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‘The Great Escape’: How Blur Reacted To The Trappings Of Fame
In Depth

‘The Great Escape’: How Blur Reacted To The Trappings Of Fame

Released as Britpop mania swept the UK, Blur’s ‘The Great Escape’ album offered a snapshot of life in a media storm.

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Arguably the truest representation of Britpop in all its confusion, excess and bravado, Blur’s fourth album, The Great Escape, marked both a moment of triumph and a catalyst for change for a group that, arguably, never wanted to be where they found themselves in 1995. The third release in their “Life Trilogy”, following 1993’s Modern Life Is Rubbish and the following year’s career-making breakthrough, Parklife, The Great Escape was also originally meant to have the word “life” in its title, but, with time running out for them to choose a name, Blur stumped for one that said more about their own collective state of mind than it did anything else.

Listen to ‘The Great Escape’ here.

 

“Damon was trapped inside the most famous face in the country”

As a title, The Great Escape seemed fitting, coming from a band to whom fame had done unpleasant things. While Blur were recording the album, Parklife was still riding high in the UK Top 40, where it would spend an astounding 82 weeks in total, becoming a towering quadruple-platinum reminder of the expectations that were growing around them. In the wake of such success, they seemed to belong to the tabloids at a time when they were trying to cling on to themselves; the media glare, plus internal unrest over the kind of music they should make, brought pressure from both without and within as the group sought refuge in the studio through the first half of 1995.

“Damon [Albarn, frontman] was trapped inside the most famous face in the country and he couldn’t buy a bottle of beetroot juice without causing a sensation,” bassist Alex James reflected in his autobiography, Bit Of A Blur. “Graham [Coxon, guitarist] felt he’d gained the world and lost his soul, that the juggernaut of attainment had compromised his principles.”

Meanwhile, David Balfe, founder of Blur’s label, Food Records, had sold his company to EMI off the back of Parklife’s success, allowing him to retire far away from the hot box of London. Balfe’s new lifestyle inspired a song that would play a major part in The Great Escape – for both good and ill – while only further whipping up the media storm surrounding the group. Titled Country House, it was “a baroque oompah song about Balfe selling Food Ltd and running away to live in a big house in the country”, Alex James later noted. “But that was just a joke.”

“Everything escalated into a full-on frenzy”

Released as the lead single from The Great Escape, in August 1995, Country House met with an anticipation that far surpassed anything British pop had produced since, arguably, The Smiths. “It seemed like more than just another record,” Alex James would later reflect. “It felt the world was changing. The band’s influence had become so noteworthy that even the Labour Party had their eye on us.”

The British government weren’t the only ones keeping tabs on the group. In the months preceding Country House’s release, the music press had stoked a frenzied – and entirely manufactured – rivalry between Blur and a group of Mancunian newcomers led by a volatile pair of siblings whose own debut album had followed Parklife by a handful of months. Positioning themselves as a working-class alternative to Blur’s perceived middle-class roots, Oasis were all too eager to engage in the “Battle Of Britpop” as Country House’s release date collided with the release their own new single, Roll With It.

“Oasis kept rising to the bait, like dogs barking at cats,” Alex James later observed. “We seemed to be the main thing they talked about. The NME particularly liked to stir things up and antagonise them. They definitely wanted to see a fight… As the release date drew nearer, everything escalated to a full-on frenzy.”

“So much was made in the media of posh southern kids and rough working-class northerners,” Blur’s then publicist, Mike Smith, told NME years later. “It was ridiculous, as none of the Blur boys came from those places. It was more a clash between art-school traditions and Oasis’ classic British R&B.”

Things almost played out differently. The groups’ respective management teams had initially agreed to avoid going head-to-head on the same day, giving both bands’ songs the space they needed to make an impact. Aside from this, Blur had first considered releasing an entirely different song, called Stereotypes, as The Great Escape’s lead single. But once they’d debuted Country House live during a landmark summer gig at Mile End Stadium, in East London, the crowd response convinced them otherwise. Two thousand people were “bouncing as one, waving their arms in time and smiling as they squashed each other senseless”, James would recall. “By the last chorus, they were singing it. When that happens that means it’s a single.”

In the event, Blur won the “battle”, but at a cost. Bolstered by a Damien Hirst-directed promo video that had readers of Loaded, rather than NME, as its target – “It used the language of breasts and bottoms,” Alex James would concede – Country House, all frothy pop bombast and marching-band horns, gave Blur their first UK No.1 single (274,000 sales), leaving Oasis’ Roll With It at No.2 (216,000) in what was officially recognised as the best week for UK singles sales in a decade. But the feud, and the song at the centre of it, created a false opinion of the group as “lad culture” swept the UK. When The Great Escape itself followed, on 11 September 1995, it presented a far more complex picture of the group’s predicament – though any nuance risked being swamped by the media furore.

“It was hard to concentrate on the job in hand”

Where Parklife had offered character sketches (Tracy Jacks, the title track) and observations on herd mentality (Girls & Boys, Bank Holiday) which, taken together, created a witty but ultimately kindly critique of British society in the mid-90s – one whose vignettes were shot through with an all-in-it-together compassion – The Great Escape found strained relationships crumbling, its subjects living in isolation, detached – or pushed apart – from their loved ones and, ultimately, themselves.

Opening the album with piercing synth runs, angular new-wave guitar and a rubbery bass line, Stereotypes, the song originally pegged for release instead of Country House, seemed to drop in on the burned-out lovers who “might have made it” in Parklife’s To The End, only to find out that they hadn’t been so lucky after all. “She’s been feeling frisky since her husband said goodbye,” Albarn sings of his suburban divorcée, trading a pair of hopeful romantics who “collapsed in love” for a future of “wife-swapping”: “They’re on the lovers’ sofa, they’re on the patio/And when the fun is over, watch themselves on video.” Bookending the album is an altogether more wistful reflection on modern relationships, Yuko And Hiro, which follows an overworked couple who spend their time working for the same corporate entity while their life together drifts by without them.

If Country House had seen Albarn focus more tightly on Blur’s former inner circle, much of The Great Escape took an almost claustrophobic view of his band’s situation: though, on the face of it, these were songs sung about lifestyles that had little in common with those of a chart-topping pop group, they had an emotional resonance that chimed with four bandmates who’d begun to feel trapped by an insatiable media who followed their every move as if they were specimens under glass.

“During the making of The Great Escape there were people outside the studio, outside all our houses,” Alex James recalled. “The recording process was interrupted by TV appearances, awards shows and late nights. There were journalists in the studio control room, observing the band at work, photographers taking pictures of us recording our parts and picking our noses.”

Sessions at Maison Rouge and Townhouse Studios, in London, would often start late in the morning and continue until 10pm, after which Blur would either try to unwind in a pub or fulfil obligations to continue promoting their old record, which was still in the UK Top 10 over a year after its release. “Great Escape always felt like a strange album in the sense that they were still doing loads of publicity for Parklife,” producer Stephen Street told Blur biographer Stuart Maconie. “That album hadn’t died at all, and was still riding high… but Damon is so prolific that they wanted to get on. They were good sessions but you could feel the pressure beginning to tell. Imagine going off and winning four Brits and coming straight back into the studio the next morning… It was hard to forget Parklife and concentrate on the job in hand.”

“I felt completely out of control, in this really heart-thumping state”

Elaborating on the experience, Albarn would admit to Maconie that he’d begun having panic attacks. “Very frightening things,” he called them, adding, “Suddenly, for no reason, on the verge of everything I’d ever wanted to achieve, this was happening to me. I felt completely out of my control. I couldn’t sleep and I seemed to spend all my time in this really heart-thumping agitated state.”

On the song Dan Abnormal – its title an anagram of his own name – Albarn seems to be in conversation with himself, realising this isn’t necessarily the lifestyle he wanted to live. Here he is “Meanie Leanie”, expected to entertain bored punters; “He’ll imitate you, try to ape you,” Albarn sings, as if ventriloquising the thoughts of critics who felt he wasn’t willing to expose enough of himself in his observational songs.

However, merciless character sketches such as Charmless Man (with its knowing nod to The Smiths’ This Charming Man) and Entertain Me, while not presenting an Albarn fans might immediately recognise, seem to reflect the mindset of someone struggling with the costs of fame. “Other people break into a cold sweat/If you said that these are the best days of their lives,” he sings on Best Days, whose melancholy delivery belies the achievement hinted at in its title. Elsewhere, singing in an almost detached reverie on He Thought Of Cars, Albarn presents planes and automobiles as symbols of success, then undercuts such notions with a bruised admission of loneliness: “But there, there was no one, no one” to share the spoils with.

Numbed by circumstance, Albarn’s protagonists seem to be waiting for a quick win which will turn their lives around. “Lottery winner buys the moon,” he deadpans on He Thought Of Cars while swiping It Could Be You’s title direct from the tagline for the UK’s then recently launched National Lottery. For his part, Graham Coxon sought to fight his way out by attacking the songs with an array of effects pedals, as if attempting to destroy the foundations of Blur’s sound. “I was always trying to mess around and be noisy and more exploratory,” he told Record Collector magazine’s Jake Kennedy in 2012. “I was always trying to get some Pavement or Sonic Youth thing going on, using guitars that had brittle sounds, like on He Thought Of Cars.”

Further rebellion can be heard in the clattering drums, guitar slashes and bleepy synth stabs of Entertain Me which, cleaned up from an even more abrasive-sounding demo titled Bored Housewives, hints at the band’s frustration with the limitations of Britpop. This kind of sonic terrorism would make itself heard to career-changing (and, arguably, band-saving) effect on Blur’s self-titled 1997 album, while, in hindsight, the drum-machine backing and see-sawing electric organ of the song Fade Away throws up ideas that Albarn would more fully explore six years later, on Gorillaz’s debut album.

“Blur understand the geometry of the song better than anyone”

Offering an altogether different indication of the future, The Great Escape’s centrepiece, The Universal, pictures life in “the next century”, a time when global communication ensures “No one here is alone”. Once again alluding to jackpots that never arrive (“Every paper that you read says tomorrow’s your lucky day”), the song largely drops cynicism for a rare moment of hope – or a least a suggestion for healthier living amid a maelstrom of uncontrollable forces: “If the days, they seem to fall through you/Well, just let them go.”

Now regarded as one of the best Blur songs, The Universal was almost abandoned when group struggled to realise it in the studio. Originally built on a calypso rhythm, traces of which can still be felt in its slightly off-kilter time signature, “It was a tune and a half,” Alex James later recalled, “using Mozart-styled chord suspension and [Burt] Bacharach-flavour modulation, but we couldn’t get the arrangement quite right.” On the verge of giving up after two days of graft, “Damon hit upon the string figure that ultimately became the intro. After that, everything clicked into place at once.”

With its stylised nod to Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, The Universal’s promo clip sat in an art-rock tradition of paying homage to the controversial 1971 movie (David Bowie had drawn on it for various aspects of The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars) while also revealing that Blur’s conceptual scope was taking another leap. More internal crises would follow, but here was proof that Blur’s music was robust enough to outlast Britpop.

“An elaborate diary of a mad moment”

At the time of The Great Escape’s release, the press agreed. Giving the album an unprecedented score of 12 out of ten, Melody Maker declared that “Blur understand the geometry of the song, and the basic principle of pop, better than anyone today”, while NME felt the album was “so rammed with tunes, ideas, emotions, humour, tragedy, farce, and edgy beauty that it’s utterly beyond compare”. With “Cool Britannia” around the corner, The Observer received The Great Escape as “the most truthful mirror modern pop has yet held up to 90s Britain”.

For its creators, though, the album was, in Albarn’s estimation, “an elaborate diary of a mad moment”, capturing Blur’s reaction to the upending of their own lives. By the end of the decade, Coxon would find it the “most difficult” of the band’s albums to listen to, telling Stuart Maconie, “It’s so fucking doom-laden, it’s ridiculous… It’s super-super-mad.”

Albarn concurred. “It was a very odd, very dark and confused time,” he explained, suggesting that The Great Escape could only truly be understood from a safe distance: “I think in hindsight, when people realise it was not a happy period, the songs start to make sense.”

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