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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.

5

Comments

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  1. 1
    Matt DC on 7 Feb 2014 #

    I hate Graham Coxon’s lumbering guitar riffs AND Damon Albarn’s weary old man voice and this is a particularly egregious example of both. They were such a clumsy band when they weren’t making pop music, a 5 is too generous.

  2. 2
    zeus on 7 Feb 2014 #

    I’m a huge fan of Blur, and was even bigger fan when this song came out, though never really liked this song for some reason. But you have good points. 6/10 for me.

  3. 3
    Weej on 7 Feb 2014 #

    Just to prove there are a varety of viewpoints out there, this is one of my favourite Blur singles, capturing the best of both Graham’s strung out discordant guitar-work and Damon’s wistful lust for oblivion (bettered perhaps in Clover Over Dover, though that’s a weaker song overall).

  4. 4
    Steve Williams on 7 Feb 2014 #

    Ardal O’Hanlon introduced Top of the Pops the week after this was number one and during the Top 10 he announced “and at number two with Beetlebum it’s… Pavement!”

    I love this review and I think Tom’s right to suggest that Blur’s post-Britpop eclecticism was something that fans tended to wear on their sleeves a bit. 1997 was probably the acme of Oasis’ imperial phase in the media, we’ll discuss later just how much of an event their album release was this year, and because I was still just about under the misapprehension this was some kind of competition I would always quickly jump up and go but, but, but, look at how eclectic and innovative Blur are, that used to be Exhibit A whenever I felt the need to argue a defence for them (given I was in the sixth form at the time, that was something I’d do more than your average person, I think).

    I certainly think Blur are a more interesting band from this period onwards, although that might be because I can’t listen to The Great Escape anymore, I think it’s an album that’s so much of its time – with endless references to the lottery and so on – that it’s sometimes like trying to comprehend a repeat of Have I Got News For You a decade on, and some of the lyrics just completely irritate me (although a lot of Britpop has been marred for me because it reminds me of my hapless sixth form years when I forever used my interest in particular bands and records to strike up conversation with kooky indie girls, a ploy that was thankfully a consistent failure if only because had it succeeded we would have had something like Hobo Humpin’ Slobo Babe by Whale as “our song”).

    But I don’t remember playing this a great deal after I’d bought it, to be honest. I think it probably appealed to people like me as a statement – the New Blur – than it did a record.

  5. 5
    James BC on 7 Feb 2014 #

    Totally agree with every point of the review, though I would score the song a bit lower. The best I can say is that it’s nice to see songs this odd at number 1 occasionally; in its own way it’s at least as odd as the White Town track.

    The Blur album was praised to the moon when it came out and sounded great in theory but I didn’t get on with it at all, Song 2 apart. Song 2 should have been number 1 instead of this undanceable dirge.

  6. 6
    Tom on 7 Feb 2014 #

    #4 it seemed to me they were doing what Bobby Gillespie had been laughed from pillar to post for doing (even when he was being praised for it sometimes too) – obviously B Gillespie attracted this reaction for other reasons tho. Everyone loves a Pop Chameleon (TM) I guess.

    Probably any comeback single from Blur would have got to #1, especially at a slow time of year, so in a way it’s nice that they bothered trying something a bit ambitious. It’s a first-single-as-statement record – we’ll see a few more of those in 1997. Was this the point at which they were huffing in the press about not being happy with all their new fans?

    It doesn’t actually sound like Pavement, really. Though a co-worker in the record exchange was promoting a Pavement tour later in 1997, and played the s/t Blur LP to Steven Malkmus on a drive from Edinburgh to Glasgow. “Crying with laughter” was the lo-fi troubadour’s apparent response. (I took this with a pinch of salt, as the teller detested Blur).

  7. 7
    lonepilgrim on 7 Feb 2014 #

    my memories of this weren’t particularly positive, but listening to this again on headphones I’m impressed by the richness of the music. When I cued it up on Youtube my heart sank to see it ran for over 5 minutes but when listening to it I was kept interested. I like the video too – the subtle blurring of various stimulants and the camera rising and then circling. Musically I’m reminded of early Pink Floyd (Set the controls) and thematically it reminds me of Paint it Black.

  8. 8
    weej on 7 Feb 2014 #

    ‘Blur’ the LP still sort-of-stands-up, though there are a fair few tracks to skip – I thought Song 2 was amazing at the time but now it seems annoyingly tame. I’m Just A Killer For Your Love and Theme From Retro are just completely pointless and should’ve been left off. There were some b-sides which would’ve made good replacements – ‘Dancehall’ from Song 2 and ‘All Your Life‘ from this single, which I’d say is better than anything on the LP.

    And yes, it sounds nothing like Pavement.

  9. 9
    wichitalineman on 7 Feb 2014 #

    My feeling – which I still get having heard it from the first time in years – is very much that it was a Beatles pastiche (except for Coxon’s slacker gtr). There are Sexy Sadie harmonies, “she’s your gun” is Happiness Is a Warm Gun revisited, and the a capella line leading into the chorus is a clear steal from Don’t Let Me Down.

    The point, I assume, being that even if they wanted to debase themselves by doing a Beatles pastiche, they could still do it better than Oasis.

    And, having made THAT point, they could move on and say “Britpop is dead”, as Damon Albarn did in accompanying interviews. Thoroughly unpleasant people. If they really thought pop was a sport and they deserved to win a medal, they should have entered the Eurovision.

    And yet, this is a song on which Damon reins in his yelp, it glides along nicely, and punches in the right places. I certainly prefer it to the self-aware gonzoid sequel which brings me out in hives. 6 for me.

  10. 10
    Tom on 7 Feb 2014 #

    I think the harmonies are more Elephant 6 style – which admittedly is a Beatles debt once-removed, so perhaps it’s nitpicking, but that stuff was terribly hip in late-96: if the band (mostly Coxon I guess) were serious about the “we’re into American stuff now” turn, they’d have been listening to that.

  11. 11
    Tom on 7 Feb 2014 #

    #9 re Oasis disses, if this and Oasis comeback single had come out in the reverse order, the sudden tape-stop at the 5 minute mark just as a wig-out is threatened would have been a really excellent burn.

  12. 12
    23 Daves on 7 Feb 2014 #

    This is one of my favourite Blur singles, and I’m staggered by the criticism it’s been getting so far. Blur were never a perfect band, and I’m not a huge fan – they could be clumsy, cynical and cold and they are responsible for some music I actually feel embarrassed about now. I almost feel as if I should issue an apology from my generation to anyone in their teens or twenties who may be investigating “The Great Escape”.

    But “Beetlebum” is magnificent. It slowly, gradually builds from that sinister, lazy scraping at the start into something that truly soars – Coxon’s overdubs aren’t just inspired, they’re brilliant. The chorus also recalls prime sixties British psychedelia with the gently floating, weary, woozy vocal harmonies. And I’d argue that there are definitely elements of “The White Album” here, certainly in the rougher, rawer parts, but you can also hear the same Blur that recorded “There’s No Other Way” in the psych chorus and the more lo-fi New Blur here. It feels like a crossroads record where all the elements are rolled together, and if half of “Blur” the album had been like this I’d have been over the moon. As a record, it combines so many ideas I find thrilling in isolation, never mind in one place at one time.

    It was always a bit of a divisive single, though, and I know numerous people who don’t enjoy it (my wife included). It’s also a good pub quiz question: “Which two Blur singles made it to number one?” Everyone gets “Country House” correct, but surprising numbers of people give either “Song 2” or “Tender” as the second one. Among casual record buyers it’s almost completely forgotten, which is very sad as I find it wonderful, if perhaps never an obvious ‘single’. And yes, lovely if very simple video too.

  13. 13
    Izzy on 7 Feb 2014 #

    This is gorgeous. I really like the verse melody, how it takes the staccato three-note title phrase and twists it on the repeats, making something so simple and unpromising beautiful as it unwinds. And it’s so languid when it gets to chorus and that long, aching coda. Very simple structure – verse, chorus, verse, chorus, coda – I’m at a loss how it gets to five minutes tbh.

    And I adore the video; all of it really, especially the pan across East London.

    If it isn’t their best song, it’s close. (9)

  14. 14
    Simon on 7 Feb 2014 #

    From memory, at some point Damon quoted a book each as inspiration for the 3 prior Blur albums: Generation X for Modern Life is Rubbish; London Fields (obnov) for Parklife; Immortality for The Great Escape; and then admitted that not literature but Pavement (band) for Blur.

  15. 15
    Query on 7 Feb 2014 #

    Besides the obvious Beatles pastiche, I’m not hearing Pavement so much as a lightweight version of s/t-era Weezer, without the powerpop influences. Even the aesthetic and slacker antics (and into-the-camera frontman staring!) of the Beetlebum video quite reminds me the video for Weezer’s “Say It Ain’t So”. Am I hallucinating?

    I’m sure this must have been covered in the comments section at one point in the 1990s, especially given all the Britpop analysis, but it’s interesting how little and how late US college rock (and its alt.rock offspring) broke direclty into the UK pop scene. Weezer is practically a household name in the States – not so here. Did it have something to do with the defiant American-ness of these kinds of bands (cf Michael Stipe’s Georgia twang, Weezer’s “Surf Wax America”, etc.)?

  16. 16
    Simon on 7 Feb 2014 #

    …and (@Tom and @Weej), Song 2 sounds an awful lot like Pavement’s Debris Slide

  17. 17
    Matt DC on 7 Feb 2014 #

    It’s a shame that Tender never got to #1 as I’d have *really* enjoyed ripping into that one.

  18. 18
    Tom on 7 Feb 2014 #

    #17 “Come on come on come on, get through it”. Never a truer word, mate.

  19. 19
    ciaran on 7 Feb 2014 #

    The 14 year old me in 1997 was a bit perplexed with this. Where had the Englishness that defined most of their work gone? I probably took the ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ line.

    Blur perhaps knew the perfect timing for their singles better than most. Girls and Boys and Country House for the summer and stuff like the Universal and Beetlebum during the cold winter days. The gloomy sound of Beetlebum fits in my mind perfectly with the cold spell of that time.

    Never copped the american influence before but I’m lukewarm as regards bands like Pavement and I still like it regardless.Not that I hated it or anything buy I’ve grown to enjoy it more than I did then.One of the lesser played Blur hits of the era. Like the video and its zooming out to the map of the world. A post-Britpop message in there?

    Certainly better than what the other lot offered up later in the year. 8

  20. 20
    wichitalineman on 7 Feb 2014 #

    Re 10: I’m sure Blur would have been Elephant 6 fans, yes. Bit of both, probably!

    One way to escape from straitening Britpop was to be as un-British as possible, and Blur plumped for alt US stuff as their new touchstone. Pizzicato 5 and a bunch of Swedish acts (Cardigans, Eggstone, Wannadies) provided another contemporary – and sonically more logical, given their 60s reference points – way forward.

  21. 21
    anto on 7 Feb 2014 #

    I’m speaking in favour of this one, for both Albarn and Coxon’s contributions. The vocal seems to be pitched so as to be misheard in the manner of Michael Stipe circa 1983 (there is at least one phrase that based on vowel sounds could be taken as a request for something obscene, but I won’t elaborate). One of it’s most disturbing moments is it’s most seemingly blissful when Albarn’s voice trips into torpor on ‘I just slip away and I aaaam gone’.
    A song of crawling shadows and a brave choice for a single. On balance though it really does belong to Coxon, his guitar judders, shudders, jolts and halts and then there is that eerie coda that goes on and on seemingly refusing to stop (the last sound you hear is an abrupt drop-out as though, in desperation someone has clicked an off-switch).

    #9 – I agree with you about the follow-up – the ‘We Will Rock You’ of Britpop or post-Britpop?

    #17 – I always think ‘Tender’ sounds like Rod Jane & Freddy attempting a Spiritualized song, which I have a funny feeling I’ve mentioned before.

  22. 22
    Mark G on 7 Feb 2014 #

    Was I the only one who thought of Spike Jones when this single came out?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MRgokSbo7c8

  23. 23
    23 Daves on 7 Feb 2014 #

    #21 I was never sold on “Tender” either. It always reminded me of tedious morning assemblies at junior school where the headmaster made us sing “Kum Ba Yah”, though Rod Jane and Freddy singing Spiritualized is a much better description.

    “Song 2” doesn’t appeal much, either.

    I just find Blur a frustratingly patchy band in general. You could curate a fantastic playlist from Blur tracks, but their actual albums usually contain a lot of sag, and even their run of singles feels imperfect to me. I even find “Modern Life Is Rubbish” deeply samey and therefore dull by the halfway point.

  24. 24
    iconoclast on 7 Feb 2014 #

    Personally, I always prefer Blur when they try to be personal rather than smartarse, and “Parklife” is the only one of their albums I enjoy listening to from beginning to end.

    Anyway, “Beetlebum” is, somewhat ironically, a better Beatles pastiche than Oasis ever manged; and its unmistakable drugginess, which was amusing to see on TOTP, actually works in its favour. The song has a tension throughout between malevolence and wooziness which is very effective and very nearly – but not quite! – sustains interest through all five of its minutes. A bit of variation near the end would have been preferable to the meandering we actually get, which brings the mark down to a high SEVEN.

    (Aside: I have a mere eight of the number ones from the 1990’s in my MP3 collection, including this.)

  25. 25
    Chelovek na lune on 7 Feb 2014 #

    I’ve grown fonder of this over the years than I was at the time: it struck me as fairly insubstantial, and “album track rather than “single.” My sentiments overall seem pretty close to those expressed by 23 Daves at #12; not being a huge Blur fan ( to say the least), but I can think of very much worse than this (either by use pastiche, which unlike the pastiche here – which is not uninspired, that almost fades into a rather second-rate relation of plagiarism – be it of the Stone Roses, earlier on, or of David Bowie by way of Suede a bit later, and…then….various things; or by that awful, hateful, misanthropic sneering cynicism that eats the life out some of the songs that it affects). I’m happy to sing along with the sullenness of this one: and some of the instrumentation is positively inspired.

    Still, I don’t really love this – 6 or 7 max – but, considering some of the fan-base buy, or otherwise just weird one-week no 1s we have to face in the near future, this is almost a classic in comparison. The melancholy aspect counts in its favour: it’s stopped that ghastly man from sneering!

  26. 26
    mapman132 on 7 Feb 2014 #

    Nobody has mentioned this record’s nosedive chart performance (1->7->29->out of the top 40 if I remember correctly). There had been short runs for #1’s before, but nothing this extreme up to this point.

    Blur only ever had sporadic exposure in the US and “Song 2” is probably their most famous record here. To my knowledge “Beetlebum” never appeared even on the Modern Rock chart, although it must’ve gotten at least some radio and/or MTV play since I do remember hearing it at the time. Clearly Beatles-influenced right down to the name. I’d consider it a good, but not great, record. 6/10.

  27. 27
    thefatgit on 7 Feb 2014 #

    I’ll stick my neck out also and say “Beetlebum” is one of my favourite Blur singles. And post-Great Escape (aka post-britpop) Blur were a much more interesting group to me. The ascendancy of Graham Coxon and the introspection of Damon Albarn changed the dynamic. No longer a band that outdid Ray Davies for cynicism, the boys had matured into men, albeit broken men. But a broken man has always been much more interesting than a man at peace. And Blur had at least 2 broken men in their line-up. Damon had been introduced to heroin by Justine Frischmann. And let us be thankful that Damon lacked the addictive personality of say, an example fresh in my mind: Phillip Seymour Hoffman (RIP), and did not allow himself to be consumed totally by that most notorious of drugs. The other broken man was Graham Coxon. I dunno, he always seemed to shrink under Damon’s shadow, until their eponymous album. Maybe it was the alcohol, maybe it was his belligerence to the way “Country House” was promoted, but he sat uncomfortably in the Blur set up during their “boyband with guitars” phase. The grit in Blur’s oyster, so to speak. But you tend to get a pearl after much internal churning. That pearl was “Coffee And TV” for me.

    As far as the video is concerned, it impressed me at the time. Sophie Muller begins close-in and intimate, but the thing expands to encompass the whole world, as if to place Blur as THE most important band in the world, rather than Oasis. When in fact, neither were. But that didn’t matter anyway. The camera pans over a post-industrial London at the end, as Coxon’s coda battles with disjointed static and ghostly voices. “Beetlebum’s” sleepy and let’s face it, sexy afterglow serves as a negative to “Not If You Were The Last Junkie On Earth’s” 35mm starkly lit Berkeleyesque take on heroin addiction by The Dandy Warhols a year later. I know this is coming across as “heroin is sexy” when it’s anything but, however we’ll never really get closer to the dynamic of the Albarn/Frischmann relationship than “Beetlebum”. I’d say it’s worthy of an 8.

    Oh, and if “Song 2” had managed to get to #1, it would be a “Tufnell” eg. I would be stretching the marking system in a similar way to Marcello’s mark for “Your Woman”.

  28. 28
    thefatgit on 7 Feb 2014 #

    “Tender” at Glastonbury was one of the most emotional live performances I’ve ever witnessed (grown men crying and hugging). That shit stays with you.

  29. 29
    Andrew Farrell on 7 Feb 2014 #

    #23 Modern Life is Rubbish is, well, not quite rubbish, but Blur are a odd-album band: Leisure, Parklife, Blur, and – it’s shame they never made a seventh album.

    I am quite fond of this, from an album when Damon Albarn had nearly but not quite beaten his habit of making great pop songs – definitely better than anything I’ve heard from Pavement.

  30. 30
    Doctor Casino on 7 Feb 2014 #

    Mapman132 @26 – I, too, remember this getting brief and marginal airplay on US alt-rock radio. There was some lag in this; to my recollection, I didn’t hear it until well after “Song 2” was an established hit. In that setting, “Beetlebum” seemed a momentum-killing left turn into something weird, aimless, and vaguely “British” in a way that made it easy to make fun of. I remember a bit of 10th-grade study hall mockery of the way Albarn sings the title line. I doubt I heard it on the radio more than five times. Now, it sounds pretty decent, but still an odd choice for a single. Pavement or no Pavement, the American bands that were scoring radio hits went a lot more ‘rock’ than this – see, again, “Song 2” – and so it’s funny to think of it being so influenced by American rock bands. Of course it is – I probably would have had a different impression had I already discovered Elephant Six (and indie rock in general) when this came out.

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