Seasick, But Still Floating: Blur and 'The Great Escape'

Brian Doan

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.”

Artist: Blur

Album: The Great Escape

Label: Food/Virgin

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’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.”

Next Page

The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

Keep reading... Show less

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

Keep reading... Show less

Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.