You have to forgive British record executives if they are pinching themselves these days to make sure they aren’t dreaming. Just two years after the once-glorious English rock scene was a shambles because a Nirvana-led wave of American bands had captured the fan allegiance in Britain, that scene is experiencing a rebirth.
Dozens of bands are contributing to this renewed optimism and enthusiasm, but two - Blur and Oasis - stand far above the crowd. They enjoy a popularity so immense and a rivalry so intense that many observers of the English scene say they haven’t seen anything quite like it since, well, the days of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
When Blur and Oasis both released singles from their long-awaited new albums in August in England, fans rushed to the stores and bought almost 500,000 copies of them collectively. That pushed the total number of singles sold during the week to 1.8 million - the highest weekly total in England in almost a decade.
British newspapers and pop papers reported on the competition with the breathless, blow-by-blow detail of a championship prizefight.
Blur’s “Country House” ended up edging Oasis’ “Roll With It” for the No. 1 spot on the singles charts, but the inquiry sign was quickly flashed by the Oasis camp after it was learned that thousands of copies of the group’s single didn’t get counted because of a problem with bar coding. The bands add to the sense of combat by frequently taking potshots at each other in the press.
The real test between Blur and Oasis will be in the coming months as their albums compete in the stores both at home and in the United States. Blur struck first in England with “The Great Escape,” which soared straight to No. 1 when released last month. Oasis’ “(What’s the Story) Morning Glory?” came out earlier this month in England and will most certainly battle Blur for the No. 1 spot for months to come. The previous albums by Blur and Oasis have both been in or near the British Top 10 for more than a year.
All this excitement over Blur and Oasis not only signals a renewed faith in British bands in England but also raises hopes of executives on both sides of the Atlantic for another British rock invasion of America.
Executives are hoping that enthusiasm for Blur and Oasis - and a parade of other bands including Elastica, Gene, Supergrass and Black Grape - will allow the groups to follow in the footsteps of the Beatles and Stones and the Who in the United States. Both the Blur and Oasis albums are in U.S. stores now.
But don’t expect the often feuding Blur or Oasis to be part of a British rock invasion campaign committee.
“It would be really nice to feel there was some sort of chemistry between our ideas and American audiences because I think we are singing about alienation and sort of end-of-century anxiety, which is relevant in both countries,” says Blur leader Damon Albarn.
“At the same time, I don’t want to be part of the British rock movement - because that implies some sort of take-it-all-or-leave-it proposition, which I don’t think is fair to fans in America or bands here (in England).”
In a rare moment of agreement with Albarn, Oasis songwriter and guitarist Noel Gallagher says in a separate interview: “I will go and play anywhere in the world where we have got fans, but I’m not out to ‘conquer America.’ That’s a pretty pompous thing to say. The reason we go to America is to play for those people who bought our records.”
Blur and Oasis are both excellent rock bands with a strong sense of the melodic pop-rock British tradition. While Blur tends to be more poppish than the rock-minded Oasis, both groups offer a wide range of critical and commercial strengths - from the superior songwriting skills of Albarn and Gallagher to the fiendish good looks of Albarn and Gallagher’s brother Liam, Oasis’ lead singer.
Yet the bands are vastly different - a point summarized by the influences cited by Albarn and Noel Gallagher, who supply the bands with their primary visions and who were interviewed separately last spring while recording their crucial new albums.
Albarn points to “The Threepenny Opera” composer Kurt Weill as his original musical influence. That helps explain the slightly arty, sophisticated approach of Blur. Gallagher, meanwhile, names the Beatles, the Sex Pistols and the Stone Roses - among others - as inspirations, and Oasis’ music sounds at times like a glorious synthesis of those British groups. Its music is more accessible and everyman in many ways than Blur’s is.
But the bands come together on one point: an admiration for the late Kurt Cobain, whose band Nirvana helped motivate scores of Britain’s ‘90s rockers almost as much as another American, Elvis Presley, helped ignite the ‘60s British rock uprising.
“I think Nirvana was a catalyst for people like myself to get up off our (rears),” said Albarn, 27, from the London apartment he shares with his girlfriend, Justine Frischmann of Elastica.
Like most of the promising new British acts, Blur and Oasis may have been greatly motivated by Nirvana, but that doesn’t mean these new bands have adopted the grunge sound. Instead, most of the new English groups have turned to earlier British models for their sounds and, in some cases, their themes.
“I think people here have found Englishness again,” says Adam King, a concert producer who works with many of Britain’s new bands. “For a while, there was an inferiority complex when it came to English rock. All the good bands seemed to come from America. But now fans here have begun to appreciate once again the quirkiness, the pop sensibility, the English seem to have.”