The 20th Anniversary of Britain’s Ugliest Chart Battle

By on August 24, 2015

Once upon a time, nothing mattered more than a #1 record. A debut at the top of the charts meant much more than just bragging rights. Yes, this kind of splash anchored the marketing plans for everything to come with the artist, but it also mean generous bonuses bestowed on the record men (and they were almost exclusively men) who made that #1 record happen.

The tracking of chart positions is still an important way for music industry to keep score for themselves, but the currency of sales charts has been devalued by other metrics: Spotify streams, YouTube views, iTunes downloads and many others.

The last great ugly pure sales chart battle happened twenty years ago this month at the height of Britpop mania in the UK. In one corner: Blur, the posh(ish) London chroniclers of the modern British existence, led by Damon Albarn. In the other was Oasis, Manchester’s foul-mouthed yobbos, starring the warning siblings Noel and Liam Gallagher.

Both were coming off impressive albums, two records that had set the tone for Britpop. Blur’s Parklife was unabashedly British in the Kinks tradition and went platinum on the strength of selling copies to everyone from pre-teens to grandparents. Oasis’ debut, Definitely Maybe, evoked the glory days of the Beatles, the Stones and The Who—and it didn’t hurt that the band was always in the news for doing or saying something stupid.

Expectations for the follow-up releases from both bands were revving well into the red, especially after the British music media helped concoct a feud between Damon and Noel. And unlike the Beatles vs. Stones faux feud of the 60s—everyone in those two bands were always mates—this one was real. Everyone believed that Blur and Oasis truly hated each other.

Blur vs. Oasis 1

Britain cleaved into two: Blur fans on one side, Oasis fans on the other. The schism was deep. There was no Checkpoint Charlie between the two. The sense was that things were only going to get uglier when new material from each band appeared in the marketplace.

Until that summer of 1995, there was an unspoken gentlemen’s agreement among record men that two big records should never compete head-to-head with a release on the same day. That way both artists would have their moment in the sun with a #1 record, each taking a turn at boosting traffic and sales in the record shops. A rising tide, etc.

In the case of Blur, the plan was to release The Great Escape in September, meaning that the first single, “Country House,” was scheduled to drop the standard six weeks earlier. After it was allowed its run at #1, Oasis planned to counter with “Roll With It” in mid-September, six weeks ahead of the release of (What’s the Story) Morning Glory in October.

Then someone in the Oasis camp had an idea. “Oi! Why should we take a back seat to those London ponces? The single’s ready. Let’s move it up to the week before Blur’s! Steal their thunder! Y’know what I mean?”

This breach of record man protocol greatly pissed off Damon Albarn and Food Records. “If they want a fight, let’s give it to ‘em!” They countered by moving up the release date of “Country House” to the same day as Oasis’ “Roll With It.”

The date was set: August 14, 1995. The two biggest bands in Britain were going to release their singles on the very same day in what promised to be the biggest battle for chart supremacy since—well, ever.

In the weeks leading up to August 14, the bands exchanged insults while the labels hyped up the rivalry. Meanwhile, the British music media was only too happy to poke everyone with sticks. Soon Her Majesty’s entire kingdom was talking of little else other Blur and Oasis

And not just in Britain. The story of the battle hit front pages of newspapers around the world, some comparing it to Ali versus Frazier. Bookies even took bets on which song would be number one.

The hype was so effective that record sales across Britain rose 41% for the week. There was even a story in one of the tabloids about how a wife–a diehard Oasis fan–smashed all her husband’s Blur records.

When the appointed day arrived, record shops and department stores with record sections were besieged. Even the staid BBC covered the fight on the nightly newscasts.

When it was all over the following Sunday night (the British music sales week back then was Monday-Sunday), it was Blur in the top spot, selling, 274,000 copies of “Country House.” Oasis had to settle for second place with “Roll With It” sold selling about 60 thousand fewer copies. Blur had won the great Britpop Battle of Britain. But Oasis would win the war.

When (What’s The Story) Morning Glory was released on October 2, 1995, it sold at a rate of one copy every two minutes. By the end of the first week, 350,000 copies had been snatched up, making it the fastest-selling British album in history. It has since sold somewhere north of 20 million copies worldwide. The Great Escape? Maybe a tenth of that.

Given how the industry has changed in the last two decades and how pure sales charts are no longer the only metric that matters, it’s safe to say we’ll never see another pure sales chart battle like this again. But man, if you were there, you’ll know how much fun we Britpop fans had in the summer of 1995.

As for Noel and Damon? They’re mates these days.

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