5
Jul 13

BLUR – “Country House”

FT + Popular185 comments • 9,494 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. 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 :(

  2. 177
    Ed on 16 Jan 2014 #

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

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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 ;-)

  6. 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.

  7. 182
    hectorthebat on 20 Apr 2015 #

    Critic watch:

    New Musical Express (UK) – Classic Singles (magazine feature 2006-2007)
    XFM (UK) – The Top 1000 Songs of All Time (2010)
    Panorama (Norway) – The 30 Best Singles of the Year 1970-98 (1999) 27
    Theater van het Sentiment, Radio 2 (NL) – Top 40 Songs by Year 1969-2000 (2013) 12
    Rolling Stone (Germany) – The Best Singles of 5 Decades (1997)
    Hervé Bourhis (France) – Le Petit Livre Rock: The Juke Box Singles 1950-2009
    Les Inrockuptibles (France) – 1000 Indispensable Songs (2006)
    Face (UK) – Singles of the Year 35
    New Musical Express (UK) – Singles of the Year 22
    Select (UK) – Singles of the Year 4
    Spex (Germany) – Singles of the Year 36

  8. 183
    Girl with Curious Hair on 18 Nov 2016 #

    I think The Great Escape is one of the most underrated albums of the 90s. Some of the criticisms it receives are pretty valid – the sneering and lack of empathy in the lyrics, and the mindless oompah-oompah ladrock it occasionally lapses into – but I think there’s a depth and pathos in those weaker moments that gets overlooked.

    Country House is actually one of my least favourite songs on the album, because it’s one of the songs that best encapsulates those criticisms, but I think it’s a more interesting song than it gets credit for…

    Now, I don’t know Damon Albarn personally, and I realise there’s a list of fallacies as long as my arm when it comes to making judgments about a person’s character based on their art. But I think there’s enough evidence in his work to take a stab at assessing who he “is” as a songwriter (or more accurately, who he was during the Britpop years) and I think the authorial character he presents in these songs exhibits a pretty depressive mindset.

    He gets portrayed as this arrogant and sarcastic lyricist, casting his amused eye over a cast of lowlifes and inviting us to laugh at them – and it’s not a completely unfair assessment. Empathy isn’t his thing as a songwriter. But that’s what depression can do to people: it can force them inwards. On the Great Escape, Albarns mostly keeps his distance and sings about caricatures, but it’s quite a lonely distance. I feel like he can’t quite fathom what’s making these people do the strange things they do; and they all seem to be fairly unhappy people too, just doing those things to get themselves through the night.

    (For a literary version of depression turning a person inward, have a look at David Foster Wallace’s The Depressed Person – literally just *look* at it, at the way paragraphs tower like prison walls and the way the footnotes gradually smother the main text as the story progresses – it’s very design is claustrophobic and a little scary.)

    As for Country Hourse, despite all the good-times horn work, and the singy-song chorus, and the bloody Benny Hill video with dolly birds being chased around by Matt Lucas in a milkfloat: despite all those things, it really does nail that building desperation underneath everything. And the way that desperation erupts – everything drops out abruptly at the end of the solo, leaving Damon to wonder why exactly he’s so sad – seems to mirror a certain kind of depression too. You think you’re doing fine, or you’re doing a reasonably good job of convincing yourself that you think you’re doing fine, and then you realise you’re not. And the matter-of-factness with which you realise that is kinda unsettling in itself. But before you can expand on that thought, the horns have started up again and the girls in their bras are running around and giggling. No, you were right first time. You’re doing fine.

    Incidentally, there are a few songs on TGE when he does seem to get inside his characters, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the songs with lyrics in the second person tend to be, if not the best, then the most poignant: I’m thinking The Universal, Yuko and Hiro, Best Days. (THe latter being one of his finest songs for me, one of the few where he completely drops the smirking Cockney wideboy look-at-these-mugs thing and bares his loneliness. It’s also one of the few songs on TGE that offers some kind of hope.)

    I’m not going to expand on this because I’ve already rambled on waaaay too much on a review people stopped talking about years ago; but I see something of 1980s Martin Amis in Albarn too. Not Amis’s gift for language, obviously, or Amis’s fairly preposterous views on pretty much everything that’s happened since about 1998 – but I see a tiny through-line in there. They’re both satirists of a certain type of London grotesque they can’t ever really get inside. John Self and Nicola Six were so sad but never really knew why.

    Blimey, this turned into an essay…

  9. 184
    Matthew K on 18 Nov 2016 #

    Great words GWCH – it’s thoughtfulness like this which keeps me coming back to Popular. I don’t doubt you are correct in viewing this record as an expression of loneliness, but I also think the Olympian perspective on Everyman which characterised the mainstays of Britpop is also a bit of a cocaine mindset. The combination of self-belief and self-loathing must have been pretty electric.

  10. 185
    Girl with Curious Hair on 18 Nov 2016 #

    Thanks Matthew! And I suspect you’re absolutely right, and cocaine played a bigger part in all this stuff than I might have alluded to… there’s definitely a coke vibe to the album, just as much as Be Here Now arguably, except it’s very much on the other side of the high. The brittle arrogance, the sudden bursts of melancholy… it’s like they saw the end of the Britpop party before it had even reached its peak.

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