Popular enters 1997 in a blur of good-to-great tracks.

White Town, “Your Woman”, 25 January 1997

I was pleased to have a “hey, I know this!” reaction when I played this, because the band and track names weren’t burned into my memory as they would have been for veterans of uk.music.alternative, the Usenet group its singer Jyoti Mishra frequented at the time (I used to investigate rec.music and alt.music, but I’m not sure if the local Usenet servers gave us uk.music—they were picky about newsgroups associated with specific countries other than Oz).* This reached number 2 in Australia, so its olde timey vibe travelled well; maybe it was its hint of the Imperial March. Listening to it now, I can hear its similarities with Space, but the sample and vibe also anticipate Moby’s Play, which would dominate the airwaves in a few Popular years’ time. Unlike some Popular commenters I wouldn’t stretch to a stratospheric mark for “Your Woman”, but I do like it. 6.

*One feature of Usenet was that posting a message to a news group pushed it out to all the news servers carrying that group, and ultimately to all the users downloading the latest messages of that group, which on home dial-up could involve a lot of time and expense. Quite a different model from the web, where users decide what links we will follow and roughly how much data we retrieve.

So when a moderator suggested in December 1992, after I had emailed him my annotated list for a survey of favourite albums of the year, that I post it to rec.arts.music itself, it seemed only polite to respond: “I don’t usually post things on the net as it’ll end up costing someone a lot of money, and seems a bit frivolous when it’s just my personal opinion (although surveys and general info etc such as yours are a different matter). But I’ll have a think about it and perhaps give it a try.”

Such diffidence! The web would change all that. But it explains why my archive of personal Usenet postings is so much thinner than my memories of it all.

Tori Amos, “Professional Widow (It’s Got To Be Big)”, 18 January 1997

Another track I was unsure I knew, but once again did; I imagine it got a fair amount of play on Australia’s JJJ at the time. “Hey Jupiter/Professional Widow” with the same Van Helden mix (radio edit) spent 29 weeks in our charts in 1996 and peaked at number 17; I’m not sure if it got re-released in its own right, but given that long run I’m guessing not.

It’s certainly a cut above the run-of-the-mill. I picked up Van Helden’s Killing Puritans a few years later and listened to it for a while, but it hasn’t been one for the ages. (I see that “Koochy” reached number 4 in the UK. Did people here know what the title meant? Was there any harrumphing in the press?) Van Helden’s greatest Popular moment is still a fair way off for me; I think I’ll be conservative here and give this a 6.

Blur, “Beetlebum”, 1 February 1997

I was totally absorbed by “Beetlebum” at the time; it seemed the best kind of sharp left turn, and a fine new direction. The album was a mixed bag, though; on some tracks it was a 180-degree turn back to some of the sounds of Leisure, on others it just fell flat. Nowadays the only tracks I have much time for are its singles and “Death of a Party”.

Popular commenters talked of the influence of Pavement on “Beetlebum”, but nobody was mentioning the influence of Reykjavik. True, there are other tracks on Blur where the influence is a bit more overt (or so it seemed to me), but the album always conjured up Iceland more for me than America, country stylin’s notwithstanding. An imagined Iceland, sparse, cold, glacial, punctuated by hot springs and volcanic eruptions, with occasional (woo-hoo!) Vikings. No doubt I felt that way because it was a point of note in reviews that the album was recorded in Reykjavik as well as London, which prompted speculation about how the place had influenced the sound. A bit like how Band on the Run is forever linked with Lagos.

“Beetlebum” still sounds good to me, and I think I’d give it the edge on “Song 2”, though as I always listen to them together I never have to choose. I like Albarn’s woozy vocals, I like Coxon’s riffs, I like the synths insinuating themselves into it at the two-minute mark, I like its echoes of raw Beatles, and I love the last two minutes. 9.

The discussion drifted towards a discussion of Blur’s members, with the question “Is it just a fact then that absolutely everyone, even Blur fans, hates Damon Albarn (and to a slightly lesser extent Alex and his bloody cheese)?”

“Hate” is an awfully strong word, and I tend to reserve it for far more disturbing figures than any you’ve mentioned. I may not like someone’s music—I may even hate some of it—but my own default assumption is that they made it in good faith. Occasionally, a random fact will challenge that assumption, but if I still enjoy the music even that will make it hard to hate them. It takes a perfect storm of disagreeable music and a disagreeable person to move me towards active dislike of a pop star.

I’ve been a Blur fan since Leisure, rate two of their albums as among my very favourites and the rest as good to very good, and on the whole have avoided most celebrity gossip about Albarn, Coxon, or the others, so I don’t have a strong sense of how they are as people; I’ve probably picked up most of what I do have from these Popular comments threads. I can see how Alex James’s UK media overexposure in recent years might be on the nose for some, but the cheese thing: really? People are down on the guy because he wanted to try something a world away from music, and had the money to do it? It’s not as if he abandoned the bass guitar forever. Even if he had, so what? (Though I must admit that this is hilarious: “I always liked to keep an eye on the cheese situation at large when I was on the move and for many years saw touring with the band merely as an excuse to travel the world tracking and eating obscure types of cheese.” On the other hand, I can hardly criticize when cheese is high on my own list of Good Reasons to Live in Britain and Europe. And who doesn’t love Britain’s most famous cheese fan?)

So no, I don’t hate Damon Albarn. I’m not rushing to pre-order Everyday Robots, but if the reviews are good I might end up buying it—although I haven’t bought Coxon’s solo albums apart from Happiness in Magazines, so who knows. Blur is one of those bands I love as a band, I guess, and I’m not that bothered by what its constituent parts end up doing individually. (See also: Suede.)

21 February 2014 · Music