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Country House: The Full Story Behind The Blur Song That Beat Oasis To No.1
In Depth

Country House: The Full Story Behind The Blur Song That Beat Oasis To No.1

Challenging Oasis for the No.1 spot, Blur took Country House to the top of the charts and emerged victorious in the “Battle Of Britpop”.


When Blur picked Country House to be the lead single from their fourth album, The Great Escape, it was because of the overwhelmingly positive reaction the song received during its live debut, at the band’s landmark gig at London’s Mile End Stadium, in June 1995. Less than two months later, however, it would be at the centre of the “Battle Of Britpop”, a media-fuelled skirmish between Blur and Oasis which escalated into a faux class war which left Blur feeling ambivalent about their rise to fame.

This is the story of how Country House became Blur’s first No.1 single – and what it meant for the group to have won the “Battle Of Britpop”.

Listen to the best of Blur here.

The backstory: “All the rules had changed”

Over the course of their previous two albums, 1993’s Modern Life Is Rubbish and the following year’s Parklife, Blur had first defined the parameters of what would become tagged “Britpop”, and then, when Parklife debuted at the top of the UK album charts, proved it could speak to a nation seeking a homegrown alternative to the grunge music coming out of the US. When Blur made history at the 1995 BRIT Awards, becoming the first group ever to win in four categories – Best British Album, Best British Single, Best British Video and Best British Group – they were riding high on a wave of fame that took even them by surprise. “All the rules had changed, and we were no longer making the rules,” drummer Dave Rowntree said in the Blur documentary No Distance Left To Run. “And that’s quite an unnerving feeling.”

Chasing right behind them was the band crowned that year’s Best British Newcomer, a group of Mancunians naming themselves Oasis, who were led by two volatile brothers for whom the rules meant little. But though frontman Damon Albarn had said Blur’s Best British Group award “should have been shared with Oasis”, events would conspire to obliterate any camaraderie the two groups may have enjoyed. As the year rolled on, Blur and Oasis engaged in a head-to-head battle the likes of which the British music industry hadn’t seen in decades.

The recording: “I was going through hell at the time”

Under pressure to keep momentum going, Blur had already begun recording Parklife’s follow-up at the start of the year, and they continued to work on the album in the middle of an increasingly tempestuous media storm, heading straight back into the studio the day after taking their BRIT Awards home. “We were quite doolally and hungover quite a lot,” guitarist Graham Coxon would recall of the period. “And at times I was quite unable to function.”

“Having one big smash-hit record that made us household names, the next record had to be great,” bassist Alex James later said, while also acknowledging that Albarn was under particular strain: “I still think Damon suffered most from being famous, because he was the most famous – crowds of people outside his house. Paparazzi chasing him down the road with his bag of carrots and his loaf of bread.”

“I think it’s been well documented that I was going through hell at the time,” Albarn himself confirmed. “I had panic attacks.”

This uneasy reaction to fame would seep into much of the group’s new material, with Albarn’s trademark satirical lyrics taking on a caustic edge in songs such as Charmless Man and Dan Abnormal. A new tune that referenced “knocking back Prozac” while also including a bridge in which Albarn, amid layers of vocal harmonies, confessed to being “so sad, I don’t know why” also took inspiration from the life of David Balfe, founder of Food Records, the indie label which had signed Blur for their debut album, Leisure. Selling the label to EMI on the cusp of Parklife’s release, Balfe had enabled himself to retire to the Bedfordshire countryside, where be bought what he later described as “a farmhouse that has acquired pretensions over the years”.

Albarn’s tale of a “City dweller/Successful fella” who’d become “a professional cynic” whose “heart’s not in it” was set to a bouncing rhythm and a radio-ready melody, and given bombastic horns that saw the whole thing out. “I always thought the ‘Blow me out/I am so sad/I don’t know why’ at the end is a great bit of songwriting,” Blur’s producer, Stephen Street (The Smiths, Morrissey) later said of what became Country House.

“Stephen Street was hugely proud of it because in its own way, it’s very sophisticated,” said Mike Smith, Blur’s A&R rep at Food’s new parent label. “There’s four different melodies in there. Lyrically, it’s great. As witty as any [Albarn had] come up with.”

Immortalised in Albarn’s lyrics for Country House, Balfe remembered the time he realised Blur had written a song about him: “I was burned out,” he told The Guardian over a decade later. “One day I popped back into the office in London and saw a demo for ‘Blur – Country House’. I jokingly said, ‘Oh, is that about me?’… It was funny enough having it written about me in the first place, but then it became one of the biggest songs of the era because of the chart battle with Oasis’ Roll With It. It’s got a place in rock history. I’m quite proud of it, and flattered.”

The “Battle Of Britpop”: “There was something weird about this naked ambition in his eyes”

Blur had originally settled on releasing an entirely different song, The Great Escape’s opening track, Stereotypes, as the lead single from their new album, but when they debuted Country House at Mile End Stadium, on 17 June, along with two other new songs – including Stereotypes – the crowd’s reaction convinced them to reconsider. What Alex James later described in his memoir, Bit Of A Blur, as “a baroque oompah song” which “was just a joke” about the band’s former label boss had the crowd “bouncing as one, waving their arms in time and smiling as they squashed each other senseless”.

“Mile End is effectively the precursor to Great Escape,” Mike Smith told music critic Stuart Maconie, for the Blur biography 3862 Days. “It was memorable as the only time Alex did [Parklife album track] Far Out on stage and as the first time they’d played Country House. The entire audience went mad for it and that set The Great Escape up as an album.”

With The Great Escape due for release in September, Country House was scheduled to kick off the promotional campaign at the end of August. A line of back-room communication between the Blur and Oasis camps had previously been established to ensure the groups gave each other a wide enough berth that either could release something without competition, but when Blur’s team found out that Oasis had planned to issue their new single, Roll With It, a lot earlier than anticipated – just a week before Country House – Blur had to decide whether to risk being overshadowed by their chart rivals, or to move their release date forward and directly compete with Oasis for the No.1 spot.

“The thing is, a No.1 record tends to have a better-than-evens chance of being one the week after, just because it’s on Top Of The Pops, and all the kids hear it,” Food Records co-founder Andy Ross told John Harris for his Britpop history The Last Party. Having moved with Food to Parlophone, Ross continued to oversee Blur’s affairs, and recounted the dilemma they faced: “Had Oasis released their single before Blur, they would have had a No.1, and by that logic, they would have had an extremely good chance of staying there the next week, even if Blur had a good crack at it.”

Oasis’ previous single, Some Might Say, had already taken them to the top of the charts, and Albarn was still bothered by the way frontman Liam Gallagher had greeted him at the celebration party, held at the Mars Bar club in Soho, London. “As I went in Liam was at the door and he came over to me, right in my face, going, ‘Number fucking one, mate.’ Good luck to them, you know, they’d got the first No.1, but there was something weird about this naked ambition in his eyes.”

What had began as a relatively harmless rivalry, which also had Gallagher calling Blur’s output “Chas And Dave chimney-sweeping music”, had begun to intensify. “Noel [Gallagher, Oasis guitarist and Liam’s brother] chose to kind of take the piss out of me constantly,” Albarn reflected in No Distance Left To Run. “And it’s OK. But it really hurt me at the time, and I felt very, very vulnerable.” At a meeting at the Westmoreland Arms pub, near Food Records’ office, he decided that the only option was to go for broke and release Country House on the same day as Roll With It. “Oasis, in many ways, were kind of like the bullies that I had to put up with at school anyway,” Albarn later said of his decision. “They gave the impression that they’d been in a lot more fights than you, and I suppose it just came down to that.”

The video: “The product of an ironic mindset, but… it was all too easy to take it at face value”

To promote Country House, Blur hired Damien Hirst, then spearheading the Young British Artists movement of the mid-90s, to film a promo video which featured actor Keith Allen in the David Balfe-inspired role, and the band hamming it up on an oversized board game named Escape From The Rat Race. Nods to Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody video were thrown in as a send-up of Blur’s own vocal harmonies, but a debt to Benny Hill’s 70s humour – what Alex James called “the language of breasts and bottoms” – stuck more firmly in the public consciousness.

“Most of Blur’s videos in the 90s tried to make a statement, to offer a markedly different atmosphere from the majority of promos that were popping up on MTV at the time,” guitarist Graham Coxon wrote in his memoir, Verse, Chorus, Monster! “Country House… was the product of an ironic mindset, but already things had changed so much – both within the band and in the wider culture – that it was all too easy to take it at face value.” As Damon Albarn and Alex James cavorted with Page 3 models including Jo Guest, Coxon reluctantly agreed to drive a Benny Hill-like milk float around the set.

The release: “I just wanted a really decent No.1 without the BS”

In the era of the multi-format single release, on 14 August 1995 Blur issued Country House on two different CDs, a 7” and a cassette, across which were spread B-sides including a brand-new song, One Born Every Minute, plus performances from the summer’s Mile End gig and a French-language re-recording of Parklife’s To The End, with Parisian icon Françoise Hardy. As the release date drew near, the press ran increasingly hysterical stories about the Blur-Oasis feud, fanning the flames of what had been dubbed the “Battle Of Britpop”. But as one NME cover pitted Albarn and Liam Gallagher against each other in the “British Heavyweight Championship”, Alex James asserted that the moment was something both groups should have been allowed to call a victory: “I think they’re a great band and that this is the defining Britpop moment,” he said at the time, adding: “It’s not Blur versus Oasis, it’s Blur and Oasis against the world.”

Alan McGee, head of Oasis’ label, Creation, observed no such magnanimity from the Oasis camp, particularly after Albarn playfully likened Roll With It to Status Quo’s boogie rock during an appearance on BBC Radio 1’s prime-time breakfast show. “Oasis, being Oasis, decided to hate them. And Blur, being Blur, thought it was a game, but Oasis actually fucking hated them at the time!,” McGee later revealed. “To be fair, I think [Albarn] was quite unaware that Oasis were so serious about it.” As the animosity grew, a conflict between bands became reframed in the media as a stand-off between British social classes.

“Oasis were seen as genuine, rough-diamond examples of the working-class North, while Blur were cast as Southern, arty-farty, pretentious gits,” Coxon later wrote. Speaking in the No Distance Left To Run documentary, he elaborated: “The whole attention that was put on it… ‘Working-class Northerners and shandy-drinking Southerners battle it out for the No.1 slot.’ Do us a favour. I loved the idea of a No.1, but I just wanted a really decent No.1 without the BS.”

With the story leaping from the music press to the broadsheet papers and even onto prime-time TV news, most of Blur went on holiday in the week leading up Country House’s release. But as the group reconvened on the morning of Sunday, 26 August, ahead of that evening’s official charts announcement, Food Records boss Andy Ross arrived with news: “We had access to privileged information,” he later admitted. “I called the relevant number and a matter-of-fact voice – one of the two sales guys – said, ‘Blur No.1.’ And I thought, Well, that’s nice. So I got a bottle of champagne or something, and we went and had a game of football.”

The legacy: “Country House has everything that makes Blur fascinating”

“I don’t know if we were ever gonna catch Blur, but they effectively put us on the football pitch,” Alan McGee later said. “I felt like the guy who’s trying to get in the ring with the champion. They were the champions, and we wanted to be the champions and Damon brought us in the ring.”

Selling 270,000 copies to Roll With It’s 216,000, Country House made Blur the decisive victors in the “Battle Of Britpop”. However, at a celebratory party later that evening, the pressure of keeping up with not only their own work rate, but also the expectations of the media, began to show. “For my part, after a few glasses of bubbly I decided the whole thing was so unbearable that it was necessary to jump out of a window,” Coxon would write in his memoir. “I wasn’t actually going to jump; it just hit me in a rush that the circus that had been created around Blur was taking away my genuine joy of being in the band.”

When The Great Escape was released in September, that, too, went to No.1. Hailed as one of the best Blur albums of the era, its success ensured that the circus would continue to swirl around the group into the following year. Seeking to recapture something he felt he’d lost, Coxon would instigate a creative about-turn for Blur’s self-titled fifth album, making a definitive move away from anything that leaned towards the Britpop sound. Country House may have been their first No.1, but it wouldn’t be their last. Released as the Blur album’s lead single, Beetlebum would once again take the group to the top spot.

The mania surrounding Country House left the band feeling uneasy about their triumph. “It led to a lot of things a lot of people could’ve done without, and could’ve really screwed us up badly,” Damon Albarn once said. Over two decades on, Albarn and Noel Gallagher presented a united front when Albarn asked his former adversary to guest on We Got The Power, the closing song from Gorillaz’s 2017 album, Humanz. “In a sort of lighthearted way, I’d promised Noel he could be on this record,” Albarn said of the surprise collaboration. “He was always like, ‘I want to be on the next Gorillaz record,’ and I was like, ‘Sure.’ I thought it might be cute, the idea of us singing about the power to love each other.”

If there was no love lost between the pair during the mid-90s, the frenzied media coverage of the time also meant their became somewhat overlooked. With distance and cooler heads, Blur’s chart-topping single has since been appraised on its own terms. “Far from being a knocked-out knees-up, Country House is deceptively complex and completely bonkers,” The Guardian wrote of the song, over a decade and half on from its release. Praising the “Blow me out” vocal melodies and Graham Coxon’s “queasiest guitar solo… seemingly beamed in from Sonic Youth or Pavement”, the paper went on to say that what’s often seen as a Britpop-era classic was actually “totally at odds with what Britpop was supposed to be about by that point”.

“Country House has everything that made (and makes) Blur fascinating,” they concluded. “The common touch, the terrace chorus, the arched eyebrow, the weirdness, the art-school sound, the desire to annoy and to fit in and to lead the field, to be the outsider and the everyman, all at once… It’s the confidence and the contradictions that save it.”

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