Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Blur - Popscene


Released 1992 on Food/EMI
Reviewed by Andfurthermoreagain, 27/07/2011ce

Blur? Yes Blur. You have to be fucking kidding. Er, no.... sorry!
So what gives, reviewing those unrighteous mockney Britpop chancers in such a righteous place like this?
Well, read on!
Ya see, Popscene was a one off – I mean this in its most sincere terms, and I’m not just talking about the lead song on this single. There are four more tracks to talk about here, each as giddily bizarre as (if not more than) the next. So taken as a whole, this single and its supporting features is genuinely like nothing else in Blur’s back catalogue.
Popscene is usually cited as the first shot in Blur’s attempts to create a more Anglo-centric music which would of course lead on to Modern Life Is Rubbish, Parklife and through the horrific ‘battle of Britpop*’ to the pretty poor and self parodying Great Escape in 1995. Yet, despite being hailed as an early example of ‘Britpop’ (I promise to use this word as sparingly as possible), Popscene really doesn’t sound that ‘English’ to me, in the sense that it has a uniqueness of its very own (play it against contemporary releases by say, Suede or The Auteurs), a slight Transatlantic feel (courtesy of Graham Coxon’s J Mascis inspired fuzztone, which appears on most of the tracks here as well as varying nods to Talking Heads, Television and the more artful side of the CBGBs scene) and I guess the British nature of the song comes chiefly from Graham’s love of XTC and The Teardrop Explodes**. Damon’s recent awakening to the joys of home-grown artpunk and new wave is also clearly evident though ironically this inspiration is down to a music collection actually belonging to then beau Justine Frischmann who has gone on record several times as stating that when she first met Damon he didn’t own any records at all, ha!. Of course, Damon and Graham were massive Specials/Two-Tone fans when they met at school but this wasn’t really picked up on until Parklife. In a sense, and given its wilful abandonment grafted onto solid pop hooks, Popscene actually has more in common with the rejuvenated and decidedly un-English Blur of 1997. In fact if some bizarre rupture in the space time continuum were to occur that effectively wiped out Blur’s output from 1993-1996 I don’t actually think anybody would notice the hole (plus we’d also have rid of What’s The Story (Morning Glory), The Great Escape and the dreaded Menswe@r so I think we could live with it).
Having banished, much to Dave Balfe’s (always a man with his finger on the contemporary pulse about a year too late) disgust, the Mancunian baggy influences shoe-horned into their previous recordings, Popscene is essentially the first Blur record by Blur that sounds like Blur probably should have sounded all along. You could even say it is the first recording where they arrested enough control to revert back to their pre-name-change identities as Seymour, a chaotic Cardiacs inspired period in their inception - notoriously terrible but apparently visually and artistically engaging. Certainly enough to secure a record deal even if Balfe and colleague Andy Ross suggested that a more contemporary moniker as well as a few funky drumbeats might be in order to guarantee sales (if not credibility).
Built around the drum pattern from Can’s Mother Sky (this is actually true, ask Graham) with Coxon’s effected Son-of-Fripp guitar sounds, blasting Teardrops horns (slightly buried in true early 90s muddy production) and racing along at about 100mph without ever giving up the pace, Popscene is arguably the biggest horn-led headrush of an alternative pop tune since, appropriately enough, Reward! It’s probably fair to say that Blur never again managed to match the goggle eyed ferocity of this tune, even with Song 2. Perhaps Graham’s solo track Freakin’ Out comes reasonably close but even so.
Unlike Reward, the lyrics here are less surreal and a touch more parochial, in that they serve as a scabrous attack on the London indie club scenesters, particularly a popular club at the time called Syndrome, often referred to as ‘the scene that celebrates itself’. Damon rails against image, indie clones*** and imitations (potentially unaware that given a couple of years he would go some way to creating a nation full of them) with such a menacing sneer of almost nihilistic snobbery that you get the definite feeling he had a list of particular peers in his head whilst composing the words. It all seems very personal (but in a non-personal way if you get my drift).
Unfortunately, given half hearted record label promotion and the fact that it sounded like nothing else at the time – shoegaze, grunge, baggy, Stourbridge grebo or whatever else was fashionable back in ’92 – Popscene flopped. I mean, it got in the lower reaches of the Top 40 but they’d previously had top ten hits and a number one album so a ‘flop’ in other words. Dave Balfe certainly thought so, the band grudgingly admitted so**** and its projected follow up Never Clever, an equally manic yet more derivative punker was binned and the band were sent on a disastrous American tour to try and make Balfe some decent money!
Anyway, as I said, this review is not just about the A-side and when it comes to B-sides it gets even better in the fact that this release is arguably the most consistent and realised collection of original single-only tracks that Blur managed to put out – not being known as one of those ‘classic b’s’ bands, a great deal of the group’s flip outings are nothing more than lesser album outtakes*****, throwaway in-joke knockoffs and a high proportion of live tracks (very EMI).
At first hearing, Mace seems to be a simple Drums & Wires era XTC rip but its casual effortlessness raises it well above such obvious comparisons. Apparently inspired by an incident where the band’s intoxicated tour antics saw them met with a dose of pepper spray, the lyrics are actually very ambiguous (they even reference Burning Down The House at one point) and only the chorus refrain “no-one can see when they’ve got Mace in their eyes” alludes to the titular event. Of course, the word “eyes” is sung with a trademark Andy Partridge stutter but it’d be wrong not to eh! Still, as I said, it is the freshness and directness of the musicianship that lifts this one into true Blur uniqueness and the guitar playing could merit a whole essay in itself. For such a simple little tune, Graham provides 100% peerless attitude and proves himself to be one of the most unique art-rock players since the previously hinted at Robert Fripp. Did Coxon ever waste a single note? Here is a guy who steals the show without even trying – an egoless player of near godlike proportions and the perfect foil to Albarn’s cocky Essex boy ladism pretence (thankfully not yet fully developed at this stage). It sounds like Graham’s guitar is beamed in from another planet where such new wave gimmicks as afro-style Hi-Life guitar patters are rent out of recognisable shape (before splintering into echoed loops at the end of each line) and fuzztone oscillations seem to play themselves. In fact, if we’re sticking with the XTC comparisons, it’s fair to say it took both Partridge and Dave Gregory to do what Coxon does by himself. Genius! And what’s that after the chorus? Well blow me if the band don’t wade in with a dual guitar/bass proto-metal riff that really ought not to work in such a wiry ditty. How did they get away with that? Franz Ferdinand could learn a thing or three!
I’m Fine is of a similar vibe to Mace but less jerky new-wave, more organic and with touches of neo-psych-pop too. “The always man is always finding, he’s banging his head against the wall” goes Damon and I’m banging my head trying to describe it. Like Mace, it all seems so simple yet listen to Dave Roundtree’s skipping, almost jazzy Meters-lite drumming and Alex James’s lugubrious bass lines******. Of course Graham’s guitar sounds like another psychically received burst of wonderment that only he could have dreamt up (and I’m convinced that’s probably what he did). Not exactly power trio but, erm, subtle energies trio, yeah in a way! The band produced this track themselves and they seem to be having fun trying out every vocal reverb effect available to them, sometimes on individual words. This is art-pop at its finest (and quite Cope-ish too – “I’m just FIIIIINE”). Why not! Who else was doing this in 1992?
Garden Central. What can I say about this track? I’m probably going to sum it up in as short time as possible, if only because it defies casual description and it’s best just to listen to it. Let’s put it this way, imagine Amon Duul II circa Wolf City playing Morricone with Syd Barrett on guitar. Have you got that thought in your head now? Okay, well that’s barely a start, go listen now! This is instrumental repetition mayhem, post-kraut gothic psychedelia that lasts about five minutes but seems like twenty so warped that it is. And it really should be! Wow, don’t you just love Blur when Graham’s in charge!
Speaking of which, and as I seemed to have reviewed the tracks on order of weirdness, the most utterly Graham and weirdest is up last – Badgeman Brown.
Firstly, frustrations. Badgeman Brown was only available on the CD single of Popscene, but the CD single didn’t contain I’m Fine or Garden Central. Oh EMI, don’t we love you for your fucking split format releases? No! Now, as one of my footnotes explains, the 12” of Popscene probably still goes for silly money and the CD single is even rarer so these days to have all five tracks (and you need to have all five) you’d have to seek out both formats (this all presuming we aren’t illegally downloading which if we are, problem solved). Either that or fork out for the Ten Year Anniversary Box Set which contains each of the band’s singles up to No Distance Left To Run on individual CDs with every related UK b-side on each one. It’s currently going on Amazon for £300+ so again, silly money time!
Anyhow, format issues aside, Badgeman Brown is (sharp intake of breath), a ‘psychedelic rock masterpiece’ and possibly the only example of a Blur tune you could describe as such (give or take My Ark). In fact, would you ever expect to hear a Blur tune with such a frazzled Sabs riff? Ha, remember Damon’s later complaint “people are listening to Black Sabbath again and I’m not having it”. Well, sounds like Graham was, oh yeah! At least Albarn had the dutiful decency to throw in a shouting-in-a-bucket megaphone vocal over the post-proto-rockisms giving the tune a malevolent Zarathustian air - “this is the voice of someone, calling from a lonely hill, to the hard of hearing and those who never will”. Heavy! (Was Graham thinking of the cover of Fried when he wrote this? I certainly hope so). Counter the fuzz onslaught rave-up verses with a few hallucinatory 7th chord meandering bits and you have all the makings of Blur’s very own psychotic son of Defecting Grey (it really is that good). Graham says he was listening to SF Sorrow a lot around this time and it certainly shows (more so than Kasabian’s embarrassingly misinformed attempts at emulating the same). Balfe must have been kicking himself and Cope should have been delighted (if he didn’t despise them so much). Safe to say, Blur were never, ever so freewheelingly abandoned as on this track ever again! Go get now! Is money really an option?

*As with many wars, much needs to be said about the inherent collateral damage -in this case, thanks to Privates Albarn, Gallagher Snr and Gallagher Jnr as well as Sgt Majors NME and Select and the idiotic British public for falling for the scam in the first place – the so called ‘battle of Britpop’ simply marked a huge death knell for British alternative music whose artistic aim was previously never really considered to be the dizzy heights of Top Ten skulduggery. Whilst considered by most to be a music-dressed-up-as-football-hooligan class war, I always worryingly saw it as a battle of artiness against, well, non-fucking-artiness (meat and potatoes rock if you like). Ironic that Blur pretty much fought it with their least artistic product and tragic that Oasis ultimately won, arguably destroying the creative, rule-breaking, iconoclastic nature of British indie music for ever. I reckon anyway.

**The influence of The Teardrops and Julian Cope is something that is seriously overlooked in terms of Blur’s sound. Tracks on Modern Life Is Rubbish such as Colin Zeal, Pressure On Julian and Coping (ahem) definitely give this away yet are usually referred to as simply mischievous exercises in winding Food Records boss Dave Balfe up by getting in as many Cope references as possible. However, it’s not just a superficial and coincidental matter – listen to Oily Water from the same album and a couple of tracks on their baggy exploiting debut Leisue, namely Birthday and the acknowledged classic Sing for dead on Tamworth era Cope rips. Additionally, the track Popscene was produced by Steve Lovell so there’s another Cope connection and they even recorded a demo track called Fried when they used to be Seymour!

***I’ve actually seen three interpretations of the admittedly garbled lyrics here – “Everyone is a clever clone, a clone of a clone am I”, “.....a chrome covered clone am I” and “......a clone, clever clone am I”. My favourite is the first but the subtitled video, featuring an eerily Cope-like Albarn (all cheekbones, pouts, ‘face solos’ and tousled dirty blonde hair) uses the second so who knows.

****Blur refused to include Popscene on Modern Life Is Rubbish as a churlish smite at the record buying public who ‘failed to appreciate it in the first place’. It stayed in their live sets and appeared on some Japanese and US editions of MLIR but didn’t even feature on 2000’s inappropriately titled The Best Of Blur (essentially a popular singles collection with This Is A Low being the only album track). It took until 2009’s Midlife comp for it to finally officially appear on a UK album in its original studio version. The fact that it remained a non-album oddity for so long meant (especially during Blur’s most commercial phase in 94-96) that the original 12” often went for silly money. It probably still does – I haven’t looked lately, though I paid £20 for it in 2002!

*****A notable exception to this are the b-sides of For Tomorrow and Chemical World which are essentially demos from an originally planned, rejected and unrecorded second album. Tracks such as Into Another, Hanging Over, My Ark and Es Schmecht reveal a very different sound to Leisure or Modern Life Is Rubbish and indicate a rather angular experimental direction the band were exploring in the wake of baggy - very psychedelic, very surreal and quite heavy in places. It could have been a blinding album in retrospect – silly old Balfe.

******I can forgive any of James’ cocaine fuelled Groucho Bar, Fat Les nonsense simply for the fact that he is one of his generation’s most inventive, skilful bass players. I mean that too!

Reviews Index