Sacred Cows is an occasional series in which NME writers question the critical consensus around revered albums. Here, John Doran asks if Blur’s ‘Parklife’ is just a touch over-rated
Damon Albarn has come a long way since Blur first split up after 2003’s ‘Think Tank’. As well as a hands-on role in the amazing record label, Honest Jon’s, and such tuneful ventures as Mali Music and The Good, The Bad And The Queen, there is also Gorillaz, who aired a new song, ‘Doncamatic (All Played Out)’ just yesterday.
These days, you’d have to be an insane contrarian to argue that Albarn wasn’t a deeply talented individual. It’s just that, back in 1994, he was responsible for an album so cartoonish and two-dimensional that not even one hundred Gorillaz albums could outstrip it.
In 2006, NME readers voted Blur’s ‘Parklife’ the 34th best album of all time. I humbly disagree. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that on my record shelves, housed in amongst genius albums by David Bowie, Burial, Big Black, James Brown, the Beach Boys and Black Sabbath, Blur’s ‘Parklife’ resembles a sweetcorn-peppered turd floating in the otherwise crystal clear waters of my collection.
After studying drama at university and unsuccessfully trying to become a professional mime artist, Albarn formed Blur, a harmless bunch of late-adopter indie-dance poppets who were more saggy than baggy but still scored a clutch of pleasant hits and the ‘Leisure’ album.
Always a shrewd businessman with one wet finger held up to judge which way the wind was blowing, he immediately reinvented his band with the ‘Popscene’ single and ‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’ album, ditching The Happy Mondays and Northside for The Kinks and XTC.
Despite being a modest hit, this wasn’t enough for either Blur or their label boss, Dave Balfe of Food. So for ‘Parklife’ they basically remade the same album, stripping it of all of its wit and lightness of touch replacing them with gross caricature, sneering class tourism and utterly appalling musical pastiche.
Damon Albarn has one thing in his favour. His reverse Achilles’ Heel, is that he’s very good at doing ballads (he seems unable to activate his standard operating procedure of snide sarcasm at lower than 105bpm). And epic slow number ‘This Is A Low’ certainly is beautiful.
Ignore these plaintive five minutes and two seconds, however, and what you are left with is an atrocity so total and so devastating that it deserves a sombre monument and an annual two-minute silence to act as a warning that rings down through centuries.
‘Parklife’ is a smug, upper middle class tour round Great Britain patronising everyone (who’s not in Blur) they see on the way. This album is, essentially, a much less intelligent Little Britain with no jokes and annoying music.
But surely only someone with a hard heart would hate ‘Girls And Boys’? Wrong. 1994 was arguably the most important year for dance music crossing over to the mainstream in living memory, given that The Prodigy had just released ‘Music For The Jilted Generation’ and Underworld had just released ‘Dubnobasswithmyheadman’.
So Chas and Dave set to some farm hand eurodisco just wasn’t going to cut it. Adding insult to injury was its horrific, let’s-laugh-at-the-proles-on-holiday subtext, purely because “the hordes” down in Greece and on the Med were listening to much better dance music than this lukewarm serving of cock in a bap.
There was more risible upper middle class snobbery presented with some spam-fisted Oi! style punk and pub rock on the side, in ‘Bank Holiday’. But this is not punk. This is what your dad or some TV drama executive or Morrissey thinks punk sounds like. Look at all the silly little people and their silly little jobs, it jeers.
And on and on and on it goes. Do you like crappy brass band waltz music that attempts to say something about the British character but fails miserably? Try ‘The Debt Collector’. Do you like pastiche Wurlitzer muzak that’s meant to be a respectful nod to The Cardiacs but actually comes off as a clueless diss? Try ‘Lot 105’.
How about a thought-up on the trot Gary Numan piss take? Try ‘Trouble In The Message Centre’. How about some fucking harpischord baggy? The utterly execrable ‘Clover Over Dover’ is the one for you.
Worst of all, however, is the inclusion of lager-marinaded troll Phil Daniels. When he shouts, “Oi!” and starts drivelling on about sausages and pigeons during the title track it is not only the low point of the 90s – it is the actual low water mark of Western civilization to date.
Before this album, Britpop had all the makings of an amazing phase in the history of this country’s popular music. Pulp, Suede and Oasis had already released great albums and singles that provided a much needed contrast to American grunge and offered observational, aspirational and escapist genius.
But in one fell swoop Blur reduced the level of the genre to drooling imbecility. ‘Parklife’ was essentially the hippy wigs in Woolworths moment of Britpop. The moment we blew it. Balfe thought it was so bad that he sold Food Records. But never mind, Blur got what they wanted (career, fame and money).
After this moment the ’90s threw up some shining pinnacles of British rock genius, in the shape of such albums as ‘Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space’ by Spiritualized and ‘Xtrmntr’ by Primal Scream. These albums and others like them are polar opposites of ‘Parklife’ in that they are revolutionary, heart-felt and forward looking.
And if anyone thinks I’m being unfair, perhaps projecting personal embitterment, then reflect on the fact that it is not Jarvis Cocker, Brett Anderson or Liam Gallagher who are now on first name terms with David Cameron, or have become columnists for right-wing rag The Spectator.
If you plot a graph forwards, Alex James’ slide into right-wing caricature will see him bathing in champagne while setting fire to £50 notes and shooting peasants with a blunderbuss out of his farm house window by the year 2020.
Now, I don’t want to take the easy route of insane journalistic hyperbole here, but if this album were an elderly sheepdog, I would take it behind the barn and shoot it in the head; if it were a truculent child I would slap it with an open palm. If this album were my son Luke Skywalker, I’d tell it some home truths, cut its hand off and fling it down a ventilation shaft.
As it is merely a CD, I will satisfy myself with throwing it out of the window while crying, “Oi! Fuck OFF!”