Review Summary: For Tomorrow: A Guide to Contemporary British Music, 1988-2013 (Part 18)
On April 24th, 1995 Oasis released “Some Might Say” as the lead single from What’s the Story (Morning Glory)
and on April 30th it was number one on the UK singles charts, their first number one. About a week later, Oasis was celebrating the accomplishment at the Mars Bar in Covent Garden. Damon Albarn had stopped by to congratulate the band. “I went to their celebration party, you know, just to say ‘Well done’ and Liam came over and, like he is, he goes ‘Number fookin’ one,’ right in my face. So I thought, ‘OK, we’ll see…’”
”Caught in the rat race/Terminally”
During the lead up to The Great Escape
, Blur previewed a bit of new material at a show at Mile End. The song, “Country House”, received a riotous reception and was selected to be the lead single. Initially, Blur’s label, Parlophone – a subsidiary of EMI, and Oasis’ label, Creation, worked together to ensure Blur’s single and Oasis’ “Some Might Say” follow up, “Roll With It” had plenty of space between each other. Both singles were tipped to be number ones and both record labels wanted to ensure each had time to run their course. “Country House” was to be released in September while “Roll With It” in October.
Then Creation decided to release “Roll With It” seven days before “Country House”, a move that effectively scuttled Blur’s chances at number one. Blur and Parlophone had no choice but to push “Country House” to be released on the same day as “Roll With It”. The media furor was swift and shameless. Both the NME and Melody Maker threw Damon Albarn and Liam Gallagher on their covers situated like boxers positioned for a title fight. Noel Gallagher called Blur “a bunch of middle class wankers trying to play hardball with a bunch of working class heroes”. The story even made it to the 6’o clock news. In a crafty move to boost sales, EMI released “Country House” on two different CDs at a price that undercut “Roll With It”. By the end of the week, Blur had sold 274,000 copes against Oasis’ 216,000. Blur had won. Graham Coxon celebrated by attempting suicide. “I just thought that me doing that would remind a lot of those people that human beings were involved,” reflected Graham, ”And it wasn’t just business and backslapping.” Not that Blur didn’t revel in their win a little; Alex James wore an Oasis shirt for their performance of on Top of the Pops.
The album most closely associated with this mayhem, Blur’s The Great Escape
, has would up curiously underrated. In 2007 Damon Albarn claimed he only made two bad albums, the debut (true) and The Great Escape
, which he called “messy”. He was half right. The Great Escape
is certainly a mess, crammed full of horns, strings, styles, and characters, but its an engaging
mess. One that can flit from ska to chamber pop to woozy alt rock and make it all hang together. What makes The Great Escape
is it’s the sound of a band trying their best to keep it together and succeeding.
”All I want to do is fade away.”
Inter-band tensions fuel The Great Escape
. By 1995 Blur were household names with their every move being watched by British tabloids, eager to spin any occurrence into a headline. Blur themselves had no downtime between Parklife
and the recording for The Great Escape
, bouncing between studio, show, and television appearance with no room to breathe. Their fanbase now consisted mainly of screaming teenage girls. Damon and Alex enjoyed the success and reveled in the fame. Graham, meanwhile, was tumbling headlong into alcoholism, disgusted with the way his band had turned out. His contributions feel more muted here than they did on Parklife
. He still turns in the same stellar twisty guitar leads and certainly can take the foreground with his anvil riff on opener “Stereotypes” and the seasick leads on “He Thought of Cars” but he’s also more willing to resign himself to the background on “Top Man” and “The Universal”.
It’s Damon who controls this album. Following the release of Parklife
he was hit with his first major episode of depression. “I couldn’t rationalize what on earth was going on in my head and I was pissed off with myself for being so weak.” Damon said, “Things like this didn’t happen to me.” He copes with his newfound sadness buy burying his feelings behind characters, and on The Great Escape
’s punchier numbers with spiteful glee. On “Stereotypes”, Damon condescendingly passes judgment on a pair of swingers who *** on “the lover’s sofa” and “on the patio” and when its all over “watch themselves on video”, asserting on the chorus that “Yes, they’re stereotypes/There must be more to life.” Damon meets a “Charmless Man” at a bar who, despite having access to more wealth than he knows what to do with, cant help but be an insufferable bore. “He moves in circles of friends who just pretend that they like him/He does the same to them/And when you put it all together there’s the model of a charmless man.” Thanks to this albums involvement in the Battle of Britpop it has accumulated a reputation as a very hoity toity high society type record and there certainly is some truth to that. After all, this is the album that rhymes “Beaujolais” and “Ronnie Kray”, but the key here is all these rich bastards are miserable and, by extension, so is Damon.
But Blur is a true band, one that needs all of its members to produce such singularly brilliant music. Alex James’ uses “Entertain Me” as his own personal playground to bounce his disco influenced basslines to every corner of the song. “Fade Away” would be a dreary ska slog if it wasn’t for Dave Rowntree’s diamond hard drum pattern kicking the song in the ass with momentum. And although his role is more subdued this time around, Graham still finds time to lace tracks like “Country House” and the loose monkey goof “Top Man” with his signature crystalline guitar riffs.
The success of this album depends on four songs scattered through the album that tie the whole mess together. The first of these, “Best Days”, is a distant ballad that finds Damon in a more empathetic mood. “Cabbie has his mind on a fare to the sun/He works nights but its not much fun,” he moans, “Picks up the London yo-yos/All on their own down So-ho/Take me home.” In a few lines he sketches a perfectly relatable and heartfelt portrait of an exhausted cab driver, picking up rich drunk kids and taking back to the same neighborhoods night after night. All this built on what just might be the most drop dead gorgeous melody Albarn ever wrote.
“The Universal” is an achievement so huge the album feels built around it. Indeed many of this albums themes are summed up by its refrain of “If the days just seem to fall through you well just let them go!” cried like it’s the happiest news in the world. It’s a song written to be triumphant, with a chorus that blasts skywards, but it’s about being so numb to it all that you drift through days like the breeze. “Every paper that you read/Says tomorrows your lucky day/Well here’s your lucky day!” The strings swell and a choir comes through to sweep the song off its feet but the effect is akin to standing in the middle of Times Square during the New Years celebration after taking a handful of codeine. You’re aware of the revelry but that doesn’t mean you feel it.
By all means, “The Universal” should be the best song on The Great Escape
but incredibly its not. That honor belongs to the little known “He Thought of Cars”, and it just might be the best song Blur ever made. It fades in on a wildly swaying caterwal of slashing guitar, veering synth and a bass line designed to keep the walls spinning. Then Damon crashes through with a perfectly written verse that could be about almost anything. “Moscow’s still red/The young man’s dead/Gone to heaven instead/the evening news/Says he was confused.” The details laced within are at once surreal and rendered plain by Albarn’s dry timbre, “The motorways will all merge soon/Lottery winner buys the moon/They’ve come to save us/The space invaders are here.” It yearns for an unknown horizon. A desire for escape to something different, not even necessarily better. “There’s panic at London Heathrow/Everybody wants to go up into the blue/But there’s a ten year cue.” All wrapped up in a wonderfully melancholy chorus and a bridge that looks to the sky but ends up eyes down again.
It’s the album’s grand finale that really puts everything in perspective. “Yuko & Hiro” takes the record’s focus away from manic-depressive London and shoots us across the planet to Japan. “This is my workplace/and these are the people I work with/Yuko & Hiro/We work together.” The Japanese co-workers are sketched empathetically and realistically. The mood is gloomy but strangely comforting with chiming piano and reassuring Japanese backing vocals. But it’s the chorus that finds Damon letting his guard down and issuing a simple plea to his distant lover Justine Frischmann. “I never see you/We’re never together/I’ll love you forever.” It’s this turn towards open introspection that forecasts the direction Blur was headed. And where they ended up next took everyone by surprise. But in the meantime, Blur had the opportunity to sit back and enjoy their victory over Oasis. The Great Escape
debuted at number one and spawned 3 more top ten singles. It was a victory that would prove to be very short lived.