Thursday, May 7, 2015
Blur – Britain Versus America
3. Colin Zeal
4. Pressure On Julian
5. Oily Water
7. Never Clever
8. Star Shaped
9. Into Another
10. Miss America
11. Turn It Up
In honor of the just-released first Blur album in 12 years—The Magic Whip—I’m offering a reconstruction of the unreleased 1992 Blur album Britain Versus America, which evolved into their sophomore and band-defining 1993 album Modern Life Is Rubbish. Originally designed to sonically follow their debut Leisure using featuring the Madchester sound, the album got a complete facelift to become the first of their “Life Trilogy” and signaled a new era of the band, featuring a more traditional Brit-Pop sound and image. This reconstruction attempts to present the album as originally envisioned during the band’s dismal American Tour in 1992 and follows the abandoned aesthetic of their “PopScene” single, using alternate versions and a concise track sequence influenced by the setlists of that tour. Original masters are used when available and all tracks are volume adjusted for a cohesive listening experience.
Following the initial rush of British stardom upon the release of their single “There’s No Other Way” in 1991, their debut album Leisure was seen as an anticlimax, using the indie aesthetic of the Madchester sound—a mix of dance-grooves juxtaposed with shoegaze guitars—with a more pop-friendly face. Despite this, Blur soldiered on and by 1992 the band was in debt, embarking on an American tour to recoup and fronted by a new single for the occasion: “PopScene”. At the time, the song was thought of as their crown achievement by the band, with its punk influenced charisma juxtaposed by a particularly British horn section and vocal melody; unfortunately the Americans disagreed and the single flopped. As the tour continued, band morale diminished and Blur became resentful of the Americas, creating an “us vs. them” mentality. This planted the seeds for their next album, which would be decidingly British, combating what they felt was overly American music popular at the time: Nirvana, Pearl Jam, etc. Throughout 1992, Blur recorded new material and road-tested the songs for the Americans but received less-than stellar responses, especially when compared to the positive feedback garnished on their British contemporaries. The planned follow-up single “Never Clever” was scrapped and the band was left with about 20 new, finished studio recordings tracked between November 1991 and August 1992 at Matrix Studios with John Smith, with the tentative title Britain Versus America. Featuring an aggressive mix of Baggy and British references meant to compete with the American grunge scene, the recordings remained a sonic continuation of the band’s debut… at least for the time being.
This musical direction was second-guessed by frontman Damon Albarn, opting to give Blur a much-needed facelift, visually and sonically. Relegating the previous year’s work to demo status and focusing-in and honing the Brit-Pop aspect of the band with a sound reminiscent of The Kinks, The Beatles and The Small Faces, Blur began re-recording the material with XTC member Andy Partridge in September with disparaging results (before a quick single session with Steve Lowell, who had produced “PopScene”). After a chance meeting, Blur reconvened with Leisure producer Stephen Street to retrack the best of the 20 new songs with a renewed sense of musical purpose. By the end of 1992, Blur had compiled an album based on the Street and Lovell session, with a handful the best of the Smith material peppered in to round off an album, still provisionally titled Britain Versus America. This master was rejected by Food Records as not commercial enough and Albarn went back to the drawing board that Christmas, writing the album-defining hits “For Tomorrow” and “Chemical World”. After more sessions in early 1993, the more commercial (and more British) album was retitled to a safer Modern Life Is Rubbish and eventually reached critical and commercial acclaim, jump-starting the band back to not only British pop icons, but critical darlings. Note that it was the trajectory of one year that created this landmark; can we turn back the clock and hear how the album was originally intended?
The first step in reconstructing Britain Versus America is to separate the fact from fiction. There was a long-held belief that Britain Versus America was the unreleased Blur album reportedly compiled in the spring of 1992, which allegedly had a tracklist of: Oily Water / Mace / Badgeman Brown / PopScene / Resigned / Garden Central / Hanging Over / Into Another / Peach / Bone Bag / Never Clever / Coping / My Ark / Pressure on Julian. Blur guitarist Graham Coxon has recently debunked this myth, dismissing this information. We now know that not only was there no album compiled at this point, but it could not have even been Britain Versus America anyways, as the title was adopted in late 1992 after the Street sessions! Conversely, the Food Records-rejected master of Modern Life Is Rubbish from Christmas 1992 (a more likely candidate for the title Britain Versus America) was probably closer to the final album than we think, missing only the hit singles—not a very interesting reconstruction!
For our purposes, we will acknowledge both fact and fiction surrounding Britain Versus America and instead reconstruct an album that illustrates the evolution of Modern Life Is Rubbish. We will compile the theoretical second Blur album as is stood before the band’s facelift and attempts to re-record the album with Andy Partridge and then Stephen Street, focusing squarely on the best of the Matrix tapes recorded in the Fall of 1991 and throughout 1992. In effect, we will have an alternate Modern Life Is Rubbish that follows a more guitar-heavy Madchester sound, closer to that of Leisure. To do so we will use the alternate versions of the MLIR tracks found on the Blur 21 box (paired with the original masters if they were already officially-released tracks) and a track selection and sequence that acknowledges both the track order for MLIR and the actual setlists of Blur’s 1992 American Tour. This reconstruction also sets a limit of 12-songs, in line with the length of Leisure and avoiding the hour-long lengths of Blur’s “Life Trilogy” albums.
Our Britain Versus America sets its tone with the quintessential song of this period, “PopScene”, taken from the original US MLIR release. The album continues much as MLIR does with the early and punkier Matrix versions of “Advert”, “Colin Zeal” and “Pressure On Julian”, all taken from the 21 box. Following is the exquisite “Oily Water”, this being the most dynamic master taken from the 1991 V2 compilation Volume Two which predated the MLIR album considerably. Side A concludes with the fantastic b-side “Beachcoma” from the For Tomorrow single and restarts Side B with the single that never was, “Never Clever” taken from the 21 box. This is followed by the early Matrix version of “Star Shaped” and one of the lost MLIR songs “Into Another” which was performed regularly in 1992, both also from the 21 box. The apropos “Miss America” from the US MLIR follows, with the album concluding with the more rockin’ Matrix version of “Turn It Up” found on 21 and the climactic “Resigned” from the MLIR US version. The effectiveness of this reconstruction is certainly up for debate—possibly dependent on if you are American or British!—but offers not only an alternate flavor to a magic whip, but if you might have thought that Modern Life was actually rubbish. Let the battle begin!
Blur 21: The Box (2012 Parlophone CD)
For Tomorrow (1993 Food Records CD single)
Modern Life is Rubbish (1993 SBK Records CD - US version)
Various Artists – Volume 2 (1991 V2 Records compilation CD)
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* md5 files, track notes and artwork included