Somewhere, buried deep within my summer to-do list, is a low-priority item to re-tally my Blur collection. The collection includes all physical items of audio and video (still haven’t pulled the trigger on that elusive laserdisc) as well as promotional items and reading materials focused on the band. I’m already eagerly awaiting a stateside release announcement of Graham Coxon’s forthcoming autobiography, so I can put it next to Alex James’ first book. Also, this reminds me that I need to get my hands on Alex James’ second book (the one about cheese).
On a recent trip to Ohio, I stopped into one of my favorite massive independent (there really should be no other kind, and before long there likely won’t) bookstores and discovered the On Track series by Burning Shed publishing. To my shock, Blur were one of the first artists included. Essex musician Matt Bishop took on the enviable unenviable task of writing about every song Blur have ever released and likely some they haven’t.
The first comprehensive song-story book I ever owned was Niall Stokes’ U2 compendium, which Thunder’s Mouth Press released in the interim between Zooropa and Pop. At the time, I didn’t know I would ever write about music and place (ostensibly) for a living, but needless to say, it was inspirational. Every song does have a story behind it – an ethos would no doubt inspire Continuum to start the 33 1/3 series in 2003. Even the most obscure B-sides and demo tracks may have more interesting stories than the biggest hit. When I first read Into the Heart, I had a rudimentary understanding (at best) of what B-sides even were.
Bishop’s book on Blur has been enjoyable thus far. My lack of musical theory background does hinder it at moments where the musician-author gets fanboyish and technical over Graham Coxon’s chords and swerves, but I have nothing but love and respect for anyone willing to take on a task as unforgiving and headache-inducing as writing comprehensively about every single one of a superstar band’s recordings. And that’s coming from ME.
What I love most about going through Bishop’s vignettes has been how it’s given me a new lease on just why I like accumulating Blur materials. I never sprang for the 21 box, as I already owned most of the albums and, being in grad school, I couldn’t justify the expense on CD’s. A decade later, YouTube’s rampant monetization has made an endless rabbit hole of obscure recordings available at the push of a button. That being said, it’s overwhelming when you have literally anything better to do with your time, especially away from a keyboard or off of your phone. I still feel like I’ve heard less than half of Blur’s recordings, and I’ve been a fan for over 25 years. I’m fine with that, though, because I’m learning new things on almost every page of Matt Bishop’s book. As much as a handful of my favorite bands are less known, I love being a Blur super-fan, because there are always more recordings and more material out there to discover. I can’t even imagine what Beatles completists must go through.
Take, for example, an alternate, rocked out version of “Far Out,” which was, for at least a decade, available only via the 1999 “No Distance Left to Run” DVD-single (oh right…they made those, didn’t they?) and file sharing piracy. I knew that “Far Out” was recorded late in the Parklife sessions and remains the only Blur album track on which Alex James sang lead, but I didn’t realize they recorded any other version of it. The 1994 release was a cool aside but hardly an album highlight. The 1999 alternate version release is something else entirely. As off-kilter as this can be at times, I still love it:
Bishop also goes into details about the Parklife recording sessions based off of Steven Street’s camcorder footage, which disappeared from YouTube after being posted many years ago. Fortunately, somebody downloaded the footage from STreet’s website and re-uploaded it to YouTube, so I will embed it here. As I say about any streaming audio or video, enjoy it until it disappears again.
The first time I saw Ash, I was in middle school. The band were a trio on a bizarrely packaged tour promoting their (arguably*) second and (inarguably) best record, 1977.
The second time I saw Ash, they were a quartet, and I was wandering around Irving Plaza under the directive to promote a tour-only EP they put out to help boost attention for their album Free All Angels. I was interning for their label at the time, and I was downright indignant that none of their singles had gotten any real attention in the US, especially “Burn Baby Burn,” a scorcher that had all the ingredients of pop chart success (including a couple of high-profile UK awards) but barely even scratched the United States.
Six years later, while record shopping in London, I found an original vinyl copy of 1977, lamenting to the clerks that Ash were one of my favorite bands, but no matter what they did, they could barely even get arrested in America. The clerk replied that they couldn’t get arrested there anymore, either, citing how they hadn’t really put out any great records in a while. In the interim, they had released Meltdown (2004) and Twilight of the Innocents (2007), neither of which, despite the gaudy cover art of the former and the title of the latter’s opening track, really caught fire.
I don’t remember if the band announced it before or after that London record shop conversation, but Ash had floated the idea of stopping making albums altogether to focus on singles. It seemed like a bizarre move at the time, though history has certainly not proven it misguided. Ash were within their right to do whatever the hell they wanted, but looking back now as an American fan of 25 years, I can sympathize with their frustration at the time.
I’ll never forget bumping into an old college radio friend (who ran WERW-AM from 2001-2002) at that Irving Plaza gig, watching his face light up when the band broke into their early single “Jack Names the Planets.” He repeatedly commented that he hadn’t heard, or even really thought about, that song in forever. Ash had spent their first decade (and four records) as a band being touted as “the next big thing,” and by 2003, even most music nerds in the states barely had any idea who the hell they were.
I think the importance of 1977 is self-evident in how the band have centrally the band have incorporated the year 1977 into their brand. I would argue that no record had a greater impact in simply helping remind Americans – who were, despite Weezer’s golden era and the ‘punk revival’ led by Green Day and Rancid, deluged with grunge’s watered-down cousin Modern Rock – that bands were still playing power-pop and garage-laden punk across the pond in 1996.
I’m going to assume I was watching MTV (or possibly M2 during a “free sample” weekend on my local cable provider) relatively late one night that year when the video for “Goldfinger” came on. I remember being intrigued. There weren’t a whole lot of other bands who sounded like that: sugary tenor vocals, grungy guitar that didn’t feel very “grunge” to me, and willing to take that commercial suicide-risk of resting their instruments almost completely several times per verse.
It took a sequence of life-changing events to arrive there, though. I had already seen the video for “Goldfinger” once, and likely heard it on the radio a couple of times, when I ran into a record shop in town adjacent to mine to see if they had a single for Stabbing Westward’s hit single “Shame” (an infectious bit of industrial-pop-metal with a music video so stupid I could write a separate essay on why). The clerk had no idea what I was talking about, but some dude in a leather jacket turned to me from down the counter and asked “Are you coming to the show tonight?” I had never had anybody ask me about coming to a show, much less a guy who looked like he could have been in a band as bad-ass (to 13 year old me, anyway) as Stabbing Westward. Stunned, I replied that I didn’t know. The labret-pierced Alt-Rock dude told me they had a bunch of copies of the single at Toad’s Place.
Intrigued, I convinced my Dad to take me to New Haven for the gig that night, a supportive gesture that has no doubt changed the path of my entire life. Stabbing Westward happened to be touring with Ash and I Mother Earth. Even at the time, that lineup seemed strange to me. If I ever meet Tim Wheeler, my first question would be how the hell that happened. I would assume some record company glad-handing, since a teenage Irish power-pop trio did not pair well with a brooding industrial quintet from Los Angeles (that weren’t even on the same label), but it may have just worked out that they played some festival together and Stabbing Westward invited them on board. If there weren’t just enough digital evidence to prove that the two bands played together in the Midwest that Fall, I would probably doubt my own memory. Brian Phelps’ new book about Toad’s place lists Stabbing Westward and I Mother Earth in their official band index, but not Ash. I don’t have any ticket stubs, photographs, or concrete third-party documentation that this show ever happened. I don’t have a copy of the “Shame” single, either, which makes me think labret-piercing dude was lying to me.
I’m certain that 1977 wasn’t the first album I evangelized to anyone who would listen, but boy did everybody I know get an earful about Ash around the time. I remember showing the CD insert to my friend Alison (no idea why I had it with me), who gave me a blank cassette to copy their music onto just because they looked like a cool band. My 8th grade art teacher, who played us Echo and the Bunnymen tapes while we drew, allowed me to put 1977 on in class. All I remember was my friend Jeff joking that the intro to “Kung Fu,” which sampled a fight scene from a Sammo Hung film, sounded like his house when he pissed of his parents. I even scanned the album cover (my first time I can ever remember using a scanner) for a class project explaining how Compact Disc technology worked.
I can’t quite compare 1977 to anything else I remember hearing as an adolescent. The naivete and strings on “Oh Yeah” and “Let It Flow” both felt equally sincere. “Girl from Mars” featured moments of the nastiest guitar distortion imaginable for a pop group, but was still somehow the most sugary punch on the album. Though it wasn’t my priority as a listener at the time, Rick McMurray’s drumming is incredible on this record (and, without combing through dozens of retrospective reviews, I’m unsure whether he got enough credit for such). The band tacked several minutes of drunken vomiting as a “hidden” track onto the fireworks-laden finale of “Darkside Lightside” – a bit of buffoonery that they probably laugh off/regret now, but still the edgiest shit in my whole music collection at the time (provided I hadn’t bought that One Fierce Beer Coaster cassette yet). It seemed punk as fuck, although the band’s connection to punk was about as specious as their connection to Britpop.
1977 would be a first-ballot record in the Power-Pop hall of fame no matter what year it had been released, but releasing it in 1996 doomed the band in several ways. A decade later, after the Libertines had revived the British garage movement, the Arctic Monkeys kicked up a (well deserved, now that we know about the staying power of Alex Turner and Company) shit-storm of hype on the heels of their first record – a storm that Ash may have gotten a solid chunk of had they been born a decade later.
Or not. It’s pretty clear that American music fans are fickle about which British artists to which they’ll lend a moment of their time. Considering how ginger and toothless so much British crossover success has been, it’s hard to imagine a moment in the post-punk era where Ash would have gotten as big as they seemed on the heels of even their best work. Even Two Door Cinema Club, whose Millennial fans nearly trampled me to death at Coachella in 2013, didn’t seem to lead a new crop of indie-dance-pop fans down that Irish rabbit hole.
I kept up with the band for the remainder of that decade, though I’m ashamed to admit I hadn’t paid too much attention to their new singles-oriented output. Not that I had necessarily written them off (unlike another Irish band of note, they had put out some good material since 2000), but I couldn’t stop returning to 1977 whenever I did revisit Ash.
This changed, though, when I took my first trans-Pacific flight in 2019. On the way to Sydney from Los Angeles, somewhere over Oceania, I got restless and started browsing the airline’s music catalog to sample through the tinny, shitty proprietary headphones they passed out in their pre-COVID way. This was how I found out that Ash had, despite their promise not to^, released a new LP called Islands. I clicked play on the first track “True Story,” and enjoyed it quite a bit, but it didn’t strike me as a “return to form” where their teenage bursts of energy were concerned.
NOW THE PATH AHEAD IS GONE NOW THE FIGHT IS REALLY ON
What a catchy opening! I felt my heart rate going up.
I CAN SEE REAL TROUBLE IF WE WAIT DON’T HESITATE
My eyes were nearly welled up with tears even before the chorus hit. What a fucking amazing song.
ANNABEL HAVE NO FEAR YOU CAN BE MY GUINEVERE
Oh god yes! Tim Wheeler is still a master popsmith. I wanted to fight somebody over this.
IN THE STORM I WILL DRAW YOU CLOSE IN THE TEMPEST IN THE SNOW
I hit “repeat” and listened to “Annabel” at least 10 times before moving onto the third track, the admittedly corny yet memorable “Buzzkill.” I felt like such an idiot for falling off with this band, especially since I’d been a fan since I was thirteen. Tim Wheeler hadn’t lost his ability to write an amazing song, and Ash hadn’t lost an ounce of relevance. I put “Annabel” firmly within my list of 10 favorite songs of the decade, and it felt great being able to do that nearly 25 years after Ash became one of my first favorite bands.
It was hard to compartmentalize in 1996, especially considering how young I was, but Ash were truly singular within the international pop-rock landscape. They were never meant to be clumped in with Britpop; they just happened to be British citizens putting out great pop music in the mid-Nineties. I misguidedly considered them punk because I didn’t have a much better frame of reference (having no idea who Teenage Fanclub were back then). Now that we’re not so shackled or silo-ed by calcified ideas of genre, it’s great to be able to enjoy the brilliant 1977 without scraping to figure out exactly where it fits. Ash still don’t, and one thing is for certain: they were always, and remain to this day, simply ASH. I’m so grateful they decided to be a band.
LINER NOTES *I refer to 1977 as Ash’s second album, even though it was technically their first album recorded and released as a full-length LP. Their “first” album Trailer, which came out before 1977, was a compilation of singles, b-sides, and EP tracks to get fans excited for the band’s next LP, hence the title. For reasons of congruity, I’ll refer to 1977 as their second album, mainly because it’s always felt that way to me. ^ I was so out of touch with the band in 2015 that I had completely missed out on their return to the LP format, Kablammo! that year. I’m not proud of this.
Happy November, everyone. To many, that means we’ve just passed another Halloween celebration. Also to many, that means that Dia de los Muertos is fast approaching. To infinitely fewer, that means a new Song-a-Day challenge from Sonic Geography.
I should elaborate; I retired from building these things months ago. A pair of my friends from DC who began a supportive Facebook group during the pandemic shutdown in 2020 gladly took over delegating the responsibility once I told them I was stepping down from the monthly task. But, never content to let sleeping dogs lie, I decided to reverse my “retirement” for a month. This is hardly a Jordan/Hašek/Eminem/Jay-Z move on my part; I merely had another set of Not-By song cues ready to go last year that I never got around to building into a full month.
With no further ado, I give you: THE NOT-BY-THE CURE song-a-day challenge for November!
There’s no real November connection I can ascertain for The Cure. Robert Smith was born in April, and Faith came out in April 1981, so it’s not like there’s a major anniversary here. Why can’t we just use November to celebrate the existence of one of the greatest and most unique British rock bands of the past fifty years, anyway?
So, please do download the image to your phone, play along, use the hashtag #NotbytheCure, and just try to see in the dark. Just try to make it work.
If you enjoy reading about my favorite records and live in Central Michigan, then you can come hang out and hear me play my favorite records TONIGHT at the Larkin Beer Garden (next to the Dow Diamond in Midland). I’ll be spinning from 6 until 9 or so! [/PSA]
It would stand to reason that Milo Goes to College would be my top record of this year, considering what a watershed era it was for American punk music (and I have a Descendents tattoo), but instead, my favorite album released in 1982 was a largely maligned “comeback” record by an egomaniacal, dinner-jacket-wearing crooner. Granted, most of the maligning I’ve seen in online communities around Roxy Music’s masterpiece Avalon is done by what I can only assume are bitter Eno loyalists. I absolutely enjoy those early prog-fire albums the collective did in fancy space costumes – I’m technically in the middle of Michael Bracewell’s tome Remake/Remodel: Becoming Roxy Music as I write this. You just can’t heap praise on Avalon without dealing with the fact that “Virginia Plain” and “Editions of You” also exist in the same universe. In 1998, Rolling Stone saw fit to choose the Eno-free Siren (an entirely okay mid-70’s glam-pop album with maybe three or four great tracks) to stand above the rest of the band’s catalog on their “RS 200” list.
I should write, with utter transparency, that I haven’t reached Simon Morrison’s 33 1/3 book on Avalon yet in my reading queue (but I cannot wait to dive in). Because this is my website, I reserve the right to come back to this post and amend it accordingly if Morrison helps me discover that I’m completely full of it. But, there’s something refreshing about sitting down without the discursive baggage equivalent to at least three or four episodes of ‘Behind the Music’ on a record you love. Considering how much time I spend thinking and writing about music, it’s somewhat refreshing to just colo(u)r a record in verbal kindness because it’s wonderful and you love it.
That’s the hill I’m going to die on regarding Roxy Music’s 1982 album Avalon. It’s ten tracks, (partially instrumental) of thoughtful, temple-massaging, everything’s-gonna-be-alright slow jams which permanently established the 80’s iteration of Sophisiti-pop (later re-branded as the invented joke-genre Yacht-Rock) and retroactively established Bryan Ferry as the Godfather of New Wave. Perish the thought that a college radio colleague was about to apply that label to Morrissey ahead of Moz’ inevitably-cancelled Syracuse show back in 2004. I stopped him and said that Ferry deserves that title, if we insist on slapping it on somebody. So many of the “New Wave” tropes we took for granted pre-dated Duran Duran and MTV. Most of them even pre-dated Bryan Ferry, but I can’t think of one British musician of the post-Rock n’ Roll era who more encompassed so many of the New Romantic aesthetics.
It will undoubtedly strip me of cred to admit this, but the first time I remember hearing “More Than This,” Bill Murray was singing it in Lost in Translation. For those of you who haven’t seen Sofia Coppola’s elegant, insufferable romp through Tokyo, I would advise against it unless you enjoy watching privileged people being sad (Lost in Translation walked so Eat Pray Love could run). But, like a lot of mid-2000’s cinematic pablum whose apparent directive was to make young gen-xers (later renamed “millennials”) feel deep, it featured some quality tunes. From what I remember, the film brought Kevin Shields back from the dead, too, fourteen years after he dropped his own masterpiece Loveless (my 8th-favorite album of 1991). The most memorable moments of Lost in Translation all centered around music: Murray singing Roxy Music to express his disillusionment, a very young ScarJo crossing a bridge in a cab to Loveless highlight “Sometimes,” a stripper dancing to the teaches of Peaches (“Fuck the Pain Away”), and of course a pretentious ending slathered in “Just Like Honey.” The latter (putting a hip song over the credits just because you like it) felt like a device employed by countless student filmmakers in order to show off their musical taste (guilty), not something that Nic Cage’s cousin, born into Hollywood royalty, needed in order to wrap up her movie.
I’ll return to the topic at hand.
Some people ridicule that fantastic falconry cover, but I can’t imagine Avalon without it. As much as this was a departure from a lot of Roxy Music’s 70’s fare, the image fit into their singular fantasy world, drawing from the Arthurian legend and not using a sultry female model (or models) to get their point across. I would imagine that Morrisson’s book will address this, too, but I’m willing to wager that Ferry was seeking his own Avalon upon which to recover from the 70s, ultimately building a musical one. Either way, it’s appropriate, because Avalon is much more reflective and infinitely less horny than “classic” Roxy Music. Rather than playing like a raucous night out at some club, it feels like an ex-clubber approaching middle age, taking their coffee out onto the back patio and thinking about all of the mistakes they’ve made. It’s overwhelmingly tasteful music that still manages to be funky and doesn’t abuse saxophones like 98% of the coke-recovery (or coke-relapse) jams that followed in the decade. Andy Mackay deserves recognition on that feat alone.
I think I’m going to stop here. I did some light Googling in order to fact-check myself, and I wound up spending about twenty minutes reading up on Welsh mythology. Listen to Roxy Music’s Avalon. If you have a record player, buy it on vinyl. Get home from a particularly long day, put the needle at the beginning of Side 2, prepare a hot compress or grab a cold drink during “The Main Thing,” and make sure to lay down with either source of comfort by the time the mysterious, drifting into to “Take a Chance With Me” begins. It’s bliss.
For those of you interested in my Top 10 Albums of 1982:
Roxy Music – ‘Avalon’
Descendents – ‘Milo Goes to College’
Angry Samoans – ‘Back from Samoa’
Discharge – ‘Hear Nothing See Nothing Say Nothing’
A mix so good that the algorithm flagged me at least twice while I was broadcasting the records on Instagram Live! My favorite band of all time (depending on the day you ask me), and certainly the band I traveled the farthest (and spent the most money, but that’s beside the point) to see.
This mix includes a few of my favorite deep cuts, a handful of hits (and variations on hits), and interesting b-sides (for being the best British guitar pop band since the Kinks, Blur had a relatively weak b-side catalog). I’d like to think it shows off a solid handful of the band’s eclectic catalog of strengths. Either way, it’s a fun way to spend an hour. I’m kind of amazed I forgot to play “End of a Century,” though.
Happy 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.
I 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.
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.
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.
Long, Philip. “Popular Music, Psychogeography, Place Identity and Tourism: The Case of Sheffield.” Tourist Studies 14.1 (2014): 48-65.
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