Friday, 14 August 2015

Blur vs Oasis - 20 years ago today...

Exactly 20 years ago today, one big question was on everyone's lips. I doubt there's many people in this country who didn't get  asked "Who do you prefer, Blur or Oasis?" in 1995. It was almost as if your answer would determine what sort of a person you were. From August 14th to the 20th, music fans from around the country were rushing out to their nearest record shops as Blur fought Oasis in a headline grabbing chart battle. The Essex band's 'Country House' and the Manchester group's 'Roll With It' were both released during a time when a fierce rivalry between the two was at its most intense. 

According to Wikipedia: The chart battle was dubbed "The Battle of Britpop", and brought Britpop to the forefront of the British press. The bands had initially praised each other but over the course of the year antagonisms between the two increased. Spurred on by the media, the groups became engaged in what the NME dubbed on the cover of its 12 August issue the "British Heavyweight Championship" with the pending release of 'Roll With It', and 'Country House' on the same day. The battle pitted the two bands against each other, with the conflict as much about British class and regional divisions as it was about music. Oasis were taken as representing the North of England, while Blur represented the South. The event caught the public's imagination and gained mass media attention in national newspapers, tabloids, and even the BBC News. The NME wrote about the phenomenon, "Yes, in a week where news leaked that Saddam Hussein was preparing nuclear weapons, everyday folks were still getting slaughtered in Bosnia and Mike Tyson was making his comeback, tabloids and broadsheets alike went Britpop crazy."

During the year the two bands had traded insults as their previous mutual respect had dissolved, possibly down to incidents like the one former NME editor Steve Sutherland desribes: "At the end of one of the NME Brat Awards, Liam had walked up to Damon and started poking him and pushing him and saying: "I think you're a bunch of cunts, I hate your band." Provoked by Oasis, Damon Albarn turned a petty feud into a national debate... "Yes I did move our release date to match theirs! The main reason was that when Oasis got to Number One with ‘Some Might Say’, I went to their celebration party, y’know just to say ‘Well done’. And Liam came over and, y’know, like he is, he goes, ‘Number fookin’ One!’, right in my face. So I thought, ‘OK, we’ll see...’"

My clearest memory of it all was going to Our Price in Bath on the day before the singles charts were announced, and purchasing both singles on cassette. That evening was the yearly carnival in Melksham, which went past the end of my street and which that particular year I remember not really paying much attention to because all I wanted to do was get back home and play these new Blur and Oasis singles. So exactly 17 years ago today, the chart results were announced. I remember that instead of doing a recap of the top 40 before playing the week's number one song, they did it before the top 2. "So the song at number two this week is... Blur" followed by a pause "... or Oasis...". 

Blur won, selling 274,000 copies to Oasis' 216,000 - the songs charting at number one and number two respectively. Blur were presented by their record company with a framed copy of the charts. The inscription read: “‘Better than Blur any f---ing day of the week’, Liam Gallagher, Glastonbury Festival, 1995.” Underneath that it read, “NOT TODAY SUNSHINE!”

Damon Albarn himself was surprised that "Country House" topped the charts. He told NME, "I sort of believed all the papers, including NME, who told me Oasis were going to win." Oasis' management came up with several reasons for 'Roll With It' losing out, claiming 'Country House' sold more because it was less expensive (£1.99 vs £3.99) and because there were two different versions of 'Country House' with different B-sides forcing serious fans to buy two copies. An alternative explanation given at the time by Creation was that there were problems associated with the barcode on the 'Roll with It' single case, which did not record all sales.

The Daily Mail saluted ‘Country House’ topping the charts with a bout of oik-bashing. The headline read: ‘The Pop Victory That Makes It Hip To Be Middle Class’. Damon said "The most interesting thing about all the press that surrounded the single is that it revealed this open sore in our society, our fascination with the divide between working class and middle class people... I hate this class thing. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s useless."

A few weeks later things had become very nasty. In an interview with the Observer newspaper Noel Gallagher said "I hate that Alex and Damon. I hope they catch Aids and die." Gallagher later explained "As soon as I had said it I realised that it was an insensitive thing to say as Aids is no joking matter and immediately retracted the comment. Although not being a fan of their music I wish both Damon and Alex a long and healthy life." Damon commented: "No-one was having a go at Oasis on our side. I mean, I did that thing on Chris Evans’ show when I said, ‘It sounds a bit like Status Quo’, but that was the only thing. It was all on their side."

But Blur's pleasure at emerging victorious didn't last long, as the second Oasis LP (What's The Story) Morning Glory? went on to become the third highest selling UK album of all time.

Years later as all concerned grew up, attitudes had changed, when Liam Gallagher revealed "I don’t mind Blur... I’m over it [the rivalry]. It was a laugh man, that’s what you do when you’re young." He added: "When I see Damon Albarn, I buzz off him. If I was still caught up in it now I’d be a right wanker." Noel also admitted a newfound respect for Blur: "You know Damon, bless him, I’ve got a lot of respect for him. This never comes across in interviews, but I really do mean it," Noel said. "Because I’m indifferent to Damon, he thinks that I think he’s a cunt. Our Liam will talk to him. I won’t because he’s just another singer in a band to me, but I don’t think he’s a cunt. Good luck to him." 

The spirit of goodwill and forgiveness wasn't just limited to the Gallagher camp, as Damon commented that he'd be happy to collaborate with Noel one day: "Well, why not? He should come on the Africa Express train [an Albarn-formed music collective] in September." Albarn went on to say that despite the rather public feud, he "never held anything against [Gallagher], even right in the middle of it. I just kind of admired [Oasis] in a way; that they were better at handling it all than me. They didn’t seem to get too affected by the bullshit." 

Then came the wonderful and historic moment at the 2012 Brit Awards, where Noel and Damon publicly embraced each other. Members of both bands see the whole rivalry as a ridiculous thing. Blur's Dave Rowntree said: "We couldn't be more different. To call us both part of a movement was laughable really. Blur and Oasis were stapled together at the head which wasn't healthy for either of us. Every country plays out their national story through music and it became open season for people to wax lyrical about the British condition, using us and Oasis as a metaphor for it. In England, it seemed to be about the class struggle. We were deemed to be middle-class southerners, even though in Graham's case that's far from the truth, and Oasis were working-class northerners."

Guitarist Graham Coxon, meanwhile, added: "We found the Britpop thing very limiting. We went out to see the latest bands and we thought, 'We're not like this.' With Oasis, it was a bit of light-hearted rivalry to start with and we didn't realise how seriously people were going to take it."

So back in school, what did I answer when asked THAT question approximately 130 times every hour? For me it was and still is impossible to choose between Blur and Oasis, because both have had such an equally huge impact on my musical life. There's no way for me to know who was the better band, especially because musically they both employed completely different approaches. But there are still Blur fans out there who dislike Oasis, and plenty of Oasis fans who dislike Blur, so asking any of them what band was the most superior would only result in biased and perhaps unrealistic opinions. 

So judged by a 50/50 Blur/Oasis fan, all of Blur's seven albums will be rated, as will the seven Oasis albums. Blur's first album 'Leisure' will be meeting the classic Oasis debut 'Definitely Maybe' in the first round. At the end of the seven rounds the scores will be added up, as well as the points out of 10 scored for each album, and there will also be a look back at some of the tracks the bands released as B sides over the years. 


BLUR - Leisure (1991) Blur's debut album is a pretty good reflection of what 1991 was like musically: baggy sounds combine with shoegaze styles, but under the surface Blur's trademark sound of the mid 90's was beginning to develop. 'Come Together is not unlike the Stone Roses covering The Kinks, 'Sing' already displayed Damon's gift for powerful melancholy, and 'There's No Other Way' was destined to become an indie disco classic. 7.8 

OASIS - Definitely Maybe (1994) This phenomenal debut was an album that thrilled, moved and inspired people in equal measure. 11 perfect songs penned by a man who dreamed of escaping from the grim council estates of Manchester and taking on the world. 'Rock N Roll Star' and 'Bring It On Down' were direct, adrenaline fuelled bursts of excitement, 'Supersonic', 'Shakermaker' and 'Columbia' were packed with that trademark swagger and rousing attitude, while 'Live Forever' and 'Slide Away' became powerful life affirming anthems. Quite possibly the greatest debut album ever? 10



BLUR - Modern Life Is Rubbish (1993) Modern Life Is Rubbish came at a difficult point in the band's career. If they didn't get this one right, there's every chance that they would have been dropped by their label and probably unable to evolve into the legends they would soon become. In a musical climate dominated by American grunge, Blur reinvented themselves as the musical embodiment of pure Englishness. Combining Bowie with Syd Barrett and The Kinks with The Jam, yet still not having the slightest hint of imitation, the second album suggested that Blur had found an identity of their own. There were big singalongs like 'For Tomorrow' and 'Sunday Sunday', excitingly noisy punk moments like 'Advert' and the brief insanity of 'Intermission', as well as sumptuously lovely tracks like 'Blue Jean' and 'Resigned'. 8.8 

OASIS - (What's The Story) Morning Glory. Do I really even need to explain this record? With the debut album becoming the fastest selling UK debut of all time, Oasis had broken into the big time, but the second album was to become bigger than anyone could have ever imagined. Not as energetic and attitude packed as the debut, it made up for it with huge choruses ('Don't Look Back In Anger'), irresistible melodies ('Champagne Supernova') and in tracks like 'Wonderwall' and 'She's Electric', unforgettable anthems that went on to become the soundtrack to a whole generation's lives. 10



BLUR - Parklife (1994) Parklife continued 'Modern Life...''s unmistakably British approach and took it to the next level. There were the instantly infectious hits like 'Girls And Boys' and 'Parklife', stunning moments of reflection such as 'Badhead' and 'To The End' as well as the enjoyably mental likes of 'Jubilee' and 'Bank Holiday'. The album perfectly defined English culture, painting musical pictures of typical British places and a range of eccentric characters. It would be the album that kickstarted the Britpop revolution and transformed Blur into household names. 10

OASIS - Be Here Now (1997) At the time of its release Oasis were the biggest band the UK had seen since The Beatles, and their third album 'Be Here Now' generated a massive amount of hype in the lead up to its release. When it hit the shops it even made the TV news headlines and the front pages of many tabloids. Crazy times. And the fact that it didn't turn out to be the greatest and biggest record of all time is what gives it a bad reputation today. There was no sense of progression, just louder songs that went on for longer. Co-producer Owen Morris had doubts about the quality of the new material and suggested to Noel that the songs could be a lot better, but his opinion was dismissed and was just "cut down" by Noel. So instead of raising any further issues he "just carried on shovelling drugs up my nose." There was the first Oasis song that I didn't like (Magic Pie), the weary sounding ballad ('Stand By Me'), the lively track with the woefully shit chorus ('I Hope I Think I Know') and the one with Johnny Depp playing guitar on it ('Fade In/Out').  'All Around The World' is a very different character, the album's climax and the big epic that Noel had been keeping up his sleeve for years. By the time it came to making their third album the band were rich enough to finally record this track with all the trimmings they wished, including a 36 piece orchestra and a crazy amount of guitar overdubs. 'It's Gettin' Better (Man!!)' was built on the same Status Quo-like pub rock as 'Roll With It' but a hundred times bigger and with sentiments that sum up the mood of those crazy times perfectly. The song just has this wild, hedonistic sound that suggests it was recorded entirely during one of their big cocaine parties. It's an amazing song if you fade it out at about 4 minutes 50 seconds. Because if you listen to the remaining 2 minutes and 10 seconds of it, all you get is more lazy guitar solos and "we're getting better man" sung no less than 29 times. But there are also some great moments: Opener 'D'You Know what I Mean' was like some powerful, lumbering monster. Packed with exciting backwards guitar and massive, slow echo-drenched drums and with strange psychedelic lyrics, the track was almost like a fierce, snarling relative of 'Wonderwall' but minus any sentimentality. When 'My Big Mouth' bursts in with an alarming wall of guitars and thumping drums, Liam's vocals are incredible, and the crunching hard rock riff is straight forward but offers an exciting menace that there should have been a lot more of on this record. It had a sound and length that was certainly aware of its own self-importance, but it turned out to be the moment where Oasis fucked it up and took years to recover. 7.8



BLUR - The Great Escape (1995) So what do you do when you have a successful formula? Blur did more of the same on what is considered to be the third and lesser past of a classic British trilogy. This time the character based songs were more prominent: 'Country House' was the silly but infectious tale of a millionaire with an empty life, 'Charmless Man' concerns an upper class fool who hides behind his lifestyle, and 'Stereotypes' is a superb bit of commentary on sex and suburbia. 'Entertain Me' is a relative of 'Girls And Boys', with an irresistibly funky bassline from Alex and a Mark E Smith-esque vocal from Damon. Despite the presence of two of their greatest tracks, the misty-eyed melancholy of 'Best Days' and the classic 'The Universal', overall the album certainly wasn't as consistant as the previous two, and in places the cheeky Britpop sound began to wear thin. 8.5

OASIS - Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants (2000) To call this a turbulent chapter in the Oasis story would be an understatement. It was in fact a difficult, frustrating and agonising period where this mighty rock and roll band seemed like a mere shadow of the group they once were. Noel had come off the drugs and struggling to adapt to a sober lifestyle probably isn't the ideal thing to accompany struggling to write great songs again. 'Go Let It Out' was a fine single, and 'Gas Panic' one of the band's best moments, but aside from 'Where Did It All Go Wrong' and 'Roll It Over', there was very little here to suggest that Oasis were back on form.Then there was Liam's diabolical songwriting debut, 'Little James'. Some made excuses for it, praising Liam's "sentimental" side, but there was very little that could disguise the fact that this was soppy and very lame sub-Beatles barrel scraping. What was Noel thinking, letting Liam put the Oasis name on this atrocity, let alone allowing it onto the album... Maybe the elder Gallagher wanted something so bad that it would make even his most piss-poor efforts sound good in comparison. Which is perhaps why it followed the aimless 'Put Yer Money Where Yer Mouth Is', one of at least three disappointingly low quality tracks Noel tossed out on to the tracklisting, the dreary and tired 'Sunday Morning Call' being another culprit. While 'Be Here Now' was celebratory, over-confident and as one journalist quoted "rides high on it's own self importance", the follow up was darker, slightly bruised and unsure of itself. This was a transititional Oasis album during a rather transititional time for music. The hangover 'Where Did It All Go Wrong' is not only the album's working title (which was tellingly scrapped for the eventual release) but also the name of the album's most revealing song as Noel clears the last of the party-goers from Supernova Heights and looks to the past with regret. The closing 'Roll It Over' also gives an insight into Noel's disillusionment with fame and the hangers on that came with it. 7



BLUR - Blur (1997) (Review from Q Magazine) "To some it will be a surprise, and not necessarily a pleasant one; to fans who've been there since 1990, it will sound a lot like a progressive regression, a necessary retreat. Simply, it takes the abiding punk guitar instinct of Graham Coxon and the all-round artfulness that has always driven the band, and plays them upfront, leaving the music hall comedians and The Kinks and the commuters and the trumpeters and Phil Daniels on the bench. In this Stalinist rewrite of history, it's like Country House never happened.

They re-grouped. Went to Iceland to record. Nailed down what they were really into. This process of retrogression was informed by exposure to much hardcore US punk. And this American influence drives the album. Ironically so, after the calculated Britishness of yore, Blur have more in common with Sonic Youth and Sebadoh than The Small Faces. The seated intro to 'Country Sad Ballad Man' is a rustic mess from which arises a simply beautiful, lazy riff, 'Theme From Retro' presents Blur in dub. The voice is spread all over it like paint, the bass stalks, the cheesy organ dances, and the remainder is untreated noise; interference, feedback, sustain, afterburn. It's an unyielding, lovely row. The downtempo 'Death Of A Party' is a genuinely creepy piece, especially when Albarn becomes a distant, wordless wail..." 9 

OASIS - Heathen Chemistry (2002) The moment where Oasis got it terribly wrong. After 'Be Here Now' was dissed for being too big and bloated and 'Standing On The Shoulder...' was considered to be a miserable hangover, on their fifth album Oasis were looking to revive the unmistakeable sound of their first two albums. And yes they did manage to make an album that SOUNDED like Oasis, but they clearly forgot about the part where you have to come up with some good tunes. This was lazy, uninspired and bereft of a single classic moment. Beginning with the piss-takingly banal 'The Hindu Times', we then get the turgid 'Force Of Nature', the boring and unimaginative 'Little By Little', and 3 Liam-penned songs that makes you wish Noel banned him from writing for the group. Only 'Hung In A Bad Place' comes close to recapturing the band's former glory, and even that was a third rate rip-off of Iggy And The Stooges' 'No Fun'. Workman-like by numbers. Way below standard. 5



BLUR - 13 (1999) Those hoping for a return to the pop singalongs would be disappointed, although the album's opening track, beautifully uplifting country-gospel ballad 'Tender' has since become the anthem that vocally unites entire crowds at live shows. Elsewhere There were the scuzzy guitars and drill noises of 'Bugman', the powerful, emotionally fragile heartbreak of 'Caramel', the decayed ambience of 'Battle' and the utterly mental 'B.L.U.R.E.M.I'. 'Mellow Song' is an underrated classic, brief but perfectly executed, while parts of 'Trailerpark' epitomise the sound of seedy urban squallor. 'Trimm Trabb' is also an incredible moment, climaxing with a landslide of savage guitars. It was an incredible progression in terms of ideas and sound, and it sounds even better now than it did back then. 9.5

OASIS - Don't Believe The Truth (2005) - After desperately trying to rediscover what made them great first time round, the sixth Oasis album was a blinding return to form. Sounding confident, refreshed and not trying too hard, this pissed all over 'Heathen Chemistry'. The Observer said: "First single 'Lyla' appropriates a riff from the Stones' 'Street Fighting Man' before stumbling into the bar-room territory of the Faces; 'Mucky Fingers' is a one-chord homage to the Velvet Underground; 'The Importance of Being Idle' is very Kinks, which at least makes a change from the Beatles; while the way in which 'Part of the Queue' borrows shamelessly from the Stranglers' 'Golden Brown' completes a process akin to 'triangulation', which makes you believe you have the best of all possible worlds on offer. Don't Believe the Truth isn't a novel - or novelty - record but it makes you care about Oasis again, and makes you believe they can matter again. So our bond with them is renewed." 8.3 



BLUR - Think Tank (2003) Blur's seventh album proves that when one member of such a close-knit unit leaves, you have a different band. Apart from his swirling atmospherics on muted closer 'Battery In Your Leg', his absence from the rest of the tracks leaves a gaping hole which the band had to fill with new sounds. And quite often these new sounds involved machine-like beats, additional musicians and often unsuccessful experiments. However the two opening tracks 'Ambulance' and the stunningly sad 'Out Of Time' are as good as anything the band ever produced. But immediately afterwards you're faced with the clumsy, poor quality 'Crazy Beat', the Fatboy Slim produced Clash parody 'Gene By Gene' and the aimless noodling of 'Jets'. Out of the 13 tracks, only four really hit the mark, including the brief but enjoyably rowdy 'We Got A File', made up of a basic, sharp punk riff, drums that sounded like someone hitting a bucket, and the title shouted repeatedly throughout. 'Caravan' is also brilliant, showing that by stripping things back this 3 piece Blur could still produce moments of magic, even if it did seem to be mostly Damon's work. But overall this seemed like Blur 2.0 rather than the band we knew and loved before, lacking the magic that could only happen with all four of those people on board. 6 

OASIS - Dig Out Your Soul (2008) (Review from the NME) If there’s one thing that strikes you immediately on your first listen to ‘Dig Out Your Soul’, it’s that it sounds like a band not exactly reinvented, but certainly rejuvenated. There’s a new-band urgency and invention to it, a sense that Oasis are no longer straining to ‘be Oasis’. In fact, ‘Dig Out Your Soul’ is – more or less – the rough’n’ready rock’n’roll album the Gallaghers threaten to make every time the critics are down on their current effort but somehow never get round to. 
Opener ‘Bag It Up’ – complete with a not-so-subtle steal from ‘It’s Raining Men’, of all places – is a pounding rhythmic mess of distorted psych-rock that doesn’t sound like the work of a band in their 15th year. It sounds vibrant and cocky and a little bit cheeky, before a coda that fades into a swell of noise. It’s still unmistakably Oasis, but it’s playful, less obvious and unafraid of going into unexpected places. ‘The Turning’ continues in this vein by getting into what could technically be classed as a ‘groove’ (not to be confused with ‘going dance’, mind), that gives way to a climactic BRMC-style pseudo-biblical chorus about rapture and fallen angels. Dark and brooding, it’s only part two of a five-song streak that represents the strongest start to an Oasis album in years. 

‘The Shock Of The Lightning’ is a pretty good approximation of where Oasis are at in 2008. That same Gallagher swagger still courses through it, but it doesn’t have to rely on terrace-chant choruses to get its point across. ‘Soldier On’, meanwhile, is Liam's finest songwriting moment and a doomy, swirling psychedelic march set to a looping blues riff that closes the album in suitably atmospheric fashion. 
‘Falling Down’ is a swoonsome, blissed-out melody sung by Noel over jaunty, ever-shifting drums. There’s a feeling that ‘Dig Out Your Soul’ might actually be their best album in over a decade. In other words, not quite the fabled, oft-promised “Best one since fookin’ ‘Definitely Maybe’!” but certainly the best one since fookin’ …Morning Glory’. And you never thought you’d hear that, did you? 


The B Sides Blur seem to have released a lot more B sides than Oasis, but this is mainly due to Albarn and co usually having to come up with enough tracks to fill CD1 and CD2 of their singles, where Oasis would only issue the one version of their CD singles. And while Blur's 'Parklife' and 'Great Escape' era b sides would usually consist of throwaway material, the extra tracks featured on the 1994 and 1995 Oasis singles would go down in history as some of the best flipsides ever made. 'Wonderwall''s B side 'The Masterplan' was better than its A side, as was 'Acquiese', the incredible second track on the 'Some Might Say' single. However some of the B sides from Blur's 1993 output sound just as good as anything from the albums, especially the recently rediscovered 'Young And Lovely' and the pre-Blur demos that featured on the 'Sunday Sunday' single. A number of b sides from the band's 1997 era are also amazing, but Oasis undoubtedly win the overall B sides contest.



So who wins? It appears that both bands do. Blur win 4-3 when it comes to the albums, but Oasis emerge victorious because of their classic B sides, making the score 4-4.

Or if you really want to be picky, Blur score 59.2 points out of 70 and Oasis score 56.5.

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Track Of The Day: Charlie Clark And the Majestic 12 - 'The Devil's Pulpit'

A brand new offering from RW/FF favourite Charlie Clark and his new outfit The Majestic 12. 'The Devil's Pulpit' reprises the bright, energetic sound of his old band Astrid and layers shoegazey textures to wonderful effect. The song is their debut single and was released a couple of weeks ago on June 26th via Manimal Vinyl. Led by Scottish indie veteran and cat whisperer, Charlie Clark (Astrid, Reindeer Section), the band also features drummer/singer and undefeated national pie eating champion, Dash Hutton (HAIM) as well as bassist/producer and wicker duck enthusiast, Eric McCann (The New Amsterdams). After releasing some excellent solo material over recent years (see an interview and a review of his most recent EP 'Feel Something' HERE) Clark is also one half of Broken Arrow, along with singer Brandi Emma. More info about them HERE.

RW/FF spoke to Charlie about his latest project: "The whole MJ12 project came about because I had some down time from the Broken Arrow record and I'd written some songs and demoed them at home. when I heard them back they didn't seem like they'd sit well with my solo stuff and were not the right vibe for Broken Arrow either. I really liked them though and I'd been hanging out with Dash Hutton at that time (Haim drummer) who said he'd be down to play drums and sing harmonies. Eric McCann who plays bass in all my projects and produced this record and 'Feel Something' suggested we just go in and record 2 songs right away at his studio, which we did. We all had a similar feeling about making a fun record, quickly and right after we handed the songs to my manager Manimal agreed to put it out so we shot a video for each of the tracks with director Xia Magnus. We did all of this in less than a month. We've still never played a show together, but the 3 of us have a really good relationship and we've decided that whenever we can all get together we're going to keep recording songs 2 at a time and have around 6 or 7 finished so we're going to play our first show in L.A next month and start rehearsals this week..."

REWIND: Elbow - One Day Like This

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Track Of The Day: Django Django - 'Giant'

Superb opening track from Django Django's impressive second album 'Born Under Saturn', which was released last month in May. The genre-blending four piece from Scotland have delivered the goods.

REWIND: Muse - 'Newborn'

With Muse's brand new studio album 'Drones' released next week, here's a classic from their 2001 masterpiece 'Origin Of Symmetry'. The storming 'Newborn' was released as the album's second single, and was also the opening track.

Monday, 27 April 2015

REVIEW: Blur - 'The Magic Whip' (Parlophone Record‏s)

Its not everyday I get to review an album quite like this one. When the band that changed my life release their first album in 16 years, this becomes more than just a record, a life event in fact. 

A lot of groups fade out after the creative rot sets in, things have to come to a natural end, and the members move onto other things in the hope that they can reinvent themselves. This was not the case with Blur. In the late 90s, their last two albums as a four piece saw them on a creative high which cemented their reputation as legends. The magic was still there, and there could have been plenty of it to come, as proved by the tantalising non-album single 'Music Is My Radar'. None of us knew it at the time, but behind the scenes there was major turmoil tearing these four friends apart. Strained relationships and high tensions within the band led to Graham Coxon's exit in 2001. Blur were weakened, and one of music's greatest relationships was cut short. Who knows what they could have accomplished had they stayed intact...

The Coxon-less Blur hobbled on and re-emerged in 2003 with the patchy 'Think Tank', an album that was clearly missing something. The void became even more apparent when the band went out on tour and with Damon Albarn feeling more inspired by his other projects, activity within Blur gradually ceased as they all embarked on their individual lives. Without Blur, British music dried up as the noughties went on and many of us were feeling their absence by the time we'd realised it had been six years since their last appearance.

In 2009 it was hugely exciting to hear that Graham and the rest of the group had put their differences aside and were playing together again, leading to a triumphant and emotional return at Glastonbury that year. With their hits now all-time classics and their albums regarded as seminal works, the prospect of new material seemed somewhat unimaginable. What would Blur sound like after so many years away and could it ever be as good as it was the first time round? Rather than striving for a grand comeback hit, in 2010 they surprised us with the limited edition single 'Fools Day', a subtle, low-key reconnection, and more of a "hello again, how's it going?" rather than a sensational return. What was obvious was that 'Fool's Day' was a comma that suggested unfinished business, but with Albarn constantly distracting himself with other musical endeavours, it seemed that the four of them only had time to get together and bash out the old hits. To coincide with a series of brilliant shows in 2012, the band released two more new songs, and although I described 'Under The Westway' and 'The Puritan' as "wonderful", in retrospect they sound somewhat subdued, and again more of a hint that this was just them warming up for bigger events.

Myself and many other fans longed for a fully active Blur to return with a new album, and were certainly frustrated as the years produced nothing but "it might happen one day" replies from band members and rumours of "brilliant" recording sessions being halted. Fans cried out a hopeful cheer as news came in 2013 that the band had started making an album during a week's break from touring in Hong Kong, but our hopes were again extinguished. "I just haven’t got the time,” said Damon when questioned about making a new Blur album, adding that the other members were “just all doing other stuff” and that he couldn't "foresee us in the near future being in a position to finish" the material. In July 2014 he claimed that the album "may just be one of those records that never comes out", blaming the Hong Kong heat for the band returning home before work could be finished on the album. “If I’d been able to write the lyrics there and then about being there, we’d have finished the record,” he said. “I like making records in short periods of time… Sometimes, if you can’t do it all at once, it dissipates…”

Damon's successful solo album 'Everyday Robots' and subsequent tour kept him busy throughout 2014, and with a musical in the pipeline as well as talk of new material from Gorillaz and The Good, The Bad And The Queen, up until a few months ago it seemed unlikely that we'd hear from Blur anytime soon. Then on one morning in February 2015 came rumours that the band were set to announce a new album, and all of a sudden years of waiting finally came to an end as 'The Magic Whip''s existence was revealed to the world. Determined that there would be a new album, Graham Coxon returned to the recordings that were started during the five days spent in Hong Kong and reunited with producer Stephen Street to shape hours of elongated jams into structured compositions. "It was something we did off our own backs," Coxon explained. "It was quite an overwhelming project. There was jamming and sonic landscaping. I said, 'Damon, can I have a little chat? I said, 'Do you mind if I have a look at this music and see if there's anything worth pursuing. Id compare it to someone's notes, scrawling all over the page. We slung it over to Stephen and he looked through bits of it." After Alex James and Dave Rowntree laid down additional parts, Damon and Graham returned to the studio in December to write lyrics and complete the record. “They did some editing and some production work and sent around the initial tracks and we all realised we’d done something quite special there,” said drummer Rowntree. “There was 18 months [in-between recording the songs] which allowed us to have a bit of perspective on it. When they played it back, that was the time everyone got very excited.” Since the album’s completion last year, the band kept information about the new record under wraps. “We had a blood pact between us about who we were allowed to tell and who we weren’t..." said Rowntree. 

While fans were thrilled, a few pessimistic voices on social media posed questions such as "What's the point in Blur coming back with new stuff? Damon's solo work was getting really interesting, why resort to nostalgia?". Which was missing the point entirely, since the new music was made to escape being trapped entirely in the past. I myself was a bit cynical, but not about the reunion or the release of a new album. Instead, as a fan I was concerned that the way the record was put together might not lead to what I'd hoped for. I was both excited and very nervous about what 'The Magic Whip' would sound like. This is the band that soundtracked my youth, and because of that it seemed inevitable that nothing was ever going to live up to the songs they released during those years: "Although I have longed for a new Blur record for years, the last thing I'd want would be for them to record songs because they felt forced." I wrote in a blog post. "To make a great record, you often need to be inspired. I just hope that this album is more than a load of recordings made under pressure. It's also a bit odd that this seminal band are releasing a comeback album comprised of songs that have been put together in such an unorthodox and non-organic way..."

The fact that they decided not to continue with the recording sessions suggested that their hearts just weren't in it. It also looked like some of the band were more desperate to make a new record than others, and editing down a load of studio jams was "the only way it was going to happen". I've wanted a new Blur album more than anything, but not a half-arsed one that they felt pressured to make. Talk of these songs made from "anything we could salvage' didn't exactly fill me with confidence. However, it turns out that working in such a way may have actually resulted in their most natural record. 'The Magic Whip' is everything I wanted in a new Blur album and more.

As the album begins we are taken to a familiar scene as 'Lonesome Street' revisits the sound of 'Modern Life Is Rubbish' and 'The Great Escape'. Re-establishing the connection perfectly, it's like finding yourself in a vibrant place after a long absence and being greeted by some old mates who take you down various different streets, filling you in on all that has changed and the things that remain. With lyrical imagery involving things like "the 514 to East Grinstead", you might initially be fooled into thinking that the once forward-thinking Blur have taken a backwards step until Damon's pastoral shades, chord changes and Coxon's odd Syd Barrett-esque bridge pull you down unpredictable avenues, leaving you in no doubt that this is the beginning of an eventful and thrilling journey. After being transported from the backdrop of London in the mid 90s, the setting of the majestic 'New World Towers' is a very different one indeed, fast forwarding to the technologically connected and emotionally disconnected climate of 2015. Continuing on from the sensual melancholic atmospheres of Albarn's 'Everyday Robots' LP, its ghostly emotional impact and graceful, meditative beauty are achieved via an intricate, spacious arrangement. "I wanted that song to be a sort of science-fiction 'Greensleeves', so I was putting my energy into making it sound very English, but in a slightly off-kilter way" says Graham. "It's a bit like that weird cylindrical planet at the end of Interstellar – I loved that image from the film, so I was trying to write some chord sequences that sounded quite traditional, but putting these 1970s-sounding futuristic effects on top of them."

For an album shaped so heavily by Graham, there aren't as many distorted guitars as you'd expect. Maybe that's because most of them are crammed into the awesomely noisy Go Out.
Underlining their versatility as a unit, Coxon unleashes a torrent of stinging guitars against the thick wallop of the rhythm section before Damon's foghorn chorus vocal accompanies the blazing noise to lift the whole thing forcefully off the ground. It's exactly the sort of gloriously abrasive racket that we've been in dire need of since '13'. Close your eyes, turn it up loud and listen to everything Coxon does across the track's broodingly raucous 4 minutes and 40 minutes. The darkly playful melodies and the fat slinky groove of 'Ice Cream Man' prove to be a most infectious combination, reminiscent of what 'Think Tank' might have been like had Graham been involved. It's ominous vibes and sing-along verses won't take long to dig their way into the listener's conscious, but the following 'Thought I Was A Spaceman' is much less of an instant gratifier. A deep and substantial piece where a sad tranquility gathers instensity throughout, it requires a patient and attentive ear to absorb its layers of intricacies. It also finds the band continuing to evolve, with a cleverly executed Planet Of The Apes-style lyrical concept set to stratospheric atmospheres, with the patter of drum machines and shady, jazzy chords gradually leading to a mass of guitar noise taking off like a rocket as it builds to a climax. A psych-rock epic is the last thing you'd expect from an album that begins with a song like 'Lonesome Street', but such is this album's urgently eclectic and adventurously vitalised nature.

The quirky pogo punk romp 'I Broadcast' returns to far more familiar territory and comes loaded with driving Coxon riffs. Evoking the hectic nature of the place it was recorded in, it brings to mind a 21 year old lovechild spawned by 'Tracy Jacks' and 'Jubilee'. Its boisterous chant-along chorus will no doubt reawaken something inside many listeners, and its lively character is perfectly placed on the album to break up the more introspective moments. One such moment arrives in the form of the hauntingly fragile tearjerker 'My Terracotta Heart', a song that will strongly resonate with anyone experiencing the breakdown of a relationship, whether it be a musical partner, friend, family member or lover. Casting a poignant spell with its achingly soulful vocal lines, weeping guitars and mournful harmonies, again it's more reminiscent of Albarn's more recent musical territory. Lyrically it sees the frontman laying his heart bare once again as he laments the damage that his friendship with Graham has suffered over previous years. “I knew it was going to be an incredibly sad song, which is why I put that crying guitar on there,” says Coxon. “What I didn’t know at the time was that the lyrics would turn out to be about Damon and I, our long friendship and the ups and downs we’ve had.” 

The darkness at the heart of this album is displayed further with the magnificent 'There Are Too Many Of Us', one of the most surprising things here, where striking synth strings and military snares lead to a groove evoking the sound of a dangerously overpopulated human race marching towards their own doom. Growing in stature throughout, much like the overcrowded tower blocks that it conjures up images of, its apocalyptic cosmic disco sound isn't a million miles away from 'Magic Fly' by 70's outfit Space. Utilising qualities perfected during Damon's years spent working on the Gorillaz records, it's hard not to shed a tear of joy during the gloriously laid back 'Ghost Ship', a glistening glimpse into heaven where sumptuous notes, and a wondrous arrangement distract you from the fact that a Britpop band playing reggae really shouldn't sound this sensational. After that particular ship sails happily off into the sunset, gathering spells of darkness lay straight ahead as the heavy, claustrophobic moods of the creeping 'Pyongyang' rise to the surface. Yet somehow, glorious rays of sun burst through the clouds during a high reaching chorus that sits somewhere between 'This Is A Low' and 'To The End' while arriving from another previously unexplored place.

After such intense stuff, the ultimate helping of light relief arrives as the triumphant, celebratory singalong 'Ong Ong' captures the heart and the memory with immediate and joyous effect. Quite simply one of the most brilliantly direct pop songs Albarn has ever penned, its humble sweetness and instinctive hooks are impossible to resist, as is the noisy guitar that joins in for the last couple of bars. A classic. 
Again visiting a completely different territory, the powerful cinematic finale 'Mirrorball' moves slowly, slipping away mysteriously into the night with its shadowy guitar figures and a subtle breeze of darkly elegant strings.
Staying cool under pressure and delivering an effortlessly superb piece of work, Blur use the things that made them great in the past, combine them with the things they've learned since, and emerged revitalised to create something that feels familiar yet fresh. It has a sense of space not present on the previous albums, as well as a sense of alienation that stems from 'The Magic Whip' sounding appropriately very much like a British band making a record in Hong Kong. In places it's brighter and more anthemic than much of '13' and 1997's 'Blur', yet darker and more introspective than 'Parklife' and 'The Great Escape'. It's more focused and far more consistent than 'Think Tank' and more eclectic than 'Modern Life Is Rubbish' and 'Leisure'. It remembers how the world was the last time they met with us, and how things have changed since, while embracing being all grown up in the present day with a newfound sense of purpose. And like any great Blur record, it sees them evolving and exploring new ground. 

I was worried that a new album wouldn't live up to the ones that these four men released during my teen years. As it turns out, these new songs give me back the buzz I had in my youth and make me feel like a teenager all over again. If this does turn out to be the last time we ever hear from Blur, then what a brilliant way to end things on a high. However, music this great suggests a recharged unit who still have plenty of this sort of brilliance left in them, and 'The Magic Whip' could be just the start of another chapter in the story of this remarkable band.

The most complete and astonishing album that anyone has produced in years. And trust Blur to be the ones that made it. Thank you for not letting us down. 9.9/10

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Track Of The Day: Blur - 'My Terracotta Heart'

With the release of 'The Magic Whip' just over a week away, Blur have unveiled another new song song from the upcoming album. The stunning 'My Terracotta Heart' is perhaps the album's most brutally sincere and heartbreakingly fragile moment, especially when you hear the story behind the lyrics. Graham Coxon said: "I knew it was going to be an incredibly sad song, which is why I put the crying guitar on there. What I didn't know at the time was that the lyrics would turn out to be about Damon and I, our long-term friendship and the ups and downs we’ve had."

"Damon and I have an increased respect for each other because of this record, and we're not ashamed to let each other know about that increased respect. But what we also have a lot of history, and our friendship – like any friendship between two people in a band together – has had to go through a lot. It’s been put to the test, and we’ve often let each other down. This record was a way of saying, ‘Sorry for being such a pain in the arse for the last 20 years.'"

Meanwhile, fans in Los Angeles were able to hear 'The Magic Whip' in its entirety today (April 18) as an ice cream van rportedly travelled to various record stores in the city. People who have purchased a record (presumably meaning pre-ordered 'The Magic Whip') will be given free ice cream while anyone using the secret code 'THE MAGIC WHIP' will receive a flexi-disc featuring 'Lonesome Street' on it. 'The Magic Whip' is out on April 27, and is the first proper Blur album since 1999's '13'.

Friday, 17 April 2015

REWIND: Gat Decor - 'Passion (Naked Mix)'

The weekend is here, and it's time for the Friday Banger. Originally released in 1992 on Effective Records, the original version of Gat Decor's pivotal progressive house classic 'Passion' (The Naked Mix) was an immediate success and eventually became a hit on the UK Singles Chart, peaking at number 29. A few years later a vocal version of 'Passion' became an even bigger chart hit, but is a vastly inferior track. Since the 90s, the song has gone on to feature on countless compilations and in many DJ sets. Many different remixes and mash-up versions of the track have been made down the years too. Gat Decor were a house music production team who featured Simon Slater, Lawrence Nelson and Simon HansonAlthough the outfit released a number of remixes for various acts in the early 90s, Gat Decor only released two singles, the other being 1996's 'In The Head'.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

REWIND: Add N To (X) - Metal Fingers In My Body

From the year 1999, the brilliant and now sadly defunct Add N To (X) and a song about having sex with a robot. 

I remember buying this from Replay Records in Bath, back when it came out as a single on 12" vinyl. I played my copy for the first time in ages the other week and it still sounds fantastic. 

Check out the utterly obscene promo video below (if YouTube haven't made it unavailable in your country).

The song was taken from the band's third album 'Avant Hard', which was released on Mute Records.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Track Of The Day: Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds - 'Riverman'

21 years after setting British music alight, the legend that is Noel Gallagher continues to produce the goods, as his superb second solo album 'Chasing Yesterday' sits at the top of Amazon's best selling albums of 2015 list. It's also the fastest selling album of the year so far. The record's opening track 'Riverman' will be released as the next single on May 11th. There is a limited edition coloured 7" vinyl available to pre-order here: featuring the B-Side 'Leave My Guitar Alone', alternatively get the download here:

While the album title 'Chasing Yesterday' may suggest an exercise in nostalgia and returning to the sound of the glory days, the relaxed, acoustic-driven 'Riverman' immediately reveals that (at times) a rather different path lies ahead, conjuring up images of smoky rooms, and even stepping into space-jazz territory with a wild saxophone solo near the end. Read the full album review HERE.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

REWIND: The Bluetones - 'Cut Some Rug'

Only four years after going their separate ways, 90s indie legends The Bluetones are getting back together for some gigs this September. The news was announced today via the band's Twitter and Facebook accounts, along with a list of tour dates that can be seen HERE. The shows are to mark the much-loved group's 20th anniversary, and will no doubt feature all of the brilliant and massively underrated hit singles that the four-piece delivered over their career. One such piece of magic is this from the 1996 debut album 'Expecting To Fly', and a song that I purchased on cassette single from a Woolworths bargain bin. A bargain indeed. Reaching number 7 in the charts. 'Cut Some Rug' was one of thirteen Top 40 singles that the band enjoyed.

With the band reunited, I hope that frontman Mark Morriss continues with his solo career. His solo album 'A Flash Of Darkness' from last year is a superb piece of work, and is reviewed HERE. Give it a listen!