Novelist Martin Amis has always had a tiring air of priviledge about him. His father was the great English comic novelist Kingsley Amis and Martin was a public school, intellectual oxford bound, toffee nosed know it all. Worse still, he was a great novelist who, based upon my two fave of his novels, 1975’s “Dead Babies” and 1984’s “Money” was a misanthropic hardon who casually tortured his characters to impotent humiliation or death or both.
In 1989 Amis presented his magnum opus “London Fields” where everything was more and everything was worse. More violent (if that’s possible), more sexist (the feminists loathed it) more clear eyed and cynical as it dispatched London and its denizens to damnation.
Damon Albarn would claim “London Fields” was the inspiration for his band Blur’s 1994 magnum opus “Parklife”. Blur were from the exact same class as Amis: an endless succession through generations of shop keepers sons becoming architects and raising pop stars. This is middle class the way Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney’s parents wanted to be middle class. Their first album was tentative but their second album was the excellent “Modern Life Is Rubbish” which shockingly stiffed. “Popscene” a terrific single also stiffed and songwriter vocalist Alburn was so angry he refused to put it on the album. I don’t blame him.
Meanwhile at the other end of the foodchain, Noel Gallagher was a roadie for the less than thrilling Inspiral Carpets and Liam Gallagher was fronting a band going nowhere called Rain. The Gallagher Brothers were white trash working class secondary modern boarstall bait boys. Manchester City football fans (the moral equivalent of supporting the Brooklyn Cyclones), barely articulate, barely civilized: they were straight outta Compton.
Oasis released “Definitely Maybe” in 1994.
Blur Vs Oasis. South Vs North. The Kinks versus The Beatles. Rich versus Poor. Conservative versus Labour. This was simultaneously the beginning and the end of Britpop.
Now fifteen years later a clear eyed look at both albums reveals the following. Damon Alburn’s “Parklife” was a wildly ambitious, musically adventurous, essentially flawed piece of work held together by a first song hit, two brilliant songs, a couple of music hall gibes and a penultimate classic.
Noel Gallagher’s “Definitely Maybe” is a flat out masterpiece of such relentless songcraft it outweighs the godawful lyric and casual appropriation of other peoples songs. Live (I saw both bands around this time) Blur were a stick of dynamite exploding when you got too close and Oasis were enervated and arrogrant unwilling or unable to sell their songs.
Back to the albums. here is a song for song review and grade.
Park Life by Blur:
Girls & Boys – a sorta new wave dance twirl all synth beats about getting laid at Club Med. Grade: “B+”
Tracy Jacks – a Kinks like character study of a middle class man going crazy. Get back in line, Tracy. Garde: “B”
End Of the Century – Grade “A+”
Parklife – Grade “A+”
Here is not just the difference between Martin Amis and Blur but also the difference between literature and pop music. Both “London Fields” and “Parklife” are works about nihilism. They are about the inevitability of nothingness. Nothing changes, we just walk arm in arm to oblivion. End of a century? End of a planet? Nothing matters. But Amis is smeared in a cynicism where even his linguistic gymnastics can’t help him and Albarn’s a Vaudevillian (with Quadrophenia Phil Daniels leading us “round and round and round” the park to nowhere) telling us to singalong because it’s pretty fucking bad but we’re all in it together. How can two songs so pitch black be so damn cheerful? Well, they both sound GREAT. “End Of The Century” is a beautiful song with a marvellous, tugging ache of a vocal by Alburn: its all arched “r’ and swirling fffs: effervescent indeed. And in one song a married couple goes through it and on the next everybody else joins in. This is what Blur can do and Amis can’t.
Bank Holiday – An effervescent look at the habituality of the work enthic. Grade: “A-”
Badhead – We had a name for this kinda thing when I was knee high to a daisy: pop-ballad. And a goodie as well. grade: “A-”
The Debt Collector – This pleasant enough waltz goes round and round and round. The title is ominous and the sound slightly giddy. Grade: “B-”
Far Out – Literally. the opposite of shoegazing must be stargazing in this minor but interesting end to side one on the vinyl. Grade: “B+”
To The End – back when I was a thigh slapping twig of a thing we had a word for it: Power ballad. There is a version of this with the great (and gorgeous) Francois Hardy singing the French parts, this one has the chick from Stereolab. A strong song Celine Dion could cover. Grade: “A+”
London Loves – Here is “London Fields” most obvious and least interesting in its influence. Imminently iffy traffic jam. Grade: “B”
Trouble In The Message Center – This song is the equivalent of the middle of a concert where you’re sitting through new album crap waiting to get to the hits and the encore. All very scary as our lives are controlled by outside sources, maybe outside machines. Grade: “C+”
Clover Over Dover – No white doves here, a depressing, downbeat, deadend. A low indeed. Grade: “B+”
Magic America – dripping with irony, he’d be better jumping off the cliffs of Dover. Grade: “B+”
Jubilee – Another character study. Young, middle aged, old, we all go round and round. Great chorus. Grade: “B+”
This Is A Low – The penultimate moment here but really the end. On the website songmeanings somebody explained it thus: “to me this song reminds me of walking out of an exam period back in school, where i knew i’d failed both exams and the sky was gray… ” That’s exactly right, though Alburn took this from a UK shipping forecast (it’s a weather low) so precisely right for an album seeped in ennui and nothingness. It goes round and round and round.
Lot 105 – The carousel comes to an end and we all get off. Grade: “B”
I love “Parklife” more than I appear to here. “Century” and “PL” are so good they carry the album forward and don’t allow the shoegazing or the proto-Ray Daviesisms to overwhelm you, the ballads are first rate and if nothing else as a firm believer in the importance of popularity, its huge success in England counts for a lot with me. Album Grade: “A”
In my youth I dated a fairly promiscuous, very pretty, extremely sweet and somewhat stupid girl . I liked her a lot, maybe loved her. Oasis’ “Definitely Maybe” s the aural equivalent of this girl. It is a ridiculously good album, and, equally ridiculous, Oasis were releasing EP after EP at the time. Noel gallagher must have written twenty of these songs, maybe more, in a row. He was too smart for his own good -Noel has spent his entire career explaining that it isn’t that easy, folks with not a thought in your pretty head but how good life can feel.
Rock ‘n’ Roll Star – Those fucking guitars rev up their engines and Liam sneers in that world beating leering, cold timbre. His dreams become real and he sings them into being. Grade: “A+”
Shakemaker -Knocking off the New Seekers with nonsense lyrics and a three guitar attack, riffs our specialty and a bad attitude. Grade: “A”
Live Forever – so Noel can’t write a lyric all the way through, he can certainly write a couplet or two. “Live Forever” is the anti-Blur, Blur will go round and then stop dead, Oasis have a call to everyone to everlasting life. It is a song of faith but like their beloved Lennon, it’s faith in yourself. Killer guitar solo. Grade” “A+”
Up In the Sky – finally, this is pretty and exciting but ordinary and essentially filler. Grade: “B”
Columbia – six minutes of killer hardcore rock guitars: so much melody, so much sound: its like a wall of rock. And Liam. No heart of course, but we’re used to that by now. Grade: “A+”
Supersonic – All Noel seems able to do on this album is to write about what he is doing. It’s like a mirror, it relects right back on itself and it is wonderful stuff. Grade: “A+”
Bring It On Down – Noel tears himself from the Underclass he is a part of, scraping it off his shoe. Great coda. Grade: “B”
Cigarettes And Alcohol – And cocaine as well of course, but not too speedy on yet another self-portrait. Mega guitar break, Liam at his best. Grade: “A+”
Digsy’s Diner – This could be a nursery rhyme, or Altered Images could cover it, or something. I love the opening couplet “What a life it would be if you’d come tonight for tea…” then the lyric belly flops but who cares. Grade: “A+”
Slide Away – The honest roar of rock and roll. Top vocal performance. All of Liam’s vocals here are incredible -he sounds youthful and jaded at the same time. This man makes the most positive statement: “live forever,” “slide away,” “feeling supersonic” sound like a threat. It’s a perfect match for Noel’s lyric: he takes the silliness out and replaces it with sting. Grade: “A”
“Married With Children” Wow -acoustic guitars to take us out and he coulda written it for my old pal Patricia!!! Perfect song except for a naff rhyme here and there. Grade “A+”.
“Definitely Maybe” is just one home run after another, it is a relentlessly melodic attack and it has weathered the years very, very well. Album Grade: “A+”
Both albums were huge hits and a year later Blur and Oasis duked it out, Blur with the deeply flawed “The Great Escape” and Oasis with the essentially perfect “(What’s The Story) Morning Glory”. Oasis won the battle and became the biggest group in the UK but Blur won the next round when “Song 2” blew up big in the States and Alburn bettered everybody with his electronic animated group “Gorillaz” sold more than everybody else combined.
All these years later I still try and see Oasis whenever they come to town, thought they were dreadful last year at MSG but some nights they’re on the money. Liam still with his arms behind him, still sneering. Noel had a pretty good live solo released earlier this year. And Blur have just reformed so I guess they’ll make it back to NYC before the end of next year. Still, in 1994 these two bands looked at life in Britain from different ends of the social and economic and philosophical spectrum and whether they found a reason to be alive simply the necessity of time passing or the joy of time everlasting, their views were equally exciting and equally valid.
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