Seasick, But Still Floating: Blur and 'The Great Escape'
Blur's masterpiece The Great Escape examines the costs—for young lovers or pop stars—of trusting in stasis.
“This next song is about the country (laughs)…This is called ‘Country House.’ It’s about neurotic pop stars and… people like that…”
-- Damon Albarn, introducing his new album’s first single to 27,000 fans at the Mile End concert
It was the “Country House’s” first public performance, on a wet June Saturday in 1995—the first time anyone outside the studio had heard it. Compared to the polish of the recording that would be released a few weeks later, the live rendition (included on the 2012 reissue of Blur’s The Great Escape) is faster, harder, and immensely propulsive. Graham Coxon’s guitar riffs slice and grind against the oompah horn sections and bounce off of drummer Dave Roundtree’s insistent beat. Frontman Damon Albarn almost raps the lyrics, while his mates toss off their harmonies as if the very notion of melody is anathema.
Stripped of the album’s immaculate gloss, the cynicism of the song’s lyrics—which detail the anxieties and delusions of a wealthy English gentleman (supposedly based on David Balfe, co-founder of Blur’s label, Food Records)—becomes even more apparent, and not even Albarn’s keen sense of showmanship can translate the complex, Queen-ish harmonies of the bridge (“Blow, blow me out / I am so sad, I don’t know why”) to a live setting: like the protagonist he’s both embodying and mocking, he’s literally out of breath, gasping the words out before the rest of the band jumps back in. Crowd noise is almost a fifth member of the band, adding a pleasant fuzziness to the mix, culminating in Albarn ending the number with falsetto “la’s” that sound like Fritz Freleng outtakes, and Coxon making his final riffs sound like escaped noises from a theremin.
It’s a strikingly odd performance from a band at the height of their popularity. “I’d just like Blur to be the biggest group in Britain, not the world. That’ll do,” Albarn said to a journalist that same year, a position that their previous record, Parklife, had secured for them. That album swept the Brit awards that February. Albarn and bassist Alex James were courted by Tony Blair’s shadow cabinet as possible Labour endorsers in the coming elections. They met idols like Francoise Hardy and Ray Davies. Their faces were everywhere in the media. Remembering the Mile End performance, Alex James would later note in his memoir, Bit of a Blur, “…the whole crowd was bouncing as one, waving their arms in time and smiling as they squashed each other senseless. By the last chorus, they were singing it. When that happens that means it’s a single.”
Album: The Great Escape
US Release Date: 1995-09-26
UK Release Date: 1995-09-11
But even more than the edginess of “Country House’s” debut, what stands out on the live recording is Albarn’s introduction, noted in the epigraph above. Far from triumphant, it sounds both confessional and confrontational, an uneasy blend of tones that Blur’s 1995 record The Great Escape would take as its mission statement. Continuing his introduction, and looking out at the expectant audience swaying before him, Albarn would offer a pointed, deadpan reading of his fans that suggested how keen he was to bite the hand that fed him: “That is great…When you do that, you all look like barley or wheat, in the wind…So if you all do that..it’ll be, um, be a bit…it’ll be a bit special .”
He Thought of Cars
Time is a funny thing. While Blur were selling out London stadium shows in the summer of 1995, I was packing a U-Haul and saying farewell to Bloomington, Indiana, where’d I’d spent four happy college years, one of them doing occasional stints on the campus cable radio station. (You could get a very faint signal via traditional broadcast methods, but otherwise needed a hook-up to hear anything being played on WQAX; it was there I learned that you could catalogue a lot of station records by dropping the needle on a 20-minute Jello Biafra performance piece, and getting to it). Blur’s “There’s No Other Way” had been a recurring play on the station in the fall of 1991 (and on 120 Minutes, the late-night/early morning MTV show that caused so many of us to stumble bleary-eyed to Monday morning classes), but because I got involved in other parts of the campus and bid farewell to my brief DJ career, I hadn’t kept track of what Blur had been up to since.
I was one with my country—nearly every book or documentary about Blur takes a moment to note their relative lack of American airplay as compared to their English superstardom. In his definitive history, Britpop!, journalist John Harris describes the 1992 American tour that Blur was forced to undertake to pay of the debts caused by bad management: “In the two-and-a-half months it took to complete their itinerary, Blur flew to the edge of psychosis,” encountering audience apathy, obnoxious radio hosts, and their own creeping sense of career disappointment. Harris quotes Alex James: “They like their pop stars quite Mickey Mouse in America. You’ve got to be squeaky-clean, and you’ve got to play ball…And we were slung out of radio stations for swearing and being drunk.”
They didn’t even feel the need to pay fealty to grunge, the current king-beast of American alt-radio. According to James’ memoir, when asked by a DJ in Ithaca what he thought of the sound, Graham Coxon “said he fucking hated it,” and their on-air interview quickly ended. Even when they returned to England, things were rough: grunge was growing in popularity there, too, and the band’s fondness for alcoholic dissipation wasn’t blending well with their manic depression or their fading chart presence.
All of these trials and tribulations are captured in the brilliant 1993 documentary Starshaped, which follows them on tour around England in 1992 and 1993, after their debut, 1991’s Leisure, which transformed them into temporary stars. 1993’s Modern Life Is Rubbish further saved them from one-hit-wonder status. The title, drawn from one of the best songs on Modern Life is Rubbish, is both ironic reference to their fading status and, according to Albarn, to the shape one collapses into when drunkenly falling onto a hotel bed.
The movie plays with familiar pop signifiers—opening with the band running towards the camera a la A Hard Day’s Night, even though no one is following them down the street, and closing with them walking hand-in-hand down the M1 like the Monkees—but the blend of banality and anxiety it captures is real. This ranges from Alex and Damon’s blank stares as a day trip takes them to Stonehenge, to Albarn desperately, drunkenly pogoing around a Glastonbury stage as the band plays “Day Upon Day,” trying to engage the crowd; this culminates in his pulling a Bono and climbing up on the scaffolding, then smashing into a large amp, damaging his foot).
At a key moment in Starshaped, a hung-over Albarn vomits before heading onstage to sing “Colin Zeal", the soundtrack of the performance laid over on this shot to suggest that the song’s hapless title character is at least a bit autobiographical. The film intercuts this older footage with the band in 1993, looking back on their horrible year. “The thing they asked us,” Albarn says, sitting and smoking with his bandmates in a greasy spoon, “was what was it like being in Blur last year, in 1992?” After a beat, he chuckles ruefully and says, “As you can see... no one has anything to say about it.”
They’d make their statement on record. Rubbish offered a mélange of English pop (from the Kinks and glam-rock to XTC and Adam Ant) granting the band a neoclassical sonic palette through which to frame the cynical/sympathetic stories of contemporary English life that dominated Albarn’s lyrics; it was followed in 1994 by Parklife, whose Top Five single, “Girls & Boys,” would put Britpop on the map (fueled by a wonderfully tacky video that its director, Kevin Godley, would later disown as “Page 3 rubbish”), and whose ability to rope Quadrophenia star Phil Daniels in on the title song made the link with mod and New Wave antecedents explicit. You know a band is at the height of its powers when it feels comfortable enough to make a video spoofing Last Year at Marienbad (as Blur did for the lush, John Barry-like “To The End”), and can actually pull it off. The future was wide open.
None of this registered with me as I landed in Chicago in late June of 1995. Hip-hop, post-Cobain alt-rock, neo-‘70s bands like Counting Crows and Hootie, and local legends the Smashing Pumpkins dominated Chicago rock radio. Stations like WXRT and Q101 would play English pop music, but even then I remember more Oasis than Blur, whose “Parklife” video was most memorable for me in that moment because of a wickedly funny takedown of it on Beavis and Butthead. (What can I say? I was young.)
Odd, because I was also busy reading Martin Amis that year—Money, The Information, London Fields—and Amis would be a key influence on the “Life” trilogy that would culminate in that fall’s The Great Escape. “I read London Fields when Blur were on their second tour of America,” Albarn noted around the time of Parklife’s release: “It saved me.”
In a great biography of Blur that was published last fall, Martin Power smartly reads the stylistic influence on Albarn’s cartoonish social critique: “While nominally set in the Western part of the city, Amis’ London was an almost imaginary terrain, its topography shifting to suit wherever the writer’s fancy took him.” It would be a few more years before my fancy took me to Blur, and a few years more until it ended up gripping my imagination. But I’ve spent much of the last year listening obsessively to the band, and especially to The Great Escape, an album that, as Power wryly notes, “was deemed a masterpiece… Then, all of a sudden, it wasn’t.”