Britannia All The Way? Blur, Parklive.

Britannia All The Way? Blur, Parklive.

Ah London 2012. A time of great prosperity; of sporting prowess and cross-cultural celebration! For many (mostly so-called Games Makers, I’d cynically presuppose) those were what one may deem the days – ones spent slobbing about glued to incomprehensible excuses for sport to be revered as a wholly worthwhile alternative to actual work. An elephantine sandpit was plonked down right outside Buckingham Palace, littered with a multiethnic scantily clad and the place was supposedly all the better for it, whilst fortunes were blown on tickets modestly priced at anything up to £2,012. God it was good. Thanks for everything Lord Coe – those dulcet memories; the enhanced omnipresence of Coca-Cola; the hours blown on the most inept of ticketing sites. But now what are we left with? Nothing more than a decaying legacy, and a disused stadium. The hyperbolic, hyper-inflated nonsenses of football have returned to their rightful mantle at the forefront of every back page, its controversies ranging from raging base racial discrimination to unintelligible prattle of engorged salaries and egos alike. The reassuring futilities of normality. But was all that Olympic malarkey really worth it? Well, of course it was! Probably…

It all came to a close on a barmy August eve. The 12th, I seem to recall. And while a reformed Spice Girls were tarting it up atop London taxis and Madness continued to astound with their wildly excessive notoriety if not their fetid cod reggae crud, I was stood in Hyde Park, enveloped by a gaudy miscellany daubed top to toe in Union Jack. It was glorious, and utterly grotesque all at once. Those thirsting for any form of tipple would’ve needed to be on Barclays Premier League wages, or employees of that very bastarding bank itself. Subjectively, it made for a quite literally sobering experience. Though it were Blur dolled up as Britain, or Britain dressed up as Blur. I can’t quite remember, if I ever did figure that one out in the first place. But yes, the long and short of it was that I found myself at the centre of a vast multitude united in patriotism, and yet completely alone in attitude: passive aggression was the default expression, as it seems to be at any stadium-slaying or park-engulfing show. I’d been to witness Madonna’s conclusive descent into desperate irrelevance the previous month, and quite apparently there were only two mindsets in operation: pissed, and/ or pissed off. Again, I found myself most distressingly in the latter of the two categories. Though Blur’s Parklive exploit panned out a little differently…

Earlier on in the afternoon, we were reminded of just how dreary British pop histories could be as both New Order and Bombay Bicycle Club whined their respective ways through equivalently dire earlier afternoon stints. Then came the time (temporally speaking) of The Specials, who set about prompting the recurring reassurance that ska and 2 Tone could indeed be a smidgen hornier than Suggs in a crusty pinstripe two-piece. But it was all about Albarn and not Hall; London and anywhere but Coventry, although I ought add that the city’s Ricoh Arena did in fact play host to a few of football’s lesser sparrings. Was it, or in fact wasn’t it to be one last grandiose swan song from Albarn et al.? [Transpires it wasn't, as the reunion show rolls on with a slew of major European festival dates already booked in for next summer, but fuck it. It made for a tearjerking angle at the time.] Was it any good? By and large, yeah, I’d probably say it was, really. Noncommittal to the last…

Blur are one of those bands that slip almost unfeasibly neatly into the hallowed crossover centre of the venn diagram pitting success against idiosyncratic songsmithery and absolute artistic control. For all the uncouth bombast of, like, Tracy Jacks Albarn could pen something as Tender (badum tish) as To The End, or as skyscraping and irrefutably marvellous as This Is A Low. That night we sweated in our eyes, Albarn but a bleary fleck on the retina and he himself, well, he personified this symbiotic personality quite perfectly. Costumed in his long since customary and quintessentially British polo shirt blues, he’d comport himself as may an impudent prick ignored for the afternoon one moment – shouting and screaming as though addled with a mortifyingly grave case of ADHD – and would really inspire a sense of warm belonging the next. One moment he’d have you wanting to pull at your own teeth and never replace them with that glinting flaxen monstrosity he’s had stuffed in his jaw, whilst the next he’d empathetically tug away at your heartstrings as might a child heaving the lower echelons of a silky Sunday morning gown. It’s symbiosis to the point of schizophrenia, and both sides belong to a childlike guile. But just as the Olympics themselves portrayed both the good and bad of Britain, that night we got the good, bad, and momentarily ugly of Albarn. Parklife, replete with – yup – polo shirted Phil Daniels cameo, was downright disgusting and duly loutish.

Though despite having already avowed to it being about Albarn, it wasn’t exactly. It was more to do with what would have been a genuinely transcendent commemoration of one of the richest discography tapestries of the modern era. I employ the past conditional tense, for they’ve plenty distance left to run if those dates already penned in be any valid indication: Barcelona, that Belgian hellhole Werchter, some Polish airfield or other, etcetera. Forget holding on for tomorrow; they’ll be holding on ’til they’re moving like that haggard knave Jagger at this rate…

But should that matter? Surely if they that missed out on the first; second; third; fourth; fifteenth time of asking are here afforded an opportunity to revel in the decadent carouse that is their every reformation then each one is a monumentally positive thing? Kids with or without guns, for instance, may have been introduced to the complex enigma that is Albarn via chart-scaling Gorillaz singles, only later turning onto Blur in undying affection and appetite for more from this heroically inscrutable artist. Witnessing Blur whir through some of Britpop’s most invaluable heirlooms in Rough Trade was one of those more memorable of memories I’ll cling to ’til my time comes. It was the first chance I’d had to catch them, and I’d fucking grasped it tight as anything. It was the sort of evening that fanaticising over a band and squandering daydreams on end fantasising about what they may play were they ever to reconvene is all about, and it felt as though a vicarious reenactment of the genre’s highly profitable mid- to late-’90s. But that was then, and this is now. Or a different then immortalised and now belatedly issued just in time to be stuffed down a few thousand stockings. Which comes as something of a relief, as it can this time not only be listened to over and over, but actually heard in the first place.

Springsteen had already bawled his way well over curfew the preceding month and whether a direct consequence of this or something else altogether, the show was barely audible from beyond the ever vexatious Golden Circle installed at the foot of a monolithic reconstruction of Albarn’s beloved Westway. It was erected especially for this night, just as its namesake single, Under The Westway, was scribed with this get-together in mind. “We wrote [it] in February, just imagining what the last day of the Olympics would feel like. Being here. And… uh… this song is just written for you, in Hyde Park, today. So… uh… it’s your song.” That which wafted on over across the incessant blather and general hum of London was blissful, if somewhat contradictory as Albarn crooned of product placement pitching up “inside my dreams”. Advertisement may not have been scorched into our every sight by his “men in yellow jackets” cited, but it was undoubtedly an inexorable blemish upon the ‘Games. Its lyrics in general evoke a wistful sense of solitude – Albarn’s best of songwriting presets. It’s him at his most emotional though that it was conceived some six months previous shows up in his elegiac drones of snowy Sundays and sensations of feeling lost out at a proverbial sea. It’s decidedly wintry and, upon discernible reflection, was that night delivered to perfection.

And to a degree, that’s my prime consternation with this release, for it starkly highlights all that could’ve been. They really did play Sing! That night it sounded anaemic; here it’s all-powerful (almost, though never really) – the Leisure centrepiece that has always been confusingly skewed left of centre and condemned to the realms of the forgotten, long lost greats. That night it should’ve been worthily reinstated as one of Albarn’s myriad magna opera, though conversely it proved something of a damp squib. Beetlebum, Popscene, and End Of The Century were roisterous even without the unrestrained bellowing, though much of the set could be lumped and unceremoniously dumped into one of two categories: brash, and by and large boorish album track tedium (Advert, London Loves, Jubilee) or vulnerable singles and other assorted stuff all but entirely lost in either disquieting hush or that sodding chorus to Tender that was religiously yodelled over and over ad infinitum throughout. See Coffee & TV. So the sound – or mostly a lack thereof – was rendered a bit of a blur, basically.

What this one does do, however, is to provoke a real yearning to revisit the original recordings, though surely that was never the primary intention of this release that’s as commemorative as a Jubilee coin, and with that for the most part commensurately redundant.

And indeed much of this recording suffers similarly from a poorly mixed and here mastered sound quality: Colin Zeal is muddier than Worthy Farm’s infamously boggy Other Field, whilst the Arabesque dwindle of Out Of Time feels crustier than socks savaged over five days in said paddock. It’s a shame, just as it seems somehow crude that Albarn’s prolix jabber which here punctuates various tracks hasn’t been edited in the slightest. The introduction to Under The Westway comes tacked onto the end of Sing; the familial prating that precedes unexceptional B-side Young And Lovely not only consumed not far short of a minute back in August, but does so again on this one; and there are ungainly bursts of audience whooping at some of its more inopportune moments. Thirty seconds of it to be precise, between a shambolic Trimm Trabb and a softened Caramel. “Got to get better” – a premonitory warning to they that only slightly emended the disastrously lax sound levels on the night.

So all in all a perplexing release, really. Had it really been their grandiose denouement then this would seem apt – the inherent sound issues of which I’m now wittering meself aside. Though that it is now not to be digested as such establishes it only as yet another pre-Christmas money-spinner. And Albarn’s false avowals back then of it being thus now seem odd to say the least as well, and it seems comparably peculiar that its sleeve artwork – depicting Britannia straddling a roaring hippo on The Long Walk – should be geographically relocated to Windsor’s Great Park. Perhaps it’s just the obscured opinion of a jaded attendee, though something about Parklive seems superficially compiled and, essentially, a little on the superfluous side. So we can but hope they themselves get better the next time they inevitably end up selling out Hyde Park three years or so down the line. Heck – maybe then they’ll live and let live, and never again resort to remembrance live releases…

Released: December 3rd, 2012 [EMI]

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