It’s not much of a claim to fame (in fact, I almost certainly shouldn’t be telling you this), but 20 years ago I may have been the very first person in the UK to buy Beetlebum on single. Stood outside the Maghull branch of Woolworths at 8.30 on a cold, dreary January Monday morning I waited. The woman opening the door was probably curious as to why a solemn-looking, grey-skinned 14-year-old with greasy hair was stood there waiting in the cold.
But, of course, ‘Beetlebum’ had caught me at the right time. And, 20 years to the day since it was released, it remains my favourite ever song.
It has everything. From those very first scratchy, choppy opening guitars, it’s the sound of heartbreaking addiction. Those cooing, widescreen backing vocals before the Coxon’s guitar soars and damon sings “I just slip away / and I am gone.”
That pregnant pause before the second verse. That almost imperceptible hum in the background, burbling away. That conflict of Albarn’s hypnotic, drowsy lullaby battling against Coxon’s serrated, shadowy guitar. That ‘borrowing’ from The Beatles’ White Album. Damon tearing himself apart trying to keep away, and his crushed admission that if he gives in, nothing is wrong.
That combination of beauty and dirge, pointing the way for music I would listen to, even now. And then the narcotic high of that chorus. A thing of bleak and joyous wonder. “She turns me on, and all my violence gone”. That tape click ending.
But the thing I loved the most was that sprawling, spiralling outro. As Albarn intones repeatedly ‘he’s on it’ and it gives way to the languorous guitars which merge with garbled radio chatter. I watched the video over and over, entranced as the camera zooms out of the room, and the building, over the Thames and across London towards the horizon ending with a shot of the skyline.
To the teenage me It felt to me like the most effortlessly cool sound I’d ever heard.
Albarn’s been open enough about the song’s references to heroin. In the 2010 Blur documentary, No Distance Left To Run, he confesses “That whole period of a lot of people’s lives was fairly muddied by heroin. It’s in that place. A lot of stuff was at that time.”
But of course, as I naively sang into my hairbrush, rolling on my bed, trying to perfect Damon’s middle distance stare, I had only the vaguest idea about that. I didn’t need to know that. That’s the beauty of the song. Those nonsensical lyrics which helped you attach whatever meaning to it you wanted. “I’m not sure what a Beetlebum is.” Albarn admitted himself. “It’s just a word I sang when I played the song to myself. I asked the others if I should change it, but they said no. If it felt right, we decided that we wouldn’t tidy it up like we’ve done in the past. It’s about drugs basically.”
(Top of the Pops performance)
To the teenage me It felt to me like the most effortlessly cool sound I’d ever heard. There was also that youthfully naive sense of excitement at a new release too. I remember seeing the video on the Chart Show and marvelling at Damon’s jumper. I remember seeing them perform it EXCLUSIVELY on Top of the Pops, in an age when that was still really the only way to hear it. Just watching it back now on YouTube is like a time machine. The hysterical shrieking of the fans. Damon’s white Fred Perry t-shirt. I remember celebrating as it went to number 1 (now, here’s a boring fact: until two of Elvis Presley’s 2005 number ones fell out of the UK Top-40 in 2 weeks, this was the previous shortest-lived number 1, at three weeks. It was also the first UK number 1 recorded in Iceland. If you’re having trouble sleeping, I have even more facts about the song).
But writing about this isn’t an exercise in mere nostalgia. 20 years on Beetlebum remains the song that means the most to me (only rivalled by LCD’s ‘All My Friends’). Maybe because it wasn’t just a turning point for me, and the music I listened to, but also a turning point for the band. When you grow up with a band and their shifts and changes mirror your own it seems to mean more, become more significant somehow.
Beetlebum was the start of Blur’s new chapter, an important and crucial turning point for the band.
‘Beetlebum’ signalled a new found sophistication for the band, proving their capability to transcend Britpop (Alex had announced their direction was more Iggy Pop than Britpop). The two singles that came from the Great Escape – ‘Stereotypes’ and ‘Charmless Man’ – released less than a year before ‘Beetlebum’, now look like the death knell of the scene. They have not aged well – both verging on caricature-ish, every criticism aimed at Albarn brought to life: jeering, garish and sneering.
But Beetlebum was the start of Blur’s new chapter, an important and crucial turning point for the band. It felt more personal and open, warmer. And of course it’s almost the exact moment that we all became accustomed to Albarn as the urbane Renaissance man. An artist whose interests have stretched from Gorillaz to monkeys, from Mali to China.
It was the moment they set about spinning a new web of references – and, in turn, it opened up a new world of music for me. Blur has often been called ‘Graham’s album’ but it’s more than that. It’s also been called their Pavement album. But there’s a great Malkmus anecdote where he explains “I asked Damon what it was that he copied from us, because I couldn’t hear it, and he played me one song on Blur where he sings in falsetto [Malkmus breaks into an uncanny impression of Albarn imitating him] and said `I’ve got to admit, I took that from you’… it was a part of one song!” (more here, and here).
Pavement would become one of my favourite bands too – the start of a love affair with a noisier, scrappier sound that helped me get out of a vicious cycle of buying Shine compilation albums.
But The Kinks are still there in that eponymous album and, of course, the Beatles pulse through Beetlebum (one reviewer noted “the song “[ran] through the White Album in the space of five minutes”). As Tom Ewing noted as he worked his way through every UK number 1, Beetlebum saw Blur using standard post-Nirvana dynamics, “that ought to flare into rage on the chorus, but instead bloom into sleepy, burnt-out neo-psychedelic harmonies.”
The difference was in the textures and the sleepy ennui of the sound. Albarn says it describes a complicated emotion, sort of ‘sleepy’ and sort of ‘sexy’. It’s definitely that sound. And that listless, languid style helped it seep into my brain. So much so that the song is now mixed up in my consciousness with being a teenager and that sense of wonder and glee at discovering new music.
There’s nothing that makes you gain a feeling of your own mortality more than realising the song that defined your teenage years is now 20 years old. Yet, though Beetlebum will always feel somewhat like a stamp for that time; a moment of affirmation; for a certain time, though a finite one; it still takes on new meaning over time. The joy in it for me is that it’s able to walk me backwards and forwards in time. At Glastonbury in 2009 it captured a new moment. And after moving to London that skyline that sprawled out in front of me as I watched the Chart Show took on a new meaning.
So, if anyone can get me Damon’s jumper from the Beetlebum video, I would be eternally grateful.