Tuesday 25 October 2011

Clandestine Classic XIX - Popscene (live at Peel Acres) #keepingitpeel

#keepingitpeelThe nineteenth post in an occasional series that is intended to highlight songs that you might not have heard that I think are excellent - clandestine classics, if you will. Maybe they'll be by bands you've never heard of. Maybe they'll be by more familiar artists, but tracks that were squirelled away on b-sides, unpopular albums, radio sessions or music magazine cover-mounted CDs. Time will, undoubtedly, tell.

Is it possible for there to be a clandestine classic from a band as wildly successful as Blur? After all, they bestrode the music scene like cheeky Southern Britpop gods, didn't they? And it was ever thus. Wasn't it? Well, not really. And without today's classic, there's a good chance they would only be remembered now, if at all, as indie also-rans with just one hit song still bringing in the PRS cheques.

Early Blur had a minor hit with first single She's So High but things took off for them with their next release, There's No Other Way. With Graham's instantly memorable guitar hook, Damon's slightly flowered-up delivery, and a shuffling rhythm from Alex and Dave that owed a lot to the so-called Madchester scene that Blur were never really part of, it was a massive hit. And also something of a millstone around their collective neck. Debut album Leisure just didn't measure up. And it wasn't the sound of Blur either - it was the sound of a band chasing a scene. By the time they released the last single from Leisure, Bang, all was not well in camp Blur. I picked Bang on 12" vinyl out of Woolworths' bargain bin within a couple of weeks of its release. I don't think the chicken cover art helped much. When I saw Blur live for the first time, in 1992, Damon introduced There's No Other Way by saying "You're gonna think this is shit." And it was, but then I guess that's what happens when a band is both pissed and pissed off.

So what happened between Bang and the release of classic album Modern Life Is Rubbish in May 1993 (the band's highpoint in my view), an album that fused Blur's danceable indie with story-telling songs in the tradition of The Kinks and XTC? What happened was simple: Blur re-invented themselves. A complete re-think, re-boot, re-imagining, re-everything. And the first product of this re-invention was Popscene. Pseudo-Madchester beats? Gone. Hippy-trippy vocals? Gone. Flared trousers? Gone. In their place were frantic, buzzing guitars, a brass section, cherry-red DM boots. And lyrics that were observational and loaded with humour - with the line "In the absence of a way of life, I'll repeat this again and again... and again" Blur were perhaps even parodying the bandwagon they had so recently tried to jump on. Popscene was a massive step into the dark for Blur - if I can cut and paste from Wikipedia for a second... "We felt 'Popscene' was a big departure; a very, very English record," Albarn told the NME in 1993, "But that annoyed a lot of people... We put ourselves out on a limb to pursue this English ideal and no-one was interested." In fact there was so little interest that Popscene stalled at 32 in the singles chart. Ironic that a song that would later lend its name to so many indie club nights across the country should have performed so poorly.

But the change in tone was set, and Popscene paved the way for all that was to follow, from the Britpop triumvirate of Modern Life, Parklife and The Great Escape, right through to the punkier, dirtier, more experimental Blur, 13 and Think Tank. And as Blur became the biggest band in the country (sorry Gallagher bros), suddenly Popscene became "the great lost single" and very sought after. Copies began changing hands on e-bay for silly money. And the fact that it just wasn't on any album fuelled its desirability. It was even omitted from their first Best Of compilation. So people like me had to make do with the version I feature here today, that the band recorded live in John Peel's garden for Radio 1. I seem to recall taping this off the radio. Yes, tape, kids. My neatly written inlay card tells me the sesion, which became known as "Live at Peel Acres" was broadcast on the 5th of May 1997. And since today is Keeping It Peel day, I champion the Peel Acres version of Popscene in honour of the late, great John Peel. I seem to recall John saying that his daughter and her mates had bunked off school to stay home and see Blur. Well, you would, wouldn't you?

The Peel Acres Popscene eventually turned up the B-side of On Your Own, and then on afterthought live/remix compilation Bustin' and Dronin'. The original studio version of the song finally made it onto an album with the recent release of the Midlife compilation but, since today is Keeping It Peel day let's stick with the Peel Acres version. You can read more about the whole session courtesy of the always-excellent Vinyl Villain. If downloading is your thing you can probably find an interesting file here. Alternatively, there's always YouTube... here you go.


  1. Wow, that's much more raw than the single version I know... and yet, closer to the direction they'd take about 6 years later, post-Britpop. Hence, I guess, the way it links into Song 2.

    1. Indeed. This was recorded three month after the release of their eponymous fifth album which itself was notable for a rougher, punkier sound than those that had gone before. Popscene gets that treatment here and I think it works.