We join the story in the autumn of 1995. ‘Country House’ has beaten ‘Roll With It’ to Number One and critics are in short-lived raptures over ‘The Great Escape’. Blur, however, are suffering in the hungover aftermath of yet another US tour…
Back in England, the first public signs of internal strain were beginning to show. “The band didn’t take well to success,” recalls Stephen Street. “There was a succession of slight breakdowns at that time, although whilst making ‘The Great Escape’ they seemed very happy. If they had problems is wasn’t aware of them.
“I was never aware of Damon’s apparent problems with coke. I never saw him do anything like that in the studio so it was news to me. In the studio there was always wine and beer but nothing stronger.”
Over several pints of lager in his (still) beloved Good Mixer, Graham told journalist Keith Cameron of his ambivalence towards the band’s ‘victory’ in the chart war with Oasis. “I got the phone call and though ‘that’s really nice…’ Then it got to Sunday night and I found myself getting uneasy and acting a bit weird.” He went on to candidly express that “my life is a mass of confusion… and I feel like I’m letting Damon down in a lot of ways.”
He also expressed his unease with and alienation from two elements of Blur’s lifestyle at the time. First, he gave his take on the ‘new laddism’: “If he [Damon] wants to go on about football and Page Three girls that means we all get associated with it… I hate football and I hate anything associated with Page Three girls.” He railed against the most obvious symbol of this as far as the group were concerned – Damien Hirst’s embarrassing video for ‘Country House’.
“I hated it. Videos in general I feel completely awful about…but I regret ‘Country House’ as a single…I like the song but the association with it has become something else. It becomes Page Three and Benny Hill and I don’t think I had the sense to complain about it – which is my fault. I didn’t realise what dirty minds Keith Allan and Damien Hurst had. They’re from an area which I don’t want to associate with anymore.”
This led to Graham declaring his contempt for aspects of pop-star life. “The mixer ain’t the Groucho…Why do you have to go some exclusive, celebrity-ridden place to have a good time? I don’t want to be snorting coke and drinking champagne with them cunts. I wanna be talking with my friends.
It didn’t take holmesian deductive powers to work out that Alex, his flamboyant lifestyle and his choice of drinking partners were the chief targets of Graham’s disdain. The two inseparable Goldsmiths chums had, sadly, become polarised at the furthest ends of the band. Graham was involved with a staunchly feminist member of an uncompromisingly uncommercial indie group [Jo from Huggy Bear] who by day worked in a left-wing bookshop and immersed herself in obscure American hardcore music. Alex was living the life he always lusted after: a fêted pop star thrust into a bachelor life, to entirely willingly, but enjoying it to the full.
A diary he wrote for The Idler magazine ends with an account of the conclusion to one evening’s revels: “Have some horrible fizzy beer and go outside to be sick. Someone follows and asks for my autograph. Have a few beers and talk utter gobshite with Steve Mackey, my favourite bassist, and stumble home with the girls. Put the Kylie Minogue on and get the phone book out. Play the entire Oasis album down Albarn’s and much worse probably. Pink gin, white Russian and ruby red margaux. You only live once. Get drunk, be a tart, enjoy yourself. The end.”
ALEX JAMES: “Perhaps I did take it most enthusiastically. Dave had stopped drinking and he’s just got married and moved to Hampstead and settled down for a quiet life. Damon was with Justine. And my girlfriend, Justine…well, she couldn’t bear what I’d become. I was like ‘Whoarr! I am gorgeous!’ I’d become impossible to live with: arrogant, greedy, selfish. So she moved out and suddenly I’m on my own, living in the West End, in the coolest band in the world with loads of money and an expensive champagne habit. I’d moved out of my parents’ house to share with Justine when we ell in love so I’d never really lived on my own before.”
He may have been more anonymous that Damon, but at that time Alex was one of Soho’s most high profile boulevardiers. “I’d always wanted to be an idiot genius Soho alcoholic. I thought it was a good lifestyle. I was just thinking if your band is cool you can go to all these shit stinko places and sit next to Prince and be ridiculous and blow raspberries cos you’ve had your champagne. I thought you might as well get in there and see what’s going on. Let’s have it all, you know.
“I was just becoming good friends with Keith and Damien at this point. They felt like kindred spirits. They seemed very clever: they seemed to know more than everyone else. Success is a fickle street to live on but that’s no reason to curl up and stay in your room. Yes, it’s ridiculous and it’s bollocks. But it won’t last so chop ‘em out.
“The Mars Bar in Endell Street became the major hang. Plus I was living above Freud’s. I was living above a cocktail bar and I was in the Mars Bar so often they gave me the keys. It was like Dante’s Inferno.”
Although initially relations were cordial, indeed Damon had originally been an habitué of the Groucho with Allen and Hirst too, all but Alex turned their back to that lifestyle with a vengeance.
“Graham and Damon really hated Keith and Damien,” says Ales. “I don’t know why really. Well, obviously, at the time Graham’s got this very right-on feminist girlfriend. If I had to analyse his feelings I’d say he was torn between wanting to make art and the demands of the business. I think he was tormented by the fact that ‘Country House’ wasn’t our best record but it sold more than anything else. That was what he was famous for but not what he was proud of.”
GRAHAM COXON: “I ended up being the milkman [in the ‘Country House’ video]. If I’d done what I was supposed to I would have had a lobotomy by now. I was supposed to do all sorts of nasty things – getting bottoms in my face and chasing girls. There’s some unintentionally funny bits where I’m not chasing them. ‘Come on, Graham, chase them!’ and I’m running in the opposite direction. It was so stupid. Alex thought it was great. Damon thought it was cheeky. It’s all The Guardian’s fault for saying football was OK. So Damon got into being a lad. Apparently, you could kick someone’s head in as long as you could write an essay about it. You had to go on about tits but if you knew why you were doing it that somehow makes you less of a pig. It was all an excuse to act horrendously, I thought. Of course Alex was loving Damien Hirst and Keith Allen. It made me very unhappy. I felt like a real stick in the mud or a monk or something. I was scared people thought I didn’t like girls. I do. But I don’t think you have to be rude about them. So I wasn’t a proper bloke.”
When Blur had performed on the roof of the Oxford Street HMV in the autumn, Damon had preface ‘The Universal’ by saying, ‘You’ll all be singing this at Christmas,’ a reference to their intention to release it as a single at the year’s end and the confidence that surrounded this gambit. ‘The Universal’ was duly released in mid-November. It only reached Number Five, overshadowed by the clamour surrounding Oasis. As Alex succinctly puts it, “After being the People’s Hero, Damon was the People’s Prick for a short period. After ‘Wonderwall ‘, basically he was a loser – very publicly. It was a silly business to get into, but it did take it all to a higher level. When the ‘90’s are looked back on, all that bollocks will be remembered.”
As Blur rolled day and night from placid, over looked English coastal resorts to soulless aircraft hangers to theatres and rock clubs across Europe and the US, the tension in the air became more apparent to those at close quarters. The tour bus rocked with argument as Graham fought for his beloved hardcore music and Gravity Records. “I wasn’t obsessed,” he says. “I still loved my Beatles and my Simon & Garfunkel. But I wanted to push the Kinks back in their faces.”
The rancorous and weary mood at the end of 1995 and the beginning of 1996 was caught luridly in a piece by Adrian Deevoy in Q early in the New Year. Its blurb ran: ‘Are Blur really going to the dogs? Behind all the adoring screams, we hear internal bickering, the tell-tale snii-i-iff! of media-centric decadence and a hollow champagne chink. Adrian Deevoy finds them in the verge of a nervous break-up.’
During the interview, Graham was inebriated, irritable and punching those around him. In a curious aside, he said that what might split the band up would be death. “Or if we made another ‘Parklife’. I don’t think we could carry on if one of us left… unless it was Alex.”
It was Damon’s answer to Deevoy’s questions about cocaine that quickly became notorious, though. ‘Everyone is taking drugs apart from Graham and me. We are virtually the only exceptions in the entire scene. He drinks too much, I drink a lot but not as much as him and I smoke a bit of dope, but that’s it. There’s a fucking blizzard of cocaine in London at the moment and I hate it. It’s stupid. Everyone becomes so blasé, thinking they’re so ironic and witty and wandering around with this stupid cokey confidence. Wankers. I mean, I did it but I can’t say I was a cocaine addict. And I can’t say whether that was what triggered the weird experience last year.’
Not surprisingly, when the piece appeared it caused a fury within the group and their entourage. Dave Rowntree: “There’s a blizzard of cocaine and I hate it? Hate it when it’s gone, maybe. Christ, he got some fucking shit over that. He basically fired off with this 360 degree spray of bullets that implied ‘I’m the only one in the whole music industry that isn’t addicted to cocaine.’ Everyone’s mum read it! Everyone we worked with had an awful lot of explaining to do to their mums! And customs officers! Damon was eating humble pie for a while after that.”
By February 1996, Blur were sewn together very awkwardly, during a recording of TFI Friday, Damon made disparaging references to Alex and the group’s fall from public grace. Graham missed an appearance on a prime-time Italian TV show as he was house hunting and was replaced by a cardboard cut-out. Alex missed the plane and his place was taken by Smoggy, the group’s head of security.
Though still comfortably a Top Ten band (‘Stereotypes’, the next single, reached Number Seven), the group were clearly at the end of their tether. Damon Albarn had himself become tired of what was now the groups perceived oeuvre. “I can sit at my piano and write brilliant observational pop songs all day long but you’ve got to move on.” He also acknowledged Graham’s fascination in the more lo-fi, underground and extreme ends of the musical spectrum.
“I think Damon was coming round himself,” says Graham. “He’d stared listening to the folky side of Beck and Pavement and the Beastie Boys, which he’s always hated. He’d always said hip hop had ‘no tunes’.”
STEPHEN STREET: “I went for a drive with Damon and we talked through what kind of record we could make. He wanted to change things and I could see his point. I said, ‘Let’s strip everything down, let’s not use strings and brass.’ I think Damon was pleased that I liked the idea. Damon had tried to involve Graham I think, but Graham had turned his back on the band. I had to go and talk him into it. So I went to a pub in Camden to meet Graham and we had an interesting conversation. He was really anti-Alex, who he thought was being a complete arsehole with Keith Allen and Damien Hirst, and he wouldn’t be in the same room as him. I was very worried they’d break up. Graham thought Alex had become the devil. I reported back and said ‘I’ve done what I can but you’ll have to tread very carefully.”
GRAHAM COXON: “I actually don’t remember this meeting. But it’s true that by the end of that massive tour I was sick of the industry and everything. It was just getting too jolly and too much into this music hall thing which I don’t feel any connection to at all. I’d bottle it up and have mad outbursts on tour. I was getting into hip-hop and getting scruffy and baggy clothes-wise. I brought some Pavement records in during ‘The Great Escape’ and they were instantly dismissed by everyone.
“I’d have some drinks and fly off the handle and say I wanted to be in a death-metal hardcore hip-hop group. Perhaps I was being mardy but I wanted to know why I couldn’t play the music I liked. I was very pissed off. I had this great big shout at Damon. It seemed to me at that moment that if you didn’t have the same pinion as Damon everyone thought you were zero and Damon thought you were mad. So I had this great big shout on the bus and it all went funny after that and we didn’t talk.
“That was the low spot. I was ready to pack it in. We had a serious chat about the group and I remember Dave saying something about us having to ‘work this band’ and that seemed so foreign. It’s not my duty, I thought. I had to do something to apologise… to inspire… to say my piece. So I wrote Damon a letter before we recorded ‘Blur’. I said I wanted to scare people again. He’s probably still got it. Well, I hope he has anyway.
DAMON ALBARN: “Everyone’s losing it. Graham’s miserable. I’m miserable. Dave’s doing his own thing. Alex… well, he was loving it although it did fuck him up a bit. Graham particularly hated having the little girl fans. Up to the marketing of ‘Parklife’ it was a good period, really, all considered. But after that – right up until I discovered Iceland – it was a living hell. I like some of ‘The Great Escape’ but can’t listen to most of it. Justine had such a downer on it. She hated ‘The Universal’. I was getting all the stuff as Graham from his girlfriend in Huggy Bear. Justine thought what she was doing with Elastica was much more worthy and cool. I’ve always acknowledged that Justine was a great editor of my work. But there was a lot going on. Elastica’s vibe was not healthy.”
Over the previous Christmas, Dave Rowntree confesses they’d been on the verge of updating their CVs. “it didn’t look like Graham could work with Damon and Damon didn’t want to continue if Graham wasn’t in the band and I was thinking, ‘Fucking hell, if it carried on like this I don’t want anything to do with it anyway’. Our rehearsals were like what you read about the last days of The Who – all screaming and throwing things.”
“We just needed a rest from the treadmill of tours and interviews and TV studios,” diagnoses Graham. “We needed to spend some time living our own little lives.” Also, as he happily relates, “The letter worked. Letters are good. You can say a lot without being embarrassed because you’re not there when they read it. It was still embarrassing after admitting lots of stuff to then meet up and play together. But he was scared too. I didn’t know how enthusiastic I’d be. But the new songs were inspiring.”
Out of this period of doubt and chaos came ‘Blur’’: complex, primitive, utterly different right from its very beginnings. Rather than working from Damon’s demos in the studio, the band jammed without any preconceived structures. “We just played together for two weeks in a way we hadn’t done since 1991,” Dave recalls. “We wanted to purify the sound, to not have anything there not played by us. We reasoned that if we made small changes at the input end, we could effect large changes in the output.”
Salvation also came in the form of a most unlikely source: 40,000 square miles of lave, ice field and tundra just south of the Arctic circle. In Iceland’s otherworldly beauty and solitude (and raucously accepting nightlife), Damon found everything that the fag-end of Britpop couldn’t offer: anonymity, grandeur, escape. Damon was convinced by the ‘rightness’ of Iceland. Not so Graham. “I said, ‘There’s no fucking way I’m going.’ I’d just bought a flat and just come off a six-month tour. I didn’t see the point after all that of going off somewhere else and spending 12 hours a day with each other. It was preposterous. I couldn’t believe he’s suggested it.”
A compromise was reached. Initial sessions would take place at Mayfair studios in London and then, halfway through, the result would be transferred to tape and taken to Reykjavik where Street, engineer John Smith, Damon and Alex would continue working mainly on vocals and keyboards. Another major change was that Street had acquired a new piece of hardware – “muso-ish to talk about but really useful” – that enabled him to sample loops and otherwise cut-and-paste entire sections of the band’s jam sessions.
These sessions occupied the band or the remainder of the year. There were few other media-profile activities beyond a charity football match in which Damon and Liam Gallagher were seen symbolically bury the hatchet with a handshake for the cameras, and the release in the late spring of a fourth, perfunctory single from ‘The Great Escape’ – ironically ‘Charmless Man,’ the song Damon sees as the barrel-bottom of his character study period.
They showed themselves for one major outdoor gig at the RDS showgrounds in Dublin in June. It was a commendable set, performed to enthusiastic fans under a leaden Irish sky, just hours after England had put Spain out of the Euro ’96 tournament on penalties. What lingered in the memory, though, were two new songs: ‘Chinese Bombs’ and ‘Song 2’.
These songs were put into their splendid context when the fifth Blur album entitles, simply ‘Blur’ was released eight months later in early February 1997.
“When I first heard it,” admits Andy Ross, “I was taken aback. We’d won Brits, we’d won two consecutive Q magazine Albums Of The Year and my initial reaction was it’s awkward and difficult. My immediate reaction was will you sell as many records? Where’s my royalties? Everyone’s first reaction to it was that it was a departure: that’s clear from the artwork onwards.”
Damon might play this down but there’s no doubt it was a response to the second album backlash: ‘Let’s keep our heads down and make an album that sticks its two fingers up and is avowedly non-commercial’. Ironically, it became their biggest international record.
Damon recalls that EMI had their misgivings about the new venture. “The usual thing – ‘It’s got no singles on it’. Meanwhile, they’re giving Radiohead the full marketing works. That hurt for a while because we’ve done so well for then. We were trying to be really brave. But it was all made up pretty quickly.”
In fact, Graham remembers being pleasantly surprised by Parlophone MD Tony Wadsworth’s reaction. “We played him ‘Song 2’ as a bit of a test of whether he was on our wavelength. We told him this was the second single. Course, we had no idea that it would be. He sat there, grinning – ‘Definitely! Definitely a single!”
It’s a testament to how much improved relations were within the group that directly after the UK release of ‘Blur’, they set off – if not with spring in step then certainly without slouch of shoulder – for what would be effectively nine months on the road across countless countries. Partly this was due to the energising nature of the new music and its compatibility with raucous nightly performance. But it was also down to a growing acceptance of each other. Dave Rowntree once said that Blur’s relationship was like brothers in the truest sense. It wasn’t sweetly affectionate or bland – indeed, it was often angry and awkward – but always close and loyal. Now it was becoming grown-up too.
“The end result of all the hostility and Graham and Damon communicating by letter and the rest was that we began to accept each other as four individuals,” Dave explains. “Damon started to stand back a little. In interviews he’d often expound a particular line whether we agreed or not. Up till then he’d been very authoritarian and if you disagreed you were wrong. Everybody started to get a voice. It was never actually said but the feeling was, if we’re staying together then there’s no party line. Everyone could do their own thing. It was the end of our adolescence.”
That April bought another corkscrew twist in Blur’s never-plottable trajectory. ‘Song 2’, the incandescent, white-hot nugget of gonzoid metal with the “woo-hoo” hook improvised on the hoof, was released as a single.
A month before it was released, US computer hardware giants Intel released their Pentium II processor and they instantly fell upon ‘Song 2’ as their ad anthem. Nike followed suit. It became the theme music of the USA ice hockey team, the trailer music for the movie Starship Troopers and was used as a theme for Sony PlayStation game FIFA 98. Number Two in the UK, it was Number One from Australia to Greenland. It all added up to “a very nice-ker-ching factor”, as Alex puts it. An estimated £2 million worth.
GRAHAM COXON: “What a ridiculous think that was. ‘Song 2’ made more of a difference financially than anything else. It could have made a hell of a lot more difference, actually, if we’d listened to the devil even more. The American army wanted to use it as the theme music for video packages when they unveiled the brand new Stealth bomber. They were offering phenomenal amounts of cash. We couldn’t agree to it, of course, but it was quite cool. So we put it on FIFA which was OK cos The Guardian had said football’s OK.”
Late 1997: On one level, Damon’s life was busy and involving. In the autumn of ’97 he appeared in a Radio 3 broadcast of Joe Orton’s Up Against It (originally written for the Beatles but never performed because Brian Estein disapproved). Albarn took the part originally intended for George Harrison. He also appeared as a gangster in director Antonia Bird’s Face and worked with Michael Nyman on music for a Noel Coward tribute album. He was finding musical inspiration in much that was new: Eno, Dub, Neu and American curiosities such as Pavement whose leader Stephen Malkmus he was briefly, ambivalently friendly with.
But his personal life was in the darkest disarray. His relationship with Justine was disintegrating under sundry pressures. While they had never been rigidly monogamous, gossip mounted about infidelities on both sides, involving everyone from female Austrian VJs to Brett Anderson to the vocalist in defunct indie outfit Kingmaker.
DAMONALBARN: “it was unrealistic or naïve to think we could go through the mill of that fame thing and it not throw you right off centre. But I shouldn’t just blame it on celebrity. I was in the wrong relationship. My life was not right. Not in harmony. Everything stems from your emotional life and mine just wasn’t working at all. It was really dysfunctional. So I was misfiring everywhere. Iceland helped. It was a very strong positive experience but the truth is it gets more fucked up and worse back home. There’s been times over the past year, when my panic attacks started, that I really needed support and Justine didn’t provide it. Quite the opposite. She had her own problems, but she could have been more helpful. I don’t know how she could have done some of the things she did when you consider what id done for her.”
Damon feels that hi major contribution to Elastica’s success and the help and support he offered Justine went largely unrecognised and unreciprocated from his partner. “It was almost as if she didn’t like me for some reason.”
“Well, you start to think so, don’t you? The rest of the band never really knew what was happening. But they knew enough. I don’t think it even occurred to them that I was keeping hidden how fucked up I was. Maybe they knew. Certainly everyone’s a lot happier now that I’m happier. I think they were angry for me.”
Damon acknowledges that Elastica were in a troubled state themselves. Dark rumours of heroin addiction had been swirling around the group since Annie Holland had left two years earlier citing repetitive strain injury. “I think it’s very difficult to talk about drugs in a responsible way, however genuine your intention is,” he had said in late 1997. “It’s not discussible because it’s not controllable. I have no say over anything once its down on tape.
“Elastica and Justine had got into a weird, bad place. There were bad things happening. Not healthy. There seemed to be darkness around all the time. I had a period there myself. If the truth be known, a lot of ‘13’ stems from that period. I’d rented this flat for a year and I wrote a lot of the lyrics there. ‘Tender’ dates from then. Very painful. Agonisingly slow. Getting caught up in your own misery. Misery is something you musn’t wallow in. great if you’re running from it as fast as you can and not wallowing. I did a bit of that. It was sad… and I finished. I had to get away.”
So, in a gloomy one-bedroomed flat in the shabby yet genteel immigrant enclave of Goldborne Road, West London, the seeds of ‘13’ were sown…