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Feb 14

BLUR – “Beetlebum”

Popular103 comments • 9,426 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. 61
    James BC on 10 Feb 2014 #

    I went to see him on that tour too, in Cambridge. One of the loudest gigs I have been to and a great deal of fun.

    People Of The Earth from the Happiness album sticks in the memory particularly – what on record was a quite funny comedy song turned into a completely disorientating droning jam in the live show. It was great to see Graham indulging his guitar antihero tendencies to the full.

  2. 62
    Cumbrian on 10 Feb 2014 #

    Happily, I have just (re)discovered that I have the live CD from the night I saw Coxon at the Astoria and have been listening to it again. Your memory of it being bloody loud is pretty spot on. People Of The Earth is gonzo thrash in the chorus but the comedy of the verses remains intact. The cover of That’s When I Reach For My Revolver is another highlight.

  3. 63
    Tommy Mack on 10 Feb 2014 #

    Cumbrian @ 58 – I reckon there’s a subtle different between the Oasis-type acoustic ballads (and those who followed in their wake such as Wigan stadium-indie bunnies coming up soon) “It’s ok for lads to have a sentimental side”, filling the sort of role that November Rain or Springsteen’s post-Born in the USA stuff or The Clash’s Train In Vain (actually pretty much any Mick Jones song) did for previous generations of rock blokes and bands like Travis and Coldplay who were more like “it’s ok to be a wimp and just like the nice songs with acoustic guitars and not bother with the swaggery loud stuff in between” and also, more depressingly “it’s ok to be boring and go onstage in your grey T-shirt and blue jeans as long as your tunes are good enough etc etc.” but I’ll save my bitching for the bleak times (for indie) to come.

    @62 – I’ve always loved Coxon’s cover of TWIRFMR too. I do feel he gets a bit of a critical free pass as the only likeable member of his band (apart from Dave). I suppose this is as good a point as any to boast that I once bought him a coke (the drink) when he saw my university band open up for the fantastic Mower who were signed to his Transcopic label. He had just quit Blur and was very bitchy about Norman Cook and Zoe Ball. I had a number two buzzcut at the time and he said I reminded him of Ian MacKaye which I put on the flyer for our next gig.

  4. 64
    thefatgit on 10 Feb 2014 #

    Much as I enjoyed some Coldplay, Travis or Snow Patrol, I still didn’t feel the “Sad Rock” movement was born out of a tangible backlash against “laddish” Britpop (1st or 2nd wave). Much of what I feel about that stuff will be saved for another time.

    I often find it hard to effectively articulate what I feel about a large number of songs that crop up on Popular, so I greatly appreciate Cumbrian’s kind words @58. I try to find an entry-point, be it a memory from that time, or more often than not, as we progress, how I feel about the song now. It was easier to write about “Beetlebum”, because I was looking forward to it. It’s the unexpected and nondescript #1’s I tend to struggle with. It’s what makes Popular so addictive. And if anyone can help me order my thoughts, it’s usually Tom in his reviews, or Marcello in his comments (when the #1 doesn’t clash with TPL, of course).

  5. 65
    pink champale on 10 Feb 2014 #

    #63 et al. is it just a fact then that absolutely everyone, even blur fans, hates damon albarn (and to a slightly lesser extent alex and his bloody cheese)? as far as i can tell it is and this is quite unusual isn’t it? i mean, lots of people laugh at bono or sting, but they don’s seem to inspire quite the same kind of universal hatred. personally i’ve never quite understood or shared it. clearly DA can be a bit obnoxious, but since when has that been a capital offence in pop? and stuff like his reputed first ever words to graham coxon (‘your shoes are shit, they’re fakes and i’ve got the proper ones’ or something) would be seen as kind of endearing if noel g (or marc bolan) had said them. not particulalry trying to argue anyone out of their animus, but would be good to know what it is that’s so terrible. (one answer i would accept is his pained strumming of that bloody mandolin or whatever it is in that britpop film).
    anyway, beetlebum is a solid eight from me and i quite like the album too, especially MOR which i kind of like more than ‘boys keep swinging’. in a parallel universe, range life and trigger cut would be getting tens.

    (thinking about it, maybe the difference is that people who actually know bono apparently seem to like him, thinking of both jay z and dylan taking time out in their books to go on about how brilliant he is to have a drink with. whereas people who’ve met damon seem to hate him even more than anyone else)

  6. 66
    Andrew Farrell sent back from the future on 11 Feb 2014 #

    I think that may be a generational thing – I doubt Bono has fallen out of love with the sound of his own voice, but these days he’s more likely to be speaking to World Leader Magazine than Hot Press. Not to say that he’d entirely fallen out of the spotlight in the period in question…

  7. 67
    Andrew Farrell sent back from the future on 11 Feb 2014 #
  8. 68
    Andrew Farrell sent back from the future on 11 Feb 2014 #

    Actually we may as well kick around some pop-psych: the difference is that no-one* hates Damon more than Damon does, and Bono is the same but with love:)

    *except the Lex

  9. 69
    Tommy Mack on 11 Feb 2014 #

    You may well be right. Damon is so needy it’s almost painful. “I’m brilliant…aren’t I?” My wife’s cousin’s partner saw post-Graham Blur at Reading and said someone threw a frisbee to Damon as he came on which hit him in the chest so he threw it back and got on the mic, saying ‘throw it again, I’ll catch it this time!’ “That”, said WCP “is why Damon will never be cool.”

    He also seems like he’s searching for profundity in every little thing he does or says as well as disingenuously acting the shy, insecure sad boy all the time (“‘Poor boy, he’s had his heart broken’ – the only thing that ever broke Damon’s heart was not getting his own way” quoth Justine post-breakup). In the Live Forever Docu Pink Champale mentions @ 67, he puts on this grand performance of being a wounded, sensitive poetic soul and says nothing of much insight or interest while Jarvis, Noel and even Liam come across as witty and grounded.

  10. 70
    Steve Mannion on 11 Feb 2014 #

    Worth noting that with Damon’s not-particularly-convincing acting debut in ‘Face’ later this year we have five chart-topping thesps in a row (being a bit more generous to the next entry or at least its frontman there).

  11. 71
    Rory on 11 Feb 2014 #

    #65 “Hate” is an awfully strong word, and I tend to reserve it for far more disturbing figures than any you’ve mentioned. I may not like someone’s music – I may even hate some of it – but my own default assumption is that they made it in good faith. Occasionally, a random fact will challenge that assumption, but if I still enjoy the music even that will make it hard to hate them. It takes a perfect storm of disagreeable music and a disagreeable person to move me towards active dislike of a pop star.

    I’ve been a Blur fan since Leisure, rate two of their albums as among my very favourites and the rest as good to very good, and on the whole have avoided most celebrity gossip about Albarn, Coxon, or the others, so I don’t have a strong sense of how they are as people; I’ve probably picked up most of what I do have from these Popular comments threads. I can see how Alex James’s UK media overexposure in recent years might be on the nose for some, but the cheese thing: really? People are down on the guy because he wanted to try something a world away from music, and had the money to do it? It’s not as if he abandoned the bass guitar forever. Even if he had, so what?

    So no, I don’t hate Damon Albarn. I’m not rushing to pre-order Everyday Robots, and perhaps some of that is because (per Tom’s entry) I don’t have a strong sense that his is an inner life I’m desperate to explore, but if the reviews are good I might end up buying it – although I haven’t bought Coxon’s solo albums apart from Happiness in Magazines, so who knows. Blur is one of those bands I love as a band, I guess, and I’m not that bothered by what its constituent parts end up doing individually. (See also: Suede.)

  12. 72
    Tommy Mack on 11 Feb 2014 #

    I never hated him but he was someone my brother and I would always take the piss of even when we liked some of his music. As I said, I guess it’s a combination of neediness and self-importance. Colin B Morton (who used to write the Great Pop Things cartoon) once described his musical eclecticism as ‘maybe if I stand close to all these cool things, I will become cool too or at least someone will mistake me for cool and that might be enough’ which I think is actually rather unfair (but then CBM has it in for indie kids from Morrissey onwards). Seems more likely as, I think Tom suggested on the Country House thread, that he’s a guy who never listened to much music in his youth and delayed by about a decade the rapid-fire journey of discovery many music fans make in teens/early-20s.

  13. 73
    Tom on 11 Feb 2014 #

    The context of AlexJamesCheeseGate is partly that he’d reinvented himself as a Tory boy country squire in all but the politics*, and this really annoyed people – so when the outcome of his neo-foodie back-to-the-land endeavours turned out to be a really disgusting** novelty cheddar cheese people squawked.

    *as far as I know he’s no Otis Ferry
    **this I have personal evidence for

  14. 74
    Weej on 11 Feb 2014 #

    The trouble with Damon is that he’s so very earnest in what he does (you could also call it “self-important” if you like) and British people for some reason take this to be an unforgivable sin.

    The trouble with Alex is that he seems to genuinely be an idiot with a massive ego. This didn’t matter when he was just a bassist, but go have a look at his documentary about cocaine and see if you don’t come away with a reasonable amount of rage.

  15. 75
    Steve Mannion on 11 Feb 2014 #

    #72 That CBM quote is indeed unfair but also probably accurate (in describing most artists if not people…from a certain background or in a certain cultural position). Damned if you don’t aim for coolness in such a way either though (ie Oasis – Noel’s terrible quote about Albarn being “someone who could see four West Indian men in a pub playing cards and write a symphony about it, whereas I just see four blokes playing cards” springs to mind).

    I find Albarn’s ‘post-Blur’ approach actually hard to fault beyond his own characteristics as a peformer (but even here I think he’s improved – his weary old man voice sounds fine on Gorillaz ‘Empire Ants’ for example) – his projects tend to come off as reasonably respectful and inclusive collabs (he’s never released a solo record just under his own name afaik?) rather than exploitative ego-massage.

  16. 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.

  17. 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?”

  18. 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.

  19. 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.

  20. 80
    tm on 11 Feb 2014 #

    Weej not Week obv. Bloody autocorrect.

  21. 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?

  22. 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

  23. 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.

  24. 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.

  25. 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

  26. 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.

  27. 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

  28. 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.

  29. 89
    Ed on 12 Feb 2014 #

    “Rennet-based droning”

  30. 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.

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