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.