The Drawn-Out Battle of the '90s Brit-Pop Superstars

CHRIS: Drew, as long as I’ve known you, we’ve argued. Argued politics, argued religion, but pursued one single topic with furor that overran all the rest. There’s been one thing that we are and will ever be in contention about, and that’s something that we both hold very sacred.

And as I’ve told you in countless verbal settings, without the rational distance that writing grants, I’ll tell you again: Blur is ten times the band that Oasis is. You rank among Brit-philes of the highest order, but your ability to discern the better band between these two leads to doubt about the accuracy of your critical taste.

Oasis hit stateside with one wildly popular pop hit, “Wonderwall,” which will be a part of ’90s nostalgia forever. On their side, Blur had the anthem “Song 2,” which forever will be remembered for its “woohoo!” chorus, an arena standard with an underlying irony: the song is notoriously a British parody of the times’ ubiquitous American grunge.

The difference between these bands’ ties to pop-culture history is fundamental to their difference as a band: whereas Oasis were plodding, incomprehensible lyrically but musically well-trained in writing hook-heavy guitar rock, Blur took a step back and refused to take on the high-mindedness that Oasis never quite seem able to convincingly pull off.

Look only to the album art of the seminal troika of Modern Life is Rubbish, The Great Escape, and Parklife, the band’s finest hour: we see the yellow Blur logo, curvy and European-looking, cast onto three different images: on Rubbish, a vintage propaganda drawing of a speeding train, on Parklife, a close-up of a speeding racetrack greyhound, on Escape, two friends on a boat and the legs of one jutting out in a hyperrealized image of fun.

Inside these albums were track after track of character sketches with discontented characters who ought to be living the good life, and we get the impression that Blur picks onto something that is uniquely British: they seize onto the working-class provincial traditions of the Kinks and Who, the story-telling that is capable in these forms.

In this creative context, the band sketches vivid musical portraits that aim to create a character and face of British rock. They prove themselves to be capable of anthem—the Parklife title track is a peerless statement of purpose, but manage to maintain a humor that gives more resilience to the weaker musical moments, whereas the minute an Oasis song isn’t a song as good as ”Don’t Look Back in Anger,” the high-mindedness and blatant subscription to guitar-rock cliché becomes brutally apparent.

DREW: First off, your cover-art argument is absurd—I don’t understand what importance you’re ascribing to those images, and Oasis used a cheeky Euro-looking logo more effectively than Blur ever did. Moreover, there’s the issue of whether or not cover art really means a damn thing, especially nowadays when a cover is expected to be bizarre and/or “artsy.”

But let’s avoid these impossible angles and focus on the real problem in what you’re saying: your claim of high-mindedness. I’m not sure exactly what you mean by that, but there’s no way that you can possibly believe that Blur’s art-pop pedigree schtick is less high-minded than Oasis’s “tough guys with a sneer” schtick.

I mean, for both of them, the schtick-ness is crucial, and though I’ll admit that Oasis seems to have forgotten that in recent years (frontman Liam Gallagher’s bar brawl in Italy was a low point), in those early days, Oasis was the reinvention of the rock band.

I’m not talking here as much about “Wonderwall”—which is ultimately a departure song in the same way “Song 2” is for Blur—as I am about their first effort, 1994’s Definitely Maybe. When Nigel Tufnel turned his amp up to 11, we laughed at him. When Noel Gallagher cranked his, he laughed at us, not because it was “just a little bit louder,” but because it was both a little louder and really freaking good.

The songs on Definitely Maybe aren’t perfect, the production is almost nonexistent, and the lyrics are obtuse to say the least. But the ability of that band to channel the heart, soul, and melodies of John and Paul, while never (ever) forgetting that “swagger” rhymes with Jagger, is something that no band in the fifteen years before them had ever been able to do so artfully.

More important, though, is that throughout the Oasis troika of Definitely Maybe, (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?, and Be Here Now, it is impossibly easy to forget that you’re listening to something planned and executed, rather than something organic.

On those later two albums, the effects and the overdubs are rich and fascinating, but never make you think that the band (mostly Noel) didn’t know when to stop, just that they didn’t want to.

The effect, even when heavy-handed, is glorious. With the Blur albums, there’s just too much a sense that the band members are all winking at each other from opposite sides of the studio. What tries to be charming and humorous ends up coming across as (to use the local vernacular) snarky.

CHRIS: But what comes off as glorious effect on Blur’s albums comes through the traipsing over generations of important British rock preceding them: you must remember that when a band so ostentatiously channels John and Paul’s heart and soul, or Jagger’s swagger, they are implicitly placing themselves among these influences, and as a result most bands don’t dare to reach back in such earnest.

Blur recognizes that the stylistic flow of ’90s rock is one that celebrates and explores the ironies of musical history—not surprising for a decade lit off by the perverse cheerleaders of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” The guitar-rock that Oasis so convincingly emulates frequently clung to a set of themes about pastoral English life, reflected in such songs as the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” or “Penny Lane,” and the Kink’s magnum opus The Village Green Preservation Society.

It is this tradition that Blur subverts in their music and artwork: their albums are sketches of British life, celebrating all of it, from Prozac-popping country house dwellers to rudely awakened pigeon-feeders, and for all of life’s pleasantry and dark side. This all runs conceptual loops around Oasis’s retreads of pieces about love, and it all occurs under a penumbra of sonic innovation—the range of styles the band touches on is incredible, incorporating the best parts of guitar-pop, two-tone ska, and the early shoegazing sound that characterized their debut, Leisure.

I don’t disagree that Oasis’ albums are well-produced, but better produced (or with a better music video) than “Coffee and TV”? When Blur wants to shoot for that sound, as on this stand-out, they succeed with flying colors. But, for the most part, this isn’t what they’re after—rather than accept themselves as heirs of British rock, they explore just what it means to be a British rocker, and even just to be British, and these level of inquiry and musical introspectiveness I just find completely absent in the pleasant but not ultimately intellectually engaging music of their Manchester peers.

DREW: Kukstis, tell me you’re kidding when you say that any band which channels a past master has to be compared to the original. That’s (to borrow from the Brits again) bollocks, and it’s bollocks of the most elitist kind.

Even when bands are much more explicit “redos” of classic groups than Oasis is—The Strokes, for example—that doesn’t mean that they’re poor because of their thieving. Sure, it’s not often a formula for success, but when it works—and you seem to admit it works for the Gallaghers and Co.—it works wonders, and has the all-too-thrilling effect of forcing the listener’s ear to reinvestigate the sounds that made the originals so fresh and gripping.

Revision and renormalization are legitimate parts of artistic production—the artistic discourse, if you like—and I don’t see how your meta-claim that Blur was both aware of and subverting the ironic ethos of ’90s grunge makes that band any more effective. Introspection doesn’t have to be overt; not everybody can (or should) be Thom Yorke, and just because “Song 2” is an ironic song about irony doesn’t mean that Blur is any more interested in analyzing its place in pop music history than Oasis. It also doesn’t mean they’re more suited to do so.

As for explicit subject material, I heartily reject the claim that Oasis is wallowing in British pastoralism—“She’s Electric,” “Married with Children,” and a handful of others fit the bill, but overwhelmingly the semi-cryptic lyrics of the Oasis canon point in the opposite direction: “Tonight, I’m a rock and roll star,” Liam sneers in the chorus of “Rock and Roll Star” (there’s a title Blur would never be as confidently arrogant to use), and there can be no confusing that level of grandeur with provincialism.

Concept and intellectualism can be great, but they don’t directly correlate with quality, and for what it’s worth, they’re a pretty recent addition to what rock and roll was originally all about.

Moreover, I think you’re going to have a lot of trouble finding good bands if love is a taboo lyrical topic—this is a pretty enduring one, and I don’t think it’s unfair for a band like Oasis whose self-admitted mission is to reinvent a genre for the modern era (and I mean era) to occasionally use a subject which was absolutely fundamental to that original genre’s ethos, and which determined a lot of the aural vocabulary still in play today.

Look, I like “Coffee and TV,” and I like a lot of Blur when it reaches for those heights, but fact is, they didn’t those heights that often, and they haven’t hit those heights in a long time. Of course, Oasis has made enough crap, especially recently, that I’ll admit they’re also pretty much done. Which is probably why we should both just drop this debate over two Manchester bands and agree that Oxford’s Radiohead is better than either.

CHRIS: Not to agree with your last word after dissenting for so long, but I think I find your final suggestion acceptable.

—Staff writer Christopher A. Kukstis can be reached at kukstis@fas.harvard.edu

—Columnist Drew C. Ashwood can be reached at ashwood@fas.harvard.edu