The mid-to-late ‘90s were a hazardous time to get into music in Middle England. Loads of great artists were doing inspiring things but so much crap was heavily marketed that growing up without developing appalling taste was hard. Male friends of mine – otherwise decent, morally-upstanding people – will therefore go through life telling those who ask that the first album they ever bought was ...Baby One More Time or Aquarium.
Looking back, I can see that I too fell into the music industry machine, albeit in a less cringeworthy manner. The first album I paid for with my own money was Blur. I’m sorry: I was eight and didn’t know any better.
In 1996, my dad gave me a double cassette of the previous year’s best singles. It must have been copied from someone else’s tape because, as I recall, the track listing was hand-written. Nonetheless, being the only pop music in my possession, the cassettes got played with monotonous regularity.
At number one on the list’s countdown was Supergrass’s ‘Alright’ – but I didn’t like that. It was too showy; too direct. I much preferred the song at number two: a simple, fun, melodic tune called ‘Country House’.
My parents noticed that I was playing that one song over and over again and bought me a present: Parklife. I loved it. It was everything ‘Country House’ was and more. In addition to the shout-along title track, it had melody coming out the wazzoo and a few quirky numbers about fictional characters and faraway dots in the sky. To my young mind, the list of stars chanted by Alex James on ‘Far Out’ was the most fascinating thing in the world.
While walking me home from school one Friday, my dad told me that Blur had a new song out called ‘Beetlebum’. At first, I refused to accept this – song titles were not allowed to have swear-words in the title, for a start – but later that night, when I saw them play the song on Top of the Pops, I knew that it was indeed real and that I needed to own it as soon as possible.
My birthday was a recent enough event for me to have £10 of my own to hand. For the weeks remaining until the album’s release, I guarded that banknote with my life. On a quiet February Saturday, in the Bury St Edmunds chain of Andy’s Records, I bought a CD for the first time.
In the months that followed, I did precious little except listen to Blur. My favourite song on the album – after ‘Beetlebum’, of course – was ‘On Your Own’, due to its hilarious reliance on shouting the word ‘gorilla’ to maintain a rhyme-scheme. ‘Theme From Retro’ was an otherworldly intrigue. On an interminable bus trip to Bournemouth, I listened to ‘Country Sad Ballad Man’ so many times that I wore out three packs of AA batteries.
I also remember jumping around like a nutcase in a spare room at my cousin’s house, recreating the actions of the band in the video for ‘Song 2’. Like everyone else at the time, I thought that song was the absolute nuts. Its appearance on the FIFA 98 soundtrack came at just the right time to make my only CD the coolest one I could own.
How times change.
Blur were nowhere near as good as my childhood self believed. Despite the band continually being presented as the smarter, more cultured face of Britpop (Oasis’ working class background and shameless Beatles pastiche made them seem vulgar by comparison) the fact remains that Albarn, Coxon & co. never had a single original idea.
They started out trying to break into the Baggy scene and failed. They moved on, stealing instead from The Kinks, The Small Faces and Madness, and made it big. Their ‘mockney’ shtick was an embarrassment – a textbook example of shameless posturing. Blur was their attempt to regain rock credibility by piggybacking on the popularity of American underground bands like Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr.
Blur may have stopped writing new music but their spirit remains alive in the plethora of soulless, chameleonic twats – stereotypically found in Camden, Shoreditch and Hoxton – who grab instruments, form bands and take photos of each other but baulk at the idea of, well, actually coming up with ideas.
When I listened to the album in preparation for this piece I noticed a number of problems. Like most of the band’s output, it has not aged well. Most of the songs sound flimsy, as though the listener was expected to be put off by anything too rich or textured. Having now heard Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr., Blur is not nearly as interesting.
It is too long and contains some utter duds. ‘M.O.R.’ sounds like pennies being counted at EMI head office. ‘Chinese Bombs’ is a cheap injection of tempo strategically placed to stop the listener falling into a stupor after hearing ‘Death of a Party’ and ‘I’m Just A Killer For Your Love’ consecutively. ‘Essex Dogs’ is an abomination.
Furthermore, my fondest memories of the album are now tainted. It transpires that the shout of “gorilla” on ‘On Your Own’ was an invention of mine: Albarn actually sings “hooligan guerrilla”. No matter how it is dressed up, ‘Country Sad Ballad Man’ is not a good song – and I resent it due to its association with an era in which I had to go on holiday to fucking Bournemouth.
Most detrimentally of all, ‘Song 2’ has been ruined by years of constant use on television, in adverts and, most depressingly, at sporting events. It passed saturation point so long ago that it is genuinely impossible to listen to Blur without skipping it. Everything about it grates. The title says it all: ‘Song 2’ is at best a sketch, a work in progress, a still-gestating idea – one that somehow conquered the world.
With this huge list of flaws in the back of my mind, it is with a guilty conscience that I still enjoy a lot of Blur. ‘Look Inside America’ may be the most formulaic attempt ever made to sound like MTV-friendly lo-fi but it is a great song. Nothing on Graham Coxon’s critically-acclaimed solo releases has come close to matching the simple and sincere ‘You’re So Great’. If I ever want to listen to a Blur song – which, I concede, still happens on occasion – I go straight to ‘Strange News From Another Star’.
Even after all this time, I still think Blur’s best moment comes on ‘Beetlebum’. The sixty-second outro of dense, spiralling delay-pedalled guitar and radio static would not sound out of place on the experimental ambient records my older, more pretentious self enjoys. For that minute, I am eight years old again and the world is a truly brilliant place.