Blur Breaks Through in America
After spending much of the Õ90s on the fringes of the British pop trend of the moment, being criticized by archrival Oasis as prep school posers, and selling out arenas all over Great Britain and Europe, EnglandÕs Blur seems to have finally struck paydirt in America with its eponymous fifth album. Nursing a hangover at 11 a.m., BlurÕs singer/organ-grinder and main songwriter Damon Albarn is quick to boast that his band is outselling grunge knockoff, fellow Brit band and U.S. chart champ Bush in BillboardÕs "Top 200 Albums" list. The tune that has carried Blur there is "Song 2," a brash, headbanging anthem thatÕs in heavy rotation on MTV and national radio. "IÕm really quite proud of that," says 29 year-old Albarn. "America seems to be making better choices at the moment. "I donÕt say this very often about our music, but there has to be a bridge between proper alternative and mainstream. WeÕre somewhere in the middle." It seems the moment of truth has arrived for Blur in America."Fall into fashion/Fall out again/WeÕll stick together/ÕCos it never ends" Ñ "M.O.R.," from BlurThings havenÕt always been this sunny for Blur. Originally called Seymour, London-born Albarn, guitarist Graham Coxen, bassist Alex James and drummer Dave Rowntree rechristened the band Blur in 1989 after signing with UK label, Food Records. Influenced by the lunacy of ska revivalists the Specials and WireÕs rumbling minimalism, and with a thespianÕs narrative reminiscent of self-conscious music hall vaudeville, Blur didnÕt find its stride until its second album, 1993Õs Modern Life Is Rubbish . But there was one problem. "When Modern Life came out, everyone was listening to grunge and shoegazing," Albarn remembers. "No one was interested in music that sang of middle-class sods taking a train to Brighton." That all changed with the release of Parklife in the spring of 1994. The record gave birth to the music genre now known as "Britpop." In the process, Blur became the voice of a generation jilted by conservatism and tired of grunge. The term "Britpop" was coined by British music weeklies Melody Maker and the NME to describe BlurÕs coupling of punkÕs two-minute urgency with the sort of sordid lyrical observations of "Swinging London," first made by bands like the Kinks and Small Faces. While not entirely groundbreaking, the genre became a force within English music. In its wake came a slew of bands brandishing fake cockney accents, wide-eyed observations and gawd-awful names like Echobelly, Gene and Menswear. Few were original. Few were good. It was a mess."England my love, you make me look like a fool" Ñ "All My Life," B-side of "Beetlebum," from BlurAs Britpop threatened to engulf Europe, America snubbed a genre obsessed with Union Jacks, lager and words like "blimey." John Squire, former guitarist and songwriter for ManchesterÕs Stone Roses, can relate to this cultural gap wholeheartedly. The Stone Roses, a band leading its own druggy, psychedelic "Madchester" pop music movement, was one English band surely destined for big things in the United States. After all, how could a band that wrote some of the Õ90sÕ most beautiful, operatic pop songs ("I Wanna Be Adored," "She Bangs The Drum") go wrong? "We had a quaint vision of walking off the plane like the Beatles to adoring crowds," says Squire. "Obviously times have changed and you have to go and play to get even noticed. I suppose it will always be a mystery to me whether the Stone RosesÕ failure to crack America was due to lack of effort or lack of talent." However, longtime rock veteran Tony Visconti (David Bowie, T-Rex), who produced the debut album for SquireÕs new band, the Seahorses, says AmericaÕs resistance to anything intrinsically English is nothing new. Save for a select few (notably Bowie and the Who), most British records have been relegated to the local record storeÕs cut-out bin. "Most classic British rock bands of the Õ60s sang with American accents," says the New York native who lived in England during Flower PowerÕs heyday. "Nowadays, the current crop sings with uncompromising British accents, with emphasis on using jargon exclusive to their regions. Most Americans donÕt understand what theyÕre singing about. ItÕs almost a foreign language," says Visconti. Any number of intrinsically British bands, after conquering their homeland, have been poised to take America; witness Jam, Roxy Music or Madness. But Blur producer Stephen Street asserts that only a certain segment of the American audience will ever take an interest in such groups. "It would be great if Blur, or whoever, became successful in America without having to sacrifice their identity, but itÕs not the end of the world," he says."HeÕd like to live in magic America/With all those magic people." Ñ "Magic America," from ParklifeBut for all of English popÕs commercial failures in America, conventional wisdom doesnÕt explain the stateside fascination with Bush and Oasis, which have sold a combined 10 million-plus records in the United States over the last two years. So whatÕs all this griping about Americans being too bemused to understand British music? "Americans like Bush because theyÕre stupid," says Albarn, half-joking. "Bush is big over there because Americans generally respond to loud, clunky songs written in first person. I think thatÕs why ÔSong 2Õ is catching on over there. It has a gut-to-gut feeling much like Nirvana. ItÕs all of the same ilk." While thereÕs no denying BlurÕs place in the UK pop music lineage, Albarn has grown weary of the genre he helped spawn. The days of witty, but routine, third-person rock gospels are a faded memory. The only avenue left was complete reinvention. The resulting album, Blur , is a subtle, stripped-down work with a tone inspired in part by BlurÕs war of words with Oasis. Less organic than the bandÕs previous albums, Blur shows Albarn and his bandmates as, more than anything else, textural musicians of the highest standard. "Britpop ran its course. It fizzled out," he explains groaning at the mere mention of the dreaded B word. "The music scene in England oscillates like that. WeÕve been crucified by a lot of bands who wouldnÕt even have a recording contract if not for us. I donÕt think we could have developed any more with that style of music. Take Ray Davies. HeÕs taken one style of writing and perfected it over 30 years, yet it still sounds fresh and vital," says Albarn. "But there arenÕt many people who can do that. BlurÕs chemistry isnÕt like that." Maybe, but the closer one looks into AlbarnÕs sweaty, high-gloss theatrics, the harder it is to accept BlurÕs celebratory escapism as mere pub rock. Oasis may have the upper hand in album sales, but BlurÕs unhinged determination is arguably the best Britain has to offer. And more importantly, they know it.