Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Luk√°cs

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Bluetones, Blur and the legacy of Britpop

I went to see the Bluetones play live earlier this week. I was never really a massive fan and indeed had rather forgotten about them until a few months ago and then googled them and saw they were still going and well, when the opportunity to see them again after about a decade came up, it sounded too good to miss. In the event, they were okay - (lets face it though - they were always okay) - and played a lot of new material which sounded reasonable enough - you definitely have to respect them at least for still going.

The Bluetones were a band that kind of rose and fell with the wave of 'Britpop' in the mid-1990s, and I only really mention them now because of an article reminiscing about the legacy of Britpop written by Jude Rogers - a blur fan - I read yesterday. I was also a teenage blur fan - indeed the very first 'proper album' I ever bought was Parklife on cassette - and was going to write about Blur at some point anyway - this moment has now been rather brought forward.

Rogers gives a rather cynical take on the whole phenomenon from the perspective of someone who bought into the whole New Labour project (for it seems a mixture of idealism, careerism and naivety) and is now a little disillusioned about Blair and Brown (again for a mixture of principled reasons like tuition fees - I was actually on the march she describes in Oxford in support of the 'Oxford non-payers', the first and only time I have ever set foot in the place - and the war on Iraq but also one senses for careerist reasons - there is no chance of any political career with New Labour when they are currently so hated). Rather than blame New Labour though she takes her sense of political betrayal out on blur and in particular Damon Albarn.

Of blur she writes:
'Now I see that these records were, on the whole, far less exciting and much less revolutionary than their predecessors. The Great Escape brimmed with musical nods to Britain's past - woozy cinema Wurlitzers on tales of suburban life ("Fade Away"); oompah brass on songs about wealth ("Country House") and the National Lottery ("It Could Be You") - but many of its lyrics oozed with humourless kitsch.'

As for Damon Albarn,
'Albarn, it seems now, was always a reactionary at heart. When Blair finally did what Labour had been trying to do for 18 years, making this first-year undergraduate and her friends scream with joy in a junior common room, Albarn turned down his invite to the victory reception'.

Her account on Britpop, blur and Blairism is I think rather flawed. Yes, Blair tried to surf the popularity of 'Britpop' but my sense is that blur were never at all happy to be in league with New Labour - and this is not because they were secretly 'reactionary' or Tory but because - like me - New Labour left me completely cold even before they ever got into power in 1997. My sense is that in as far as they were political at all blur and in particular Albarn were always to the left of New Labour (as were Oasis - witness their support for the Liverpool Dockers Strike in 1997) and even implicitly anti-capitalist. I would have felt completely betrayed if blur had turned up to Blair's 'victory reception'.

In fact, while I am not going to say that blur played any role in my turn to Marxism, my reading of their lyrics did nothing to discourage me in such a turn at all. The very choice of album title 'Modern Life is Rubbish' might signal some sort of reactionary nostalgia or conservatism but given the main song on the album was the still glorious 'For Tomorrow' I read it as an implicit hatred of bourgeois society - a materialist society Blair championed. Think of the Left-Hegelian condemnation of commodification 'The Universal' or celebrate the cynicism of 'End of a Century' with respect to the millenium hype epitomised by New Labour's failed homage to corporate power, 'The Dome'. Indeed, I partly blame Damon Albarn for my never having gotten around to passing my driving test - I suffered a crisis of conscience after reading an interview in NME with Albarn which attacked what damage cars were doing to the environment.

Moreover, describing Albarn as a 'reactionary' seems not only insulting but frankly ridiculous - by the article's own evidence at their recent gig in Hyde Park he reminded 'the audience that this is also where two million people ended their march against the Iraq war' back in 2003 - a march Albarn attended. More recently, with The Good, the Bad and the Queen he headlined a Love Music Hate Racism festival. It is not surprising that their recent 'Beginners Guide to blur' collection has a picture of Bush and Blair on the cover - they were always anti-war and to the left of Blairism.

As for blur's music, yes I suppose parts of it have dated badly. Indeed, I had stopped listening to blur really until I saw their recent Glastonbury gig on TV and then was inspired to dig out their back catalogue, buy (the excellent) 'Think Tank' which I hadn't got round to doing and listen to it all again. But Parklife remains a classic, and the genius of blur was their creativity and ability to evolve musically unlike Oasis. Okay, so Alex James sans blur is hard to take seriously and Dave Rowntree's sad efforts to get elected as a Labour councillor are well, sad frankly - but Graham Coxen's solo work and Albarn's talents more than make up for such matters. Lets 'look back in anger' at the waste of 12 years of New Labour government but lets not blame blur, the Bluetones or Britpop in general for Blairism.

Edited to add: An alternative take on blur from paddington

Labels: ,


At 9:50 pm, Anonymous Sonya said...

Awww, but I can take Alex James seriously outside of Blur! ;)
I agree with your view of Rogers's article though.

At 10:40 pm, Blogger Charlie Marks said...

Blur reactionary?

Hang on, they got Ken Livingstone to record a track...

Albarn turned down Blair on the grounds that he (Albarn) had become a Communist...

Tuition fees - Albarn wasn't best pleased.

The war in Iraq - they didn't like that, issuing an anti-war music video.

At 9:51 pm, Blogger paddington said...

Thank you - reminds me of an excellent night out in London not so long ago!

We need to differentiate between the politics of the various members of Blur (generally pretty progressive) and the political impact of the music / lyrics / imagery that the band produced (singularly conservative).

I'm not sure that Albarn's lyrics are terribly radical (The Universal has never made me think of Hegel I must say ... actually, it makes me think of British Gas adverts, though you can blame that on Spotify), but their music is so traditional (certainly in the MLIR / Parlife / Great Escape days) that it would nullify anything positive that the band had to say.

This raises interesting questions about the (political) content of music, and the form which the artist chooses to put that content across. Blur did what so many post-post-punk indie bands have done - copy the modish stylings of groups like the Kinks and the Small Faces, while subtracting their r'n'b influences.

Musically, this leaves you with something rather gutless, and the 60s-nostalgia-trip imagery they (unironically, in my view) chose as the backdrop to that music created something which was (a) reactionary (even though that may not have been their intention) and (b) appealing to reactionaries. Hence Albarn's reminder of the anti-war demo fell on deaf ears - people simply didn't want to hear it.

All this doesn't make Blur bad people, and it doesn't mean they mightn't have worthwhile things to say - but it also doesn't make them a good band.

(Haven't heard Think Tank btw, and perhaps I should as Blur and 13 are their best albums, and Damon Albarn has got better with every project he has been involved in ... Gorillaz great, TGTB&TQ even better, world music dalliance not so convincing...)

At 2:22 pm, Blogger Snowball said...

Cheers for comments - Paddington I will go away and listen to some more blur having taken on board what you have said - I am still reluctant to concede that blur are not 'a good band' despite your quite convincing arguments concerning their general reactionary style ('Britpop' is itself hardly 'progressive', its true). Perhaps while you let me think about all this a bit more you might go and check out 'think tank'..

At 8:40 am, Blogger Imposs1904 said...

Time to dig out Pulp's Cocaine Socialism once again.

At 12:23 pm, Blogger Adam Marks said...

Whoa, retro is not the same as reactionary. British bands in the 60s venerated old blues, R'n'B and soul artists. They weren't reactionary. That's far too loaded.

No-one's mentioned the secret tunnel between grunge and britop, rejection of 80s sound and production in pursuit of authenticity

At 3:06 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

yeah, i've always been curious (because I don't know) about the link between grunge taking off in North America c.1992 and Britpop developing (when exactly? 1994?). Anyway, what is the link? And how did grunge play out in Britain - was it as all revolutionary as it was in North America?

At 12:51 pm, Blogger Gary Mills said...

You may be interested in this:



Post a Comment

<< Home