As many a recovering Anglophile will recall, the 1995 chart-topping face-off between Blur and Oasis was the media-created rivalry to end all media-created rivalries, with both bands releasing singles on 14 August and setting off “The Battle of Britpop,” easily Britain’s bloodiest battle since Goose Green. A cursory glance around those damn internets reveals that Blur was the victor, with 274,000 copies of “Country House” sold to 216,000 copies of “Roll With It”, but with such subpar offerings from both bands, a teaspoon of hindsight and a small handful of smarts gives one the confidence to say that sans fake rivalry, both of these singles would have been quickly forgotten by a fickle British music-buying public. So let’s hop inside the Retrospective Record Review jalopy and take a ride back to 1995, to take another look at these two monoliths of Britpop and Shitpop, respectively, and declare once and for all – who’s the real winner?
First off, I need to come clean. I’m a Blur fan. I know that this disclosure has discredited the entire article for the legion of Oasis fans who have just bellowed, slammed their clammy fists upon the nearest tabletop, and proceeded to smash pint glasses of cheap bitter into the heads of nearby elderly women. That’s fine. I’m going to do my best, though, to stay focused and impartial, since, to be totally frank here, I think both songs kind of suck. But we’ll get back to that.
Let’s size ‘em up, boys! What the hell is Liam Gallagher growling and slurring about? Who or what is Damon Albarn poking fun at? Let’s see! And, as always, remember that the RRR uses a completely arbitrary and probably unfair scoring system.
A basic knowledge and historical perspective of all things Oasis indicates that 1995 was a banner year for the group. The previous year, their first album, Definitely Maybe shot them to international stardom and brought them to the attention of bored south Texan teenagers who maybe had more disposable allowance than taste. However, even for those same 13-year-olds who lapped up Definitely Maybe’s tales of cigarettes and alcohol and whatever the hell a “shakermaker” is, the following year – which ushered in new developments like a new season of The Fresh Prince, pubes, and high school – also brought a dose of insight that Noel's only real skill as a lyricist was his ability to write songs while holding a rhyming dictionary in one hand and cutting a line of blow with the other.
“Roll With It” doesn't stray too far from the Definitely Maybe formula. Apparently Noel and Liam are encouraging a third party to “roll with it,” or, I guess, go with the flow, while “taking [his or her] time,” “saying what [he or she wants to] say,” and – most importantly – making sure not to “let anybody get in [his or her] way.” Inspirational stuff. Subsequent verses consist of Liam telling this third party that he himself understands the awkward position that this person has been in, and then, in a drunken, nearly incomprehensible sneer, Liam says (halfway through the song!), “I think I recognize your face/but I’ve never seen you before.” I know that this line is meant to be kind of absurdist and humorous, or maybe it is just the result of Noel’s lazy songwriting, but it just falls flat. Anyway, what I’m getting at here is that “Roll With It” is a simple song, nothing more, nothing less. Liam is telling someone that he understands things are tough, but everything’s going to be okay. It’s basically the same song as 1997’s “All Around the World,” and about 80 other Noel Gallagher jams, so let’s not get too academic with it.
“Country House” is built up to be a biting satire of Englishness and a caricature of aging City Boys, a character assassination in major chords. According to the legend (and Wikipedia), the song is about former Blur manager Dave Balfe, who, suffice to say, was a total cock. So, apparently, this middle-aged man strikes it rich in London and retires to a beautiful, “very big house/in the country”, where he “watches afternoon repeats/and the food he eats,” since apparently he is a healthy man who “doesn’t drink, smoke, [or] laugh,” and “takes herbal baths.” Maybe it’s just because I live in a tiny apartment in New York, but that doesn’t sound like such a bad gig. It sounds a little boring, but a biting critique? I’m still not convinced. Let’s keep digging.
My assumption over the years has been that the man in question is something of a leech, who built up his riches through the hard work of others, or as an investment banker or something, Also, I guess, it is a song about city-slicker carpetbaggers, who fuck other people over in the hope of leaving it all behind and moving out to lavish estates in the countryside, which is a British phenomenon whose cultural resonance I am smart and American enough to know that I don’t fully understand. So well done, Mr. Albarn, you’ve one-upped me there. So, who knows, maybe it is a decent critique of a lifestyle I will never truly "get."
To wrap it up, I think “Country House” is kind of funny, but it hasn't aged that well and really doesn’t hold a candle to most of Blur’s other songs, lyrically. Nor do most of the lyrics on The Great Escape. That album remains a sort of commercial potboiler between Parklife (1994) and Blur (1997), not that good but not all that bad. But to get back to “Country House,” it’s a little piece of pop fluff that I think the band ultimately regretted – but maybe it was the sense that the Britpop mine had run dry that hastened Graham Coxon’s dissatisfaction with the direction Blur had been headed and led to the far superior Blur album only two years later. Basically, The Great Escape was the pile of cow shit from which a beautiful flower later sprang. Kind of like how after 8 years of Dubya, we have President Obama. The world works in mysterious ways.
+3 points for Blur. I’ll take Damon’s morning-wood innuendos over Liam’s Tony Robbins-lite.
“Country House” – 3:58
“Roll With It” – 4:00
+2 points for Blur – both songs, as previously stated, kinda suck, so since Blur has the decency to end theirs sooner, they get the two-pointer here.
First things first, I am a huge fan of Graham Coxon – always have been – so it will be nigh impossible for me to be fair and balanced here. But that never stopped Fox News, so let’s get busy.
Graham is obviously a superior guitarist, among the upper echelon of British, and dare I say world? guitarists. He's the Bentley stretch limo to Noel's Razor scooter. So, for the rhythm section in both of these songs, it’s all about “Country House.” Graham’s guitar complements the brass section rather than seeking to upstage it, and offers ample punch and crispness, with biting ska-inflected chord jabs and rococo flourishes at the end of each line. All hyperbole aside, Graham’s work on this song is ethereal.
I hope that was unbiased enough.
But to break ranks here, I’ve got to give the guitar solo to Noel. I’ve always grimaced at Graham’s solo on “Country House." Where the rest of the song is ordered, neat, and clean – a suitable choice, given the band’s physical style at the time – his solo is sloppy and, yeah, weird. Layering several mini-solos atop one another works against the rhythm, creating a labyrinthine mess of Guitar Center-esque noodles that just don't fit the rest of the song. Noel’s heavily distorted and chorus-soaked solo, however, is understated, classy, and fits perfectly with his song’s muddy and distorted overall aesthetic. So Noel wins some points with the solo.
+3 for Blur, +1.5 for Oasis.
I’ve got to give this one to Blur’s Alex James. Not because the bass in “Country House” is better, but because Oasis’s bassist at the time of “Roll With It” was called Guigsy. Shit nickname, shit bassist.
+2 for Blur.
This one goes to Oasis, hands down. Where Dave Rowntree’s drums are fine - tight, punchy, and bursting at the seams with equal parts pep and moxie - Alan White does a solid job of keeping the song pulsing along at a good clip, and his floor tom action in the intro and outro is nothing short of what one of my former professors used to call “totally badass.”
Oasis gets additional points and ultimately wins in this category for the copious amounts of reverb layered upon additional scoops of reverb, which combined makes it sound like Oasis belongs in that great dodo bird of the 1990s – the rock arena – and gives the song the effect of Oasis playing this song with their instruments facing the mouth of a giant cavern.
+3 for Oasis. 2 for Alan White, 1 for the dude who turned the reverb dial up to 8 and said to Liam, “I’m going for broke, Li.”
“Country House” is rife with brass instruments aplenty, probably due in some small part to Damon Albarn’s fixation with Kurt Weill and oompah music around that time. Yes, as a matter of fact I did read Blur’s rock-ography. Twice.
“Roll With It”? I guess a horn section didn’t have much of a place in Oasis for a couple of years, until their music had become more bloated than Richard Oakes from Suede (high five, former Anglophiles? Any of you?).
+.5 for Blur, because the horns don’t add that much to the jam. The outro is pretty sweet, though, so a half-point it is.
This is a tough one, because, like the songs themselves, the album covers just aren’t that good.
Okay, then. “Country House” features a Bavarian castle, with “Blur’s Country House” written in a mid-90s Macintosh-y font that fits with the going-to-the-office, 9-to-5 aesthetic of The Great Escape’s back album cover.
“Roll With It” has the band sitting on a beach, wearing peacoats, watching CRT televisions, trying to look cool and disaffected. Bonehead, their rhythm guitarist, tries to look extra cool by looking off into the distance stage right. Whatever.
Shit, I’ll give this to Oasis, because at least they had to take the time to pose for the photo. Also, I’ve always thought the classic black-and-white Oasis logo had a lot of punch to it. Fraction of a point awarded to the guy who selected the band's name and clicked "italics" on MS Word version 1.0 all those years ago.
+2 for Oasis. One point deducted for the fact that they had a rhythm guitarist called “Bonehead.”
I think the "Country House" video has lost its charm in the last decade-and-some-change.
Aside from Graham, who sits for a good chunk of the video cuddling with a lamb and generally looking forlorn, the boys of Blur come across as overly fey and grating. Yes, it’s cheeky, har dee har. Blur had a string of pretty crappy videos from 1993-1995, so I’m not entirely surprised that this video was so bad, but once again – maybe it was seeing themselves doing that lame “Bohemian Rhapsody” thing at the end that tossed Blur over the edge and launched a serious re-think about whether they wanted to keep doing cheesy, camp videos like this and beating the dead horse of Britpop any longer. Hence, a couple years later, you’ve got the video for “Beetlebum,” directed by Sophie Muller, which is a masterpiece.
“Roll With It” is a fake-live-show music video. Wow. Way to go, guys.
+1 for Blur. Simply for the shot of Graham hugging the lamb. One point deducted for the “Bohemian Rhapsody” vignette. +.75 for Oasis for not making a video in which they’re dressed in outlandish outfits chasing buxom women. Keepin’ it real(istic).
Blur: CD1 of “Country House” featured “One Born Every Minute,” which, if I remember correctly, was a sort of oompah-inflected jamboree that was sort of funny but overall pretty mediocre. However, track three is “To the End (la comedie)”, a redux of Blur’s gorgeous 1994 song “To the End,” this time with Francoise Hardy taking Laetitia Sadier’s guest-singing role. I’ll take off my tough-guy yarmulke here and put on my bought-at-Claire’s bow clip and just say, it is a beautiful, gentle song that tears at my heartstrings every time.
Oasis: CD1 features three B-sides, “It’s Better People,” “Rocking Chair,” and a live version of “Live Forever” from Glastonbury 1995. I don’t remember “It’s Better People,” but “Rocking Chair” is a pretty decent song, so I’m going to give Oasis the benefit of the doubt here.
+1.25 for Blur, +1 for Oasis. .25 points extra rewarded to Blur for bringing in Francoise Hardy on “To the End.”
Blur dominates in this re-evaluation of the great media-fostered “Battle of Britpop.” Oasis put up a brave fight, but ultimately it was the totally awesome guitar wizardry of Graham Coxon that proved Oasis’s undoing.
I will admit that giving both songs a comprehensive re-listen, 13 years after their initial release, gave me a lot of perspective about where both of these bands have gone in the time since their fake rivalry. While Blur underwent a total reboot for 1997’s more American-indie-influenced Blur and plumbed the tragic depths of the human soul for 1999’s 13, Oasis plodded along, making some more rock-by-numbers to see the 1990s out, then trying to establish their credibility throughout the ought’s as British guitar bands in the Oasis mould multiplied exponentially. In 2008, Oasis finally managed to get back some of their former respect with their album Dig Out Your Soul, which is apparently pretty decent, but I will admit that I haven’t heard it yet.
With Graham’s departure from Blur in 2000, the band’s most recent record, 2003’s Think Tank, incorporated Damon’s kitchen-sink musical interests, which at that time were Moroccan/African flourishes and stripped-down guitar-lite compositions. Although the band wasn’t the same without Graham, and the eclectic semi-neo-colonialist vibe hasn’t aged as well as it possibly should have, “Crazy Beat” still holds up pretty well as a guitar rocker, and “Good Song” is a beaut.
Anyway, that’s about it for this installment of the Retrospective Record Review FACE OFF! I hope you’ve enjoyed this journey on the RRR jalopy, and I hope this review has shed some fresh light on the rivalry that never was, the mythological Blur vs. Oasis slap-down-drag-out that was created by men in double-breasted suits in glass buildings high above London town in the early days of 1995 and made mythical by acres of coverage in the NMEs and Rolling Stones of the world.
Come on, Eldrick.