Woo-hoo: Blur’s self-titled American breakthrough turns 25
"Look inside America, she's alright, she's alright / Sitting out the distance, but I'm not trying to make her mine"
On August 14, 1995 both Blur and Oasis released new singles. "Country House" and "Roll With It" were the first singles to their respective new albums, The Great Escape and (What's the Story) Morning Glory. The UK press dubbed it "The Battle of Britpop" and Blur won, with their single narrowly beating Oasis' to the top of the UK singles chart.
Blur may have won the battle, but Oasis won the war. The Great Escape felt like a bloated sequel to Parklife, the 1994 album that made Blur UK superstars. Oasis meanwhile made an album that appealed to audiences outside of Britain, including America where the album went to #4 and "Wonderwall" went Top 10 in March of 1996. While The Great Escape went to #1 in the UK, it fizzled out at #150 in the US. Extremely competitive Blur frontman Damon Albarn saw his band as superior to Oasis in every way, and this burned a hole in his gut like an ulcer.
Ironically, it was reportedly a grueling, endless 1992 tour of the US supporting their debut album Leisure -- where they played half-filled venues during a time that alternative radio stations had embraced Seattle -- that gave Albarn the idea to make an explicitly British-sounding album. That was 1993's Modern Life is Rubbish, the first of the "Life" trilogy that helped spark Britpop. But after The Great Escape and the sting of Oasis' success, Blur were burned out on fish n' chips and oompa music hall sounds as well. They needed a new direction.
Guitarist Graham Coxon was just plain burned-out. He felt creatively stifled on The Great Escape and, after hitting a low with his alcoholism, quit drinking in 1996. Saying he was in a "mid-pop-life crisis," Coxon had also gotten into American indie rock -- Pavement and Sonic Youth -- and wanted to bring some spontaneity and grit back to Blur if he was going to continue in the band. He wrote a long letter to Albarn, who he had barely seen in months, expressing his grievances and desires to, as he said in 2010 documentary No Distance Left to Run, "make music that scares people again."
The result was Blur's self-titled fifth album, released February 10 in the UK and a month later in the US. The band continued to work with producer Stephen Street, who had worked on all the records to that point, but they stripped back the gloss, left edges unfinished, and got loud. "We've taken out the production elements that might be construed as sophisticated and we've made the music more primal," Coxon told Q Magazine's David Cavenagh in a cover story at the time.
Likewise, Albarn stopped writing about fictional characters and started writing about himself, and Blur features his most personal lyrics to date, including songs about the dark side of the popstar life ("The Death of a Party") and his dalliances with heroin ("Beetlebum," "Strange News From Another Star"). It's a Blur album with dirt under its fingernails.
The album also finally gave them a U.S. hit with "Song 2," aka the "Woo-hoo" song, a punky number with a big riff and massive hook. While the song peaked at #55 on the Billboard Hot 100, it was a Top 10 Modern Rock track and its memorable Sophie Muller-directed video (with a very "Smells Like Teen Spirit" color palate) was omnipresent on MTV. Blur had noisy, amped up rock on other albums -- "Bank Holiday" on Parklife, "Globe Alone" on The Great Escape -- but with the band really letting loose, Coxon in particular, and Albarn singing in first person ("When I feel heavy metal!") it made for a song that knows no borders. "Woo-hoo" is a universal, which is probably why it's a sports stadium anthem around the world to this day.
A lot was made about Blur's embrace of indie rock at the time -- that Q cover story opens with Blur attending a Pavement show in NYC and hanging backstage with the band and Sonic Youth, and -- adding to the lore -- both this album and Pavement's Brighten the Corners came out on the same day in the UK. But listening to the album now, 25 years on, it's still very clearly, first and foremost, a Blur album. Albarn does not temper his English accent, nor does he make an attempt to alter his melodic style. Musically, "M.O.R.," "On Your Own," and "Movin' On" could have been on any of Blur's three previous albums with different arrangements, and "Look Inside America," about Albarn's love-hate relationship with the US, sounds like the cousin to Parklife's "End of the Century." But the performances, arrangements, lyrics and production mark a new era for the group. "The new record is no more American and no less English," Albarn told SPIN's Sylvia Patterson in the magazine's August 1997 issue. "It's just us."
The album also flirts with electronic music, dub and their love of The Specials on tracks like the claustrophobic "Theme from Retro," "The Death of The Party" and the eight-minute experimental album-closer "Essex Dogs" that all feel like Albarn planting the seeds for Gorillaz. They experimented further by giving their singles to folks like Thurston Moore, Tortoise's John McEntire, Moby and William Orbit (who would produce their next album, 1999's 13) for remixes.
The star of the album, though, is Graham Coxon who is given a wide berth to go wild and really show what an inventive guitarist he was. (Not that it wasn't there on their four previous albums.) The production may be more primal, but Coxon is shooting fireworks all over this album, from the grimy, earworm, effects-pedal destroyed leads of "On Your Own," "M.O.R." and "Country Sad Ballad Man" (maybe the album's best song) to the kick-in-the-teeth riffs of "Song 2" and "Chinese Bombs" and the total wig-out of "Essex Dogs." Graham also contributes Blur's most heart wrenching song, the raw, spare, emotionally bare, "You're So Great."
Blur widened their audience but did so on their own terms. It was the album they needed to make and we needed them to make, too. Parklife might be their most iconic album, but this might be their best.