Music News

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.

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Gilbert Garcia
Contact: Gilbert Garcia