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]

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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.

Scorched Pop Music and Representation in the Desert

As difficult as finding time to even breathe much less update this site has been this week, I would be remiss if I didn’t share a couple of thoughts about my experience at the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival last weekend.

"Move along, nothing to see here..."

“Move along, nothing to see here…”

For the uninitiated, Coachella has steadily become the most expensive, grandiose, bombastic, and popular music festival in the United States and could one day be that for the world. It has grown in clout each year upon its inception in 1999 (with one key exception being 2000, when it was not held). At this point, the mere mention of the sun-scorched festival at the bizarrely-greened Indio polo club (Ian MacKaye publicly questioned the presence of Palm Trees and grass in the middle of California’s low desert) evokes a series of emotions from even those who’ve never ventured out. My own opinions about the corporate structure of these overblown musical events aside, I decided to cross over to the other side and check what the fuss was about this year. Also, my love of the band Blur outweighs my common sense (the Descendents, too).

When they announce the official lineup for Coachella every year, the internet goes kaboom. This is equal parts fans expressing their support, the cynical expressing their cynicism over the only four bands they find cool to not be billed, and as producer Chad Clark referred to it, “ahistorical stupidity.” 

The geographer, however, would look at it differently. Given how much of a premium the festival brass put on booking the top sellers and greatest hype-accumulators (and minimizing international flight expenses), a vast majority of musical acts across the six stages over the three days were North American. The biggest handful of exceptions were British (Blur, Stone Roses, New Order, Franz Ferdinand, Hot Chip, the XX, Alt-J), but a few other areas of the globe were represented, too, including Iceland (Of Monsters and Men), Australia (Tame Impala), Italy (Benny Benassi), and Japan (Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra).*

Oh, Canada... Scene at night from the car campground.

Oh, Canada… Scene at night from the car campground.

Given the festival’s international scope, it attracted a great array of visitors from all corners of the globe. All across the campground and sprinkled throughout the crowd, one could find innumerable markers of nation-state (and national) identities. I was too distracted to keep a tally, but I saw a large number of Canadian, Australian, British, Mexican, Taiwanese, Chilean, and other flags. I had great conversations with visitors from cities spread as far away as Calgary, Perth, and Tokyo. Here are a couple examples of other places that found a temporary home in the California wasteland.

MEXICO CITY
During Cafe Tacvba’s set on Saturday afternoon, an interesting phenomenon occurred. The band’s lyrics and onstage banter (almost entirely in Spanish) coalesced with the fervor of their fans (decorated with Mexican regalia) and the seething desert afternoon heat to simulate the place of a music festival that could have easily stood South of the Border. Of course it helped that many festival goers either spoke Spanish or were visiting from Mexico as well.

The crowd to see Cafe Tacvba on the main stage on Saturday afternoon, 4/20.

The crowd to see Cafe Tacvba on the main stage on Saturday afternoon, 4/20.

BOSTON
It was also noteworthy seeing Boston represented in the desert via the Dropkick Murphys’ frenetic set. The recent Boston marathon tragedy provided a sympathetic layer to the band’s usual reconstruction of their hometown through skinhead anthems, Irish musical threads (several waving Irish flags were visible, though none of the band’s members have ever been Irish nationals to my knowledge), and blatant name-checking of places in Massachusetts. Hearing these songs in 96 degree low-desert heat felt particularly strange, especially considering how much time I have spent in Boston in my life, but whether or not the crowd members yelling along to “Caught in a Jar” had actually been to Boston felt inconsequential. Few things could better testify to the band’s consistent expression of love for their city (other than perhaps how their first singer, Mike McColgan, left the band to become a firefighter).

For some reason, Palm Trees and celtic punk don't mix. Dropkick Murphy's on the Coachella main stage. 4/20/13

Palm Trees and Celtic punk don’t mix, but the band didn’t let that tone them down. Dropkick Murphy’s on the Coachella main stage. 4/20/13

Unfortunately, that’s all I have time for right now. As much as it would take a lot to subject myself to the experience again, I’m glad that I can now say I went. As much as my head still aches, it was a genuinely enriching experience of sorts.

CONFERENCE THIS WEEKEND

Not that I’m back in conference condition (if there is such a thing), but for those of you interested, my esteemed colleagues and I will be heading up to San Luis Obispo for the 67th annual California Geographers Society meeting. I’m presenting research (on emotional geographies of place in influencing LA record shop development over the past few years) on Saturday at 2:30 in Session 4C – Room 03-201… which I assume will make sense when I actually see the campus.

* Apologies to the bands and countries represented who I couldn’t mention due to lack of time and space. The full line-up is listed at their website here.