What makes “Beetlebum” work as well as it does is, I think, tension. Britpop, for all of its charms and pluses, didn’t really work on a particularly “tense” structure – it was pretty much on-all-the-time or sad acoustic guitar moping – and, even though Blur were, weirdly, one of the least stereotypically Britpop groups of the time (Yes, they were also one of the most well-known, and one of the groups that launched the whole thing, but go back and listen to Parklife or The Great Escape and you’ll find a wider range of influences and a broader range of output than the genre readily embraced or became known for), there’s still something surprising about the way that this song uses repetition and release. Looking back at it now, knowing that the song is about heroin – and, specifically, Damon Albarn’s experiences with the drug, both personally and through his then-girlfriend Justine Frischmann – it’s easy to see the structure of the song as a recreation of the neediness and grinding mentality of wanting the drug (the verse, with its chug-chug-chug guitar) and the freedom and release of taking the drug (the chorus); if you follow this train of thought through, I guess the vocal-only break of “And when she lets me slip away” could be taken as the literal act of taking the drug, the break between needing and reacting.
(Also: The harmonies in the chorus, absent in the rest of the song, adding to the feeling of… relaxation, calmness, tranquility…)
And at the same time as this musical recreation of the experience, there’s a barely-coded condemnation of what’s going on: “Get nothing done/You beetlebum/Just get numb,” and the final lines of “He’s on/He’s on/He’s on it” as the music becomes overwhelmed with guitar that has always sounded to me like being covered in insects (I have a vivid imagination, what can I say?). This isn’t just a song – although it’s a beautiful, evocative, fragile song, easily the best thing Blur had released up to this point, and a massive step away from the knowing coyness of so much of The Great Escape – but an experience, something that couldn’t fail to provoke reactions in the listener, and impart a little piece of what Albarn was going through into their head.
The song is so… off, even to someone who didn’t know the heroin-based backstory like the me I was when I first heard it, that the feeling of disquiet and melancholy rang through nonetheless. “Nothing is wrong,” Albarn sings, and you just know it’s not true; the fact that he says it anyway, and in such a passive voice, just makes it all the more disturbing and worrying. In many ways, this is pop music as horror show.
The title, it’s said, came from a desire to provoke cultural overlords Oasis with a song that evoked the Beatles in feeling instead of sound, and there’s definitely elements of White Album (and later) Lennon in the DNA here; perhaps tellingly, he too was reportedly on heroin during the recording of things like “Happiness is A Warm Gun” and the songs this most clearly suggests, and perhaps that connection was somewhere in Albarn’s mind at the time, too. But “Beetlebum” was also a strange declaration by Blur that they were changing the rules of their game as Britpop threatened to fall around everyone’s ears. This wasn’t a song created to be chanted by a mass audience, but something else, something more personal. As a teaser for what was to come in the Blur album that followed, it was irresistible.