Parklife (1994) from Blur is the album that essentially sparked a whole new musical genre, and beyond that a cultural movement, that of, Britpop. Yes, to any fellow millennial, I do feel a tragic need to non-assumingly define Britpop to our proceeding, autotune generation (Maybe that’s a bit harsh, maybe not).
Mind you, for all my generational bashing, Parklife was an album that was so satirical of British ’90s culture and yet simultaneously, so influential and impacting upon it, that it’s best appreciated by a little reminiscing upon a strange and garish decade.
Britpop was the ’90s answer to that romantic, unapologetically British spirit of the swinging ’60s whereby bands like The Beatles, The Who, The Rolling Stones, and The Kinks, to name but a few, flaunted a certain, snazzy kind of national narcissism.
The ’90s saw a return of Britannia the cool, a formidable backlash against the American grunge invasion, Nirvana et al, a reformulating of British musical identity. Damon Albarn even stated directly: “I’m getting rid of grunge“. Blur, along with Oasis, Pulp and Suede, were dubbed the ‘big four’ Britpop bands, but there were many others of the same ilk – Supergrass, The Verve, and Elastica, to mention a few.
The British press galvanised the Britpop phenomenon considerably, racking up column inches into an accumulative media marathon, relentlessly fawning over the bitter Blur and Oasis rivalry, Northerners vs. Southerners, selling that central ‘Battle of Britpop’ with plenty of hyperbole, as if it was literally, territorial combat.
The ’90s art, fashion and political scenes all got in on it. It is no coincidence that Damien Hirst directed the music video for Blur’s “Country House“, nor that when New Labour got into power in 1997, photos of Noel Gallagher and his wife, Meg Matthews, in deep conversation with Tony Blair, were all over the media. Britpop took a nation by storm.
Pulp’s song, “Cocaine Socialism“, tells of Jarvis Cocker’s surprise at being invited to coked-up parties at Whitehall and his bemusement at politicians contrived, vote-baiting allegiances with pop stars. Britpop went beyond itself, sometimes transcending into genuine artistic ingenuity, sometimes descending into a hedonistic farce of one big ’90s’ cultural aesthetic.
While the early material of all the quintessential Britpop bands had a trial and error, hit or miss incoherency to it, it was Damon Albarn’s men who landed that first, definitive, prototypal classic with Parklife.
Parklife begins with “Girls And Boys“, with its Duran Duran styled bass, disco drum and keyboard jangling making for an eminently catchy opener.
It is a tongue (or whatever your preferred vice) in cheek ‘celebration’ of that infamously loutish holidaying phenomenon, generically referred to by tourist boards as 18-30 holidays in lieu of a far more accurately sordid label, whereby, say, Greece’s Zante and Spain’s Benidorm, are tragically one and the same place, England in the sun.
A chav, an STD, and a bemusement at the locals not speaking enough English, walk into an expat’s bar and the punchline is “Girls And Boys”. The song’s inspiration came from Damon’s trip to Magaluf with then-girlfriend Justine Frischmann (Yes, that’s the lead singer from Elastica, the one he ‘stole’, according to Suede fans, from Brett Anderson), whereupon Albarn noticed “really tacky Essex nightclubs”.
The opener’s distinctly nihilistic feel sets the tone for an album that seems to both revel and deplore in that niche ’90s perverse patriotic revival. Immediately after “Girls And Boys” comes “Tracey Jacks“, a ‘character’ song about a civil servant’s disgruntlement at suburban life, this is a ’90s malaise that transcends class.
We then have “End Of The Century”, which is ‘nothing special,’ and that thematic cynicism is in full and fine flow.
The millennium was approaching, and Albarn’s lyrics bemoaned society’s anticipation of it: “He gives her a cuddle, Glowing in a huddle, Good night TV“. He could only expect a future full of tacky, techy commodification, instead of the romantic, organic candlelight of the past.
That commentary on banal, unsentimental modernisation and globalisation is continued later in “London Loves“: “Coughing tar in his Japanese motor … So sleep together, Before today is sold forever”.
The title track, “Parklife“, is one of the most, if not, the most prolific Britpop song, as much well known for its raucous, comedic, music video. It won both the ‘British Single of the Year’ and ‘British Video of the Year’ at the 1995 BRIT Awards. Actor Phil Daniels cocky, cockney narration grates in the memory, in a good way.
Albarn has cited Martin Amis’s novel London Fields as a major influence on the album’s concept, and the song echoes a similar kind of psychogeography and philosophical unease. Just how Amis’s character Sam states in London Fields: “This is London and there are no fields”, there is this funny sense of urban entrapment of rural ideal, a bittersweet ethos to the title track and to its mantra, the glibly sung ‘parklife’ interspersing Phil Daniels verses.
“This Is A Low” is Parklife’s best song. It is by far the most technically impressive track on the album, a complex, looping composition, melancholic, yet soothing. There is a rightful consensus among fans and critics alike that this is the standout track, the album’s magnus opus. You have to love the strangeness of its subject, a poetic reimagining of a shipping forecast.
Among Parklife’s other challengers to accolade of the best track is the orchestral, love song “To The End“, with its accompanying eerie French vocals (courtesy of Lætitia Sadier from Stereolab), while “Badhead” is an underrated gem.
Parklife was truly a classic. There was such an eclectic array of influence – Synth, punk, pop, disco, psychedelia. Blur’s alchemy was to transmute that into a new gold standard in music, a new sound, a new kind of pop.
This album was like a Union Jack flag on a field at a festival, pinned down precariously by pints of lager, its white stripes lined with coke, its fabric sullied by young love in the ’90s. But now as new music takes centre stage and that flag has sailed off into the distance, we must always remember Parklife is up there with some of finest albums of the past few decades.
You can buy Blur’s Parklife on iTunes here, and stream it below.
Words by Joseph Jacobs
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