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Black Sky Thinking

Blur, The Olympics & The Never-ending 1990s Hangover
Luke Turner , February 21st, 2012 09:12

Blur's presence at the closing ceremony of the London Olympics is part of the legacy of New Labour, the '90s and the Millennium Dome, argues Luke Turner

This morning, the 488 bus to work terminated early outside Hackney Wick, half a mile or so short of the office. What was wrong? "Something to do with the bloody Olympics, I bet" shouted one woman, snatching her ticket to carry on the rest of her journey. Continuing the rest of the way on foot, I walked past a new mural covering the side of an old industrial building that celebrates the coming Olympiad with a portrait of Usain Bolt, various other athletes, and a few hundred litres of red paint expended on Coca Cola branding. Last week, women with clipboards and bouncers were found here 'launching' the mural for ad agency M&C Saatchi. Typing this, sat at my desk, I can look out of the office window at the Olympic stadium, around which buses on tours of the site and diggers travel at breakneck speed. A few weeks ago, a strange oily sheen fringed with brown scum crept across the surface of the water of the canal outside.

Late last night, it was announced that Blur, The Specials and New Order were to play a 'Best Of British' night to coincide with the closing ceremony of the Olympics on August 15. Notwithstanding the fact that last time Blur played Hyde Park video evidence suggests appalling sound and people lobbing bottles around, this event smacks of the profound lack of imagination that characterises the London Olympic 2012 project, from the Wenlock & Mandeville mascots that resemble a cyclopean sex toy, to the inefficient and unfair ticketing system, to having Dow Chemical sponsor the stadium wrapping. Blur playing the closing ceremony gig typifies what is wrong with our approach to national identity and pride in the post New Labour age: mealy mouthed and corporate, based on empty iconography and nostalgia – nicely tied up in the promotional poster that features Britannia sat on one of the hippos that featured on the cover to Blur's 'She's So High' single. It suggests a 90s Cool Britannia hangover put together by branding consultants who've just collected their 20-year loyalty card from the Groucho Club and now simply rest on their laurels, wallowing in the only industry that Britain seems to be able to do well any more: nostalgia.

Of course, it could have been so much worse if the Simon Cowell end of the music industry had got their hands on the event. But why not demand better? Our national failing over the past few decades has been to never expect more, sliding into 'it'll do' torpor. Perhaps the line-up will evolve to include a better representation of 'Best Of British'. There are plenty of artists to choose from - say Cornershop, The Copper Family, Luke Haines, British Sea Power, Wild Beasts, PJ Harvey, Alexander Tucker, Michael Nyman, The Fall, Momus, Aidan Moffat, Kate Bush, Tricky, Kevin Martin, David Bowie, David Sylvian, Wire, Robert Wyatt, Portishead, Pet Shop Boys, Burial, the list goes on (please add yours below)... Anything but the mawkish sentimentality ('Tender' is surely the 'Imagine' of its decade) and ironic posturing of Blur who, let's not forget, turned their back on a British aesthetic when they became a Pavement-aping lo-fi band back in the late 1990s.

It's hard not to suspect, though, that these Olympic concerts (there'll also be events in East London's Victoria Park) will just be like the Wireless festival under a different name. Although tickets for the Blur bash are priced at £55, BT customers get priority booking - and VIP packages are available, just like at the Olympics themselves when only 29,000 members of the public will get to see the men's 100 metre final, and mega-rich VIPs will be able to buy access to the Olympic traffic lanes that will cause chaos for the rest of us for the duration of the games.

Though I am no fan of athletics, I can see how the Olympics would, if done properly, create some notion of physical agreement, of nations coming together in a shared appreciation of sport. Perhaps Ken Livingstone was telling the truth and not just grandstanding in 2008 when he said "I didn't bid for the Olympics because I wanted three weeks of sport. I bid for the Olympics because it's the only way to get the billions of pounds out of the Government to develop the East End - to clean the soil, put in the infrastructure and build the housing. It's exactly how I plotted it, to ensnare the Government to put money into an area it has neglected for 30 years." That's as maybe, but as someone who works within 30 feet of the Olympic site, and lives within two miles, I have seen very little evidence of any benefit to us locals. The vast, chain-store dominated Westfield Mall? Cheers! The Olympic park will, in a few months, be one of the most heavily policed sites on the planet. Yet just the other week a woman was mugged at knifepoint on the unlit canal towpath just past the yellow cages that mark the security perimeter of the Olympics.

The whole show just feels like a terrible hangover from the late 1990s. The involvement of Blur with a few nods along the way to past glories seems like the epitome of Cool Britannia braggadocio. Livingstone's plot to use the global corporate jamboree that is the Olympics to the very New Labour ploy of using corporate money rather than progressive taxation in an attempt to kickstart regeneration. Even the naff branding and mascots looks very 1990s. It all adds up to the sense that much of the Olympic project and much-vaunted 'legacy' might amount to nothing more than a rerun of the Millennium Dome debacle. And, unlike the Millennium Dome, you won't be able to host Blur gigs at the tangled rust-red sculpture of Anish Kapoor's taxpayer funded ArcelorMittal Orbit which is made of thousands of tons of steel sourced from Belgium to Kazakhstan, China to Luxembourg, Brazil to the Ukraine. Everywhere, of course, except Great Britain.

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