NOW 32: Blur – Country House

I remember summer 1995. If you weren’t born, or were too young, permit me to scene-set. To paraphrase Sheldon Cooper: ‘The year was 1995…’

The internet didn’t exist as a mainstream concept. My dad had a mobile phone but I don’t think my mum did. She’d pick up the home phone and still say the last six digits, as was customary in the twentieth century. As a seven-year-old, I was learning to read books with small print, learning what an isosceles triangle was and developing my knowledge of history and geography (RIP Mrs Clare). I was about to enter year four, Form Two, with my teacher Danny Jewell, who looked a bit like Stephen Gateley from Boyzone. The summer of 1995 involved Camp Aldenham and books, but I remember listening to the radio every Sunday.

You can probably guess what the topic of this essay will be, given that there was one major pop event in summer 1995. The British press concocted a rivalry, which Blur and Oasis acceded to, to try to sell units. Did you, music consumer, like the shouty louts from Burnage, or the faux-mockney art-school kids? Were you ‘mad fer it’ or ‘sensible fella’?

Blur won. Graham Coxon appeared on Top of the Pops barely able to play his guitar, so disdainful was he of Country House, a song whose video was directed by Young British Artist Damien Hirst (not yet Sir Damien, which he ought to be awarded for services to formaldehyde) and starred a young bald Jewish comedian from Stanmore called Matt Lucas. And Keith (father of Lily) Allen, of course.

The video, 23 years on, is a masterpiece of colour and fun. At one stage the band appear in ‘Queen vision’, like in Bohemian Rhapsody. Girls escape from an eight-foot-tall mousetrap as part of the game Rat Race (‘caught in the rat race, terminally’), Damon Albarn looks gorgeous in a bubble bath for the line ‘takes herbal baths’, Alex James falls off a pig on the line ‘animal farm’ and reads a Balzac novel on the line ‘reading Balzac’. During the instrumental break, it goes all Benny Hill, which is acceptable in 1995 in an ironic sort of way. (Here, insert your own critical point about the rise of the ‘lad mag’ that James Brown, editor of Loaded, can speak about if you pay him money and ask him to talk about blokes on camera.)

Graham Coxon is conspicuous by his absence in most of the video, which was Blur’s ‘jump the shark’ moment. Alex James now owns a farm, Dave Rowntree has moved into politics having trained as a solicitor, and Damon and Graham are having success of different kinds as musicians. Country House remains their second biggest hit, after Song 2. Damon, at 50, is releasing albums with Gorillaz and sundry collaborators. I’ll deal with Oasis next time.

Elsewhere on NOW 32, it’s the biggest anthems of 1995, mainly of the Noelrock persuasion: Alright by Cast, Sorted for E’s & Wizz by Pulp, Broken Stones by Paul Weller and a cover of I’m Only Sleeping by Suggs. It’s almost cute how Suggs and Paul Weller, two key tenets of British music in the Second Elizabethan Era (it feels like they started in the 1950s too!), were sharing chart space with the Gallaghers and Blur. The Suggs song was written by John Lennon, and appeared on Revolver, the first rock album by The Beatles. To me it is almost better than the original, replacing reversed tape with a trumpet and a ska beat.

As for Weller, he appears on track 19 of Disc 1 as an uncredited singer on Come Together, a song written by John Lennon which appeared on Abbey Road, the last rock album by the Beatles (the last recorded, not the last released, Beatle pedants!). Paul McCartney, Noel Gallagher and Steve Craddock (who went on to play guitar for Weller) play guitar, with backing vocals from Carleen Anderson and drums from Weller’s old drummer Steve White (now married to actress Sally Lindsay). Indeed, the band are credited as the Smokin’ Mojo Filters, after a line in the song.

The cover comes from the Warchild charity album, which I found in a record shop in 2006 and soundtracked my first term at university of Edinburgh. Radiohead gave Lucky to the compilation two years before it appeared on OK Computer (more later), and the NOW compilers placed it on Disc 1 of NOW 32. The disc begins with six ‘heritage’ acts in a row: the Roger Taylor song Heaven for Everyone came from the final ‘Freddie’ album by Queen, Made in Heaven, which also included Too Much Love Will Kill You which opens NOW 33.

Also returning: Meat Loaf, with the Diane Warren song I’d Lie for You (and That’s the Truth); Cher, with a cover of Marc Cohn’s Walking In Memphis; U2, with the Batman Forever theme song Hold Me Thrill Me Kiss Me Kill Me, produced by Massive Attack’s guy Nellee Hooper, which was kept off the top of the UK charts; Tina Turner, with the magnificent theme tune to the Bond film Goldeneye; and Simply Red.

Simply Red, with ginger-haired former punk Mick Hucknell, had the big radio hit of the year with Fairground, which still sounds like no other track that year. It sampled Give It Up by the Goodmen, and has syncopated verses and a killer chorus (‘I love the thought of coming home to you!’) that is one of The Red’s best moments, and their only UK number one.

The first solo single from Louise Nurding from Eternal (soon to be Louise Redknapp) was Light of my Life, which sits between The Beautiful South’s song Pretenders to the Throne (‘your town is dragging me down’) and Jimmy Nail’s Big River, an elegiac song about the Tyne in Newcastle which sounds like Sting. This is apt, as Jimmy Nail would play a Geordie shipworker in a musical written by Sting called The Last Ship, which played on Broadway in New York 20 years later.

Also on Side 1 is the German dance project Sacred Spirit, with a new age song called Wishes of Happiness and Prosperity (Yeha Noha), based on a Native American chant. The song, and its cello part in particular, appeared on an advert for Survival International shown in cinemas that drew attention to the hardships faced by the Native Americans. Richard Gere provided the narration: ‘Today the same forces of civilisation threaten tribal peoples in every corner of the world…Many have had their land stolen; others have been attacked, imprisoned, tortured or slaughtered’. The website is survival-international.org.

Sampling Pastime Paradise by Stevie Wonder, Coolio and LV sang about Gangsta’s Paradise; N-Trance used the big voice of Ricardo Da Force to bring the Bee Gees hit into the club era with Stayin’ Alive, while Donna Summer had her song I Feel Love remixed by the band Faithless. A crazy dance remix of The Human League’s Don’t You Want Me by Red Jerry features on NOW 32, as does a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams by Wild Colour. How extraordinary: classic pop songs redone for a dance crowd, as Fraser McAlpine’s ‘Swiss army knife’ pops up again.

In danceable original tunes, Shaggy called himself Mr Boombastic, as well as Mr Lover Lover, and purred his way to number one again. Clubbers dance to Corona (Try Me Out), Candy Girls (Fee Fi Fo Fum), The Original (I Luv U Baby), Alex Party (Wrap Me Up) and Wildchild (‘back once again with the Renegade Master’), which were the big club hits of summer 1995. Todd Terry remixed Missing by Everything But the Girl to bring the voice of Tracey Thorn to commercial radio throughout the autumn of 1995. She did not like the stardom the song brought, and writes about it in her memoir Bedsit Disco Queen.

Nestled away on Disc 2 is Goldie’s song Inner City Life, an excerpt from a 20-minute trilogy called Inner City Pressure which brought drum’n’bass into public consciousness. Goldie has just published his memoir about his fascinating life which took in the biggest highs and the lowest lows; he spoke at the Hay Literary Festival about his newest memoir and proved himself an exhaustible speaker and pseudo national treasure. Josh Wink’s banger Higher State of Consciousness and the anthemic piano house tune I Believe by Happy Clappers also find their way onto the compilation. To paraphrase David Spade, the American comedian, N-Trance called E’voke: they want credit for Runaway, which borrows so heavily from their anthem Set You Free as to notify the lawyers.

But the best song, musically and lyrically, of NOW 32 is by David McAlmont and Bernard Butler. Butler had left Suede after their second album and teamed up with McAlmont, a soul vocalist who had been in a band called Thieves. Mike Hedges, the producer of the Cure, the Beautiful South and one of the era’s finest albums – Everything Must Go by the Manic Street Preachers – helped the pair craft a kiss-off to their old bandmates: ‘You can’t help someone recover after what he did, so tell me am I looking better?’ The brilliance of the song comes from the modulation in the middle of the verse (from F-sharp to A-sharp), but the most magnificent moment comes for the final wordless chorus (‘yeeeeees!’) which goes into the key of B (modulating from the initial home key to its subdominant, or using F-sharp as the dominant chord of the key of B: was it in B all along??).

What a shame Yes was not as epochal a hit as Country House.

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