Thursday, 14 August 2008
In the mid 90s there were no dedicated twenty four hour ‘indie’ television channels. The most you could expect was the indie chart rundown fortnightly on ITV’s Chart Show on Saturday mornings, or the occasional Super Furry Animals or Supernaturals video. Whilst certainly not a barren spell for music, the coverage was poor. Pre-internet meant scouring teletext (nominally Channel 4’s Planet Sound) for demo and gig reviews, and forums. To keep in touch with underground music from other locales in the UK meant sending 50p and a stamp addressed envelope to obscure villages in Derbyshire, or £2.50 for a badly recorded four track demo. That sometimes came with a badge. The prevalence of ‘indie’ as a fashion, as a sound, as a preset construct means it is easy to forget about these leaner times. It is also easy to romanticise them.
Against this backdrop Blur released Modern Life Is Rubbish in 1993. It is usually credited with starting the Britpop movement, and while this can be debated the album’s influence cannot. Its highest chart placing was 15, and was critically well received on release but didn’t shift enough units to be considered a success by EMI, the parent company of Blur’s record label Food. The British sound which it expounded traced a direct line through The Kinks, The Who, The Jam, ska, skinhead, and shoegazer. It was Village Green Appreciation Society for the early 1990s. Using these antecedents as reference points allowed them to distance themselves from the baggy movement which their debut Leisure had been lumped in with, while also dissociating them with grunge. Although they would later adapt an American sound on Blur and 13, at this stage in their development (and particularly after a torturous American tour) they wished to put as much open water between them and the sound from across the Atlantic.
The ideas of Britishness, both as a notion and as a construct, are central to the album. It informs debate about the album and its merits, and why it is still an important recording today. One of the promo photos for the album’s release showed them in a mixture of mod and skinhead gear, with a pitbull and the phrase “British Image 1” on a brick wall behind. The best place to find members of Britpop bands was hanging out in some greasy spoon or pie and mash shop in London’s East End (until the dawn of New Labour when membership of the Groucho club became de rigueur). While this can be argued to be an affectation, the ethos that fortified it is more problematical to scrutinise.
What this album rails against is a general malaise that affected the nation at the time; the dissipation of traditional Britishness. The decay of modern culture (ie 20th century modernism) is posited against the milieu of globalised popular ethos. 19th century industrialisation had woven itself into the texture of inner city life in Britain, yet by the 1990s the idea of community had dissolved. The traditional British image has receded. Britishness is something that can be learnt; indeed has to, if you are applying for citizenship. National identity isn’t concrete, it is malleable and fluid. The album provokes debate on the construct of national identity, if it is still relevant, and examines the signifiers of nationalism itself.
The inhabitants of Blur’s songs are insulated. They feel uncomfortable in working class communities; the traditional post-compulsory education route was via heavy industry not the social mobility offered by higher education. Thus Damon Albarn writes about middle managers, such as Colin Zeal, and the pressure on Julian as he pushes trolleys in the car park. This Is Middle England. The banal and mundane are not taboo subjects. They are embraced, allowing them to adopt a microcosmic viewpoint which embodies this sense of frustration with the 1990s. For further elucidation on their thoughts of the decade, listen to “1992” from 13. It says it all.
Blur are modernists in the truest sense of the phrase – their music is a reaction against the rise of mass culture, which is perceived as formulaic and a superficial novelty. The lyrics are full of references to advertising, billboards. It was a time when advertising wasn’t so pervasive, so the novelty of American style marketing hadn’t yet worn off. “Advert” begins with the phrase “Food processors are great!” The Andy Warhol phrase “Buying is much more American than thinking” lurks underneath. Globalisation has shrunk the world, has shrunk time. According to Paul Virilio, “We live in a time of intensely tiny units of time. The real world and our image of the world no longer coincide”.
This album marks the initiation of Damon Albarn’s obsession with London. As usual it is the frontier lands in the suburbs that take precedence, fitting for a boy from Leytonstone. Along with other correspondents from London working in the latter half of the 20th century, he finds solace in these areas. They stimulate and engender thought in a way that the tourist filled centre could not. Thus the protagonists live in Emperor’s Gate and plan trips to Primrose Hill; they travel into the centre on the underground, they live in fragments of history. They drink sugary tea in hovels and buy trainers (with air cushioned soles) from Portobello Road market. They inhabit the places between places, that can’t be mapped, that are ever shifting.
The spectre of vaudeville raises its head on “Intermission” and “Commercial Break”. This link to music hall was something The Who had explored on Tommy, so it wasn’t new for a British band to explore this area of cultural tradition, but it’s embracing on the album is important in entrenching the idea of Britishness that permeates.
The problem with Modern Life Is Rubbish’s version of Britishness; it is Anglocentric, particularly biased to the south, and it is easy to see how a group of five beer swilling Mancunians armed with songs that married the bombast of the late era Beatles to the urgency of the Clash could challenge their place for Britpop primacy. Retrospectively Blur’s songs seem twee in comparison, but they possess an ironic, post-modern heart truly in keeping with many of their art-punk heroes and predecessors. “Sunday, Sunday” (a distant cousin both thematically and structurally to “Just Who Is The Five A-Clock Hero?” by The Jam) is the most ‘British’ song on the album. Colour supplements, TV guide, Sunday roast, Songs of Praise, war heroes, Mother’s Pride; all traditional ‘British’ imagery referenced in the opening verse. Yet the CD booklet introduces the song as “Legislated nostalgia: to force a body of people to have memories they do not actually possess”. This is coupled with the cover artwork; at a time when the rail network was being touted for privatisation, the image of a steam locomotive was an uncomfortable reminder of bygone days. The idea of the traditional British Sunday is shown as collective cultural amnesia, a fallacy, a construct. Britishness as national identity is erroneous. Blur were aware enough in their adoption of the signifiers that they were utilising were on the way out, yet they enabled them to comment on our national character and deepen the discourse surrounding it.
There is a real dichotomy in their songwriting body, and this is particularly evident on Modern Life is Rubbish (as well as its companion piece, Parklife). Bombastic songs, such as the singles “Sunday, Sunday”, “Chemical World” and “For Tomorrow” sit alongside more reflective moments such as “Blue Jeans”, “Miss America” and the beautiful album closer “Resigned”. A precursor to “This Is a Low”, its restrained tremolo laden guitar and melodica interweave before culminating in one of Blur’s classic outros. Much like the closing section of “Beetlebum”, every last fragment of emotion is wrought from a few simple chords. Beautiful. Graham Coxon’s guitar work is immense throughout, layering the songs with shimmering motifs over major and minor chord structures.
Despite its flaws this is still an important album. It is more than just a forerunner for Parklife, and in terms of its social impact and importance I believe it has a greater resonance. There is prescience in the title which allows it to transcend the generational gap. 15 years later the twentysomethings that Blur would have appealed to still experience the aspiration deficit. In 1993 Britain was in the grip of recession and an unpopular government that had begun to outstay its welcome was steadily sinking the ship. But in 1993 you couldn’t watch identikit indie bands 24 hours a day. Oh, for simpler times.