A Hard Days Night
SOHO HOUSE IS A MEDIA DRINKING CLUB HIDDEN behind a doorway on Greek Street in London’s West End. It was here that Blur met on August 20, 1995 to celebrate their victory over Oasis, when Country House entered the singles chart at Number 1 ahead of Roll With It. Tensions were running high that Sunday evening: guitarist Graham Coxon, unhappy about the direction Blur’s music and videos had taken, threw champagne around in a fit of drunken pique before attempting to exit the premises via a second-floor window. His journey to the pavement would have been a brief one. Blur’s domination of Oasis was not to last any longer.
Five years later almost to the day, Blur are back in Soho House. This time they’re downstairs in the library, drinking bottles of mineral water. When their lunches arrive, they prod at them for a while and push them aside, unfinished. If the four musicians are enjoying being in each’ other’s company an event somewhat rare this year they me doing a pretty good job of disguising it. Damon Albarn once or twice rolls his eyes at an indiscreet remark from bassist Alex James. “When James announces that he thought Country House should have been a B-side, Albarn ripostes: “This is coming from a man who every time we do a gig says, ‘Oh, can’t we please play Country House’ I find that comment absolutely extraordinary.” Coxon, meanwhile, is still an antsy individual, but he is at least planning to travel home on his skateboard this after- noon, net in an ambulance.
These days, the members of Blur lead separate lives, which seem to become more separate as time goes by. Albarn and Coxon each have a young daughter and both have made music outside Blur within the last three years. Albarn is a fi’1m music composer in considerable demand, while Coxon has released two solo albums, The Sky Is Too High and The Golden D, promoting the latter this summer with a touring band that included Blur’s drummer Dave Rowntree. James, who these days is flushed and jocose like peter Cook on a mid-’80s chat show, was part of Keith Allen’s Fat Les project and has ventured into film music himself on the new Robert Carlyle mime There’s Only One Jimmy Grimble.
Although they performed one London concert this year, on July 2 at Scott Walker’s Meltdown festival, Blur have not toured in two years and appear to have only a hazy idea about what each other has been up to in private, Rumour has it that they formally agreed in 1999 to put the-band on ice for a:y6ar, but Coxon insists this was never discussed at any great length are re-charging,” he declares. “Re-charging and thinking.”
“Things have definitely changed,” explains James a few hours 1ater, when MOJO visits
his five-storey home in Covent Garden. “When people start to have families you cease to be a four-man gang. You’re not The Beatles in Help! any more, are you You’re not going to be recklessly hurling yourself over a horizon when you’ve got a family at home. The goal-posts have moved. Of course they have.”
Of the four of them, Albarn has matured the most since MOJO last interviewed Blur in 1995. An even-tempered 32-year-old, he chooses his words advisedly and gives the appearance of being unruffled by the world around him. He is careful not to crow over the problems Oasis have faced this year (which would have given him a great deal of satisfaction once upon a time), merely making the observation that their, stick-in-the-mud musical policy was bound to backfire on them sooner or later. And if few could have foreseen in 1996 that Blur’s off centre art-rock would have the stamina to see off the Burnage challenge at the end of the millennium, well, Albarn is not about to rub anyone’s nose in it now. He hardly needs to reiterate that Blur’s durability is founded on movement and change, Their William Orbit produced ‘1 999 album 13, which many consider their best, was recorded with none of the clean precision of previous records, and surprised even long-term fans with its often national experimentation and emotional rawness. It is a tribute to ‘ Blur’s hard-won musical freedom that no one really knows what they will do next.
Since his “rock divorce”, as he wryly calls it, From Justine Frischmann two years ago, Albarn has been sharing his life with a new girlfriend and has travelled extensively, recently taking his melodica to Mali to play with and learn from the kora virtuoso Toumani Diabate.
“You can become very insular in a band when you’re only playing with the same people,” Albarn says. “It’s not healthy. You have to see how wide the world is. You certainly get a feeling of how wide it is when you’re in Mali.”
The son of a one-time manager of Soft Machine, Albarn grew up in a progressive household first in the East End of London, then in Colchester where he had access to many different kinds of music. But he wasn’t as open-minded then as he is now. “When I was growing up, my parents’ music was old blues, Indian ragas and African music. And a bit of gospel: Mahalia Jackson. There was Atom Heart k1other and Rubber Soul, but there was nothing else really [in the pop/rock area]. It was mostly indigenous music and I didn’t really like any of it. It’s been there in me latent for such a long time and it’s just coming out now.”
Since everything about Albarn in the autumn of 2000 seems to want to draw a line under the past and move on, it is fitting that EMI have chosen this as the ideal moment to release a Blur greatest hits album. Containing 17 of their 23 singles to date (including the latest, Music Is My Radar, which comes out this month), Blur: The Best Of also finds room for an album track from Parklife, This Is A Low, and is twinned on early pressings with a CD containing 10 songs recorded at Wembley Arena last December.
To be released on October 30, the 77-minute Blur: The Best Of will reintroduce the subject of the long-gone “chirpy” Blur of 1994 to a nation that may lately have found them downbeat on such lachrymose singles as Tender and No Distance Left To Run. It will also probably fill a few Christmas stockings. According to Alex James, EMI is banking on it selling two million comfortably. The tracklisting was market- researched by the 1abe’1 with the help of focus groups.
James: “I’ve never seen anything so brutal, but it was very illuminating. Apparently, when these people think of Blur, the first thing they think of is Damon’s eyes. Among other things, it came across that we were a fully integrated band. People didn’t perceive us as different personalities. They perceived us as straight-down-the-line musicians.”
The research was commissioned to ascertain whether October 2000 would be the optimum time for a Blur greatest hits album. The answer was a resounding affirmative. Coxon: “They all said they’d buy it apart from four blokes in Yorkshire.” Albarn (laughing): “There was a seething dissent in southern Yorkshire for some reason, which we can only put down to the fact that they haven’t forgiven us for what happened with Oasis.”
More than any band that came up in the early ’90s, Blur have had an equivocal relationship with the single, and this can be read between the f, lines of Blur: The Best Of. Not every track was their preferred choice of ; A-side at the time, and many were released purely because one of their ~ albums needed its profile maintained by a third or fourth single. If Blur:
The Best Of has a subtext, and it does, it is the fluctuations in importance of the pop single to a band like Blur in the last decade from the bashful courting of Radio One in 1990-91, to the ripe commercial ~ prospects of the perestroika years 1994-95, to the post-Britpop organisations and clean breaks of 1997, to the singles – are – a – devalued – irrelevance – so – we – might – as – well – put – out – a – weird – one, a viewpoint that prevails among groups of Blur’s stature party ‘ “The important thing is that were looking forward, not back,” says Albarn. “We sat down with Can , the great Can in, where was it? Dusseldorf or somewhere, and had high tea with them, They said to us, ‘Look at it like this. Your whole career up to now has been college a very public college. Now you’re graduating and going out into the real world..” Five years ago, Albarn would have been incensed to be so patronised. (“Oh yeah3 And how many hits have you had, grandad?”) Now he takes Can’s words as a profound compliment. Graduating from college is a potent image, it seems, to a man once caricatured by the Oasis camp as a university-educated dilettante. It’s funny how what goes around comes around.
JESUS JONES ARE SO SELDOM Mentioned nowadays that it’s easy to forget they ever existed. In 1989, however, this brash five-piece from Wiltshire, Surrey and Devon way seen by some commentators as the future of the four-minute pop song a song in which rock guitars and techno rhythms would not only co-exist but prosper, making dancers out of hitherto reserved indie fans and creating hit singles from a man-and-machine coalition as accessible as it was forward-looking. After three mid-charters, Jesus Jones burst into the Top 20 with their fourth single, Real Real Real, in May 1990. The ensuing bullishness at their record company, Food, was to have far-reaching effects for a rather eccentric young band it had signed in March.
Seymour had come to London from Colchester and Bournemouth,’ knowing little about the cliquey scene that made up the capital’s indie fabric in the late 1980s. At a time when The Velvet Underground remained the primary influence for the majority of new London-based guitar groups, Seymour were a peculiar mixture of the provincial, the cultivated and the prcane. Singer and keyboard player Damon ‘ Albarn loved American scream-rockers the Pixies, but was equally interested in the works of Brecht and Weill. Guitarist Graham Coxon was a Johny Marr fan who’d paradoxically spent several years in his teens listening to Van Der Graaf Generator. Both he and Albarn were classically trained.
“When I moved to London I was pretty under-educated about a lot of music,” Coxon says nevertheless. “I used to go out with friends at art school [Goldsmiths’ College] to see groups in places like Deptford. The chart music of the ’80s wasn’t that different to what it is now. I’ve always liked guitars, so the only place to ga’after The Jam and The Smiths was to indie music. Isn’t Anything by My Bloody Valentine was a big album for me. The guitars sounded like rusty Mellotrons.”
Seymour were not quite a stereotypical 1989 indie band, much as a tomato is not quite a banana. Albarn, a former drama student who had dipped into the shock tactics of Artaud’s Theatre Of Cruelty, would hurtle dangerously around the stage during the fast numbers, occasion- ally disappearing behind Dave Rowntree’s drum-kit to be sick. At other times he would sit at a piano. Seymour’s intro piece The Opening, an Albarn-written instrumental, would begin like something from the Kit Kat Klub in Cabaret and gradually get faster and faster, eventually galloping around like a punk hornpipe. “We were trying to find our feet,” says Rowntree “We didn”t really know what we wanted to do, but we 1mew how we wanted it to feel, It was about thrashing around and acting a bit mad.”
Food – the record company Seymour signed to in March 199& after cbanging their name to Blur was not a bondage indie label, as it had been receiving funding and distribution from EMI since 1988; Unlike indies such as Creation and Rough Trade, moreover, Food had only a small roster and was circumspect about adding to it. It took all of seven gigs to convince label boss Dave Balfe that Seymour were worth a record deal. An unwritten condition of that deal was that they would consign their Kurt Weill art school excursions to B-sides, if not the outtakes pile. The A-sides would highlight the 22-year-old Albarn’s flair for melody and would be arranged and produced in such a way to bounce Blur straight from the indie pub circuit into the Gallup hit parade.
For a band so untrammelled on-stage, being obliged to compromise in the studio was surprisingly not a controversial issue. Not to begin with, anyway. For all his rough edges, Albarn wanted to be successful and had made one or two attempts in the ’80s to launch a mainstream pop career, namely as one half of a synth-pop duo called Two’s A Crowd. Like his Blur colleagues, he accepted that Balfe, an erstwhile pop star in Teardrop Explodes, probably knew best. “We knew from the outset that singles were supposed to be a kind of carrot,” says Coxon. “A bit of cheese on the mousetrap.” Ironically, for their debut single, Blur returned to the very first song they had rehearsed as Seymour.
As Blur recorded the undulating, psych-inflected ballad She’s So High in the summer of 1990, they were excited to learn that the studio (Battery in Willesden) had been used by The Stone Roses for their breakthrough hit Fool’s Gold. The substantial sales of Fool’s Gold and Happy Mondays’ Madchester Rave On EP, and their resulting exposure on Top Of The Pops on November 30, 1989, had been key factors in opening up the singles chart to bands that had longed for years to gain ingress. Primal Scream’s dance-rock crossover track Loaded had made the Top 20 in March 1990. While Blur were in Battery, The Only One I Know by Stone Roses soundalikes The Charlatans was making its way into the Top 10.
Yet each new dance-rock crossover hit served only to refine the genre’s template. Loping bass lines, funky drum loops and languid vocals were now prerequisites for every aspiring hitmaker, and for Dave Balfe this meant not so much giving Blur ARR guidance as taking them to the tailor’s to fit them with the right suit. When She’s So High peaked at a lowly 48 in the autumn, a dismayed Blur allowed the makeover to begin in earnest.
Pressured by Balfe to deliver a more up tempo song for their second single, Blur obediently embraced the genre now being dubbed by the press “indie-dance”. Rowntree: “Compared to The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays, we were minnows struggling very hard. We hitched ourselves to the indie-dance bandwagon, with much prompting from Balfe. If there was a Changing Rooms for bands, indie-dance would be Carol Smillie coming in and turning your nice song into (Scottish accent), ‘Ooh, great, a bit of an indie dance feel.’ Staple it on and it’ll all fall off next year.” It was a ruthless time. On one aborted session, the producer would not allow Alex James to play bass on the track.
In the first week of January 1991, Blur record- ed an Albarn tune called There’s No Other Way with Stephen Street, who had engineered and co- produced albums for The Smiths. Manacled by Street to a sampled drum loop, There’s No Other Way was a sort of decaffeinated See Emily Play put through a beatbox. It at once made all the right noises and hedged all its bets. Albarn was thrilled by it. “I felt quite exhilarated that we had something in our hands that sounded like it would take us all the way up the M1.”
There’s No Other Way became Blur’s first proper hit, taking them into the Top 10 in May. But as much as they played to packed houses and posed for music press front covers, there was a feeling that their commercial success had been store-bought. In interviews, Albarn tirelessly predicted a glittering and protean future for Blur, sidestepping accusations that they were suppressing their multi-faceted musical education for the benefit of their short-term career. But it scarcely helped that the indie-dance genre sounded every bit as opportunist as it was.
Rowntree: “Does any of that music have value now? Think of all the ’60s bands who had one hit not even Freddie And The Dreamers-size t bands and their one hit gets wheeled out once a week on Radio Two. o- That’s the fate of the indie-dance bands in five years’ time. It was a ~ pretty cynical thing to do. But the music industry was cynical then. It ~ was run by people like Balfe who thought that record companies knew ~ what good music was, and all they had to do was manipulate the bands into making it. Then everyone would go home happy.”
On their B-sides, and on certain songs recorded for their 1991 debut album Leisure, Blur would reveal a darker side, a more bilious tempera- ment and Graham Coxon’s increasing fascination with My Bloody Valentine. That said, Leisure was for the most part a light-hearted pop record in a year when other albums MBV’s Loveless, Primal Scream’s Screamadelica and Nirvana’s Nevermind in particular were three- dimensional adventures in sound and texture.
Having let themselves be enticed into a scenario where chart positions were the benchmark of a band’s true value, Blur badly needed another Top 10 hit with their third single. They came unstuck with Bang, a poor relation of There’s No Other Way, which climbed no further than 24. Had it charted 20 places higher, one wonders whether Bang might have sealed Blur’s fate as an indie-dance nine days’ wonder like The Soup Dragons or Flowered Up. Its comparative failure was, in retrospect, one of the best things that could have happened to them. Albarn: “That’s an interesting point, actually. What would have happened~ We would have been given a lot more encouragement. The album [Leisure] would have gone in higher… I’m very glad it didn’t. I’m very glad that we fucked it up big-time.” The setbacks soon multiplied. A fourth single, Popscene, came out in April 1992 and fell short of the Top 30. Full of wounded pride and bloody-mindedness, Blur were now at logger- heads with Balfe and with each other. By May, they were 160,000 in debt and in complete disarray on a 44-date tour of America, promoting a remix of Bang they had not been told about. Drinking them- selves insensible, they duly came to blows and pined piteously for England. For some reason home- sickness, perhaps, or because he fancied filling in a few gaps in his knowledge of ’60s music Albarn listened to a Kinks tape throughout the tour.
APRIL 1993. A YEAR HAS elapsed since blur last released a record. unbe- known to the public, their second album Modem Life Is Rubbish, produced by Stephen Street and finished in December, has been reject- ed twice first by Food and then by the band’s American record company SBK. Concessions having been made to both, the album now has two extra songs and is a significant step forward from Leisure. It features brass, strings and woodwind and a new style of writing from Albarn that uses poignant humour and Ray Davies characterisation to investigate the dreams, traditions and prejudices of suburban England. Blur’s soon-to-be-released fifth single, For Tomorrow, has been written by Albarn after a slagging match with Dave Balfe, who worries that Modern Life Is Rubbish sounds too parochial and may kill Blur’s career.
Then again, what career? Utterly eclipsed in the press by American grunge groups and by glamorous English newcomers Suede (a band that once included Albarn’s girlfriend Justine Frischmann), Blur are the for- gotten boys. Still experiencing fall-out from their disastrous tour of the States, they appear to be on a mission to rid Britain of grunge single- handedly. In this context, the overtly English-sounding Modern Life Is Rubbish is virtually protest music.
Rowntree: “We had got past the Seymour point of knowing what we wanted it to feel like but having no idea how to get there. We then had some idea of how to get there, but no idea why we wanted to go there. And then after that awful American tour, we figured out what it was all going to be for.” This is what Albarn tried to get across to Balfe: that Blur had found their musical identity and that there was a chance, if they were given their head, that they might bring about a full-scale English pop renaissance. Balfe thought this was ludicrous.
Rowntree: “I saw both sides of the story. Damon was saying that the so-called American invasion had run out of steam the bands are shit, the music is lacklustre and grunge, has just become a fashion accessory and that there was the potential for an untapped wealth of English music to be successful again. And he also meant that we could be the band to do it. But Balfe’s point was, ‘How do you know? You’re asking me to stake my company on that.”
There was a huge unspoken irony. Nevermind, the album that had kickstarted the international grunge phenomenon, had impressed Blur greatly. Graham Coxon: “I thought Nevermind was brilliant, as I think we probably all did. But we didn’t want to say so. We knew that it was the enemy. We had a lot of respect for the enemy, but we knew that we had to be completely different.”
With Albarn unshakeable in his belief that English music (not British music; Albarn wasn’t speaking for Scotland or Wales) was going to come back into fashion, the battle with Balfe became a test of both men’s character. Balfe was a practised ego-debunker with a withering wit: he was wont to dismiss Blur’s B-sides as “art-wank”. Albarn had not once shown a chink of weakness or uncertainty to the press during Blur’s,fall from grace, but his band had severe alcohol problems and the competitive Albarn was having to balance the pressures of writing the songs, leading Blur, pacifying Balfe and gritting his teeth as new records by Suede rose higher and higher in the charts.
Albarn: “I was putting my whole existence into Blur’s music. I felt very passionate for the first and last time in my life about being English. I just felt America had screwed me badly. It had taken away a lot of my dreams (laughs)… Suede and America fuelled my desire to prove to everyone that Blur were worth it. There was nothing more important in my life. I wouldn’t want to feel like that again.”
On the musical front, Coxon, who had been showing himself to be one of the most talented guitarists of his generation, feared that Albarn’s insistence on using brass, strings and female backing singers might amount to “unnecessary colouration”. For Tomorrow, released in April 1993 after Albarn received a reluctant go-ahead from Balfe, was compared in some quarters to ELO’s Mr Blue Sky and its nice fat ’70s feel was no accident. Jeff Lynne had been mooted to produce the song initially, while Stephen Street, who did produce it, instructed the backing vocalists to sing like Thunderthighs on the old Mott The Hoople singles.
Although For Tomorrow and two subsequent singles from Modern Life Is Rubbish charted modestly at 28, 28 and 26 respectively, keeping sales of the album down to 40,000 or so, Alex James remembers the mood in Blur being confident and purposeful. “Success wasn’t necessarily something we saw in terms of sales. Modern Life Is Rubbish was a successful record because it achieved what we set out to achieve. I thought every- thing was shit except us. I wasn’t buying many records at all. I don’t think I even had a ~ CD player until 1996.”
Blur’s publisher at MCA, Music reminisced to their biographer Stuart Maconie that the band spearheaded a very English social scene in Camden Town circa 1993, where everyone wore suits, Fred Perrys and Doc Martens and listened exclusively to old punk and ‘p Mod records. All four members of Blur remember the time fondly. Rowntree: “I was never into Mod music not like.
Graham – but I certainly revisited all my old punk records. I fell in love with Advert all over again.” Surrounded by their Camden acolytes, Blur were arguably the most fashionable act in London. Rowntree, a man so uninterested in clothes that he is today wearing a sweatshirt adorned with the logo of American Airlines, found himself at the height of sartorial elan in his shiny DMs and three-button whistle-and-flutes.
In August 1993, Blur turned a corner with a brilliant performance at the Reading Festival and embarked on their Sugary Tea tour of Britain, named after a line in their sixth single Chemical World. They also began work with Stephen Street on their third album, one song from which an alternately spoken and sung number called Parklife proved an immediate favourite with audiences on the tour. Albarn sensed that the new album, an elaboration on some of the vignettes and narratives he had explored on Modern L fie Is Rubbish, would have a better-than-aver- age reception awaiting it.
Rowntree: “We were in EMI having a meeting to discuss the album and I remember Damon saying, ‘Whatever else happens, we’ve got a career now, rather than just being a novelty one-album-wonder band.’ Which was what we wanted. Having hit records, being on Top Of The Pops and being in swanky cars wasn’t going to be enough any more.”
Alex James: “Modern Life Is Rubbish had done… something. The time was definitely right to strike with the masterplan. We had a great relation- ship with the producer. We’4 been playing together nearly every day for two or three years and that’s the only way to get good. We. understood each other.”
However, Blur and Street were under firm instructions from Balfe , to record only songs that had been ‘demod and approved by Food. When Street phoned Food to iell them that a surefire hit called Girls And Boys had emerged from nowhere and been recorded in double-quick time, he was admonished for working on it without their permission,
IF BLURS 1994 ALBUM PARKLIFE was a watershed in British music that decade, vindicating ‘ Albarn’s prophecy and sparking off the commercially successful movement of musical Optimism known Ws Britpop, it is nonetheless a felt that Albarn conceived Parklife as anything but a celebration of Britain.
“Never was anything further from my mind than creating some sort of nationalistic issue,” he says. “If anything, it had a lot to do with being completely captivated by [Martin Amis’ novel] London Fields: that seedy vision of West London. I’ve lived in West London ‘ for many years and I really bought into that book. I wanted to create a sort of fantasy world Everything belonged to this idea of Britain as a kind of inner dome, Like Sherwood Forest, where they cut down the forest and created a Robin Hood theme park. Or the pubs, where they replaced wood with plastic. Everywhere you looked, the ‘country was being refitted.”
But even as Albarn’s lyrics recoiled from what they had seen and Parklfie is a suite of songs appreciably more judicial than some people give it credit for the band’s arrangements were expansive and gladdening. Alex James had waited for 10 years for the opportunity to play a white funk bass line like John Taylor of Duran Duran, which the disco ‘pastiche of Girls And Boys afforded him. Graham Coxon can be heard , on the album playing saxophone and clarinet. Dave Rowntree, who remembers “very specia1 days when everything went well”, cued in the tit3e track by smashing a plate, delighted to find that one fragment had rolled off and carried on jingling for an all-important split second. On almost every song, there was 1kence to go overboard and, as Rowntree puts it, “let the songs do what they wanted to do”.
Coxon, conversely, was trying to cut down on his guitar parts and make each one count. On the Anglo-French ballad To The End, he lim- ited himself to a chopped chord every few beats, emulating some of the Francoise Hardy records he had recently fallen in love with. Coxon: “I thought Damon’s songs were a lot tighter on Earl fie. That’s why I broke down all my gui- tars to try and have just one guitar playing say, like in the way that when you hear some live Dr. Feelgood thing and there’s Wilko Johnson playing lead and rhythm at the same time.”
Befitting an album that had briefly had the working title ‘Sport’, Parklife was recorded in two halves, bisected by a spell of touring in Britain, Japan and America in the autumn of 1993. Albarn saw and heard nothing in the States to deter him from the music Blur were making back home: “They were in the second stage of grunge rigor mortis by then. The songs we were recording were much more involving. They all seemed to be about ‘we’, ‘people’, ‘all of us’…”
Returning to the studio, the band recorded 14 more songs between December and the middle of February, 10 of which would appear on Parklife. To give an idea of the sheer variety of material being attempted, these 14 tracks included two waltzes; a song that nodded musically to Magazine; another with a rhythm based on the Tom Tom Club (featuring a surging Robert Fripp-style solo from Coxon); a William Blake poem set to music; a samba; an inventory of moons and stars sung by Alex James; a conceptual piece based loosely on the character of Ziggy Stardust; and an emotional finale to the album with lyrics inspired by a handkerchief showing a map of Britain and its shipping regions. Just as there is much more to Sgt. Pepper than Billy Shears and the band you’ve known for all these years, there is more to Parklfie than Phil Daniels and dirty pigeons.
Prior to the release of the single Girls And Boys in March the country’s first taste of what Parklife might have in store only eight British guitar bands in their twenties had made Top 10 chart entries since the summer of 1992. Two of those had been reissues by The Smiths and The Bluebells. Radiohead, Suede and Wonderstuff had each gone in high, only to dip sharply in following weeks. In this period the records that sold most were made by MOR acts, pop vocal outfits, dance projects and old campaigners from the ’80s. In reality, 1993 had been another 1985, consolidating the long-running careers of Whitney Houston, Annie Lennox, Phil Collins and George Michael.
At Radio One, however, the arrival of new controller Matthew Bannister in 1993 had brought about some crucial changes. Some of the station’s middle-aged, conservative-minded presenters had been fired, a more radical schedule put in place. In December, the old Radio One rulebooks had gone flying when a promo copy of an unreleased song by a young band from Manchester Oasis was played on the air on 19 separate occasions. Blur were hoping for a more favourable response to Girls And Boys from Radio One than any of their singles had had since There’s No Other Way. They were right to be sanguine. Girls And Boys was epidemic where There’s No Other Way had been merely endemic. It appealed to clubbers, adolescents, indie fans, Guardian readers and the Club 18-30 holiday-makers its lyric satirised. It even picked up a gay following. Entering the chart at Number 5, it was still being talked about long after it had left.
As the suspicion now grew that Parklife might do a little more useful business over the counter than anyone had dared imagine, Blur racked their brains for a reference point. Suede had enjoyed a Number 1 album 12 months before, but Blur were inclined to feel that every record Suede sold was an affront to human decency. Alex James: “That wouldn’t have been taken seriously. In our world, The Stone Roses was the only album that had gone platinum [300,000 sales]. We felt that 100,000 would be fantastic.” On May 1, Parklife debuted at Number 1, knocking Pink Floyd’s The Division Bell off the top. “Everybody suddenly seemed to know who Blur was,” says Graham Coxon, “from builders to schoolchildren to mums and dads.” Not long before the album’s release, Dave Balfe sold Food to its parent company EMI and retired from the music business.
IF THE MAINSTREAM WAS SUDDENLY IN the hands of us irresponsible, drunk, rude kids. We were having the time of our lives,” recalls Alex James of the second. half of 1994, during which Parklife stayed in the charts and was rivalled in sales and media acclaim only by Oasis’ debut album Definitely Maybe.
With six years’ hindsight, do Blur think that Parklife struck a chord because it tapped into a heart of England only seldom heard on pop records? Or because the constituents it some- times reminded one of Madness, Bowie, The Kinks, Squeeze happened to be a wonderful combination when put together Or because it created its own aural idyll of music, words and sound effects? James: “It certainly wasn’t journalism. It was mythologising everything it dealt with. There’s nothing very real about it. It’s quite a cartoony record.” Albarn: “What I’d done was bridged the gap between what England was becoming ‘, and what it had been. That’s totally Kurt Weill., There is an element of drama about that record. It’s not a rock record.” The suicide of Kurt Cobain in April which affected Albarn more than he revealed at the time was symbolic proof that Blur had won their war against grunge. But if Albarn thought he could step neatly into pop stardom and play a versatile game of being a proletarian footbal1 supporter one minute, a pundit on Radio Four next, he 1itt1e realised he was biting off more than he could chew.
James: “You walked five yards behind him and you saw jaws drop literally drop. You can’t imagine what that must have been like for him. It’s no way to live your life. He was the most famous man in the country, and it’s a lonely place.” Albarn: “It was a very dizzy period. It was like a teleporter. Everything went fffffyyyeeeww… And then out we came at the other end, and there was Oasis waving at us and going, ‘Alright, mucker? ‘ And we went, ‘Oh, hello, nice to meet you…”
On the night in February 1995 that Blur collected four Brit Awards for Best Band, Best Album, Best Single (Girls And Boys) and Best Video (Parklife), they were already halfway through the recording of their next album. They were in their usual studio Maison Rouge in Fulham working with their trusted producer Stephen Street. Except that the alley that led off the Fulham Road to Maison Rouge was now besieged by photographers and journalists. Dave Rowntree’s divorced parents had tabloid newshounds camped outside their respective homes, trying to get the dirt on their separation.
Thus began The Great Escape, the most disputed album in the Blur canon. A majestic show of strength from a group relishing its new posi- tion of musical supremacy? Or a cold, condescending record from a band beginning to lose touch with the man on the street~ It was hailed by critics as the former, ultimately to be reviled six months later as the latter. It is testament to the remark- able recovery of British pop in the mid-’90s that The Great Escape would be ridiculed not so much for its actual content (its 15 songs are as good, if not better, than those on Parklfie), but because it sold several million copies fewer than Oasis’ (What’s The Story) Morning Glory?. The pre-Britpop age had been a time of unilateral achievements and small commercial victories. Britpop was about winners and losers.
There had been no particular rush for The Great Escape (Parklife was still shifting copies in mid-1995 and would eventually sell 1.2 million in Britain), but Blur had become used to making their records in quick sun cession and Albarn, tunnel-visioned with his English social commentary fixation, had written plenty of songs. He and his bandmates again used brass, strings and other embellishments on The Great Escape, seeming to approach each song as a stand-alone epic (see MOJO 22 for the full in-the-studio story).
James: “All we wanted to do was to make more records to show everyone how brilliant we were. The Great Escape was certainly a very different album to Parklfie. It’s such a down record. It was very elaborate arrangements and very theatrical. It’s fucking sinister, The Great Escape. Nothing is quite right.”
IN THE LIBRARY OF SOHO HOUSE, Albarn raises his voice above the chatter to itemise some of the irritations that ate into his life in 1996, when nothing was going quite right. He would walk down the street and hear windows being thrown open; after a few seconds’ pause, Wonderwall or Don’t Look Back In Anger would start to blare from inside the houses. The story would be repeated in shops and nightclubs. The country was making sure Albarn got the message.
The realisation that he was not cut out for fame and that he had lost his race with the Gallaghers was tempered by his sure-footedness as a musician. Recording the stripped-down, at times anti-pop Blur album that year, Albarn instinctively knew that it was good stuff. More than that, it was the pivotal record of Blur’s career. It closed the door on their middle period, recapturing some of the wandering spirit of their 1992-93 B-sides and facilitating their successful rebirth as an inquisitive modern band. In the run-up to Meltdown, Scott Walker applauded them in interviews for not resting on their laurels. Even people who despised Blur in the past are finding things to admire in them now. Albarn: “I think after I’d sung Waterloo Sunset with Ray Davies [on Channel 4’s The White Room]… That was a perfect moment for me. I felt like I had the seal of approval from one of my heroes. And I felt: time to move on.”
Albarn now has his own recording studio in West London, where he claims to make music every day. He talks of open-mindedness, and collaboration being the ways forward for Blur. By the by, he cannot remember the last time he bought a record that had guitars on it. “I am not even in the rock world at all. I suppose in the last two years my partner Suzi Winstanley, a painter who works, as part of a team known as Olly, And Suzi has opened me up to so much different music. She didn’t even really know who Blur were. It was quite amazing to meet someone from England who was so oblivious to what my past was like. Fantastic as well. A real second chance in life.”
In former years, a soundbite-loving Albarn would doubtless have propounded that Blur: The Best Of confirmed his band as the supreme pop force of their day, the last great singles act of the 20th century. Nor would this have been arrogant of him, for that is precisely what Blur:
The Best Of does. Sequenced non-chronologically, the 18 songs are startlingly diverse at one point in the proceedings, the hooligan hard-rock of Song 2 is followed by There’s No Other Way, which is then followed by the Johnny Franz-style orchestration of The Universal and vent an all-round expertise in musicianship and arrangement that has never properly been acknowledged. Coxon may stress that Blur: The Best Of is “the first record we have seen as product”, but it is also the richest and most flattering album that has ever been put together under their name.
With the possible exception of Primal Scream (who will have far fewer genuine hits to call on than Blur), it is hard to see any single-artist compilation in the near future coming close to Blur: The 8est Of for variety, quality and sense of occasion. In that respect it is nearer to some- thing like Changesonebowie, where each song was simultaneously redo- lent of its year of release and a real departure in its own right. (And, like Bowie, Blur have their own Laughing Gnome, Bang which they have fastidiously omitted from their album.)
The bizarre new track Music Is My Radar had not even been written, let alone selected as a single, when Blur: The Best Of was first com- piled. Recorded the day after these interviews took place, it is a last-minute replacement for a song called Black Book, produced by Chris Potter (Urban Hymns) in August. Black Book would have made an interesting single itself: it’s a slow-groove electric piano work-out that builds into an eight-and-a-half-minute pot- boiler. Music Is My Radar, by contrast, has Albarn babbling a gibberish guide vocal over parched-sounding guitar and bass that sound a bit like the Stones on Hot Stuff or Emotional Rescue. The choruses are not a million miles from Crosstown Traffic. As it nears the end, a synthesizer is squawking all over the mix and Albarn is chanting “you really got me dancing” like a demented Bee Gee. It’s some revelation.
On the question of a new Blur studio album, Albarn says it might be a Chris Potter production William Orbit, whom they praise for his work on 13, currently has his hands tied with a Jennifer Lopez record and should emerge as soon as the shelf-life of Blur: The Best Of is over. Albarn does not envisage any pitfalls. “When we’re in a studio now, the only thing we worry about is whether we are surprised. And the only way that we can keep doing that is by discovering more about ourselves and our lives. I couldn’t make the records that we made when we were younger. I couldn’t sing that way. I couldn’t think that way. It’s a different world. We don’t live in the skins that we lived in in our twenties.”