A “heavyweight battle”, the NME cover-billed it. And if “Country House” vs Oasis’ “Roll With It” was a title bout, the music press were desperate to play Frank Warren.
Perhaps they had most at stake. It was, in a way, their last great fight. Many other moments define Oasis. Blur are best remembered for different songs. Britpop itself? Well, this was the high tide – probably the main reason Oasis even count – and the rivalry became an ongoing, rather tiresome, pop storyline for years after. But even then the battle is just one of a scrapbook of memories: Britpop had to be a thing already for this tussle to even matter.
The press, though – this is the climax of its 80s and 90s story, its turn away from other music to keep the indie flame burning, and how it saw its favourites gradually win over first the radio establishment, then a wider public. And look – here they are! Top of the charts, ma! Whoever wins, we won, is the NME’s message, but in that final ridiculous week the story had outgrown them. After Britpop, readers dwindled, and no new story emerged: the price of ‘we won’ turned out to be that there wasn’t a “we” anymore.
The run-in, as I recall it. Oasis, releasing their second album, were a coronation away from being the biggest band in the country. Blur, veterans on their fourth, were returning conquerors, Parklife having defined them (and their genre) in the record-buying eye. Singles release dates at first didn’t sync, then did. Alan McGee at Creation refused to blink. The nation held its breath – or ignored all this entirely.
But just as Cup Finals and Playoffs can be disappointing, cagey affairs, so the Battle Of Britpop played out more warily than it might have. Oasis, it would become apparent, had left commercially far stronger singles than “Roll With It” on the bench – the track doesn’t even show up on their Noel-picked Greatest Hits. Blur didn’t – there are better songs on The Great Escape than this, but “Country House” is one of the few that gets in your face enough to do this job.
It’s also a honking, parping pantomime. Both bands played up to their image: if you’d written the whole thing as a TV drama and had to fake up convincing singles, you might have ended up with songs rather like “Country House” and “Roll With It”. Blur could be tough to pin down, but “Country House” gave the public more of what they’d already rewarded from the group – uptempo, brash songs with a bit of satire on top. It’s a bustling, dense song – fun-packed and glassy-eyed, with desperation never far away: that niggling two-note phrase cycling under the final choruses, for instance. It pushes catchiness into exhaustion, mirroring the breakdown of its lead character. My first thought is it’s trying too hard, then I realise that’s the point, then I think it’s trying too hard to make that the point. Then I want it to stop. Then I end up playing it again. The grotesque, much pilloried video only adds to the headaches. Modern life is, as they say, rubbish. But were Blur – was this whole stunt? – criticising it, reflecting it, or making it worse?
In the context of The Great Escape, Country House fits nicely: the album is full of brittle people, awful lives, and melancholy just under the skin. It’s an honest taster – as is “Roll With It”: Oasis at this point met expectations, good and bad. These singles were advertising more than just their LPs, though. To the new establishment at Radio 1 – who grabbed the Britpop battle baton enthusiastically from the NME et al – they were a vindication of controller Matthew Bannister’s brutal repositioning.
Bannister inherited a station listened to by about 20 million people, but the audience skewed too old – his vision, backed up by multiple moody, black-and-white promo vids, was of a station where credible presenters would play credible music to a credible audience. It’s a vision that’s endured ever since – shifting Radio 1’s role away from mirror of pop and towards its mentor. In 1995, though, with ratings collapsed and tabloids circling, Bannister needed a win: the Britpop battle gave him one, putting the spotlight on exactly the music his ideal audience segment loved.
In a sense he was lucky, but the showdown couldn’t even have happened a few years prior. “Chart battles” – we’ll see a fair few more – were a creature of the new age of first-week sales spikes: the winner was guaranteed a number one. If this was, as some said, the first time in ages the charts had mattered, they were mattering in quite new ways.
SEALED KNOT HISTORICAL RE-ENACTMENT?
The retro angle is something of a red herring in the music, too. Blur had influences, as obvious as their rivals’ – the “Country House” lytic is Kinksy, there’s plenty of Langer and Winstanley’s 80s sound in the horns, other tracks on the album nodded to Numan and XTC – but neither they or Oasis ever really sounded like anyone but themselves. As with Oasis, the voice played a huge part: Albarn’s distinctive, stylised singing could flip from naughty choirboy to music-hall rabble rouser with ease, but whoever he played you could spot him immediately (“..inna cun-TREE” could be nobody else). Most of his styles, to be honest, set my teeth on edge: there’s an ironic, above-it-all veneer to his vocals which seemed to begin as strategy on their early records and settle into habit. If I often end up buying Albarn’s melancholy anyway, it’s because he can be a great melodist, not really because of his singing or delivery.
PLAYGROUND SCRAP? CLASS WAR?
On “Country House”, Albarn’s not really trying to be sensitive – it’s one of his occasional character songs, indulging a taste for social observation. It’s about a guy retreating to the country because he’s going through some kind of crisis and either having or faking a breakdown – but the music does a much better job of capturing this chap than the words. Take, for instance, the Balzac/Prozac bit. It was approvingly quoted, apparently evidence Blur were The Clever Ones in this schoolyard swots v jocks fight – but it feels very rhyme-first, with “Woah, it’s the century’s remedy” clunking in to hammer home how zeitgeisty Blur are being. An unfair comparison perhaps, but on “Sunny Afternoon” Ray Davies becomes his character and the music becomes his world, and so the listener gets inside it too. The geezer in “Country House” is caricature – the one stab at any kind of inner life that mocking “I am so sad, I don’t know why” refrain.
(Meanwhile, over on the other channel, Noel’s “I think I’m gonna take me away and hide / I’m thinking things that I just can’t abide” is a good summary of depressive self-hatred. Liam then sings it in the same surly monotone the rest of “Roll With It” stews in.)
So there’s no empathy in “Country House”, just observation, and bald observation at that. Just as on “Parklife” and much of “Girls And Boys”, Albarn does comic journalism, not storytelling: he’s the Peter York of pop, the songwriting equivalent of jokey pen-portraits of “social tribes” in a Sunday supplement. If the bands’ backgrounds made it easier to overlay unhelpful North v South, Working v Middle Class conflicts on Oasis v Blur, this kind of thing helped the charges linger.
IT’S ALL ABOUT THE MUSIC, MAN?
Both singles are rescued by their guitarists. Where on “Some Might Say”, Liam bossed the song, he’s flatter on “Roll With It” and the wall of sound has to put in serious work to stop the song becoming a complete trudge. On “Country House”, meanwhile, Graham Coxon puts down a delightful Christ-Are-Pavement-Hiring? guitar solo that’s as endearing as the rest of the track put together.
BALD MAN COMBFIGHT?
The standard anti-Britpop line – the what about Goldie argument, you might call it – hardened quickly during 1995. Why were we paying attention to this charade when there was so much more interesting things happening? How could these throwbacks represent the real, multicultural Britain? I subscribed to this thinking myself, and the “Battle” fuelled it – on paper the idea of Britain’s indie bands straining muscle and sinew to create amazing pop singles was seductive, but if these two weakling, just-about-OK records were the result, the idea was a bust.
Since then I’ve softened. For one thing both “Country House” and “Roll With It” sound a bit better than they did. But also the effects on British indie music, let alone British pop, weren’t nearly as deadening as they seemed at the time. This isn’t as good as Britpop got, but it was as big as Britpop got as a pop event. The noise died down and the charts went on their merry – and increasingly diverse – way.
So who won? Oasis won the war and conquered the country. The NME won a last chance to set the agenda. Radio 1 won time to finish its credibility revolution. Graham Coxon, as it later turned out, won a musical argument. And Blur won the Battle of Britpop. Which was just about fair, because of all the records by all the big Britpop bands, none strained so hard to sound like Britpop as “Country House”.