“13” Turns Twenty

13_28blur_album_-_cover_art29Happy Friday, everyone. I recently noticed that Blur’s everything-falls-apart masterpiece “13” came out twenty years ago today (March 30 in the States, to split hairs). I’d be remiss if I let that landmark slip by without mention here, because I completely missed the anniversary of their self-titled album (my entry point as a fan) two years ago.

Blur’s mid-90’s rivalry with Oasis (manufactured as it was to sell copies of NME), formulates one of my favorite lectures I include in my European Geography (GEOG 371) course. Popular culture reinforces geographic assumptions, especially the sense of place that permeates any discussion of “the North” and “the South” in England. Not since The Beatles vs. The Kinks had there been such a raw encapsulation of that dichotomy. For the record, I do prefer The Kinks, too (and not because of any predilection for Southern England; I just enjoy their music more than most bands in the first place).

Anyway, in 1997, Blur were shedding their Britpop skin and embracing Graham Coxon’s love of American indie rock, perhaps best manifested as the wonderful “You’re So Great.” As I said, Blur was my entry point as a fan, so I didn’t fall in love with the band’s foppish (in a self-aware way) era. Like many of my friends who were listening in this era, I remember being less enthused at 13 when it landed in 1999. “Coffee & TV” felt like the only marginally accessible song on the album, which didn’t matter much to critics, but to a teenage American, it felt like a bit of an affront. I recall putting the CD on at some friends’ house in Syracuse while we sat around as a party dwindled; by the time “1992” got to it’s third-level of noise, walked over to the boombox and turned to me and said “I’m, uh, gonna change it.” If you want to get a decent impression, feast your brain on this:

Knowing what we know now, though, makes the accomplishments of 13 all that more remarkable. Namely, the band had long since shed any sonic accouterments of what had ostensibly made them huge, defied every music writer in the UK, and more or less entered into the worst collective period of their lives. Again, I was too young and under-educated in life to recognize half of this album as a heady mix of cries for help and the other half as gleeful conflagration of their rental castle-mansions. I’ll never forget reading a story on Blur in SPIN in the wake of the trans-Atlantic success of “Song 2” that really harped on how much the members hated one another. It seemed pretty sensationalized (because it was), but I can only imagine how much resolve it took the four of them to remain a band. In 1997, Graham Coxon sang that “DT’s [delirium tremens] and coffee helps to start the day,” and in 1999 he sang “sociability is hard enough for me” to chronicle a years-long battle to overcome alcoholism. “Coffee & TV” sounded convincing enough, and one of the all-time great videos to dramatize his ‘coming home’ certainly helped this case. Stateside, it remains in contention against “Girls and Boys” for the vaunted title of ‘Blur’s most successful single that doesn’t go “WOO-HOO.”‘

Anyway, since it’s 2019, there are a multitude of ways to hear 13 in its entirety if you’re interested in doing that today. Twenty years ago, Blur played most of the album live at the Hippodrome Theater in London, and a fan named Claire Welles taped the gig off the radio. A little over a year ago, she digitized it on YouTube. Considering the teeming oceans of Blur material on the site, it’s only accrued 556 views so far. I’ll embed it here if you’d like to add to that count.

One dynamic that I can’t get out of my head while listening to this was how so many of those cheering fans, like so much of Britain on BBC1, were hearing songs like “Trailerpark” and “Battle” for the first time ever. I believe that Napster, Limewire, and Kazaa were all active by this point, which had fundamentally changed the lifespan of anticipated music’s release. Gone were the days of that hot new single arriving at the BBC on a CD encased in some briefcase with a combination lock.

Damon Albarn, right on brand, didn’t sound too enthused to be performing these songs, but again, the fact that the band still existed in 1999 was remarkable. Considering the worldwide success Albarn had waiting in the rafters with James Hewlett at this point, it’s even more understandable that it feels like he’s punching the clock here. Still, you can’t help but imagine he begrudgingly knew how insane and special this new album was. And no matter what your feelings are on Albarn, he headlined Glastonbury two years back-to-back (2009-2010) with two different bands.

Alright, I’ve said enough. Happy 20th anniversary to 13, hope you all have a great weekend, and if you’re anywhere near Oak Ridge tomorrow night (Saturday 3.16) come see me and Nina Fefferman (UTK Evolutionary Biology) talking science with comedians Shane Mauss and Dave Waite at the Grove Theater. It’s close to selling out, but there may be tickets for sale at the door!  More info in my previous entry or at Shane Mauss’ site here.

Recommended Reading: ‘Definitely Maybe’ by Alex Niven

17933884I just finished the 33 1/3 volume on Oasis’ debut album Definitely Maybe by Alex Niven, and I’m adequately floored. With all due respect to many talented authors in the series, including my buddy Mike Fournier (who wrote the volume on the actual best album ever made), this may have been the best installment I’ve read so far. Perhaps it was because I wasn’t expecting to agree so frequently with someone who took the time to write a book about Oasis, save for some occasional (admittedly understandable) remarks about Blur and an uncool dig at “Digsy’s Dinner.” Like many of the books in the series, it’s a breeze of a read, so I’m not going to withhold ‘spoilers.’ It really helped this Yank bloke understand just why Oasis shot to super-stardom in the time and place that they did, making their working-class sensibilities intelligible through analyses of their compositions coupled with appropriately scathing takes on the aftereffects of Thatcherism. I’ll share one of my favorite passages here, in which Niven contextualizes the socialist building blocks of Oasis’ music:

Oasis took the detritus that surrounded them in the dole culture of eighties’ and nineties’ Manchester and cemented it together to create one of the most accomplished works of archaeological summary in pop history, a work that ranged widely over rock influences in a way that seemed effortless.

… The socio-economic conditions of the period gave rise to a climate of scarcity, resourcefulness and heritage-mining in post-industrial Western urban areas. Without money and access to higher education and metropolitan taste-making culture, it is extremely difficult to make the leaps of innovation that are deemed to be progressive by the music industry establishment

… When society becomes hostile, when access to novel mainstream developments is difficult, it becomes practicable to draw on any resources that are to hand – classic records, borrowed riffs, recycled materials of all kinds. In periods of economic downturn, a kind of folk culture develops that values ingenuity with heritage over conspicuous innovation. This culture of grassroots classicism was very much Oasis’ home terrain in the early nineties.

Niven also shines a light on the overlooked (sloppy) genius of Tony McCarroll, the band’s original drummer who they sacked after recording “Some Might Say” (which just so happens to be the best song on (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?). I vaguely remember Kurt Loder mentioning his name on one of those post-“Wonderwall” MTV News features on Oasis back in 1996 where they gave the Gallagher brothers subtitles for the US audience. The book ends on a somewhat sad yet incredibly educational note about success and class politics. I look forward to incorporating Niven’s lessons into my Britpop unit (yes, you read that correctly) this semester for GEOG 371: Exploring Europe.

Here’s a video of vintage Oasis (with McCarroll) on MTV in 1994 performing what’s probably my favorite song of theirs, the first four minutes of “Rock n’ Roll Star.” The way that Liam Gallagher sneers “I live my life in the city, and there’s no easy way out” as the opening line of Oasis’ debut-opening track makes me think about Paul Westerberg yelling “Raised in the city, runnin’ around” as the opening line of the Replacements’ first demo tape. There’s probably some connection there that I’ll wake up and draw out at 4 AM one of these nights. Anyway, enjoy.

 

RIP Wombleton Records

20160810larecordstores09wombleton

via the LA Weekly

In planning my trip out to Los Angeles for EmoGeo (the Emotional Geographies Conference) next month, I stumbled upon some sad news. Wombleton Records, one of the three shops upon which I focused my chapter in The Production and Consumption of Music in the Digital Age (2015; B. Hracs, M. Seman, T. Virani, eds), closed its doors this past February. I somehow missed this news when it first came out in February; their normally fantastic newsletters stopped arriving and I guess I didn’t notice because I haven’t lived in California for a while now.

I’m mostly disappointed on behalf of anyone who stumbles upon my chapter in that book, gets excited to visit the store, looks it up, and realizes they’ll never get to. I hold no grudges over one of my case studies disappearing; it only emphasizes how transient these types of places are and how difficult it is to stay solvent in the modern urban economic landscape. It mainly sucks because it was such a cool little shop; the owners Ian and Jade emphasized design and atmosphere and curated their vinyl collection beautifully. I couldn’t even count the number of UK and European titles I found there that I would be highly unlikely to find anywhere else in the United States. I was already getting excited to flip through their 7″ section in the back trying to find any rogue single by the likes of Blur, Supergrass, or Manic Street Preachers.

At least LA (even the Highland Park area) isn’t particularly starving for good record shops these days. Wombleton was a clear labor of vinyl love, and the LA Weekly published a great retrospective on the storefront’s 7-year history the week it shut down. Best of luck to everybody who was involved!

Have a great weekend, everyone. More info about my California trip soon, as well as (while on the subject of Blur, ‘Grass, Manics, et al) a lengthy diatribe about the value of Britpop in Geography. Also, why Blur are categorically better than Oasis.

A Moment for Jarvis Cocker’s Sheffield

One of the (dis)advantages of focusing my music research in a juggernaut of a tourist trap city like Washington, DC has been watching post-punk music seep through the cracks in the collective imaginary of place. DC (like Paris, my other city of focus) doesn’t need to lean on music to attract visitors, so on the rare instances when it includes music in the conversation, it’s noteworthy.

I was thinking about this today as I started hacking away at the summer writing process when this CityLab article came through on my twitter feed. Few (if any) post-punk bands have encapsulated “Sheffield” better than Pulp, not only because Jarvis Cocker started the band in 1978 during the “big bang” of the post-punk era in the UK. Geographers like Philip Long (2014) have placed Cocker’s music front-and-center in discussions about collective identity of that city, and now the city’s transit authority are literally inscribing his voice into their urban infrastructure. They are inserting Jarvis into the quotidian machinations of Sheffield, regardless of whether those riding the tram are his fans.

This whole thing seems like both 1) a city retroactively owning one of her most talented and influential sons as well as 2) a statement about the value of the music that would eventually evolve into the easily collectivized and nationally homogenized Britpop of the 90’s (which would catapult Pulp into international fame). This genre and scene were a bit slower to gain officially-sanctioned civic immortality than the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (Long mentions that the Sheffield Public Library has published a walking tour about Def Leppard; also pretty cool), but two decades isn’t really that brutal of a lag. It doesn’t seem like Jarvis was ever in it for the transit voice-over career.

At any rate, these are the little things that earn a quality mention in the dissertation.

Liner Notes:
Long, Philip. “Popular Music, Psychogeography, Place Identity and Tourism: The Case of Sheffield.” Tourist Studies 14.1 (2014): 48-65.

Places mentioned in Pulp Songs Wiki that I just found  whilegoogling “Stanhope Rd”:
http://www.pulpwiki.net/Pulp/Places

During some last-minute fact-checking, I discovered that Jarvis’ estranged father Mac Cocker, a radio DJ in Australia for the past 3 decades, passed away on Friday.

Music Geography 101: The Jam – “Down in the Tube Station at Midnight”

I recently assigned the students in my Geography 101 course a writing project whereby they select a song with geographically-oriented content and report on all of that song’s inherent regionalisms. In the body of their assignment text, I include a list of suggested songs for anybody who may be interested in them or may have difficulty selecting a song on their own. The following is one of them.

I briefly considered using Suede’s beautiful album-and-show-capper “Saturday Night” here, but quickly withdrew it when I remembered I was packaging it with its video. Irresponsible of me, yes, but the video is a pretty wonderful tribute to the Tube, if you have a few minutes and want to feel nostalgia for British big city life. I needed a song that presented the intangible fears and fantasties that came with a modest subway ride. Time to rewind the clock before gentrification had made the world’s most expensive cities properly “safe:” the late 1970s.

One of punk’s greatest accomplishments was divorcing young British musicians from any obligation to sound or act American. The Beatles and Rolling Stones made careers (and to varying degrees, still do) by synthesizing American rock n’ roll standards. I would never deny that The Clash could have happened without The Ramones, but as the Thatcher era approached, a new generation of musicians found it possible to turn inward for cultural fuel. A petulent teenager named Paul Weller rejoiced in this zeitgeist. Weller didn’t seem too intent on satisfying audiences who weren’t directly in front of him (whether he suffered those who WERE was up for debate, too). The Jam resurrected the 60’s mod culture, and despite an avowed Motown influence, quickly developed into one of the most quintessentially ‘British’ bands of all time, whether or not that was their intent. Few of their photos didn’t feature a Union Jack or some other subversive type of English iconography.

Years before Jarvis Cocker perfected the kitchen-sink audio drama with Pulp (who technically began playing in 1978, only two years after the Jam did), Paul Weller was presenting unhappily-ending tales of quotidian Britishness. In one of my favorite songs of theirs, men working in a factory and a cornershop harbor secret grass-is-greener ambitions to be in the other’s place, though both of their times have passed. In “Down in the Tube Station at Midnight,” Weller articulates the all-too-present paranoia over street crime in that country, focused in the London Underground. The beauty of it is, you don’t need to be English, you don’t need to have been mugged in a train station, or even need to have a family to sympathize and strangely identify with this character. He doesn’t find a happy ending and we don’t get a resolution to the story. London doesn’t freely provide closure to those who expect it, so why should songs have about her have to?

Lyrics (from Google Play)

The distant echo –
of faraway voices boarding faraway trains
To take them home to
the ones that they love and who love them forever
The glazed, dirty steps – repeat my own and reflect my thoughts
Cold and uninviting, partially naked
Except for toffee wrapers and this morning’s papers
Mr. Jones got run down
Headlines of death and sorrow – they tell of tomorrow
Madmen on the rampage
And I’m down in the tube station at midnight

I fumble for change – and pull out the Queen
Smiling, beguiling
I put in the money and pull out a plum
Behind me
Whispers in the shadows – gruff blazing voices
Hating, waiting
“Hey boy” they shout “have you got any money?”
And I said “I’ve a little money and a take away curry,
I’m on my way home to my wife.
She’ll be lining up the cutlery,
You know she’s expecting me
Polishing the glasses and pulling out the cork”
And I’m down in the tube station at midnight

I first felt a fist, and then a kick
I could now smell their breath
They smelt of pubs and Wormwood Scrubs
And too many right wing meetings
My life swam around me
It took a look and drowned me in its own existence
The smell of brown leather
It blended in with the weather
It filled my eyes, ears, nose and mouth
It blocked all my senses
Couldn’t see, hear, speak any longer
And I’m down in the tube station at midnight
I said I was down in the tube station at midnight

The last thing that I saw
As I lay there on the floor
Was “Jesus Saves” painted by an atheist nutter
And a British Rail poster read “Have an Awayday – a cheap holiday –
Do it today!”
I glanced back on my life
And thought about my wife
‘Cause they took the keys – and she’ll think it’s me
And I’m down in the tube station at midnight
The wine will be flat and the curry’s gone cold
I’m down in the tube station at midnight
Don’t want to go down in a tube station at midnight

Musical Geography 101: Blur – “This is a Low”

I recently assigned the students in my Geography 101 course a writing project whereby they select a song with geographically-oriented content and report on all of that song’s inherent regionalisms. In the body of their assignment text, I include a list of suggested songs for anybody who may be interested in them or may have difficulty selecting a song on their own. The following is one of them.

… but it won’t hurt you. Those of you who know me know I cherish any opportunity to talk about Blur, one of my favourite [sic] bands and perhaps the best British guitar-pop singles group since the Kinks (or at least the Jam, who you’ll be reading about shortly). Of course, most Americans know Blur for “Song 2,” a ready-made anthem for sports arenas which began as a gentle jab at the Pixies and what the band viewed as simplistic American indie rock (though they undoubtedly love the Pixies, Guided by Voices, Pavement, and other quintessentially American bands they synthesized into their revitalized sound after the cocaine-drenched yet still wonderful 1995 album The Great Escape). Many Americans, particularly those tuned into MTV in 1994 while Britpop was thriving overseas, remember Blur’s magnum opus, Parklife. While the group themselves were hardly in awe of English culture, they did abscond and treat it not unlike Al Bundy treated Peg. It was a pain in their arse, but it was still what raised them and privileged them to be the most enduring, eclectic rock stars of that era. Sure, other bands sold more records (Oasis), broke more hearts (Pulp), and even seemed fairly adjusted and consistent (Supergrass), but none of those bands had the dueling secret weapons of Damon Albarn and Graham Coxon. The former has since established himself as his generation’s David Byrne through countless prolific musical collaborations and, oh yeah, another Glastonbury-headlining band he founded that included 1/2 of The Clash for a bit. The latter has spent the last two decades stretching the electric guitar to the absolute boundaries of what could still be considered pop music. Also, for those of you interested in drug policy and international relations, their bassist Alex James hosted a BBC documentary about the cocaine trade and has settled into a quiet, normal life collecting expensive instruments and making artisan cheeses. You can’t make this stuff up. If I told you their drummer has gotten heavily involved in the Labour Party and twice run for public office, you wouldn’t believe me, BUT HE ABSOLUTELY DID. For all the right reasons, Blur’s legacy has painted much of what the world conceives as “Britishness.”

Anyway, when the members of Blur were in their star-shaped mid-twenties, a lot of Albarn’s lyrics happened to include references to English landmarks (e.g. the white cliffs in “Clover Over Dover”), but “This is a Low,” supposedly inspired by a British shipping newsletter, closes out the record with a veritable catalog of places which dot the English cartographic landscape. Much like the 1997 track “Look Inside America,” “This is a Low” pulls back, floats high in the sky, surveys everything it can see, and decides, with a slight smile… “yeah, it’s alright.” From what I understand, Albarn had hit some writer’s block when James gave him a handkerchief that detailed British shipping centers as a gag gift. It may seem a cliché, but inspiration can come from the most surprising places.

Lyrics (from AtoZlyrics.com)

And into the sea goes pretty England and me
Around the Bay of Biscay and back for tea
Hit traffic on the dogger bank
Up the Thames to find a taxi rank
Sail on by with the tide and go asleep
And the radio says

[Chorus]
THIS IS A LOW
BUT IT WON’T HURT YOU
WHEN YOU ARE ALONE IT WILL BE THERE WITH YOU
FINDING WAYS TO STAY SOLO

On the Tyne forth and Cramity
There’s a low in the high forties
And Saturday’s locked away on the pier
Not fast enough dear
On the Malin head, Blackpool looks blue and red
And the Queen, she’s gone round the bend
Jumped off Land’s End
And the radio says

[Chorus x 3]

Alex James on Music (or, why it doesn’t hurt to judge people based on their avocations)

Quote

   The earliest tonal instruments were made from reindeer toe bones. They’re closer to a whistle than a flute to look at, but they are technically flutes because you blow across the hole, rather than down it… It didn’t look like much, I must be honest. It didn’t sound great either but those crusty little bones were where it all started. A primitive musical instrument made by a primitive scientist.
Twenty thousand years later, anyone sitting down at a piano is sitting on top of a huge mountain of accumulated knowledge. When you hold even the cheapest guitar, you’re wielding a very sophisticated tool. The twelve-tone scale is a triumph of scientific understanding. It’s such a perfect structure that it’s rarely questioned or even understood by the people who use it. All musicians know how to tune up their instruments, but very few have any idea what they are actually doing as they tune. Musicians rarely have any more of an inkling of what music is than an electrician knows what electricity is.
All the really tricky business of the evolution of music has taken place, and it’s not important to know everything. It’s just important to know what sounds good. All anyone needs is one little idea. It can even be someone else’s idea. All you’ve got to be able to do is pick the good ones. There are no rules that can’t be broken in music-making. Confidence is all-important. Things that are completely wrong can sound new and interesting if they are done with conviction.

via the artist’s twitter

– Alex James, pp. 158-9 in his autobiography bit of a blur (London: Abacus, 2008). I’ve always been interested in the non-musical passions of musicians, and James is perhaps one of the prime examples of proof that a truly brilliant brain cannot be shut down by mountains of cocaine, booze, and women. Over the course of his towering rock stardom, he became a Visiting Scientist at one of England’s top research facilities, a recreational pilot (following drummer Dave Rowntree down that path and terrifying Damon Albarn in the process), documentary (about cocaine) host, and a devoted maker of fine cheeses. And somehow (probably by not being English), I missed out on this football anthem he ground out in 1998 with comedian Keith Allen (Lily’s dad) and everything-person Damien Hirst. Also, I just did some light googling to find that image, and I discovered via his twitter that he and Jamie Oliver are throwing a three-day food festival at his farm in the Cotswolds. Bizarre.

via the anti-emo empire

It’s no coincidence that the rock stars that history remembers the most kindly are the ones who were never content to be doing solely what their “role” in the public eye commanded. I recently went internet-rolling on the late Dead Milkmen bassist Dave “Blood” Schulthise as this past March 10 was the tenth anniversary of his suicide and my friends/colleagues Scott, Jose and I had a rare opportunity to catch The Dead Milkmen right after the AAG Conference in Tampa. Some say he was the band’s controlling force and secret weapon. I wouldn’t disagree, but either way he was definitely one hell of a bass player. The Dead Milkmen were (and still are) some of the finest satirists of the past three decades, and the more I read about Dave Blood, the more I understand how his way of looking at the world influenced their art. If you have a few minutes, check out this wonderful interview that Mark Prindle did with Blood the year before he died. He finally had the opportunity to explain the deep love he developed for Serbia relatively late in his life, and how it gave his life new meaning after the Dead Milkmen broke up, he had to stop playing, and he no longer had music.

These are the things I think about while I should be focusing on getting all my end-of-semester work off of my plate. That being said, I do apologize for the recent lack of updates. I’ll be back soon to talk about some projects I have coming up for the summer. It’s going to be a busy one.