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POP MUSIC : Blur vs. Oasis : The Battle of Britain : Bitter rivals Blur and Oasis, the two hottest groups on the revived British rock scene, are taking their best shots at the American market--and a few at each other.

October 01, 1995|Robert Hilburn | Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic.

LONDON — You have to forgive British record executives if they are pinching themselves these days to make sure they aren't dreaming. Just two years after the once-glorious English rock scene was a shambles because a Nirvana-led wave of American bands had captured the fan allegiance in Britain, that scene is experiencing a rebirth.

Dozens of bands are contributing to this renewed optimism and enthusiasm, but two--Blur and Oasis--stand far above the crowd. They enjoy a popularity so immense and a rivalry so intense that many observers of the English scene say they haven't seen anything quite like it since, well, the days of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

When Blur and Oasis both released singles from their long-awaited new albums in August in England, fans rushed to the stores and bought almost 500,000 copies of them collectively. That pushed the total number of singles sold during the week to 1.8 million--the highest weekly total in England in almost a decade.

British newspapers and pop papers reported on the competition with the breathless, blow-by-blow detail of a championship prizefight.

Blur's "Country House" ended up edging Oasis' "Roll With It" for the No. 1 spot on the singles charts, but the inquiry sign was quickly flashed by the Oasis camp after it was learned that thousands of copies of the group's single didn't get counted because of a problem with bar coding. The bands add to the sense of combat by frequently taking potshots at each other in the press.

The real test between Blur and Oasis will be in the coming months as their albums compete in the stores both at home and in the United States. Blur struck first in England with "The Great Escape," which soared straight to No. 1 when released last month. Oasis' "(What's the Story) Morning Glory?" is due Tuesday in England and will most certainly battle Blur for the No. 1 spot for months to come. The previous albums by Blur and Oasis have both been in or near the British Top 10 for more than a year.

All this excitement over Blur and Oasis not only signals a renewed faith in British bands in England but also raises hopes of executives on both sides of the Atlantic for another British rock invasion of America.

*

The original British invasion in the '60s arrived with such a creative and commercial bang that the momentum carried over into the '70s and early '80s--thanks to such forces as Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Yes, Elton John, David Bowie, Rod Stewart, the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Police, the Pretenders and the Cure.

But the English influence in rock came to a virtual stop in the '90s. One reason, observers have speculated, is that so many of the British bands of the '80s--from Spandau Ballet on--seemed superficial and weightless. They weren't convincing as either songwriters or musicians. That caused U.S. fans to lose confidence in British music.

By contrast, a new generation of American alternative bands seemed to speak to young people in both America and England with the passion and urgency that once characterized British bands.

Executives are now hoping that enthusiasm for Blur and Oasis--and a parade of other bands including Elastica, Gene, Supergrass and Black Grape--will allow the groups to follow in the footsteps of the Beatles and Stones and the Who in the United States. The Blur album had its American release last week, and the Oasis album is due on Tuesday ( see reviews at right ) .

But don't expect the often feuding Blur or Oasis to be part of a British rock invasion campaign committee.

"It would be really nice to feel there was some sort of chemistry between our ideas and American audiences because I think we are singing about alienation and sort of end-of-century anxiety, which is relevant in both countries," says Blur leader Damon Albarn.

"At the same time, I don't want to be part of the British rock movement--because that implies some sort of take-it-all-or-leave-it proposition, which I don't think is fair to fans in America or bands here [in England]."

In a rare moment of agreement with Albarn, Oasis songwriter and guitarist Noel Gallagher says in a separate interview: "I will go and play anywhere in the world where we have got fans, but I'm not out to 'conquer America.' That's a pretty pompous thing to say. The reason we go to America is to play for those people who bought our records.

"If we get into the Top 10 or whatever, then great, but it's not our only ambition. Besides, I think kids in America resent it when a band comes over from Britain, proclaiming it is the next big deal. Our whole approach has been 'Just take us for what we are--listen to the album for what it is.' We don't go over there flag-waving, saying, 'You should like us because we came from the land of Lennon and McCartney.' "

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