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Blur, booze, and Brits abroad: Did 'Parklife' predict the Brexit referendum?


In 1994, Oasis hit the front page of every music magazine in the country. The Manchester four-piece were on the up. Having released their debut album Definitely Maybe to critical and commercial acclaim, they embarked on their first European tour with ferocious tenacity, boarding a Thursday night ferry to Amsterdam already smashed on a cocktail of champagne and Jack Daniels. The boat, as it happened, was packed with football fans all making their way to different matches across the channel, most of whom were also incredibly drunk. As you can expect, it wasn’t long before a brawl broke out. At the centre of it: Liam Gallagher. As producer Mark Coyle recalls in Supersonic: “The next thing, sporadic fighting is breaking out all around us and Liam got very excited by the prospect of a lot of chaos going on, and he goes and joins in. You can see him running through the windows along the deck. He’s having a great time. It looks like he’s in a school playground chasing leaves. The next time I see Liam, he’s still running up. He’s got policemen running after him”.

With no escape except the cold North Sea, the band were arrested and promptly sent back to England. On the way back, Noel called Oasis’ manager Alan McGee to break the bad news: “I called McGee, and I’ll never forget this, and this is another reason why I love McGee, I said: ‘Are you sitting down? I’ve got some news; everybody has been arrested’. The only word he said was (adopts Scottish accent) ‘brilliant’”. Mcgee knew, after all, that the press coverage generated by Oasis’ hooliganism would prove to be absolutely priceless, helping to cement the band’s reputation as the no-fucks-given bad boys of Britpop. He was right too. Within days of Oasis’ hitting headlines, ticket sales for their upcoming concerts went through the roof.

Less enamoured with Oasis’ behaviour was Blur frontman Damon Albarn. The two groups had been pitted against each other from the start. Much of the rivalry was fodder to sell papers, but there do seem to be some key differences in the attitudes of Blur and Oasis that stand up. Albarn and the gang, for example, stood in stark contrast to Oasis’ patriotic flag-waving, criticising their strange desire to be perceived as the football hooligans of the modern music scene, just as they criticised the sense of entitlement from which it stemmed. The spring after Oasis were deported from Holland, Blur released ‘To The End’, a track which many assume speaks of a couple’s attempts to resolve their doomed relationship. However, look a little closer and it seems much more likely this 1994 single is in fact a joke at Oasis’ expense, an attack on the booze cruises, unused phrasebooks, and red-faced fanaticism that defined the image of ‘Brits abroad’ in the 1990s.

‘To The End’ is characterised by syrupy string arrangments, easy-listening melodies, and exotica-infused vibraphone pulses. Together, they conjure up the liminal atmospheres of an airport lounge, a lift in a cheap resort, or a changing room in an all-inclusive seaside resort. Taking inspiration from the vintage European film soundtracks of Piero Umulliani and Stelvio Capriano, Blur paint a picture of Europe filtered through the lens of the British holidayer, a Europe filled with exotic beauties, sun-drenched palms, and rubber lilos. It is a pastiche of the continent and one that is only emphasised by the addition of Lætitia Sadier’s (Stereolab) pseudo-erotic French utterances.

Over this, Albarn sings: “All those dirty words/They make us look so dumb/ Been drinking far too much/ And neither of us mean what we say”. These apologetic words betray an internationalism that stands in opposition to the attitudes of people like Liam Gallagher, who, from Albarn’s perspective, treat Europe as a playground for their drunken exploits. But, Albarn doesn’t point the finger solely at the Gallaghers – rather ‘To The End’ suggest that Oasis are symptomatic of a nation that regards itself as innately superior to its European neighbours; an entrenched entitlement that some argue led to Britain’s withdrawal from the EU in 2016. As British historian Jeremy Black suggests, the fetishisation of Europe and the UK’s desire to remain isolated from her are both products of the same self-isolating tendency: “Britain has always viewed itself as a semi-detached member of the E.U,” he argues, citing both the British nation’s geographical separation from the continental mainland, and its imperialist legacy as possible contributors to that mindset.

In a way, you can’t blame Albarn for feeling a little embarrassed by the behaviour of his fellow Britons. The 1990s were the age of booze cruises, after all. This trend for crossing the channel for the set purpose of getting as drunk as possible on cheap alcohol contributed to the image of English foreigners as rowdy drunkards with a taste for brawling. But, at the same time, the UK’s reliance on its European neighbours in this way may have helped forge a sense of collective identity; no matter how unflattering. This collective identity was also being pursued in Parliament. It was also in the 1990s, let’s not forget, that Tony Blair’s New Labour government started patching things up with Europe following the Thatcher and Major years.

As well as signing Britain up to the EU’s social charter in 1991, Blair also set his sights firmly on adopting the euro. With the Euro crisis, not only did the Great British booze cruise hit the rocks, decapitated by the fall in the pound against the Euro, but it also put an end to any prospect of Britain adopting the single currency, perhaps stoking the Euroscepticism that, in 2016, was so widespread in the UK that the nation felt there was no other option but to cast itself adrift and hope for the best.

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