Since the late 80s I've had a policy with new music. Rather than get swept along with the hype of all these young, up-and-coming bands, I like to wait a couple of years and see how they develop; let the collective old grey whistle test and the rigours of the album-tour-album-tour-tour-album treadmill take their toll and then see what they're made of - a sort of musical Darwinism, if you like. Not very generous of spirit, I'll admit and, like any form of social-Darwinism, the product of a rather mean worldview and consequently something that is somewhat suspect morally, to say the least. But, on the plus side, I do have a record collection *completely* devoid of any shoe-gazing bands or such over-rated at the time and now languishing in the 'where are they now files' non-entities as (off the top of my head...ooh, let me see...erm...) ... The House of Love, the Lemonheads and Sigue Sigue Sputnik. Oh, and *Frank* *Ferdinand*.
But, as with everything, there's always the exception that proves the rule. Not going along with the masses and picking up every 'album of the decade' and Mercury prize winner that the combined forces of the record industry and the music papers can throw at you is all very well, but, as a statistical inevitablity, every so often, you're going to miss out on an *absolute* classic. Just such a case in point is Blur's masterpiece:
Now, in my defence, I did buy the first single lifted from this exquiste album ('Girls and Boys') and - the jury will please note - this was one of only *four* singles I bought in that *entire* decade (the other three being Pulp's 'Common People', Radiohead's 'Paranoid Android' and something I can't remember the title of by the Longpigs). So, please, credit me with at least a *little* taste, fool though I may otherwise be.
Confession made, let's get down to the nitty gritty. I'm with Eno on this; one of the greatest pleasures in life is being proved wrong. I'm maybe overstating this because I wish I'd paid more attention to it at the time, but I can't believe what an astonishing hole there was in my collection until my recently picking up (for £1.50....*£* *1* *.* *50*!) a CD copy of Parklife. OK, it's not a vinyl copy - that *would* be a cause for a national holiday - but, please, bear with the righteousness of the recently converted. I did hear the album when it first came out - courtesy of a copy loaned from Stray Photon and (I'm guessing) home-taped by me in a desperate bid to *KILL MUSIC*!!! But, as with so many others, that tape probably just festered away in a pile of un-paid for music that was the manifest equivalent back then of what I imagine most people's hard disc drives are like today. My point, I suppose, longwindedly, is that music is more likely to mean something to you when you've gone out of your way to acquire it than when it's just put on a plate for you.
If Parklife was nothing more than an impeccably tasteful whistle-stop tour through the band's British pop favourites, it would be an album of interest to anyone with a more than superficial interest in pop music. As well as their more oft-quoted sources - The Jam, The Who, The Kinks, The Small Faces - Blur also pay their respects to an eccentric pantheon of English pop. Duran Duran and Wilco Johnson ('Girls and boys'), XTC (Tracy Jacks), Madness ('Parklife'), The UK Subs ('Bank holiday'), the Wire of 'Outdoor miner' ('Badhead'), The Stranglers propensity for wierd, organ -driven waltzes ('The Debt collector'), Syd Barrett ('Far out'), Duran Duran [again], the Attractions and Robert Fripp ('London loves') Billy Idol and Department S ('Trouble in the message centre'), The Smiths and the Stone Roses ('Clover over Dover'), The Sex Pistols and Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel ('Jubilee') Aladdin Sane-era David Bowie and the Moody Blues ('This is a low') Did I forget to mention the Incredible String Band? How careless of me.
But there's a confidence in the way those influences are worn on the Blur sleeve that immediately knocks any talk of clever-cleverness on the head. The songs are strong enough in their own right to make a mockery of any suggestions of second-handness or callow trainspotting. 'Girls and boys' doesn't just rely on its obvious debt to those Duran-ies. Rather, it uses it to reinforce the surreal amorality of 'the herd' Albarn has followed down to Greece. The aroma of binge-drunk Brits abroad, promiscuity and the tackily cosmopolitan ('du bist sehr schon - but we haven't been introduced') is captured perfectly and ludicrously counterpointed with the 'sun always shines on TV' phoniness of the video for 'Rio'. It's a stunning musical satire. The finger wagging of the chorus's refrain ('always should be someone you really love') being completely drowned out by the song's bombastic electro-disco strut, like a 'straight' passenger remonstrating with the air hostess having found him or herself unfortunate enough to be trapped on a club 18-30 flight to Zakinthos. Has it dated a jot? I think not.
Perhaps it's the warm afterglow of the opening track, or maybe because I'm writing this on one of the few genuinely sunny days we've been allocated this year, but the album seems to have a similar gloss as those other high summer masterworks, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road. Tracy Jacks stands 'on the seafront, laughing' before lifting the listener's heart with his self-authorised home demolition. It's a complete inversion of the story of the 'professional cynic [whose] heart's not in it' who won the Blur/Oasis war for them - and is all the better for that. The sun may or may not have been shining when Tracy gets his kecks off - this is England, after all - but it certainly *sounds* as if it was - and I'm *sure* that's Colin Moulding on bass guitar there.
'Parklife' is a muggy celebration of 'the great outdoors' as relief from the indoor tedium of unemployment. "Why we doing this? Shuddup!!!" Someone frantically garbles in your right ear just before Phil Daniels' bravura performance starts up, as if they're giving a leg up to somone on an ill-advised mission to break into the cricket pavilion bar while the team's away on a tour of the Lake District. It's brassy, "pump up the volume, it's a *bank* *holiday*!!" stuff, regardless of what the forecast says. To pursue the point, 'Bank holiday' sets itself either at the beginning or end of summer -the May or August Bank Holidays represnting the most coveted relief from the tyranny of the working week. Whether in May or August, the song swiftly degenerates into a frantically consumed 'six pack of beer' and somehow manages to whizz by faster than a Bank Holiday does itself. Even 'Far out's litany of stars is obliterated by the sun ... sun... sun ...
I always used to imagine the song 'To the end' taking place at the end of a summer party in a grand old stately home. I dunno, maybe I've been staring at the cover of the single of 'Boys and girls' too long,
but it now has that setting-of-the-sun, title-music-for-a-porno-flick feel to it - "jusqu'a le fin, en plein soliel..." "Quando para mucho mi amore chica ferdi carosel..." I was going to describe 'To the end' as "kind of a 'we'll meet again' for the rave generation" until I remembered that those 'bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover' are actually quoted in 'Clover over Dover'. Maybe it still is, for all that. Again, maybe it's because I'm sat here watching the long summer shadows lengthen, but the by the time we reach 'This is a low' there's a distinct feeling that the sun's beginnning to set. The song ends with what sounds like a hovercraft deflating "...and into the sea go pretty England and me..." But then, as the whole cover concept implies, England's going to the dogs anyway. And as if that weren't enough, that surely is the sound of a plughole evacuating at the end of 'Lot 105'.
Albarn's England is a captivating place; a land of piers, intrusive dustcarts, gut-buckets, where sparrows and pigeons are about as near as you'll get to wildlife and where everywhere appears to be near the sea. (Well, I suppose that's because everything *is*...) People collapse, not sure whether it's in love or because they're drunk. Or they just fall appart - London *loves* that. They strike gently, away from the body. They drive Japanese cars, kiss with dry lips and then bulldoze their own homes. They all dress the same because they all feel the same. They lock themselves away and play computer games or they're drawn back to that ever-present coastline where they'll roll in the clover before jumping off into the sea, finally to be at one with those mystical realms of their beloved shipping forecast. Even the Queen's at it; sh jumps off Land's End.
There's a valedictory feel to much of Parklife, as the shadow of 'magic America' looms and good old English fish and chips are swept away on a tide of imported fast food: "59 cents gets you a good square meal, from the people who care how you feel'. Everything will soon be as horrid as that's song's squelchy synthesizer solo.
But Blur's England is still recognisable, still out there, I'm sure, if you were to look for it. Perhaps what they're saying goodbye to is not the thing itself but the means to describe it. It's hard to envisage anyone ever being able to draw so abundantly from the accumulated vocabluary of British popular music and make music as powerfully evocative of the common English experience again. That's not because the talent isn't there. Arctic Monkeys have proved they have the perceptive powers to observe it and could no doubt develop the broader musical palette that might make them worthy of comparison with Blur. But would their audience ever allow, or even require them to develop that dimension?
It's perhaps fitting that Blur, a band spurred into action by seeing Morrissey on the South Bank Show describing the Smiths as 'the last pop group', should contrive possibly the last great pop album. It's certainly the end of a particular line of observational pop writing that encompasses greats such as Ray Davies, Pete Townshend, Bowie, Weller and Le Bon (Just kidding about that last one!) Looking back - what - 15 years? - it seems as if Parklife belongs more happily in the company of albums like Revolver, Aftermath, Sgt. Pepper, Ogden's Nut Gone Flake, The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society, All Mod Cons and Meat is Murder than it does with anything that's been released since.
In a country where 6 minders are required for every binge drinker so that things don't get out of hand in the local boozer, perhaps there's no need for the sort of imagined absurdity of someone bulldozing their own home 'because it's just so over-rated' on offer here for us all to share and have a good laugh about. It's an increasingly angry land. Muzzled, pitched against one another in a ludicrous and pointless race after an electric rabbit they will never catch, two greyhounds caught in full flight in a beautiful and resonant photograph adorn the album cover. One of them is looking straight ahead, perhaps a little apprehensively. The other bares its fangs in a ferocious snarl.