From Britpop to Brexit: dreams of England turning sour

Damon Albarn's psychogeographic tour gives the sense of a country on the verge of catastrophe

About a year before the European Union referendum in the UK, when I was looking around for something to write about, I fixed upon a strangely unsexy topic: the English heritage sector.

There was something weird, I thought, about an ostensibly modern country whose people had a tendency, sometimes in mid-conversation, to drift off into reveries about an imagined past.

I found it peculiar that some buildings, rather than being demolished, would be carefully dismantled and then reconstructed at heritage parks in which a pristine imaginary version of small-town England could outlive the real one. Perhaps more logical was the way that the spectre of industrial heritage haunted the decrepit post-industrial towns in an era of zero-hours contracts and government austerity. Seen from a drained, decaying present, the past glowed seductively.

I spent a little while thinking about the project, where I would go and who I might interview. But eventually I gave up. Surely there were better ways of understanding England than this?


But when the Leave campaign came along and helped to transform local and national heritage into a deeply nostalgic driver of grievance, I felt the urge to both return to my research and run screaming from it. The glow of the past now seemed radioactive.

The day after Britain held its referendum on EU membership I went for a run down to the seafront near my home. I live in Sunderland, the former shipbuilding and mining city in northeast England whose majority Leave vote had made clear at an early point in the night that the prospects of Britain remaining weren't good.

That morning I woke to the news of prime minister David Cameron’s resignation and a significant drop in sterling’s value. I felt a sense of impending doom that has remained with me ever since, as if standing on the precipice of a great void. Alone in the house, and deeply weirded-out by the result, I only ventured out when the evening had come and the sea mist had descended on the city.

Britpop takes on Brexitland

The seafront along the north Sunderland suburbs of Roker and Seaburn has been much visited by reporters covering Brexit over the last couple of years. In many ways the city acts as shorthand for the places that have come to be referred to as "left behind": urban coastal towns and cities who voted to leave and whose high levels of poverty have, in recent years, been exacerbated by government austerity. In the two years of debate about what led to the Leave vote, the lack of hope endured by people in places such as Sunderland has come up repeatedly.

As I ran to the seafront I passed along empty streets. It was unusually quiet for a Friday night. I jogged past pubs and restaurants which typically were busy at that time. The night before, at the announcement of the local returns, people had cheered. Were people reflecting on what they had done and what they actually had voted for? Were they in shock because the prime minister had resigned? I expected the following day to witness celebrations, but all signs were that the mood was muted, with people confined to their houses as if the categorical statement of withdrawal within their own borders made just the night before was already no longer enough.

Brexit feels like the darker side of the dayglo Britpop obsession with the signifiers of Englishness, the confidence  now defensive and increasingly delusional

Recently, Damon Albarn's The Good, The Bad and The Queen released their second album, Merrie Land. Albarn, best known as the lead singer in the Britpop band Blur, revealed in interviews promoting the album that it was explicitly about Brexit. There's something strangely fitting about this. Brexit feels like the darker side of the dayglo Britpop obsession with the signifiers of Englishness, the brash confidence of that era grown defensive and increasingly delusional.

While Britpop was obsessed with regurgitating a version of swinging 1960s London, the landscape of Brexit isn't cosmopolitan, but regional, post-industrial, depressed, often northern and, frequently coastal. The seaside features heavily: fish are often involved, piers are invoked. Brexitland includes the holiday resorts gone to seed because the crowds from the good-old days have gone on foreign sun holidays instead. This is the landscape explored on Merrie Land, and it's a landscape that I recognise.

In late November of last year, The Good, The Bad and The Queen appeared on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show performing Drifters & Trawlers, a song from Merrie Land that takes the nation's troubled fishing industry as a useful metaphor to address the deeply nostalgic Brexit mentality. The song sweeps up to a crescendo as Albarn pleads: "throw away your nets, throw away your fears and throw away the past". Draped across Albarn's piano was the St George's Cross, the English flag. The gesture was deeply ambiguous given the context.

That morning the EU27 had granted Britain’s wish to leave the EU, the Brexit vote made tangible. At the heart of the Brexit campaign had been a vehement English nationalism. Although the interviews he had given to promote Merrie Land had been conciliatory, stressing the banal but much-repeated need for the nation to heal, the lyrical content of the album tended towards a critical examination of Englishness and an exploration of the poisonous atmosphere that continues to pervade the country. When he unfurled the flag on television, I didn’t interpret it as a triumphant celebration of Brexit. But I was left with questions.

Albarn has history when it comes to Englishness. Blur, the band with whom he enjoyed success in the 1990s and early 2000s, switched direction after their first, baggy, dance-rock-derived album towards explicitly English themes and imagery. The mop-top skinhead look the band adopted for 1993's Modern Life Is Rubbish was accompanied by lyrics about sugary tea, old soldiers and Songs of Praise. Albarn's blueprint was soon adopted by lesser bands, and the largely lamentable Britpop was born. Parklife, in essence a tabloid version of Modern Life's broadsheet vision of Englishness, was released in 1994. It enjoyed success on a scale that almost destroyed the band, taking in a chart war with Oasis, and an uneven but interesting fourth album, The Great Escape, that was followed by a withdrawal into a series of albums of fuzzy, experimental rock. Subsequently, Albarn has focussed on what started out as a side project but soon became a huge commercial success on both sides of the Atlantic, the animated hip-hop band Gorillaz.

Albarn's return to the question of Englishness with The Good, The Bad and The Queen's Merrie Land doesn't seem primarily motivated by commercial concerns. It's not like everyone's demanding a Brexit concept album. There is much evidence that British popular opinion has long since grown sick of discussing Brexit. It's just too complex. By pursuing an extreme version of Brexit, the British government has tripped face-first into a latrine that it had itself dug and filled, and the media has gleefully reported every ensuing diplomatic cock-up. Such self-abasement on an international scale was arguably not what Brexiteers had in mind, yet it was an inevitable outcome of their triumphant delusion.

In general, people would much rather it had happened already – the EU torn off like a sticking plaster – while others wish fervently that it would never happen at all. Both opinions signal an effort to restore simplicity to an issue that has grown increasingly complex since the referendum. The sense of undecidability, of Brexit being both alive and dead simultaneously – a Schrödinger's Cat that shat its container – pervades the country. And it's this uneasy atmosphere that Albarn has successfully tapped into with Merrie Land. It's Englishness as a circle of hell.

Albarn has been keen to put across the message that he's here to unite a divided country, that the English question has to be solved through dialogue, not mutual misunderstanding

Yet Albarn has been very keen to put across the message that he's here to unite a divided country, that the English question has to be solved through dialogue, not mutual misunderstanding. In essence, he's echoing the kind of political rhetoric that has set about making Brexit a purely domestic problem to be solved internally amongst the English, who will heal their self-inflicted wounds and go on to greater things inside or perhaps even outside the EU. The conciliatory tone undoubtedly plays well in the local newspapers, where he has given interviews about nice cups of tea he had in Southend and his favourite pub in Bethesda, North Wales, but such making nice sells the album short and is at odds with its general tone of melancholic resignation mixed with dark violence.

When I first heard Merrie Land's title track, a washed-out, melancholic, tightly wrought chanson that's the first song on the album, just after a short sample from the Powell and Pressburger film A Canterbury Tale, setting the tone for what's to come, my reaction was one of recognition: this is how it feels. It's one answer to the conundrum of how to write a song that distils the woozy slow-motions sense of a country being on the verge of potential catastrophe.

The second track, Gun To The Head, recalls the cheery music hall of Madness or Parklife-era Blur before ending with a spiralling piano run that recalls The Beatles' A Day In The Life. But the signifiers of that particular strain of English pop – the nostalgic singalongs that hark back to an eternal 1960s soundtracked by The Kinks and The Small Faces – are revisited early only to be discarded. At that point, Britpop is jettisoned.

While lyrically Albarn tends towards a stream of consciousness drawn from his notebook on trips taken to the regions, musically Merrie Land tends towards a range of influences that include reggae and dub, but stretch into Afropop and, on Nineteen Seventeen, a fair attempt at making the rhythm section mimic the patterns of a speeding train. (Paul Simonon, the band's bass player, reactivates the speaker-shaking low end of his former band The Clash's later work.)

Critics have drawn comparisons with the multi-ethnic Coventry ska group The Specials, whose 1981 single Ghost Town documented the decline of post-industrial towns in the early years of Thatcher. Albarn shares a passion for the wailing sirens and deep bass of 2-Tone ska, but the album is far from a nostalgic reanimation of the radical pop of the past, more a strange essay, eschewing commentary in favour of conjuring dark atmospheres.

Albarn's travels around the country with his notebook might put one in mind of those reportage-gathering journeys of the past typically undertaken through England during times of strife. JB Priestley's English Journey (1934) perhaps, or George Orwell's 1937 account of the industrial north, The Road to Wigan Pier. But Albarn is too shrewd to let the album become mired in the journalistic, and instead pushes it closer to the impressionistic.

It's closer, if anything, to psychogeography: the literary or artistic investigation of landscapes that can divine the strangest atmosphere in the most unprepossessing shopping-centre car park. When asked about the possible connections between the album and psychogeography by Darryl Webber of the Essex Chronicle, Albarn replied: "That's exactly how I work, especially with the lyrics for this album. I try to find something about a place that I connect with."

Albarn’s approach is not immune to criticism. The basic structure of the endeavour is: millionaire rock star goes briefly on safari to the provinces and finds them “not bad”. But I see variants of this tendency in the British news all the time now, whether it’s convening a panel of locals to discuss Brexit and minimising negative contributors, or a reporter suppressing editorial comment as a vox-pop interviewee swerves into rampant xenophobia. With the capital caught wrong-footed by the referendum result, Brexit is now the medicine that London must swallow without complaint.

Merrie Land avoids this dead end by confecting a dark atmosphere that's a plausible representation of the strange spirit of the times. It's far from a realist document of contemporary awfulness, but also not quite an imaginative escape from teetering on the edge of the void. Instead, it's a ten-song snapshot of a country on the brink of something that is both happening and not happening: folk songs for the age of undecidability.

Karl Whitney is the author of Hidden City: Adventures and Explorations in Dublin (Penguin). His second book, Hit Factories: A Journey Through the Industrial Cities of British Pop, will be published in June by Weidenfeld & Nicolson