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Noel Gallagher can't resist sticking it to Damon Albarn. There's a scene in Live Forever, the new documentary that examines the mid-1990s Brit-pop revival, where Gallagher is talking about the public feud between Oasis and Blur. He is asked how Oasis came to be perceived as champions of the British working class, while Albarn and Blur were cast as privileged bluebloods who'd never done an honest day's work in their lives. The interviewer's motives couldn't be more transparent - it doesn't take much to goad Gallagher into taking jabs at a rival - but the gambit works.
Feeling his oats, Gallagher replies, "That's what they are and that's what we are. Don't dress it up and make it something it's not. They've never been on a building site. Not to say that the dirt under your fingernails is some kind of badge of honor. It's not. It's just a fact. They never had a paper route. I had a milk run. I worked on building sites and that fundamentally makes my soul a lot more purer than theirs." Years ago Albarn would have taken the passive-aggressive bait from the ever-quotable Gallagher and hanged himself in the press while the Gallagher brothers laughed like mischievous schoolchildren who've just "de-pants" a gullible classmate. This time Albarn doesn't fall for it. He refuses to discuss the reasons behind the tiff in Live Forever, then smiles and dismisses it as "stupid" posturing. So ends the civil war between what used to be Britain's biggest pop music icons.
I guess that's that then. Shoot, I was hoping for more fireworks. Good for Damon, though. For once, he didn't stoop to Oasis' level. You can't blame him for how defensive he used to get about his background. And you can't blame the British for bristling at the unchecked invasion of American culture that swamped the UK under the obliging watch of Margaret Thatcher and the Tory regime. Fast-food chains were popping up everywhere. Taverns were becoming obsolete, replaced by "fan clubs" as Albarn calls them, which I'm assuming are the equivalent of shiny, happy eateries like TGI Friday's - an abomination anywhere, but especially in a place like Britain, which abhors anything tacky.
Britain was fast becoming occupied territory. Only there were no tanks rolling through the streets, just double-decker buses branded with the corporate logos of foreign multi-nationals. And then there was the unwashed horde of American grunge acts scaling the fortress of the British pop charts. It was time for a change, and music helped - however briefly - to restore national pride at a time when it sorely needed some. The economy was in the toilet and 11 years of oppressive Conservative rule had sapped the life out of the country.
Then along came The Stone Roses. Rising out of Madchester's dance-happy psychedelic scene, The Stone Roses fired the first shots in Britain's cultural revolution with their insatiably trippy self-titled debut. But they could never recapture the magic, taking five years to make their flaccid follow-up. Their inactivity killed the momentum of the movement they sparked. Perhaps justifiably, Live Forever glosses over their contributions, noting briefly the impact of the Roses' landmark Spike Island show and then moving on to Nirvana and the juicy chart war between Oasis and Blur. Documentaries are different from works of fiction, but nevertheless, character development is crucial to telling a story. Considering the role they played in Britpop's resurgence, The Stone Roses deserve better. And Live Forever offers no new insight into the Nirvana phenomenon. Jon Savage, the esteemed music critic, bluntly says they were the best band the Grunge movement produced. He may be right, but you'd expect more from him. Any kid with a Kurt Cobain t-shirt could tell you the same thing.
Live Forever picks up steam after its awkward beginnings. Noel is Noel, and his sound bites are priceless. Vanity Fair did a splashy cover story on "Cool Britannia" and plastered a picture of brother Liam on the cover lounging in bed with a comely young woman. Noel says Liam looked like the nipple on a baby's bottle with that white skullcap on his head. Funnier still is a chat with Liam, where the interviewer refers to Liam as androgynous and then tries to explain to him what he means by it. "Are you saying I'm a bird?" Liam asks, in his thick cockney accent.
Director John Dower has a lot of ground to cover in Live Forever, and only 80-some minutes to do so. Not only does he trace the trajectories of Blur and Oasis, and their inevitable mid-air collision, but he also digs into the drug-induced downfall of Pulp. Unfortunately, the trip-hop trail blazed by Massive Attack and Portishead's music noir get only passing mention. To me, the film should be about musical exploration and the artists that took chances and expanded the definition of Brit-pop. What we get are mere glimpses of them, as if they had little to do with the main plot. It's like a cop getting the mug shot of a criminal, but not the rap sheet.
That's not to say Live Forever is a failed endeavor. The commentary regarding the concurrent rise of New Labour, and in particular Tony Blair, and the disillusion that followed is sharp and revealing. It's not a stretch to say that Blair rode Oasis' coattails to the top. Noel Gallagher championed his cause. There's an awards show clip where he tells the audience that his band and Blair are giving hope to Britain's youth. For his troubles, Gallagher gets invited to a party at the prime minister's place so Blair can have his photo taken with him. Poor Gallagher comes off as a cloying New Labour dupe, while Albarn, who saw through Blair's ploy and refused to aid his campaign, is elevated for his skepticism, especially in light of Blair's plummeting political currency. Advantage, Blur.
More importantly, Live Forever captures the optimism of the times, spinning a color wheel of avant-garde artwork and fashions and showcasing the pointed social commentary of music videos by Blur and Pulp. Having Suede on a magazine cover backed by the Union Jack and standing beside cover lines that screamed, "Go Home Yanks" must have swelled the national ego - at least for those who equate pop music supremacy with patriotism. It was cool to be British. Vanity Fair, an American publication, said so, and Trainspotting, a movie about smack addiction, made Anglo heroin use seem almost romantic. If only it was just a movie. When visionaries like Pulp's Jarvis Cocker became so immersed in drug culture they stopped making music, "Cool Britannia" became more about image and less about cultural development. And of course, Liam was hitting the sauce pretty good, so Oasis floundered and has yet to regain its form. Live Forever chronicles the downfall of Brit-pop just as vividly as it did the take-off. It's a soul-searching, honest examination of British attitudes in the face of American commercial imperialism. Funny isn't it, how England has forgotten its past as a colonial power and how it exploited so much of the world for its own appetites? If nothing else, Live Forever shows that the irony is lost on the Brits, and that makes me chuckle a little.
What sinks Live Forever is a tendency toward tabloid-style journalism. You get the feeling the reason for making the documentary was to get Oasis and Blur sniping at each other again. When Albarn refuses to rejoin the fray, he lets the air out of Live Forever's tires. Sort of like how Brit-pop, and pop music in general, went flat. Would somebody please get the jack?
Peter Lindblad lives in Appleton, Wis., and bleeds green and gold just like all the Packer fan nutjobs in the area. He does draw the line at wearing blocks of chedder on his head, or any other body parts for that matter, though. His professional career has taken weird twists and turns that have led him to his current position as an editor at a coin magazine. He hopes his stay there will be a short one. Before that, he worked as an associate editor at a log home magazine. To anyone that will listen, he'll swear that Shiner was one of the greatest rock bands to ever walk the earth. Yet he also has much love for Superchunk, Spoon, DJ Shadow, Swervedriver, Wilco, Fugazi, Jawbox, ... And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, Queens Of The Stone Age, and Modest Mouse, among others.
See other articles by Peter Lindblad.
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