The time has come.
The world is in turmoil.
Chaos reigns, as the fox in “Antichrist” warned us.
The end is nigh.
The signs of the rapture are all around for those who will but see.
The only thing to do is sit back, have a cuppa and marvel at the best albums of the Britpop era.
Well, yes, obviously you could go and do some recycling. Sure. That would help, a bit.
Oh, yeah, absolutely you could go on some sort of protest march. True. Direct action can make a difference. Yes. You could do that.
Erm, yeeeeeesssss, I guess you could send a really pithy or abusive Tweet to whichever world leader, Remoaner/Gammon, former newspaper editor that has said something you don’t like. That would make you feel better and maybe bag you a few likes or new followers.
I get it.
There are more important things you could be doing.
But this is all I have.
Forty of the best albums released during the Britpop years.
Somebody else is working on that.
Not in chronological order.
Not in order of “greatness”.
Just a list.
Well, not just a list because, of course, I have had to give my pompous, hyperbolic views on each of them…it’s my site so I’ll do what I want.
Let’s get started with album number one.
Modern Life is Rubbish by Blur
Battered, beaten, bruised and, crucially, facing the end of their dreams Blur had flung themselves into an American tour that, despite nearly breaking them apart physically, mentally, emotionally and musically also proved to be the source of inspiration for their efforts to not only become the band they knew they could be but would also signal the start of an entirely new social, musical and cultural landscape in the UK.
“Modern Life is Rubbish” is more than an album.
It is a manifesto.
It is a rejection of the modern world.
It is a loving nod to a past that may never have existed.
It is a blueprint for what should come next.
From the epic perfection of “For Tomorrow” to the trippy delights of “Resigned” and all the pop, punk, new wave delights in between it is a staggering and defiant work. Only ears made of cloth and a heart of stone could fail to appreciate it.
This is an album that didn’t just set the wheels in motion for a change of direction musically but provided the template for fashion for the next five years. From the first time I saw this…
I ditched the Smiths t-shirts and quiff and replaced them with suit jackets, v-neck jumpers, Docs and vintage Ben Sherman shirts. Literally overnight. I spent hours rummaging through every charity shop in my town to find a three button suit jacket (I actually found a complete suit and wore it until it begged to be put out of its misery), begged my mum to get me a lambswool v-neck jumper from Marks and Spencer and took my Doctor Marten boots and polished them until I could see my face in them.
I knew who Blur were before “Modern Life…” of course, “She’s so High”, “There’s No Other Way” and “Bang” had all been chart hits, they had appeared on Top of the Pops, I had read about them in Melody Maker and the N.M.E and my friend Dave had played me “Leisure” one night as we discussed how we could persuade/entice Anna Wallace to notice us.
But that had all been two years ago…everything had changed since then.
“Madchester” was a dim and distant memory…the reality of the excesses of the Happy Mondays, the creative torpor that had engulfed the Roses and the incessant appetite of the music press for the next scene had left baggy boys and girls as little more than a laughing stock. Ironically there was little to laugh about with grunge…earnest, humourless, nihilistic, brutal and, crucially, boring it was a time where melody, uplift, hope and creativity were in short supply.
Worse, of course, were the clothes.
People in “sneakers” when not participating in exercise!
Holes in jeans other than those that your feet were meant to go through!
Plaid shirts, two sizes too big and with a Pearl Jam t-shirt underneath!
Then there was the hair.
I can’t go on.
What “Modern Life…” offered though was a vision of England’s past that while Romantic, idealised and inaccurate in many ways was, nevertheless, quite beautiful. Beauty was not a word that featured much throughout the grunge era. At the same time Blur seemed to be suggesting that there was no reason why we all couldn’t celebrate the best of British and Britishness without the need for jingoism or narrow xenophobia.
It all starts with a nod to ace face, Mod and ultimately glam icon Marc Bolan. “He’s a 20th century boy…” sings Damon Albarn on “For Tomorrow”, doing his very best Ray Davies meets Chas ‘n’ Dave. London, the Westway, Emperor’s Gate, Primrose Hill…like a nineties “Waterloo Sunset”. Strings swirl and swoop, the guitar is strummed and thrummed, the drums are tickled and never pounded, the bass throbs, brass shimmers in the background. It’s a beautiful song, one that Davies or Weller would have been happy to have written at their peak.
“Advert” takes a swipe at the rampant consumerism of modern life and concludes…it’s rubbish. This is also the birth of “Girls and Boys” as Damon sings about the need for holidays in the sun. When he begs, demands, pleads for someone, anyone, to say something…else, I knew exactly what he meant. Morrissey had, many years before, moaned that the music they constantly played said nothing about his life and here we were, a decade later, and still nobody was saying anything. Albarn seemed intent on changing that.
“Colin Zeal” is the first in a long line of ordinary people that crop up, improbably named, in Blur songs; Tracy Jacks, Ernold Same, Yuko and Hiro, Dan Abnormal. Each offering him the chance to view the world through the eyes of someone else. What is interesting about songs like “Colin Zeal” is that it never appears that Albarn is patronising or mocking the lives he is writing about, there is a sense of warmth and understanding despite his distance from those worlds. “Colin” is followed by “Pressure on Julian”, a scuzzier, lazier song which sounds like a twisted nursery rhyme. It’s the first hint of the direction that Graham Coxon wanted to pursue…something less pop and more other. Equally downbeat is the lovely “Blue Jeans” which appears later on the album. “My thoughts are getting banal, I can’t help it.” is one of the most important lines on the album for me; I can remember hearing it and thinking that I needed to make sure that I didn’t ever allow my thoughts to become banal, that I needed to listen to music, read books, participate, meet people, engage in order that my mind wouldn’t stagnate. That lasted for about fifteen minutes and then “Prisoner Cell Block H” started and I was fairly sure that “Vinegar Tits” was going to get just desserts from Bea so…
Anyone with even a passing interest in Britpop should give grateful thanks for “Star Shaped” because, quite apart from sounding like the sort of thing that could have cropped up during the recording of “Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire)” by The Kinks, it also provides the title for the best Britpop club in the country…and the only festival that is absolutely dedicated to the bands of that time. Cracking little tune…but its legacy is more important!
The A-Side comes to a close with another single from the album “Chemical World”. It’s a wonderful single but the most important thing about it was the video…specifically the outfit that Damon is wearing in the video; brown Fred Perry, vintage Levis and a pair of loafers. I loved that. He looked about as cool as anyone I had ever seen…none of the naff, fancy dress, Mod clobber that people who don’t know any better wear but like a proper, nineties vision of the look.
Now we encounter our first problem.
I don’t like “Sunday Sunday”.
It’s a bit too vaudeville for my liking.
Unlike some of the earlier songs on the A-Side which seemed to understand the lives they were describing, “Sunday Sunday” seems a little detached, a little sneering.
Fortunately things take a very definite turn for the better with the next two tracks; “Oily Water” and “Miss America” which are, along with “For Tomorrow”, my favourite moments on the entire album. Each is dreamy, slightly pastoral…hints of Syd Barrett and shades of Nick Drake. I can still see myself laid on bed, “Prisoner Cell Block H” has finished, the lights are off and the constant worry, anxiety and depression of my last couple of years at University won’t let me sleep so I would return time and time again to these two songs. Something in the fragility of Albarn’s vocal and the whoozy fug of the music helped me feel…less upset.
Something much more strident and upbeat follows in the shape of “Villa Rosie” which has a near oompah vibe at times and a hint of “Slanted and Enchanted” by Pavement at others…which is unlikely to really have been an influence given it was released just a few weeks prior to “Modern Life…” but I’m pretty sure that Graham Coxon was listening to the sorts of bands who influenced Stephen Malkmus.
“Coping” and “Turn it Up” are the songs I best remember from the “Modern Life…” tour. On record they were joyous and bold, live they were joyous and bold and ferocious. The crowd would disappear to be replaced by one heaving mass, like a Britpop “Society”. Even now “Turn it Up” is a floor filler…well, what I mean is that I’ve just finished listening to it and my floor was filled by me.
The affair ends with a companion piece to “Sing” from “Leisure”, “Resigned” where, cleverly, Damon sounds…resigned. It’s a downer but in the best possible way. All the best albums are light and shade. You need heart and soul if you really want to connect with people.
A whole heap of attention is going to be flung at “Parklife” this year and rightly so, it’s an era defining record, but for those of us who were rootless, shiftless and hopeless in 1993, who could see nothing of value in grunge and who wanted something or someone to say something, anything, about the lives we were leading then “Modern Life is Rubbish” is the more significant album. It was a truism in 1993, modern life was rubbish but Albarn, Coxon, James and Rowntree did more than most to create an environment where people began to believe that didn’t have to be the case…at least musically. For that, and for so much more, I’m glad that “Modern Life is Rubbish” is my favourite Blur album.