Monday, August 31, 2009


The non-news of Oasis splitting up hastens me to respond to Snowball's defence of Blur (and - eek! - the Bluetones). In the case of the Bluetones, it is less a defence than an apology - but in the case of Blur, Snowball claims that there were radical roots which, had the band continued to perform, might have blossomed into something explicitly political.

I can't see the evidence for this. Damon Albarn may speak out against the Iraq War, and Blur's marketing men may choose one image of Bush and Blair and another of McDonald's for the cover of their cash-in compilation. But while these failed Labour councillors, groupie-hos-turned-cheesemakers, overrated guitarists and, aah, promising singer-songwriters are no doubt decent chaps, I'd say the claim that “Blur, and in particular Albarn, were to the left of New Labour and even implicitly anti-capitalist" is pushing it.

There is a sense, especially in this decade, that pop music should be a stylistic compendium, containing everything that has gone before - in other words, a pastiche. Far from signifying "the pursuit of authenticity" as Roobin claims in Snowball's comments box, Blur blindly and blankly gobble up what they consider to be the choice cuts of the Brit Invasion (Kinks, Small Faces, Roy Wood etc) and regurgitate something which, via nasal Mockney vocals, hypermelodic basslines, seaside imagery and the rest, conveys 60s-ness. It is impossible to appreciate Blur (admittedly one of the better Britpop bands) without hearing the thing they attempt to represent.

This is where Roobin's theory of authenticity falls down. Authenticity is not borne from acoustic guitars or time-honoured chord sequences - it is the product of something meaningful, a statement which says something new. Roobin compares Blur's purloining of the past with those 60s bands which ransacked the blues. But this is a false comparison.

Watch this, a cover by the Rolling Stones of Howlin' Wolf's "Little Red Rooster":

To the Stones, "Little Red Rooster" is not a touchstone of authenticity to which they aspire. Obviously they refer to the original - indeed their cover is musically close to it, perhaps even more "authentic"-sounding - but what we get in return is something which stirs an uncanny sense of deja entendu. It does not try to replicate the blues (Jagger's corrupting grin at 1:30 is the point at which even he can keep a straight face no longer), but instead plays on our stereotypes of the blues - and thus creates something entirely new: something as ironic and tainted as Jagger's smile.

Robert Christgau:

Jagger is obsessed with distance. He forces the Stones' music to gaze across (and down) the generation gap and the money gap and the feeling gap and the meaning gap. But then, powered by the other Stones – all of them, like most of the Stones' fans, somewhat more simple-minded than Jagger – the music leaps, so that as a totality it challenges that frustrating, ubiquitous, perhaps metaphysical margin between reach and grasp that presents itself so sharply to human beings with the leisure to think about it. This dual commitment to irony and ecstasy makes the Stones exemplary modernists.

The unearthly force of Mick Jagger's performance means that the Stones's version of "Little Red Rooster" transcends decoration and nostalgia. In it, we can perceive the blues (a world of which most of us know little) and the Swinging Sixties (of which we know a little more), but we can also detect a desire to escape a humdrum whose concrete form we discover, with a little research, was Dartford in the early 60s.

The Stones destroy and renovate history in order to maintain it, and to create something entirely new. By an act of will, they turn their source material into something Utopian. The same cannot be said for Blur, who concoct a recipe (two fifths Ray Davies, one quarter David Bowie, one fifth Steve Marriott, three twentieths Wizzard) which is detached from any context. Despite the attempts, when Blur recently played Hyde Park, of Albarn to remind an unreceptive audience of the day in 2003 when the park was filled with a million people protesting against the invasion of Iraq, Blur can only evoke an eternal version of a byegone age, "beyond historical time", and it is thus impossible for Blur's music to say anything about anything.


Blogger Snowball said...

So sorry for not noticing this earlier - I have been pretty much away from the internet for a while.

Okay - 'ouch' is my first reaction.

I can see your point about blur to some extent - you make it very well indeed. However, even if what blur did is what you say they did this surely tells as much about context of the 1990s as it does about blur. If blur were unable to do what the Rolling Stones did in terms of originality then ultimately perhaps this is as much about the cultural differences between the 1960s and the 1990s - as you say it is a false comparison to compare the bands of the 60s with the bands of the 1990s - they were living through a fantastically exciting period of history where artistically it was easier to say something meaningful and something new - as it genuinely seemed a new meaningful world was in the process of being born as a result of the mass student protests and workers struggles etc etc.

The 1990s in contrast were a time where ideologically there was a high level of questioning of corporations and the system - which I think is to some extent reflected in blur's lyrics - but obviously there were more explicitly anti-capitalist bands which better evoked the mood - RATM, SOAD, ADF, Radiohead, Manics etc etc. However, it was a generally period of low industrial struggle and politically a time when the main narrative was the betrayal of nominally social democratic parties of the labour movement because of their embrace of neo-liberalism. In other words, there was never a sense of really a new world coming into being - and so for a band like blur it would have been actually impossible to be as inventive and new as say the Rolling Stones (see 'Street Fighting Man'). In general, I think we can say that music in the 1990s and perhaps subsequently has been disappointing compared to the 1960s etc. There have of course been exceptional artists who have triumphed in these generally less than inspiring times (Radiohead spring to mind) - I don't want to be in any way determinist about this - but if blur were looking backwards musically then perhaps this is understandable and reflective of the wider 'zeitgeist'.

However, finally, I think your argument that 'it is thus impossible for Blur's music to say anything about anything' is way too harsh. 'This is a Low' for example, with its shipping forecast lyrics, may perfectly 'evoke an eternal version of a byegone age, "beyond historical time",' but it still also stands as not only a classic in its own right but also one of the fine product of Britpop which in a sense manages to be both meaningful and in a sense 'new'.

Also - are the bluetones honestly so so bad? Really?

9:36 AM  
Blogger Gary Mills said...

Excellent piece, but it's my contention that Blur's (or specifically Albarn's) cultural influences are a little more subtle than how you paint them. The whole mod/1960's catch-all smearing of Britpop is, generally, something of a misrepresentation in this instance. Blur were casuals at heart, far more inspired by XTC & ska - a period that they actually grew up in - than the lazy, overly nostalgic Weller/Small Faces morass that they became associated with. 'Modern Life Is Rubbish' was actually their most interesting (though not necessarily musically their best) album.

This is a piece I wrote on the subject last year:

12:02 PM  
Anonymous Limestone veneer said...

thanks for sharing 'Little Red Rooster' video. nice post.
- Herman Swan

1:17 PM  

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