Decade defining: The Battle of Britpop, Blur vs. Oasis

The 1990s were a period of global change. Characterised by decolonisation, the collapse of the Soviet Union, double denim and the rise of the computer, it is undeniable that the “decade that never ended” was a pivotal turning point in global geopolitics, pop-culture popularity and technology.  Stepping out of the polarising Thatcher years, England in the nineties was typified by new wave culture attributed to a fresh sense of progressive multiculturalism and globalisation. Marathon bars became Snickers, Game Boys conquered children’s toy charts, and Macaulay Culkin and the Crystal Maze dominated screens across the country. Yet, while these features paint a clear picture of the politics, style and culture of the nineties, nothing defines a decade more aptly than what was being listened to. In a time before streaming and instant downloads, the idea of physical business meant the music industry was governed by competition– after all the purchase of a record required a lot more effort for the consumer then the one click, dehumanised transaction that dominates the music industry in the 21stcentury. Grunge, hip-hop and the rave-scene swept across the nation, and two bands fought it out for the top spot in a battle that would define the decade: Blur versus Oasis. 

The two bands, although both taking inspiration from similar sources, were worlds apart – it was a conflict deep-rooted in characteristic divides which saw a set of brash working-class northerners take on trendy, university educated “hipster-southerners”. Here, the rivalry between the pair seemed almost inevitable: both bands were formed in similar years (with Blur three years the Mancunian’s senior), both dominated the British charts, and both struggled to complete the career-altering move of “breaking America”.  Throughout the 1990s the foreseeable rivalry erupted between the twoBritpop giants, as both parties exchanged brash words, engaged in public confrontations and thrilling top-ten battles. While Blur frontman Damon Albarn insists that “no-one was having a go at Oasis on our side”, it is evident that both Blur and Oasis displayed a competitive side by whole heartedly committing to the race for of top-dog. 

“Oasis were like the bullies I had to put up with at school”–Damon Albarn, Blur

“Albarn had that competitive streak. The common cause had started to fray. I guess Damon decided that Oasis were competition, not allies.” – Stephen Street, Blur producer

Although Liam and Noel liked to fight each other, what they really liked doing was picking a fight with somebody else.” – Steve Sutherland, the then NMEeditor

Ultimately, this ingrained rivalry manifested itself into the simultaneous release of Blur’s ‘Country House’ and Oasis’ ‘Roll with it’, which graced radio and store on Monday 14thAugust 1995. The Blur track acted as a homage to former Food Records CEO and Blur manager, Dave Balfe, who, as the song suggests, abandoned the music industry and moved to the countryside. The song embodies the Blur’s light-hearted and whimsical nature and demonstrates the band’s ability to innovate within their genre. Ultimately this record is wildly different from their other, more serious, hits such as ‘She’s so High’ (1991) and ‘Beetlebum’ (1997), yet shares similar traits with their earlier release, ‘Parklife’, which features the stream-of-consciousness ramblings of Phil Daniels. Meanwhile, ‘Roll with It’ has been dubbed as a “simple rock n’ roll song” by Noel Gallagher himself. 

Country House, Blur: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gpuh1WE-RVw

Roll With It, Oasis:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DrARl0dzd-0

At the time, the competition was brewed by the media who dubbed the “The Big Chart Showdown” – a manufactured hype that directly translated into sales. Blur’s ‘Country House’ sold 274,000 copies to Oasis’ 216,000 copies of ‘Roll with It’, and the singles charted at number 1 and number 2 respectively. Blur were the outright winners. 

Ironically, these singles are two of Blur and Oasis’ weakest songs. Since their release both singles have been heavily criticised by their creators and the wider music industry. ‘Country House’ (which the band were reluctant to release as a single at all) seems like a novelty song and a caricature of a Blur record, an idea which was merely exacerbated by its contentious music video. Similarly, ‘Roll with It’, as expressed by Tim Burgess, lead singer of the Charlatans, was “a kind of flatpack Oasis song” which, although it retains “a certain straight-forward charm”, lacks innovation and does little to display the best of band. Nevertheless, this critical analysis of these singles does little to undermine the extent to which they defined the nineties and both Blur and Oasis went on to dominate charts for the remainder of the decade. 

Oasis would quickly recover from their public loss through the release of “Wonderwall”, which would go on to dwarf any subsequent single from Blur’s ‘The Great Escape’. Their album ‘(What’s the Story) Morning Glory?’ would go on to significantly outsell Blur, and the band would continue to spurt out hits such as ‘Champagne Supernova’ and ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’ which would cement the Manchester group firmly above Blur – who were now evident silver medallists. 

I believe that when analysing this legendary rivalry, it is vital to look at the music holistically. The impact of music cannot be simply defined by its structure and chord progression, because if that was the case Blur would catapult above Oasis with hardly any debate – as Oasis was renowned for promoting a signature style, which saw little variation. It is only when you analyse the bands as a whole, taking into account their symbolism, legacy and, of course, music, that the Blur vs. Oasis debate, truly becomes a debate. Both bands stood for something more than simply the music they created, and their cult followings are a testament for their attitudes and symbolism. This can be seen clearly in the aftermath of the Manchester Arena Bombing which took place in May 2017, where, in an act of unity and defiance, the anthem of solidarity for those affected was Oasis’ ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’. This song had the capability to unite a city and is an indication of the manner in which Oasis signify a cultural phenomenon rather than simply being a musical group. 

Ultimately, the Blur vs. Oasis debate is a debate for a reason. Both bands had the ability to define a decade of British music, symbolising something quintessentially revolutionary whilst providing an ingrained sense of familiarity. Relatable and relevant, it is both bands ability to strike up cults which are relentless and timeless which makes the pair so prevalent in the music industry, even twenty years later. Regardless of the complexity of their music, the characters within each group, their personalities, experiences and attitudes serve to promote a culture rather than just a band, and it is in this that they are celebrated.