American Without Tears
The history of pop is actually the story of great rivalries, real or imagined: Elvis vs. Jerry Lee, the Beatles vs. the Stones, mods vs. rockers, Bowie vs. Ferry, Nirvana vs. Pearl Jam. And, by the way, whose side were you on during the fabled Tiffany-Debbie Gibson wars of 1987?
It all might look like juvenile nonsense, but even the friendliest of these rivalries help to shape the pop landscape. They allow fans to stake out their chosen turf and determine their own identities by association. They give journalists grist for the controversy mill, and they spur artists (Tiffany and "Deborah" are the exceptions here) to greater creative heights. Is it any coincidence that Elvis went soft after scandal destroyed Jerry Lee Lewis' shot at the throne? And it didn't take long for the Stones' music to go south when they no longer had to chase the Fabs up the charts.
More than anything else, though, these rivalries reassure us that pop still has a pulse. Logic suggests that if people are still arguing about it, the damn thing must be alive.
Without question, the most brutal feud in the annals of pop has taken place in recent years between British icons Oasis and Blur. Abandoning all sense of decorum, they released singles on the same day and slagged off each other's music, until finally, Oasis' Noel Gallagher publicly wished that Blur singer Damon Albarn would die of AIDS. According to Blur drummer Dave Rowntree, both bands fancied themselves the saviors of British pop, and neither side took kindly to second best.
"It all got started really because we're a very competitive band, and Damon's extremely competitive," Rowntree says from a Cleveland hotel, where he checked in under the pseudonym Hercules Duxford. "I suppose we came up against a couple of other people who were just as competitive as we are. All that releasing-the-singles-on-the-same-day was our idea, so it's very hard to actually complain. At the end of the day, it did both bands a lot of good. It put us both up to the next level and allowed us to go on with our careers."
Both bands rose from the ashes of the dismal Manchester dance-pop craze at the beginning of the decade, a movement that soured American ears to anything British for several years. Both bands have a flair for vintage songcraft, and a thoroughly British contempt for their peers. Beneath these similarities, however, crucial differences divide them. Oasis is provincial and working-class, while Blur is artsy and middle-class.
The general perception has been that although Blur may have won the battle (its 1995 single "Country House" topped the British charts), Oasis won the war, by conquering the U.S. and establishing itself as Britain's biggest band. Just compare their respective treatment in Spin magazine over the past three months. Blur got a polite four-page feature in the August issue, but Oasis landed the October cover, bolstered by the gushing headline: "Louder Than Bombs, Bigger Than God, Mad As Hatters."
But beneath the commercial scorekeeping, one fact tends to get lost: Oasis keeps cranking out the same basic album, with different titles, while Blur grows in impressive and unexpected ways. Where Oasis successfully defined itself early, and has yet to change, Blur started out as lame dance-pop poseurs, and only later became artists. The band's latest Zelig-like transformation comes with its self-titled fifth album, which moves it away from the Kinks-inspired Britpop of its past three albums toward the Amerindie messiness of Pavement.
"We definitely wanted to go in a different direction, or at least explore some avenues," Rowntree says. "We had really said right from the start of [1992's] My Life Is Rubbish that we were gonna do three albums, a trilogy. We ended up being saddled with a lot of baggage that was no longer interesting."
Part of that baggage was the mantle of Britpop poet laureate, which many critics had handed down from the Kinks' Ray Davies to Albarn. Beginning with My Life Is Rubbish, and peaking with 1994's Parklife, Albarn articulated the mundane routines of British life with a verbal wit and melodic flair unheard since the days of "Dead End Street" and "Waterloo Sunset." At his best, Albarn melded Davies' compassion with Jam-era Paul Weller's sense of angst, and delivered it with the exaggerated Cockney inflections of the Buzzcocks' Pete Shelley. As a result, he created a potent brew almost sure to be impenetrable to the American masses.
More than most bands, Blur battles internally over its influences. While Albarn vociferously lauds the likes of Pavement and Sonic Youth, Blur bassist Alex James recently described both bands as "horrible culty art-wank." Similarly, Rowntree insists that he's never liked the Kinks, and attributes the "music hall" phase of the band's career to Albarn's latent--and apparently brief--infatuation with Davies' songwriting. From the beginning, the band's musical shifts have tended to reflect benign power struggles between Albarn and guitarist Graham Coxon.
"The four of us in the band have got very different musical tastes, and we're always listening to different things," Rowntree says. "Each of us pulls the band in a different direction, and where we end up is the end result of all that pulling. Graham's always been pulling toward that harder, more aggressive music.
"There has been a lot written about this being an American-indie-rock-influenced album, which is kind of ironic, 'cause Graham's been into this since I've known him. If anything, it's just more stripped-down and rawer."
The newly raw Blur graced MTV this summer with the video for "Song 2," a runaway train of a single that lodged itself in memory banks through Albarn's ebullient "Woo-hoo!" chant. Hype aside, though, Blur's best moments on the new album are generally those that sound most like the well-scrubbed English pop it perfected on Parklife.
The lilting "Beetlebum" pits an ethereal melody against Albarn's tale of a sad loser. The folky "You're So Great" sounds like a companion piece to the Kinks' "Autumn Almanac." Even the mildly noisy "M.O.R." recalls David Bowie's "When You're a Boy" more than Amerindie garage-rock. By contrast, the spacy, organ-fueled instrumental "Theme From Retro" goes nowhere, and the punky shambles of "Chinese Bombs" suggests that nothing is quite as annoying as skilled craftsmen working to sound like clueless amateurs. In addition, the 11-minute coda, "Essex Dogs," includes not one, but two, hidden tracks, a largely American device that Blur should have ignored.
Nonetheless, if the new album is a hit-or-miss experiment, it's still part of an amazing evolution from the unpromising 1991 debut album, Leisure. Despite the hit "There's No Other Way," a calculated Manchester homage, there was little on this featherweight collection to indicate that the band would survive another six months, let alone six years.
"We weren't really too sure what we were doing with the first album," Rowntree concedes. "I suppose it really does reflect a lot of what was going on with music at the time. When you start out in a band, you're not very confident, and everyone's trying to mold you into something that they want you to be. There was a big bandwagon rolling along, and we hopped on it."
When the band began to assert itself musically with a much-improved sophomore effort, My Life Is Rubbish, it found little support at its British label, Food Records.
"In between the first and second albums, we were really trying to break out on our own and do our own thing, and the record company was very nervous about that, to the point where it was touch and go whether they were gonna release it at all," Rowntree says.
"It ended up them saying, 'This is a mistake, we'll release it anyway, but don't blame us if it all goes horribly wrong.' It isn't really the ideal kind of circumstances to release your album under. But we knew it was a good record. By then we knew what we were doing it for in the first place. We'd made a niche for ourselves."
In carving out a place for itself, Blur has helped refute the post-grunge theory that British pop was a dead issue on these shores. But success in the U.S. has been a long, slow slog for the band, and Rowntree audibly cringes at the mere mention of Blur's first tour of this continent.
"At the time, English bands tended, if they had any success at all at home, to get bundled straight off to America in the hope that they could repeat the success over there," he says. "When we were still playing small gigs in London, we were bundled right over to America to play to 10 people. For three months that year we ended up playing in America. And it drove us up a wall, it absolutely drove us mad. 'Cause we achieved absolutely nothing, obviously, and by the time we got home, everyone had forgotten about us at home as well.
"It was happening to every English band as well. It was amazing. Everybody was looking at each other, saying, 'What are we doing this for? Why aren't we consolidating our success at home?' And that was at the time when grunge was just really starting to happen. Nevermind had just come out when we got off the plane."
All these years later, the members of Blur paint the picture of a band that's happy exploring the limits of its music, and no longer overly concerned with record sales. They even downplay their feud with Oasis, extending an olive branch, but usually sticking a few prickly thorns in there for good measure. In Spin, Albarn says, "I do like their songs, but they're just not very . . . bright." Later, he throws civility out the window and brands Oasis "the Spice Girls on drugs."
When asked about Blur's pesky rivals, Rowntree hesitates for what seems like an hour, then unconvincingly says, "Uh, they're okay. Mmmm, they're a good band, definitely. I don't feel we have very much in common anymore."
It could be argued that they never had much in common, aside from their nationality. Blur writes vignettes, while Oasis cranks out anthems. Blur hones in on the minuscule details of life, while Oasis serves up oversize generalities. Most significantly, Oasis' creative path seems paved, while Blur is ever-liable to shed its skin and recklessly follow some new obsession.
"We're all intensely interested in music," Rowntree proudly says of his bandmates. "We can all play. Nothing's holding us back. We're only interested in moving forward."
Blur is scheduled to perform on Monday, October 6, at Electric Ballroom in Tempe, with Smash mouth. Showtime is 8 p.m.
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