Much has been made of the twentieth anniversary of Britpop over the last few years, but to our minds the mid-1990s was one of the most overrated periods of British music. Yes, there were great albums and it was the last time that guitar bands dominated the British charts, but there wasn’t much coherence or ethos behind Britpop aside from a broad and shallow ‘60s pop revivalism, sourced from Kinks singles and Beatles albums. Despite lasting roughly until late 1997, all of the genuinely good bands associated with this era were established by the end of 1994 (Suede, Pulp, Supergrass, The Charlatans, Boo Radleys). With the exceptions of strung-out, heroin-chic Wire devotees Elastica and the loveable eccentricity of Space, all the Britpop bands who followed from that point were either chancers or plodders. Menswear, Northern Uproar, Shed Seven, Cast, Rialto and whole host of others simply would not have secured a record contract in any other time in pop history.
Furthermore, its legacy has been corrosive. The ‘proper lads with proper tunes’ paradigm that gave us Courteeners, The Enemy, The Pigeon Detectives and (*shudders*) The Twang in the mid-‘00s followed directly from the post-Morning Glory years when British rock became horribly conformist and homogenised. Think Ocean Colour Scene, basically. Nothing in 1996 moved without Noel Gallagher’s approval. Radiohead, Spiritualized and Super Furry Animals helped to break the deadlock in late 1997 with terrific albums characterised by sonic experimentation, along with bands like The Verve (Urban Hymns) and Primal Scream (Vanishing Point) that both dated from before Britpop but were always too inventive to be bracketed along with it. It wasn’t a golden age, in short, and in many ways, signified a step backwards in the development of British guitar music.
So apologies for the history lesson, but it is important to place Blur’s third album Parklife within its correct context: that of the movement with which it’s popularly associated. Released in April 1994, Parklife is a wonderful record that encapsulates its time but also transcends it. It served as something of an accompaniment piece to the previous year’s Modern Life Is Rubbish, an album that the band’s leader Damon Albarn conceived of as a British retaliation to American-born grunge that was dominating both sides of the Atlantic in 1992. But if Modern Life… was a kind of musical holding pattern, Parklife went on the offensive. Full of the same colourful and cutting social observation, through the medium of Albarn’s ‘character’ songs on one occasion (the suburban Reggie Perrin tale of ‘Tracy Jacks’), Parklife clothed its message in slightly more upbeat attire this time around – triumphant, and ever so slightly triumphalist.
Opener ‘Girls & Boys’ is an irrepressible celebration of a song disguising an inner, tongue-in-cheek satire, misunderstood in the same kind of way as ‘Born In The U.S.A.’, and catapulted Blur back into the Top Five when released as Parklife’s lead single. The Phil Daniels spoken-word part and boisterous terrace chant of the title track is well known, scooping the BRIT Award for Best Song and Best Video in 1995. The spidery ‘London Loves’ and the daft punk [yes, I did just do that] of ‘Jubilee’ are other up-tempo highlights. But there are an abundance of melancholic moments on Parklife, steeped in grand British pop traditions. ‘Badhead’ and ‘End Of A Century’ showed that Blur were capable of show-stopping grandeur mixed with a typically British restraint. The Bond-theme strings of ‘To The End’ are pure starry-eyed romanticism, a consistently underrated moment in Blur’s catalogue. But best of all is the genuinely moving ‘This Is A Low’, up there with ‘Waterloo Sunset’ as an evocation of washed-out suburbia framed by references to that most British of institutions, the shipping forecast.
READ MORE: ‘From Worst To Best’ – Blur’s singles
It was a fine moment, and made Blur totally ubiquitous for a time, but it wasn’t to last. Modern Life… triggered Britpop, Parklife personified it, and 1995’s The Great Escape trashed it. Even more cartoonish and gaudy than Parklife, it came to symbolise everything that made Britpop stagnate so quickly. There were too many character songs, as if Albarn was incapable of coming to terms with his own personal issues, and the music was tepid, full of undeserved bombast with only a few exceptions. 1997’s Blur was a violent reaction against their own media image, in order to satisfy the artistic needs of the resolutely left-field Graham Coxon, and everything they did subsequently can be interpreted as Blur trying to come to terms with their own identity.
READ MORE: Blur – The Magic Whip album review
But regardless of the fascinating journeys they went on next, Parklife will always be their most fondly remembered work by the public at large, a tremendously accessible record touching on some of the finest traditions of British pop (psychedelia, punk, synth pop, even music hall) and channelling them into something proud and irrepressibly fun. Along with Oasis’ Definitely Maybe and Pulp’s twin masterpieces His ‘N’ Hers and Different Class, it is one of this period’s crowning musical achievements, going quadruple platinum and making Blur a household name.
Parklife was the infectious soundtrack to the summer of 1994, an uplifting time for British youth and its culture that suddenly gatecrashed the mainstream. Only a year later, Jarvis Cocker would be satirising Britpop with ‘Common People’ (just like ‘Girls & Boys’, surely a contender for most misunderstood song of all time) and the scene was becoming a caricature even at its commercial peak. So regard Parklife as a snapshot in time, never to be repeated, and enjoy it for what it is.
Listen to the 2012 special edition of Parklife here via Spotify, and tell us what you think below!
Tags: 20 years old, 20th anniversary, Alex James, Blur, Britpop, classic 90s, classic album, Damon Albarn, Dave Rowntree, Ed Biggs, Graham Coxon, Parklife
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