(#536: 23 September 1995, 2 weeks)
Track 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
The Great Escape as Sitcom Pilot
The Worried 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.
He has 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.
The 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.
The Great Escape as High Fidelity
It was 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.
The Great Escape as Hauntological Accessory
Six years before, to the day.
The Great Escape as Perpetual War Machine
The opening guitar riff comes more or less straight from “I Don’t Live Today” by Jimi Hendrix. “Existing! Nothing but existing!”
The Great Escape as 1970s British Drama
Sexy suburban 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.
The husband 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 of fulfilment.
The Great Escape as Luck Of The Numbers
The 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 “theirs.”
The Great Escape as Home Counties Ready Reckoner
Win those 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.
The Great Escape as Doppelgänger
The low, 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.
The Great Escape as Warning From History
Can the 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.
But so 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.
The Great Escape as Free For All
You are 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.
Sad? Miserable? 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.
The theme is Prozac, to which the singer was then addicted. But just let what go? Life?
The golf ball-faced white sphere which dominates the video for “The Universal” may be reminiscent of a buried memory.
“Why were they trying to kill me?”
“They don’t know you’re already dead.”
The Great Escape as Up The Wooden Hill To Bedfordshire
Moments in 1995 relating to us and Britpop: it was all about moments.
A 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.
Or that 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").
Friday 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 strolled past.
The 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.
Pulp, on 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 the bus.
A cloudy Monday morning passing over Vauxhall Bridge, Goldie's newly-purchased Timeless bleeping and swimming out to meet our ears.
Elastica's 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.
Oh, these 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 again?"
Everything, 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"?
Even if 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.
As 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.
And 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.
Moreover, 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.
There is 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).
From the 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 immediately.
Its quiet 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.
"Fade 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.
"Best 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.
The 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.
I knew 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.
While the 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.
But there 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.
Ostensibly 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.
So here 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.
The Great Escape as Fugue State
Stephen 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.
‘Milligan's 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 Wikipedia entry).
Oh, what a naughty, naughty boy to lose his way in a world full of friends.
The 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.
The Great Escape as Zone 6 Travelcard
They 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.
The Great Escape as All Our Yesterdays
There had 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.
But many 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?
The Great Escape as In Go The Freaks
Punk punk 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.”
The Great Escape as Unreliable Narrator
Observant 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.
The great 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.
The penultimate 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.
It “ends,” 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.”
The Great Escape as Lost In Translation
They 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”).
Nobody 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.
The Great Escape as Epilogue
This tale 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.
The Great Escape as Afterword
Doesn’t 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.
(With apologies to Carmen Machado)