5
Jul 13

BLUR – “Country House”

FT + Popular181 comments • 7,996 views

#725, 26th August 1995

Blur-Country-House-54546 BOXING?

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.

FOOTBALL?

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.

WRESTLING?

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?

ADVERTISING?

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.

POSTERITY?

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”.

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Comments

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  1. 151
    MichaelH on 15 Jul 2013 #

    #147 #150 I think Tom’s probably right about Green Day. In Kerrang! world they are written about as if they are the Beatles. I bet there are scores of pop-punk bands for whom Green Day, the Offspring, Rancid and so on on are the real originals of punk rock. And you can see that when you watch MTV Rocks or Scuzz on one of their pop-punk specials – as I did this weekend – and see dozens of bands who look and sound just like Green Day, but not like the Buzzcocks. And certainly not like Fugazi and Minor Threat or Rollins or DKs – the punk bit of the pop-punk equation is in amny cases minimal (Green Day are unusual in that they did come out of the punk underground).

  2. 152
    punctum on 15 Jul 2013 #

    For a certain generation, Green Day ARE their Beatles. That they are not “our” generation is irrelevant.

    Oh and by the way it’s “Buzzcocks”; no definite article.

  3. 153
    Mark M on 15 Jul 2013 #

    Re 150 (etc): As he’s already warned, Sinker is going to stomp everyone for discussing ‘influence’. But anyhow, I’m extremely sceptical about your argument. If you’re a kid in Omaha and you see Green Day on MTV and think ‘this rocks’, there is absolutely nothing that obliges you to undertake an art history project to see where they came from before you form a band yourself. They’ve also shifted an awful lot more units than everybody on your list bar maybe The Who.

    I can’t tell you the number of bands who’ve said to me, ‘People say we sound like The Velvets/The Only Ones/Can/The Go-Betweens/Captain Beefheart/critical touchstone of choice, but we’d never heard them until after we made the album.’ Sometimes they are lying, mostly I’m convinced they’re not.

    Also, if someone gets a playlist in 2013 that contains The Clash and Green Day, I don’t think they are necessarily going to think ‘x precedes y’. There is no obligatory reason, equally, why they should like x if they like y, despite what Amazon or Last.fm tell you. I’m sure lots of people like Green Day and don’t like The Clash, just as there were always people who liked The Jesus And Mary Chain but had heard and didn’t like The Velvet Underground or The Crystals.

    Or to take it to another medium, I am completely aware that Eric Rohmer’s yappy French films were in Richard Linklater’s mind when he thought of Before Sunrise, but that in no way stops me from loving Linklater’s trilogy and hating Rohmer’s stuff – they are films made by very different people in a very different time/place. If someone was to give me a million dollars and say you have to make a movie and it ended up as a lousy imitation of Dazed And Confused, would you still insist I was essentially stealing from Rohmer because he is the originator?

  4. 154
    punctum on 15 Jul 2013 #

    Well, there are, ahem, issues with Rohmer’s work. Claire’s Knee; I’ll say no more.

    Otherwise, very well put.

  5. 155
    James BC on 15 Jul 2013 #

    I don’t believe the Buzzcocks have the right to decree whether they get the definite article or not.

    I’m going to carry on using it if I want to – that’s the punk rock thing to do.

  6. 156
    Mark G on 15 Jul 2013 #

    But that way lies The Madness..

  7. 157
    punctum on 15 Jul 2013 #

    I pronounce “you.”

  8. 158
    Alan not logged in on 15 Jul 2013 #

    Some Buzzcocks

  9. 159
    Izzy on 15 Jul 2013 #

    The The The

  10. 160
    ciaran on 18 Jul 2013 #

    Oasis were the clear favourite of both acts in my Irish secondary school.That may be because of the gallagher’s Irish connections but Blur didnt endear themselves to me when they performed this on TOTP.Damon hamming it up put me off it staright away.One of my brothers mates though worshipped Blur , right down to dressing like him aswell which wasnt the obvious thing to do back then with our faith in Oasis heads down no nonsense rock and roll.Of course by the mid-noughties that seemed like an inspired choice but thats not for here obviously.

    I have grown to love Blur over the years but this has little appeal to me.

    CH seems to sum up the quirky side of Britpop.It takes on a life of its own. Compared to the rest of Blur’s material it’s hard to imagine it as anything other than in the red corner of the battle of the bands.Didnt like RWI either so the August showdown in hindsight is a letdown now.

    4.

    If only the next singles of both bands had got to Number 1.

  11. 161
    Kinitawowi on 19 Jul 2013 #

    #123 (yeah, I was away for a while): Imperfect Sound Forever noted exactly that quality, that WTS(MG)’s brickwalling made it the perfect car / pub / party album that could cut through everything else and stand out, and goes on to accuse the album of being the shark jump moment for maxed-out music. Which may be a tad unfair (it was going to happen some day, and Oasis just got there first).

    I stand by my original assertion, though. Blur didn’t win this battle, Oasis lost it; this was one of those times when you really needed a track that could capture the imagination, and Roll With It simply wasn’t it.

  12. 162
    weej on 19 Jul 2013 #

    #159 – There’s already Duran, Duran Duran and Duran Duran Duran (surely a contender for best album cover of the 00s). Sheffield’s Artery were originally called ‘The’, and of course there’s The The, and I’m happy to find out there’s even a The The The out there.

  13. 163
    Tom on 3 Oct 2013 #

    Kevin Shields has an opinion about Britpop. http://www.theguardian.com/music/2013/oct/03/kevin-shields-britpop-pushed-by-government?CMP=twt_gu

  14. 164
    pink champale on 3 Oct 2013 #

    He seems to have borrowed that opinion from an idiot. (There is a clue specifically which one in the article)

  15. 165
    tm on 5 Oct 2013 #

    Re 161 (I’ve been away longer…) Oasis often seemed to have wonky singles choice: who else would use songs like Acquiesce, Fade Away and Alive as B sides while putting something as throwaway as Shaker maker out as their second single?

  16. 166
    Ed on 5 Oct 2013 #

    @163, 164 – Maybe it’s because I’ve just seen the Adam Curtis / Massive Attack thing, but the idea that the government pushed Britpop seems entirely uncontroversial to me. Governments, plural, in fact, because both John Major’s Conservatives and Tony Blair’s Labour government tried very hard to associate themselves with it.

    In part the motives were political: both sides wanted to freshen themselves up with the whiff of Cool Britannia, and wanted to define its meaning on their own terms. With that notorious party at Number 10, Blair seemed to be setting himself up quite explicitly as the Harold Wilson to the Gallaghers’ Lennon and McCartney, or Lennon and Ringo perhaps. (The early, hip Wilson of the mid-60s, that would be.)

    But there was also a strong economic motive. There was a lot of talk in those days about pop’s contribution to the balance of payments, and a sense that as Britain didn’t make anything any more, we had to think about something we could do that the world would want to buy. In that context, the feeble commercial performance of UK acts generally, and in particular the lack of any 90s equivalent to the two great British Invasions of the US, were deeply worrying.

    There were specific corporate interests, too. EMI became a standalone company in 1996, in what were the last great years for the record industry, and saw direct financial benefits from the increased popularity of British music.

    Just like Select magazine, British industry and the British economy had an interest in rejecting Grunge and its American successors, and establishing a home-grown alternative.

    Whether all this amounts to a “conspiracy” or not is a matter of taste, I guess, and whether MI5 was actually involved I have no idea. More likely it would have been Alistair Campbell and some mid-level officials at the DTI.

    But is Kevin Shields’ opinion crazy? Not at all.

  17. 167
    Ed on 5 Oct 2013 #

    @166- Pop, the cash nexus and the ruling class, 2012 style:
    http://www.bpi.co.uk/media-centre/prime-minister-celebrates-global-growth-of-british-music.aspx

  18. 168
    tm on 5 Oct 2013 #

    In the live forever docu, Damon claims he received a letter from Peter Mandleson, bollocking him after he criticized Tony Blair for sending his kids to private school, so, if that’s true and not just self-agrandizement, then there was an attempt to bring pop music in-house as a sort of youth wing of New Labour: and what better way than through Brit pop: populist enough to reach da kidz (or at least, student types who might turn out to vote Labour) but ‘clever’ enough to justify the association and most New Labour types could probably actually bear to listen to the music.

    The question would be: what did Brit pop get out of it: it’s not like Blur or Oasis needed the publicity or the credibility and once New Labour got in, Oasis were quick to distance themselves (Blur having already got cold feet). Presumably they were eager to help send the Tories on their way but of course no one wants to find themselves the house band of the government!

  19. 169
    Mark M on 5 Oct 2013 #

    Re 168: Here are words I never thought I’d write: in fairness to Tony Blair…
    he didn’t send his kids to private school – he sent them to a posh state-funded Catholic school in a part of London that he did not live in, thus seeming to contradict the ethos of local comprehensive education that Labour was still associated with at that point, but as it happens in line with where Blairite education policy would end up going anyway…

  20. 170
    Patrick Mexico on 6 Oct 2013 #

    Tony Blair was politics’ answer to a drunken uncle at a wedding commandeering the Space Shuttle. More later.

  21. 171
    Patrick Mexico on 3 Nov 2013 #

    Re 135: Well, before Nirvana’s legendary Bristol Bierkeller gig in 1991, the interviewer asked Cobain if he’d heard any good music recently. Apparently he half-sang half-mumbled There’s No Other Way, quite cheerfully.

    Indeed, Kurt hated militaristic, Republican-voting hicks just as much as Damon Albarn does any time the US threatens military sanctions. Blur (and Oasis) picked a fight with the wrong America. Though they more than redeemed themselves with their self-titled album!

  22. 173
    pink champale on 14 Jan 2014 #

    Ed @166 Sorry, I’m *really* not buying your Government plot thesis.

    for “pushing Britpop” to have become Govt policy in the mid 90s it would have required either Michael Hestletine to suddenly decide that the answer to the balance of payments was an increase in sales of chirpy british guitar pop, or for one of his mid ranking officials to decide this and persuade both his senior management and then his DTI Minister and then the Treasury and No 10 that this was the way to go. And that it had to be kept secret. This does not seem very likely

    And even if it did happen, what was the mechanism for achieving this?
    the Government told EMI/Creation/Island what bands to sign? They established editorial control over Select magazine? They provided secret tax breaks for vintage adidas? They fixed the charts?*

    Obviously New Labour tried to associate themselves with Britpop – and did give a (possibly illusory) musicians exemption from JSA conditionality – but that was very much after the fact ambulance chasing. The Tories were too knackered and dysfunctional by that point to even bother claiming credit for the thing that was happening on their watch iirc.

    *though i do still sort of half believe the GSTQ conspiracy theories

  23. 174
    Ed on 16 Jan 2014 #

    @173 – In the December Uncut, I think it was, Kevin Shields clarified his position. “I’m not saying MI6 invented Sleeper” was roughly how he put it. “More like they went easy on Liam Gallagher.”

    That sounds about right to me.

    Anyone read this?

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Britpop-Britannia-Spectacular-Demise-English/dp/030681367X/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1389828606&sr=8-2&keywords=Britpop+john+harris

    I would trust John Harris on this stuff more than anyone else.

  24. 175
    Mark G on 16 Jan 2014 #

    I did, when it was called “The Last Party” and it implied it was more about Blair than Liam..

    It’s ok

  25. 176
    flahr on 16 Jan 2014 #

    Good book, tries to enforce a narrative on the period slightly too rigidly, but there’s interviews with plenty of people who give good word. He is very unfair on Menswe@r though :(

  26. 177
    Ed on 16 Jan 2014 #

    And what’s his take on the role of MI5 – or possibly MI6 – in Britpop?

  27. 178
    Tom on 28 Apr 2014 #

    Taylor Parkes goes in on Blur and Britpop http://thequietus.com/articles/15092-blur-parklife-anniversary-review

    (This reminds me that I have been shamefully sitting on Weej’s excellent Britpop Nuggets compilation efforts since he sent me them – I will email about that!)

    I admit the last month or two of 20th anniversary ra-ra-ra has been depressing – it seems a bit naive now that I imagined we might end up with a more nuanced picture of the 90s with hindsight, rather than one in which Britpop was the only interesting thing that happened.

  28. 179
    weej on 28 Apr 2014 #

    “Britpop is almost unique among those musical trends which lasted half a decade or more, in that you couldn’t fill a Nuggets-type compilation with genuinely good tracks.” – Ha! Sounds like a challenge (though I’m not sure the compilation – which had slipped my mind too – will change his mind)

    That was quite an enjoyable read, and I agree with let’s say 85% of it, though I still sort of love Britpop all the same. The odd thing is that I *do* hate what he hates, I just think there was something else going on from the side of the 14-15-year-old living in the sticks. Something undoubtedly went wrong – seriously wrong – at the tail-end and indie music never really recovered, but there’s no sense in blaming that on Powder or the Bluetones. Indie music ran out of ideas, it was moribund, it died, no use mourning it. The longer-term impact of lad culture, the rise of the anti-political-alternative, the establishment using pop culture as a toy to be wheeled out for good old harmless nostalgic British fun – yes, all very bad things, and yes, some britpop acts were on the wrong side of the fence here (as were many journalists) but these are much wider shifts in the culture, and it’s hard to blame Britpop for all of this when some groups were actively opposed and most were too small for it to matter what they thought.

    The BBC 20-years coverage has been a mix of repeats (some good) and analysis (most dispiritingly terrible) which is leading me to the feeling that the mid-90s have been lost to reductive nostalgia, and very little can be done to save them. Even the John Harris book, supposedly a definitive take on the topic, is just a load of showbiz anecdotes followed by a hackneyed attempt to tie it to the rise of Tony Blair. A successful history of the britpop years would have to begin with the premises that (1) it was a small scene, with little importance in the long run and (2) the media getting carried away in its coverage killed any spark it had. Unfortunately the saturation coverage by the BBC and websites like britpopnews.com (if you thought the BBC coverage was bad then you haven’t seen that) means that any interesting coverage will just get lost in all the noise. RIP Britpop.

  29. 180
    flahr on 28 Apr 2014 #

    “which is leading me to the feeling that the mid-90s have been lost to reductive nostalgia”

    Whoa! You’re saying that a time when most of the mass media’s 40-something movers and shakers were in their early twenties may be being remembered by the mass media with uncritical fondness? Say it ain’t so ;-)

  30. 181
    anto on 29 Apr 2014 #

    #173: Coincidentally my Dad was working in a finance office where Michael Heseltine was technically his boss at that very time. I’ll ask him if he remembers bumping into Bonehead or the bass player from Shed 7 in the corridor at any point.

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