Listen to this track by deliberately British, Brit-pop rock foursome Blur. It’s “This Is A Low”, a deep cut from their now-classic 1994 record Parklife, and also to be featured on Blur: the Best of compilation as chosen by the band themselves, even if it wasn’t originally a single.
Among other things, this song concerns itself with that most British of subjects, the weather. More to the point, it references another aspect of British life, which is The Shipping Forecast. That program is a BBC4 radio broadcast that is widely listened to internationally, and in the wee hours of the morning, accompanied by the theme music “Sailing By”.
In British culture, nothing says “I can’t sleep” more than tuning into the Shipping Forecast, which can be heard at 00:48 and again at 05:20. Many of the locations in the song are referenced in the broadcast; The Bay of Biscay, Dogger, Tyne, Forth, Cromarties, and Malin are all Shipping Forecast regions.
So, besides a cultural obsession with the weather, what else lies behind this song, a stalwart live cut and a fast favourite among band members and fans alike?
First of all, it must be remembered that Britain was a formidable empire at one time, a ruling culture that held sway over many regions, colonies, and dominions – like the Dominion of Canada, for instance. And the way that empire was managed was largely by way of superior sea power, through which at its height held almost a quarter of the world’s land mass, making it the most extensive empire in history.
And to think how many Americans think that the British don’t understand ambition.
Anyway, the point is that the sea has been central to the British psyche. They live on an island, after all. And at the time, toward the end of the 20th Century, rock and pop bands in Britain were reconnecting with their own culture, with more and more references to the accouterments of British life, with fewer concessions to a North American audience.
Blur was a prime example of this, with this song as one of their greatest statements as a band. Besides the national psyche angle, I think this song is basically about being able to count on having constants in one’s life, especially a life that moves very fast, like, say, the life of a rising rock musician.
When life is flying by, you need the small, familiar things to help anchor you, the little details that remind you of the shape of your world as you understand it. Really, I think that’s what’s at the heart of this song, peppered as it is with images of England, geography, and perhaps identity in relation to all of those things, too
Parklife was the album that assured that Blur were one of the biggest bands in Europe by 1994, with thoughts in the ensuing years about going down a road that many bands from England had gone down for decades – the road to conquering America. But, Blur never really took in the same way their rivals Oasis had, singing to a population who don’t generally listen to the Shipping Forecast. Still, their “Song 2” would get them further than most there by the end of the 1990s.
But I wonder if this song’s inclusion on their Blur: The Best Of compilation wasn’t about the band setting one aside for themselves, a reminder among all of the hits of the quiet and soothing sound of the Shipping Forecast, late at night while still awake, thinking about the tumultuous storm of life as pop stars that awaited them by dawn.
Blur would undergo personnel changes by 2002 when guitarist Graham Coxon left, and would break up soon after their last, to date, studio album Think Tank. However, they have reformed for select performances since then, including an appearance at Hyde Park in 2009, when this very song was performed among others.
And of course, they played the closing ceremonies at the London Olympics this year, a reminder that the city of London has produced yet another iconic band for the ages. They have recently recorded a new single “Under The Westway” which appears on the Blur 21: The Box set.
Find out more news at the official Blur website.