It’s official, Blur are at the top of the pops and are doing their best to put the Great back into British pop. This week we corner Damon in the pub and Dave in his ‘plane to discuss all things ‘blokey’. (Coming soon, the other two Alex and Graham.) STEVE SUTHERLAND chats to DAMON, the self-styled architect of post-modern music hall, about footie, class, lurve and the next round – the imminent Battle Of Bournemouth!
The taxi overheats, stuck in the sweltering Knightsbridge gridlock. In the back, Damon Albarn cradles a bottle of warm lager and loudly hails the protesters chanting outside on the pavement.
“You’re f—ing brilliant!” he shouts through the cab window.
The protesters, mostly in their teens, studiously ignore him. They are intent on haranguing the French consulate over the nuclear testing at Mururoa atoll.
“That’s f—ing brilliant,” Damon repeats to no-one in particular. “I haven’t seen a CND sign for f—ing years!”
Fifteen minutes later, the same cab is stuck in the same traffic. We have struggled as far as Picadilly Circus and have come to an unscheduled, grumbling stop outside the Trocadero.
Tourists in Hard Rock Cafe T-shirts throng the pavements. Damon continues to cradle his now empty bottle and sinks down in his seat. Too late mate.
“D-A-M-O-N!!! D-A-M-O-N!!!” A gang of girls tug at each other’s sleeves and point, egging on each other’s hysteria. A couple risk life and limb to lurch, screaming and flailing, into the traffic. Miraculously, the cab starts to move. Damon gives them a sheepish grin and a royal wave and tries to remember where we’re going.
“Oh yeah. The Mars Bar. See if Alex has tried to pull Barbara Ellen yet.”
Barbara, trouper that she is, is interviewing Alex at his favourite West End bar and Damon is determined to cause mischief.
When we eventually arrive at our destination – major disaster – Alex, the legendary drinker and ladies man, is having a rare ‘dry’ day in preparation for tomorrow’s Top Of The Pops. Not only has he not made a pass at Barbara, he is positively running scared of her.
Damon’s gutted. Only more lager will dull the ache of disappointment.
So the bar is propped up, conversations grow into arguments as such conversations do and, an hour or so later, a homing device goes off in his head.
“Justine’s cooking!” he suddenly announces with palpable panic. He borrows a mobile phone and takes it out into the street where he can just be heard saying he’ll be home soon and yelling exasperatedly into the night: “Darlin’, I dunno whether the rice or stock goes in first!”
There it is then, pop fans. When Justine cooks chez Albarn it’s… risotto!
And there you have it: Blur, late August, 1995. Politically conscious to the extent that they cheer on CND and commit themselves to the War Child ‘Help’ project. Famous to the point of being screamed at in the street. Laddish enough to fantasise innuendo into the most innocent of interviews. And very drunk and very late indeed for a very smart dinner date. Oh what a glorious life!
That’s Blur, kings of all Swinging London and Britain’s biggest, brightest and best pop group. Thanks to several years hard work and a crucial shot of self-belief, right now Blur are basking in the glory of their first Number One hit single.
They are also confidently contemplating the release of their fourth LP, ‘The Great Escape’. It’s an album of much swagger, an album that’s already odds-on to eclipse their mighty ‘Parklife’.
Given the choice, Damon elected to talk about it all in a pub just down the road from the new EMI headquarters in West London.
He is tanned, relaxed and quietly cocky after a week away on holiday – a week in which ‘Country House’ topped the charts, a result doubly sweet considering his decision to go head-to-head with ‘Roll With It’, the latest single by media-fueled arch rivals, Oasis.
The night before, in this very same pub, Damon had been presented by his record company with a framed copy of the charts. The inscription read: “‘Better than Blur any f—ing day of the week’, Liam Gallagher, Glastonbury Festival, 1995.” Underneath that it read, “NOT TODAY SUNSHINE!”
The barmaid asks for, and gets, her photo taken with Damon. She pours the pints and says she’s a Blur girl. Calls Oasis, “northern louts”. Damon grins. We retire to the garden.
This Blur versus Oasis thing has grown pretty serious, hasn’t it?
“Yeah, but no-one was having a go at Oasis on our side. I mean, I did that thing on Chris Evans’ show when I said, ‘It sounds a bit like Status Quo’, but that was the only thing. It was all on their side.”
Was that just good manners or was there some damage-limitation on your part?
“Oh, we weren’t 100 per cent confident that we would win. You can’t be. It’s naive to think any different.”
If you say you’re going to win and you don’t, you just look like an asshole, don’t you?
“Well, yeah, and I wasn’t prepared to do that because I care about the music I make.”
Did you take it badly when Phil Daniels told NME he thought Oasis would be Number One?
“Oh yeah. It really upset me. I rang him up straight away and I had to go and see him that night to talk it over because… y’know, I really love Phil and I was hurt. I’m fine about it now, but at the time, when I read it, my top lip did start to quiver a bit.”
He said you were crying on the phone.
“That’s bollocks. He would say that, he’s a f—ing lovey, innee?”
What if you had lost?
“I really don’t know. I was on holiday with my parents because Justine and I had booked to go to Turkey until Elastica were offered Lollapalooza. My dad had been invited to open the first art school in Mauritius so I went along. It was fine until Thursday night and then the whole world changed and I started to worry. By Friday I was getting really agitated and then on Saturday I flew back. There was no feedback at Heathrow. I got a cab and the cabby didn’t know who I was, which was a result. Justine wasn’t back from America until the Saturday night so I went down to the cafe at the corner of my street and the lady there filled me in on all the press we’d been getting.
“When I got back to the house there were no messages on the answer phone until Andy Ross (head of Food Records) rang up and said he was fairly confident. The next day I went to play football and Andy turned up completely pissed so I knew we’d won, which was brilliant because we needed to upstage ‘Parklife’ in some way.
“The irony is, if we hadn’t had the thing going with Oasis, it wouldn’t have been news. Everyone would have said, ‘Of course they’re gonna have a Number One’. But the Oasis thing made it into something very different and, yes, I did move our release date to match theirs!
“If you really want to know, the main reason was that, when Oasis got to Number One with ‘Some Might Say’, I went to their celebration party, y’know, just to say, ‘Well done’. And Liam came over and, y’know, like he is, he goes, ‘Number fookin’ One!’, right in my face. So I thought, ‘OK, we’ll see…’
“But lets not get into that. All that matters is it paid off, thank God. I think it’s got to calm down now because everyone’s looking forward to Bournemouth, aren’t they, when we play that venue just across the road from them? I didn’t set that one up. That’s purely and genuinely coincidence.”
You’re not going to back out, are you?
In a few minutes, the interview will be interrupted by a phone call from the Blur office. There has been communication from the Oasis camp to see if anything can be done about the Bournemouth clash. Rumours are rife that gangs of marauding Mancs have already hired coaches for the occasion while, for some reason, some heavy lads from Wolverhampton are planning to ruck on Blur’s behalf. It seems everyone is gearing up for a bit of the old mods versus rockers ultra-violence.
Several lagers later, Damon will outlay his plans for The Battle of Bournemouth – a giant inflatable Number One will be flown above Blur’s venue while the Blur logo, like the Batsign, will be projected on the wall of Oasis’ venue. As our mums would often say, boys will be boys.
Right now, the beer hasn’t quite fueled Damon’s bravado to fighting talk and he’s still reflecting on the week that changed his life forever: “I don’t think I could have really coped with being around while it was going on. I suffer really badly from anxiety and stress.”
Surely the most stressful thing was trying to work on a new album when ‘Parklife’ just wouldn’t lay down and die in the nation’s affections?
“Well, the pressures were strange. I’ve never had that thing about fame and money being terrible. I just wanted to make something that I thought was good because I knew the attention this album would get. It had to be something that was at least a worthy successor to what we’d already done, something that was intelligent lyrically. That was the hardest thing.
“I find writing songs and catchy tunes really easy, but even with ‘Country House’, it has to have little things in it like ‘Balzac’ and ‘Prozac’. Odd things. They’re very important because, for me, that’s what makes it interesting, slightly twisted pop music.
“I was more relaxed on this album generally. I didn’t feel the anger that I’ve had in the past. I didn’t feel that need to be a caricature of Britishness.” Thanks to Blur, however, there’s nothing to be ashamed of now: London is the rock’n’roll capital of the world once more and they must take major credit for it. Damon seems to have embraced his role, even presenting the likes of Sleeper, Menswear, Pulp and Supergrass to the mums and dads on BBC2’s Britpop special.
Did it embarrass you, behaving like the spokesman for a generation?
“No… I felt quite comfortable doing it. I didn’t feel self-conscious at all. I mean, Jarvis has presented Top Of The Pops – which is his given vocation in life; he will be a great TV presenter and have his own show. And, between us all, we run the pop culture in this country. That leaves us open to being completely derided by the next generation which is fair enough. But, right at this moment, we have reached the point where it’s our thing. That’s all any generation can every hope to achieve.”
Notable absentees from the programme were Oasis.
“They refused to do it.
Because you were presenting?
“No, no, no. I think one of the dangers with that band is they’ve got a lot of people around them who take too many drugs. That’s been the way with a lot of those sort of bands whose main appeal is the feeling in the music of a sense of freedom, a lot of which is just an illusion. It’s just drugs. I know I sound like an old fart and a reactionary, but I just think you last longer and you ultimately say a lot more if you’re a bit more sober about it.”
Have you heard ‘Morning Glory’?
“Yeah. Funnily enough the person who played it to me was Paul Weller, but… um… I was really stoned and drunk and… um…”
Ha! After all you’ve just said.
“Well, exactly! Hahahaha!”
You’re being diplomatic again.
“Am I?” Damon makes a face like a schoolboy caught nicking sweets. “I think Liam’s an absolutely brilliant front-man. I really do. If I was a 15-year-old, I’d wanna be like Liam.”
Listening to ‘The Great Escape’, it seems like you’re indulging in a fair old bit of hero worship yourself. ‘Fade Away’, for example, is The Specials.
“Yeah, despite what people think they were really more my band than Madness. I really loved Terry Hall and the idea of a band that was half black and half white and produced this music which was equally music hall and reggae. I’d love to be in a band like that. Y’know, that’s why bands like Black Grape are great.
“I met Shaun Ryder for the first time doing Top Of The Pops and I was really scared because I’d gone to see them at the Astoria and, y’know, when we started, they were the band. But he was really bright and witty and friendly, just a clever man who obviously gets f—ed up a lot of the time.”
Black Grape have done what The Stone Roses were supposed to do – they’ve achieved the great comeback.
“Oh, I don’t put them in the same class. The Happy Mondays were utterly the band. I don’t rate The Stone Roses much. They have no charm. It ain’t over ‘til the flat laddie sings!” He sniggers.
‘Top Man’ is Fun Boy Three, isn’t it?
“It is, totally. I felt I could do that because I’ve been writing some songs with Terry Hall and I thought as repayment I’d just nick it. I told him about it so it’s OK. We’re all part of the same thing. I hope I can say that now and not sound pretentious. I think I am part of that whole line of things that has existed in this country, the heritage…”
There’s a danger in that isn’t there? If you show too much respect for your roots you leave yourself open to critics who say it’s all been done before. Like you say in ‘Best Days’: “Other people would turn around and laugh at you/If you said that these were the best days of our lives”.
“I don’t know at what point generations become analytical, but we started looking at our lives as opposed to living them. That’s the extraordinary thing about the ‘90s – we feel separate from the rest of existence. We feel as though we know everything that’s gone before and we use it all and, therefore, none of us feels real. There’s never, ever before been such a pre-occupation with defining whether people are real or not. But I hope we’re getting out of that a bit now. I think everyone just wants to be a bit more naive about it all, there’s a lot less self-examination going on.”
Do you feel constantly challenged to yourself?
“Every single day. I don’t exist. Literally every day I read something that says I’m not real.”
You made a big point at the Mile End gig to establish your East End roots and mock those who call you a Mockney. Does the claim that you’re in some way a fake get to you?
“Yeah. I’ve lived in Essex and London all me life. I didn’t go to public school. I went to a comprehensive. My parents are not very well-off but they’re bright. I can’t help that.”
A lot of people liken you to the ‘60s Mick Jagger, the way his accent could be posh or wideboy, depending on the company he was keeping. Very untrustworthy!
“Yeah, I can see that. That’s what I liked about Shaun Ryder. He’s not bothered about whether you’re real or not real, you’re either somebody you like or somebody you don’t. I mean, he lives in f—ing Hampstead! That’s brilliant. I love the idea of all those out-of-touch, rich, Hampstead-type people seeing him as some kind of guru – it’s The Buddha Of Suburbia all over again! He’s The Bez Of Suburbia, isn’t he? Heehee. It’s brilliant. That’s what it’s all about.”
“Yeah, that’s what I want. The most interesting thing about all the press that surrounded the single is that it revealed this open sore in our society, our fascination with the divide between working class and middle class people.”
The Daily Mail saluted ‘Country House’ topping the charts with a bout of oik-bashing. The headline read: ‘The Pop Victory That Makes It Hip To Be Middle Class’.
“Yeah, and they printed a photo of my parents’ house. That’s an invasion of privacy, isn’t it? I hate this class thing. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s useless. I think I’m a lot more relaxed about it than Justine is, though. She feels a lot more vulnerable because she did go to public school and she’s a lot more sensitive about it. But it’s unnecessary. It doesn’t mean anything.”
‘Stereotypes’ is, ahem, a very stereotypical Blur song – the caricature of the buxom landlady, the Brian Rix farce, the naughty seaside postcard. There’s no real commitment to your characters – you create them and observe them in their habitats, but you never let us know what you think of them.
You never climb off the fence.
“I know I don’t.”
It’s a cop-out.
“Well, it’s only a cop-out if you demand, as a listener, some sort of judgement.”
“Well, I think the songs are very judgemental, it’s just that I can get away with it. I can get to Number One and take the piss out of somebody quite specifically who no-one knows.”
Come on! It’s no secret that ‘Country House’ is your revenge on Dave Balfe (former partner in Food Records until he told Blur they were so useless they should quit and eventually did just that himself).
“Hahahaha. That song is about me. The bit where it goes, ‘Blow, blow me out‘. It happened at a time when I felt really dreadful and it just helps me to take the piss out of myself.”
When you all start buying country houses with your millions, you’re dead.
“Of course, but the strange thing is, you predict your own nemesis all the time. Writing a song like ‘Country House’ and then getting one is inevitable…”
For someone who is so obviously at ease with fame and fortune, it’s weird that you should write ‘Entertain Me’, which is basically saying exactly the same thing as Nirvana’s ‘… Teen Spirit’.
“That struck me too.”
So have you ever arrived at the same point of dispair as Kurt Cobain? Does this reflect the fear that you’re public property now, that you’ve got to be ‘Damon out of Blur’ all the time?
“Not at all. My pop person has actually made me feel more normal. I was uncomfortable with not being famous.”
So why did you develop Dan Abnormal – your pseudonym?
“That’s a name Justine gave me. I thought it was brilliant. He represents a lot of my less savoury habits. I mean, I think the song ‘Dan Abnormal’ is about the fact that I spent most of this year on my own because Justine’s been away. So I spent quite a lot of time just getting drunk at night, going out and just doing what single people do… no, that’s too bloody ambiguous, innit? What I meant to say was, I got into being completely alone. Y’know, I would find myself in Soho at three in the morning, really drunk and just getting into a taxi and going home to watch a dirty film or something. I mean, I’ve seen Justine for three weeks this year which, for someone you’ve lived with for a very long time is…” He trails off, that faraway pin-up look in his eyes.
The together/alone thing crops up a lot on this album.
“Yeah. The chorus of my favourite song on the album, ‘Yuko and Hiro’ – ‘I never see you/We are never together/I’ll love you forever‘ – is it, really. It’s as close to it as I can get. Justine doesn’t really like me singing songs like that. It’s embarrassing.”
‘The Universal’ is also very romantic. It’s like ‘This Is A Low’ amplified to the max. It seems to take a heroic joy in being man enough to accept defeat.
“I do find it very hard to let go, to just allow myself to be a complete… what’s the word? Ghost. I wish I was a ghost sometimes. The song I’ve done with Tricky, I think he’s going to call it ‘Pass Right Through You’. He wrote the lyric and I thought that was brilliant because it’s something I always wanted to express. ‘The Universal’ is like that. It goes, ‘When the days they seem to fall through you/Just let them go‘. It’s probably very negative.”
It doesn’t feel like it. Sometimes you just need to cut it all loose, sometimes that’s the only way to survive.
“Yeah, the football at the Phoenix Festival was a perfect example of that.” Damon played in the NME five-a-side team at Phoenix. The team got to the semis before being hammered 3-0 by, it has to be said, an over-qualified Arsenal team. It took him hours and several pints to get over the fact of defeat, no matter how many times he was plied with platitudes like “to win well you have to learn to lose well”.
That’s the great thing about playing football; its simplicity. After a week where it’s hard to tell where you are or how you’re doing, the fact of winning, drawing or losing is a relief and a release. Football gives you that clear sense of achievement.
“That’s why I play football. It’s a saving grace. I know it’s a very flippant thing to say, but if Kurt Cobain had played football, he’d probably be alive today. I know it sounds the most ridiculous thing, but, if you play football, you’ll know what that means. Football has given me the simplicity that I’m always trying to find. I just want to be a simple person. I just want to be normal.”
There isn’t such a thing.
“No, of course there isn’t, then again, there is. It’s called football.”
Is there nothing that football can’t solve, then?
“I find it increasingly difficult to find things that it can’t solve. To do with love, maybe. It doesn’t solve anything between men and women, but I think it can solve most things between men and men.”
Some people claim that sport is just a war substitute.
“That could be true. My family aren’t interested in football and that’s probably because they were all, on one side, conscientious objectors and, on the other side, farmers. So I’m the first of my clan to become confrontational. The rest have all been quite passive and civilised.”
There must be a stray gene.
“There is! I’m the first lager lout!”
Well, you were happy to be featured in an early copy of Loaded and you did embrace the lad revival from the start.
“Yeah, I did feel there was something happening, but then I knew there would be a huge backlash against American bands a year early. I’m fairly good at knowing roughly what’s gonna go on. I think the reason we’ve survived for so long is that we do work that out although we never embody any particular thing entirely. We’re always an embodiment of it but not the embodiment of it.
“David Bowie was like that. Three or four of his albums rank amongst my favourites. I totally understand the way that he worked out what was going on each time and moulded himself round it. He was a complete tart.”
Rumour is you’ve been knocking around with him.
“No, not really. He seemed to follow me around for a week when we were working on the ‘Country House’ video with Damien Hirst.”
He seems a bit lost nowadays.
“Yeah, I’m not sure how good he is… I’m not sure he spends enough time in the right places. I’m sure if he did, he would be good.”
Designing wallpaper wasn’t the best idea he’d ever had.
“Well, it’s not important. Damien has given the illusion that art is important because he’s such a good salesman and he’s brilliantly tabloid about it all.”
Why did you get involved with him?
“Well, obviously I like to think that there was this period, 1987/88 at Goldsmiths, where there was a lot of good thought going on that world, in the future, express its generation in some form or other. But, in all honesty, it’s Alex. You know he loves Groucho’s. He likes yachts. He’s in love with Damien Hirst. Poor Alex – he came of age in the wrong decade.
“Anyway, the first few times I met Damien, I was just saying, ‘You’re a c—. You work with Dave Stewart, David Bowie, David Bailey, David f—ing Gower… whatever. Get a life, man’. But he’s a super bloke and he just had this huge amount of energy and he agreed with my idea that it would be great to make a video that was quite Benny Hill.”
It didn’t really work, did it?
“Well, it worked in the sense that we’re Number One. And it got on the front of The Sunday Sport. It worked, basically, because we used Page Three girls more than anything.”
How did Graham take it? He goes out with one of Huggy Bear, doesn’t he? His life must have been hell.
“Yeah, I think it was. But Graham does have this option to say, ‘No, I don’t want to do this’ and, if he doesn’t, then he just has to live with it. He’s very complex, is Graham. There’s about five different sides to Graham and it depends on which side on that particular day is the most dominant as to whether or not he agrees or disagrees with something.
“The weird thing was, a lot of people at our record company were really offended by the video and they wanted us to re-shoot it. But when they showed it to their kids, they couldn’t stop watching it, so suddenly, y’know, it’s become a great video. Not that it’s a kid’s video. I’ve had so many people come up to me and say stuff like, ‘I can’t believe you got Joanna Guest in your video. What’s she like?’ So it’s worked because it has embraced the tabloid sentiment of what these last few weeks have been about.”
For the first time the writing credits on the album all say ‘Albarn’. Before it appeared more democratic. Does this mean you’ve taken over?
“No, ‘course not.”
OK, so what was Graham’s contribution to ‘The Great Escape’?
“Well, what Graham wanted to do on this album was just be odd. It’s difficult to explain, but he just makes things sound right. Y’know, he puts a hardness to things that I do that isn’t there otherwise. Like the guitar solo on ‘Country House’ is very subtle, but it’s just… mad. In the same way as me and my lyrics, he is not prepared to sit there and blather out blues licks.
“But, having said that, I did really feel that I was fighting on this occasion so I was probably quite aggressive about what I wanted to do.”
Why call the album ‘The Great Escape’?
“Good film. Very tasty bloke, Steve McQueen. I couldn’t come up with something that was funny. I’d burnt myself out on the lyrics and Alex just came out with it. He didn’t like it, but I did because it was exactly what the album was about, in the sense that all the characters have always been escaping or trying to become somebody else or returning to the fold after being out of it.
“Stephen Street thought it was called that because we’d managed to write an album which would follow up ‘Parklife’, but that was the last thing I had in my head.”
What’s with all the frilly undies and pervy stuff in ‘Stereotypes’ and ‘Mr. Robinson’s Quango’?
“Dunno. I’m not really very interested in underwear at all, but in the songs… I dunno. My aunt runs a B&B and she’s convinced ‘Stereotypes’ is about her, so I just wanna say, for the record, it’s got nothing to do with you, aunt. But with ‘Mr. Robinson’s Quango’, I went to see my grandparents in Grantham of all places and I was at the train station and I wanted to go to the toilet so I went and sat down and it had, in felt tip on the door; ‘I’m wearing black French knickers on under my suit/I’ve got stockings and suspenders on/I’m feeling rather loose‘ and that’s where I took the whole song from. Just the idea that someone in Grantham, who was obviously a commuter to London, had sat there and written this thing! I thought it was wonderful. Hopefully that person will know they’ve been immortalised.”
Do you really find him wonderful or is he just sad?
“Well, he’s a desperate character, a mayor or something, someone quite important who pinches his secretary’s bum. A transvestite who takes drugs. A mason. He’s the man who has every skeleton in his closet. We could spend years dissecting him.”
He’s archetypically English.
“Well, not really. D’you think so?”
It’s every Sunday’s News Of The Screws.
“Yes, it is…”
…But amplified and concentrated, just like ‘The Great Escape’.
“Yeah. It’s new improved Daz.”
This is the end of the trilogy, isn’t it? You can’t do it again.
“I don’t intend to. This is the last one.”
“Oh very different. I suspect this LP will put us in a very advantageous position.”
Not the quadruple concept album!
“No, nothing like that. I’m a different kind of pop person now. I’m very pop. Hahaha. I think the most satisfying thing about us is that we are on the cover of Sugar and Big and Smash Hits and NME. The whole spectrum. We get a look in everywhere. I don’t ever wanna lose that.
“The interesting thing is, around the time of ‘Parklife’, Kurt Cobain dies and, around this time, Robbie left Take That. It’s strange, but these things do happen. It’s like, have you ever played that game called Risk? It’s like that really. Whole continents become somebody else’s.”
Are you saying that you’re blessed?
“Yeah,” he laughs. “I guess I am. Let’s go see what Alex is up to…”
And with that he loafs out into the street, lager in hand, sun in his eyes, into the arms of his city, his fans, into the brilliant glare of the rest of his life.