Coming to America | Music Review | Chicago Reader

Coming to America 


Riviera, March 15

By J.R. Jones

In his fanciful autobiography, X-Ray, Kinks front man Ray Davies casts himself as a bitter old codger holed up in his north London recording studio, still fuming over his band's troubled relationship with the United States. "I had started playing music because it was the only way I could express myself as an individual," he tells the fictional young man interviewing him, "and yet America, the country that had always inspired that sense of freedom inside me, was somehow one of the most repressed, backward-thinking places I had ever been to....Beneath the ice-cream-parlour image, there was a festering pool of garbage. When waitresses in restaurants said 'Have a good day,' I somehow felt that they were either administering the last rites or warning me that if I fucked up, I would get shot."

Blur is the latest of Davies's artistic progeny to chronicle English life and as a result find itself ignored over here: the Small Faces, the Jam, the Smiths, Madness, and XTC all topped the charts in Great Britain but never rose above cult status in the U.S. And like Davies, Blur has actively lashed out at us, mocking us in song ("Miss America," "Magic America") and spouting off about our vacuous mall culture in interviews with the British music press. When Blur swept the Brit Awards in 1995, winning the prizes for best single, best album, best video, and best act, singer Damon Albarn couldn't resist the urge to crow from the podium, "Wake up, America!"

Yet on Saturday Albarn and company were back again, trying to win us over. "Pete Townshend said that the reason people go and play in America is that they're the only ones who can speak English," the Jam's Paul Weller told Creem in 1981. "But that's rubbish: the reason bands go there is just for money." That may be part of it, but for British demigods like Blur, making it in America is also a matter of bulldog pride. After all, we invented rock 'n' roll, and British pop stars can't count themselves among the immortals until they beat us at our own game. It wasn't until the Beatles swept America that they could smoke dope in the men's room at Buckingham Palace. Now that Blur has played Wembley Stadium, kissing up to us from the stage of the Riviera must be a bit degrading, but as Morrissey once sang, "I want the one I can't have / And it's driving me mad."

On its new record, too, Blur's gone back to the drawing board in an effort to crack the U.S. market. Blur is a heavy, lo-fi recording that takes inspiration from American indie rock. "The way people like Pavement and Beck record is all about freedom," Albarn says in a press release, "and I know that our demos sound like that. I wanted our records to sound like that too." He's obviously had quite a change of heart since his notorious interview in Melody Maker three and a half years ago, when he declared British culture under siege and condemned Nirvana and all that had followed in its wake. "Take a look at the video for 'Smells Like Teen Spirit,'" he complained. "Band looking handsome playing in slight slo-mo, beautifully lit and filmed on 35mm, gorgeous cheerleaders with 'Anarchy' on pristine white tops, their breasts bouncing about, all these extremely photogenic kids moshing. Come on, are you seriously gonna argue that that's radical?...What really annoys me is that they're just another band talking about the same old thing. For the last 20 fucking years there've been these bands, these perennial fuck-ups who sing about frustration, isolation, and decide that they'll destroy themselves. It's so fucking contrived."

At the time Blur was still smarting from its first tour of America, in the summer of 1992. Like so many English bands, it had quickly become a big fish in a small pond: after only one single, it was the object of gushing superlatives in the British music press (NME called it the "first great band of the 90s") and swooning gossip in teen magazines ("Blur are shaggable! No question about it!" declared Rage). Although the band was known for its rowdy stage shows, its modest album Leisure (1991) capitalized on the "baggy" trend, coupling dance-floor grooves with swirling, psychedelic textures and winning Blur more breathless hyperbole. Delusions of grandeur were inevitable. "I've always known I'm incredibly special," Albarn told Select. But by the time Blur embarked on the 1992 U.S. tour, the bubble had already burst: Suede had taken over as flavor of the month in England, and habitual drunkenness, according to Blur: The Illustrated Story, was turning Blur's stage show into a shambles.

In the U.S., Blur was signed to the EMI affiliate SBK, which insisted on breaking Leisure state by state. The tour was an endless grind of meet-and-greets at shopping malls, meals at fast-food joints, radio interviews with ignorant disc jockeys, and sloshed shows before crowds of bored grunge fans. Two months and 44 shows later, Blur returned home full of bile. "Americans are lobotomised, sanitised automatons," Albarn raged to Melody Maker. "Life for Americans exists within these huge sheds, and you can eat and buy your shoes, listen to music and buy your health insurance, almost go to the hospital in them." In direct response, the next album, Modern Life Is Rubbish (1993), was a cache of brilliant and defiantly British songs. Inspired mostly by the music-hall pop of the 60s Kinks, the new songs also paid tribute to Syd Barrett, David Bowie, and all the Anglocentric pop punk that had run aground in the U.S. during the 70s and 80s. For once, most of the British accolades were deserved: at the height of Seattle's marketability, Rubbish was one of the ballsiest left turns since London Calling.

If the British music journals' overblown response to Leisure demonstrates how foolishly insular their pop scene has become, then SBK's reaction to Modern Life Is Rubbish shows how little the American music industry has changed in 30 years. In the 60s the American label Decca initially rejected the Who's "My Generation" and "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere" because of the guitar feedback, and Atlantic demanded lyric changes in "Substitute" ("I look all white but my dad was black" became "I try walking forward but my feet walk back"). Three decades later SBK requested additional, less provincial material for Modern Life Is Rubbish and suggested that Blur rerecord the album with Nevermind producer Butch Vig. The band gave SBK "Chemical World," a Bowie-influenced tune with references to sugary tea and bus rides out to the country, and ignored the request for trendier production. In a Billboard article that year, Albarn said the band had to decide "whether we wanted to be music or a commodity. We chose the former."

Modern Life Is Rubbish made heroes of Blur in the UK and inaugurated the wave of Britpop that brought us Oasis and Pulp, but by the end of 1995 the record had sold only 30,000 copies here. Parklife (1994), a sleeker but less consistent product in the same vein, entered the British charts at number one, and the British music magazines proclaimed it the greatest thing since Fred Perry shirts. Stateside, it won a featured review in Rolling Stone, and the single "Girls & Boys," an unashamed homage to 80s synth pop, was picked up by MTV and alternative radio. The Great Escape (1995) was another instant winner in the UK, and the band's much-hyped feud with Oasis obscured the fact that Blur had already enjoyed a longer shelf life in Britain than most of its "baggy" contemporaries. But Albarn's ironic vignettes of English life were wearing thin, and by December of that year he was telling The Big Issue, "Britpop as an idea is no longer valid. It's no longer challenging."

More recently guitarist Graham Coxon has been talking up Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr, and with the steady climb of the band's U.S. sales figures, Albarn has become more and more congenial toward the Great Satan. "I do try to keep on hating America," he told Melody Maker in August 1995, "but I have to say it's getting harder and harder." If this pandering has a historical precedent, it's the Kinks' abrupt shift to hard rock in the late 70s. After years of Anglocentric concept albums and failed rock theater, Ray Davies caved in to brother Dave's metal mania, and with Low Budget, One for the Road, and Give the People What They Want, the band was finally embraced by American rock fans. Since then they've become a clangorous embarrassment, while their distinctly English albums are hailed as classics.

Blur reportedly got its drinking under control after recording Modern Life Is Rubbish, and the seasoned unit that played the Riviera on Saturday was anything but a shambles. It was, however, a far cry from the brash, humorous young band that roared through town two and a half years ago in support of Parklife. The players served the eager crowd more than a dozen familiar tunes with a bored professionalism; only drummer Dave Rowntree seemed to be all there. The rave-ups were more frantic than passionate, the ballads leaden. In 1994 Albarn was a ball of fire, goading the crowd, scaling the speaker stacks. This time around he seemed, to use his own word, an automaton. He stared vacantly into the audience, seldom addressing them or looking at his band mates; on the up-tempo songs he danced around or leapt up onto his keyboard as dutifully as an organ grinder's monkey. When Blur left the stage after more than an hour, the crowd had slipped into autopilot as well; the ovation was so listless that it threatened to die down before the band made it back for an encore.

Only when debuting material from Blur did they seem to be enjoying themselves. Live, the new songs blended in easily with earlier ones: "Beetlebum," "M.O.R.," and "Song 2" could all be irresistibly catchy outtakes from Parklife. The lovely "Look Inside America" found Albarn strumming an acoustic guitar, sketching a miserable portrait of himself on tour. He wakes up after a show, drinks a Pepsi to revive himself. He can't remember the performance, or how he got such a nasty bruise on his neck, but he takes comfort in his paycheck. "Look inside America," he sings, "she's all right, she's all right." It's a sadder, more ambiguous and decidedly more honest assessment than anything he's offered to date: the boys of Blur may yet conquer the States, but they'll hate themselves in the morning.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Damon Albarn photo by Jim Alexander Newberry.

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