Monday, June 21, 2010

Blur versus Oasis

Blur and Oasis were arguably the most important British bands of the Nineties. Blur adopted an Englishness that kind of kick-started the whole Britpop thing and became quite popular in an intelligent low-key way, before breaking up, or just taking a long break. Oasis were exponents of big, dumb rock and became phenomenally huge and then faded into being a Rolling Stones type of commercially successful yet creatively empty.

IN 1994 I bought Parklife and Definitely Maybe on the same day at the same record shop in Cavendish Square. I'd read a lot about both bands and had heard the "Girls and Boys" single on the radio but I don't think I'd heard anything by Oasis at the time.

When I listened to the two albums back to back I found that I preferred Blur even though their English inflected pop music was not as much to my taste and the gigantic guitar rock sound of Oasis. It came down to my irritation with Liam Gallagher's voice and vocal mannerisms. He was allegedly the best British rock vocalist of his generation but to my mind he was possibly the worst. There was little emotion in the voice and he had the excruciating habit of extending single syllables into many. Damon Albarn had a less individual voice but sang more conventionally good. The Oasis guitar wall of sound ultimately became too much where Blur obviously valued song craft and production.

I played Parklife quite a lot and listened to Definitely Maybe a few times. When The Great Escape came out and I saw it at Vibes Music I bought it immediately although I did not yet know anything about it. I completely ignored (What's The Story) Morning Glory? when it was released and even when it became an enormous hit.

Ultimately I bought every Blur album up to 13, and only bought (What's The Story) Morning Glory? 14 years after its release when I found it at a Cash Crusaders shop. I had in fact bought Blur's debut album, Leisure, in about 1992 because I had read good things about them in Select magazine and because I thought the album cover photograph was great, but it was stolen from me in 1993 and I never bought a replacement copy, mostly because I did not think of it as such a great album.

The Great Escape was not to wonderful either. By this time I was no longer keen on the Blur pop sound and lyrics about colourful characters that may have been no more than figments of Damon Albarn's imagination and this is no doubt the Blur album I've least often listened to. There was the great fight at the time with Oasis for a number one single and even if Blur won the battle, I thought the winning song, "Country House", was very twee and even stupid without being exciting or interesting. As far as I was concerned Blur was a spent force, perhaps successful but no longer compelling listening.

With "Song 2" my attitude changed completely. "Beetlebum" came out first and I quite liked it and almost thought they had returned to the heights of "Girls and Boys" but the very punk "Song 2" got me back into the fold. It was your perfect slice of 2 minutes' worth of riff, excitable vocals and arresting hook. No wonder "Song 2" broke Blur in America. It was simple yet effective and energizing. It made an old punk like me want to pogo again

The album was Blur, and it is kind of strange for any band to give its fourth album an eponymous title. It is more usual for the debut, but I guess this album was a kind of debut of the new Blur who were so over Britpop and no longer prepared to peddle the cheeky pop chappies image. Some reviews suggested that Blur represented such an about face that it would be commercial suicide. As it turned out, "Song 2" helped make it a very commercial proposition.

I also bought Blur (as was the case with 13 the next year) from Vibes Records, and as had been the case with The Great Escape, I found it when I was merely browsing, without specifically looking for any Blur product. I bought it without considering whether I really wanted it but I guess "Song 2" was as compelling a reason as any to own this album. When I took it home and played it for the first time, I also found that the album was an overall musical success and much more to my taste and liking than its predecessor, or any of the preceding albums. This music was different, darker, more skewed and much more satisfying as a piece of work than the Britpop Blur.

Then came 13, which was the breakup album, after Damon Albarn had parted ways with Justine Frischman and was feeling very sorry for himself. Once again Blur moved away from their previous sound, very far away from the Blur of 1994, and made music that resonated and hit home, emotionally and musically, and made me believe that Blur had at last found a proper, intelligent rock groove. There was gospel, weird post-rock shapes and superior melodic pop. For my money this album is the Blur masterpiece, but I would pair Blur and 13 as two of the best British albums of the Nineties.

About 4 years after 13 and during the making of the Think Tank album, Graham Coxon left the band. By then I was kind of over Blur and the British scene as a whole and never had any intention of buying Think Tank, despite the very positive reviews it received. In any event it seemed to me that the absence of a guitarist would tend to make the music more keyboard and sample oriented and therefore less rocking and this prospect did not excite me. By and large I am into guitar pop and rock.

Somewhere between Blur and 13 I finally got around to buying Modern Life Is Rubbish, the album that was the first of the trilogy that ended with The Great Escape. It was far better than the third album of the group and it was perhaps because the songs were more ambitious and yet also simpler to appreciate. But ultimately it was also an album that appealed to me only so much. The sound of the record is not the type of music that I had listened to before that and still does not truly float my boat to this day. I like more basic, primitive rock music. All this clever pop stuff is all very good but it appeals more to my mind than my gut. I guess that is why it paled after a while.

Today my Blur albums are packed away in a box in a spare room and for a while I seriously considered giving them all away. I cannot think I would ever want to listen to Modern Life Is Rubbish, Parklife and The Great Escape all that much again, I would imagine that the same would really apply to Blur and 13 as well Blur relates to a certain time in my life, when I still made an effort to follow the music of a contemporary band and I do not do that much anymore for any but South African bands. The other thing is that I never listened to Blur type music in the ordinary course and Blur represented some kind of anomaly in my musical taste.

I suppose I bought the Blur more for what they represented than out of a genuine interest in, and love for, a weird kind of parochial British pop.

After Definitely Maybe I ignored Oasis, even as I was buying all those Blur albums. I did not like the music all that much, mostly for the reason of my dislike for Liam Gallagher's vocal performances, and could not understand why they became so massive in the UK. It was almost because of the phenomenon that (What's The Story) Morning Glory? became that I refused to buy it, although I should have at least investigated the music behind the mega success. Never mind, I was quite happy to ignore it and just read about how massive Oasis was becoming.

There was massive hype when Be Here Now was released. One of the songs was on a freed CD that came with a magazine I bought and it seemed kind of nice but by then I had developed a mindset that militated against buying any Oasis product and that resistance has lasted up to now when Oasis is still a major band but seems to me to be a modern day Rolling Stones where the brand is the thing, not the product the band puts out. The odd Oasis single played on local radio seemed quite nice and solid in a pleasurably dumb rock manner but did not motivate me to spend money on Oasis. Not even on a collection of B-sides or a later greatest hits album.

The drought was broken in 2005 when I found the DVD Known To Millions, companion to a live CD of the same title, in a French supermarket at a budget price. When I eventually played the DVD, and I have yet to play it all the way through, I saw that it was visually a pretty boring record of an enormo Oasis gig somewhere. This is the late period Oasis from the period of Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants and the set list consists of old favourites and more current numbers but over the length of the DVD the songs do tend to start sounding the same and because there is very little to stimulate the eye (the band just stands there and plays) my attention started wandering. I might just as well think of it as a CD album; put it on and walk away and do something else without bothering to watch the so-called action.

In 2009 I finally bought (What's The Story) Morning Glory? because I found it cheaply at Cash Crusaders and finally found out what the hype had been all about back in 1995 and 1996. The sound is more traditionally produced that than the wall of sound of the debut album and songs are therefore more conventionally tuneful and appealing. By this time I had already heard a number of the songs, such as the title track, "Roll with It", "Wonderwall" "Champagne Supernova," and "Don't Look Back In Anger ", and the collection feels like a bit of a greatest hits collection. Very nice album, Liam Gallagher's voice still grates, but it is not a bad little record. I still do not understand why this album caused the band to go so massive. In my opinion the original underwhelmed reviews were spot on, as much as the overenthusiastic, overblown reviews for Be Here Now nowadays seem slightly silly and hysterical, the product of music journalists who did not want to be wrong again.

I have not listened to Definitely Maybe in years and I do not listen to Morning Glory all that much either. I still feel no compelling reason to acquire any other Oasis product though a formal greatest hits album may be an option. Oasis are now old hat, rock monsters going through the motions because that is how they make their money and not because they still matter or have relevance. Noel Gallagher made his mark and it was a large mark and he will go down in rock history for his achievements but in 20 years' time Oasis will be as much of a novelty nostalgia act as the Rolling Stones have become despite all protestations to the contrary.

On Easter weekend 2009 Oasis played at the Coke Zero Fest in Somerset West, Western Cape, as the headliners, above the likes of Snow Patrol and Panic at the Disco. It was a money gig for Oasis. They walked on stage, ran through the usual suspects of their hit repertoire, finished with "I Am The Walrus" and walked off. It was a big sound, it rocked, the audience went crazy for them and it was oddly unsatisfactory. The most I could say for the experience was that I had never thought I would see Oasis live and at least they are not officially a nostalgia act.

The war between Blur and Oasis in the mid-Nineties now seems quaint and silly and not particularly relevant in the bigger scheme of things. I guess you had to be there and perhaps you had to be a publicist for either of the bands or their respective record labels. To make a comparison with the Beatles and the Stones is somewhat odious and I think the more apposite comparison would be between an act that specialised in the clever musical idea and either well observed vignettes of real life or dark autobiography, and an act whose leader boasted of how many musical ideas he's lifted from the likes of the Beatles and where guitar power was the main thing and the lyrics were facile and seemed to be written just to give the singer something to sing. At the end Damon Albarn was not afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve and to try apparently difficult music, while Noel Gallagher never revealed himself in his lyrics and has been content simply to keep on refining his basic blueprint.

It is also fatuous to try to define which was or is the better group. They were both good in their chosen field and both deserved the success they attained and who knows who will have the most standards if the fashion finally gets around to the Nineties in the same way the Eighties have been so thoroughly revisited for so long now.

Britpop waxed and waned in the slipstream of Blur and Oasis begat dozens of traditionalist guitar bands. If there has been a longer lasting influence from either it seems too early to show.

Blur dissolved at the right time, before the music got repetitive or bland or just superfluous. Damon Albarn has proved that there can be second act in pop by having a very interesting solo career and piloting Gorillaz to superstardom. Graham Coxon has released a bunch of solo albums ranging from raging full on rock to quite pastoral stylings and if he is not as wildly successful in this as Albarn is, he is absolutely gaining an immense reputation for what he is capable of. Alex James had a side-line pop career, kept on partying and got rather literate as well and I have no idea what he is currently doing. The same applies to Dave Rowntree. For all I know he races model cars in his spare time and raises a family fulltime. There was a Blur reunion of sorts in 2009 for live shows. As far as I know there are no plans for another album but it could still happen.

Oasis releases a new album every couple of years and keeps ton touring and the Gallaghers keep on battling each other. It is a show that can keep running for a long time, for as long as money is to be made from the brand, anyway.

No doubt there will be financial reasons for intermittent Blur reunions.

Both bands will be best served by a "greatest hits" or "best of" compilation to explain to posterity what the fuss was all about way back when they were young and fresh and there was a new optimism in the UK led by New Labour and the media hype of Cool Britannia. In due course there will be the box sets with unreleased tracks, either outtakes or demos, and the adoring notes of long-time fans that never stopped believing. Hey, it's nothing but rock and roll and if you are lucky you can symbolise an era or zeitgeist and make money at it as well.




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