Thursday, May 8, 2014

BRITPOP DISSECTED #4 - Oasis versus Blur

director's cut version, New York Times,  October 22 1995

(published as "Battle of the Bands: Old Turf, New Combatants")

by Simon Reynolds

  Right now, the British music scene is convulsed with patriotic fervor. For
the first time in over a decade, young British guitar-bands are penetrating the
Top 10 of the Singles Chart, barging aside faceless Euro-dance acts and routing
the American grunge invaders.  This 'Britpop' movement, which includes Blur,
Oasis, Elastica, Pulp and Supergrass, harks back to the days when Britannia ruled
the airwaves: the Sixties (Beatles, Kinks, The Who) and the New Wave late '70s
(Buzzcocks, Wire, The Jam).  But Britpop's parochial reference points and
stylistic insularity, while highly appealing to large sections of U.K. youth, may
pose problems when it comes to exporting the sound to America, where grunge still

 By far the biggest Britpop groups are Blur and Oasis, both of whom have new
albums set for imminent release in this country. In August, the duel between the
two bands over whose single would enter the UK charts at Number One made the
British national newspapers and TV news. The rivalry between Blur and Oasis is
often compared to that between the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, but in fact
those '60s giants had a genial relationship and a gentleman's agreement not to
release singles at the same time. Blur and Oasis, however, appear to loathe each
other with a genuine and deep passion.  Recently, Oasis' guitarist Noel Gallagher
shocked the pop community when he expressed the wish that Blur's singer and
bassist would both "catch AIDS and die".  Underlying the verbal vendetta is a
regional antagonism.  Blur are from the South of England and middle-class, albeit
infatuated with London proletarian lifestyles.  From the Northern city of
Manchester, Oasis are the genuine working class article.  What both bands have in
common is a dedication to resurrecting the lost glory of a quintessentially
English pop canon.

Blur's fourth album "The Great Escape" (Virgin) pays homage to the English
tradition of music-hall pop, as exemplified by the Kinks, Ian Dury and Madness,
who all combined wry, observational lyrics about everyday life with a tragi-comic
pathos. Singer and wordsmith Damon Albarn went to drama school, and appropriately
most Blur songs are like miniature satirical plays. "The Great Escape" is full of
third-person vignettes that caricature English stereotypes.  "Ernold Same", a
brief sketch about a conformist commuter crushed by soul-numbing routine, revives
pop's tired tradition of "Mr Jones" songs that jeer at squares.  "Country House",
the single that beat Oasis to the UK Number One spot, is about a city gent who
retreats from the urban ratrace.  Mocking a namedropping poseur, "Charmless Man"
echoes the heavy-handed satire of the Kinks' "Dedicated Follower of Fashion",
while "Top Man" is an punning portrait of a womanising thug who's "naughty by
nature/shooting guns on the High Street of Love".

Despite flashes of wit, there's a condescending detachment and lack of
compassion to Mr Albarn's writing that makes his characters hollow and
two-dimensional.  The singer's bogus Cockney accent, where "cold sweat" is
pronounced "cow swah", and his perpetual sneering tone, also become
irritating with prolonged exposure.  Musically, "The Great Escape" manages
somehow to be both experimental and dated, favoring the densely-detailed
arrangements and quirky production effects of groups like XTC and Squeeze, who
followed in the tradition of "Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band".  And so
Blur's guitar-quartet sound is gussied up with melodramatic strings and chirpy
horns, quaint synthesisers and lugubrious pianos.
Oasis' new album "(What's The Story) Morning Glory" (Epic) is also deeply
indebted to the Beatles.  Singer Liam Gallagher sounds like a more nasal John
Lennon, with the joie de vivre curdled to a sour arrogance.  Sonically, Oasis are
basically a grungier version of The La's, an early '90s Beatles-obsessed outfit
from the North of England. While a fervent admirer of La's songwriter Lee Mavers,
Oasis' Noel Gallagher has said that when he first saw that band perform, "I
thought, 'he's ripping off my songs!'".  In truth, both songwriters are so
chronically influenced by Lennon & McCartney that they're basically filling in
the gaps in the Beatles songbook, and inevitably sometimes the same gap.
Theorist Joe Carducci uses the term 'genre mining' to describe such a
classic-rock approach. A marginally less hook-laden reprise of the debut LP "
Definitely Maybe", "Morning Glory" suggests Oasis' particular seam of sound is
close to exhaustion.  By far the best thing on the album is the closing "Champagne
Supernova".  "Where were you when we were getting high?", taunts Liam Gallagher,
"Some day you will find me/ Caught beneath a landslide/In a champagne supernova
in the sky".  Like Oasis' previous peak "Live Forever", this song aches with a
lust for glory. Its imagistic metaphors exalt rock'n'roll as one of the few
escape routes for working class jack-the-lads who want more from life than 9-to-5
Outside the narrow, Sixties-fixated parameters of Britpop, the UK music
scene is generating the most vital and futuristic music on the planet. From the
post-rock experimentalism of Laika and Techno-Animal to trip hop's sinister
atmospherics and jungle's cyber-funk frenzy, these developments have been
overwhelmingly shaped by the rhythmic innovations of hip hop and techno. By
comparison, what's striking about Blur and Oasis is their lack of rhythmic power.
In Blur's music, the drums are decorative rather than propulsive, while the bass
is melodic to the point of being rococo.  As for Oasis, the trudging rhythm
section is mixed low, allowing the Gallagher brothers' distorted guitars and
anthemic choruses to dominate.  Far from being a liability, though, this
deliberately old-fashioned production style may actually be a big source of
Britpop's appeal, at least to those who regard contemporary pop's cult of
the beat as a tyranny.

No comments: