Except they didn’t. Not quite. And what’s worse, they were soon eclipsed – in sales, popularity, and infamy - by the very band they had seemingly left behind. ‘The Great Escape’ received widespread acclaim and eventually went Triple Platinum, but that pales into insignificance behind the cultural juggernaut that was ‘(What’s The Story) Morning Glory?’ Released to lukewarm reviews – it was variously described as “laboured and lazy”, “drab”, and “laddism of a tiresomely generic kind” – the numbers beggar belief. Fastest selling album in British history. Ten weeks at number one, seven months in the top three. Number four on the US Billboard 100. 16 million copies sold. By the third single, the ubiquitous ‘Wonderwall’, their transformation into a worldwide rock phenomenon was well underway, a status they cemented by playing to 250,000 people over two nights at Knebworth, a mind boggling 2.5 million people having applied for tickets.
It’s perhaps no surprise that around the same time, Blur were suffering from a very public nervous breakdown. Divisions, resentfulness, and drinking problems strained relations in the band, leading them to eventually reject their Britpop aesthetic in favour of lo-fi Americana and alternative rock. The result, 1997’s ‘Blur’, received widespread critical acclaim but a huge fan backlash. It was also, unfortunately, overshadowed by that year’s other main event: ‘Be Here Now’. Dropping to a rapturous reception, with initial sales dwarfing even those of ‘Morning Glory’, it confirmed Oasis’ status as Biggest Band In The World, leading more than one publication to quip that they had “lost the battle, but won the war”.
Even Britpop’s demise didn’t dent Oasis’ popularity or standing. New material was eagerly anticipated, tours spanned the globe, Wembley was routinely sold out. They weathered the departure of Bonehead, Guigsy, and later Alan White, and it even became acceptable, if not exactly cool, to respect them again. Noel in particular attained a Rock Elder Statesman™ status, the press fawning over his every reaction to the latest buzz band, while 2008’s ‘Dig Out Your Soul’ contained their best material for years. By this time, Blur had long since ground to halt – Coxon having been unceremoniously booted out – with the others following very disparate paths involving cheese, politics, and writing operas about monkeys. All in all, more a case of “What war was that again?”
But 2012 requires a very different appraisal. Oasis are no more, the simmering tension between the Gallaghers having finally torn them apart while Blur’s triumphant comeback shows and headlining slot at Glastonbury were heralded like the return of a long lost brother. Invited to play an unheard of five songs on receiving the “Outstanding Contribution To Music” award at this year’s Brits, there was a collective, anguished sigh when Albarn recently announced that a long-rumoured new album would likely never happen. Much like “Jarvis”, “Damon” has now entered the popular vernacular, a one-word National Treasure, his band of merry men warmly cherished and clutched to the nation’s bosom like never before – it wasn’t Noel’s phone that rang when LOCOG needed a headliner for the “Best Of British” Olympic gig. So what changed?
An infamous GQ cover featuring Liam and Noel from late 1997 - “Concorde, Coke & Cash: Who Cares What The Records Sound Like?” - neatly encapsulated both the appeal and the worst excesses of the times. The chart battle disguised a deeper, darker confrontation between class and regional differences and, in the decade that also saw the rise of Loaded, ladettes, and footballers-as-celebrities, it’s no surprise that the boys from Burnage bestrode it like a colossus. Re-drawn as soft Southerners vs. gritty Northerners, posh public school vs. the common man, it aped a wider change in society, a rejection of the establishment that ushered in Cool Britannia and swept New Labour to power, all capped off with lurid boasts about a trip to 10 Downing Street. It was the underground going mainstream, refusing to live one more day in the shadows, and taking the ordinary man from the street as its poster boy.
It was also decidedly retro. Obsessed with the past Oasis, and Britpop in general, took the 1960’s as a reference point. From haircuts to fashion, music to mannerisms, it was suddenly de rigueur to delve into the past for inspiration. Rejecting all but rock’s most basic ingredients, they saw themselves as spearheading a return to “real music”, and the excessively laddish behaviour was perhaps a rejection of the more theatrical and effeminate elements of pop and New Wave. Blur were dismissed as “preening, public schoolboys”, the inference being that a life of privilege had left them with no authentic emotions to call upon. Even as late as 2002, Noel was proclaiming “It’s fitting that he [Albarn] has ended up in a cartoon band”, the accusation clear for all to see.
But Blur were intent on following a different path, one that combined a far more eclectic range of influences into a more cerebral type of music. ‘Blur’, as DIY’s Editor Stephen Ackroyd recently noted, heralded a sea change in musical tastes, with Albarn’s increasingly arch social vignettes far outstripping Noel’s cod philosophy. Aside from a brief flirtation with the “pubs and clubs” rock & roll largesse of The Libertines, it’s easy to draw a line from what they started through to Arcade Fire, Vampire Weekend, and Deerhunter – in other words, the sort of intelligent, culturally aware, well-crafted music that’s become the dominant force in independent music. Follow the lineage of the boorish, three-chord songbook however, and you end up in landfill indie hell, with only The Enemy, The Twang, and last year’s failed “gritpop” revivalists for company.
If hindsight is indeed 20/20, it’s clear to see now that Albarn & Co. had their fingers on the pulse in so many ways – what was ‘Girls & Boys’ but a disco pop stomper years ahead of its time? Oasis dared us all to dream that with enough swagger and confidence we too could be rock’n’roll stars and, for a while, we were seduced. But as the Gallaghers sink ever deeper into a cycle of petty squabbles and unimaginative, derivative tunes, Blur’s musical legacy stands head and shoulders over their competitors’ wider cultural impact, with every artistic feather in Coxon and Albarn’s caps – and there are a fair few – becoming another nail in the coffin of the idea that Oasis’ was anything more than a pyrrhic victory of style over substance.