Is Blur's Beetlebum their most heartbreaking single?

20 January 2021, 10:21

Radio X takes a look back at one of the Britpop band's most downbeat tracks and the true-life inspirations that went into the lyrics.

Blur's Beetlebum - the lead single on the band's eponymous fifth album - was released on 20 January 1997.

The downbeat track has often been linked to drug abuse, with many crediting the song to Damon Albarn's experience of heroin with his then-girlfriend Justine Frischmann, singer of Elastica.

Speaking in the 2010 Blur documentary No Distance Left To Run, Albarn admitted: "That whole period of a lot of people's lives was fairy muddied by heroin for a lot of people. And it's sort of, it's in that place. And a lot of stuff was at that time."

"And when she lets me slip away / She turns me on all my violence is gone / Nothing is wrong / I just slip away and I am gone"

Blur launch their self-titled album on 1 February 1997: Graham Coxon, Damon Albarn, Dave Rowntree and Alex James
Blur launch their self-titled album on 1 February 1997: Graham Coxon, Damon Albarn, Dave Rowntree and Alex James. Picture: Fred Duval/FilmMagic/Getty Images

The singer later elaborated on his involvement with the drug, telling Q magazine in March 2014: "For me, it was incredibly creative. It freed me up… I somehow managed to break out of something with my voice. I can only say heroin was incredibly productive for me.”

He warned, however: "It turns you into a very isolated person. Ultimately, anything that you are truly dependent on is not good."

Damon Albarn in Tokyo, November 1994
Damon Albarn in Tokyo, November 1994. Picture: Koh Hasebe/Shinko Music/Getty Images

He expanded on the theme a month later to Time Out, stating: "Look, I didn’t go out and look for it. I turned up at my house and there it was, made on the table. What should I have done? Leave my life and reject it or stay in my own house with my girlfriend and somehow assimilate it into my life?

“I don’t totally see it as a mistake. That’s the point. It was part of me growing up."

For her part, Justine Frischmann claimed that the stress on her relationship with the Blur frontman had a lot to do with the issues they both faced during that time.

“I think it’s hard for anyone to survive tabloid attention, and we were kids,” the Connection singer told The Times in 2017. “We were just kids and we didn’t know what we were doing.

“We were were under a lot of pressure and we didn’t see a great deal of each other once everything started up. And he was drinking a lot. It was chaotic and, looking back, we just couldn’t have survived it. We weren’t mature enough.”

Earlier that year she also revealed to Uncut Magazine: "I think it was hard for Damon when Elastica started getting some success in America.

"It’s funny because we both thought we were too evolved for classic gender roles, but looking back he thought his band more important because he was the guy. And on some level I did, too.”

As for heroin, Frischmann told The Guardian in 2002: "It does actually remove your spirit. It really does take your life force away. And it takes your fight away."

Damon Albarn and Justine Frischmann at the Trainspotting premiere in February 1996
Damon Albarn and Justine Frischmann at the Trainspotting premiere in February 1996. Picture: Jeremy Sutton Hibbert/Shutterstock

Beetlebum was recorded with Stephen Street in the summer and autumn of 1996, but the producer claims he never realised the subject was heroin. He later found out the truth on a night out with Damon: "I can remember walking off at a distance because I was a bit pissed off with him... He was kind of gloating about it, and I was saying, 'I don't think it's very f**king clever, basically.' There was a bit of an atmosphere that night."

But what about that curious title? Where does the name "Beetlebum" come from?

Classic music magazine Rolling Stone believes the song's title is inspired by the term "chasing the beetle," which was a variation of the term "chasing the dragon". Meanwhile, Urban Dictionary adds that the "term comes from the dotted black residue left behind on tin foil sheets after use, often called beetles."

However, there's another, much more obscure, link to this song. Back in 1948, comedy act Spike Jones & His City Slickers released a single based on the classic William Tell Overture. The track featured a silly narration by comic Doodles Weaver (uncle of Sigourney!), who had a character called Professor Feetlebaum, a would-be academic who would mix up his words with hilarious results.

The William Tell Overture single sees Weaver narrating an imaginary horse race, full of punning names for the steeds: "Banana is coming up through the bunch... Cabbage is second by a head". And, bringing up the rear, is a hopeless nag also called Feetlebaum... Have a listen and see what you think.