Blur have, over nearly thirty years, recorded eight studio albums…six of which have reached number one in the UK charts. In addition they have released over thirty singles, thirteen of which have made the top ten. Several of these recordings define the era they were released in and some actually changed British popular culture in very real and long lasting ways. Never afraid to experiment or to change direction they have established themselves as a band who can sit comfortably alongside many of their own heroes and inspirations and can take a place at the top table of British pop music along with The Kinks, The Small Faces, The Who, The Sex Pistols, The Jam, The Specials, Madness, The Smiths and many others.
She’s So High/I Know – October 15th, 1990
Arriving at the tail end of Madchester and just before the grunge juggernaut would roll into town, “She’s So High” was, officially, a double A side with “I Know”. Double-A side singles never really work…one song always catches the eye and the ear of radio (it was the nineties kids, radio still mattered) and so it was here with “She’s So High” being the song that would stand as the calling card for a band who would go on to define, mould and shape an entire decade.
I doubt that anyone who listened to the woozy, fuzzy and ever so slightly shoegaze-y “She’s So High” really believed that any of that would happen…it is a lovely little pop song, but nothing more than that.
The better of the two tracks is actually “I Know” which is a genuine baggy classic with echoes of the Stone Roses and with a much sharper, cleaner guitar sound. Damon Albarn also sings as opposed to intoning. If this had been on that debut album from the Roses it wouldn’t have sounded out of place and would now be hailed as a classic.
There’s No Other Way – April 15th 1991
“There’s No Other Way” is the song that pushed Blur into the public consciousness, a bona fide pop gem. It’s another stab at the psychedelic sounds of baggy era Manchester and it shuffles, shimmies
and shakes across the dancefloor of any indie disco even now, nearly thirty years later.
What is most interesting about “There’s No Other Way” though is not the song but the video.
It starts with a worm winding its way through the grass…before two girls, twins, dressed in identical clothes play catch in the garden…there is a row of daffodils…from behind a window Damon Albarn watches all of this with a look of detachment on his face. The influence and inspiration is obvious…the opening moments of David Lynch’s macabre, nightmarish, masterpiece “Blue Velvet” meeting Kubrick’s “The Shining”; in an English country garden. Once those nightmarish moments are over we find ourselves inside the family home with a Sunday (Sunday) English dinner being served up. Damon looks straight at the camera looking like a Droog with a pudding bowl haircut…interestingly, it isn’t the last time that Damon will use that imagery.
What all of this suggests is that Blur knew, even at this point, the importance of image and iconography…two things that would help to define them as much as anything they committed to vinyl.
Bang – July 29th, 1991
The final single from the flawed, but lovely, debut album “Leisure”. “Bang” is…fine.
It is a song that brings a smile to your face when it pops up when you have pressed shuffle on Spotify and has you singing along like a loon but…I’m not sure anyone ever seeks it out despite that.
One of the b-sides, “Luminous”, is a much more interesting proposition but it couldn’t ever have been a single…it is too dense, too dark, too brooding. It hints at who Blur could have become had they decided the future was Chapterhouse.
Popscene – March 30th, 1992
One of the greatest singles by a British band ever.
A furious, fierce, ferocious and frenzied blast of pop, punk, pop-punk, punk-pop and attitude that should have seen Blur hailed as the future of British music. Instead it failed to break into the top thirty, was slammed by the music press and left the band on the brink of, well, not being a band.
Of course had this been a Nirvana single it would have brought the music press to their knees and been seen as yet more evidence of Kurt Cobain’s “genius”. Of course, Cobain couldn’t have released a single like this because he didn’t have the ability.
I’d like to apologise to any Nirvana fans who are offended by the notion that their hero is not the greatest songwriter of his generation.
I’d like to apologise.
I can’t though.
I don’t say things I know are not true.
What these first four singles give us is two different bands; the first is Blur as a band trying to play the game, to fit in, to go with the flow and to be like everybody else…but even then it was impossible to hide who they really were. While the “Leisure” singles may suggest they were no more than scenesters or bandwagon jumpers, the b-sides and more experimental tracks on the album reveal a band with more to them than that. The second band is Blur as a band who have realised that the only game to play is the one where you create the rules; so out go the bowl cuts and Roses-lite grooves and in come the brass, the punk, the fury, the power and a new breed of English pop music. While the record
buying public may have largely ignored “Popscene”; it now serves as the starting point for a cultural and musical revolution that would change everything just two years later and see them become one of the biggest bands in the world.
After the moderate success of the “Leisure” era and the death of the scene that had thrust them into the spotlight it seemed as if Blur were destined to be no more than a Championship level indie band, a suspicion that was confirmed by the reception given to “Popscene”. There was no failure in anything that had happened to Blur up to that point…not for an indie band. Indeed, they had already enjoyed a level of fame and exposure, as well as chart success, that few bands on the “alternative” circuit could ever dare dream of. There was, however, one crucial difference between Blur and their supposed peers…they had a level of ambition and belief in themselves that even a hybrid of Ian McCulloch, Ian Brown and Liam Gallagher would struggle to match. When I say “they” what I really mean is “he”. Damon Albarn didn’t want to be the singer in a band…he wanted to be a star, the singer in the band, he wanted to be adored.
Nobody else really believed that Blur were going to be the band.
A lot of people had already decided that they had had more than their fifteen minutes.
Thanks for the memories.
For Tomorrow – April 19th, 1993
And so the story begins…again.
“For Tomorrow” is not just the start of Blur mkII…it is the start of a revolution.
“Popscene” and Suede’s “The Drowners” may have been the moment that the idea, the notion, the dream of a new English pop began to form in the minds of boys and girls, and girls and boys, like me up and down the UK but “For Tomorrow” was the sound of the starting pistol being fired.
The race was on.
That such a beautiful, romantic and none more English song should be the one to topple the statues of American rawk and skawk and roll of grunge seems ludicrous…it is the musical equivalent of Walter the softy duffing up Dennis the Menace.
This isn’t just fanciful thinking on my part, look at the cover art. Spitfires in beautiful English skies, ready to defend the very best of British!
Can I just point out to any Guardian journalists who may have stumbled upon this that I am not suggesting that “For Tomorrow” is responsible for Brexit. It was responsible for something much less divisive and toxic…a
resurgence in British popular music, of British culture and of an entire generation of young kids feeling like there was something more, more sub, sub, substantial in life than the dole queue or the nihilism of Nirvana.
Not bad going for a single.
Chemical World – June 28th, 1993
“Chemical World” is notable for something that few people have noticed.
It contains the best opening line to a song ever recorded in the English language.
At least it does just now.
“The pay me girl has had enough of the bleeps…”
Straight away we are in the sort of nowhere town Hell that so many of us know so well.
A dead end job.
The repetition of the life most ordinary.
In ten words.
And then this…
“So she takes the bus into the country…”
A life less ordinary.
Snoots and snobs like to take pot shots at Damon Albarn for his “mockney” accent and affectations but the truth of the matter is that he is an observer…he looks, he looks carefully and, unlike so many, he sees clearly. He didn’t need to have worked the check-out in a Spar to understand that lots of us did exactly that. He didn’t write about those lives with a sneer or with a sense of distance…he was able to occupy that life and give it form and substance through his lyrics.
Sunday Sunday – October 4th 1993
First things first.
I really like that little yellow silhouette of a family with the “blur” font in the middle.
That would make an excellent t-shirt design.
It would also have made an excellent rear cover for this single. I really like that.
That’s the first thing.
The second thing is, I really like the artwork.
The hyper-Wimpy burger.
The Coca-Colonisation of Britain summed up in one awful image. Bleurgh.
I think it’s very clever.
That’s the second thing.
The third thing is that the outfit Damon wears in the video is pretty much my uniform between 1993 and 1997. Levi’s, blue v-neck sweater, Ben Sherman (vintage by the looks of things) and all set off with the sort of desert boots Graham is wearing.
Classic Mod casual wear.
I really like it.
That’s the third thing.
The fourth thing is that I get all misty eyed when I see Alex using that bull-worker in the video.
My dad had one of those…exactly the same.
I used to try and use it.
I wasn’t what you would call a sporty or athletic youth.
But I get all reminiscent when I see that.
That’s the fourth thing.
The fifth thing is that about a month after this was released I was on an overnight bus to London with my best mate Chris.
We were heading to a shop called “The Merc” which, at that point, was a sort of Mecca for kids like us because it sold bona fide Ben Sherman’s, parka’s and Harrington jackets.
We were going to get the same Harrington as Damon.
Goodness only knows how we had heard of The Merc.
But we did and so we knew that the only sensible thing to do was to take three months wages from our Saturday jobs in McDonald’s and head for the smoke in order to get ourselves some proper Harrington’s and a Ben Sherman shirt.
That’s the fifth thing.
The sixth thing, and possibly the most important thing, is that I don’t actually like “Sunday Sunday”.
It veers dangerously close to being a comedy song…a sort of “Shaddapya Face” for the Britpop generation.
It’s not that bad.
I just don’t like it.
I’m very sorry.
Do you like it?
Well, that’s all that matters then isn’t it.
We can still be friends.
“Modern Life is Rubbish” had dragged Blur back from the brink of oblivion…and, at the same time, had helped deliver a near fatal blow to the cultural dominance of grunge. With Cobain and his cohorts on the retreat the kids turned back towards homegrown pleasures. Britpop was, by 1994, a thing…it had a look, a sound and an audience.
The times they had-a-changed and Blur were about to become, rather unexpectedly, the biggest band in the country…maybe even in the world.
The “Parklife” singles would represent the shift from pretenders to the throne, to Kings of the pop world.
Girls and Boys – March 7th, 1994
I have two memories about hearing “Girls and Boys” for the first time. Neither one of them may be accurate.
Neither one of them may even be inaccurate…they may well be complete fabrications.
Funny how the mind works.
I am sitting on the floor of my digs in Paisley.
An attic bedroom in the home of Edna and Danny Stables.
My dad pays the rent which includes the washing, but not ironing, of my clobber as well as breakfast and an evening meal when I would like; Edna’s speciality is very crispy bacon with cabbage.
You access the room via a narrow stairway and it is furnished with a television, a bed and a long dressing table type affair against one wall.
I’m listening to the Evening Session.
They are going to be playing the brand new single from Blur.
This, after about a year of modelling myself on the “Modern Life is Rubbish” look is big news. Blur has become the most important band in what passes for my life.
I am beyond excited.
A Casio keyboard.
A squelchy, squidgy, bass.
Like a disco record if that disco record had been made by people who thought that disco was the Village People.
I didn’t like it.
I am inside Stereo One in Paisley.
I have bought the new single by Blur, “Girls and Boys” on cassette because it looks like a packet of condoms…
I have also bought it on CD.
I am now back in my digs…an upstairs attic bedroom in the home Edna and Danny Stables.
I don’t want to damage the packaging on the tape because I am convinced it is going to be worth many hundreds of pounds in about six months time.
I put the CD on and listened.
I listen all the way through.
I don’t like it.
Why didn’t I like it in either one of these “memories”?
I do know.
That, to the young music lover, is the greatest crime a band can commit…to change.
How could they do that to me?
Next thing you know they won’t be wearing suit jackets and DM’s but will be in trainers.
But then a strange thing happened.
I decided to try again.
I liked it a bit better.
A little bit more.
I liked it.
I couldn’t get it out of my head.
This, it was clear, was Blur’s attempt to break out of the confines of the indie scene and become a genuine pop group…but on their terms.
No “oh baby, I like your gravy” or “I like the moon, when I eat it with a spoon, in June” (if Noel Gallagher is looking in, no, you cannot use either of those).
This was a blistering take on the vulgarities of the 18-30 holiday scene… the hedonism, the liberation, the sexual freedoms; it all sounded brilliant but awful at the same time.
“Streets like a jungle…”?
Take a walk down any High Street in any major, or minor, town in the UK and tell me the answer to that on a Saturday night.
To The End – May 30th, 1994
Backstage at the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh on the “Parklife” tour I sit on the left hand side of Damon Albarn as he tells the gathered throng of girls and boys who all adore him that their next single is going to be number one because Radio 2 and housewives will love it.
In the end, “To the End” only made it to number 16.
It was a gorgeous, grand, glittering and glorious pop song.
Laced through with strings and romance it was a song to break your heart and help you win the heart of the girl you loved.
Gosh, it’s 2019, let’s just live a little, yea?
The fact that they not only recorded a version in French but then recorded another version with the none more cool, or beautiful, Francoise Hardy (pronounced “Will you marry me please Francoise?) simply cements its place as one of the coolest songs they ever recorded.
What else do you want?
Parklife – August 22nd, 1994
Bit tricky this one.
Let’s do two versions to keep everyone happy.
“Parklife” is the sound of the summer.
It’s a jolly jape of a pop song.
The video is just such great fun.
It sits right up there beside “Country House” as one of the definitive sounds of Britpop.
Happy with that?
That’s all I have to say about “Parklife”.
See you next time guys.
I hate “Parklife”.
I think it’s a bit rubbish.
Let’s leave it at that.
I’m not posting the video.
End of a Century – November 7th, 1994
For an album that is, correctly, regarded as one of the best of the era and, arguably, one of the best pop records by a British band ever, the choice of singles is…questionable.
“End of a Century” is a lovely song.
Full of yearning and, again, romance.
A bit maudlin.
It reached number nineteen in the charts…which is about right, if not a bit generous.
“Jubilee” is more fun.
“This is a Low” is a masterpiece.
Both of them would have made better singles.
But, truthfully, there are not actually many big hits on “Parklife”…it is an album that works as a whole, it is difficult to remove individual songs and have them work outside
of that whole.
Following the astonishing success of “Parklife” Blur had positioned themselves as that rarest of beasts…a pop group who enjoyed the support of the indie crowd. It had been a long time since a band like them had featured so frequently in the charts, in the pages of the “serious” music papers, in Smash Hits and who had as many screaming girls as they had poetry writing boys at their concerts.
From baggy latecomers to the biggest band in the country in three years was no mean feat and so the stage was set for them to consolidate their position and become the biggest band in the whole bloomin’ world.
What could go wrong?
Country House – August 14th, 1995
What could go wrong?
After allowing themselves to become embroiled in a hideous imbroglio with Oasis that had, at various times, spun wildly out of control…most noticeably when Noel wished AIDS on Damon and Alex…Blur decided to compound matters by going toe-to-toe with their “rivals” in a race for the number one spot.
The “Battle of Britpop” was the biggest story in the country. No.
I am not joking.
Newspapers, music magazines, television news…the works.
That Blur decided to go with “Country House” for their contribution to this nonsense suggested that either Damon Albarn had gone mad or that people really were taking a huge amount of cocaine in the nineties… because, and let us not beat around the pop bush here, “Country House” is utter rubbish.
It is a b-side…at best.
A b-side for the Latvian only release of the mini-disc version of the single.
Not a quirky album track.
Not a lost classic.
Not a hidden gem.
I’m sorry to get all technical about it.
I don’t mean to confuse anyone.
Let me try and explain it in terms that ordinary people can understand. Right.
You know how some things are really good?
And you know how some things are just good?
So, imagine something that is good or really good…could be a song, or something you like to eat, or a film; anything.
Now, and this is the tricky part, imagine something that makes you feel exactly the opposite way to that thing.
That feeling is “Country House”.
After getting over “Parklife” (the single, not the album) by convincing myself that it was a crowd pleaser, a rabble rouser…now I was having to contend with a song that was worse.
It was awful.
I can remember buying it because I was soooooooooooo team Blur and taking it home to listen to it…somehow I had managed to avoid hearing it until that moment…and, even now, I can feel the same knot in my stomach just thinking about it.
Then there was the video.
With Keith Allen.
I felt physically sick.
I didn’t like “Bang”, I didn’t like “Sunday Sunday” and I hated “Parklife” but this was something else altogether.
This was blind, pure, blistering, unfettered, hatred.
I felt betrayed.
This was songwriting by numbers…a song that suggested complete contempt for their audience.
It made it to number one.
Defeating Oasis in the battle.
But it came at a price.
Watching the footage of their performance on Top of the Pops the week they hit number one shows Damon and Alex whooping it up as teenage
girls fling themselves onto the stage, Dave looks like, well, a Labour councillor playing drums at a village fete and Graham looks…miserable. You can’t shake the feeling that this was not really what he envisaged when he started dreaming of being a successful musician.
Hardcore Blur disciples will dismiss this as garbage and launch a defence of “Country House” as a clever and carefully calculated decision by the band to craft the sort of catchy pop song that would guarantee them a number one hit…to which I say; I don’t want my bands to be so determined to be number one in the hit parade that they will release this sort of thing.
All about opinions innit.
What makes this worse is that also appearing in the charts and on Top of the Pops that week were The Charlatans with “Just When You’re Thinking Things Over”. A song that is, quite obviously, in a different league to either “Country House” or “Roll With It”. What a number one that would have made.
We were all so blinded by the artificially constructed “battle” between Blur and Oasis that the ability to judge either record on its musical merits went out the window and instead it became about picking a side.
It was exciting and great fun for sure…but it had consequences; all those of us who participated left an indelible stain on the pop music history books of this island. We could have put The Charlatans at number one with a better song…we could have put TLC at the top of the charts with one of the best songs ever (also in the charts that week) and instead we put a song that includes the line;
He’s reading Balzac, knocking back Prozac
I mean, really, what were we thinking?
Were we thinking?
I don’t think I was.
We chose this over “Waterfalls” and “Just When You’re Thinking Things Over”.
I know, I know, I know…it’s just a bit of fun, it’s just a pop song, we were young, we ran free, kept our teeth nice and clean.
That can’t be it.
We can’t just dismiss something this awful like that.
It might help you to sleep at night but until you apologise and admit that what you did was wrong you will never feel right.
I’ll go first.
I am sorry.
I am sorry that I let the NME and some record company executives manipulate me.
I am sorry that I bought “Country House” on more than one format to try and propel it to the number one spot.
I am sorry that it got to number one.
I am sorry that I ignored other, better, songs that week.
Oh, that feels good.
I feel like a weight has been lifted.
After the horror of “Country House” it was difficult to see how Blur could worm their way back into my affections.
Not that they cared.
They had bagged their first number one single, crushed Oasis in the Battle of Britpop and found favour with the record buying public in ways that they could hardly have dreamed of…well, Damon probably had dreams where the record buying public not only favoured them but chased the Windsors out of Buckingham Palace and installed him as King.
But worm their way back into my heart they did…
The Universal – November 13th, 1995
A cello plucked.
The sound of the band…gentle, so gentle.
Then the voice…soft, a whisper, an aural caress.
“This is the next century, where the universals free…”
The nightmare of the lad fest that was “Country House” is banished. When I was seven I had a horrid nightmare.
I can remember every moment of it even now, almost forty years later.
When I woke up and stumbled into my mum and dad’s bedroom, and up into their bed, it was the soothing words of comfort that helped push the awfulness of what my subconscious had conjured to the back of my mind, erasing it for at least a little while.
That is what “The Universal” did to the adult me.
The slow build to the chorus is what really makes this…”It really, really, really could happen…”. And then one of the most maudlin lines in the entire Blur catalogue…”When the days they seem to fall through you, well just let them go.”. Just let them go. Let them go. Go.
The fact that the accompanying video sees the band cast as droogs from “A Clockwork Orange” sat in the Korova Milk Bar gives a beautiful song an air of menace that acts as a magnificently unsettling counterpoint.
All was forgiven.
Stereotypes – February 12th, 1996
Happy Valentine’s day.
When people leap to the defence of “Parklife” and “Country House” by telling me that they are crowd pleasers, sing-along-a-Britpop classics, music for the masses, I get quite cross.
Hard to believe innit.
Here is why I get cross…because I love it, love it, when a band I adore breaks on through to the other side and gets mainstream success. The thrill of seeing Morrissey on Top of the Pops with his hearing aid, the sheer wonder of Shaun Ryder and Bez on teatime television, Soda on the Big Breakfast…it doesn’t get any better.
And it’s a big but.
I want that success to be achieved by my bands (I know, I know…I’m a pretentious arse) at their absolute best.
Better than their best.
“Stereotypes” may not be the bestest of Blur but it is a wild ride of a single, all demented fairground attractions and choppy guitars, demented lyrics and cocksure swagger…it is, simply, a crowd pleaser of the sort that Damon reckons he can churn out without breaking sweat and it is, crucially, better than those other songs I mentioned a moment ago.
I liked it.
Quite a lot if I’m being honest with you.
Charmless Man – April 29th, 1996
I got into a bit of bother over on the old social media for telling people what to think about “Country House” so I am going to give an entirely unbiased commentary on “Charmless Man”.
Here we go.
“Charmless Man” was the fourth single to be released from the album “The Great Escape”.
And that was “The Great Escape”.
Four singles that helped consolidate Blur’s status as Lords of the Britpop Manor from an album that was, at best, a mixed bag and, at worst, a terrible disappointment. There were fifteen tracks on “The Great Escape” and, while it is easy to criticise the album…mainly because of “Country House”, “Charmless Man” and “Ernold Same”…there are moments of real brilliance there too; “Best Days” is gorgeous, “Fade Away” is a lovely tribute to The Specials, “The Universal” is beautiful, “It Could Be You” would have sat comfortably on “Modern Life is Rubbish” and “Entertain Me” would have made a better single than the aforementioned, charmless, “Charmless Man”.
In fact, if you take “Country House”, “Charmless Man”, “Ernold Same” and “Top Man” (a song I have a near pathological hatred for) off of the album and release “Entertain Me” and “Fade Away” as singles you have an album that looks, and sounds, like an entirely different proposition.
I don’t know why people don’t ask me about these things before they go ahead with their plans.
Beetlebum – January 20th, 1997
“The first time I took heroin was like coming home. For some people I knew, heroin was the final taboo. They would smoke dope and take coke, but draw the line at smack. Not me. I actively sought it out as if we were long-lost blood brothers. As if I had always known all the other drugs I had taken had been merely a buildup to the main event. My feelings of inadequacy and despair gave way to a warm embrace. No one and nothing could get to me.”
(John Crace, The Guardian, 22/5/18)
“Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?”
(Mark Renton, Trainspotting)
“Just say no.”
(The Kids from “Grange Hill”)
I need to confess something.
This may come as something of a shock to those of you who know me or who frequent this site because you will know that I am one of the most rock and roll individuals alive. There are no limits to my excesses…is what you probably think as I Tweet, yet another, picture of my daughter or share, yet another, story about how unhappy I was as a teenager.
I have never taken any drugs.
Not a single drop of alcohol has passed my lips…unless you count that time my wife got so drunk at a staff Christmas party that I got roaring drunk simply touching her.
I had to have my stomach pumped.
She’s only little but she basically imbibed all of the alcohol. But that was involuntary.
Like when people spike someone’s drink.
She spiked me.
With the fumes that exited her body for about four days afterwards. Other than that…never been drunk.
I’ve never tried a cigarette.
Or a joint.
Or an E.
I mean I love Coke.
Coke is it as far as I am concerned but not the other coke. Or speed.
My body is a temple.
A slightly puffy temple filled with donuts and Coke but a temple nonetheless.
The very idea of heroin makes me feel queasy.
I don’t like needles.
Or people under the influence of drugs.
I don’t think heroin would be my thing.
I like Haribo.
“What’s “Beetlebum” about? Well, if it’s common knowledge then I don’t need to talk about it do I? Oh God, what’s it about? Well that whole period of a lot of people’s lives was fairly muddied by heroin. It’s in that place (Beetlebum) and a lot of stuff was at that time.”
(Damon Albarn, “No Distance Left to Run”)
“My experience was a long time ago…I wrote about it in one song which is”You and Me” and is in context and the context of it is that it is a song about the ghosts of Notting Hill Carnival…and the whole song is about ghosts and it is one of my ghosts. I personally don’t have an addictive personality. I can have a cigarette and then not have a cigarette for five days…I’m very lucky like that…the hysterical reaction to me being some sort of libertine in West London, sort of celebrating drug use, that couldn’t be further from that.”
(Damon Albarn, Newsnight, April 25th 2014)
It is clear that my anti-libertine lifestyle wasn’t the approach being taken by many people towards the end of the “Cool Britannia” era.
The brilliant sunshine, the endless positivity, the relentless media spotlight, the coruscating heat of fame…was beginning to turn into something else, something darker, something edgier and something seedier.
The spectre of heroin looms large over the song in other ways too.
The cover with a prostate figure lying on a bed of golden brown leaves… famously pseudo-punk poseurs The Stranglers recorded their own song about chasing the dragon called; “Golden Brown”. But this prone figure also brings to mind images from the, inexplicably, adored British film
“Trainspotting” and the scene where Euan McGregor’s character, Mark Renton, “slips away” (literally) while under the influence. That image is clear and present in the video for the single too as Albarn lazily, hazily, lolls and rolls around the floor.
Despite the subject matter, “Beetlebum” is my second favourite Blur single behind “For Tomorrow”. It marked the end of the “Life” trilogy and a shift in tone. Out went the giddy pop thrills of the likes of “Girls and Boys” and the none more English sound and in came lo-fi, alt-rock, mumblecore musings and a turn away from The Kinks and Madness towards the likes of Pavement and other indier than thou American alternative sounds.
“Beetlebum” was the first step in persuading Graham Coxon that the “cor blimey, knees up Mother Brown” fluff of “Country House”, “Charmless Man” and, possibly, “Parklife” itself was not going to become the sound of Blur. It was clear that Coxon wasn’t happy and that he wanted to take things in a different direction, to reinvent, to explore, to expand, to stretch the band and provoke their audience…I have a feeling that he would quite happily have sacrificed the mad success and excess of the “Life” era for something less financially rewarding but more artistically challenging.
It was also the first single since they became bona fide pop stars that was laced with the same sort of hunger and desire as “For Tomorrow”. It was as if they knew they had to prove themselves again, change, move on…or become forever trapped in the Britpop box.
They had always wanted to be a big band and they had achieved it… entirely on their own terms.
Now they wanted to become a band who could shift gears, take left turns, shock, surprise and astonish…it was a risky thing to do, they could alienate the people who came to their concerts to shout, drunkenly, along to the likes of “Parklife” and “Charmless Man”, they could upset the folks who were still dressed in the Britpop uniform but they knew it was either change or risk caricaturing themselves, hating themselves and the band dying with a legacy that didn’t accurately reflect who they were, or who they had become.
They could be Bowie or they could be Status Quo.
They went for Bowie.
Following the number one smash that was “Beetlebum” was going to be difficult. Not because Blur were some sort of one hit wonders…they were, by now, firmly established chart stars, darlings of the music press and record buying public alike and had elevated themselves way above the level that anyone involved with them in the early baggy years could ever have imagined possible. No, the difficulty was going to lie in topping, or at least matching, both the success and the quality of “Beetlebum”. While their level of success had remained constant when it came to the singles they released it would be fair to say that those same singles were a mixed bag in terms of quality. For every “Chemical World” there was a “Country House”.
The second single from “Blur” was the second song on the album. A song that contained two verses and two choruses.
With a run time of 2 minutes.
Song 2 – April 7th, 1997
Woo and indeed HOO.
A jumbo jet of a song.
A sonic boom.
All heavy metal and pins and needles.
If you were never sure why you needed Blur in your life then “Song 2” gave you a gloriously profane answer, without ever actually using profanities.
A rage filled bag of nonsense.
A flurry of guitars and drums and bass.
This was the song Nirvana thought they were making when they recorded “Smells Like Teen Spirit”.
Grunge for sharp kids.
Rock with enough roll to stop it from descending into the turgid depths of Screaming Trees.
The delight of Damon yelping “Woo Hoo” like Julian and Sandy…high camp for the post-Cool Britannia generation.
Like “Popscene” on crack.
Yeah yeah mother On Your Own – June 16th, 1997
Want to hear a theory?
Don’t worry, I’m not a flat earther.
Or one of those blokes who lurk in the darkest corners of Twitter rambling about how “they” knew…like a character from a lost episode of “The X Files”; a show that has a lot to answer for in my opinion.
No, my theory is this…
“Song 2” and “On Your Own” were not actually new songs at all. Nope.
“Song 2” is “Popscene”.
“On Your Own” is “Girls and Boys”.
Like directors going over their old films and delivering a director's cut.
Except, unlike say George Lucas, they haven’t gone back to two perfect things and dumped a dumpster of dump all over them…no, they have revisited the themes and notions of their earlier work and produced something more in tune with where they are/were.
“On Your Own” takes us away from the sex mad, Manumission attending, Club 18-30, sexually transmitted diseases on legs and turns attention towards the sorts of people who think not washing or wearing shoes and “travelling” to Goa is the height of spiritual enlightenment.
It is a trippier, hippier, dippier and better observational pop song…a better song than its little brother?
I reckon so.
It may not be much of a theory, it may not be a theory at all but it’s all I’ve got.
Take it or leave it.
M.O.R – September 15th, 1997
While attention at the time focused on the “tribute” paid to “Boys Keep Swinging” and “Fantastic Voyage” from Bowie’s “Lodger” the real treat for me with “M.O.R” is that it could have cropped up on “Modern Life is Rubbish” without anyone batting an eyelid.
It has a whiff of “Coping” about it to my cloth ears so we can add it as further supporting evidence for my “theory” about Blur revisiting earlier songs and doing them better!
The fourth single from “Blur” it was also the only one not to make it into the top ten, which is a terrible shame because it is my favourite of the four.
It wasn’t just the song that “borrowed” from other artists…the video, with the band being played by stuntmen, was quite similar, thematically, to “Sabotage” by The Beastie Boys. I’m fairly sure that at least one person in Blur would have been a fan of the Beastie’s (cough…Graham Coxon…cough) and the heist gone bad film is close enough to the video for “Sabotage” for me to claim it as an influence.
For me the four singles from “Blur” are the best and most consistent in their career up to this point.
There isn’t a “Sunday Sunday”.
There isn’t a “Parklife”.
There isn’t a “Country House”.
The silly has been jettisoned.
The cor blimey geezerisms have been consigned to the dustbin. The narrow set of influences have been expanded.
The boo, hiss, ya-boo, sucks to you anti-Americanisms have gone. For the first time Blur have chosen all of the right songs as singles.
For the first time the quality and the legacy of the music is front and centre…and not the relentless pursuit of “hits”.
These are not the songs of boys who like girls who like boys etc etc etc.
These are the songs of a band looking, again, to (re)define themselves and to (re)shape the musical landscape. Other bands couldn’t, or wouldn’t, do the same…fearful that their own limitations may be exposed or that the public wouldn’t buy it or buy into it. Blur had no such fears…they had reached the top of the pops and I am not entirely sure that they had liked what they had seen from up there, or what they saw in the mirror at that point. They had two choices at that point…keep on doing the do or change. They chose to change and while a certain other band from the Britpop battles may have gone on to sell more records, there can be no denying that from this point on there was only one winner when it came to creativity, risks and exploration.
“Leisure” was a calling card, a mess of sounds, a mass of experiments and, at times, a little miracle of pop music.
“Modern Life is Rubbish” was a pop-cultural manifesto, a statement of intent, a coruscating, white light, white heat of a record that changed the musical landscape and gave birth to Britpop.
“Parklife” was the big hit, the pop record, the stab at being stars…and it succeeded, elevating the band from indie kids to genuine Smash Hits, posters on the walls, swooning girls, cooing boys, pop band.
“The Great Escape” came too soon. A premature attempt to capitalise on their moment at the toppermost of the charts. A curious mix of good ideas poorly executed, dreadful ideas that were brilliantly successful and magnesium flares of good ideas done well…flashes of light in the darkness.
“Blur” was the sound of a band ready to stake their claim to being one of the greats, a new sound, new sounds, looking outwards, more collaborative. Four note perfect singles. Grown up and mature but with moments of childlike, punk, pop brilliance…hello “Song 2”. Their finest moment to date? Not for me…that honour remains with “Modern Life is Rubbish”…but it comes a close second.
According to Yazz the only way is up…but I’m not sure that’s always true.
Their next album, “13”, was released at the start of 1999 and the myriad highs of the Britpop party were now little more than half-remembered memories.
Tender – 22nd February 1999
Away! away! for I will fly to thee,
Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,
But on the viewless wings of Poesy,
Though the dull brain perplexes and retards:
Already with thee! tender is the night,
And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,
Cluster’d around by all her starry Fays;
But here there is no light,
Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways. (Ode to a Nightingale by John Keats)
“One writes of scars healed, a loose parallel to the pathology of the skin, but there is no such thing in the life of an individual. There are open wounds, shrunk sometimes to the size of a pin-prick but wounds still. The marks of suffering are more comparable to the loss of a finger, or of the sight of an eye. We may not miss them, either, for one minute in a year, but if we should there is nothing to be done about it.”
(“Tender is the Night, F. Scott Fitzgerald)
Drawing its name, and a core element of its lyric, from the novel “Tender is the Night” by F. Scott Fitzgerald which, in turn, took its name from “Ode to a Nightingale” by John Keats suggests that Damon Albarn had turned his attention completely away from the insular inspirations of contemporary pop culture and towards something deeper, more poetic and more grand.
It is a love song.
Pure and simple.
It starts with a faint, wonky, half heard guitar seemingly recorded in about 1913 before building, slowly…oh so slowly…and perfectly into a grand, Gospel soaked, heavenly hymn to her.
The whole thing just sounds like the only love song you would ever want.
It sits, quite comfortably, alongside “Into my Arms” by Nick Cave as one of the most gorgeous, beautiful, heartbreaking, love songs of all time.
When Albarn sings about finding someone to heal his mind everyone who has been hurt, betrayed, lied to and bruised by what they thought was love gets it instantly. It isn’t your hear that is broken when you suffer heartbreak. It is your mind. The circular thinking. The constant worry that even if they didn’t really love you…at least they were, you know, there. Nobody else could ever not love you like they didn’t love you. Daydreams of loneliness. Visions of alone. Nightmares of empty beds and meals for one. Your heart keeps beating, the blood keeps pumping…but your mind is stuck in a loop, caught in a trap.
Then when you find somebody who puts a stop to all of that…love’s the greatest thing.
Everybody needs somebody.
Somebody to love.
And to love them.
You’re perfectly happy on your own.
You don’t need somebody else to “complete” you.
You prefer your own company.
We are all delighted for you.
Some of us have a yearning, a burning, inside of us…for L.O.V.E, love.
“Er, actually, the whole idea of romantic love is an artificial construct. It’s a lie marketed to us so that the powers that be can, like, control us. Also, monogamy is just such bullshit, yeah?”
Goodness, those people are tiresome.
Look, all I am saying is that I have been in love and I have been out of love.
I’ve been hurt and I’ve done the hurting.
I’ve been lied to and I’ve lied.
I’ve been alone and I’ve been with.
I prefer with.
I prefer honesty.
I prefer soothing, healing and comforting.
The first thing I noticed about the greatest love I’ve ever known was how much she laughed. The second thing I noticed about the greatest love I’ve ever known was how the demons of my past just…disappeared, whenever I was with her. The third thing I noticed about the greatest love I’ve ever known was how she healed me when I was screwing up my life.
Then I noticed that she made my tummy go all funny.
When F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that there was no such thing as scars being healed in the life of an individual he was being clever, or arch… unless he had never been in love. Because when you are waiting for the night to come, when love arrives…all the scars are healed, all the
wounds are closed and the pain is gone.
I think Damon knew that.
Like a hymn “Tender” brings people together.
It is simple.
Listen to the crowd in the footage from Glastonbury in 2009…voices raised, hearts soaring, minds healed. Whatever was troubling them… gone, gone, gone, over the course of seven minutes of communal singing.
Love is the drug.
Blur were, by the time they came to release “Coffee and TV”, on a run of five of their best singles…all killah, no fillah. The frothy “delights” of “The Great Escape” singles had been washed away with songs that were darker, sharper, purer and more careful. Each one had been the sort of song your favourite band would release…which was fortunate because Blur were a favourite band of so many people.
Up to this point a Blur singles collection would have you hitting “skip” on more than occasion…I don’t want to listen to “Bang” or “Sunday Sunday” or “Country House” and you might not want to hear, well, “Bang” or “Sunday Sunday” or “Country House” either. And none of us wanted to hear “Charmless Man” ever again.
In “Coffee and TV” they continued the run of pop perfection and, arguably, released their finest single to date.
Coffee + TV – June 28th, 1999
“Sociability…is hard enough for me.”
“Take me away from this big bad world…”
It is astonishing to think that the same group of musicians who produced a certain number one single could, within five years, be capable of releasing a single like “Coffee and TV”.
Out had gone the faux mockney “charms”.
Out had gone the forced joviality.
Out had gone the garish technicolour.
In came a tender, heartfelt, honesty in the vocal (one of very few times when Graham has taken this role).
In had come reality.
In had come the natural, realistic, darker, hues of the ordinary life.
Where the “Life” trilogy saw Blur as a Saturday night blockbuster at the local multiplex…here we see the band as Ken Loach down the local arthouse kino.
You need to have both in your life, of course you do…I want to munch popcorn and see giant robots beat each other into submission just as much as the next person. But I also want to see real life reflected back at me…because out of that experience I am capable of better engaging with who I am.
While “Coffee and TV” deals, I suspect, with the rather unique set of challenges Graham Coxon was dealing with at this time the secret to its place as a firm favourite of anyone with even a passing interest in the band lies in three things; the bouncy pop melody that drives it, the video (more of that in a bit) and the fact that everyone, everyone, has felt like “one of many zeros”.
We all like to believe that, despite the ordinariness of our mundane existence, that there is something special about us…some undiscovered talent, some ability, some deeper understanding, that, once unveiled, will propel us from the fringes to the very heart of things.
The truth is that we, fine, I am not all that special at all.
I am just the same as everybody else.
A complicated mess of emotions.
Desperately seeking…something, someone; maybe Susan?
You’re all terribly well adjusted and happy and successful. I’m very happy for you.
The video for “Coffee and TV” is, as everyone knows, an example of the pop video elevating itself from illustration to art…from Noel’s House Party to The Office…from Michael Bay to Ozu.
A little milk carton makes his way to the city in search of a missing in action Graham Coxon (lost to the murky world of rock and roll)…danger lurks around every corner and eventually he finds love…only to have it snatched, brutally, from him…then he finds Graham and reunites him with his family…before coming to a sticky end.
It is a silly, funny, scary, clever, artistic and brilliantly produced short film and serves to remind you of both how risible the Damien Hirst video for “Country House” was and of how brilliant music video can be when done with love.
It was now becoming very clear that Blur were moving.
Moving away from one thing and towards another thing. No desire to tread water or to rehash what had gone before. They were looking at new things.
They were listening to new things.
They were Hell bent on change.
In very many ways the nineteen-nineties was a period in time that was defined by Blur more than any other group. Nirvana was a big deal… but the despair, the angst and the howl that they dished up were never going to shape the popular culture or reach the masses. Oasis were,
arguably, the biggest band of the decade…certainly in the UK and certainly in terms of record sales and they inspired fashions in both music and clothing in very real ways, ways that stretch on ’til today.
Radiohead were the darlings of the music press…certainly of a particular type of muso critic but they were wilfully, defiantly, niche.
This is all, of course, viewed through the prism of my own nationality. In worldwide terms the nineteen-nineties were defined by multi-million selling soul, r ‘n’ b, rap and hip-hop acts. From Lauryn Hill to Dr Dre through to the likes of Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey black and female artists outsold the bands I named above many thousands of times over.
Despite that there really cannot be any doubt that here in the UK Blur created, defined and, arguably, ended the biggest pop culture movement of the decade. In the process they changed the way people dressed, the types of music people listened to, the way people viewed their country and, maybe, helped usher in a Labour government for the first time since 1979.
Much of the nineties is bathed, thanks to nostalgia, in a sunlight glow. But as the decade drew to a close there was a palpable sense that things were changing…and maybe not for the better. The horrors that lay in wait at the start of the noughties couldn’t be imagined but, still, the promise that “things can only get better” didn’t seem to be one that was going to be kept. There had been positive developments under New Labour with a fall in unemployment, the introduction of a minimum wage, the removal of hereditary peers and the setting up of a Scottish Parliament but still there seemed to be a feeling that things were not changing enough or quickly enough.
Maybe that isn’t true.
Maybe things are coloured by what happened next.
What was undeniably true was that, in relation to pop music…the last party was over.
Director: “Can you tell me what this song is about?”
Damon: “Our song’s about…just, er…it’s…it’s…it’s definitely a sad song. It’s a song that’s…it’s a warning…and a kind of, gentle reminder.”
No Distance Left to Run – November 15th, 1999
The last Blur single of the decade.
At the end of a century.
It is a heartbreaking work of staggering musical genius.
Revealing a level of emotional honesty not yet seen by Damon Albarn up to that point.
When I heard it for the first time I had no way of connecting with it on an emotional level.
I had been in love a couple of times but those were adolescent flirtations with the concept of love, when they passed I was liberated as opposed to being broken.
In 1999 I had been married for a year.
Everything was dandy.
By 2007 things were…different.
There had been bad choices.
There had been betrayal.
A hurt of the sort I was ill equipped to cope with when it came. The marriage was crumbling.
It was over.
I didn’t need her to tell me.
She had found someone…else.
Feeling safe in her sleeping.
Neither of us was prepared to kill ourselves to keep things going…there was no distance left to run.
Did we know it would end that way?
Nobody falls in love expecting it to sour.
Love makes us…naive.
We dismiss all the examples of love not working and convince ourselves that, somehow, that won’t happen to us.
We ended up turning our backs and walking away.
At the time it was this song that I listened to on a loop.
Lying in the ashes of what I thought was love.
What is important though is even though the song is achingly sad and almost utterly devoid of hope it made me think about what love could be…what it should be. I resolved to find that…first with myself and then, with luck, with someone else.
I had to learn to feel safe in my sleeping.
Then I found love again.
But this time it was different.
This time there was no distance I wouldn’t run to keep it, to protect it, to feed it.
The real thing?
Now when I listen to “No Distance Left to Run” I don’t hear a sad song, I hear a full stop and feel the challenge of healing. When I watch that astonishing intimate video of the four boys in the band asleep…alone in their dreams…I don’t see the loneliness of a bed filled by one body, I see the confidence of loving yourself and a space for someone yet to be discovered.