5
Jul 13

BLUR – “Country House”

FT + Popular186 comments • 11,850 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. 1
    punctum on 5 Jul 2013 #

    No word from me about this until TPL comes round to the whole fandango. An 8 from me for this, however, because quite often for pop to matter there has to be The Moment, however it is engineered into being.

  2. 2
    Tom on 5 Jul 2013 #

    This might be the longest Popular entry. And it’s about bloody Blur. Oh well!

  3. 3
    Mark G on 5 Jul 2013 #

    Damon’s caricature songs seemed to have ended with “Stereotypes”, that one where the verses describe a ‘typical suburban sex comedy’ and the chorus admonishes the writer for falling in to a too-familiar writing pattern purely to create another song.

    “Ernold Same” and “Charmless Man” were more of the same, but it’s possible these were written before, or in the case of “Ernold” casually tossed off because Ken Livingstone had visited the studio and Damon wanted to write something to use him in.

  4. 4
    punctum on 5 Jul 2013 #

    not actually what happened

  5. 5
    Tom on 5 Jul 2013 #

    “Stereotypes” I actually like, it seems like quite a loving tribute to XTC’s “Respectable Street”.

  6. 6
    thefatgit on 5 Jul 2013 #

    I’ll keep my powder dry until I re-compare these 2 after work…

  7. 7
    Tom on 5 Jul 2013 #

    Data point: my kids were 2-0 to Oasis. “How did that other song get to No.1?” said my baffled eldest after hearing the majesty of “Roll With It”.

    (RWI would get a 5, incidentally. Maybe a 4 if the sun wasn’t shining.)

  8. 8
    Doctor Casino on 5 Jul 2013 #

    Great read and a nice glimpse into this ‘battle’ which, as an American, I heard about later but didn’t really follow or understand. Blur had an even lower profile over here than Oasis and are effectively understood as one-hit wonders (the still-oft-heard “Song 2”). Probably never heard this one until around three years ago, at which point I played it over and over for a week. It’s good, much more fun to sing along to than “Roll With It” and most of “Some Might Say” for that matter – though I agree that the distancing smugness is a bit much. If it were any less peppier its sanctimony would sink the song (see Radiohead’s “Fitter Happier” for an extreme case).

    Probably the key moment is the “in the COUNTRY-Y!” before the goofy little solo – where it’s made clear that Blur are having fun and not just making fun. Still, I wonder if this lyric would be improved by rewriting in the first person; c.f. “Paperback Writer” (which also benefits from being faster and having, to be fair, a much more skilled group of musicians).

    Somewhere around 5 is right for this I think. 4 if I have a headache, 6 if I’m in the mood.

  9. 9
    Mark G on 5 Jul 2013 #

    Actually, 2-1 would be a true reflection of the count of CD formats which was the main single format of the time.

  10. 10
    Doctor Casino on 5 Jul 2013 #

    Tom, I’m staggered at your charity towards “Roll With It!”

  11. 11
    James BC on 5 Jul 2013 #

    I was all set to say how weird it was that Oasis put up the second worst track on Morning Glory as their entry into this contest, but I listened again and was surprised how good Roll With It was. There’s not much to the lyrics or the tune, but the overall sound of it is great – propulsive, exciting, stirring. It sets a mood. If electronic acts are allowed to make mood-based tracks without much of a song to them I don’t see why Oasis shouldn’t be.

    Country House is OK but some of the lyrics are annoying. How is it like an Animal Farm?

  12. 12
    flahr on 5 Jul 2013 #

    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.

    This, I think, is the key observation – and not only because it allows me to plug my own essay on the album, one of my occasional and dismally unsuccessful attempts at punctumosity – but because it highlights something rather odd about “Country House” and the album: viz., on an album which is very explicit about its concept, the two songs it begins with are actually these which seem furthest away from it – an album about trapped people desperate to escape begins with two songs about people who have succeeded in escaping. And even if as Tom says Damon is laying out his hand by calling the first one “Stereotypes”, it’s remarkably affectionate, at least far more so than “Country House” is (and given the comfortably middle-class tangents that Blur’s, especially Alex James’s, lives have followed since that point, “Country House” codes now less as sneering at the stupids and more as the sort of self-hatred “Dan Abnormal” trafficked in – perhaps I hold this view because of how explicit John Harris’ “The Last Party” is about how nasty it was being in Blur at around this time).

    I like the album, not so much for it being brilliant but for it being so unified and forceful and sincere (much the same thing as I think about The Final Cut, come to think of it), and it’s certainly true that “Country House” (6 seems right to me) isn’t the best thing on it; for my money it’d be “Yuko and Hiro”, I think. I was going to say something facetious about it being J-pop, although come to think of it the keyboards are not a million miles away from Laugh & Peace's work on the Vib-Ribbon soundtrack (how’s that for an obscure reference!)

  13. 13
    flahr on 5 Jul 2013 #

    Oh, and I don’t like “Roll With It” all that much but its existence is vital for the purposes of that joke about serving Noel Gallagher soup at a restaurant.

  14. 14
    punctum on 5 Jul 2013 #

    Interesting how nobody has yet said anything about the actual subject of “Country House,” i.e. Blur manager/record label owner/ex-Exploding Teardrop Dave Balfe.

  15. 15
    flahr on 5 Jul 2013 #

    It’s a fair cop, he paid me not to mention him.

  16. 16
    leveret on 5 Jul 2013 #

    My 15 year old self couldn’t really see at the time what was particularly wrong with the ‘city dwella/successful fella’ taking off to a country retreat for a quieter life and wondered why Albarn found him worthy of such mockery. I possibly misunderstood the phenomenon the character was supposed to represent (something not a million miles from the latter-day Alex James?). On the other hand, while on holiday with my parents a couple of years previously we were subjected to a solipsistic monologue by a boastful pub-bore who was eerily like the character described in ‘Charmless Man’ and so that song was much easier for me to identify with on a literal level.

    On the musical side of things – possibly the most unorthodox guitar solo ever to feature on a UK number one single?

  17. 17
    weej on 5 Jul 2013 #

    How about that “blow blow me out I am so sad I don’t know why”?
    Does it belong there? The bitter, britpop-hating Albarn of the early 00s said that this was the kernel of honesty he should have built the song around. I don’t know if he’s changed his mind, post-reunion, but he seems to have embraced the song again, as Pulp have Mis-Shapes.

  18. 18
    Chelovek na lune on 5 Jul 2013 #

    I was in the UK for two days of that week, en route from Bucharest to Moscow, so I did catch a little of the hype. And I think the better single, at least, won. Which it is not to say it is a great single…

    I think the lack of “character depth” attributed to yer country house dwelling man portrays here underlies a sort of cynicism/callousness found elsewhere – in fact almost all too commonly – in some other Blur lyrics too. (“Girls and Boys” being a glaring example. “Should always be someone you really love” sounded intensely insincere.) Damon’s unsympathetic sneer gets rather grating. – and it really is not simpatico at all.

    And the song is all a bit too cartoonesque for my liking. Not quite (Danish 1997 bunny) levels of cartoonesquery, but almost. Even without the video. Knowing sneers, too clever-clever references. Another Blur characteristic (the whole bloody Parklife thing, anything involving mockneyisms-a-go-go), apart from when they were at their very best: which was when they ditched the irony (or the excessive nodding towards mid 70s-Bowie-by-way-of-Suede) and dared to be sincere. Which on occasion they were: both in West London paintings (“For Tomorrow”: now that would have been a cracker of a no 1: “To The End” was, even, languid, and delightfully so), or ethnic diversions later on.

    A 5 or a 6 from me. Roll With It at best a 3.

  19. 19
    Tom on 5 Jul 2013 #

    #14 I’d forgotten the Balfe thing. I’m pretty sure Julian Cope wrote a couple about him too, probably less charitable.

    #17 The problem with it as a kernel of honesty is that, in context, it sounds like a pisstake.

  20. 20
    Andrew Farrell on 5 Jul 2013 #

    The question of when Damon’s sneer is unsympathetic and when it’s a bluff would be a matter of Humour, and by the grand unified theory of same, the values across all possible readings will be unique to the reader. Which is another way of saying that I always took that line in Girls and Boys as the truth.

  21. 21
    Andrew Farrell on 5 Jul 2013 #

    kernel of honesty is exactly right – I was considering ‘a pearl in the sharpened oyster’.

  22. 22
    Mark G on 5 Jul 2013 #

    #11, because an Animal Farm is full of rural charm, animals, activity, that sort of thing. Whereas an Arable farm is just harvesting corn, etc. and is not full of rural charm. It has some, just not as much. Not full, you might say. So, his country house is full of things that might relate, similiarly, to things on an Animal farm.

  23. 23
    Mark G on 5 Jul 2013 #

    #13….

    You know what, check out Radiohead’s “Lucky”, as previewed on the WarChild comp. The first few lines I actually wrote, independently of Thom, as a sort of pastiche/step-forward from this song.

    “I’m on a roll (with it), I’m on a roll (with it) this time
    I feel my luck will change….”

  24. 24
    swanstep on 5 Jul 2013 #

    The video’s grotesque? Really? I think it’s a pretty nifty effort at not taking oneself too seriously while also clearly affiliating the song with the whole tradition of Beatles/Kinks/10cc/XTC UK pop clever-clogsiness. Honestly, I find it much easier to hear the song’s parts with all the visual cues in place. By way of contrast, I don’t find, say, ‘Girls and Boys’ (let alone any of Blur’s slower melodic gems) hard at all to aurally parse without its vid., so this may say something bad about ‘Country House’. Indeed, now I think about it, CH is really a slightly-too-arch-for-its-own-good, less-melodically-distinguished rehash of Park Life’s ‘End of a Century’. So, if CH the song is taken by itself I reckon that Tom’s score is right, but vid. included this is a full-service-pop-stars:
    7 (could go 8 on the right, sunny Wimbledon day)

  25. 25
    Tom on 5 Jul 2013 #

    #21 I think in the song it’s telegraphing it as honest – the whole song stops, hanging a big fucking lampshade on that as the ‘serious part’. But the telegraphing is exactly what makes it seem insincere to me, like Mr Country House has gone so far down a rabbit-hole of self-regard that even his moments of quiet honesty feel like part of a script. If the whole thing’s set in a country house, that break is your host cornering at you at 2AM to unburden himself.

  26. 26
    Andrew Farrell on 5 Jul 2013 #

    Ah no no I meant in Girls & Boys, sorry. Not lampshading it also helps in taking it seriously, though Blur always were one to play with all the effects – if they were putting on a play then every lighting effect in the rig would get its time to shine.

  27. 27
    JLucas on 5 Jul 2013 #

    I hate this record. Absolutely loath every smug, unpleasant second of it. I can appreciate that Blur had some fantastic songs and were by far the braver and more ambitious of the two groups, but this and Parklife just made it impossible for me to enjoy them.

    Vile, an easy 0.

  28. 28
    Tom on 5 Jul 2013 #

    I think Girls And Boys is horrible and sneery and their best song by a mile, BTW.

  29. 29
    Auntie Beryl on 5 Jul 2013 #

    Format watch:
    Blur CD1, CD2 (live), 7″
    Oasis CD, TC, 7″

    Price watch:
    Blur £1.99 (EMI offered the single to shops on a “one for one” deal – we ordered thirty and got thirty free, thus enabling a tarriff half of the standard £3.99)
    Oasis £2.99 (two for one deal from Creation’s sales force 3MV)

    One aspect of the chart week I rarely see referenced: Creation managed to balls up the barcode on the Oasis CD single and the first batch had to have a replacement on a label applied. The single arrived into stores a day late (Saturday rather than Friday) and it’s conceivable some stored may have had to wait until Monday for delivery, at the mercy of when the Securicor van went past.

    On hearing of this I left the shop and stuck a tenner on Blur to win. They weren’t favourites in the betting at this stage.

  30. 30
    MikeMCSG on 5 Jul 2013 #

    #14 You beat me to it Marcello. My reaction to this song (and pretty much anything Albarn does apart from the keyboards on Elastica’s “Waking Up” ) is “when you write a song that’s one hundredth as good as “Reward” then you can sneer you Southern art school wanker”. You may have guessed I don’t like this group much. Not that fond of Oasis either so the whole thing left me cold

    I seem to recall that Cope sacked Balfe and Gill for writing the hit single that had eluded him.

    Grudgingly the Bannister point is a fair one. I can’t stand the bloke and think a lot of his animus against the old DJs came from being patronised by them when his lunchtime “Newsbeat” slot finished and he had to hand back to Paul Burnett or whoever in the 70s. I liked the old style Radio One where bands were expected to hone their craft and produce something commercial enough for the daytime playlist rather than instant access to high chart placings. That sort of influence was waning before Bannister came along though.

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