Beetlebum – January 20th, 1997
“The first time I took heroin was like coming home. For some people I knew, heroin was the final taboo. They would smoke dope and take coke, but draw the line at smack. Not me. I actively sought it out as if we were long-lost blood brothers. As if I had always known all the other drugs I had taken had been merely a buildup to the main event. My feelings of inadequacy and despair gave way to a warm embrace. No one and nothing could get to me.”
(John Crace, The Guardian, 22/5/18)
“Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?”
(Mark Renton, Trainspotting)
“Just say no.”
(The Kids from “Grange Hill”)
I need to confess something.
This may come as something of a shock to those of you who know me or who frequent this site because you will know that I am one of the most rock and roll individuals alive. There are no limits to my excesses…is what you probably think as I Tweet, yet another, picture of my daughter or share, yet another, story about how unhappy I was as a teenager.
I have never taken any drugs.
Not a single drop of alcohol has passed my lips…unless you count that time my wife got so drunk at a staff Christmas party that I got roaring drunk simply touching her.
I had to have my stomach pumped.
She’s only little but she basically imbibed all of the alcohol.
But that was involuntary.
Like when people spike someone’s drink.
She spiked me.
With the fumes that exited her body for about four days afterwards.
Other than that…never been drunk.
I’ve never tried a cigarette.
Or a joint.
Or an E.
I mean I love Coke.
Coke is it as far as I am concerned but not the other coke.
My body is a temple.
A slightly puffy temple filled with donuts and Coke but a temple nonetheless.
The very idea of heroin makes me feel queasy.
I don’t like needles.
Or people under the influence of drugs.
I don’t think heroin would be my thing.
I like Haribo.
“What’s “Beetlebum” about? Well, if it’s common knowledge then I don’t need to talk about it do I? Oh God, what’s it about? Well that whole period of a lot of people’s lives was fairly muddied by heroin. It’s in that place (Beetlebum) and a lot of stuff was at that time.”
(Damon Albarn, “No Distance Left to Run”)
“My experience was a long time ago…I wrote about it in one song which is”You and Me” and is in context and the context of it is that it is a song about the ghosts of Notting Hill Carnival…and the whole song is about ghosts and it is one of my ghosts. I personally don’t have an addictive personality. I can have a cigarette and then not have a cigarette for five days…I’m very lucky like that…the hysterical reaction to me being some sort of libertine in West London, sort of celebrating drug use, that couldn’t be further from that.”
(Damon Albarn, Newsnight, April 25th 2014)
It is clear that my anti-libertine lifestyle wasn’t the approach being taken by many people towards the end of the “Cool Britannia” era.
The brilliant sunshine, the endless positivity, the relentless media spotlight, the coruscating heat of fame…was beginning to turn into something else, something darker, something edgier and something seedier.
The spectre of heroin looms large over the song in other ways too.
The cover with a prostate figure lying on a bed of golden brown leaves…famously pseudo-punk poseurs The Stranglers recorded their own song about chasing the dragon called; “Golden Brown”. But this prone figure also brings to mind images from the, inexplicably, adored British film “Trainspotting” and the scene where Euan McGregor’s character, Mark Renton, “slips away” (literally) while under the influence. That image is clear and present in the video for the single too as Albarn lazily, hazily, lolls and rolls around the floor.
Despite the subject matter “Beetlebum” is my second favourite Blur single behind “For Tomorrow”. It marked the end of the “Life” trilogy and a shift in tone. Out went the giddy pop thrills of the likes of “Girls and Boys” and the none more English sound and in came lo-fi, alt-rock, mumblecore musings and a turn away from The Kinks and Madness towards the likes of Pavement and other indier than thou American alternative sounds.
“Beetlebum” was the first step in persuading Graham Coxon that the “cor blimey, knees up Mother Brown” fluff of “Country House”, “Charmless Man” and, possibly, “Parklife” itself was not going to become the sound of Blur. It was clear that Coxon wasn’t happy and that he wanted to take things in a different direction, to reinvent, to explore, to expand, to stretch the band and provoke their audience…I have a feeling that he would quite happily have sacrificed the mad success and excess of the “Life” era for something less financially rewarding but more artistically challenging.
It was also the first single since they become bona fide pop stars that was laced with the same sort of hunger and desire as “For Tomorrow”. It was as if they knew they had to prove themselves again, change, move on…or become forever trapped in the Britpop box.
They had always wanted to be a big band and they had achieved it…entirely on their own terms.
Now they wanted to become a band who could shift gears, take left turns, shock, surprise and astonish…it was a risky thing to do, they could alienate the people who came to their concerts to shout, drunkenly, along to the likes of “Parklife” and “Charmless Man”, they could upset the folks who were still dressed in the Britpop uniform but they knew it was either change or risk caricaturing themselves, hating themselves and the band dying with a legacy that didn’t accurately reflect who they were, or who they had become.
They could be Bowie or they could be Status Quo.
They went for Bowie.