Songs that won the war

Jim White remembers: never in the field of popular music had so little been hyped so much by so many

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On the night of 20 August, 2045, London was in celebratory mood: the banks of the Thames were ablaze with laser-directed fireworks, lighting up the sky with a cascade of colour to over-shadow even Sir Richard Rogers's pink, flourescent Millennium Bridge. Flying low above the Mall, a lovingly restored RAF Tornado showered the cheery crowd of pensioners gathered there with small pieces of coloured blotting paper. On the balcony of Buckingham Palace, King William took the salute. All eyes, though, were on the figure to the king's left: spritely, eager, a flop of HRT-maintained blond hair tumbling into his eyes, an ill-fitting wind-cheater hanging from his wiry frame.

Lord Albarn of Walthamstow seemed to enjoy the celebrations more than anyone. But then so he should; without him, there would have been no VOO (Victory over Oasis) Day to remember, no moment to remind ourselves of that sunny Sunday in 1995, when his Lordship, then just plain Damon, led his band of brave men, Blur, to the place that mattered: the top of the singles charts. And in the process defeated the northern forces of darkness, Oasis, who were left sneering, snarling and sniffing in his wash. Indeed, the only thing that seemed to cloud yesterday's proceedings was the ambiguous tone of the defeated leader of the former enemy, Noel Gallagher. Still sulking in his Mancunian hide-out, Gallagher remained unwilling to provide the unequivocal apology we all sought - a sorry for calling his Lordship "a middle-class wanker".

As I sat in my Allied Dunbar "Life begins at 80" enforced leisure-time housing, watching the events on my outmoded pay-for-view digital information receiver, I knew what was coming. My granddaughter, on holiday from her Gillian Shephard 3-Rs pay-as-you-learn nursery, asked me the question I had been dreading:

"Grandad, so what exactly did you do during the Battle of the Bands?"

And I have to admit, I lied. Rather than daring to tell her the truth - I spent that summer complaining about the price of eating out in France and constructing elaborate lawn-watering systems to circumvent an impending hosepipe ban - I pretended I had been right in there.

"Well, my dear," I said. "I explained to the newspaper-reading public that the fight between Blur and Oasis was not simply a media hype, but that there was a serious dialectic involved here: an important collision between south and north, art house and pub, uppers and downers, middle and working, modernism and post-modernism; whoever was victorious in this one would be making a huge statement about the fundamental direction of British popular culture towards the turn of the century."

"So which record did you actually buy, Grandad?"

"Neither," I said, smiling indulgently at the naivety of youth. "We got free copies biked round to the office."

The Battle of the Bands was as beautifully engineered a piece of publicity as you could imagine, a campaign which must have left the members of Oasis and Blur, plus their respective bank managers, gloating at the witless obeisance of the media prepared to do a commercial outfit's marketing for free. The Independent was just as culpable, filling inch after inch (including these) with articles which spent most of their length explaining (presumably for the benefit of news editors whose knowledge of popular beat combos ended when Fleetwood Mac legged it to Los Angeles) who the two contenders were.

Oasis were, according to cuttings-gleaned profiles in all the broadsheet papers, former teenage thieves, who boasted a prodigious intake of drugs and (this may be no coincidence) supported Manchester City. Blur were clever, mod and Cockney, which, since they came from Colchester, suggested the sound of Bow Bells had some carry. Why the two were mutually exclusive and why it was reckoned necessary to support one or other rather than appreciating both as classy, neat and sophisticated re-workings of 40 years of British pop influences was never clearly explained. But then, if it had been, it would have spoiled the story.

The cunning of the Blur and Oasis marketing campaign was not so much the manufacture of presentable enmity. It was the timing. Record companies had long known how to play the singles market, releasing their product to coincide with the buying patterns of their public. Remember the Beatles versus The Stones in the Sixties? Or, as even more pitiful commentators have recalled, Mud vs Slade in the Seventies? Even more dramatically in January 1989, the heavy metal band Iron Maiden scored an unexpected number one. Unexpected, that is, to everyone but their record company, who released the single the week after Christmas, the traditional dead period of record- buying. Iron Maiden, however, had a particularly devoted hardcore following who, encouraged by the fact the record was released in five different "limited edition" formats, each went out and bought all five. The result was, in a week when other sales were low, Maiden achieved enough to land No 1. This was not in itself a money-making feat - they only sold 70,000 copies - but a fantastic public relations coup for a band seldom heard in the mainstream.

But this was less about the record market than the media market. As early as 1981, Adam Ant had discovered the most important marketing rule of the pop star: "the music press don't deliver - they preach to the converted," he said, but "a centre-page spread in the Sun or the Mirror was a No 1 record."

The middle of the summer may be an indifferent time in singles sales, but it is the perfect time to stage a publicity coup and seize those centre pages. The media, deprived of the spoon-fed news provided by Parliament and the law courts, has to indulge in the unpleasant activity of going out and finding their own stories (an activity derided as silly). If you provide them with one, they will run it endlessly with supine gratefulness. Why do you think the Edinburgh Festival does so well?

Thus the two biggest groups in England, supported by two of the biggest record companies, released their singles on the same August day and presented the decision as a declaration of war. The battle for the No 1 slot, they called it. And the media duly, dutifully, made it a two-horse race, swamping all other releases that week - even Madonna's - under a tidal wave of publicity. It was another sharp piece of timing, incidentally, that enabled an industrial cartel to contrive such a blatant carve-up without enquiry: all the relevant trade ministers were in Tuscany at the time.

The only risk the strategy took was that some Euro-disco stomp, complete with its own tailor-made mass dance involving undignified arm movements and a handbag, would emerge from the clubs of Lanzarote and become the year's "surprise hit of the summer". Fortunately, none was forthcoming, and Blur won the race. Not that Oasis minded. Coming second, they sold enough singles to keep the biggest of their appetites indulged, and enhanced their image as anti-establishment, non-conformist, surly.

But I could see this explanation was boring my grand-daughter, so I asked if she would like to hear the records; I had them somewhere. As the final rocket settled into the river, and Lord Albarn smiled his final cheeky smile, I creaked up my old CD player.

"You know what, Grandad," my grand-daughter said as "Roll With It" blurred into "Country House". "They're all right, these."

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