own talents even when others may doubt them...perhaps especially when others doubt them.
Graham Coxon had grown increasingly uncomfortable in the Britpop spotlight...and even more uncomfortable with things like “Country House” and its accompanying video. He wanted to move things on, experiment, stretch, and change direction.
Not for the first time blur decided to do the very thing that nobody expected of them...just as they had ditched the baggy clothes and Madchester-lite sound following “Leisure” they now turned their back on the Mockney affectations and delivered an album every bit as important culturally as “Modern Life Is Rubbish” had been back in 1993.
Where Pulp’s “This is Hardcore” had been the sound of the end of the Britpop party it was still very much a recognisably “Pulp” sounding record. Blur’s eponymous fifth album was the end of the Britpop sound. It was a dark, brooding, intense and, at times, lo-fi album. The lead single “Beetlebum” jettisoned the light and pop touch of the Britpop trilogy and plunged fans into an entirely new sonic world...it is, frankly, a record that is soaked in misery; and it sounds wonderful because of it. The fact that it delivered a second number one single was evidence of how the world had shifted in the months since “The Great Escape”. The very notion of a song like “Beetlebum” shifting enough copies to reach the top spot in the charts even 6 months earlier would have been too fanciful to even imagine.
Better was to come as they then unleashed “Song 2” which was the sort of song the likes of Nirvana thought they were recording during the grunge era but which they had neither the talent nor the imagination to realise. It’s a riotous, ramshackle, rowdy two minutes and one second of fire and fury. Coxon hammers the melody like some sort of Norse God pounding on the doors of Valhalla (you know the one I mean...big bloke, hammer, Australian) and Albarn unleashes a sneering vocal and near nonsensical lyrics. It’s perfect in every way.
That was it.
Blur gave up on being the biggest pop band in the world...after all they had achieved that already and had found it didn’t quite agree with them...and focused on being one of the finest bands ever. Each album brings a new sound while always remaining resolutely Blur.
Damon decided to have another go at the pop star thing but this time from behind the curtain with Gorillaz. A mad hybrid of anime, graffiti art, comic book creation, pop, soul, funk and hip-hop. Incredibly he pulled it off and a band who didn’t really exist sold loads of records and played sold out concerts to adoring fans. Then when he got bored with that he wrote operas and dabbled in world music. Clever boy is our Damon.
Graham Coxon has released eight solo albums and in the process has cemented his position not just as a great guitarist but as a singer and songwriter in his own right. He also seems, and I appreciate I have no way of knowing how true this is, to be happier than the boy struggling to drink a cup of tea on the back of a tour bus on “Star Shaped” or who threatened to fling himself out of a window during a drunken night at the height of the whole blur v oasis “thing”. I hope so.
As for Dave and Alex...one makes cheese and one has dabbled in politics. I’d rather not get involved.
After the ridiculousness of Knebworth and “(What’s the Story) Morning Glory” Oasis had much humbler ambitions than writing operas or experimenting with new sounds...they wanted to take their place alongside the likes of The Beatles and The Rolling Drones as one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll bands of all time.
They wanted it all.
Rather unsurprisingly they bloody got it.
What you have to understand about Oasis is that they were never really a band. They were a force of nature.
A sonic tsunami.
A hurricane of melodies and attitude.
An earthquake that split the pop cultural world apart.
It’s very easy to forget now, all these years after their demise, but they were the only band who mattered for an entire generation of kids all across the world and especially here in the UK. Unlike the art school poseurs like John Lennon in the sixties or the myriad public school boys who clutter up the charts today, they were just like their fans... young, obsessed with the power of music, working class, football fans, and clothes obsessives and fiercely ambitious. That is what sets them apart from most every other band of the time.
When things inevitably ended in the most bitter and acrimonious of fashions following the release of “Dig out Your Soul” in 2008 nobody really knew what was going to happen next. I think most people probably thought that Liam and Noel just needed a cooling off period and then it would be business as (un)usual.
That didn’t happen.
Noel has gone on to become one of the most successful recording artists in British music history with a record number of platinum albums to his name, sell out tours across the globe, a place amongst the chat show royalty thanks to his razor sharp wit and is hailed, I think quite rightly, as a living legend.
Liam has, finally, gone it alone and has reaped the rewards. “As You Were”, his debut solo album, has sold well and propelled him back into the spotlight in a way that he was never able to when he was simply part of Beady Eye. Like Graham Coxon he too seems happier, more comfortable in his own skin...without ever losing the ability to be, well, Liam.
Who won the war?
Blur won the Battle of Britpop by taking the number one spot in August of 1995...if the “war” is to be measured by record sales, number ones, concert attendances and social and cultural impact I think we have to hail Oasis as victors. Of course, it’s possible to determine the outcome of this “war” in other ways...blur moved and morphed into a band who took risks, experimented and influenced people on the fringes in ways that a band like Oasis never could, so maybe they “won”?
Thanks for reading guys.
Have a lovely night.
Yes, there was a second question.
Do I have to answer that?
That’s the only reason you’ve read any of this?
Who is “better”?
Jump in your time machine and speak to me at any point between 1993 and 1997 and I would have given you the same answer. I loved them. I followed them around the country on tours. I bought every version of every release. I dressed like Damon Albarn. I tried to present myself like Graham Coxon.
Nothing has really changed.
I still love them.
When I went back to University for my post- graduate studies I had a part time job in a branch of Topman on Princes Street in Edinburgh. It was 2002 and “The Hindu Times” had just been released...I know that because in those days Topman used to play videos in their stores (maybe they still do...I haven’t been in there since I stopped working there) and the video for “The Hindu Times” was on one of those video tapes that provided the musical accompaniment to the terrible clothes I was tasked with selling. I must have heard that song ten times per shift. I loved it. Then about two years ago I found myself returning to Oasis over and over again...other memories of times, places and people that they had sound tracked without me even noticing it started coming into sharper focus. A realisation hit me...I hadn’t ever loved them, but there were things about them I could love. I always loved them.
“Cum on Feel the Noize” was playing the day that my football club won the Cup for the first time in my lifetime. I was sitting beside my granddad that day...he’s gone now but when I hear that song I remember that day and all the other days we had. When I was sat in my student digs feeling more alone than I thought I could bare I would play “Talk Tonight” and feel better.
The madness of “All around the World” with its bigger, bigger, bigger and bigger crescendo made me feel like I could do anything.
But despite those moments when I love them…I haven’t ever loved them the way I love Blur, and they never meant to me what Blur meant to me. Blur changed everything.