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Feb 14

BLUR – “Beetlebum”

Popular95 comments • 5,621 views

#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. 76
    Mark M on 11 Feb 2014 #

    Re 73 & 74: My impression (based almost entirely on his public persona – I met him once, fairly briefly) is that Alex James was a twat when he was taking lots of coke, and a twat when he cleaned up. That’s often the case. And of course, like a lot of other ‘reformed’ characters, he’s cashed in on his previous bad behaviour.
    I know one person who warmed to Damon when she did some work for him (around this time, I think), but she has a long history of liking the most terrible people, so that’s a limited endorsement.

  2. 77
    Andrew Farrell on 11 Feb 2014 #

    #69 Yeah, to cannibalize my own writing on Popscene (which is basically my perfect Blur single):

    “The song itself is a monument to Despite, but the video is a fascinating straight-on view of it – in the moments where it can be bothered to meet your gaze. There is barely a second when the singer isn’t sneering or mock-idioting or staring unsmiling at the camera (a trick he was to grow fonder of). The scope is (ahem) universal – these are idiots in the song and you are idiots for liking this and he’s an idiot for doing it, and he’s really an idiot for doing it well and don’t you agree that he’s doing it well?”

  3. 78
    Andrew Farrell on 11 Feb 2014 #

    #75: First solo album out next month! First single getting a cheery kicking from some people you may know.

  4. 79
    tm on 11 Feb 2014 #

    Week @74 Really? Ive not seen his coke docu but I remember Charlie Broker saying it was pretty good and that Alex James came across as likeable and genuinely contrite at having pumped a million quid into a ruinous illegal trade.

  5. 80
    tm on 11 Feb 2014 #

    Weej not Week obv. Bloody autocorrect.

  6. 81
    Rory on 11 Feb 2014 #

    Re Alex James and cheese, I must admit that this is hilarious: “I always liked to keep an eye on the cheese situation at large when I was on the move and for many years saw touring with the band merely as an excuse to travel the world tracking and eating obscure types of cheese.”

    On the other hand, I can hardly criticize when cheese is high on my own list of Good Reasons to Live in Britain and Europe. And who doesn’t love Britain’s most famous cheese fan?

  7. 82
    Tom on 11 Feb 2014 #

    Alex James’ admirable love for cheese makes the astonishingly horrible quality of his own cheese that much more regrettable!

    “I always liked to keep an eye on the literary situation when I was on the move and for many years saw touring with the band merely as an excuse to travel the world reading the finest comic novels, before writing my own, The Adventures Of Lord Iffy Boatrace” – B.Dickinson

  8. 83
    weej on 11 Feb 2014 #

    Don’t know what Charlie Brooker said but Alex spent the whole documentary sucking up to the right-wing Colombian government and parroting whatever they told him – which was that the cocaine trade destabilized the country and they were the ones restoring order and peace to the country. These points may be true on their own, but there is obviously a wider picture involving international trade, political spheres of influence, prohibition and so on and he fails entirely to even acknowledge this, let alone deal with it. He seems very sincere in his contrition, but this just adds to the imbalance. It basically comes across as a party political broadcast, which is the opposite of what good investigative journalism should be.

  9. 84
    Mark M on 11 Feb 2014 #

    Re83: ‘That the cocaine trade destabilized the country and they were the ones restoring order and peace to the country. These points may be true on their own…’
    They broadly are, and the characterisation of the Colombian government as right-wing isn’t particularly useful – the difference between, say, Alvaro Uribe’s time in power in Colombia and Lula’s in Brazil is far greater in rhetoric than policy. But you’re right, the broader context is everything, which is why a number of former presidents of Latin American countries have called for called for an end to the war on drugs.
    I didn’t see the Alex James documentary, though, so I’m trying to be wary of judging what he said.

  10. 85
    weej on 11 Feb 2014 #

    #84 I probably shouldn’t have mentioned the “right-wing” part, but it just seems to characterise the style in which they essentially write the piece – which is supposed to be balanced as it’s on Panorama. It’s all on Youtube, though the sound is a little out of sync, part one here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L-DRoWlN3Og

  11. 86
    23 Daves on 11 Feb 2014 #

    #76 Just after “Parklife” came out, I had a poster of Blur on my student bedroom wall – I either got it cheaply or for free somewhere, I enjoyed the album enough that it didn’t seem like a ridiculous thing to own, and I needed all the posters I could get to cover up the walls which hadn’t been decorated since 1975 (or at least seemed like it).

    One problem, though – Alex managed to piss me off across so many interviews that I couldn’t bear to see him (looking spectacularly smug in this picture) staring down from the walls at me, so I got a sticker big enough to cover his face and put that over it instead. I can’t even remember what he specifically said to annoy me so much that I’d deface my own poster of Blur, but I think it was the slow drip-drip of ludicrous coked-up comments across several issues of NME and MM.

    One thing I can remember him coming out with is the winning line that single mothers on benefits could still afford to go away on holiday abroad and have it large if they wanted, they just needed to organise their finances better. This didn’t apply to any of the single mothers I knew at the time and led to a flurry of complaints to the NME, I think. I’m not even sure he isn’t a Tory – even back then, a lot of us had our doubts. I find he agitates me a lot less now partly because I’m older and have learnt to look away from attention-seekers, and partly because he’s not anything like as ubiquitous anyway. I always got the impression that IPC hacks would always hang around Alex for a quick quote, which he was frequently only too happy to give, usually to the grave embarrassment of Graham Coxon. These days, very few people care what Alex thinks, though as we live in a time of controversial, contrary media rent-a-gobs he’d probably be the last of our worries now anyway.

  12. 87
    Ed on 12 Feb 2014 #

    “….with his children, boys Geronimo, Artemis and Galileo, and girls Sable and Beatrix”:

    http://www.standard.co.uk/lifestyle/london-life/politics-is-not-my-thing–but-i-was-delighted-when-the-camerons-came-to-my-farm-7546696.html

  13. 88
    Ed on 12 Feb 2014 #

    And here’s the peerless Marina Hyde:
    http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/lostinshowbiz/2012/feb/16/alex-james-memoir-cheese

    Although the match-up is so unequal I ended up feeling rather sorry for the poor guy.

  14. 89
    Ed on 12 Feb 2014 #

    “Rennet-based droning”

  15. 90
    Mark M on 12 Feb 2014 #

    Seeing as we seem to collectively love him so much (ahem), there’s a Culture Show special all about Damon and his solo album on Monday.

  16. 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!

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

  19. 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!

  20. 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.

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