Friday, April 25, 2014

Rise of the Britpop Empire: blur's Parklife turns 20

I really gravitated to Britpop from '94-'97. It was my thing; an antidote to hair metal and grunge. Alt-indie bands like Jellyfish and Weezer piqued my curiosity, but nothing grabbed me at the time like this 3rd British Invasion. This wave was more indebted to Paul Weller and The Kinks than the Beatles or the New Romantics. Here they came with thicker accents than ever. So, salute to blur's landmark album Parklife which turns 20 today (April 25).

Most of you may only know blur - yes, small "b" - for Girls & Boys (see video via link) which was the first and only stateside hit from Parklife. And then, you may only know the band from their brisk rocker Song 2, which my old band Bat Country used to cover at the turn of the century. I can remember seeing the Girls & Boys video for the first time back when MTV still aired them, thinking, "My God, what is this? This is ridiculous. Please play this again." I found the CD in the used bins at a local record shop and became entranced. Some DJ or record label intern probably sold it back. No one in the States could have been a fan of this music yet.

This was a musical style that most Yanks never really got. Too English. Too British. Too Welsh, in cases. It lacked the R&B sensibility of the first British Invasion; and didn't have the MTV-ready, glam prettiness of the second. That didn't stop me. Tracks like Trouble In The Message Centre, Parklife, To The End and This Is A Low were a new vernacular road map for a 20-something already on his way to being a lifelong Anglophile. Thank goodness the album was equipped with lyrics. Half the time I didn't get the references; but I quickly learned.

[Note: Mike Myers' convolution Austin Powers cannily arrived at the height of the movement. I find AP unwatchable now; but I was enthralled by that first movie. I went to see it the weekend it opened; virtually alone in the theatre and certainly the only person laughing. Don't know who that says more about.]

blur didn't become important and newsworthy until they had an archenemy: Oasis. Oasis had the anthems like Wonderwall and swagger, but blur had the character studies and the better vision. blur's pinnacle for me was The Universal from their next album. Smashing. The video is a riff on A Clockwork Orange, the song is a haunting hymn from a future passed. blur and Oasis dominated the charts and the musical landscape in Britain for several years, conjuring the Beatles/Stones rivalry of the mid-sixties.

Britpop became code for its fans in America. Oasis, Supergrass and Pulp became immediate favorites for me, too. I could talk knowledgeably with Brits about Mansun, Spacehog, Super Furry Animals, Ash, Elastica, Suede, The Verve, Menswe@r. Reading about my faves in Mojo, Select and Q, while collecting their CD singles for the B-Sides were highlights of trips to the UK in the '90s. Hearing the latest Britpop hits in London clubs like Blow Up was exciting. No DJ I knew in America, bar myself at the old Sam Goody, was spinning this stuff with a decent sound system. I had to fly to the UK to dance to blur and what expanded into a groovy repertoire of Easy Listening, Northern Soul and British Invasion. The first time I heard the Beatles' The Word in a club was revelatory.

It was a thrill to see many of the British acts in person. They were all my age. I bonded with the other fans, meeting the same clutch at show after show. I missed out on blur; I have an unused ticket for Pulp. But I did see Oasis a half-dozen times or more; Supergrass 10 times plus; and Manic Street Preachers in the tiny Troubadour at the time they were selling out stadiums in Europe. I met Oasis' Noel Gallagher after a show at the Hollywood Palace in '95. Nice fella. The guys from Supergrass felt like they were practically younger pals from school over several visits from '97-00. I still admire them and think of Gaz and Danny fondly.

blur's catalog has stood the test of time best. Supergrass' exuberance keeps their music fun and I can listen to their albums with frequency. A handful of Oasis' better numbers still work. They were my favorites originally, but they quickly repeated themselves after the peak of Champagne Supernova. Man, revisiting it, most Britpop hasn't aged well; and revisionist critics are having a field day bashing it. But I loved it. It influenced my writing at the time and I have my share of vintage track jackets & football kits to show for it. I doubt there will be another contemporary movement in my lifetime that will absorb as much of my time again.

Oasis, founder members of Britpop, are also blamed for its demise circa 1998 (Although one could also point to the critical mass of Radiohead's brilliant, but un-Britpoppy, OK Computer). That was the year I finally saw Ray Davies of the Kinks perform his Storyteller show in his hometown of London to a packed house at the Royal Drury. As the age-diverse audience sang along with Autumn Almanac, even then, I had the sense that our hero was showing the Lads what a memorable song was supposed to sound like and that Britpop was never going to last. Yes. Yes. Yes. Too much, too soon.

If you have it, give Parklife a spin. It is a high quality document of its time; and a solid listen in any era. happy 20th blurthday, Parklife.

#Britpop #Blur #Parklife #Oasis #Supergrass #Pulp #TheKinks