(#536: 23 September 1995, 2 weeks)
listing: Stereotypes/Country House/Best Days/Charmless Man/Fade Away/Top Man/The
Universal/Mr Robinson’s Quango/He Thought Of Cars/It Could Be You/Ernold
Same/Globe Alone/Dan Abnormal/Entertain Me/Yuko And Hiro
Escape as Sitcom Pilot
Man sits there, in front of what is assumed to be his family, in a studio mock-up
of a suburban living room. The verbal exchanges are stolid and uninvolving, especially
when they endeavour to be humorous. He cannot find anything funny or
stimulating about this environment. He knows that he cannot repeat this stasis
of enforced politesse until he converts to mush through lack of use.
had enough, this Worried Man. He rises, takes one last, elongated, dubious yet compassionate
look at these representations of people, then walks away from them, from the cameras,
from the studio, from his life. Once outside, his pace and excitement quicken,
and he has never felt more free, never in this life.
Worried Man is called Gurney Slade. He is not quite Anthony Newley, whose
pre-emptive shade dominates these fifty-seven minutes of discourse. But he has
decided. His decision is irreversible. He is walking away. As yet he does not
know whence he is heading. But the journey seems so much more enticing than
this falsified reality, the same one beneath which we all, ultimately, force
ourselves to work.
Great Escape as High Fidelity
called Sam Goody’s Record Store, and for two brief years it existed at Hammersmith,
in the mall downstairs from the bus terminal and upstairs from the Underground
station. Its prices were not exactly cheap but it was exceptionally useful for
things which Our Price in the King’s Mall couldn’t quite supply.
I bought the
record there, on compact disc, on Monday 11 September 1995.
Great Escape as Hauntological Accessory
years before, to the day.
Great Escape as Perpetual War Machine
opening guitar riff comes more or less straight from “I Don’t Live Today” by
Jimi Hendrix. “Existing! Nothing but existing!”
Great Escape as 1970s British Drama
capers. She loves a man in a uniform. But her husband has said goodbye, or
perhaps simply faded away. What do the neighbours think? She doesn’t care. She –
and, presumably, he – are happy. They are just about the only happy people
spoken about on this record. That is, if they are happy.
she never saw because the system would not permit her to do so; the same system
which pays for the masks and the canapes and the patio – the signifiers of your
having left a mark on the world, having existed. The song slows down as their
motions inevitably do; it does not sound fulfilled, or fulfil other people’s expectations
Escape as Luck Of The Numbers
National Lottery was and is a con as far as personal wealth creation is
concerned. It has done an awful lot of good for society, the sort of good that
governments are routinely elected to provide and subsidise, if you care about
that, which I suspect most of you do not. You only recoup what you have
invested in tickets over a certain period. I won ten pounds on it once. The
odds against becoming a multimillionaire are greater than most odds relating to
untimely death. Trafalgar Square or Telly Addicts – the choice is always
Great Escape as Home Counties Ready Reckoner
houses! Win the M4 motorway! Secede from society without the need to squat in a
dilapidated cottage by the infinite sea in the farthest extreme of nowhere. It
is such a British trait to hide and recoil away, shyly, from other people.
Great Escape as Doppelgänger
droning hums and whistles recall Adam and The Ants. But this is the king of a
frontier bereft of wilderness. The guy in “Parklife,” he had it sorted. He had
no future, as you might perceive it, but he was perfectly content with his limitations.
Now his strolls become more strident and have a purpose, namely to harm and
cause blood and fuss. The bass appears to comment at right angles to the
melodic top line, like apprentice hooligans cautiously glancing around the top
end of Moore Park Road, waiting for the opportunity to prove themselves.
Great Escape as Warning From History
top man and the charmless man be interchangeable? The charmless man who shakes
the hands of everyone whom he cannot and will not remember is now running
things, had you noticed? The singer swoons in those adjectival high-note bends
as though he might secretly admire the semi-concealed chutzpah.
much of this drama is prophesising exactly what has come to be today, and
perhaps this is why so many people remain slightly uncomfortable with it.
Great Escape as Free For All
only allowed to be happy by order, by drug-induced sublimation. “The Universal,”
the key to all shallow mythologies, sees everyone…settled, contented. The Herb
Alpert memory of its trumpet, the shrilly heartfelt backing vocals – the video
really could be taking place on the dark side of the moon. You may also recall
a very similar “new town” picture a decade before.
Unmutual? Never mind – take this drug and it will all become a memory.
Think of how you’ve been prodded, these past fourteen months, to Zoom your way out
of society, to rely on the internet, on baking, on yoga, with half of humanity
huddled away, concealed and frightened, sealed away under benign house arrest
to confront your worst instincts.
is Prozac, to which the singer was then addicted. But just let what go? Life?
ball-faced white sphere which dominates the video for “The Universal” may be reminiscent
of a buried memory.
they trying to kill me?”
know you’re already dead.”
Great Escape as Up The Wooden Hill To Bedfordshire
in 1995 relating to us and Britpop: it was all about moments.
Saturday morning in mid-September, summer still forthright and bright, on the
27 bus from Chiswick High Road to Camden Town, "She's Electric" by
Oasis heard on the driver's radio, everything perfect, everything as magically
now as anything could be.
spring, when I moved to Stamford Brook, across the road from the old Queen
Charlotte's Hospital but just around the corner from Chiswick, brightly walking
the two miles to work every morning with "Wake Up Boo!" buzzing
through my head like an amiable butterfly, though one not without a certain
sense of its own mortality ("for what could be the very last time").
lunchtimes, shortcutting my way via the pub adjacent to the Riverside Studios
where Chris Evans and the rest of the TFI Friday team would be spilling
out onto the road, holding court and the man himself routinely saluting me as I
open-mouthed adoration at first hearing "Reverend Black Grape" with
its noble sense of anti-sense ("Go and play fookin' tennis!"
"Old Pope he got the Nazis to clean up their messes," "Joy-fool
and triumph-AAAAUUUNNNTTTT!"), its brilliantly orchestrated chaos, Ryder
and Bez back in the land of the post-living.
a warm late October night at Shepherd's Bush Empire, the Thursday before Different
Class came out, though we all knew the new songs anyway and sang along with
every one; the precious and indestructible knowledge of living within a moment
that was our moment.
If I do not
hold 1995's music in quite as much awe as that of 1994, it is because most of
it represented consolidation on the part of musicians we already knew. But what
consolidation, even if from a purely British perspective; Tricky's Maxinquaye,
a record which stopped time, and its monochrome twin Scott Walker's Tilt,
a record which worked out ways in which to restart time; drum n' bass about to
become "legitimate" - the cold January warmed by the dazzling The
Deepest Cut Vol 1 singles collection by Omni Trio, and by D*Note's
astonishing Criminal Justice, one of the great British albums of its
decade; the Benjamin-esque (or, more precisely, Franz Fanon-ish)
realphabetising of trip hop carried out by Earthling's Radar. Radiohead
quietly wept when no one else dared with The Bends; their comedy doubles
Supergrass singing seriously about being told to sit up straight at the back of
Monday morning passing over Vauxhall Bridge, Goldie's newly-purchased Timeless
bleeping and swimming out to meet our ears.
brilliant black-and-red rewording of 1978.
And, in a
long overdue vindication of the original New Pop, Edwyn Collins came back with
the massive worldwide hit he had always deserved: "A Girl Like You,"
the missing link between Northern Soul and Iggy Pop and everything else - Pete
Waterman's declared favourite single of the last 25 years.
were the times, all right. Times when all of the above had platinum-selling top
ten albums, and in the cases of the Boo Radleys, Pulp, Supergrass, Black Grape
and Elastica - and Oasis - number one albums as well. When you could turn on
Radio 1 at 5 pm on a Saturday and hear that grizzled survivor of the sixties
pirates Johnnie Walker gleefully sticking on Oasis' "Roll With It"
with the heartfelt rhetorical exclamation: "Aren't pop singles thrilling
despite the numerous subsequent attempts to belittle and scale down Britpop and
what it briefly allowed, was thrilling about that year, and Blur, or at least
Parlophone, must have been aware of the need to magnify and perpetuate that
thrill - why else would they have moved the release date of "Country
House" to coincide with that of "Roll With It"?
one wonders how quickly it would have got to number one if Oasis had decided to
go with, say, "Wonderwall" at that stage, it got the wider public
interested in the charts again perhaps for the first time in a generation.
EMI's marketing budget being bigger than Creation's, "Country House"
inevitably won the race; but I don't know anyone who didn't just go out and buy
both or, like ourselves, were photographed for the local paper happily buying
both at the Virgin Megastore in Cornmarket Street that fine Saturday morning.
wonderful as it was to be in the heart of London as all this was happening -
the Berwick Street 4 am pictorial on the cover of (What's The Story?)
Morning Glory was immediately evocative even if it "starred"
future Guilty Pleasures TM magnate Sean Rowley - The Great Escape,
the final part of Blur's "Popscene" album trilogy, cut deeper with
us, perhaps because it was recorded and expressed its sorrow so locally; at the
Moulin Rouge studios in Fulham, directly across the road from where I briefly
lived, and then at the Townhouse Studios in Goldhawk Road, ten minutes' walk
from where I lived in 1995.
another reason is that, along with The Bends, it was the only "pop"
album of its year to face up to the slow societal collapse which had already
begun to occur. The banging and yelling at the beginning of "Ernold Same"
were recorded by Albarn at the JA Wines store in Goldhawk Road; I know this for
a fact because I saw him doing it early one Wednesday morning while taking a
different route to work.
The Great Escape, the title of which, as symbolised by the sleeve's
descent from the twinkling stars to the blue skies to the thrusting
Thatcherkids on the yacht preparing for a dive to the shark awaiting them at
the bottom, suggested fourteen different attempts to escape from
"life" and particularly from self- or society-willed loneliness.
not much merriment to be had here, and several negatives of the promise willed
by Modern Life Is Rubbish or Parklife (by the time of The Great
Escape, there is no "life"); the aforementioned "Ernold
Same" (note the Floyd/Barrett thematic/musical crossover) is
"Parklife" defeated, the chirpy confidence of Phil Daniels replaced
by the monotone drone of Streatham’s Ken Livingstone; "Entertain Me"
is "Girls And Boys" in hell, its New Pop mores claustrophobic and
suffocating, though bearing one of Alex James' great bass riffs (taking its lead from John Taylor via Mick Karn).
speedy descent from the Westway into town expressed in "For
Tomorrow," we arrive at the apocalyptic tomorrow of "He Thought Of
Cars" wherein Graham Coxon's glued guitar endlessly rears up on itself
like a landlocked car as Albarn, in a Robert Wyatt sob of a voice (accompanied
by a very Wyattesque organ), reflects on another "Day In The Life"
tragedy and how the world is systematically slowing down to choke itself to
death; anyone marooned on the M4 or A40 at rush hour would have understood it
dissolution is relentless; "The Universal" has Albarn pulling down
the shutters on the world as everyone turns into themselves, nullified by
valium, satellite TV, the National Lottery, and painting a remarkably accurate
picture of the nothingness which the 21st century has brought into being, and
while doing so paints an encyclopaedic portrait of British orchestral pop, from
the Dusty/Walker Brothers trumpets and echoing strings at the beginning,
mutating almost imperceptibly via the seventies female backing vocals into Lexicon
Of Love grandeur at its close.
Away" in its second Specials album ska-muzak arrangement gives a numbing
account of two lovers gradually erasing each other out of their respective
pictures, since work and profit are now the gods to be obeyed.
Days," one of Albarn's most moving songs, set against a bare drum machine,
sees the joyless commuters leaving London behind without ever really seeing it,
"into leafy nowhere," with the chilling, ambiguous payoff line
"Other people break into a cold sweat if you say that these are the best
days of our lives" over a gorgeous series of Barrett chord changes.
record, and the story, close (apart from a quick end-credits instrumental
reprise of “Ernold Same”) with the heartbreakingly robotic Eno tribute
"Yuko And Hiro" where we find our two loyal workers, selfless in
adding to the profits of their company, six days a week, who could be working
anywhere on the planet, drowning their unspeakable grief in drink in the barren
evenings: "I never see you...we're never together...I love you
forever." It is akin to the weeping of the last man on Earth. At the end,
nothing remains except the endless log-out tones of an abandoned computer.
that motorway, what it was like on a Friday evening. I lived in London during
the week and in Oxford at weekends. We only ever really saw each other for
two-and-a-bit days out of every week.
above are the most profound moments on The Great Escape, they are
balanced by the expected uptempo, or at least lumbering, numbers extending the
work of Davies, Townshend and Marriott. Some of these, e.g. the Lottery ode to
irony "It Could Be You" or the deliberately overblown "Mr
Robinson's Quango," indicate that Albarn's interest in this side of things
was gradually running out.
is still much of worth here; the extremely reluctant shuffle of
"Stereotypes" and, indeed, "Country House." The latter,
with its honking saxes, cheerily sardonic mockney lead vocal and general
socioaesthetic outlook, not to mention its crashing piano intro, seems to
derive in great part from the work of Madness, but the Beat Boom harmonies and
triple steps ascending to the chorus locate its wider roots.
a portrait of the overachieving tycoon who has to get away from everything,
"Country House" was allegedly inspired by Blur manager (and
ex-Teardrop Explodes member) Dave Balfe, though I tend to think more of Anthony
Keating, the anti-hero of Margaret Drabble's The Ice Age, who first
presents as a proto-Thatcherite made good, a property developer who has just
landed his dream mansion in the heart of Yorkshire - but as the ice, and the
narrative, cut steadily deeper in, we find that this is all a facade; Keating,
not yet forty, has just had a heart attack, has lost millions in the property
slump, has a past life which is revealed as a directionless mess, and may be
lucky even to keep this home; his business partners think him a liability and
want rid of him.
we have the protagonist of "Country House," seemingly free to do
whatever he wants, but in actuality hopelessly trapped in analyst's bills,
afternoon TV repeats, Balzac, Prozac, self-pleasure ("he's got Morning
Glory and life's a different story"). The facade finally collapses in
the bridge just before the final choruses as Coxon's whimpering guitar leads
the group into a very 1967 psychedelic swoon of pitiless clarity: "Blow,
blow me out, I am so sad, I don't know why." Even though they then stride
into the final, allegedly celebratory moments of the song, with its handclaps,
high kicks, whoops and horn section quotations from "It's Gonna Be A Great
Day," it is a hellishly hollow mockery of fun and laughter (since, after
all, "he doesn't drink, smoke, laugh" - did you catch the Adam Ant
reference lurking there?). Thus it was perhaps the perfect number one single
for its year; you know none of this is going to last, you know you can't go
back up the Westway and home again, and within two years the jokes and irony
will be stripped to reveal – entry #575. These moments had to be cherished, for
fear of having nothing left to remember, or hold onto; the "fog in his
chest" turning into a fatal fog.
Escape as Fugue State
Milligan, the former Conservative MP for Eastleigh, “was found dead in his
house at 64 Black Lion Lane, Hammersmith, by his secretary Vera Taggart on 7
February 1994. Milligan had failed to appear in the House of Commons as
expected, and so Taggart went to look for him.
corpse was found naked except for a pair of stockings and suspenders, with an
electrical flex tied around his neck, a black bin liner over his head and an
orange in his mouth. The coroner concluded that he had died in the early hours
of 7 February. The pathology report into Milligan's death discounted the
possibility of murder, lending weight to the belief that he died accidentally
as a result of autoerotic asphyxiation. No drugs or alcohol were found in his
blood, and no substances were found to have contributed to his death” (from Milligan’s
a naughty, naughty boy to lose his way in a world full of friends.
Great Escape as Nirvana
It was so
obvious when Lena pointed it out to me – “Entertain Me” = “here we are now – ENTERTAIN
US!” Alex has his moment and this is “Girls And Boys” crushed under a purple
juggernaut, squashed into a febrile corner. One wants the bassline to go on
forever, and in some ways it still does. Thus climaxes the group’s highly
ambivalent attitude towards America. They will inadvertently manage to conquer
it with their next record.
Great Escape as Zone 6 Travelcard
came, even in the mid-nineties when everybody could still afford to live in or
around the centre of London, from their suburbs, to be entertained, before retreating
again. Now they have nothing else to do since a generation of vested interests
has ensured that journeying into and out of central London is as deliberately
unpleasant an experience as could be imagined, as though the plan were to retain
the place for the exclusive use by the rich as a cyclical playground. Would you
still laugh out loud if you’d been told those were the best days you were ever
likely to experience in your life? The singer, as tender and compassionate as
he had ever sounded, makes you believe that they were.
Great Escape as All Our Yesterdays
been so much cautious promise two years earlier. But for what tomorrow?
This is tomorrow – sweat it or keep out. The virtual future, including
working from home when the concept of “home” has been purposely taken away from
us. Or the future which people are told that they still want; back to “normal,”
a return to the office, the way things were, because a year ago we were
accidentally given the once-in-a-millennium opportunity to change the way we
lived and we were too scared, tired and complacent to do it. Oh no, we were.
of us have actually come to realise that, no, we cannot go back to the way
things were, because the way things were was palpably not working for so many
people. Depression, suicidal ideations, domestic violence – all consequences of
a pattern idly based on a pre-Industrial Revolution farmers’ template. We
cannot continue to allow the majority of humans to suffer in order to facilitate
the vulgar wealth of a loud minority.
But, in “Yuko
And Hiro,” hope has been squashed out. They might as well be robots, these two;
they work “hard” (always a ghastly chimera – people should work well;
working “hard” essentially now means slavery) and profess to love each other (so
heartbreaking, that move from C major to C minor and finally to G) but never
actually see each other. Do they even still exist in any meaningful form, or is
this the residue which humanity opted to abandon? What was that album we did
where the singer dies at its end?
Great Escape as In Go The Freaks
punk, “Globe Alone” and “Dan Abnormal” (how fitting that the latter should be
the one here which most resembles Elastica) storm along with hooks that may
still catch you unawares at 2:45 on an overcast Wednesday afternoon, the
guitarist, as he has done through most of the record, sounding as though he is
slashing this music apart, shaking it to its atoms. “I want McNormal and chips/Or
I’ll blow you to bits.” As the boys say at the end of Threads, “Gies’ it!”
because those who rant the world have robbed them of their capacity for language.
“Give Us It.”
Great Escape as Unreliable Narrator
readers will note that I have not written about the songs in quite the same order
as they appear on the album. This is because it is the order in which their
lyrics appear in the album’s booklet. I did hold back on one – “He Thought Of Cars,”
which comes second after “Stereotypes,” as that might have been a bit much to
take so early (which is also why Dance Of The Dead was moved from second
to eighth Prisoner episode), and in which the hopeful wheels of “For Tomorrow”
appear to have been glued into the gummy ground with electrified pliers. Everything
that moved in 1993 is now static, and it is more than clear that this stasis cannot
be supported for much longer.
escape from the magnet which attracted us in the first place? Drinks, sex,
violence, oblivion? Because you cannot really escape from its pull. The suburbanites
of “Best Days” can do so for a time, though do not sound overly happy about it.
But try to get out of London, and the West, whether on the ground or in the
air, will freeze. Such a hope-free and central song to this tale, it revolves
on an axis of anti-rock – all the traction sucks out the air. Everybody hurts,
but in a different and perhaps irredeemable way. And, ironically, the song
points, as does the road of which it sings, directly towards…Oxford.
set of lyrics listed in the booklet is for “Fade Away.” It is tempting to think
of this as Terry Hall trolling – given the latter’s previous obstreperous attitude
to marriage (“Too Much, Too Young,” “Tunnel Of Love”) – but it was really refreshing
to hear More Specials being utilised as a point of musical reference in 1995
(prior to its inclusion in Melody Maker’s Unknown Pleasures booklet,
it had been in imminent danger of falling out of history altogether). Neil Sidwell
does a decent Rico pastiche on trombone but again there is this undertow of denied
hope – the couple get together and marry, seemingly in the absence of much else
to do, never see each other, you know what happens and perhaps what she goes on
to do (see “Stereotypes”). The leitmotif circles around itself like a
deserted cluster of orbit.
as does the album, with “Ernold Same,” and the illustration at the foot of the
page is that of a covered dead body in the morgue. The ultimate “great escape.”
Great Escape as Lost In Translation
loved it at the time, did the critics. All except Paul Morley in Vox
magazine who grumbled about Chas and Dave. But the same critics undervalued (possibly
not without justification) entry #538, and, realising which way their
demographic was turning, quickly did an about-face, to the extent that Q
apologised for giving the record a five-star rating. Albarn himself has tended
to take a dim view, calling the record “messy” (though this is almost entirely
due to Coxon’s extremely deliberate anti-commentary; his guitar whines like an
about-to-be-electrocuted elastic band throughout “Fade Away”).
should have apologised for hailing The Great Escape as the absolutist masterpiece
that it was, and remains. Gurney Slade tries his hand at various things, only
to be finally reduced to the level of ventriloquist’s dummy. His creator made
the great escape, via the West End and Broadway, to magic America.
Escape as Epilogue
does not go only to here; it pauses, but those three dots that Blur put after
the words “The End…” generate sufficient breeze to carry its words to you.
Escape as Afterword
that cover, and much of the record’s content, remind you of something? “I’m
Mandy, Fly Me” as the as-yet-unseen shark comes for the arc of that diver? I
knew I could get 10cc into here somehow…
The Great Escape as Envoi
Stanford Brook is located on the border between Hammersmith, which is palpably part of London, and Chiswick, which despite its W4 postcode is quite clearly not "London." That could count as a canny escape, if not a great one.
apologies to Carmen Maria Machado)