Parklife Cover Art story
Courtesy of Laura Houghton
In May 1994, ‘Loaded’ magazine was launched. Across the country, trainee accountants, boys called Piers and, no doubt, Guy Ritchie suddenly found themselves glorying in football, beer and mockney accents. With sublime synchronicity, the same month saw Blur’s ‘Parklife’ go to number one, while vocalist Damon Albarn became New Lad Number One.
“All that came to a head when Damon bought shares in a greyhound,” says Chris Thompson, the Stylorouge designer who put the ‘Parklife’ sleeve together. “That was taking it totally to extremes – good fun though.”
This is true. Following the kind of mumbling, reluctant indie-pop typified by Ride, Britpop was like going to a proper party, complete with people who got drunk fast and made fools of themselves. While Oasis may have been an authentic piece of rough trade, Blur were much more clever. Their Madness-aping mockneyisms might have been the stuff of fantasy, but for catchy tunes and singalong lyrics ‘Parklife’ was the real thing. It’s hard to imagine a more suitable cover for a band who seemed to wear nothing but DM’s and Fred Perry shirts. One of the defining pop images of that year, embraced abandon, absurdity, high and low art.
“It was an album we really enjoyed making,” recalls guitarist Graham Coxon. “When we wrote ‘Girls and Boys’ we realised that there was something worth expanding on. Damon was getting into a really good stream lyrically and we were all kind of inspired.”
Blur’s design team were following similar currents. “By the time we did ‘Parklife’ we were really into appropriating popular imagery,” explains Rob O’Connor, Creative Director at Stylorouge. Having used a variety of stock photographs and found images for Blur’s previous two albums and associated singles, the designers now began collecting images of everyday life in London for ‘Parklife’. With frequent meetings taking place at Fulham’s Maison Rouge Studios in the winter of 1993, the designers were caught up in the enthusiasm.
“The things they were wearing coincided with the different visuals we were projecting,” remembers Thompson. “Everyone would turn up with a tie on and Alex would get told off if he had a funny coloured scarf on. It was very consciously controlled. Every night I would get a tape of what they’d been doing in the studio that day, and I used to listen to it on the way home. I remember listening to ‘To The End’ on the tube and was like WOW! That was good. So the next day you’d work that bit harder.”
Inspired by Albarn’s passion for Martin Amis’ 1989 novel ‘London Fields’, O’Connor and Thompson spent a week in February 1994 rambling the city. Nearly making the cover was a fruit and veg stall in London’s Portobello Road. Another – when the album’s title was temporarily ‘Soft Porn’ – was a picture of Buckingham Palace. In March, Albarn summoned the band and Stylorouge to the King’s Road in Chelsea, where the sporting images in a William Hill’s betting shop window had caught his attention. Initially a complete window including other sports was created, but this was simplified.
“We centred in on the greyhounds,” explains Coxon “because they had an aggressiveness we liked. We chose the ones with the most teeth. They look deranged, just longing to kill, and there’s a bizarre look in their faces. You just don’t get that look with a footballer – well maybe a little bit.”
An image from a sports picture library was settled on, much to the surprise of photographer Bob Thomas.
“He couldn’t believe we wanted it for a record cover,” recalls O’Connor. “I’m sure if he’d thought about it he’d have asked for a bit more money.”
With the cover decided, everyone trekked up from the band’s then-HQ in Camden’s Good Mixer for an evening at Walthamstow Dogs. There, the band had their portrait taken, while the track also yielded inspiration for the album’s colour scheme and the themes for the sleeves of the ‘Parklife’ singles.
“The whole idea was what blokes do for entertainment,” explains O’Connor. “I’ve always thought of Blur as a boys’ band, but one that also appealed to girls, so that fitted in very well – sex for ‘Girls and Boys’, Beer for the ‘Parklife’ single.”
Looking back, Coxon thinks they controlled their imagery too tightly.
“We were being clever, or possibly lazy, or both. I think Blur has always tried to be a bit too clever,” he says. “I’ve since got into having it a bit more vague rather than packaged. I prefer to fantasise a little more about the record in my hand, rather than having it all set out with the imagery. In a way the ‘Parklife’ sleeve is all intellect, and no soul – but it’s also sensational, graphic and perfect.”