We’re Home! (Unfortunately)
By David Cavanagh
Rocketed from Camden clubland into the pupil-dilating glare of the Top Ten, Blur are on one almighty roll. There’s just one last hurdle – the home-coming gig in Colchester. “We’ve made enemies in this town. And we’ve got a feeling they’re all going to be here tonight…”
It was the week the country went crazy for Blur. That was the week that was. How would you even attempt to describe that feeling.
“Ecstaticness,” suggests guitarist Graham Coxon.
You mean ecstasy.
“No, I know what ecstasy is. I mean ecstaticness.”
On day one, Saturday April 20, the madcap Oxo family piss-take video for Blur’s immaculate second single, ‘There’s No Other Way’, flashed through millions of households tuned to The Chart Show. Witty, sarcastic and very, very strange, it bored a hole in the nation’s cranium.
The next day, they learned that ‘There’s No Other Way’ had hit the charts running at number 20, way higher than anyone connected with the band had hoped and two places higher that EMF’s new single.
Blur were on tour when the news broke, so days three and four were happy, blissful, intoxicated affairs, playing to new friends, old friends and the suddenly curious.
Day five, Wednesday, was spent at the BBC, recording a Top of The Pops slot that saw singer Damon Albarn take the human pupil into new, uncharted areas of dilation.
Day six, it was Manchester. Damon was recognised three times on the street.
Day seven, Blur played one of the greatest gigs in recent memory to a wild crowd at London’s seriously large Astoria. Hundreds of people couldn’t get in. Hundreds of people couldn’t get out – the queue for T-shirts at the end created a dangerous bottleneck. It was a huge swell of emotion; a great night to be young and obsessed with pop music.
And on the eighth day, Blur went home.
Home is Colchester, England’s oldest recorded town, an alternately menacing and idyllic fortress set deep in the heart of darkness that is Essex. Blur are playing a gig at Essex University. Hmmm.
“What am I expecting?” muses Damon as the Blurmobile chews up rubber on the A12. “A pretty negative audience, I suppose. Places like Colchester celebrate the mediocre, y’know? I don’t really have any fond memories of the place at all.”
He whips out a packet of Caravan, malodorous brown cigarettes rolled in banana skins and cloves, which only two tobacconists in the whole of London are prepared to stock.
“Yeah, they’re horrible, aren’t they? See, places like Colchester stifle you,” he goes on, fouling the bus with smoke. “It’s one of these places which isn’t quite wealthy but also isn’t quite poverty stricken. There’s a strong inclination for people to just get their lives out of the way. And that (puff, puff, exhale, horrible whiff) is at the centre of what we hate. Everything we do has a subtle jibe at that suburban way of thinking. ”
He’s a thin, good-looking cove, like all the Blur boys – a well-spoken, thoughtful, confident, loose-limbed, middle-class guy in his early 20s. Five minutes in his company and you like him. Half an hour and he’s convinced you that he’s pretty special. See him onstage and you wonder why people ever made such a fuss over Ian Brown.
“I never felt like I belonged here at all,” Damon shrugs as The Big Sleep flickers sardonically on the video screen. “At school I was seen as horrendously arrogant. In Colchester there’s an unwritten law that you can talk about it but never achieve it.”
And, in the loudest possible way, Blur have done both.
Their line of attack has always been fairly straightforward – they are the best band in the world and they are going to be huge. Is there a problem? They refused to even consider releasing a single until one of the music papers had put them on the cover (Sounds did the honours), and recently turned down an appearance on Wogan and a Smash Hits cover, because they didn’t want to saturate the market. “There’ll be time,” says Damon pleasantly. “We’re not going anywhere.”
The band even left Wednesday April 24 free when they were planning their tour, because they were convinced they would be asked to go on Top Of The Pops that day.
“I’ve always known I’m incredibly special,” laughs Damon. “All my life. You know? It’s not a big deal.”
He laughs again, and shrugs.
It’s disconcerting behaviour. There’s no connection with The Stone Roses’ brand of everyone’s-shit-except-us-man dullard arrogance. Arrogance is a sour commodity, and Blur don’t subscribe to it.
“It’s just confidence,” says Damon, mercifully stubbing out the offensive cheroot. “Unbelievable confidence.”
You want to be stars, then.
“We’ve always wanted to be stars,” he says, as if to a slow child. “That’s what made us pick up our instruments.”
Alex James, the lanky bassist, leans over.
“‘Poets’ food is fame and love’. Shelley,” he says, and nods helpfully.
We’re nearing the Colchester city limits now and everyone’s getting restless. Alex is coughing repeatedly and horrifically, the legacy of severe partying the night before. He’s going to give the medicine cupboard a wide berth tonight, and do some post-gig star-gazing with a telescope he’s recently purchased.
“Science,” he says sadly from under his fringe, “hasn’t been hip for a long time. It’d be good if everyone could point to the Pole Star at a certain time every day. It’d be good to have a feeling of universal orientation.”
Back on planet Earth, Graham is whispering quietly to his girlfriend, who is whispering even quieter back to him. Damon adjusts his dark glasses and purses his lips. The bus pulls up and stops.
It’s going to be a strange sort of homecoming.
Essex University is a grim stalag miles from anywhere. This is the area’s sole venue for musical entertainment, unless you fancy a quick swim to France, so the catchment area takes in dozens of local towns.
It’s a campus university, self-sufficient with shops, bars, cafes and libraries – everything a young person could possible need, except peripheral things like excitement, fun, pleasure, a reason for living. “Oh, my God,” says Damon as he gets out.
It’s worse than that. As Alex wanders inside to bid the local support band a polite howdy he is blanked outrageously. Within minutes a belligerent carpark attendant is giving Blur’s fearsome tour manager Drachan grief for parking in a carpark.
“I’ve got a bad feeling about this gig,” says Damon, chewing the air. “I made enemies in this town. And I’ve a feeling they’re all going to be here tonight.”
The atniosphere is edgy, to be sure. An audacious cub from the local advertiser, interviewing Damon for the pop page, lays into him for bad-mouthing the town in past articles. Another local journo isn’t so well researched. Only after asking the band their surnames does she realise she went to school with Damon’s sister. “I’m gonna go out there, right,” says Damon, suddenly animated, “and I’m gonna go, Hello, we’re from London’. Ha haaaa!”
The running order is consulted. Blur aren’t going onstage until half past midnight. The bar opens at five. Snakebite costs 92 pence. How drunk can students get in seven and a half hours? “There’s a wonderful bit in Cider With Rosie,” says Alex, “where a local guy goes off and becomes really successful. And he comes back… and they kill him.”
Ten minutes later, the Blurmobile is speeding into town on a thrill search.
“See that tower-block?” leers Damon at a gruesome far-off vertical pavilion. “Biggest heroin problem in the Southeast. There’s this really famous story about how one couple went up on the roof one day when it was really sunny, and shot up on smack. And they decided to have sex while they were up there. And while they’re shagging she goes into spasms and convulsions, cos of the heroin or whatever… and he can’t get it out! She’s holding on like this (he indicates a painful vice-like grip) and they have to get an ambulance to come and lift them down off the roof of the building – stuck together , this is – and take them to hospital, where they give her some muscle relaxants and pull him out. Ha haaaaa. Faa -kin’ hell.”
And here we are in Colchester. And a bloody weird sight it is too, for these weary travellers. Sod welcome parties, this place is deserted. Seven o’clock Saturday night and not a soul around. Embarking from the bus like hip spacemen, all shades and fringes, Blur survey the barren landscape of their hometown. No shops open. No kids in the streets. No litter. No ghetto-blasters pumping out the basslines. This ain’t rock’n’roll, this is Czechoslovakia.
Drummer Dave Rowntree leads us through the empty streets to the town’s main shopping precinct, a labrynthine complex of Mister Byrites, space-age McDonald’s and huge open spaces where boy racers, cider punks and mini-moustachioed squaddies indulge in bloody lager-loutery when the pubs close. What kind of music could this place possibly enjoy listening to? “New Model Army,” says Damon.
In a sleepy tea shop, as the light goes in and the youth of Essex get garbed up for the evening, Damon gets philosophical about Blur’s place in the world. It’s hard, Blur believe, being young, good-looking and talented as hell in a land where people only respect failures.
“We’re not new age hippies by any means, we just hate the nihilism that has existed in this country for so long. You don’t get it on the continent. They’ve got a much healthier attitude towards being young. The English really don’t like the show-offs. They love it when you fail. Well, fuck them. We’re not going to.”
Blur go on stage to an explosion of warmth and energy from an audience completely removed from the bunch of tooled-up thugs they were expecting. This is exactly what the band wanted to see: a sweaty, bobbing blanket of floppy fringes and white T-shirts.
The band respond with a great show. There may only be three musicians onstage, but the hallucinatory power of Graham’s guitar playing makes you wonder if the ghosts of Jimi Hendrix and Syd Barrett have strolled on for a quick jam.
Alex on bass, too, plays lines way too adventurous for the blissed-out, beaming crowd to work out. But it sounds cool and mad and tuneful, so just get into it. Dave thrashes away on drums, putting grooves where other drummers wouldn’t know where to look, making Damon flail around like his hair’s trying to pull itself off his head.
And as Graham’s gloopy funk riff introduces ‘There’s No Other Way’, Colchester roars its recognition. The self-belief radiating from Damon is incredible. Even his looning at its most demented has a noble purpose to it. This man has the intelligence, the confidence and, hey, the vocabulary to be the major UK pop star of the next decade. It’s not even worth debating. He knows it. Hopefully you know it too.
“They were so young ,” says Damon incredulously backstage, as friends, parents, well-wishers and fans mill around. “It’s just like everyone’s grinning now! I look out and I see a sea of grinning! What greater accolade? To inspire a positive feeling…”
“You know what made me want to be in a band?” asks Damon. “It was seeing a South Bank Show on The Smiths, and hearing Morrissey say that pop music was dead, and that The Smiths had been the last group of any importance.”
“I was round at Graham’s house,” he continues, catching his breath. “And I remember thinking, No one is going to tell me that pop music is finished. OK? Cheers.”
And the star goes over and shakes hands with his smiling father.