The meaning: “A lot of people’s lives was fairly muddied by heroin”
A little over a decade later, Coxon would note that “Damon’s songs at this point were revealing more to me than him”. Albarn, however, was reluctant to offer any explanations for his lyrics, waiting until he was a safe distance from the 90s before speaking openly about the meaning behind Beetlebum, and how the song had been influenced by his experience with heroin during this period. (“I thought everyone did [know],” he told The Guardian in 2012. “I thought everyone was just being really nice, and not making too much of a deal of it.”)
Attempting to parse the song’s lyrics, fans noted that, its nod to The Beatles aside, Albarn had lifted Beetlebum’s title from “Beetlebaum”, the name of a horse in comedian Spike Jones’ parody of the William Tell Overture, released as a single in 1948. But that did little to clarify lines such as “She’ll suck your thumb/She’ll make you come/’Cause she’s your gun/Now what you done/Beetlebum?”, which Albarn would describe as an attempt to capture an emotion that was both “sleepy” and “sexy”. In time, fans would come to associate the slang phase “chasing the beetle” with the song, using it to describe a way of ingesting opium by smoking it.
Pressed on Beetlebum’s meaning in the No Distance Left To Run documentary, Albarn admitted, “Well, that whole period of a lot of people’s lives was fairly muddied by heroin – for a lot of people. And it’s sort of, it’s in that place. And a lot of stuff was at that time.” To Q magazine, he would elaborate: “For me, it was incredibly creative. It freed me up… I somehow managed to break out of something with my voice. I can only say heroin was incredibly productive for me.”
The release: “We put some sort of spiritual distance between ourselves and the old whoopsie-daisy”
Albarn’s creative experimentation may have taken place in private, but in public it had become clear that Blur were reaching a whole new peak as a band. Released on 20 January 1997, as the lead single from their self-titled fifth album, Beetlebum was instantly received as one of the best Blur songs, debuting at No.1 in the UK and helping their acceptance in the US – a hitherto slow process eventually consolidated by Beetlebum’s follow-up single, Song 2, and reviews such as Rolling Stone magazine’s four-star critique of the Blur album, in which Beetlebum was singled out as “terrific” and “a rare Beatles tribute in that it remembers to include the Fab Four’s sex appeal”.
“I guess we put some sort of spiritual distance between ourselves and the old whoopsie-daisy, lah-di-dah, gor blimey,” Alex James later reflected of Blur’s surprise move into new musical terrain. And it was songs such as Beetlebum that paved the way for the bold art-rock of their 13 album. “It was a sort of new cycle after that,” James added. “Blur was, ‘When did those guys grow balls?’”