“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.

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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.

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]

Musical Geography 101: Pavement (Stockton, CA)

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.

The best band of the 90s (I wrote an essay about this for an old website, which I’m happy to share if you disagree… and I’d expect that you would) did originate in Stockton, California (by many metrics, one of the worst cities in the Western United States), but have had very little to say about it in their songs. Here, Stephen Malkmus’ lyrics jump around through countless overlooked and/or overrated sites in the Golden State, not stopping anywhere long enough to wax nostalgic about any of them. He ends the song screaming a memorable line about “Bakersfield trash.” Malkmus has always been one of rock’s most cryptic lyricists, but from what I imagine, this song either indicts the misallocation of the state’s resources, or it ridicules how most outsiders don’t even consider the state outside of the big three cities real. But I consistently failed poetry-interpretation in high school, because there is no right answer, I suppose.

While I’ve still got you reading this and in case you’re more interested in musical opinions then cultural geography, ‘Crooked Rain Crooked Rain’ is one of the greatest American rock records since the Minutemen’s ‘Double Nickels on the Dime.’ I’m just full of opinions today.

If you have access to Morgan Spurlock’s “Inside Man” series, do watch his episode where he moves to spend time on a citizen’s patrol in Stockton. It’s downright depressing, but it does draw some fascinating arrows between civic processes and hollowing and blighting of a mid-size city. Here’s a hint: do not blow money on a civic center if you’re only going to use it four times a year.

Music Geography 101: Kendrick Lamar (Compton, CA)

I recently assigned 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.

Kendrick Lamar – “Compton State of Mind”

A few short years before Kendrick Lamar made modern music history with Good Kid m.a.a.d City and To Pimp a Butterfly (two records that social scientists and journalists are going to still be pontificating on for decades), he was just another “good kid” trying to make something out of himself in a city notorious for holding people down. It’s hardly shocking that most people cannot imagine Compton without N.W.A. springing to mind, even though almost twenty-seven years have passed since they changed the world. Also, Ice Cube remains busy starring in family-friendly blockbusters and directing ESPN documentaries (to be fair, he did great work putting together the 30 for 30 on the cultural legacy of the Los Angeles Raiders).

My personal exposure to Compton was limited to Blue Line metro rides through there and about four friends who lived or had grown up there (three of whom were Latino; the black one was a librarian and Oi! punk fan who had been childhood friends with Easy-E. Go figure.) So what was it about Compton that still thrills so many outsiders? Like it’s anchor city to the north, it is full of violent contradictions and even in an era of heavy gentrification still presents itself without compromise. Kendrick Lamar has no pretensions about his hometown, and in his messy mix tape appearance, he raps his way through it. Fittingly, he would close out his 2012 masterpiece with another song called “Compton” featuring (who else?) Dr. Dre. But here, despite being destined for hip hop greatness, the “good kid” becomes the aural tour guide we never knew we needed.

Regional Music (and) Geography 101

Now that it’s the summertime (academically, at least), I have a little bit of time to clean house and post some material that I’ve been gathering for the past few months. Thank you to those of you who’ve been following these postings for any longer than that. I wouldn’t have chosen geography if I wasn’t highly passionate about it outside of school in the first place, and this site gives me a chance to explain just why I am, in however many words. Occasionally (actually, surprisingly often, which I love) I get opportunities to dig into subjects like music, film, and the pale of popular culture to highlight geography’s relevance within the context of teaching it. Other than the fantastic ‘Back to the Future’ panel we had on Saturday, one of the highlights to this year’s AAG meeting was the first annual GeoSlam, an open-ended session where geographers of all stripes were invited and encouraged to share just what it was that drove them into the field. This came as a much-expected breath of fresh air in an environment that discourages us from injecting the subjective into our work. Until a certain point that our elders easily remember, the mere inclusion of an “I” would subject an article to rejection (this may still apply to some journals; thankfully, I couldn’t name them off the top of my head).

For my first two semesters teaching Geography 101, I assigned a paper about regionalism in music. My instructions are rather thorough; students are to select any song, from anywhere, that pick apart the geographic references inherent. What does the song teach us about that region? What about the songwriter influenced the regionalism in the song?Today, some argue that music is losing its sense of place. I argue that sense of place in music is more important than ever precisely because it’s perpetually easier for music to be placeless if it wants to be. I don’t begrudge bands for “Brooklynizing” (or, if we’re going to be blunt, watering down) their sound if they can still make a decent record.

This was hardly the first time music had been used to teach entry-level geography, and not even the first time a paper of this nature had been assigned (see Sarah Smiley and Chris Post’s excellent pedagogy article on “Using Popular Music to Teach the Geography of the United States and Canada” in Journal of Geography 113: 238–246). But I wanted to pose this question to students in Knoxville for a variety of reasons. Primarily, I wanted to give my students the opportunity to explore the geography of their own tastes through  a relatively open-ended, laid back assignment to counterpoint the excessive stress of the end of the semester. Geography can be everywhere, even in ostensibly mindless lyrics to your favorite song on the radio. The only restriction was (initially) no “Rocky Top” and no “Wagon Wheel.” I understand that these songs are overloaded with localisms pertinent to where we all sit, but I want students to step out of their comfort zone a bit. Also, the TA’s and I don’t want to have to read 100 papers about the same songs. I invited students to use other songs by Dolly Parton or the Oak Ridge Boys (whose name is a very literal regionalism in itself) if they would prefer. My mistake here, though, did not consider just how many students would turn in papers on Marc Cohen’s 1991 aural cardboard “Walking in Memphis.” That song did become a fun running joke among my staff and I, but I did add it to the ‘banned’ list for the spring semester, mainly because it’s a terrible song, but also because it misrepresents Memphis in all sorts of ways I need not go into here. A few other songs made their way onto multiple papers (e.g. “Copperhead Road” by Steve Earle, “Crazy Town” by Kenny Chesney, and various Alabama songs), but none quite offensive enough to warrant any restriction.

What I did do in the spring semester was provide a list of optional songs (several of which I’d be surprised if your typical college-age student today knew terribly well) that are packed with enough blatant regionalisms to become veritable rabbit-holes of material to pry open. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting a song every Monday, Wednesday and Friday with a bit of its geographic context. I’ll include in this series of posts the song I used in class to extract and demonstrate regionalisms: “Science Fiction” by Radon (the band I spoke about at GeoSlam) sometime in the following couple weeks.

Michael Seman on Music Geography

From UNT website.

I felt a good return to music on this blog was in order, mainly because I’ve got some more antique postcard news in the works. I was very fortunate to meet and work with Michael Seman, a musical geographer based in Denton, TX (we did talk briefly about the Mountain Goats song and the Marked Men, don’t worry), at the AAG Meeting in Los Angeles last year. This morning, I got an email from a collaborator saying that Mike had been interviewed for the Washington Post! Not a bad spot to land.

You can read the whole interview here, or check in on writer Danielle Paquette‘s story about Omaha’s use of indie rock to revitalize it’s urban neighborhoods right here, but here are a couple of Seman’s quotes that I thought were pretty to-the-point about what Music Geography does, and why it’s important.

[Music Geography is] the examination of music and how it interacts with the people, economy, built environment, and technology that comprises a certain space or place.

Music, like food, offers a lot of insight into how landscapes develop and how they might continue to do so in the future… Music scenes can act as branding agents, spur urban redevelopment and emerge as industries in their own right. I’ve also found that music scene participants are civic-minded and often become involved in philanthropic pursuits, run for political office, and seek employment in city departments.

More updates coming soon. Check out Michael’s work for more background on the interaction between music and public places. I’m no doubt going to be citing a lot of them in the future.

For now, time to dive back into teaching and formulating my own papers to present this year. It’s been so busy that I feel like first I have to…. well, The Marked Men can probably say it better than I could.