Don't Look Back In Anger: Why The Oasis/Blur Feud Mattered
Updated: Mar 27, 2021
At London’s Royal Albert Hall, the Britpop wars were finally put to rest when Noel Gallagher, Damon Albarn and Graham Coxon (with modfather Paul Weller on drums) performed Blur’s “Tender” together at the fourth night of the Teenage Cancer Trust benefit concerts, as curated by Gallagher. The event, which happened in March of 2013, has generated a much-shared photo that is making the Facebook rounds on the pages of people of a certain age, who are reacting with what could only be called glee that is tempered with at least a dash of disbelief. For those not initiated into or too young to remember the halcyon days of Britpop, here’s why it matters.
To put it in context, Oasis singer/songwriter Noel Gallagher asking Albarn and Coxon to join him on stage for a song is the musical world’s equivalent of signing a Middle East peace accord. Theirs was the last great feud in the history of British music — unless One Direction and The Wanted agree to really have a go at it, like proper rock stars, for their next promotional cycle. Things went to such extremes in the darkest days of their ’90s press-driven rivalry that Noel Gallagher told a reporter he hoped Damon Albarn and Blur guitarist Alex James would “catch AIDS and die.” Retracting that comment in 2006 didn’t quite settle the Blur vs. Oasis feud for the media but this single song, or more accurately a single happy face photo during a charity gig, seems to have finally done the trick, a mere 20 years later.
While America in the ’90s was in the throes of grunge adoration, with the media pitting Nirvana against Pearl Jam in a grudge match that didn’t actually exist (Nirvana vs. Guns N’ Roses was the real hatefest), across the pond they were celebrating Oasis vs. Blur. The outspoken Gallagher brothers formed Oasis, which was more of the working man’s band, devotees to the sound of the Beatles and the hedonistic swagger of the Rolling Stones. They were music industry outsiders, hailing from Manchester in the north of England. In a country where class and caste still matter, the Gallagher brothers are from a family of plumbers with a mother who worked as a lunch lady in the school cafeteria. Noel started in music as a roadie for Inspiral Carpets. Not long after Oasis formed they signed to the indie label Creation, backed by Alan McGee. He was the A&R man behind beloved bands like the Jesus and Mary Chain, Primal Scream and My Bloody Valentine. But the Gallaghers had, and constantly stated, bigger ambitions that were immediately realized when their first album, Definitely Maybe, entered the U.K. charts at No. 1.
Speaking to MTV in an undated (but clearly shot in the ’90s) red carpet interview, Gallagher said, “Are you asking me if I’m happy? Listen, I’ve got 87 million pounds in the bank. I’ve got a Rolls Royce. I’ve got three stalkers. I’m about to go on the board at Manchester City [Football Club]. I’m part of the greatest band in the world. Am I happy with that?” Gallagher pauses to creep closer to the lens and begins screaming, “No, I’m not! I want more!”
It’s the kind of bloviating the Gallagher brothers were known for in the ’90s. An interview with Oasis would always generate an off-the-cuff comment about something — be it another band, ill-advised weigh-ins on politics, the Gallagher brother’s mutual hatred, or the Gallagher brothers’ mutual agreement that they are geniuses and Oasis is the greatest band ever. Their quotes make up dozens of web slideshows. They’re so numerous and free-floating that Wikipedia has a page made up entirely of unattributed things Noel Gallagher is reported to have said, including the underrated gem: “We are the biggest band in Britain of all time, ever. The funny thing is, that fucker mouthing off three years ago about how we were gonna be the biggest band in the world, we actually went and done it.”
But before Oasis, there was Blur. No one in England thought much of them, in particular, until that group of Britpop and Cool Britania bands like Suede (unfortunately renamed the London Suede for American audiences, due to a copyright claim from another band), Pulp and Elastica started garnering attention. Blur found themselves in the midst of a fashionable London scene and in the midst of a great press story, with Albarn stealing away Suede singer Brett Anderson’s girlfriend, Elastica singer (and former member of Suede) Justine Frischmann. The love triangle generated albums worth of guitar-laden singles that ran up the charts as hits for all three bands.
Blur was the polar opposite of Oasis. They were art school students from the University of London who had been childhood friends, all coming from middle-class families. They concocted a clever sort of music and lyricism that was more in line with the pretty boy faces of the Kinks but appropriated mod imagery from the Who, and they were very, very proud of being clever. They’re the band who refused to recut their second record with Nirvana and Sonic Youth producer Butch Vig to make it appeal more to American audiences in 1993. Their breakthrough 1994 album, Parklife, is widely credited with opening the door to alternative rock radio and press in America for a generation of British indie bands. Albarn himself was never one to shy away from giving a wry media quote, which came in handy when the press-fueled rivalry between Oasis and Blur kicked off.
There was plenty of room on the U.K. charts for both Blur and Oasis, along with a boatload of other guitar bands, in the ’90s as the public’s appetite was whetted by their sounds. But the mercurial, mercenary British press couldn’t help setting the two top-selling groups in opposition to each other. But unlike the days of Beatles vs. Stones, these weren’t two groups who socialized together and could make a joke of the black and white roles the press cast them in. If they were on good terms from the start, the so-called “Battle of Britpop” might never have happened.
While most of the NME-buying public had already proclaimed themselves to be a fan of either Oasis or Blur, Blur’s camp decided (in a move that the 2010 documentary No Distance Left To Run would make clear was entirely Albarn’s idea) to take advantage of the media circus, moving the band’s release date for “Country House” to August 14, 1995 — the same day as Oasis’s “Roll With It” was scheduled for stores.
With music magazines urging young fans to go out and support the band of their choice in this head-to-head sales competition, the marketing ploy became overhyped and far eclipsed the newsworthiness of the singles themselves — both B to C level moments in the respective catalogs of the bands. In the end, Blur outsold Oasis by about 50,000 singles, amid strong objections from the Oasis camp disputing the sportsmanship, unfair advantage of a lower price point and actual barcode fraud in relation to the final tally. Oasis had their feelings further injured when Blur started touring at the same time they did and using a light projection of the number 1 to mark their status.
The sniping continued, with Gallagher making and then apologizing for his infamous AIDS comment. In the 2003 Live Forever Britpop documentary, Albarn summarized the wars in a surly quote, saying, “How did I feel [about it]? I felt stupid and I felt, I just felt very confused. Basically I didn’t really realize that my kind of flippancy was going to have such profound resonance in my life. I changed quite dramatically after that period.”
But that flippancy and the hard-hearted pot shots both bands took at each other in the press were exactly what supremely confident, successful and rich rock stars should do. It is the stuff that rock and roll legends are made of, at a time when the emerging American rock bands at the top of the charts in the mid-’90s (think Foo Fighters, Gin Blossoms, Collective Soul, Stone Temple Pilots) were either faceless or guileless. Coming out of the excess of the Sunset Strip hair metal scene of the ’80s, the rockers of the ’90s were the dullest bunch of drips possible. Nirvana and Pearl Jam fashioned themselves as anti-rock stars, taking the polar opposite pose of the self-indulgent excess of the L.A. scene that dominated before them. With the lone exceptions of the Smashing Pumpkins and Hole, whose respective singers Billy Corgan and Courtney Love rarely met a microphone they couldn’t say something petty into, rock music in the ’90s was marked by a parade of dull rock stars with derivative hits. At least Blur and Oasis were willing to go balls to the wall about it.
If anything, Blur and Oasis could be compared to the hip-hop wars happening in America. They were not Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G., as no one quite took it to the lengths of having a shoot-out, but they were ostensibly the Jay-Z and Nas of the rock universe. The posturing and rock star behaviors that had marked stars of the ’60s and ’70s were being taken over by hip hop stars in the ’90s. Blur and Oasis were the last men standing on the “bad behaviors allowed only by rock stars” mountain — to epic proportions we have not seen since.
1996 would bring Oasis their greatest success in the form of their enduring single “Wonderwall” and turning their album (What’s The Story) Morning Glory into the biggest-selling British album of the ’90s. The band who had not considered themselves part of the Britpop movement had cut the definitive, best selling and most critically lauded Britpop album of all time. Both are regarded as the pinnacle of Noel Gallagher’s career.
Blur would see a major overhaul when “Song 2” from their 1997 self-titled album became a worldwide hit and the noose with which the band almost hung itself. While the album was a step away from the British-centric songs that defined their early career, it was also a reinvention.
The song Albarn, Coxon and Gallagher played together is from Blur’s 1999 album, 13 — an ode to Albarn’s failed relationship with Frischmann and one of the best in their catalog. “Tender” is a ballad with the same enduring sing-along quality of “Song 2” for very dour people. That this particular group of people would collaborate on any song is a miracle, but naturally, the choice would have to be a song released well beyond the days of their Britpop rivalry.
At this point in their lives, the men of Oasis have gone their separate ways. Noel Gallagher left the group in 2009 and Liam rechristened them Beady Eye. Blur took a well-documented break after their 2003 album Think Tank, with Albarn leaving to create two supergroups: Gorillaz and the Good, the Bad & the Queen. Blur reunited in 2008 and have focused on festival performances, releasing only a few new singles and killing off a recording session for a new album for the time being.
Time heals all wounds. Noel Gallagher has undoubtedly become more tolerant, possibly owing to the removal of Liam the instigator from his life, and his arrogance certainly took a backseat after critical and sales reception to Oasis albums tapered off in the 2000s. Albarn has spiraled off from Britpop into more obscure musical endeavors, with forays into African, world and electronic music under his belt. Neither seems keen to hold on to that Mick Jagger swagger “rock star for life” pose. But for a decade, they were the picture perfect examples of a rock star feud.