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Feb 14

BLUR – “Beetlebum”

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#758, 1st February 1997

Beetlebum The question “what happens after Britpop?” wasn’t just an urgent one for the music press and the new bands courting it. It was also fairly pressing for the Britpop bands themselves, Blur in particular. Whoever’s idea it had been, the marketing triumph of Summer ’95 had a lingering and unexpected consequence: once conjured, the Blur/Oasis rivalry could not be easily controlled. The two bands were now bound together as if by some dreadful oath – each liable to be measured on the other’s latest achievements, however irrelevant the comparison.

In 1996 this had done Blur no favours. Sales of The Great Escape would have stood solidly alongside any contemporary LP – except the only one it would actually be compared to. The band, once fawned-over, found themselves exposed to less generous readings from critics – their Britpop-era work a trilogy that had dragged on too long and failed to stick the landing.

“Beetlebum”, when it first appeared, was pressed into this storyline too. Taking some faint clue from the harmonies (and, to be fair, the title) I remember some critics positioning it as a landgrab on White Album-era Beatles: the knotty, raw, arty part of the Beatle legacy that Oasis would never touch. Sense prevailed when the LP came out, and it became more obvious that the band were playing greedy catch-up with all the ideas that had come out of American indie rock in the 90s. They came to bury Britpop, not to extend it.

From this point, the Oasis link began to work in their favour, even as they played it down. Nobody would deny that in the fallout of Britpop, Damon Albarn embraced his magpie side and started hopping across projects and genres with liberated abandon. But because the band most easily linked with Blur became such a byword for bloody-minded non-invention, Albarn’s experimentation within that band was cast in a particularly friendly light. If the most readily-recalled alternative was a shambolic living museum, it’s easy to look at experimenting with indie rock, post-rock or gospel as good things by definition, rather than ask “OK, what does he actually do with them?”

So, on “Beetlebum”, what does he do with his inspirations? On a structural level, it’s rather good: Blur are writing a song using standard post-Nirvana dynamics, with surly, choppy verses that ought to flare into rage on the chorus, but instead bloom into sleepy, burnt-out neo-psychedelic harmonies. Two different parts of the alt.rock landscape, brought together on a Number One hit. It’s admirable and effective, but I also find “Beetlebum” extremely hard to like.

My problem with it is Albarn himself. As well as the social observation songs, and the character songs, he’s always built tracks around ennui and exhaustion, and often they’re his best (“To The End” and “This Is A Low” for instance). As his songwriting seemed to get more personal later in the 90s, though, I found less of a way into these songs. Perhaps because he’d been an effective observer, or perhaps just because he’d been a callous one, I could never get invested in hearing Damon Albarn bare his soul. “Beetlebum” is supposedly written to capture Albarn’s experiences with heroin, which might justify its sullen, self-enclosed feel, but even given that unpromising topic there’s no rock junkie whose drug memories I’d be less interested in. As I said on the “Country House” thread, empathy was never his strong suit – and that goes for eliciting it as well as feeling it.

However unusually-crafted “Beetlebum” is, or however odd seeing it at No.1 was (odd, though not unexpected – this is a fanbase record in an era friendly to them), I find listening to it a cold, unrewarding experience. Or I would, if not for one thing: Graham Coxon’s aggressive guitar work. Competing with Albarn’s listless vocal for too much of the song, he still gives “Beetlebum” its two highpoints. There’s that purposefully ugly, stabbing intro, his guitar scraping at a fixed point like a compass into wood. And there’s the coda, where his plaintive closing riff struggles to keep its bearings on a tide of hostile, skronky overdubs. These parts are thrilling where the rest of the song is sulky, and point to a way out of the Britpop trap that’s spurred by invention, not hurt pride.

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Comments

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  1. 91
    swanstep on 12 Feb 2014 #

    It occurs to me that both in the US and down under (hence maybe almost everywhere except in the UK and Ireland) Blur and Albarn have been appreciated almost completely musically. Their personal obnoxiousness or daftness just haven’t been obvious from a distance (whereas, say, Bono’s or Sting’s or Liam Gallagher’s or Billy Corgan’s abilities to grate have translated across the globe). So… from a distance, it’s a little funny to read all this sniping and griping. Carry on!

  2. 92
    Andrew Farrell on 12 Feb 2014 #

    I think Mr Corgan has been accommodating enough to let his grating side shine through in his music.

  3. 93
    Garry on 12 Feb 2014 #

    Here in Oz, Bono had a habit of appearing on all sorts of things – 60 Minutes, the news, whatever. On the other hand the personal ructions in Blur but not really pondered over. Even Oasis issues were better known clash but not really worried about. “It’s just those Gallagher’s again,” we thought as our eyes scanned the music pages and moved onto something else. The Blur conflicts both between and within band members were mentioned but ignored. They were less theatrical than the Gallagher’s.

    In the circles I traveled thought of the Blur album as the Coxon record. Albarn was running out of quaint characters and nostalgia and finally gave over more power to the frustrated guitarist. Out of conflict came Song 2 and we were happy.

    Then came Tender so any focus was on Damon Albarn’s break-up song. I always felt it was great pop though a light-weight version of Spiritualized’s break-up album Ladies and Gentlemen (etc). (How many other break-up albums or songs does the ex actually played?)

    By the time the Blur conflict exploded on Thinktank we were all past caring about Blur conflict. Love that album though.

  4. 94
    Tom on 12 Feb 2014 #

    “How many other break-up songs does the ex actually play?”

    Funny you should ask, given what I’m writing about next!

  5. 95
    Mark M on 12 Feb 2014 #

    Re79/83 etc: So I watched the Panorama, which indeed was awful journalism, but full of stuff meant to be attention-grabbing TV: Alex meets a dealer! Alex meets a hitman (hmm…)! Alex meets a drugs mule! All leading up to the anti-climax of Alex conducting a horribly sycophantic interview with President Uribe, having brought him some of his cheese as a gift. Honestly.
    (You’re right, Weej, Alex does describe Uribe as a ‘right-wing hardliner’. I suspect Alex knows sod all about Colombian politics, but Uribe certainly likes to portray himself – to a tedious extent – as uncompromising. God he’s an annoying little man. I was reminded how much I’ve always disliked him. It’s like he’s determined to disassociate himself with everything that went right during his time in power).
    Although there didn’t seem to be much in there that was factually wrong, the programme was obviously a totally useless introduction to Colombia and the War On Drugs. But then I’d expect nothing better from Alex James or indeed Panorama.
    By the way, though, Colombia is a beautiful and fascinating country that’s really not that dangerous these days. Worth a visit, definitely.

  6. 96
    Rory on 19 Feb 2015 #

    NEW BLUR NEW BLUR NEW BLUR yesssss!

  7. 97
    Rory on 19 Feb 2015 #

    Wonder what it will be like, given all they’ve done as solo artists. Some sort of Malian/Mandarin hip-hop and Dylan/Barrett-influenced prog acoustic hybrid, with hints of blue and a crumbly texture.

  8. 98
    Cumbrian on 19 Feb 2015 #

    I would love it if the secret svengali of this project is Dave and it’s all a ruse to put him in the public eye ready for another run at becoming an MP in May.

  9. 99
    Mark M on 19 Feb 2015 #

    They’re being interviewed right now on the radio by their old mucker Lammo and sounding relatively undickish. Relatively. The track they’ve brought in is aiming at Berlin-era Bowie, I guess.

  10. 100
    Cumbrian on 19 Feb 2015 #

    Am struggling to get worked up for this on the back of the track released today. I would happily trade this for a Super Furry Animals reunion record and tour, especially since racing through the book that’s just been released – an easy read and thoroughly enjoyable.

  11. 101
    Cumbrian on 27 Feb 2015 #

    Well, I got half of what I asked for. Short tour in support of a re-release of Mwng. Will be attempting to get tickets.

  12. 102
    Bert on 16 Mar 2018 #

    I couldn’t agree more with this excellent piece of criticism

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