Friday, 12 March 2021

BLUR: Parklife

 


(#499: 7 May 1994, 1 week)

 

Track listing: Girls & Boys/Tracy Jacks/End Of A Century/Parklife/Bank Holiday/Bedhead/The Debt Collector/Far Out/To The End/London Loves/Trouble In The Message Centre/Clover Over Dover/Magic America/Jubilee/This Is A Low/Lot 105

 

I am going to break the habit of an internet lifetime and talk about my day job as it was in 1994. I was Office Manager in the Haematology Department at Charing Cross Hospital. It was an alternately very frustrating and very pleasant job. This was the middle of an era when you cared about the people with whom you worked, and they cared about you. That state of mind still exists in and for those yet to conquer the dividing line of middle age. I remember the names of all of my colleagues – all of them – and will not embarrass them by mentioning them by name here. I thought I’d done a fairly good job in my two years there but a close colleague of mine, whom I met under different circumstances in the noughties, remarked that I’d seemed cast off in my own dream world. And this was someone whom, frankly, I loved.

 

I think I had crushes on nearly everybody in that department, and it turned out that several of them had a crush on me. Not that anything happened as a result, because I was with Laura and therefore not available. That was clearly understood. At the time I lived during the week in a flat in Westminster – please note, it was Westminster, not Pimlico; it was something of a blast to be able to see Big Ben from my bathroom window – and at the weekend I got on the Oxford Tube and commuted back to Becket Street, and Laura.

 

I stress all of this for two reasons; firstly, as a reminder that in the early-mid 1990s it was still perfectly possible to live comparatively comfortably in the centre of London on a relatively modest wage. The postwar housing bubble in the capital had not yet burst, and the right balance had more or less been achieved – people who came to the city with things to offer it, and to each other, could experience London at its core, and with any luck help to change it for the better. London felt like both a playground and a laboratory, in the best sense.

 

Secondly, I emphasise the fact that I was working in Hammersmith and commuted to and from Oxford as a means of understanding how firmly a West London record Parklife is, as are the two other Blur albums which encase it. There is no getting around it – to get Parklife you had to be there, while it was happening. Walking down Greyhound Road towards Fulham Palace Road while listening to the album on my Walkman – which happened on innumerable occasions, not necessarily in that location – and hearing BBC Greater London Radio traffic shoutouts to Greyhound Road and Fulham Palace Road at the climax of “London Loves” felt like I was at the very centre of things. It was exciting and liberating.

 

(There used to be a comedy club – the Cosmic Comedy Club – in a pub on Fulham Palace Road, right next to Charing Cross. Another work colleague suggested that I go on an open mike night there, since I had at the time a good reputation as the Departmental Comedian. I never took up that suggestion since I knew too well how things which sound uproariously funny in the office can fall down dead in front of a cynical, semi-drunk pub audience.

 

But, you see, that was the joy of it – the knowledge that you were but one of a group of people, all working towards a common purpose, and a noble one at that [saving people’s lives], and that, let’s face it, we LOVED each other, watched out for each other, hung out with each other outside and after work. That is how I was before life and the world did things to me.)

 

I bought Parklife on cassette one Wednesday teatime – the week it came out – from Our Price Records in the King’s Road (long gone). I already knew it was special, since “Girls & Boys” was one of THOSE pop records which made no hesitation in grabbing your attention and pinning it down. It seemed so effortlessly great, in the manner of all “great” pop records.

 

Was it to have been expected? Not especially. Modern Life Is Rubbish was received with relative critical and commercial indifference the year before, even though, with the indispensable aid of hindsight, it serves as a tentative overture to its successor – “For Tomorrow” sweeps open like a scarred curtain onto the Westway, welcoming us to still-viable options such as Emperor’s Gate (South Kensington; off the Cromwell Road and behind the big Sainsbury’s) and Primrose Hill, while its two big setpieces, “Oily Water” and “Miss America,” suggest that they had not entirely left shoegazing behind (as indeed does “This Is A Low”). Everything is already there, just waiting to be fulfilled. They find themselves in this city of tarred promise, these boys from Colchester, and continue to find themselves within it.

 

But “Girls & Boys” made even the dead sit up and pay attention. I don’t think Damon Albarn is sneering at all – if anything, the song is an ode to the blending of sexes and sex. On the dancefloor, however trashy it might seem to some, the old ways of humanity are ending and being succeeded by something better. All of the record’s ingredients are needed – the Ibiza rave sequencer, the John Taylor (via Bernard Edwards/Mick Karn) bass, the crazy-paving phasing (it is as though the original Nirvana’s “Rainbow Chaser” has come to fruition a generation later) and, above all, Graham Coxon’s cynical, abrupt guitar commentary, which turn the song neatly away from a 1981 Duran tribute to something more approaching Wire (“I Am The Fly” – see also the interesting “Connection” to come in entry #522). It knows it is pop, this record, and that it never need apologise for being such.

 

It was a comeback, and the succeeding album, far from being a dozen reprises of “Girls & Boys,” took its listeners for an exhilarating but exhausting and, in the end, traumatic ride. Some of the album shouts while the rest of it muses; that is, when it’s not sticking its tongue out.

 

Parklife could have been titled Modern Life Is Now Fully Baked, or Modern Life Is Still Rubbish, Don’t Be Fooled. What it isn’t is what two generations of commentators, and a good many people who think themselves fans, have repeatedly mistaken it for being. It is NOT a “celebration” of Britain or being British, not a reclamation of some mythical Albion artistic crown from affected former colonials. Albarn’s casual sportswear and practised Cockneyisms are largely there to fool the eye and ear, as are the dogs running (or the musicians watching them doing so) at Walthamstow on the album’s rear cover and inner sleeve.

 

It is difficult even to find a contemporary analysis of Parklife from the time which doesn’t fall into the nationalist trap. If anything, Albarn (and, I would also argue, Graham Coxon) are telling us that there is actually very little to be proud of, even in mid-nineties Britain or West London. “London loves the way people just fall apart,” they sing, and over and over there is offered to us the very real impression of London being a confused, conflicting, angry mess of an incoherent place whose citizens are not especially happy – you don’t need to know what “Trouble In The Message Centre” is about; just try to get out of London via the Hanger Lane gyratory system on a Friday evening and you’ll understand it.

 

Anti-American? “Magic America” may slouch with airs of threatening cynicism in places but the song basically admits that the war has been won, and America has long since gone ahead of Britain – I could cause real controversy here by arguing quite fulsomely for the superiority of American over British music in the nineties, and may well return to the subject later in this tale. Moreover, “Bedhead,” “The Debt Collector” (which one could equally call “New Cross Instrumental No. 1”) and “This Is A Low” all bear striking harmonic and structural similarities to the work of R.E.M.

 

One could even view some of Parklife as Generation X viewed from a British perspective. There is the third-person title song and the first-person “Bedhead,” both concerning people who don’t really have much of anything to do but enjoy doing it. On the other monetarist fist are the parallel requiems of “London Loves” (the moneyed yuppie breaks down), “Tracy Jacks” (the middle-aged time server cracks up) and “Jubilee” (the teenager with no hope in hell becomes a junkie).

 

And some of it, perhaps the album’s deepest moments, are about Albarn himself – “End Of A Century” chronicles a loveless romance politely going nowhere, while “To The End” is a heavily ironic and beautifully-orchestrated farewell to that romance (Laetitia Sadier, on secondment from Stereolab*, acts as his reproachful conscience).

 

(*need I even say here how much you need to hear Stereolab’s Mars Audiac Quintet, and its stepbrother, Gideon Gaye by the High Llamas, in order to gain a more thorough understanding of British-based music in 1994? The latter in particular sets me in mind of lazy summer midweek days, drifting through the libraries of London, the anti-breeze settling amidst the sunshine of Sutherland Avenue in Maida Vale, oh OK I’ll shut up)

 

There isn’t anything here really to put one in mind of the Kinks, and I’d say there’s a lot more Newley than Bowie about Parklife – as with Gurney Slade, Albarn “can afford to be silly” (see the uproarious and thoroughly necessary closing credits sequence of “Lot 105,” and the hugely entertaining Jimmy Pursey-stuck-on-a-warpspeed-Space Hopper thrash of “Bank Holiday”) – but there is quite a lot of Canterbury, which, given who Albarn’s father is, cannot be surprising; in particular Kevin Ayers, one of Albarn’s quieter forebears, whose influence is very noticeable when the singer sings or speaks low (though “The Debt Collector” also brings the work of the Mike Westbrook Brass Band to mind, especially the soprano saxophone voicings). And others you might not necessarily expect or anticipate.

 

The climactic anti-climax of “This Is A Low” is sung much closer to Robert Wyatt than Ray Davies, and it is where Albarn pulls back the Cinemascope curtains and says; oh, joyful Britain, how little you really know it – he uses the Radio 4 Shipping Forecast as a dazed procession of semi-non-sequiturs, while Coxon’s multiple guitars suddenly emerge with deathly screams, as though a nation and its inhabitants are perishing. There, in the centre, “And on the Malin Head/Blackpool is blue and red” – a place where I still frequently dream that I am, and every time it seems so damned real, even though it so clearly isn’t, and I haven’t been there in perhaps forty-five years.

 

Bur “This Is A Low,” as with Parklife in general, is a requiem for Britain, not a celebration of it, a wretched principality whose Queen is tempted to “jump off Land’s End” – see also the unassuming “Clover Over Dover” which initially seems like a Smiths/Morrissey send-up (the presence of Stephen Street as producer is significant) but yes, when it comes down to things, is about committing suicide…as somebody else, a citizen of magic America, did twenty days before Parklife was released.

 

“Lot 105” has to finish the record off after “This Is A Low” – it can’t leave its listeners in that abyss of hopelessness – just as Alex James’ brief “Astronomy Domine” fantasia “Far Out” inconclusively concludes its first half. But if Modern Life found Blur coming into London and Parklife finds them unable really to cope with London, then – how do they escape from it?

 

Addenda

The album was largely recorded at Moulin Rouge studios on Fulham Broadway, apart from “To The End,” which was recorded at the RAK studios in St John’s Wood. Its “cultural significance” is highly arguable and arguably misconstrued. Most people took it to mean something other than what it actually did mean. We may never recover from the resulting damage enabled in substantial part by a phoney movement whose name should have been confined to the opening track of the first Bonzo Doo-Dah Band album.

 

Did the album make its listeners seem as though they were merely part of a greater, mutual consensus? It might well have done, but great pop albums do not require justification or validation (the two are not interchangeable).

 

Parklife would have been a great pop album no matter when it had been released.

 

They know their early Ultravox! (“Trouble In The Message Centre”), their Regents (“London Loves”) and even their Tears For Fears (“End Of A Century,” “Magic America,” “Chemical World”). Do they know themselves?

 

Yes, “End Of A Century” does sound a little like OH SHUT UP

 

Kensington Park Road is full of flats which look very grand on the outside but are markedly less so when you actually live in one of them. Take my word for it.

 

Walthamstow Stadium closed in August 2008 due to falling profits. The site was converted to unaffordable, unpopulated luxury flats.

 

I once bumped into Damon Albarn at the Rough Trade shop off Portobello Road one Wednesday teatime. He was hunched over a CD player and wearing large headphones and a woolly hat. Sensing my curious presence, he turned to me, gave me an empathic nod and put his thumb up. What was he listening to? La Question, the 1971 album by Françoise Hardy. “You marvel me like a dream that finally came true/And you hurt me like a dream I shall awake from.” Oh, London, the things you do to your people.