Britpop: One year in – Blur’s Great Britpop Escape

Britpop and Blur's The Great Escape

This month marks 19 years since Blur’s The Great Escape was released. While it would continue for several years, the four-piece’s fourth album would prove their personal swansong to the Britpop movement they had unwittingly ushered in with Parklife a year previously. It’s no secret that this isn’t their best regarded album, but could it be their most prescient?

AND AS SOON AS IT ARRIVED IT WAS TRYING TO SELF-DESTRUCT. BRITPOP WASN’T BRITISH AS MUCH AS ENGLISH. IT WASN’T THE EPITOME OF THE 1990S EITHER, BUT IT NEVER CONSCIOUSLY INTENDED TO BE. Its roots were either far too contemporary or too based in the 1960s, dependent on your view point, to do that. But in the summer of 1995, while Britpop crammed Chris Evan’s Radio 1 Breakfast Show it also captured a space in the six o’clock news as Oasis and Blur went head to head. That was the first skirmish in a long fight, as the two biggest bands of the era released much anticipated follow-ups, with all record labels, regions and single-buyers pitting the two against each other at any opportunity. There was never any doubt who’d win that opening parry, no matter the host of conspiracy theories. But then it was a poor race; Country House was simply the least worse of the two songs. Oasis justly won the subsequent album war of ’95 with their second album, the seminal What’s the Story (Morning Glory), while Blur’s fourth, The Great Escape, was picked apart and within just a few years had became synonymous with a sea-change for the band. That same strain was natural, and would start to affect Oasis as they record the bloated Be Here Now the following year.

Britpop would continue to bloom/stagnate for a few years yet (again, dependent on your view point), thanks to the presence of various bands who’d either far preceded it (Pulp), were retro-add-ons (Weller), had magnetic record deals (Gene), or were stuck in an underrated rut (The Bluetones).

End of a Century

Oasis and several other bands maintained the Britpop charge while Blur receded from Britpop after two albums. The Manchester giants managing an all too rare three albums that can comfortably fall under the banner… Well, arguably seven. The following two years saw Blur reassemble, rebalance and confidently return to lead the post-Britpop charge in 1997. And that was the year that changed everything for the remnants of Britpop.

Events had already rendered the 1990s one of the UK’s shorter music decades, trapped between the dominant 1980s and impending promise of the new century. But events conspired to change everything in the Isles of Pop music in 1997. A Labour landslide brought the end to 18 continuous years of Conservative rule, but despite the desperate attempts to fuse this and renewed optimism with the buoyancy of Cool Britannia, YBA, Britpop… It was too stretched to resist burning itself out before that great leap to the year 2000. Pulp had enshrined that year in the future and it weighed on the minds of many a Britpop band.

BluesPop

Britpop, despite its name, wasn’t the happiest of movements. A deep melancholy and wasted rage packed out the majority of weak albums, repeatedly finding it difficult to muster anything but political apathy while being pushed and pulled by opportunist labels. But then perhaps there was little to rebel against…

Reaching the end of 18 years of Conservative party rule wasn’t so comparable the height of the 1960s where Harold Wilson was bookended by Tories. And contrary to the term, the height of Britpop was less a British concern, and more a highly focussed English one.

At the height of the movement, despite its rancorous reputation, Blur’s fourth album may just been the most prescient album of the oncoming brave new world. And that was barely a year after Blur unwittingly kick-started Britpop with The Great Escape’s predecessor.

Hidden in Plain View

It’s the end of September, 19 years on from The Great Escape’s release. Autumn’s changed the streets of London outside my window, all the conkers have fallen and despite the promised and rolling ‘Indian’ summer one in three days is darted with fog and grey skies that turn collars up of their own accord. It was deep autumn when The Great Escape was released and I can still remember listening to third track Best Days the September 1995 evening my Granddad had died. For once, for the first time, a week or so before, I had bought a Blur album on the day of release. I was ahead of the pack for the first time…

Blur’s was always a brand of observation, even beyond the light dig that uncovered the summer holiday front cover, yuppiefied band on the back and the shark that appears three times. There’s a gleeful cynicism to The Great Escape that misses some of its subtlety. It’s not just those primary colours or the nod to that 1960s film set against the blue holiday shot…

Not so easily described as a talking version of Amis’ London Fields as Parklife could be, that influence is still there but something has changed. Blur’s albums always had a negativity, although it changes course throughout the windy London route of their Brit trilogy. Modern life is Rubbish, a superb album that carries possibly Blur’s greatest Britpop moment in For Tomorrow is a spikier, less friendly experiment; Parklife brought a mainstream lull and some straightforward joy and frippery to the mix. But The Great Escape has barely a shred of hope in it. For all the slight facade and criticism, it proves to be Blur’s most prolonged attack on society and an album with sentiment that still carries some weight nearly two decades later.

Track Listing

Stereotypes

“Wife-swapping is your future; you know that it would suit ya”

A weak start, for all the distinctive “Blur sound” that made it the de facto lead single. Familiar chords are laid down in a domestic dose of reality-check. The streets of South-East England, aspiration and resignation tied together in what could be a companion piece to The Beatle’s She’s Leaving Home. Timeless, irritating and digging into the heart of the Britpop cynicism, it makes for a bolder start to the album than a single. Many other bands, such as Menswear would try to ape it, few would succeed.

Country House

Less the flagship, more the dilapidated holiday pile this album was built on. It’s all there. Keith Allen in the starring role, Damien Hirst on directing duties, Jo Guest and Matt Lucas putting in an appearance…. That Mouse Trap video pastiche of Benny Hill. Again, simple lyrics buoyed by the distinctive musicality, managing to rhyme Prozac with Balzac. Much is made of the middle-eight – the soulful melancholy or bloke-whining that may as well have just been Morse Code for Graham Coxon’s face of misery during the video. It’s a bloody great song, although much maligned and few would be surprised had Yoko One turned up during recording and embarrassed all present by pointing out how childish it is.

The rat race lives, the legacy of Thatcherism that persists today, London banking culture rounded by Blair and Brown as the country’s GDP was kept focussed and undiluted, the subsequent descent into depression, Scorsese getting round to make Wolf of Wall Street

Best Days

“I know she’ll leave me in the morning”

The compulsory pause, a hollow ballad. The haunting nods to London from Bow Bells to Trellick Tower, starting at the heart of cockneydom and sucking life from its subjects as they commute from the metropolis; the “leafy nowhere” of uncertainty. A study of a changing London as much as anything, it’s a singy-songy harmony of opposition and observation that’s comparable to the Kinks. That sentiment doesn’t match the facts though, tipping close to despair as Coxon’s metronomic scale drops for an impossibly long time around the two minute mark.

Here more relationships are scattered. Hotel cells, dial tones, remote controls, cable moans… It was 1995 and cell phone bleeps weren’t that common except for those London yo-yos, only popping up later in this album. Rising and falling, Best Days recalls some of Britpop’s greatest influences while musically and thematically reflecting the boom and bust that would prove to reassert itself in future. Not a bad release during a buoyant time that would herald a ten year boom.

Charmless Man              

“I began to go a little cross-eyed”

The fourth and final single and perhaps the most 1960s, despite its obvious reference to the Smith’s ‘cheerful’ ’80s classic. Piano led and acerbic, it has the same observation unwinding the third person take-down of a Blur caricature. Again an awkward start before Albarn’s piano gives way to Coxon’s searing guitar. Class and history are the preoccupations here, referencing the Krays but generally filling in with dismissive non-filler. It’s misdirection again, but closed and fuelled by the breathless pitch and hook. One of two songs to make the best of album five years later, that’s a hundred percent increase on the band’s first two albums and Charmless Man rightly beats Stereotypes. The title of this charmless man is disingenuous. He’s a pitiful man, steeped in the metaphor that  Britain could sleepwalk out of before heading right back…

Fade Away

“Their birth had been the death of them”

The counterpoint to Stereotypes, just five songs in. Brass and quirk rises across a subject that fellow Britpop alumni Pulp would have hollowed out with a far greater grinning suavity. For Blur, as a study of monotony it’s a horrifying little ditty. The middle roller coaster tries to run away with the musicality of Madness, but its dark content still shines through.

Top Man

“This is a public warning”

Almost a galley song, with a proto-drum ‘n’ bass line that marks a return to focussing on an individual. Here it may be the moving man of the street rather than the charmless man of the pub but it’s no less a damning study. Top Man delves into flights of fantasy, mixing metaphors of guns which refrains of “loving it” that cast back to the Parklife single. Its emphasis is darker than that anthem however, missing the searing first person as the whole album does until the end. Here, the mash of an ending that throbs like a blend of high street and police siren. Murky and incendiary, Blur’s trick of hiding the dark with the childish has seldom been as overt as Top Man.

The Universal

“Every night we are gone”

The Great Escape’s stand out track and an anthem of 1995. It doesn’t quite fit the album, although it’s not the only dystopian song in this collection. Its sentiment and production don’t exactly sit awkwardly, but do seem out of time for one of the band’s more thematically cohesive attempts. Despite this it is still totally necessary on the track listing. The Universal’s video remains as memorable with its A Clockwork Orange riff. As usual with prediction it’s not dated the best no matter how prescient come points are. “Satellites in every home” and the like are just ambiguous enough to get away with it – while continuing the album’s preoccupation with material possession if not relationships.

A cry for help, perhaps, unsurprisingly hidden in the heart of an album which would soon turn introspective; away from the universe, Big Brother or not, to focus on the individual. Here it is the Orwellian, the masses, the hope that seems only a pipedream. The Universal, a lie, sums it all up. It could only come crashing back down to Earth…

Mr.Robinsons’ Quango

“A nicer man you’ll never going to meet”

For all the tense-twisting and apostrophe jangling, another literally named song. The most politically overt selection of the album, so closely associated with the latter Major era and contemporary journalism it’s could be framed as a history piece. Here it’s less uncovering a dark side as exposing and humiliating a fraudulent public servant – or perhaps not? Reported with little suggestion that much is out of MRAHQ’s control… . It’s the most vivid caricature on the album, the punchiest tune and the cheapest painting of a caricature perhaps because it’s observation that doesn’t need the slightly more raised judgement of Charmless Man. Albarn is more removed here, as he takes us through this public and private life… Ending in Victorian sideshow ether doesn’t quite set us up for a wrench away from an apparent commercial break…

He Thought of Cars

“Everybody wants to go into the blue”

The second The Universal, this time with heavy nods to Berlin era Bowie, most explicitly Always Crashing in the Same Car. That Berlin underground drug-fuelled misadventure was of course first person while this robot monotony gives way to more plaintiff future searching . Also referencing Bowie’s Life on Mars from the first line, with flashes of the Beatles via Blur’s own This is a Low. It’s another exploration of dystopian and misplaced hope and perhaps, for the most future glancing song, the most timely song. Within two years, Britain would change. Number 10 removal vans in May and then in September, the unfettered emotion, ripping through the upper lip that had been so tightly zipped up in Britain since Victorian decree in response to Princess Diana’s death. Something inexplicable happened then, something that meant the height of Britpop could never be repeated. Talk of a “10 year queue”, that “America’s done the lot” – again, words used unconvincingly then as they are now. Perhaps the best exploration of so multi-faceted hope here, from utterly to probably futile. “There was no one. La la, la” – every throwaway “la” has a meaning on The Great Escape – something not true of the preceding two albums.

It Could Be You

“No silver spoon, sticky teeth they rot too soon”

A return to The Universal’s suggestion that “It could be you” but again it’s a multi-faceted hope. The National Lottery had only started in November 1994 so was still very much in its honeymoon when The Great Escape came out. Arguably the catchiest of album tracks, it’s the song to listen in the rain outside Heathrow having just returned from a holiday of Girls and Boys. The metaphors here are the least sophisticated although it’s clearly steeped in Britishness. Churchill can only draw comparison with one figure, the stutter the missing swear words of The Who. Again, morbid lyrics about fame, transience and aspiration that flip Parklife’s du bist sehr schon with obligatory references to London and even themselves. Not a single, this could well be the epitaph of Britpop Blur’s. Spiky Coxon is well met by Alex James’ plucky best amid the repetition, Albarn smarts and leering.

Ernold Same

“Today will always be tomorrow”

The final lyric set in the booklet, suspended above an image of a corpse on a trolley. This flipside of the Parklife single is less melodic to the point of sighing poetry. It’s a statement of intent as well, well matched to future Mayor of London Ken Livingstone’s dry delivery. From the screaming rows of a suburban street to a George Martin-esque instrumental. More monotony on the commute, it’s a focussed summary where Blur appear like a Greek chorus. You can almost see these lyrics hovering around the commuters on the train. Less hope here; more the futile dodging of the truth that nothing, nothing will change tomorrow…

Globe Alone

“Wants it, needs it, almost loves it”

The first of a punchy double at the end of the album, Globe Alone is an effective deployment of Blur’s strong suit; Spiky, accusatory Britpunk. There may not be the question marks every line of the verses are knowing questions. A near and rawer follow-up to Parklife’s Jubilee we’re in third person analysis of an individual again, this time with a strong slant on consumerism. Globe Alone: a proper brand in itself and throwback to Advert two albums back. Far before Apple, but referencing mobile phones and Sharon Stone in a rollicking conversation about the lonely consumer…

Dan Abnormal (The Meanie Leanie)

A rare turn of the dial with the anagrammatic Dan Abnormal. A strange little song, begging the eponymous character for entertainment. Perhaps unsurprising that to sit on this track listing Damon Albarn has to create a pseudonym he can deconstruct in the third person. The admittance that it’s Damon Albarn himself sits uneasily in potentially the album’s most fatalistic songs. The rhyme in parenthesis may reference the Jean Genie or Blue Meanies – but in many ways it pushes the 1960s away.

Entertain Me

“Head to the Headlights, see the Fraternity”

Another glimpse into suburban life that can only be saved by the weekend two days at a time. A dirge that doesn’t quite interest enough, the album versions slightly ruined by the exemplary Live It remix found as a B-side on The Universal. Somehow the housification suits this more than annoyingly MOR stomp, from which no instrument can make a break. The lyrics not quite sharp enough, the production not dull enough. In that way, perhaps an ideal penultimate track.

Yoko and Hiro

“We are never together”

A melodic conclusion, almost proto-Flaming Lips. Back to a near-1984, it’s the inevitable multi-lingual nod on the album that follows Parklife. A co-worker, working for the company, more lack of hope intercut with a cry of desperate sad hope although they are together on Sunday. The off kilter French works well here, far more haunting than in the relationship of To the End. The odd tolling like chords at the end are quite extraordinary and don’t bode well, but also don’t suggest transience.

An unsettling song that’s probably the albums most effective – and that’s no doubt because it’s the only song to seize a first-person plural narration.

The coda comes from a repeat of the Ernold Same chords. Not exactly uplifting, but then perhaps it’s just a reminder. As The Great Escape puts it at the end of its sleeve… The End…

But of course, after the album came out there were still the singles…

B-Sides of the Future

Surprisingly just three minutes shy of an hour, The Great Escape only stretches to 15 tracks and the sessions yielded more quality than that. A Special Edition captured the single b-sides, remasters and classic with an additional 18 tracks. But despite the undoubted quality of most of the b-sides, it’s not surprising some of these didn’t make the grade.

One Born Every Minute, Ultranol, No Monsters in Me, The Man Who Left Himself, Tame, Ludwig, The Horrors, A Song, St Louis… There are brilliant songs here, with the variety you might expect and surely all with good arguments to make the A-side… But then it’s that negation that makes it clear how consistent the main album is.  The focus of each song, the angle of band, of singer, carries through on a fairly unwavering course. There’s no Blur album with the same cohesion between its tracks.  For all the superficiality and reputation, The Great Escape is an album happy to take risks and make a point.

So, two years later Blur would return with an eponymous album with its sights broadened to cross the Atlantic. As The Great Escape’s singles rolled out and Blur prepared for that enriching hibernation there were also some clear hints as to their new direction. The brilliant Tame, a B-side of their prescient ‘90s album may just be the missing link to that great new future…

Read about Parklife‘s 20th anniversary.

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