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Saturday, May 01, 2010
So Who Won That Battle of the Bands 15 Years Ago?
Fifteen years ago this summer, two of Britain’s most popular bands engaged in a battle to capture the hearts and the critical plaudits of the nation. Blur and Oasis decided to go head-to-head by releasing their latest singles, “Country House” and “Roll With It” respectively, on the same date. It was a marketing masterstroke, provoking coverage on the national television news, and luring the public into a debate of no little vigour, which is the symptom of a healthy popular culture.
The great chart showdown teased the imagination on a number of levels. There was a pleasing bipolarity to the affair. The fey, southern English college-boy pop of Blur against the raucous northern blasts of Oasis. Artful experimentation versus back-to-basics. Cute irony pitched against a primal scream.
Attempts were made to recall the golden age of British pop music: this was the Beatles versus the Rolling Stones all over again. Unlike the mutually respectful protagonists of that conflict, however, the frontmen of Blur and Oasis really did seem to hate each other, which made perfect sense for our ever-coarsening times, and great copy.
By the end of the summer, Blur were perceived as having won the battle – “Country House” outsold “Roll With It” – but lost the war: Oasis’s subsequent album (What’s The Story) Morning Glory was universally adored, becoming one of the biggest selling British albums of all time and capturing the so-called Britpop moment with its arrogant swagger. It also managed to conquer the US market, the sine qua non of rock superstardom.
Critics, jaded by years of anodyne dance music and electro beats, generally enthused over the triumph of Oasis, overlooking the group’s execrable lyrics and blatantly derivative riffs. The simpleton je-m’en-foutisme of the Gallagher brothers further excited the nation over the next couple of years. Liam Gallagher made a string of ever more outrageous endorsements of the joys of drug-taking; Noel Gallagher found himself in Downing Street, chatting to a new prime minister in thrall to his atavistic charms.
It seems a long time ago. The new prime minister came and went, and the idea that the simultaneous release of two competing singles by “real” bands could provoke a national debate seems quaint. Manufactured pop stars – indeed the very manufacturing of them – are what capture the headlines now. The process has been deemed more thrilling than the end result. Manipulative and trite, the 2010 pop scene is a travesty of a healthy popular culture.
And what of Blur and Oasis? What does our distant perspective tell us of their skirmishes of 15 years ago?
Oasis never relived their moment in the sun. Subsequent albums became repetitive and tired. The band ran out of guitar riffs. The lyrics didn’t get any better. Their bellicose protagonists turned their ire towards each other, playing out their sibling rivalry in the tabloids. At the time of writing, they are not talking to each other. Liam Gallagher has a new group influenced, he says, by T Rex and David Bowie. Oh dear.
As for Blur, they retreated from the battle of the bands and made a series of increasingly complex, brooding works. Their front man, Damon Albarn, branched out. He recorded an album in Mali. He formed a virtual rock band, Gorillaz. And then he set about writing a Chinese circus opera that would be performed at the Royal Opera House. The band recently reformed, to great acclaim.
So there we have it: Blur were the band that moved with the times, while Oasis became imprisoned in theirs. Albarn responded to the world’s cultural changes to become arguably the most interesting British musician of the millennium’s first decade; the Gallagher brothers are still playing Punch and Judy. And yet ask anyone to pick out the soundtrack of those hot summers of the mid-1990s, and they will surely recall those surging Oasis singles. They possessed the quality that pop music confers better than any other art form: the reckless joy of being young and carefree.
Who, finally, won the war? A report by PRS for Music, the royalty-collection society, last year concluded that Oasis had received far more airplay over the years than their rivals. But that is a crude indicator. Truth is, it was never a war at all; more a tribute to the versatility of British culture, which has always managed to reconcile high thinking and low thrashing, lyricism and loutishness, pretensions to everlasting significance with cheerful evanescence.
Forget the battle of the bands: the Blur versus Oasis moment was at least one in which pop music seemed to matter. That in itself is cause for nostalgia, because if we do have a new prime minister this time next week, the pop charts will be far from his mind as he assembles the guest list for his first Downing Street party, and it will be all the poorer for it
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