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The Great Escape 

Blur's class act

Wednesday, Jan 24 1996
The last time Blur came to town, I inadvertently found myself attending Bimbo's post-gig party. There I stood at the bar, unhappily sandwiched between Blur's Alex James and Graham Coxon, both clearly hammered beyond conversation, even to my less-than-sober eye. Now, there were several reasons to steer clear of this occasion, the chief one being that I am seemingly compelled to be hugely uncool in such circumstances. So I embarrassed myself by telling James how much I like his band. This ended my brush with stardom.

But I wondered: Was this really an example of rock stars misbehaving, or were they acting the way they think pop stars should? Were the, er, spaced-out fretboard gaffes that ruined the closing song ("This Is a Low") merely a lark? Was Blur in America just to trash hotel rooms, or what?

I think we might get some answers on the current tour. Blur claims to have Britpop in perspective now, and if that's true, if "breaking" America has receded as a (stupid) goal, then the music should benefit. Still, the pressure is on. Blur produced a fine album last year, The Great Escape, but it could not eclipse 1994's Parklife, and the Brit-press, so notorious for the severity of its Backlash that Melody Maker still runs a page under that rubric, has found new darlings of the genre. Chief among these is Pulp, who on Blur's previous visit to San Francisco blew the band off the stage of the Fillmore. Live, Blur is a mystery. The band's punk tunes ("Bank Holiday," "Jubilee," "Globe") work better in the studio than onstage, where the quartet becomes hysterical, spewing out superspeed versions of even the delicate songs. Blur is seemingly ready at any moment to commit the sin that Oasis so cravenly craves -- that of becoming the Next U2.

Why does Blur irritate some people so? The group's proletarian fakery has generated the inevitable complaints about a lack of authenticity, but Blur's exposure of class sensibility as performance text is hardly unique. From Jagger to Bowie, pop stars have pretended to downward social mobility. They have, like Bowie, messed with their "real" social location in relation to gender, too. The best of all these performances was Bryan Ferry's Roxy Music reversal -- the miner's son as foppish toff superstar. But Blur plays this game in a manner that touches a nerve.

Speaking as a child of working-class parents, I leave it to the politically correct sons and daughters of the rich to worry themselves sick over these dislocations. And Blur reveals something that Jagger et al. did not. Margaret Thatcher's England created a new kind of upwardly mobile prole -- Essex Man, the Tim Roth-esque lad, the lager lout with a flat in Docklands, a job in the City, and a flat accent that could flay you alive. These are the characters Blur writes about -- a topic made visible in the artwork to The Great Escape, which steals blatantly from Heaven 17's Penthouse & Pavement invocation of postindustrial Britain. Following Labour MP Ken Livingstone and Cockney actor Phil Daniels (Quadrophenia), how long before Roth turns up in a duet with Blur?

Blur has also been misunderstood as pomo pastiche. Sure, "Ernold Same" rewrites the sentiments of the Kinks' "A Well Respected Man," as orchestrated by George Martin. But who is that performing the speaking part? Yes, that's Livingstone, a devoted socialist whose leadership of local government in London was so effective in the 1980s that Mrs. Thatcher had the entire body abolished. Nostalgia is never only about retreat; returns always signify something new and important about the present. If Blur and its fellow travelers sound a bit like the Beatles sometimes, a bit like the Kinks, this is an effect of the recovery of a memory -- the hunger for melody -- but there's more to it than that.

Britpop can have little to do with the optimism of the Fab Four because times have changed. There is a passion here that far exceeds any simple postmodernist game of reference, surface, and irony. Having misread British punk the first time around as a fashion statement, American critics are now poised to repeat the mistake: choosing to praise Britpop for its Beatletudes (whereas the Clash was misappropriated as the New Stones), or condemn it as a fad. Neither grasped what punk meant then, and neither approach will work for Britpop. Perhaps Blur wears its class consciousness too lightly. Like Martin Amis (whom the band so much resembles), Blur's line in working-class patter may be a tad forced. It doesn't change the fact that if The Information was a dog, Money rocked.

It will be the album after The Great Escape that decides Blur's stateside fate; singer Damon Albarn has said as much. Like Pulp's Jarvis Cocker, he knows that it is Oasis who is oven-ready to succeed in America right now. Late last year Albarn gave an interview to NME in which he wisely disowned the Britpop tag and claimed the whole thing was finished. He's right, of course.

I myself detest the discourse of "invasions." I'd rather be post-Colonial, thank you very much. Inspired last year by Parklife, I started the Britpop program on KUSF (Saturdays, 3 p.m., 90.3 FM) not to praise the genre, but to explode it. To expand the battlefront until it becomes so porous that it spreads generic confusion abroad. But this mirror image of Yank Anglophobia, the little Englandisms of Brit-hype, even this cannot detract from the quality of the 30-odd world-class acts who've emerged from the British Isles in the last three years. You sense a confidence in the writing now -- not just a groove, but a thirst for hooks. Amis on a roll, with all his swagger and arrogance.

Albarn has asserted that Blur and Britpop represent a twin rejection of grunge and rap. Like him, his audience was shaken up by Nirvana, or so he claims. There are certainly shared roots here. When pop groups all went "baggy" (the final insult here was the Farm), the grooves became quite hard to play. The dance pulse that underpinned many rock bands from about 1989 to 1993 was achieved either by dedicated musical accomplishment (listen to the session players on the new Black Grape LP) or -- more often than not -- via software and samples. Either way, it was ill-suited to new, young bands. When U2 started serious grooving (on Achtung Baby, in 1992), the game was up. British groups began sounding "new wave" or "'70s," meaning that the syncopated backbeat was missing. Blur abandoned baggy and went for a strange combination of Kurt Weill and Sham 69.

But the emergence of Britpop is not only a musical phenomenon. The revenge of Thatcher's children was never going to be pretty. Amid the irony and the playfulness, there is an angry energy in this music, and a Refusal in its attitude. Blur's subtle rage on "Entertain Me" or "It Could Be You" equals anything spewed out by Kurt Cobain, Johnny Rotten, or Chuck D. Maybe Britpop will be too "British," in the end, to constitute an "invasion." That Britpop's sentiments make sense to the poor bastard children who grew up in the Reagan years, however, is not so surprising.

Blur plays Mon, Jan. 29, at the Fillmore in S.F.; call 775-7722.

About The Author

Andrew Goodwin


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