Big-hitters slug it out in battle of the bands

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Even in the notoriously competitive world of pop music, it is the most keenly awaited contest for years.

Today, the two most popular bands in Britain, Blur and Oasis, release their new singles and one is expected to enter the charts at number one on Sunday. Oasis's "Roll With It" and Blur's "Country House" are both as yet unavailable on any album.

The bands have started the first major chart war between two British bands for more than 30 years. Even The Beatles and The Rolling Stones each timed the release schedules of their singles so that the other could enjoy a number-one single.

The two bands, who have lured the attention of the lucrative teen market away from the United States, are considered by most critics to be the most exciting British rock bands for many years. It is conceivable that neither band will reach the top spot - but not likely.

The music press has not been slow to stoke up the battle: Oasis v Blur, north v south, working class v middle class, Sony v EMI. The New Musical Express devoted three pages of its current issue to "The British Heavyweight Championship".

There is not much love lost between Colchester's Blur and Oasis, from Burnage in Manchester. Each band has accused the other of engineering their release date to scupper the other's chances of reaching number one. NME has quoted Noel Gallagher of Oasis as saying: "Blur are a bunch of middle-class wankers trying to play hard ball with a bunch of working- class heroes. There will be only one winner."

Blur have refused to comment but when Chris Evans played the Oasis single "Roll With It" live over the phone on Radio 1 to Damon Albarn, the Blur frontman was heard singing along - to Status Quo's deeply unfashionable trad-rock anthem, "Rockin' All Over the World".

Albarn made his feelings about the band described as the "Rolling Stones to Blur's poppy Beatles", more explicit when collecting a recent award: "Rock'n'roll is ****," he said.

Oasis have already reached number one this year with their sixth single, "Some Might Say". Blur have never topped the singles chart. Oasis's debut LP, Definitely Maybe, and Blur's last, Parklife, were both number one albums.

Experts are divided on who will triumph. Oasis are said to have larger hard-core support who will buy the single immediately but Blur could reach number one with their broader fanbase. The hugely successful Parklife was voted best LP of 1994 by readers of Smash Hits, NME and Q and won the band a Brit award. Blur have also hired Damien Hirst, the enfant terrible of the art world, to direct the video for "Country House", his first pop video.

Simon Frith, who has written several pop music books as well as lecturing on the subject, said yesterday: "It's the best marketing opportunity the British record industry has had for a number of years. It has generated a buzz that something exciting is happening. The clever thing is that both bands appeal to different people.

"People are trying to compare it to The Beatles and the Stones but it's not like that. Blur are southern, where the Beatles were northern. The Beatles always wanted to sound like the Stones, and that's what Oasis sound like - the Beatles playing the Stones' songs."

Justine Frischmann, lead singer of Elastica, who lives with Albarn, told NME last week: "It's great that they're both going for number one. It's probably 30 years since it's happened. I've no idea who will win; I think it comes down to who's got the strongest record company."

A mark of both bands' success is the fact that today Madonna and Michael Jackson both release new singles. Neither is expected to come close to Blur or Oasis in this Sunday's Top 40.