As I’m writing this, Damon Albarn is on a stage somewhere in Miami wrapping up the 24-date North American leg of the Gorillaz’ 2022 world tour. I saw the seventh show of the leg a few weeks ago at the Forum; it was the second time I’ve seen Albarn perform.
The first time occurred 30 years ago at the long-gone Palace when Blur rolled through Hollywood during the band’s second US promotional tour for their debut, Leisure. It was the infamous tour that produced in-band punch ups, Alburn’s disgust for America, and the reawakening of a dormant subculture that a young, idealistic Ray Davies once waved the flag for. British music journalists were quick to give a new name to the old movement that Albarn resuscitated; Britpop.
Albarn hasn’t changed much since the first time I saw him at the Palace. He’s still spry, still hammy, and still as fit as a road-worn fiddle. At one point during every date on this tour, Albarn will wade into the audience, serpentine his way through the general admission floor, and up the concourses. He dances, sings, and smokes with audience members along the way. It’s one of the highlights of the gig and somehow, he never misses a lyric.
It should also be noted that Albarn could easily use a wireless mic during these strolls through the crowd, but opts for a chunky CB trucker’s walkie-talkie mouthpiece with a curly 100-yard cable that Albarn’s roadie holds wearily over the heads of the swaying masses. (The roadie’s face during this stunt lets everyone know how much he dislikes this part of the gig.) It’s old fashioned crowd work, but I like the chaos of it all and it shows Albarn’s not mailing it in.
At the Forum, Albarn walked up to us as he was singing into his walkie-talkie, grabbed the red Lolita sunglasses perched on the head of the girl next to me, put them on, and then disappeared into the general admission pool behind us, roadie dutiful in tow. When he circled back to us later in the song, he didn't return the sunglasses; instead he grabbed a copy of Plastic Beach and a Sharpie out of the hands of the kid on the other side of me, signed it and handed it back. Again, never missing a note.
Albarn doesn’t use the stage like a typical 54-year-old frontman, but one assumes you have to be fairly nimble and fleet-footed to survive and thrive after living through something as loaded as Britpop. Afterall, Britpop snuffed out the careers and lives of a lot of good men and women within the short five years it was alive. Where did they all go? Anti-vaxxer Ian Brown was booed last month by fans who left his gig early as he karaoked to pre-recorded backing tracks. Richard Ashcroft is reliving old glories by re-recording the Verve’s singles – Acoustic Hymns, Volume 1, (which means there’ll probably be another volume). And has anyone heard from any of The Boo Radleys lately? Should someone call for a wellness check?
ALBARN AND JARVIS COCKER, THAT’S it as far as ex-Britpop survivor success stories go. Brett Anderson? Suede made some strong attempts at relevancy after Dog Man Star and are about to embark on a US tour (opening for the staggeringly lesser Manic Street Preachers), but they were never the same after Bernard Butler left. There’s also a case to be made for Noel Gallagher, but I can’t name one of his solo albums, and neither can you.
Thanks to his wit and cunning, Cocker has maintained a modest yet respectable level of continued success after the Cool Britannia hangover subsided. He’s dabbled in a solo singing career, award winning radio broadcasts, acting, journalism, television, book publishing, and just this week he announced that he’s getting the band back together for old time’s sake. Cocker may not be on the cover of the monthly music magazines anymore, but he’s keeping the cobwebs off with style and dignity.
And then there’s Alburn. He was able to stave off the Britpop blues before the tide turned on his contemporaries. In Live Forever: The Rise & Fall Of Brit Pop (BBC, 2002), Albarn revealed that he had the opportunity to visit Tony Blair at 10 Downing Street along with Noel Gallagher and Creation Records’ Alan McGee, but by the time the invitations were issued, Albarn had long figured out he and his colleagues were just pawns in Blair’s political campaign. (We’ll never know if Cocker had the opportunity to visit No. 10, but considering he was probably on Blair’s watchlist after the ‘97 Brit Awards, any invite was most likely “lost in transit.”)
SO NOW IT’S EXACTLY 30 years on and Albarn is back and bigger and more relevant than he’s ever been. Gorillaz are able to sell out arenas all over the world with very little effort other than posting a few tour announcements on Instagram. By the end of this current three-month tour, Albarn will have performed in 24 countries to over 1.5 million people. Blur, at their Parklife peak, rarely played to audiences made up of more than 2,000 people unless they were playing a festival. It’s unlikely Blur has even headlined to a collective 1.5 million people before their initial hiatus.
What’s changed? Mostly the messaging. When Blur released Leisure, their first album for Food Records in 1991, not only did they look and sound like every other shoegaze band that hung out at The Good Mixer, but their songs were about the same things as those other bands songs were about, too: birds and E.
Blur should have gone the way of Catherine Wheel, the Inspiral Carpets, The Farm, The Soup Dragons, Slowdive, Chapterhouse, Pale Saints, Moose, and countless other baggy, guitar & effects pedal bands that had the misfortune of existing in the wake of the Big Three (My Bloody Valentine, Stone Roses, and the Jesus and Mary Chain.) Instead, Blur was forced to go on that aforementioned US tour – the one I saw in ‘92 – in order to pay off £60,000 in tax debt. The tour was a disaster, but it got them out of the red, and it gave Albarn the perfect set and setting for Blur’s second album.
After spending six intoxicated weeks traveling in a country that he didn’t like, to promote an album he claimed his band was coerced into making (Albarn alleges that the baggy shoegaze sound was the record company’s idea), Albarn began writing lyrics for Modern Life is Rubbish, rubbed young England’s nose in the shit that America had left on its living room shag.
Despite being “exposed as bogus trend-hoppers” by The Guardian for jumping from genre to genre as the wind blew, Albarn shifted gears again and Modern Life’s lyrics showed that he finally had something interesting to say. It was his Space Oddity moment.
With the wistful humor of Ray Davies, the social commentary of Terry Hall, and the anger of Paul Weller, Albarn suddenly became the spokesperson for what he was hoping would become culturally conscious, traditional, proper young British generation. (Morrissey had delivered the same message as Albarn in 1992’s Your Arsenal, but Moz was one year early, and too old by about ten years. Launching and maintaining a revolution is a young man’s game.)
BLUR’S NEW SOUND WAS POPPY; it had brass, woodwind, psychedelia, vaudeville, music-hall, and strings. Albarn’s lyrics were aggressively British, and the band swapped out the flares and stripe t-shirts for blazers with ticket pockets, Fred Perrys, cuffed drainpipe denim, and ten-eye Doc Martens to compliment the new direction. They looked like a street gang of young dandies, skinny pinups – the complete opposite of the latest American import – grunge, and all of the flannel and unwashed, long hair that came with it.
In Albarn’s words to the NME not long after Modern Life was released, he wasn’t going to allow “the whole disgusting movement that came over from America” to have their way with the UK and its weekly record charts. Not on his watch. In short, Modern Life was two fingers up at the Yanks for raping and pillaging his country. Albarn was so intent on starting a culture war, he originally wanted to title the LP Britain Versus America. In the end, Albarn proclaimed that the maxim ‘Modern Life is Rubbish’ was "the most significant comment on popular culture since 'Anarchy In The UK.’"
Albarn dug his heels in even deeper the following year with Blur’s third album (Parklife, 1994), which took his Little Englander theme to new heights. By Blur’s fourth album (The Great Escape, 1995) and the final chapter of Damon’s ‘Life Trilogy,’ Blur seemed punched out. Exhausted from fighting the good fight and all the excess and spoils that went along with it. “The Universal,” the album’s best song, could have been Albarn’s concession speech.
But exhaustion didn’t stop Albarn from stirring the pot and co-orchestrating a publicity stunt that would alter the release date of Blur’s “Country House” to drop the day Oasis were committed to release “Roll With It.” If Britpop had a definitive peak, the hollow Battle of Britpop in 1995 was it. The stunt had officially turned the scene into a circus and Albarn was PT Barnum. As the coke dust started settling, people started to look around and see all the cracks in Britpop, Cool Britannia, and its subtle and not-so-subtle takes on race and misogyny.
AS THE STATE OF BRITPOP hung in the balance in 1996, Blur, Oasis, and Pulp all took the year off from releasing any new material. Cocker and the Gallaghers went on year-long victory lap tours around the world, and a burnt-out Albarn traveled the world and realized that maybe there was more out there than his island.
This left minnows like Longpigs, The Bluetones, Ocean Colour Scene, Marion, Shed Seven, Ash, Manic Street Preachers, Super Furry Animals, Kula Shaker, and many others to fight for whatever scraps the weeklies were handing out in ‘96. The Trainspotting phenomena also propped up the genre’s relevance during that final ugly year. Thankfully, the Britpop party officially ended on January 10, 1997 when Blur released “Beetlebum,” the leadoff single to their self-titled reset album.
“Beetlebum” and the rest of Blur borrowed heavily from American lo-fi college radio acts like Pavement, Built to Spill, Beck, and Archers of Loaf. It could even be argued that “Song 2” has grunge roots were it not for Albarn’s reedy vocals.
Right about now, cynics would claim that Blur was Blur jumping onto another trend just as they had in the past. (The same way Bowie would hop from idea to idea every couple of albums.) I would counter that accusation by saying that Blur’s jump to an American lo-fi sound was Albarn astutely realizing that he painted himself in a dangerous corner with his nostalgia-drenched Life Trilogy. Thanks to oversaturation, Albarn became sort of the Clown Prince of England, thanks in part to this performance of “Country House” on Britpop Now! (BBC2).
Albarn’s change in his band’s direction also probably had something to do with his self-manufactured war with Oasis backfiring on him. While he always maintained he and the Gallaghers were friendly, in 1996, a Britpop fan could either side with Oasis or Blur, but not both. Eventually, fans sided with the working-class Northern blokes rather than the middle-class art students from London.
Did Albarn feel like his countrymen turned on him? It couldn’t have been a reassuring feeling to be called a twat as you walked down the street, as he’s admitted. He also recalls leaving his favorite local pubs after Oasis fans pre-loaded the jukebox with Oasis songs and Oasis songs only. “After being the People’s Hero, Damon was the People’s Prick,” recalls Alex James, Blur’s bassist.
Oddly enough, once Albarn eased up on his young British revolution, Blur finally broke America. But what made Albarn shift gears from fighting for England’s honor to seceding? In an interview with The Sunday Times, he remembers the Britpop’s end days with broad strokes:
I can attest to Britpop no longer having the luster it once had. Working at Tower Records at the time, I found it impossible to keep up with incoming albums made by the last wave of the scene. The stockroom was lousy with stacks of new product from Salad, Shed Seven, Silver Sun, Space, Sleeper, Super Furry Animals, The Supernaturals… and those were just the S’s.
I also think it’s a little disingenuous of him to say later in that Times interview that he had nothing to do with Britpop. The editors even used the biggest font of the article’s layout for Alburn’s pullquote, which read:
BRITPOP? NOTHING TO DO WITH ME
Albarn’s exact words were, “Britpop? Nothing to do with me whatsoever.”
As much as I adore Albarn, he has to be called out on that statement. He may not have said, “...and I’m calling it Britpop” as he waved a Union Jack, but his entire campaign for Modern Life is Rubbish was based on lowkey middle-class nationalism.
AS ENGLAND’S YOUTH LOST INTEREST in Britpop, they exited The Falcon for proper discos where the likes of Robbie Williams, Fatboy Slim, and Jamiroquai sang about anything but wry observations about England. While the Gallagher brothers tried and failed with the Be Here Now (Creation Records, 1995), Albarn retreated from England and found a home in Iceland with plate glass windows overlooking the Reyjavik Harbour, a volcano called Snæfellsjökull, and the Esja mountain range. He even became a permanent citizen last year.
It’s the bayfront chalet where he wrote a lot of the new songs he sings tonight at the Forum. Tonight, he debuts “Possession Island,” a stripped down duet with Beck who takes the stage as one of the evening's special guests. Beck wears a flowy white double-breasted suit with feathery blonde hair; there’s an ‘80s Barry Mannilow thing going on there. (De La Soul, Tame Impala, ScHoolboy Q, Thundercat, Bootie Brown, Fatoumata Diawara, and Del the Funky Homosapien will also take center stage throughout the night, too.)
Going off the visuals and lyrics for “Possession Island” (as well as “New Gold” with Tame Impala and “Cracker Island'' with Thundercat, which are both performed tonight), it sounds like Alburn will be targeting cults in the new album. The type of cults that promise followers new beginnings and prosperity, if you read into Albarn’s lyrics in “New Gold.” He could also be writing about how sensible people – some that we might call friends and family – fall into cults and vote for Trump and Brexit.
Although he’s washed his hands of Britpop, I wonder if Albarn considers that it may have been one of many distant precursors that led to Brexit. There are others who have asked the question. Culture and politics are too ambiguous to ever really know how something as complex as Brexit (or Trump) can tear a country apart, but in “Possession Island,” Albarn sings:
Should I ask you for forgiveness and open my heart?
If I say these words will you listen?
Or leave me here in the dark where things they don't exist.
And we're all in this together 'till the end.
The song is grim. It has an unsettling feel to it. It’s been sequenced as the last song on Cracker Island and he saves it for the final song of tonight’s concert. The song brings the audience in the Forum down to a whisper. It's the quietest the audience has been all night. Listening to Albarn and Beck trade verses, I wonder if he might be asking for forgiveness for the Dr. Frankenstein role he played in giving life to Britpop, even though he’d never admit to it.
Cracker Island comes on February 24, 2023 on Parlophone/Warner Records
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