Two decades ago, Blur and Oasis released their highly-anticipated new singles on the same day, setting up the biggest showdown in chart history. The Battle Of Britpop gripped the nation, reinvigorated the UK music scene and defined an era. Here, in the words of the main players from both sides, is the definitive story of pop’s biggest bust-up.
THE RISE OF BRITPOP
By early 1995 Britpop was gathering an unstoppable momentum, led by scene-leaders Blur and Manc upstarts Oasis, who’d made a huge splash with their debut album ‘Definitely Maybe’.
Stephen Street (Blur producer): “Following [1994’s] ‘Parklife’, optimism was very high. There was a lot of confidence flying through Blur. We knew that when we made a record there was a good chance it would get heard on the radio, which hadn’t been the case three or four years previously. At that point Damon was revelling in being one of the hottest things on the planet. He was still going out with Justine (Frischmann, of Elastica) at that time, so they were the hottest couple in town.”
Johnny Hopkins (Oasis press officer): “The first Oasis album had been the best-selling debut album ever. There was a lot of confidence, a lot of excitement, a lot of celebration around that time. The intention was to keep them away from Britpop as much as possible. I saw them as an international rock’n’roll band. I found the whole Britpop idea to be pretty parochial and limiting, and in parts pretty sinister. They weren’t hanging out at [Camden pub] The Good Mixer like all the other so-called Britpop bands were. The only time they ever went in there was after a Creation Unplugged press conference at NME. There was an idea that they should go in there, just to fire a warning shot across the bows. Mission accomplished.”
John Harris (author of Britpop tome The Last Party): “The Brit Awards 1995 were the high point of the idea that these two bands had a common cause. Before that, the Brit Awards were just Annie Lennox and Chris Rea – this was the first time that indie rock groups were winning big awards. Albarn picked up the last award, I think it was Best Group, and he said, ‘This should be shared with Oasis’ and Graham said, ‘Much love and respect for them’. I never knew whether he was joking or not.”
A RIVALRY EMERGES
As 1995 progressed, it gradually became clear there was growing resentment between the two Britpop behemoths.
Steve Sutherland (then-NME editor): “Although Liam and Noel liked to fight each other, what they really liked doing was picking a fight with somebody else. These were the days when the NME Awards had only just started. Blur and Oasis had both won a number of awards, and there was a coming together backstage between Liam and, I think, Alex from Blur, where Liam had a go at him and called him all sorts of parts of the female anatomy. And Graham, bless him, who was very drunk, walked up and kissed Liam on the cheek. Alex was the one they really didn’t like, because he was Little Lord Fauntleroy, foppish Alex. He really wound them up. Oasis didn’t think that Blur were proper rock stars, and Blur didn’t really give two figs what Oasis thought of anything.”
Damon Albarn, Blur singer (speaking in September 1995): “No-one was having a go at Oasis on our side. I mean, I did that thing on Chris Evans’ show when I said, ‘It sounds a bit like Status Quo’, but that was the only thing. It was all on their side.”
Alan McGee (Creation boss): “Damon had come to a party [at the Mars Bar in Covent Garden] for Oasis being Number One [for ‘Some Might Say’, their first Number One single]. Liam went up to Damon saying ‘We’re Number One, you’re not, you’re not’ and Damon got on one about it and decided to take Oasis on. Oasis, being Oasis, decided to hate them. And Blur, being Blur, thought it was a game, but Oasis actually fucking hated them at the time! I used to go see Chelsea a lot in the ’90s, and I regularly met up for a pie and Bovril with Damon at half time. To be fair, I think he was quite unaware that Oasis were so serious about it.”
Albarn: “When Oasis got to Number One with ‘Some Might Say’, I went to their celebration party, y’know, just to say ‘Well done’. And Liam came over and, like he is, he goes, ‘Number fookin’ One!’, right in my face. So I thought, ‘OK we’ll see…'”
Street: “Liam was really mouthy and arrogant, and was even rude about Justine at one point. Damon thought, ‘If you want a battle, we’ll give you one’.”
Harris: “Albarn had that competitive streak. The common cause had started to fray. I guess Damon decided that Oasis were competition, not allies.”
Mike Smith (Blur publisher): “Britpop in general encouraged competitiveness – it didn’t take much for Noel and Damon to rise to it. Both wanted to be the biggest band in the country. So much was made in the media of posh southern kids and rough working class northerners. It was ridiculous, as none of the Blur boys came from those places. It was more a clash between art school traditions and Oasis’ classic British R&B.”
CHOOSE YOUR WEAPONS
In picking the first singles from their forthcoming albums, Blur went with ‘Country House’ and a Benny Hill-indebted video directed by Damien Hirst, while Oasis chose the solid meat-and-potatoes rock of ‘Roll With It’. Neither band’s finest hour.
Smith: “I think it was ironic that the two songs that caused such big attention were not good examples of what Blur and Oasis were capable of. ‘Country House’ pandered to a certain aspect of Blur’s music and made it to be the predominant sound.”
Ross: “I remember the band were slightly reluctant to have ‘Country House’ as a single in the first place, and one or two people were reluctant about the video with Keith Allen and Page Three girls. But irrespective of how good the song itself was, it sounded like a Number One single. It’s like having a big gun. I’m not saying it’s pretty or nice, but it’s effective. It’s certainly not the best song they ever did, or probably even the best song on that album, but it served a purpose. The person who scores the goals isn’t necessarily the best player on the pitch.”
Street: “It was one of the obvious tracks to go for. I actually think it’s a very well-crafted song, I always thought the “blow me out/I am so sad/I don’t know why’” at the end, is a great bit of songwriting. And it seemed to cram into three-and-a-half minutes all the best bits of what Blur are about. From mine and Graham’s point of view, we were very unhappy with how the record was portrayed by the video – it cheapened it. I hated it, I absolutely detested it.”
Tim Burgess (Charlatans singer): “Neither band was on their best form with the singles they were putting out – ‘Country House’ almost seems like a novelty song when you look back at some of the heights that Blur have scaled, and ‘Roll With It’ is a kind of flatpack Oasis song.”
With release dates shifting, Team Blur decided to settle the whole thing once and for all.
Ross: “The perceived way of things seems to be that the whole thing was rigged and arranged between the two bands, but we’d spent at least six months trying to prevent this from arising. The plan, if there was a plan, was that Oasis would have a Number One then we would, or vice-versa, and they wouldn’t clash. Our lines of communications were pretty rock solid. But, then for some unexpected reason from our point of view, they brought forward their single by something like six weeks, weeks and weeks ahead of schedule. That threw us into complete confusion. All of a sudden, they’re going to put their record out before ours. So our thinking – ‘us’ being myself, Damon and [Parlophone chief] Tony Wadsworth – was that if we were to release our record a week after theirs, not only would we be up against Oasis, we’d be up against the sales of a new Number One single, which could add an extra 50 per cent because of all the exposure a Number One would get anyway. We’re on a hiding to nothing. They’re guaranteed a Number One, but they’ve got a strong possibility of continuing to have the Number One the week we put our record out. So there’s a very strong chance we’ll go in at Number Two, which would be sort of a disaster, because this has been very carefully worked out.”
McGee: “We were gonna go the week after them I believe, and they were going the week before us. It might have been the other way around, I can’t remember. Damon moved it, so we went head-to-head. Damon made it a big battle.”
Ross: “Damon and I were sitting outside The Freemasons Arms, near the old EMI building, having this chat, and I said, ‘Look, if we go the week after, we’re Number Two. If we go the same week, we have a chance of maybe Number One’. So we looked at each other, Damon seemed up for it, and we thought, ‘Well, let’s go head-to-head, go for broke’. We perceived that we were picking up the gauntlet that they’d cast down.”
McGee: “I don’t know if we were ever gonna catch Blur, but they effectively put us on the football pitch. I felt like the guy who’s trying to get in the ring with the champion. They were the champions, and we wanted to be the champions and Damon brought us in the ring. I actually thought it was dumb but [Oasis’ management company] Ignition decided they were gonna go head to head. You know, ‘Fuck them! This is fucking great, let’s milk this fucker’.”
Hopkins: “There was talk of should we move it away from the Blur date. But that was the date we had already fixed and publicised, and we had all our bits in place. If they want to move their date, that’s their prerogative. But we’ll stick to ours.”
Street: “Blur weren’t very comfortable with it, I know Graham certainly wasn’t. But Damon, being as driven and competitive as he is, he didn’t take well to being provoked by Noel and Liam, so he reacted in the very public way of taking on this battle.”
Ross: “From a journalistic point of view, it was a godsend: it was a clash of the titans, like The Beatles and The Stones all over again. Although I don’t think The Beatles and Stones ever competed for a Number One single.”
Sutherland: “Terry Staunton, who was working on the NME newsdesk at the time, came into my office and said: ‘These two records are going to come out on the same day.’ I was always a big fan of the rock and pop soap opera, so we made it into an event. We created the cover out of a Muhammad Ali fight poster that I had on a deck of cards, we just took the framework and changed the words and made it like a boxing match.”
LET BATTLE COMMENCE!
The national media leapt on the story, catapulting the clash onto newspaper front pages and TV bulletins as Britpop mania exploded in the public eye.
Ross: “You couldn’t turn on a news programme without it being featured. My missus’ dad lives in Norway, and the Oslo Times had it on the front cover that week… If it was front page news in Norway, it was probably front page all around the world. Even America took notice. It was a focal point for a generation.”
Harris: “The whole media decided to make it a class war and Oasis rose to that. That made Blur uncomfortable, especially Graham. He didn’t like being seen as a middle class group – he was an army child. The broadcast and print media was in silly season. There was a story about a married couple in The Sun, he was Blur and she was Oasis and she smashed his records up. The record shop had become an exciting place because of all the Britpop records coming out at the same time. I went to HMV on Oxford Street and bought Oasis. To me it was a bit like voting.”
McGee: “I think, delusionally, we probably thought we were gonna win at some point during that week. Even Steve Sutherland thought we had won, cos he had two different covers.”
Sutherland: “We produced two front covers, because we didn’t know who was going to win, and our press deadlines were difficult. So we had a Blur one and an Oasis one and we just waited to see which one would go. It did feel like people were going into record stores and buying a record to try and beat another record, which is amazing.”
Smith: “Everybody thought Oasis would win. We felt that we could win, but that wasn’t the perception out there. It was still tense up until Sunday evening.”
Albarn: “We weren’t 100% confident that we would win. You can’t be. It’s naïve to think any different.”
AND THE WINNER IS…
In the best week for UK singles sales in a decade, and amid claims that Oasis sales were hit by faulty barcodes, Blur pipped Oasis by 270,000 sales to 220,000.
Ross: “I was quietly confident come Sunday – we had access to privileged information. Around that time we’d play football in Regent’s Park: me, Stephen Street, Damon. We’d go for a kickabout, and I was pacing around outside a pub, waiting to meet up with them. I called the relevant number and a matter-of-fact voice – one of the two sales guys – said ‘Blur, Number One’. And I thought, well, that’s nice. So I got a bottle of champagne or something, and we went and had a game of football.”
Albarn: “I was on holiday with my parents. It was fine until Thursday night but by Friday I was getting really agitated and then on Saturday I flew back. There was no feedback at Heathrow… I went down to the café at the corner of my street and the lady filled me in on all the press we’d been getting… Andy Ross rang up and said he was fairly confident. The next day I went to play football and Andy turned up completely pissed so I knew we’d won, which was brilliant, because we needed to upstage ‘Parklife’ in some way.”
McGee: “I used to get the charts results before anyone else, about 12 o’clock. I got told that we were Number Two, phoned up the boys, and then I just got on with the day. Knowing the band, they probably got fucking wasted. Having said that, they would have got wasted, whether they won or lost.”
Smith: “The numbers were incredible. The band were in Soho House celebrating, listening to the countdown. It was an odd event. Dave wasn’t there, Alex turned up late, Graham wasn’t the happiest soul at the time. Blur were becoming four separate individuals. Alex was all supermodels and champagne, and Graham was hanging out with Huggy Bear.”
Street: “That was the infamous gathering on the Sunday where Graham threatened to jump out the window. It was a kind of joke, like ‘Get me out of this place’. I think he was thoroughly sick of it all by then. Although we’d won, he didn’t like all the bragging and the bravado. Graham saw it for the circus that it was, and wasn’t very happy about it.”
Graham Coxon (speaking in September 1995): “‘I would have liked to have had a Number One quietly, but there’s probably no such thing as that. I wanted our band to be Number One just because Number One is a special thing, but it’s become not special… I wish the releases has been staggered because then Oasis would have got to Number One as well. We don’t need this fake war, this preposterous chart war.”
McGee: “Blur had the might of EMI, they won the battle because they were giving away an extra CD format, I think both CDs were 99p. So you get extra tracks for 99p. And that’s why they beat us, they had three formats, we had two. They had the EMI marketing machine behind them whereas we had about 20 guys giving out cards saying ‘We’ll give you some Oasis tracks’. There was a barcode issue, but that was a week before, so I don’t think the barcodes got in the way.”
Ross: “The EMI sales force was two blokes from Leicester called Roger and John – they were really, really good at getting stuff racked in stores. We can’t be disingenuous about ‘tiny Creation versus major label’. Oasis were signed to Sony, not Creation. So it wasn’t a lopsided fight – they had the same level of resources, or firepower, as we did. It was fairly even. It was like a nuclear arms race. You could have up to four formats at that particular time. It was all neck-and-neck, but our fourth format outsold theirs by 20 to one.”
Bonehead, Oasis guitarist (speaking in September 1995): “They could’ve gone to Number One and we could’ve gone to number 102… give a shit. We get on with our music, you get on with your music, and let’s just fucking do it. Who cares who’s at Number One?”
Liam Gallagher, Oasis singer (speaking in September 1995): “I cared, ’cause I want Number Ones. I think ‘Roll With It’ is a great song. I met that Alex in the pub, so I bombed over and said, ‘Congratulations on Number One – it’s about fucking time, mate’ and he goes, ‘Oh yeah. But both our songs were shit anyway’. And I went, ‘No, this is where you’re wrong. And this is why I fuckin’ hate your band, and you. I thought our song was top.’ And then I went, ‘Do you want a line?’ and I gave him one and it was cool. But I still think they’re shit.”
Alex James, Blur bassist (speaking in September 1995): “I think they’re [Oasis] are a great band and that this is the defining Britpop moment. It’s not Blur versus Oasis, its Blur and Oasis against the world… The thing that most people don’t understand when they read the papers is that this rivalry is all made up. I know that when I want to hear a good song I can write one and when I want to go for a drink, I can call up Liam. There’s few people I’d rather drink with than Oasis.”
Over the following months, Britpop became a major cultural phenomenon. Meanwhile, as ‘(What’s The Story) Morning Glory?’ emerged to colossal sales, it became clear that while Blur had won the battle, Oasis were winning the war.
McGee: “’Morning Glory’ definitely sold because we got the coverage, we were on the fucking national news. We went on and sold 21 million worldwide with ‘Morning Glory’. Oasis were building in their own way, but whether we would have got the national exposure, without that Blur/Oasis moment… I’ve got my doubts. Did I think it was stupid? Yes. Do I think that it worked? Unbelievably. Am I glad that it happened? Completely.”
Sutherland: “Britpop was very all-inclusive, so it was easy for everyone to embrace it. There was a band a week, and they would go ‘bang’. I’m not saying all of them were great, but it felt like at any moment, anyone could achieve anything. We are encumbered with our own history, there’s always somebody turning around and telling you ‘It’s not as good as it used to be’. And you know what? It fucking well was. It really was as good as anything that had ever happened, because we were having such a good time.”
Burgess: “It was great to see bands that we knew fighting it out at the top of the charts. I remember there were lots of anonymous pop songs around with faceless DJs featuring someone or other, so it was good to see that the lunatics had taken over the asylum for a bit.”
Smith: “Because ‘Parklife’ had been a big success everybody believed that ‘The Great Escape’ was going to be a bigger record. ‘The Universal’ was launched with the band on top of HMV Oxford Street and Channel 4 were there to make a film they were going to broadcast over Christmas like Magical Mystery Tour. But the footage they shot turned out to be quite dark. The film was cancelled in the end because Blur weren’t the fun-loving moptops they were hoping for.”
Harris: “Through the first phase of Britpop, art for art still existed. It was reflected in Blur, Elastica and Pulp. Then there became this race that it was all about sales, who would get Number One. In the end, it led to people dumbing it down to get album sales. By ’96, the interesting aspects of Britpop had gone.”
McGee: “Three things defined the Britpop age. It was that moment, Knebworth, and then Princess Diana dying killed the moment. We’d put out ‘Be Here Now’, Diana died and the country went off Britpop. Those were the three stages of Britpop.”
Smith: “When I got into the business in the ’80s, people claimed you would never have a band like The Beatles again because everything was so fractured and you couldn’t capture popular culture. In the ’90s you had two bands that did capture it. I don’t think we will have that again, but I hope to God that we can still have glamorous, rebellious bands that do it themselves.”