Blur Song Facts | How did they do that?
All the quotes that follow are from lenghty interviews conducted in May 1995 with Damon Albarn, Graham Coxon, Alex James, Dave Rowntree, Stephen Street, Dave Balfe and Andy Ross. The songs appear in the order they were recorded, not in the order they were released. For example, a typical Blur song from late 1991 or early 1992 might sit in the vaults for two years before a home is found for it on the b-side of a 12-inch single or CD. Thanks to Mike Smith and John Smith for chronological guidance.
David Cavanagh and Stuart Maconie are the two writers who’ve been closest to Blur in their six year history. Cavanagh insisted that Select put the band on the cover in 1991 when most around him shared the “Balfe view” – and he was right. Maconie’s abiding Blur memory is of sharing a taxi around Tokyo with them, with Dave Rowntree asleep on top of him and Damon shouting at passers-by through a megaphone. Maconie is now half of Radio One’s Collins & Maconie. Both he and Cavanagh now write mainly for Q.
‘Tell Me, Tell Me’, ‘Long Legged’, ‘Mixed Up’, ‘Dizzy’, ‘Fried’, ‘Shimmer’ (B-sides of ‘Sunday Sunday’ 7-inch, 12-inch and CD. Produced by Graeme Holdaway.)
These songs are not, strictly speaking, Blur songs. Intended as ear-catching demos to further the struggling career of Blur’s previous incarnation Seymour, they were recorded at the Beat Factory on Euston Road (where Damon worked as a tea-boy) at a time in 1989 when, as Alex puts it, “I was learnings to speak French during the days, Graham was putting telephones in washing-up bowls and Dave was driving a brown Ford Escort estate around Colchester and working for the council”. Damon’s job meant he could use the studio out of hours. “That’s why I joined,” Alex says. “I thought he was a bit of a wanker but he had the keys to a recording studio.”
Eventually released in October 1993 as B-sides of ‘Sunday Sunday’, these songs depict a trebly crayon print of baby Blur. At times meekly suggestive of Factory-era James, at times as irritatingly helter-skelter as the Cardiacs, the songs test both the patience and the ear. Graham Coxon says of their 1993 release: “I think we realized that Seymour was still there in us and it was a shame to keep him locked up. We wanted to release him.”
1. ‘She’s So High’ (Single, released 15/10/91. Also on ‘Leisure’, 27/8/91. Produced by Steve Lovell and Steve Power.)
Re-named Blur in November 1989 over dinner with Food Records’ Dave Balfe and Andy Ross at Soho Pizzeria, the band signed to Food the following March. For their debut single they returned to the first song they had ever written together. ‘She’s So High’ had been conceived in March 1988 as a loose rehearsal jam based around a four-chord sequence supplied by Alex James, the last member to join. The sequence – the same for the verses and chorus – was simplified by Graham who also wrote some lyrics to the verse while Damon was on holiday in Spain. ‘She’s So High’ remains the band’s most democratically-written song. Overseen by the former Julian Cope producer Steve Lovell and his colleague Steve Power, it was recorded at Battery Studios in Willesdon in June 1990 during the World Cup.
Progress was slow. The looped bass took two days. The drums took a week. Lovell and Power doubted their musical ability – particularly Alex’s – and insisted on “looping” as much as possible, mechanically repeating the same one-or-two-bar bass part troughout the song. But Blur were delighted to be in the same studio as the Stone Roses had used for ‘Fool’s Gold’. And Alex was convinced ‘She’s So High’ was destined for number one.
Although lyrically negligible – a complaint common to much of Blur’s early material – ‘She’s So High’ is both a masterful debut and proof positive that emotions in pop songs need not rely on the vocabulary of the writer. Simple and ingenuous, it has a ghostly melody and a daringly unhurried tempo – the only busy sound is the bass guitar – and in its long middle section, announced by Graham’s backwards guitar (2.24), the song bursts into a six-second passage of disconsolate beauty (3.32-3.38). Before the backwards guitar finally exits – a full 90 seconds later – it has taken the song on a near-psychedelic excursion without a single note being wasted or the attention of the listener wavering.
While sluggish in material terms – it only got to number 48 – the song’s artless charm and popularity reserve a place for it in Blur’s live set even today.
2. ‘I Know’ (B-side of ‘She’s So High’. Produced by Steve Lovell and Steve Power.)
Recorded in the same session as ‘She’s So High’, this Seymour-era song was briefly considered as a possible A-side. It’s easy to see why. Unlike its introspective flipside, ‘I Know’ is a bare-faced ‘indie dance’ production number (especially the extended version on the 12-inch and the CD.) Self-consciously trippy, it clutches the coat-tails of 1990’s biggest music phenomenon – the shuffling dance beats of Manchester. Graham now acknowledges, “Obviously, we used that [beat] as a stepping stone to getting noticed.” Despite its pleasant harmony vocals, the song is vapid, of note chiefly to those who cannot get enough backwards guitar. A keen fan of Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd, Graham’s versatility as a guitarist was important in Blur’s shift from Seymour’s ragged punk towards a more psychedelic sound. For the next year, Damon’s lyrics would skirt lethargy and melancholia in increasingly banal ways, selling the group’s musicality short and also implying that Blur had nothing in their heads except radio silence.
3. ‘Sing’ (B-side of ‘She’s So High’ 12-inch. Also ‘Leisure’ album track. Produced by Blur.)
Left to their own devices Blur could often sound like a different band. ‘Sing’, one of the most mature tracks on ‘Leisure’, originated from Seymour days when it was, as Damon recalls, “the first time, playing as a band, that I thought we really had something.” According to Graham, “Even people who hated us would come rushing up and say, What was that song?”‘Sing’ is an exercise in mantra-like melancholy constructed largely around plaintive, enormous minor chords in E, F-sharp and C. There are two looped bass patterns and the percussion track consists of a sampled snare whack repeated for most of the song’s six minutes. ‘Sing’ is a demo produced by the band (and engineered by an Irishman named Leo whose surname is lost to posterity) at the Roundhouse, Chalk Farm, that was adjudged good enough to be released as it stood.
4. ‘Berserk’ (B-side of ‘Bang’ CD, released 5/8/91. Produced by Blur.)
Developing his admiration for Syd Barrett, Graham instigated this 6.50 instrumental freakout that combines elements of four songs (‘No Good Trying’, ‘No Man’s Land’, ‘Baby Lemonade’, and ‘Late Night’) from Barrett’s two solo LP’s of late 1970. A loud guitar/organ drone, it features Graham on heavily distorted guitar, run backwars – a sound he likens to “a wasp buzzing all the way trough it” – as well as playing one of two drum loops (Dave plays the other). Listeners who stay the distance suffer repeated aural shocks as Graham overdubs as additional guitar at formidable volume (particularly severe at 4.49 and 6.06), and after the cacophony has abated the song appears audibly to smoke in the air. Reactions are mixed. “This is what Graham’s solo album will sound like,” says Alex. “Not worth dwelling on,” says Andy Ross. Indisputably the most unhinged of the early Blur recordings.
5. ‘I’m Fine’ (B-side of ‘Popscene’ 12-inch, released 30/3/92. Produced by Blur.)
Cheesy Seymour-era tune recorded during the same sessions as ‘Sing’. Blur (especially Damon) are now irked by it, not at least for its breezily inane sentiments which Alex had characterized as “a little Jason Donovan”. This passable ’60s pastiche sports McCartney-esque bass and a Townshend-style main riff. Graham had just acquired a new 12-string guitar, hence its prominence.
6. ‘I’m All Over’ (B-side of ‘There’s No Other Way’ 12-inch and CD, released 15/4/91. Produced by Blur.)
A song from the Blur live set of early 1990, ‘I’m All Over’ is a short (1.57) but endearing sprint on the subject of detachment, with Graham’s voice harmonizing loosely on the choruses with Damon’s rather in style of early REM. The inspiration for Dave’s spluttering, jerking drum-and-cymbal pattern was ‘Where Are You Baby?’ by Betty Boo, which Graham instructed him to copy. Graham takes little pride in this, calling ‘I’m All Over’ “a ridiculous song with a terrible, synthetic drumbeat.”
7. ‘Won’t Do It’ (B-side of ‘There’s No Other Way’ 12-inch remix, released 19/4/91. Produced by Blur.)
Another Seymour-era song, typically frantic and brattish. Alex: “The idea was to have a chorus written around one note.” While the middle section aspires to a supersonic dance groove, the song has little to distinguish it from other frantic, brattish Seymour material demoed the previous year. Graham disagrees, retaining a soft spot for such energy-noise songs as this and ‘Day Upon Day’. “It was all very fuzzy,” he says, “but I think if I’d just strummed along the songs would pretty much still stand up.”
8. ‘Explain’ (B-side of ‘Bang’ 12-inch and CD. Produced by Stephen Street.)
Today much is made of Blur’s supposed antipathy towards American music. Their tastes, however, have often belied this. ‘Explain’, an old Seymour song written during the manic nights at the Beat Factory, reflects one of the band’s then obsession with the Pixies. (“The last great American band. They piss on Nirvana” – Alex.) The band always referred to the song as‘Can’t Explain’, the title of The Who’s first single from 1965. The song still commands the band’s affection. As Damon points out, “We didn’t want to get rid of Seymour songs because they were part of what we were.” ‘Explain’ was recorded with Stephen Street during the same May ’91 session at Maison Rouge that produced ‘High Cool’.
9. ‘Down’ (‘She’s So High’ B-side. Produced by Blur.)
Perhaps the first song written by Blur – as opposed to Seymour. It was a conscious attempt to move on from Seymour’s lunatic diversity and be a rock song of its time. Damon, while a fan of Julian Cope, knew little of current trends. Graham, however, was immersed in the abstract guitar soundscapes found on My Bloody Valentine’s 1988 LP ‘Isn’t Anything’. “But I was very crude and simplistic at the time,” he adds. Nontheless, the influence of MBV and other indie luminaries of the day can be heard in ‘Down’’s frazzled languor. Assessments of the song’s worth differ. Andy Ross feels that “‘Down’ is a really good song but it belongs to another incarnation.” Less charitably, Alex sees it as “all over the place.”
10. ‘Mr. Briggs’ (B-side of ‘There’s No Other Way’ 12-inch and CD. Produced by Blur.)
Blur were now taking their b-sides seriously. The business demanded many new (or unreleased) songs for multiple formats, and though privately uneasy about the morality of such a scam, Blur determined to make each of their b-sides different. They also realized that in them lay true freedom. Recording ‘live’ in small studios, without a producer and away from the sequences and Balfe, Blur took risks, tried musical experiments and nudged closer to the hazy suburban grail of Syd Barrett.
‘Mr. Briggs’ is their first song to tell a story. The apathetic Briggs is based on a Liverpudlian Damon encountered in early 1990 while living in a Greenwich bedsit. Dismissed as “a crappy Pink Floyd demo” by Graham’s girlfriend of the time, ‘Mr. Briggs’ is not too far removed, thematically, from Pink Floyd’s ‘character’ songs such as ‘Arnold Layne’ and ‘Corporal Clegg’, and a Barrettesque note is struck with the humdrum lyrics: “He has a tree-bar heater but it don’t keep him warm/If he bought another, then he’d have three more.” Graham’s three guitar tracks show the triple-pronged range of 1990 Blur: dexterous, bluesy chording; MBV-esque shrieking; and random, punky mischief.
“We still hadn’t gotten over the novelty of someone paying us to go into recording studios,” says Alex.
11. ‘Day Upon Day’ (B-side of ‘There’s No Other Way’ 12-inch remix. Recorded by Drac.)
Blur’s first release of a live song was recordeed at Bath Moles on December 19, 1990 by their then-tour manager Drac, on the tour to promote ‘She’s So High’. The song – which ended Blur’s set each night – is admirably frentic and holds together surprisingly well; earlier during the gig, Damon’s nose was accidentally broken by the machine heads of the maniacally twirling Alex’s bass. Touring the provinces was not uneventful. “We did a gig at the Duchess of York in Leeds,” Graham remembers, “and Damon said, We’re from London. And someone said, Well, fuck off back there, you cock.”
12. ‘There’s No Other Way’ (Single. Also on ‘Leisure’. Produced by Stephen Street.)
Blur’s intended second single, ‘Bad Day’, had been shelved after an unhappy session which saw Graham play bass in place of Alex, at the behest of the producer Steve Power. Stoned, ‘baggy’ beats were in the ascendant, and the period’s other main genre, ‘shoegazing’ (a term coined by Andy Ross), while commercially redundant compared to Madchester, was a cause celebre in the London-based music mafia, and at ‘indie’ establishments such as the Thursday-nights club Syndrome in Oxford Street.
To compete, Blur were pushed into an area midway between Madchester and shoegazing – where they could hear both trenches but see nothing – and encouraged to go easy on their art-school leanings, going instead for the floating voter with their upbeat ‘indie dance’ songs. ‘There’s No Other Way’ was a single that would unite both dance and indie factions. Yet Blur were, in truth, aligned to neither.
The band’s first recording session with ex-Smiths producer Stephen Street (still Blur’s producer of choice) was at Maison Rouge Studios in Fulham in the first week of January 1991. The session also yielded ‘Come Together’, which they held over for the first album. ‘There’s No Other Way’ had been written quickly by Damon and demoed by the band as a fairly throwaway, non-groovy prototype – until Street bolstered Dave Rowntree with a ‘Funky Drummer’-esqye loop.
Despite being a straightforward dance-pop number with meaningless lyrics, ‘There’s No Other Way’ is enjoyably dumb. Vocally, it recalls Syd Barrett when he was still enjoying himself, circa ‘See Emily Play’, 1967. Like Barrett on that song, Damon and Graham’s harmonized voice almost smile on the choruses, as if in a secret druggy joke. (The fascination of young bands with the 49-year-old, reclusive Roger ‘Syd’ Barrett is easily explained. Barrett – Pink Floyd’s founder, singer-songwriter and guitarist – was an attractive genius who lost his mind in 1967, aged 21. He is thus a sexy, mildly dangerous role model for easy-going, artistic, well-educated, white, English males. Also, trippy. Barrett-like music is fun to write and play.)
As well as the arresting, funky intro, Graham contributes another backwards guitar solo, for added trippiness, and Damon adds a two-note organ part. Alex, contemptuous of the bassist’s role of adhering to the root of hte relevant chord, soars out in counterpoint and has enourmous fun.
‘There’s No Other Way’ reached number 8, but its life is now over. It will never be played live again by Blur. Damon’s prosaic writing songwriting vocabulary, a key offender here, would be cruelly exposed later that yeat on the inner sleeve of ‘Leisure’. In 12 songs, the word “you” appeared 82 times; he used “day”/”say”/”play” rhymes on a shameless 35 occasions. His hazy, lazy, nihilistic thoughts were delivered in a Syd-like twang or a souped-down, southernised Ian Brown whisper. As for their performances on ‘There’s No Other Way’, while by no means disgracing themselves, Blur were about to marginalise themselves perilously on the ‘baggy’/FX-pedals cusp. With their next single ‘Bang’, they would come to be perceived as shallow and limited. In reality they were anything but.
13. ’Come Together’ (On ’Leisure’ and also Select’s free ’Parlophone Tape’, June 1991. Produced by Stephen Street. Live version from Glastonbury.)
From the same Stephen Street session that produced ‘There’s No Other Way’. ‘Come Together’ from 1990 soon became a frenetic highlight of their live set. The recorded version is tamer, and Graham would have preferred it to have more “abandon”. At several points he bends a note from a minor to a major third, which audible strangeness moved Street to ask what on earth he was doing. “Fucking it up,” replied Alex, which Street found “fine”. Street remembers Graham, originally being painfully shy of the former Smiths producer, slowly gaining confidence and taking more decisions regarding his own guitar sounds at this time. It was beginning to dawn on Street that “I had met the best guitar player I had worked with since Johnny Marr.”
14. ‘Inertia’ (B-side of ‘There’s No Other Way’ 7-inch, CD and Cassette. Produced by Stephen Street.)
Like ‘High Cool’ (see 24), ‘Inertia’ came into being during rehearsals at The Premises on the Hackney Road, a jazz studio memorably snooty towards this fledging rock group. ‘Inertia’ shares the blessed-out mood of ‘Slow Down’ but is much more successful. This track, recorded at Matrix Studios in Little Russell Street in early 1991 along with ‘Luminous’ and ‘Uncle Love’, marked Blur’s first collaboration with engineer John Smith, a sympathetic ear who still works with them today. Smith came up with new sound and unusual textures. All of the band now wishes that ‘Inertia’, ‘Mr. Briggs’, ‘Luminous’ and ‘Uncle Love’ had been included on ‘Leisure’.
Damon: “It would actually have made sense than as the link between Seymour and ‘Modern Life is Rubbish’.” Oddly, ‘Inertia’ was chosen to open Blur’s set when they supported Lush at The Venue in 1990.
15. ‘Luminous’ (B-side of ‘Bang’ (all formats). Produced by Blur.)
‘Luminous’ comes from the first session with John Smith at Matrix. Recorded “drunk and stoned” (says Alex), it appeared on Japanese copies of ‘Leisure’.
Again, all the band rate the song highly. (“I love that song, it’s got a really lovely feel to it,” says Damon). They tried to include ‘Luminous’ in the live set but were comfounded by the problems of Graham playing and singing simultaneously, and in re-creating a nightmare of studio effects. Although it was attempted live, the results were often embarrassing. ‘Luminous’, a seductive and luscious few minutes far in advance of their baggy workouts, is a highpoint of this psychedelic phase. The vocal melody is also reminiscent of ‘Far Out’, Alex’s song from ‘Parklife’.
16. ‘Uncle Love’ (B-side of ‘Bang’ 12-inch. Produced by Blur.)
‘Uncle Love’ was written and recorded one Thursday evening between watching Top Of The Pops and setting out for Syndrome (see 12). Cute, vibrant and instantly engaging, highly economical and well arranged, it was one of the best things the band had so far produced. Yet it was buried as the b-side of the ‘Bang’ 12-inch. Graham has described the song as “if J Mascis were on Prozac”, but comparisons to the lugubrious Dinosaur Jr don’t do justice to this track, much more in the tradition of Bowie and Barrett’s hallucinogenic Cockney character studies.
17. ‘Fool’ (On ‘Leisure’. Produced by Mike Thorne.)
After ‘There’s No Other Way’, Stephen Street headed for New York to produce what was the final Psychedelic Furs LP, ‘World Outside’. Mike Thorne (“A moody, arty fucker by reputation” – Andy Ross) had produced Wire in the late ‘70s. He was brought in to record the less indie-generic material being considered for the first Blur album. “He looked like Billy Bibbit from One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” recalls Graham. “Really nice bloke. He’d jog home from the sessions every night and get lost.”
Thorne produced four tracks: ‘Come Together’, ‘Wear Me Down’, a version of ‘Repetition’ which was scrapped, and this old Seymour tune. The weakest song on ‘Leisure’, ‘Fool’ apologizes for itself as early as the first line (“Sorry, but I don’t understand”), a blemish repeated on ‘Come Together’. “It’s Damon trying to be Morrisey,” says Alex. The song’s chaotic middle section (starting at 1.30) is clever, but a direct imitation of a My Bloody Valentine song ‘Nothing Much To Lose’ (on the 1988 album ‘Isn’t Anything’, which Graham had by then absorbed to the point of obsession). Graham plays drums, uncredited, in this brief passage of ‘Fool’.
18. ‘Birthday’ (On ‘Leisure’. Produced by Mike Thorne.)
Both Andy Ross and Dave Balfe were taken by ‘Birthday’, not least for its dissimilarity to Blur’s usually energetic live style. Produced by Mike Thorne, it consists of mainly piano, backwards guitar, tambourine and multi-tracked harmony vocals, although there is a rather pointless grungy explosion of ensemble noise at 2.42 – something about which Damon had well-founded doubts. Written by Damon at the piano and reflecting his non-rock sensibilities, this limpid, dislocated tune contrasts with almost everything on ‘Leisure’. Graham was envious, thinking it “one of the greatest little songs I’d ever heard”. It dates back to when Graham and Alex were in the halls of residence in Camberwell and Damon was living in East Ham. It was written the morning after a legendary night out. Alex, Graham and a friend had attended the annual private view at the Slade School of Art and, armed with a stolen credit card, had got hammered. “We were rolling around on the floor, snogging and shouting, We are Art!” In the aftermath, Alex fell asleep on a night bus and arrived in Thamesmead (nine miles away). Graham ended up in bed with his best friend and the latter’s girlfriend. Damon spent the night in the cells at Holborn police station with a Ghurkha. Returning home next day, he wrote ‘Birthday’.
19. ‘Wear Me Down’ (On ‘Leisure’. Produced by Mike Thorne.)
Balfe had thought Mike Thorne’s production might compliment the darker songs in the Blur canon. Thorne was put to work on ‘Wear Me Down’, a popular live track. “A pretty Zen producer, pretty out there,” according to Graham, Thorne had the band play the song as slowly – and then as quickly – as human possible. They settled for a medium tempo, still far faster than the way they played it live. There is a plethora of loud, uncontrolled cymbal crashes, something the more fastidious Street would not have sanctioned. Thorne was adamant that the song, which struggles to leave dreariness behind, should be a single, evidence of his non-mainstream views. The track was engineered by American Fernando Kral, with whom the band never hit it off, but who proved an invaluable source of Prince anecdotes.
20. ‘Bang’ (Single, released 29/7/91. Also on ‘Leisure’. Produced by Stephen Street.)
Street returned from New York in the spring and was hired to produce the remaining half of the first album. ‘Bang’ was being mooted by Food as the third Blur single. It was written in record time – Alex suggests 15 minutes – at The Premises (see 14). Cometh the hour at Maison Rouge, cometh the dreaded shuffling rhythm used by almost all English pop bands – from Northside to Ned’s Atomic Dustbin – in 1991. An awful song, ‘Bang’ is taken as a showcase for Alex’s inventive bass-playing. Or to quote Damon: “There’s just something about ‘Bang’ which is shit.” Peaking at 24, ‘Bang’ was an under-achiever after ‘There’s No Other Way’. “It felt right,” argues Andy Ross. “A good video. A summer sound. It wasn’t an own goal but it didn’t do as well as it could.”
“They still shout for it in Italy,” confides Alex. ‘Bang’ will be left off any future Greatest Hits album…
21. ‘Slow Down’ (On ‘Leisure’. Produced by Stephen Street.)
Even more than ‘Down’ (see 9), ‘Slow Down’ reveals blur’s then-infatuation with My Bloody Valentine. Indeed, during celebrations at the Paramount Hotel after Blur’s debut New York gig on November 1, Alex and Damon met MBV singer-guitarist Kevin Shields, who delighted them by declaring himself a fan of ‘Slow Down’. Graham’s urge to emulate the inchoate, kaleidoscopic soundworld of MBV contrasted directly with Balfe’s orders to Street that the group should use sequencers and metronomic drumbeats (for possible remixes). In the end, a compromise was reached. Graham, though, began to commandeer the group at this time, resulting in ‘Leisure’‘s heavy guitar bias. Damon thinks this spoiled the album. “Graham has obsessions,” he says long-sufferingly. “At the moment it’s American hardcore. They last from six to eight months, and it’s very hard for him to see anything else.” Graham admits, “I did have an obsession with guitars being loud, but that’s how those songs were written. It was the excitement of being in a studio. High spirits.”
22. ‘Repetition’ (On ‘Leisure’. Produced by Stephen Street.)
The only song on ‘Leisure’ attempted by both Street and Thorne, ‘Repetition’ had been in the live set since the days of Seymour. Its hook was an intriguing trick of Graham’s: bending a guitar string up, hitting it, and switching from one pick-up to the other (one turned down completely, the other up loud) so that the sound went from silence to noise. “It was an old trick of Pete Townsend’s.” Of the two versions of ‘Repetition’, Street’s was preferred over Thorne’s earlier one, although to this day Alex likes neither.
23. ‘Bad Day’ (On ‘Leisure’. Produced by Stephen Street.)
‘Bad Day’ was written by Damon while suffering from a streptococcal viral infection and holed up in a Hampstead flat that he only kept for the fortnight’s course of his illness. Good rather than great, the song begins brightly, with the theme played by Damon on melodica (a cross between a mouth organ and a small keyboard, much beloved by New Order) before transferring to distorted wah-wah guitars. It’s in the unusual time signature of 6/4 and features strong harmony vocals by Graham and Damon. “There are three things going on in there,” Damon reflects. “Trying to write a good tune. Trying to sound like the Beatles on one hand. And My Bloody Valentine on the other.” ‘Bad Day’ has a chequered history in other incarnations. It had been attempted as a follow-up to ‘She’s So High’ (see 1, 12). It later appeared, with ‘High Cool’, as a non-commercially available Food 12-inch now worth extravagant sums. Andy Ross asked a member of a band called Nixon (now defunct) to do some exploratory work on the track and he, without anyone’s permission, remixed the track as a club tune for the Japanese market. This, too, is now a collector’s item.
24. ‘High Cool’ (On ‘Leisure’. Produced by Stephen Street.)
An undistinguished tune in the mould of ‘There’s No Other Way’, ‘High Cool’ takes its name from a setting on the air-conditioning unit at The Premises (see 14). Alex regards this song as the acme of Blur’s ‘blank’ phase. The bassline is modelled on the offbeats in ‘Mountains’ by Prince from the ‘Parade’ album.
25. ‘Oily Water’ (On ‘Volume 2’, published November 1991. Also on ‘Modern Life is Rubbish’, released 10/5/93. Produced by Blur and John Smith.)
Happier with their b-sides than with their number 7 hit album ‘Leisure’, Blur headed back to Matrix (see 14) to begin demoing for the second album. With the sympathetic John Smith engineering, they delivered a four-song salvo that horrified as many people as it electrified. Gone was any pretence of being a happy band. The new material – ‘Oily Water’, ‘Bone Bag’, and ‘Resigned’, with ‘Turn It Up’ as the sole uptempo track – was hard-edged, defeatist and ill-sounding. Ironically, they were enjoying themselves. “We felt that we could relax now because Balfe was off our backs for a while,” Damon recalls. Food Records owner Balfe, a former member of Teardrop Explodes, is often cast as the villain of the Blur piece. He insists his intentions were good: “I wanted them to conquer the globe. There’s more to life than just getting NME and Select covers.”
‘Oily Water’, the first of the four songs to be released to the public, was included in demo form on Issue 2 of the CD-magazine Volume. It confirmed what ‘Luminous’ and ‘Inertia’ had implied, that a darker, more glutinous Blur sound was being created. Not the least impressive aspect of the stunning ‘Oily Water’ is the leap in quality of Damon’s lyric writing. He would never have included as strong an image as “In a sense of self in decline/Growing fat on sound” on ‘Leisure’. Throughout, the song is as polluted as its title. Distorted, howling, anarchic, ‘Oily Water’ is the first of Blur’s ‘hangover’ songs – literal dissertations on acid throat, trembling hands and clumsy heads – and a greasy window on to a post-‘baggy’ world.
From the opening guitar sound – Graham ‘tap-dancing’ on his FX pedals – to the music’s final, overloaded roar, the song baffles and flails. Graham sings the long passages (“ooh-ooh-ooh”) and plays guitar with all strings tuned to E, using wah-wah and reverb to create a cacophonous, unearthly, siren-like sound. Damon sings the verses through a megaphone. “It’s gratuitously nasty and My Bloody Valentine all over,” says Alex proudly. Widely acclaimed at the time, ‘Oily Water’ would turn up, as planned, on Blur’s second LP – 19 months after its conception. And like all subsequent Blur songs bearing the “produced by Blur and John Smith” imprimatur, ‘Oily Water’ was a demo adjudged good enough to be released without further tinkering.
26. ‘Resigned’ (On Rollercoaster EP and ‘Modern Life is Rubbish’. Produced by Blur and John Smith.)
Though only recorded once, the band got excellent mileage from this track laid down with John Smith at Matrix at the same sessions as’ Oily Water’ (see 25). It was made available on a 2,000 copies-only limited edition cassette given away to revellers at the Food Records Christmas Party at Brixton Academy on December 14, 1991. (Andy Ross told punters only 1,000 were available to encourage them to arrive in time for the first bands. All monies from the party went to the Great Ormond St Children’s Hospital.) The following February, it appeared on an EP to promote Rollercoaster, an indie-noise package tour of The Jesus & Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine, Dinosaur JR and Blur (see 35, 39, 49). Two years later, this fine song with its bittersweet D-minor 7 change, resurfaced on the ‘Modern Life is Rubbish’ album.
27. ‘Bone Bag’ (B-side of ‘For Tomorrow’, one of two part CD, released 19/4/93. Produced by Blur and John Smith.)
A largely undiscovered gem from the same October 1991 sessions as ‘Oily Water’ (25) and ‘Resigned’ (26), ‘Bone Bag’ sat around for 18 months waiting for release. The distinctive percussive effect at the start is a sample of an Indian tabla. Dave programmed the rhythms and adjourned to the pub. He returned to find the song finished. Two tremolo guitars slightly out of phase produce a sleepy, dislocated ambiance. Graham says of the tender lyric, “I quite like it when Damon gets soppy but sometimes he’s embarrassed.”
28. ‘Badgeman Brown’ (B-side of ‘Popscene’ CD. Produced by Blur.)
Blur’s greatest debt to Syd Barrett, ‘Badgeman Brown’ brought the full contempt of Balfe down on the band in December 1991, and is still loathed by Andy Ross. “If ever Blur got too cocky or we began to think too highly of them,” he says, “we’d play ‘Badgeman Brown’ to remind us – and them – that they were, in fact, human.” An exercise in nothing more than Syd Barrett emulation, ‘Badgeman Brown’ borrows his ideas about heavy riffs dissolving into echoing murmurs (‘Vegetable Man’) and expertly-judged deflations in tempo (‘(Scream Thy Last Scream) Old Woman In A Casket’), and conveys a Syd-like sense of something being not quite right.
“It was a loose sort of melody tracked up with shouting through a megaphone,” Graham suggests. “It’s a pretty creepy vocal.” Much maligned, ‘Badegeman Brown’ is a great little song originally for a soundtrack Blur intended for a film directed by Storm Thorgeson – half of the legendary Hipgnosis album sleeve design partnership and an old Cambridge friend of the aforesaid Syd. As to the film… “It was a big deal about a man walking out of his house and just vanishing,” remembers Alex dimly. “But the whole thing was a castle in Spain, a pipedream.” Food, faced with an unwanted soundtrack as the follow-up to ‘Leisure’, fought their cornier. Andy Ross insisted the album would fulfill no contractual obligation. He also reminded them that Pink Floyd’s soundtrack albums had sold “fuck all”.
29. ‘Beachcoma’ (B-side of ‘For Tomorrow’ second of two-part CD, released 26/4/93. Produced by Blur and John Smith.)
Originally called ‘Hole’ (as in “sitting in a hole/going round and round” – a line that causes all members of Blur much hilarity), this was written in late 1990, just after “There’s No Other Way’ – a time when Blur were oblivious to Courtney Love and her band. Demoed as ‘Beachcoma’ in December 1991 (along with the unreleased ‘Seven Days’), the innocuous ‘Hole’ was rearranged as a subdued, woozy little Blur pearl. So many guitars were tracked by Graham that “I had to visually draw out a map of the song because there’s so much going on.” A typically languid Barrett-esque, late 1991 Damon vocal whispers over the delicately layered guitars. Had his lyric been better, he would have lobbied for its inclusion on ‘Modern Life is Rubbish’. Although Street would doubtless disagree, the purists among us are saying ‘Beachcoma’ boasts the most perfectly recorded drumkit of any Blur song – deep, distant cymbals, hard slaps of snare and Ringo-esque toms.
30. ‘Hanging Over’ (B-side of ‘For Tomorrow’ 12-inch and cassette. Produced by Blur and John Smith.)
A likeable but inessential Matrix track that Ross was keen to include on ‘Modern Life…’. The strange treatment of Damon’s voice makes him sound unlike his normal self. The song, explicitly about a hangover, dates from the ‘Bang’ period, when Damon and Justine Frischmann were establishing a relationship. Graham: “We were just having fun. We were off our rockers most of the time.”
31. ‘My Ark’ (B-side of ‘Chemical World’ 12-inch and CD, released 5/7/93. Produced by Blur.)
Unloved dirge demoed around the same time as ‘Popscene’ (see 39) in October 1991. During a b-side famine in 1993, ‘My Ark’ came out on some ‘Chemical World’ formats. Driven by an ascending lick which Damon compares to late ‘60s West Coast rock bores Blue Cheer, its nasty transatlantic vibe is dismissed by Dave as “Lenny Kravitz drinks a cup of tea.” “It’s a bit dreary,” is Graham’s estimation.
32. ‘Miss America’ (On ‘Modern Life is Rubbish’. Produced by Blur and John Smith.)
On December 10, 1991, Blur had been to The Plough (see 38) near Matrix with publisher Mike Smith, who was celebrating his move from MCA to EMI Publishing (where Blur have since rejoined him). Graham returned to Matrix to add guitar parts to ‘Miss America’ while the others went with Smith to see Pulp play at the Polytechnic Of North London. On their return they found a very drunk Coxon banging on a chair-leg – it can be heard clearly throughout the track. Spotting Smith entering the studio, Graham shouts the acknowledgment (“Michael!”) that can be heard at the track’s start. Rumours on the Internet that the cry is from Interview with a Vampire are incorrect. Smith, incidentally, is the man standing to the left of Graham’s head on the back cover of ‘Parklife’. Dave does not play on ‘Miss America’ and is credited on the ‘Modern Life is Rubbish’ sleeve as being in The Plough. Blur had just finished their first US tour (see 21) and their grim experiences contribute to the song’s sour mood.
33. ‘Garden Central’ (B-side of ‘Popscene’ 12-inch. Produced by Blur.)
A January 1992 instrumental wrenched from the many guitars of Graham Coxon, ‘Garden Central’ (NE ‘Garden Center’) began life from his darkly jangling chord sequence. He and Damon moan eerie, wordless parts as the song proceeds. An epic trance affair, it remains unheard by most Blur fans but is powerful, richly textured and fascinating – as if The Byrds were playing side two of Pink Floyd’s ‘A Saucerful of Secrets’ on blackened, melting 12-string guitars. The Beastie Boys, reviewing the singles in NME slated Blur’s current single ‘Popscene’ (see 39), and declared that ‘Garden Central’ ought to have been the A-side.
34. ‘Peach’ (B-side of ‘For Tomorrow’, one of two-part CD. Produced by Blur and John Smith.)
Recorded in January 1992 in the same time as ‘Mace’ (36), this spectral ballad became a favourite on US college radio. Unusually, it features a harmonium (an antique foot-pumped keyboard often used in churches and on Nico albums) that Damon had bought in Clapham. “It cost about five pounds and then he spent about a thousand doing it up,” recalls Alex. Dave describes it as “the Victorian’s idea of a portable keyboard. We tried to use it onstage a couple of times but it looked like a man riding a child’s bicycle.” The song’s anarchic, disintegrating sound reflects the group’s mood at the time, but it remains a favourite of Damon’s: “I still strum it to myself on acoustic guitar for fun.” The ending imitates a record sticking in a groove.
35. ‘Into Another’ (B-side of ‘For Tomorrow’ 12-inch and cassette- Produced by Blur and John Smith.)
Originally called ‘Head’, and subsequently ‘Headist’. As ‘Headist’ it was in Blur’s live set when they played at Glastonbury in 1992. Heavily influenced by Wire, it starts with a clavinet keyboard played by Damon. In this mostly unreported, frantically-demoing chapter of Blur’s career, Damon began to play keyboards more and more. Written and recorded around January ’92, ‘Head’ was another ‘hangover’ song. Graham was drinking a bottle of vodka a night during the Rollercoaster tour (see 26, 39, 49) and the band’s mood was one of forlornness and rejection.
All the songs for their second album had now been demoed at Matrix. Optimistically, they imagined a spring 1992 release. The tracklisting included ‘Oily Water’, ‘Mace’, ‘Badgeman Brown’, ‘Popscene’, ‘Resigned’, ‘Garden Central’, ‘Hanging Over’, ‘Into Another’ (aka ‘Headist’), ‘Peach’, ‘Bone Bag’, ‘Never Clever’, ‘Coping’, ‘My Ark’ and ‘Pressure on Julian’. In retrospect, it is a safe bet that the gloomy shadows of their music would have forced people to re-evaluate Blur there and then. But Dave Balfe hated almost all of the songs. That album was never made and can now only be pieced together from b-sides.
36. ‘Mace’ (B-side of ‘Popscene’. Produced by Blur and John Smith.)
Even as Seymour, Blur had a knack for getting into drunken scrapes. Supporting defunct Manchester outfit Too Much Texas at Dingwalls, they got embroiled in an incident which involved them being maced by bouncers. Temporarily blinded and in agony, they hailed a passing WPC in the street outside. Later, in casualty, an old lady chastised the group for drinking vodka in the waiting room. ‘Mace’ relates – obliquely, with references to bikes and double glazing – to this incident. Musically nondescript beyond some pleasing guitar effects and a distorted Strangles-style bass – nowadays a favourite ploy of Elastica’s. Alex refers to ‘Mace’ as a “bash it out after tea job.”
37. ‘Intermission’ (On ‘Modern Life is Rubbish’. Produced by Blur and John Smith.)
Originally ‘The Intro’ (aka ‘The Opening’). In 1989 Seymour used to begin their gigs with it, if the venue had a piano. ‘The Intro’ and ‘Commercial Break’ (aka ‘The Outro’) opened and closed the gigs. “Damon would look like a panda afterwards,” Graham recalls, “and he used to be sick onstage. We used to drink so much. I’d have a bottle of wine under the chair my amp was sat on, and I’d swig my way through that.”
Demoed with John Smith at Matrix in January 1992, ‘The Intro’ was chosen specifically to annoy Balfe, who hated it and was baffled by Blur’s bloody-mindedness. The Matrix demo would later be judged by Stephen Street to be good enough to go on ‘Modern Life is Rubbish’ as it was. Balfe still hates it.
Damon’s jaunty, faintly sickly piano begins this instrumental, which follows on (at 4.04) from ‘Chemical World’ on ‘Modern Life is Rubbish’. Only a curlicue of guitar feedback portends the violence to come. Graham then enters with a lurching, quasi-ska rhythm guitar pattern, accompanied by grinding bass and thrashing drums. The song speeds up as though its driver was stamping emotionally on brakes that had been cynically pre-cut. Moving away from Kurt Weill territory into outright punk insanity, the tune then erupts (at 5.22) in what sounds like a demented bass solo but is, in fact, Graham de-tuning the bottom string of his guitar with his left hand as his right hand keeps playing. The performance’s effect is that of Postman Pat incidental music gone horribly out of control.
38. ‘Commercial Break’ (On ‘Modern Life is Rubbish’. Produced by Blur and John Smith.)
Formerly ‘The Outro’, ‘Commercial Break’ was demoed in the same session as ‘Intermission’ and likewise included on ‘Modern Life…’ in that form. Appearing at the closure of ‘Resigned’ (at 5.15), this vaguely menacing album sign-off makes itself scarce less than one minute later (at 6.10). Continuing the trend long since established by Blur when working at Matrix, several beers were taken at The Plough in nearby Museum Street (see 32) before the recording procedure was allowed to commence.
39. ‘Popscene’ (Single. Produced by Steve Lovell.)
Debuted at Kilburn National Ballroom on October 24, 1991, and played live on The Word soon afterwards, ‘Popscene’ in Blur’s great forgotten single. A biting attack on the business they now hated, and which invariably dismissed them in a scathing sentence, the song died an ignominious commercial death, hurting them deeply. Fully expecting a hit single – which would have followed with ‘Never Clever’ (see 41) – Blur laid down ‘Popscene’ at Matrix in February 1992 with Steve Lovell (Stephen Street was now out of favour with Balfe), using brass instruments for the first time. Later that day, they flew to Japan for their second tour.
‘Popscene’ starts with a curdling, feverish repeated note from a guitar played through a flanger, quickly takes on an ominous, distorted bass, and a drum rhythm that Graham told Dave to play after hearing Can’s 14-minute space boogie ‘Mother Sky’. The Kick Horn’s blasts are every bit as rude and bullying as Bobby Keys and Jim Price’s obscene sax-and-trumpet salutations on the Stones’ ‘Loving Cup’. The song is punky, arrogant and brilliantly played.
Put to him that ‘Popscene’ represented a turning point for Blur, Andy Ross replies, “Yes – turning into a cul de sac that we thought was green fields.” The reasons for the single’s failure – it made number 32 despite the high-profile Rollercoaster tour (see 26, 35, 39, 49) – are wearily attributed by the band to American rock interventionist tactics. “It was Nirvana going to Geffen that fucked ‘Popscene’ up,” says Graham. Alex reveals that a reissue of ‘Popscene’ was considered to cash in on the New Wave of New Wave mini-buzz last year.
Britain didn’t want ‘Popscene’, or Blur – to the band’s genuine despair. When ‘Modern Life is Rubbish’ was released, in May 1993, the single was intentionally omitted. “We thought, If you didn’t fucking want it in the first place, you’re not going to get it now,” Graham shrugs. Harrowing problems with a former manager tested their resilience. They imbibed their way through the Rollercoaster. Immediately afterwards, they flew to America to begin a tour that would change their music yet again.
40. ‘Maggie May’ (On ‘Ruby Trax’, released October 1992. Also b-side of ‘Chemical World’ 7-inch. Produced by Steve Lovell.)
Recorded in June ’92 for the three-CD charity compilation LP ‘Ruby Trax’ (offered to NME readers), ‘Maggie May’ was Blur’s first cover. They had just returned, angry and humiliated, from the American tour (see 42 and also Select June 1993), and were in no mood to treat Rod Stewart’s 1971 single with any sensitivity or decorum. Alex refused to play on the session, claiming to hate Rod Stewart, and the bass was done on a keyboard. Produced by Steve Lovell at Matrix, this was – incredibly – mooted by Food at one stage as a possible Blur single.
41. ‘Never Clever’ (‘Chemical World’ b-side, one of two-part CD. Recorded live at Glastonbury, June ’92.)
Now an obscurity, this had a more exalted career planned. Food had intended it as the follow-up to ‘Popscene’ (see 39). In the subsequent post-mortem, all plans for the track were shelved and this robust song now exists only in this live version.
42. ‘Sunday Sunday’ (Single, released 4/10/93. Also on ‘Modern Life is Rubbish’. Produced by Steve Lovell.)
Blur’s US tour of 1992 was an exercise in acrimony and misery. Loathing America and often each other (“we all had black eyes,” recalls Dave) they questioned the point of it all. Damon spent one gloomy Sunday watching the soulless antics at a shopping mall from the window of his Minneapolis hotel room. But the lyric he wrote that day refers more to the plastic Sabbath heritage back in England. After the Andy Partridge affair (see 44), Blur were determined to do things their own way. Balfe allowed them to, but was certain they were committing commercial suicide: “When was the last time you heard a hit single that sped up in the middle?” he asks. The result is a brash stomp, enlivened by the Kick Horns’ brilliantly parochial brass, that was worn badly but foreshadows many of the concerns of the latter-day Blur. Graham claims he would not mind if they never played it again. Stephen Street was out of favour, so Balfe returned Blur to Steve Lovell (see 1, 2, 39) as en experiment for this and ‘Villa Rosie’.
43. ‘Villa Rosie’ (On ‘Modern Life is Rubbish’. Produced by Steve Lovell.)
This, the other song recorded in the Steve Lovell session of October 1992, was about an imaginary drinking den, a haven, a fabulous watering hole. Ideally, it was to be a discreet gentlemen’s club (Alex would, in time, move to Soho and become a member of several) with elements of Narnia-like establishment only available through a secret door. “It reminds me of when I lived in Clapham, around 1987,” says Damon, “because of the green there (ie the Common) and those sort of late Victorian houses.” “I’m always worried when Damon starts to talk about the suburbs,” says Alex. Graham: “I was really into ‘Villa Rosie’. I thought it had a bit of a wink about it.” After his addled and low-key Syd murmurs of 1991, Damon’s vocals were now (since the American tour) starting to show a youthful strut, a marked Tommy Steele influence, a diamante geezer imprint, a Cockney what-the-hell quality that would in time seize the public’s imagination (to those who accuse him of putting on the accent, Damon retorts that he was born in Whitechapel Hospital). ‘Villa Rosie’ was one of three guitar songs sequenced together on ‘Modern Life’ (the others being ‘Coping’ and ‘Turn It Up’) and thus tries hard to stand out. “The bass at the intro is played with a bottleneck to produce a fucked-up sound,” reveals Alex. “Goodness knows why. Perhaps we were pretty fucked up at the time.” Better is the brief guitar solo (at 2.38), but note the XTC-like “ooh-ooh’s” of the backing vocals, ironic in the light of the Partridge affair (see 44). Technical note: Jason Cox, Blur’s longtime helper in the studio, is credited on the sleeve with “small stone operation”. This involves turning a phase-shifting knob on one of Graham’s FX pedals while Graham was playing.
44. ‘Coping’ (On ‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’. Produced by Stephen Street.)
The LP that became ‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’ was to be produced by Andy Partridge of XTC, a quintessential English post-punk psychedelian whom both Food and Blur thought would be ideal. Sessions were convened at Church Studios in Crouch End in the late summer of 1992, after the band’s return from America (see 42). Omens were inauspicious. Damon told Partridge he was a big fan of the old XTC hit ‘Making Plans For Nigel’, a song written by Partridge’s rival, bassist Colin Moulding. Graham was having personal problems and – a rare thing for him – missed sessions or arrived drunk.
Only three songs were ever taped – ‘Sunday Sunday’, ‘Seven Days’ (never released in any version) and ‘Coping’. At first, the band loved the results then dramatically changed their minds. With Balfe fuming, Blur were again back at base. On October 1, at a Cranberries gig at The Marquee, Graham bumped into Stephen Street. Street had remained a Blur fan and said he wanted to work with them again. So, on November 9, 1992, yet another phase of Blur’s hiccuping odyssey began. ‘Coping’ was recorded twice with Street, while Ross thought ‘Coping’ a potentional career-saver. A rousing tune with a catchy, anachronistic synth-line, ‘Coping’ is a song and a saga all on its own.
45. ‘Colin Zeal’ (On ‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’. Produced by Stephen Street.)
This was written in America about an imaginary little man’s workday life in England. Playing tapes of The Kinks’ golden period (’65-71), Damon filtered a Ray Davies-like eye for acerbic detail (“he’s an affable man with a carotene tan”) into this fidgely tune, which borrows the vocal melody of Teardrop Explodes’ ‘Sleeping Gas’. Graham thwarted from drenching the song in Sonic Youth guitar, was allowed to play a Black & Decker drill quietly at the end. “The trick with Graham,” says Damon, “is to give him the illusion that he’s making a racket.” The gaps before each “…and then he…” were suggested by Street. And for the one song only, Dave Rowntree tuned his tom toms to actual notes rather than just to a generally good sound. Andy Partridge was keen on this technique. “Never again,” says Dave.
46. ‘Blue Jeans’ (On ‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’. Produced by Stephen Street.)
Blur and Street did a great job on this delightful song about a Saturday afternoon shopping expedition in Notting Hill. The gorgeous chord change to an A accompanied by an F-sharp bass (on the “Saturday” of the first verse and repeated thereafter) displays the group’s profoundly musical nature. Particularly since Alex had spent the day drinking with the band’s accountant, Julian Hedley, and recorded the bassline “completely pissed”.
47. ‘Advert’ (On ‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’. Produced by Stephen Street.)Energetic and faintly reminiscent of Seymour, ‘Advert’ helped cement the re-marriage between Blur and Street. The crashing A/G guitar riff originally began the song, until the Toytown keyboard phrase was introduced. The siren noises are from a megaphone designed for crowd control that Damon picked up on the band’s first Japanese tour. “Food processors are great” was sampled by Damon from the Shopping Channel at Maison Rouge with another toy, a Casio SK1 (or SKI as it’s fondly known) keyboard with built-in sampler, purchased for 20 dollars in Cleveland. The advert is still running currently.
48. ‘Turn It Up’ (On ‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’. Produced by Stephen Street.)
Seen as catchy, ‘up’ track when sessions began, “Turn It Up” has since been disowned by Damon. Graham says, “When we wrote it, it seemed like a good jangly pop song. But it turned out to be an MOR rock song. It didn’t have peculiarities. So we were turned off by it.”
“It’s crap,” says Damon flatly. “I wouldn’t have had it on the album. Balfe thought it was the only song that had a vague chance of doing well in America, so he insisted on it being there.” A harsh reaction, you may feel, to a perfectly good guitar song with a boisterous Cockney chorus. Leave it out, John, and so forth.
49. ‘Pressure On Julian’ (On ‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’. Produced by Stephen Street. Also b-side of ‘Chemical World’, one of two-part CD. Live version recorded Glastonbury June 1992.)
A song with a long pre-recorded history. Damon liked to taunt Balfe with lyrical (and musical) references to Julian Cope because “It drove him bananas”. Written around September 1991 and demoed at Matrix in January, ‘Pressure’ was played every night on the Rollercoaster tour of spring ’92 (see 26, 35, 39). The middle segment should last twice as long but this slipped Dave’s mind when recording, and this version was deemed good enough. At a photo shoot for Melody Maker near St Pancras, graffiti was espied that read: ‘Magical Transit Children’. This was incorporated into the lyric.
50. ‘Starshaped’ (On ‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’. Produced by Stephen Street.)
Once mooted as a single, ‘Star Shaped’ is a major step forward in Damon’s writing. (Andy Partridge had made them do a samba arrangement of it, detested by all). The idea is from a caption in Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast Of Champions – the star-shaped image refers to a supine figure on a beach. ‘Star Shaped’ means “insensible”. So to the optimistic “I’ve been making plans/for the future” comes the sarcastic riposte “We don’t think so/you seem star shaped”. The woodwind and brass section (cor anglais, oboe, soprano sax at 1.38) is played by Kate St John, ex-Cope cohort, circa ’83. Stephen Street plays finger cymbals (eg 1.34, 2.44 etc). At the close, Graham plays a Moog synth note of increasing pitch which eventually passes out of detectable human range – hence his “anti cat and dog Moog tone” credit.
Though one of Blur’s finest moments, the song gave Alex more headaches than any other. He was struggling to get a satisfactory bassline when Dave Balfe appeared. Listening to the songs recorded thus far, he was less than impressed. When Blur delivered the new LP to Food and EMI in December ’92, it was rejected. Damon was told by Balfe to go back and “write a single”. It was another blow to Blur’s esteem. Having looked forward to a lethargic festive period, Blur faced new rejection.
And it would get worse before it got better.
51. ‘Wassailing Song’ (One-sided 7-inch single ‘released’ 16/12/92. Produced by Blur.)
In December ’92, as Christmas lights illuminated Britain, Blur experienced their darkest hour. Food was refusing to release their second LP as it had no obvious singles. Meanwhile, Britain’s musical climate underwent a cold snap as wintry as the weather, and the only hot property was imported American grunge. Seen inebriated once too often, Blur were taken seriously neither as musicians nor as people.
Against Food’s advice, Blur played a gig on December 16 at the Hibernian, an Irish nightclub in Fulham, 200 yards from Maison Rouge studio. Five hundred copies of this 7-inch single, recorded during a break in the ‘Modern Life is Rubbish’ session, were given away to the audience. ‘The Wassailing Song’ was a medieval Christmas carol that Damon and Graham sang as children in the Stanway Comprehensive school choir (a wassail is a wooden bowl into which hot punch is poured). The verses are sung by each member of Blur in turn (Damon, Graham, Dave and Alex) over a backing track of drums and accordion-esque keyboard chords. The song later accompanied the Stonehenge footage on Blur’s longform video Starshaped.
52. ‘For Tomorrow’ (Single, released 19/4/93. Also on ‘Modern Life is Rubbish’. Produced by Stephen Street.)
‘For Tomorrow’ was written overnight on Christmas Eve/Day 1992 at Damon’s parents’ home in Colchester. His father Keith later berated him for keeping him awake all night. (During the same holidays he wrote ‘One Born Every Minute’, which he describes as “the Kinks song Ray Davies never wrote” and insists will appear at some point). It was obvious from Damon’s initial demo that this was a potentially career-changing song, not least for the universality of its “la la”’d refrain. “Everyone, wherever they are in the world knows what la la la means,” Graham explains. Damon asked for – and got – girl backing singers, whom Street instructed to sing like Thunderthighs on the classic Mott the Hoople singles. The band also used a string section for the first time, The Duke String Quartet, led by viola player John Metcalfe whom Street knew from Durutti Column days. Owing to the song’s ELO-like pop structures, Jeff Lynne was considered as producer at one point.
The finished song was probably Blur’s finest achievement to date, a sweeping, operatic tour de force that holds the attention from the first staccato chord of B-major (which thenceforth breaks up every first and third line of the verse with increasing vigour). The verses and choruses and beautifully complementary, the former stately and majestic, the latter a sauntering Tommy Steele vignette. Damon acknowledges the lyrical influence of the album ‘Well At Least It’s British’ by ‘50s songwriter Alan Klein, featuring ‘He’s a 20th Century Englishman’. The phrase ‘Modern Life is Rubbish’ is taken from a legendary, stencilled graffito (now washed over) on a wall on the Bayswater Road near Marble Arch. Two other versions of the song exists on double-pack CD and 12-inch and, while the acoustic version is inessential, the ‘Visit To Primrose Hill’ version is highly recommended for its central baritone brass section, featuring the Kick Horns, in which the song unravels and then knits itself together in fascinating fashion.
53. ‘When The Cows Come Home’ (B-side of ‘For Tomorrow’, second of two-part CD, released 26/4/93. Produced by Stephen Street.)
Beginning with a jaunty brass flourish from the Kick Horns, ‘When The Cows…’ is highly reminiscent of a 1967-vintage Beatles music hall pastiche (eg ‘Your Mother Should Know’). Indeed Damon describes the song as “futuristic music hall”. Produced by Stephen Street an intended for ‘Modern Life is Rubbish’, it didn’t make the cut. Graham: “It was horrible trying to cram the tracks on…it could have been an 18-track album.” The song was about Dave Balfe and his attitudes to finance; it is thought that Balfe realized this and was thus hostile to the song. There is no bass till the third verse and Alex finds it “a bit too oompah for widespread appeal.” It is, however, a favourite of Damon’s mother, Hazel Albarn.
54. ‘Chemical World’ (Single, released 5/7/93. Also on Modern Life is Rubbish’. Produced by Stephen Street.)
With the advent of ‘For Tomorrow’, Food – and their distributors EMI – were happy to proceed with the release of the delayed album. But Blur’s American record label, SBK, now voiced concern. There was, they said, no American hit on the LP. Too weary to object, Damon agreed to write one more song for this never-ending album.
Demoed by the band (under the sarcastic working title ‘Americana’) at Roundhouse Studios in Chalk Farm, ‘Chemical World’ was recorded by a stoical Stephen Street in one final album session in late February of 1993.
While the lyrics made no concession to American markets, Street strove to make ‘Chemical World’ sonically powerful. The results delighted the MD of SBK, who is said to have remarked that ‘Chemical World’ sounded “just like The Beatles”. In fact, it’s hard to discern a similarity with any Lennon & McCartney song, except “they’re putting the holes in” slightly echoes Lennon’s image of “four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire” on ‘A Day In The Life’.
Something of an ecological lament, ‘Chemical World’ rails at the grime and din of city life in a series of hard-hitting images. In its two verses we meet a check-out girl nearing the end of her tether, a seedy voyeur, and the woman across the road upon whom he spies. The writing is tense, fast and coloured with disillusion (“these townies, they never speak to you”). Blur’s October tour of Britain was titled the Sugary Tea tour, after a line in the second verse.
Andy Ross, Dave Balfe’s phlegmatic lieutenant at Food, felt that SBK had been more than appeased. ‘For Tomorrow’ and ‘Chemical World’ were, he now says, “a knight in shining armour and the 7th Cavalry, respectively”. Historians would point out that, while undeniably valorous, the 7th Cavalry (under the leadership of the quixotic General Custer) were almost entirely wiped out by the Sioux and the Cheyenne in 1876 at the battle of the Little Bighorn. Even with ‘Chemical World’, Blur had not won the war. In Britain it charted at a disappointing 28.
In America, an extraordinary about-turn occurred at SBK. Now believing Blur’s original demo to be superior to Street’s recording, SBK placed the demo on US copies of ‘Modern Life is Rubbish’, defeating the object of recording a heavy rock song in the first place. In England a further recording was made – with ex-Madness producers Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley – which stuck true to the band’s demo. This was released on one of the CD formats of the ‘Chemical World’ single.
With profound incredulity, the band talk of SBK urging them to have ‘Modern Life is Rubbish’ re-recorded with Butch Vig. However the fabled album was now deemed complete – it had taken 15 months – and it was released on May 10, 1993. A deserved critical success, it charted at number 15 and remains an exciting (and at times superlative) album.
55. ‘Young And Lovely’ (B-side of ‘Chemical World’, first of two-part CD. Produced by Stephen Street.)
One of the great mysteries of Blur’s career is why this wonderful song failed to make it on to ‘Modern Life’. Recorded at Maison Rouge in the same session as ‘Chemical World’ (see 54), ‘Young and Lovely’ has much to recommend it: the lovely chord modulations of the verse (G to F to A to A flat minor to F sharp minor and finally back to G), Damon’s bravura vocal performance and, best of all, Graham’s guitar playing which centers around a fixed pattern of ‘hammer-ons’ (hitting a note and quickly placing the finger on a higher fret to produce a rolling, folky twang). It peaks on the circular solo at 2.24.
The main influences here seem to be Nick Drake and Scott Walker, in whose music Graham was soaking himself during nights of drinking. In a late-night conversation with Justine and Damon, Graham chose his guitar playing on ‘Young and Lovely’ as the most poignant music he has recorded. And at Dave Rowntree’s wedding, St Etienne’s Bob Stanley asked Blur why ‘Young and Lovely’ was not on the LP. There seems no satisfactory answer. Food wanted it on, but felt there were greater battles worth fighting. If Food were keen, it’s possible that the band excluded it out of sheery bloody-mindedness. With hindsight, Damon agrees: “It should have been on the LP. But it didn’t get on there and fucking ‘Turn It Up’ did.”
56. ‘Substitute’ (on ‘Who Covers Who’, 1993. Produced by Blur.)
Recorded live at Matrix in February ’93, ‘Substitute’ is a 1966 hit by The Who which Blur were asked to cover for the tribute album ‘Who Covers Who’. Alas, the band were especially hungover the day in question and spent much of their time arguing. Graham declined to teach the song to Alex. The ensuing performance is incriminatingly reckless. Entering hot-headedly at 0.06, Dave accelerates the song by about 150 per cent – Graham tries to slow it back down again at 1.59, to no avail – and Damon fluffs several of Pete Townshend’s lyrics, including some world-famous ones. To cap the débâcle, CM Discs contrived to omit Graham’s first guitar chord from the song’s introduction. Damon calls ‘Substitute’ Blur’s worst ever performance on record, and refuses to have a copy of the album in his house.
57. ‘Oliver’s Army’ (On ‘Peace Together’ LP, released 1993. Produced by Blur and John Smith.)
Island Records’ ‘Peace Together’ album of 1993 brought together Therapy?, Lou Reed and Carter USM performing cover versions to promote peace in Northern Ireland. Blur were given a list of possible tracks to contribute; the only one all fancied was Elvis Castello’s 1979 hit ‘Oliver’s Army’. Their version, frankly, has little to recommend it. Damon’s singing voice is the polar opposite of Castello’s cod-American drawl and the result is unconvincing. The lacklustre performance is, Andy Ross believes, due to several demoralising American trips. “What’s the point in trying to improve on something you already like?” asks Alex. “Plus you only get half the money.” “It’s a disaster,” concludes Damon. “One of the worst things we’ve done.”
58. ‘Es Schmecht’ (B-side of ‘Chemical World’ 12-inch and one of two-part CD. Produced by Blur.)
‘Es Schmecht’ is a slight misspelling of “es schmeckt”, a German expression meaning “it tastes good”. This experimental but rewarding B-side, with its staccato guitar chops and keyboard-derived saxophone blurts, was written by Damon in May ’93 on a trip to Germany with Alex to promote ‘Modern Life is Rubbish’. It was recorded at Ritz Rehearsal Studios in Putney later the same month on an eight-track recorder Damon had purchased from Andy Partridge (see 44). The engineer was Dave Rowntree.
Damon: “It’s the most lo-tech thing we’ve ever done, but I liked it. It’s a strange, Can-influenced piece.” Alex’s bass-plying, in particular, tries to emulate Can’s magnificent bassist, Holger Czukay.
59 & 60. ‘Daisy Bell’ & ‘Let’s All Go Down The Strand’ (Both B-sides of ‘Sunday Sunday’ limited CD ‘The Sunday Sunday Popular Community Song CD’, released 4/10/93. Produced by Blur.)
By now Blur were bent on forging a new identity based on a loathing of ways ‘slacker’ and ‘grunge’ – which exalted slovenliness in dress and outlook – were infecting British music. Damon had become enchanted by music hall, and all of Blur were keen on championing British cultural idioms. The summer of ’93 was also the height of ‘format madness’, which saw labels desperate to find music to fill double-pack CDs. Andy Ross says: “It was like the nuclear arms race. You didn’t like it, but you were not going to stop while everyone else was doing it.”
When it came to ‘Sunday Sunday’, it was decided to try these old standards for the ‘limited edition’ CD double-pack B-sides. They were recorded one Sunday at Maison Rouge, and among the motley throng of singers in the studio was Justine Frischmann. A third song, ‘For Old Times Sake’, was recorded, but Damon came in early one day to wipe it from the tape. Musically lightweight, these are interesting insights into the band’s psyche of mid-1993.
61. ‘Parklife’ (Single, released 22/8/94. Also on ‘Parklife’, released 25/4/94. Produced by Stephen Street.)
Since the final recordings for ‘Modern Life’, Damon had written prolifically and Blur began to demo new songs in groups of two and three. On August 11, ’93 – five months after ‘Chemical World’ (see 54) was wrapped up – Blur and Stephen Street met at Maison Rouge to begin the next album.
‘Parklife’ had been demoed in May with ‘Es Schmecht’ (see 58) and aired on a Mark Goodier session in July. Street, sensing a hit, tried to make the song as tight as possible. Programmed drums were preferred (Dave bashed out some live drums over the backing track to give a pleasingly vulgar effect). To simulate the sound of smashing glass at 0.05, Dave smashed some plates. The sounds of children and barking dogs (0.01-0.15) were sampled.
Graham’s now-famous opening guitar chord in as E shape raised to the 13th fret – for added tension and pitch – and it chimes out like an urchin bell over the song’s daringly cluttered first 15 seconds. The bassline (written by Damon) uses an interval of an augmented fifth – in which the standard interval of a fifth is increased by one semitone – sometimes known as the Devil’s Interval. In devoutly Christian parts of Europe in the Middle Ages, certain chords were made illegal by the Church for their unorthodox (and by association, “demonic”) sound. The cocky, swinging backing track was embellished by Graham playing sax (which he’d studied at Stanway Comp – see 51) for the first time on a Blur record.
Damon attempted the part of the Cockney narrator, but worried that his voice sounded forced and inauthentic: “I create these characters but I can’t really be them. It’s too difficult.” In the meantime, he contacted the actor Phil Daniels (Quadrophenia, Meantime) – a boyhood idol of his and Graham’s – with a view to narrating a waltz Damon had written, ‘The Debt Collector’. Having assured Daniels that lyrics existed, Damon was unable to write a word. “Then I thought, Fuck it, he could do ‘Parklife’,” says Damon. “It was that random.”
Daniels arrived at Maison Rouge looking nothing like Blur expected. In place of the sharp Mod look of Quadrophenia, there was a beard and long, straggly hair. Daniels was appearing as the vagabond, Jigger, in the musical Carousel, at London’s Shaftesbury Theatre. (He continued in Carousel for some months. When he performed ‘Parklife’ at Blur’s two nights at Shepherd’s Bush Empire the following May, he had to be transported across London by motorbike courier.) However, his speaking voice was perfect. In only three takes, he had given life to Damon’s cynical, voluable aficionado of sparkling London. By the purest of accidents – Damon’s failure to write lyrics for ‘The Debt Collector’ – Blur had a classic in the can.
62. ‘Jubilee’ (On ‘Parklife’. Produced by Stephen Street.)
The protagonist of ‘Jubilee’ is a teenager born in the epochal Jubilee year of 1977, hence the references to “17”, his age at the time of ‘Parklife’. While the tune has a bowie-ish swagger – and the saxophones show a Mott the Hoople influence – the lyrics are downbeat. Hardly surprising, since they concern the practice of sniffing butane from plastic bags. (Damon had been shocked to find that teenagers of his acquaintance were ‘sniffers’). There are some fine turns of phrase, the best being the sneering “rubbish” at 0.21. The sound of a computer game (entrance at 1.46) is, in fact, a hand-held toy designed to relieve traffic-trapped motorists of stress. The song is essentially that which was demoed at Matrix in July 1993 with the appealingly fruity saxes added later. Jubilee is now 18, of course. Damon intends to write about him again.
63. ‘Badhead’ (On ‘Parklife’. Produced by Stephen Street.)
In its understated way, ‘Badhead’ is a minor triumph. It is full of musical treats like the modal horn arrangement at the start (which reappears in the background on each chorus) and the baroque organ twirl, which occurs at 0.28 and then at intervals throughout. Although Blur make extensive use of the Vintage Keys keyboard module (a collection of obsolete keyboard samples), the Mellotron in the instrumental bridge is a real one. “It’s good for a hangover,” Graham says of ‘Badhead’, “like Nick Drake is good for a hangover. There’s nothing abrasive about it.” “Nice tune,” concurs Alex.
64. ‘Clover Over Dover’ (On ‘Parklife’. Produced by Stephen Street.)
Beginning with a chorus of seagulls sampled from Stephen Street’s copy of an old BBC ‘Sound Effects’ LP (see 71, 84), ‘Clover’ is a superb arrangement bolstering an ineffectual song. The band originally essayed it as a ska tune but, as Alex’s recalls, “it came out sounding like Nirvana meets Doctor Drugs”. But the harpsichord (played by Damon) is an inspired touch, and the guitar arpeggios recall Johnny Marr. The despairing empty lyrics may have some basis in the surreal White Cliffs of Dover conclusion to Quadrophenia. But the song’s suicidal theme is out of character for the ultra-confident Damon. Owing to its studio-bound sophistication, ‘Clover’ has never been performed live.
65. ‘Girls And Boys’ (Single, released 7/3/94. Also on ‘Parklife’. Produced by Stephen Street.)
If ‘Popscene’ was Blur’s transitional single and ‘For Tomorrow’ the record that ushered in a new and productive era, ‘Girls And Boys’ was the song that inspired the whole country to buy Blur records: career rejuvenation at a stroke. And they did it with a disco song.
In recent years, commercial dance music has rooted itself in two speeds: a loping 100bpm (hip hip, Happy Mondays) or a frantic 130bpm (house). ‘Girls And Boys’ was pitched intentionally at the long forgotten 120bpm (Chic, disco, New Romantic pop). Almost all of the drum track is mechanical, with a few cymbal overdubs (“It was sitting-down-with-a-book day for me,” recalls Dave.) The bassline – of bubbling octave leaps – is pure Duran Duran and the lyric is nicely ambiguous: is Damon contemptuous of the holiday “herd”, or is he celebrating their hedonism and joie de vivre? So great was Blur’s enthusiasm for ‘Girls And Boys’ that it was mixed immediately after its recording – which is rare – and it became a gift-wrapped, talismanic inspiration for the rest of ‘Parklife’. Street had forewarned Andy Ross that ‘Girls And Boys’ was a sure thing, and Ross agreed when he heard it. “It’s a blatantly contrived hit, a sales pitch for the whole album,” Ross admits. “And it was ironic that Balfe was now leaving the Food camp, because this was exactly the kind of record that he wanted them to make.” ‘Girls And Boys’ was (and still is) Blur’s biggest hit. Early fans of the tune included the Pet Shop Boys who undertook, at their own instigation, a remix without charge. Alex has his doubts about remixes. “It’s like giving your dog to someone to take for a walk,” he says, “and when they bring it back it’s a different dog.”
66. ‘Bank Holiday’ (On ‘Parklife’. Produced by Stephen Street.)
This was a high-speed punk conga that had been around for a couple of months. Graham: “The first time we recorded it was a Radio One session for Mark Goodier (July 3, 1993 – see61). We hadn’t really written it properly.” Street was dazzled by Graham’s agile foot-pedal work – every time there is an accent in the tempo (about every 1.1 seconds) Graham stepped on a vibrato pedal, without once mistiming the beat. So breakneck was the pace that Damon needed to overlap two separate vocals to accommodate all the words. While no case could ever be argued for ‘Bank Holiday’ as anything other that filler, it is of some comedie appeal and is almost always played in the band’s live show.
67. ‘Theme From An Imaginary Film’ (B-side of ‘Parklife CD and cassette. Produced by Stephen Street.)
In the summer of 1993, playwright and actor Steven Berkoff had his producer approach Blur to write a new song for Decadence, a film he was making of his successful West End play of the 1980s. An early edit of the film (starring Berkoff and Joan Collins) was given to Damon. He came up with an instrumental, a brisk waltz (actually it’s almost in 6/8 time) with a lavish arrangement for strings, piano and harpsichord that was unlike anything Blur had attempted: lush and musically grandiose. Berkoff liked the music, but wanted words and singing.
With lyrics and excellent vocal from Damon, the song (at this point called ‘Decadence’) was recorded by Street in a separate four-day session to ‘Parklife’, in October 1993 – just prior to embarking on a Japanese tour (see 66) – at Matrix’s sister studio, Matrix 2, in Fulham, Berkoff rejected the vocal version immediately. It is perhaps easy to see why. Damon’s lyric of tarnished romance is highly proper (“What if I flew like a dove, dear/What if I wooed you in rhyme?”) and its strength is its airy poesy. Two mentions of the word “arse” serve to perplex; on first listen it sounds like a couched dig at Brett Anderson. Decadence, a film about the unspeakable behaviour of the upper classes, clearly required music of a harsher stripe.
68. ‘Trouble In The Message Centre’ (On ‘Parklife’. Produced by Stephen Street.)
As the ‘Parklife’ CD booklet reveals, the lyric to ‘Trouble’ was written by Damon shortly after checking out of the Wellington Hotel, New York on December 7, 1993. The early ‘Parklife’ sessions had been wrapped up in September, as Blur began three months of touring in Britain, America and Japan. They were to reconvene in December.
Damon’s lyric comprises phrases lifted from the touch buttons on the telephone in the hotel he had just vacated: “message centre”, “local and direct”, “room to room”. The next line “strike him softly away from the body” was written on a book of matches next to the phone. The use in the CD booklet of Damon’s original hotel room receipt proved irritating for video director Kevin Godley: his phone number was one of those itemized – the band were in discussion with him over the ‘Girls And Boys’ video – and he was bombarded with nuisance calls until he changed his number.
Stephen Street in not very fond of this track; he thought that the verses “lacked melody”. However, it is necessary, here, to disagree with the great man. ‘Trouble In The Message Centre’ is compelling, dark and saturnine – aggressive yet cerebral – in a manner that clearly apes the work of late ‘70s/early ‘80s Mancunian avant-garde pop band Magazine.
The song has an irresistibly modern thrust, culminating in Graham’s excellent, deceptively simple solo (a stunted arpeggio dropping one whole tone) at 2.09. The favored “la la”-ing tactic makes an appearance immediately afterwards. Somewhat deflatingly, Andy Ross finds the song “a bit tinpot”.
69. ‘Tracy Jacks’ (On ‘Parklife’. Produced by Stephen Street.)
This song has become accepted as being about a civil servant who is a transvestite. But at no point is cross-dressing mentioned. There is, however, a pencil sketch by Graham) next to the lyric of ‘Tracy Jacks’ in the ‘Parklife’ CD booklet, showing a balding man in a floral dress preparing to hit a golf ball. Perhaps this sketch is the culprit.
‘Tracy Jacks’ came to Damon when he was trying to write a ‘name’ song like ‘Davis Watts’ by The Kinks (later covered by The Jam). The first lines he thought of were “he’s a golfing fanatic, but his putt is erratic”. Soon he arrived at the ambiguous name of Tracy Jacks (he spelt it ‘Tracey Jacks’ at the time). For the second verse, in which Jacks runs naked along the beach at Walton On The Naze on the Essex coast, Damon took inspiration from the opening credits of the ‘70s BBC comedy series The Fall And Rise Of Reginald Perrin, in which a bored businessman fakes his own death by leaving his clothes on a beach.
“They fascinate me, all those dead seaside towns on the East coast,” Damon explains. “Walton On The Naze. Frinton (On Sea). They have one guest-house and it’s boarded up. It’s a couple of council estates, a few old houses and the bleak, bleak North Sea. They’re half-places.”
Street adored Graham’s vocal harmonies on ‘Tracy Jacks’ and presumed it would be released as a single. Better still was Alex’s bassline, which everyone agrees is one of his finest. But ‘Tracy Jacks’ is not so much a great song as a compendium of magical, evanescent moments. The watery, ripping keyboard introduction is one, as is the bright guitar chord that follows. The military drumbeats on the “everyday he got closer” sections are ingenious, as is the formal string arrangement at 2.17 (“and then it happened…”) The master-stroke is Graham’s seagull guitar sound (2.29 onwards) expertly manipulating echo and feedback. Even at the fade of this terrific studio-derived track, unusual events are afoot. At 3.50 the Duke String Quartet sound as if they are beginning a different song.
70. ‘London Loves’ (On ‘Parklife’. Produced by Stephen Street.)
On tour in America in late 1993, Damon had bought a second-hand portable sequencer – a Yamaha QY 10 – for $100 in San Francisco. That night, at the city’s Phoenix Hotel, he roped a terribly hungover Dave Rowntree to teach him how to program it. The process took some time. “It’s a little machine with a keyboard, a drum machine, a sampler…” Dave remembers. “I think it’s even got a groupie in there.” With Dave gone, Damon tapped in the fidgety rhythm (based on the early ‘80s beats of the Talking Heads offshoot Tom Tom Club) that begin ‘London Loves’.
For the lyrics, Damon was drawn towards the repellent character of Keith Talent in Martin Amis’ 1989 novel London Fields. Although the anti-heroes of ‘London Loves’ and London Fieldsagree to disagree on affairs of transport (the oafish protagonist of ‘London Loves’ drives a Japanese car; Talent favors a Cavalier), there are, nonetheless, moments of unalloyed symbiosis. One of these is the line “shoots like an arrow”. Keith Talent was a budding darts champion. In darts parlance, the darts are known as “arrows”. For a while, the working title for ‘Parklife’ was ‘Magic Arrows’. Say what you like about Damon Albarn, he knows his darts.
Meanwhile, in Graham-land, things were hotting up. Urged by Street to come up with something nasty for ‘London Loves’, Graham based his starting solo (at 1.44) on the guitar break in Davis Bowie’s 1980 hit single ‘Fashion’ (played by Robert Fripp). Indeed, ‘London Loves’ had a working title of ‘Fripp’. The traffic report (3.16) was taped by Damon off GLR on the morning the song was mixed.
71. ‘Anniversary Waltz’ (B-side of ‘Girls And Boys’, first of two-part CD. Produced by Stephen Street.)
This was interesting for only two reasons. Firstly, Damon was by now (January 1994) talking of including two waltzes on ‘Parklife’, the other being ‘The Debt Collector’ (see 73). ‘Anniversary Waltz’ had originally been recorded as a jingle for Simon Mayo’s radio show, later being played in its full-length version (1.21) on a Mark Goodier session in July 1993 (see61), at which time it was lugubriously entitled ‘Why Is The Time Signature of ¾ Obsolete In The Late 20th Century?’ Ultimately, one waltz was felt to be adequate for ‘Parklife’. The other point of note is the sound of geese (see 84) at 1.13. This was sampled from Stephen Street’s copy of BBC LP ‘Sound Effects’ – the same album that yielded the cow noises on the title track of The Smiths’ ‘Meat Is Murder’, which Street also produced.
“Justine doesn’t like my waltzes,” says Damon. “She says they remind her of my Aryan side.”
72. ‘Magpie’ (B-side of ‘Girls And Boys’, 7-inch and CD. Produced by Stephen Street.)
A fascinating curio, ‘Magpie’ was recorded without a proper vocal in December 1992, as a possible candidate for ‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’. Blur recall Dave Balfe being downcast when he heard it. “He said the rhythms stop and start,” Alex says. “And that was too confusing for Americans, apparently.” Reactivated for the ‘Parklife’ sessions, ‘Magpie’ still foxed Damon in the lyric-writing department, so he simply sang a William Blake poem – written in 1794 – called ‘The Poison Tree’ (“I was angry with my friend/I told my wrath/My wrath did end) from Songs Of Innocence And Experience. Graham, who is superbly inventive on guitar throughout, felt the verses of ‘Magpie’ harked back to the days of baggy.
The verses are not too relevant. It is ‘Magpie’s joyous chorus that sets it apart. Simple enough as a lyric (“and sometimes I see magpie”), it boasts a spreading fan of harmonies on the “I” that is quite delicious.
73. ‘The Debt Collector’ (On ‘Parklife’. Produced by Stephen Street.)
This slightly sinister instrumental (see 61) – redolent of some Theatre Of The Absurd staging of Steptoe And Son – was recorded live, with the Kick Horns, at Maison Rouge. The take used was the fourth. “I think we may have had to drop one bass note in later,” says Alex. Graham wanted the live ambience of a Tom Waits track, hence his audible foot-tapping and stamping on a tambourine, busker-style. His opening count-in of “one Mississippi, two Mississippi” is designed to set up the waltz time of the song (a favourite tempo of the group – see 67, 71, 84).
74. ‘Lot 105’ (On ‘Parklife’. Produced by Stephen Street.)
Feeling that ‘This Is A Low’ might be a heavy way to end an album, Blur let 12 seconds elapse on ‘Parklife’ before ‘Lot 105’ – the musical equivalent, says Graham, “of Barbara Windsor coming along to take you up the arse”. The melody to ‘Lot 105’ is one of the many Blur play at soundchecks (see 83, 85). The ‘Lot 105’ of the title is the Hammond organ featured on the song – acquired by Damon at an auction for £150. The band were enamoured not just of the tune, but also of the pleasantly cheesy, in-built samba rhythm that opens the track. ‘Lot 105’ later began Blur’s shows on the ‘Parklife’ tour. The bellowed lyric at the tune’s climax is – at Graham’s suggestion – “18 times a week, girl, ha ha ha ha ha”.
75. ‘Peter Panic’ (B-side of ‘Girls And Boys’, second of two-part CD. Produced by Stephen Street.)
Essentially a Euro-disco companion to ‘Girls And Boys’, ‘People In Europe’ consists of random foreign phrases brainstormed by the whole band. Graham suggests that the verses might have been inspired by Peter Hammill of Van Der Graaf Generator, whose harsh, grating music Graham considers partly to blame for his getting ulcers in his late teens. ‘People In Europe’ was never a possibility for ‘Parklife’.
76. ‘People In Europe’ (B-side of ‘Girls And Boys’. Produced by Stephen Street.)
Essentially a euro-disco companion to `Girls And Boys`, this song consists of random foreign phrases brainstormed by the whole band. Graham suggests that the verses might have been inspired by Peter Hamill of Van Der Graff Generator, whose harsh, grating music Graham considers partly to blame for his ulcers in his late teens. `People In Europe` was never a possibility for `Parklife`.
77. ‘To The End’ (Single, released 31/5/94. Also on ‘Parklife’. Produced by Stephen Hague, John Smith and Blur.)
By now it was clear that Blur were a consummate pop group. They could swagger. They could cajole. They could make the listener laugh, tap a toe, even take a surrogate drug trip. ‘To The End’ revealed another facet of their burgeoning talent: they could, almost effortlessly, break your heart. If ‘This Is A Low’ (see 80) is ‘Parklife’s masterpiece, ‘To The End’ runs it desperately close. When the band first heard Damon play it on the piano, all were convinced of its brilliance. A demo was recorded at Matrix, with Justine Frischmann singing the French parts.
To create a soaring, epic feel, Stephen Hague (Pet Shop Boys, New Order) was used rather than Street. ‘To The End’ was recorded at RAK Studios on a three-day sabbatical from Maison Rouge. In truth, the band’s demo was so good that Hague kept most of it, including 95 per cent of Damon’s vocal. The string section is not the trusty Dukes, but Audrey Riley’s string section (This Mortal Coil, Marc Almond). The drums are looped, the vibraphone is very real and the song’s meandering ambience may be down to the unexpected long bar line (five bars of 4/4). Hague plays the accordion, although it is barely audible in the finished mix. For the whispered “jusqu’à la fin” bits, various chanteuses were mooted, including Charlotte Gainsbourg – daughter of Serge – and Françoise Hardy (with whom a version was later recorded at Abbey Road and released as a French-only single) before the band plumped for Laetitia Sadler of Stereolab.
Musically exceptional, ‘To The End’ also boasts one of the best performances – and lyrics – from Damon who recorded the vocal while stoned; one would never know. For the lyric, he sheds his usual devices of narrative and character study and opts for a human reflection on a relationship. But there is still a crucial ambiguity: is ‘the end’ the termination of an affair? Or is it the long-awaited end of some period of trial and difficulty? Or something else? It’s hard to say. The mood is achingly romantic yet infinitely sad. “Dirty words”, “collapsing in love”, “drinking far too much” and “neither of us mean what we say” are mesmerizing inversions of the standard love song sentiments, incontrovertibly brilliant, ‘To The End’ will outlive most pop songs written this decade. When Alex heard the finished mix he cried – a response with which many fans will sympathize.
78. ‘Magic America’ (On ‘Parklife’. Produced by Stephen Street.)
Blur could still get very caustic on the subject of America (see 32, 42). “That’s all part of Blur,” says Graham. “Theme park is death. Mall is death.” Many times during the making of ‘Parklife’, the conversation touched on the frightful American tour of 1992. The theme of ‘Magic America’ was that of a myopic Barratt Home-owner (called Bill Barratt, for added impact) dreaming foolishly of supposed American glamour and glitz. Cruelly, Barratt is revealed not to have even been to America; ‘Magic America’ is the name of a TV porn channel in Milan, Italy and thus a symbol for fantasisers everywhere.
‘Magic America’ has an insane, burbling keyboard solo (at 2.02) from Damon, which Graham likens to the theme tune of the old BBC cartoon Roobarb. Other moments of note are the tweeting noises at 0.01, which Blur’s assistant Jason Cox (see 43) taped off the TV, and the mannered “mm-mmm” (1.54) in the mélange of intertwining vocals.
79. ‘End Of A Century’ (Single, released 7/11/94. Also on ‘Parklife’. Produced by Stephen Street.)
This excellent song, which Street saw as evidence of “Damon getting the art of songwriting really sorted” is, according to its author, about “how couples get into staying in and staring at each other. Only instead of candle-light, it’s the TV light.” The opening line refers to an infestation of ants that he and Justine suffered in their then-home in Kensington. Damon regards the song as being almost identical to his original demo. Graham replies ruefully: “If he wants to think that, I’ll let him.”
The highest vocal harmonies are by the versatile Graham. Street says of the guitarist’s backing vocals: “He does things sometimes that sound like a cat but then he adds another harmony and it’s pure Blur.” One of the song’s highlights is the brief, lyrical trombone solo (1.26) by Richard Edwards of the Kick Horns, which prefaces a brief return to the gentle chords of the intro. Street videoed Blur’s performance on his Handicam.
While much loved, ‘End Of A Century’ failed as a single, Andy Ross comments: “This was a single, ‘This Is A Low’ (see 80) wasn’t. Maybe it should have been the other way round.”
80. ‘This Is A Low’ (On ‘Parklife’. Produced by Stephen Street.)
A troublesome song to record, ‘This Is A Low’ is the highlight of Blur’s music so far, and as close to perfection as they have come. Behind its pallor, its mystique and its electricity, there lies, fittingly, a story of maps and legends. It began as life as “we are the low” – four words, nothing more – which may or may not have been about the taking of heroin. According to Alex, it was about “people taking smack”. Graham remembers thinking it a bit sinister: “I thought it was a gouched-out song.”
Mid-sessions for ‘Parklife’ – still with only four words to go on – Blur recorded the backing track in its entirety: Damon playing a warm, purring Hammond; a loop of Dave playing drums flipped over and played backwards – with Dave playing on top of that to give an effect of swish and oddness. In the emotional guitar solo section, Graham played three solos, including one of him sat in front of his amp, turned up to maximum volume. This song was clearly going to be an epic, a finale.
But Damon could not come up with a lyric, or even a melody for the verse. The others – and Street – kept on at him to write a lyric. The ‘Parklife’ sessions then broke up for Christmas. Over the holidays, Damon stayed in a cottage in Cornwall with his parents, playing the backing track of the song repeatedly on his Walkman as ha strolled around the Cornwall cliffs at night. Possibly he was now stating to make a connection in his mind between the word “low” and meteorology. However, he was no closer to finishing the lyric.
At Maison Rouge after Christmas, the plan was leave the vocal until the end of the sessions. Damon scuppered this idea by saying that, as he was unable to complete the lyric, the song could not go on the album. Both camps stood their ground. On February 4, 1994 – the penultimate day of official recording – Damon was due to go into hospital for a hernia operation. Street bullied him, telling him he had to come up with a lyric.
Damon came up with the lyric between midnight and 1 AM on the night before he entered the hospital. It was written from a Christmas present given to him by Alex – of a handkerchief showing a map of Britain and its shipping regions (from Stanfords Map & Travel Bookshop in Covent Garden). “We always found the shipping forecast soothing,” Alex explains. “We used to listen to it in America to remind us of home. It’s very good for a hangover. Good cure for insomnia, too.”
Damon began at one corner of the handkerchief – the Bay of Biscay – and worked his way around, quoting names as the mood struck him and the rhyme demanded. Damon: “I’d had this line – ‘And into the sea go pretty England and me’ – for a long time. So I started at the Bay of Biscay. Back for tea. ‘Tea’ rhymes with ‘me’. And then I went ‘Hit traffic on the Dogger Bank’. ‘Bank’ – ‘rank’ – so ‘up the Thames to find a taxi rank’. And I just went round.” Best of all, the chorus now made sense: a “low” as in a low front; or a low as in a mental depression. In rain-battered Britain, after all, mood and meteorology have always been inextricably linked. And by following up with the kindly line “but it won’t hurt you”, Damon is – even if he does not quite believe it – forecasting sunshine.
Instantly, ‘This Is A Low’ was back on the LP, with Damon as enthusiastic as the others. Street was thrilled by the lyric and also his vocal, which made good use of his whistling “s”s (eg “and the radio says”) which is a trait of his speaking voice. Graham sang the moving high notes on the chorus.
Damon has no recollection of this, but others recall him phoning Maison Rouge from his hospital bed, having just come round from his anesthetic and making lucid instructions about how he wanted the song mixed. It is some song that can do that – even to its writer. Even though ‘This Is A Low’ nearly never made it to ‘Parklife’, it is impossible to envisage an alternative climax. The song is five minutes and four seconds of bliss.
81. ‘Far Out’ (On ‘Parklife’. Produced by Stephen Street.)
Two weeks after ‘This Is A Low’ was completed, Blur ambled back into Matrix to see if something could be done about this song of Alex’s. ‘Far Out’ (the first tune to be credited to a single member of Blur) had been recorded the previous autumn at Maison Rouge in a longer, heavier, electric version. It sounded like Pink Floyd’s ‘Astronomy Dominé’ – Syd Barrett’s trippy list of planets and galaxies from 1967 – spaced-out chords on a keyboard and Dave playing congas. It was recorded and mixed in one day. It had no definite ending, so Street ended it on the bridge “sun, sun, sun”), echoed that and put an echo filter on Alex’s voice so it gets duller as it fades. The song is funny, charming and slightly batty – not unlike the man who wrote it.
82. ‘Threadneedle Street’ (B-side of ‘To The End’ CD and cassette. Produced by Blur.)
By spring ’94, Blur were back at Matrix recording a quantity of B-sides for the four singles that were to be culled from ‘Parklife’. The quality of these B-sides would deteriorate alarmingly; the band were already thinking of their next album, and unwilling to raid the demo pantry for B-sides. ‘Threadneedle Street’ is, on first listen, a desolate song that makes radical use of business terminology (“softs”, “futures” etc) to comment on the bleakness of life outside the City. However, the song can now be exposed as an idea knocked together in under half an hour, with Damon quoting liberally from a copy of the Financial Times.
83. ‘Supa Shoppa’ (B-side of ‘Parklife’ 12-inch, cassette and first of two-part CD. Produced by Blur and John Smith.)
Debuted live at Alexandra Palace in November ’94, this is the sound of a band who, in Damon’s words, “like to think we can do anything that anyone else can do”. In this case, it’s acid jazz and it is remarkably successful. Graham has a friend called Biffo who works in Our Price in Watford. Biffo reports goateed punters coming up to ask what this great tune is. The tune is a throwaway but does showcase Blur’s extraordinary versatility – “like watching the Italian team having a kickabout” as Andy Ross describes it. The Hammond organ is Lot 105 again. The flutes are synthesized. “You don’t fuck about with a real flautist on a B-side,” says Alex.
84. ‘Got Yer!’ (B-side of ‘To The End’, first of two-part CD. Produced by Blur.)
A creepy and obscure afterthought, ‘Got Yer!’ calls to mind John Entwistle’s notorious song for The Who, ‘Boris The Spider’. Damon, who does both the voices on ‘Got Yer!’, even revisits Entwistle’s throaty growl for his character of the old man who swats a fly and decides: “It’s the ooze of life.” Yet another Albarn waltz, ‘Got Yer!’ confounds slightly by veering into the awkward time signature of 5/3 halfway through. Of the sound effects, the fly is swatted and killed at 1.17, the geese are from Street’s BBC album (see 71) and the sound of gunfire is a Dave Rowntree snare drum sample, speeded up. Andy Ross, who could now afford to indulge Blur their wilful B-side fripperies, was thoroughly unimpressed by ‘Got Yer!’, as well he might be.
85. ‘Beard’ (B-side of ‘Parklife’ 12-inch and second of two-part CD. Produced by Blur and John Smith.)
The sniffiness of the clientele and staff at The Premises rehearsal studios in Hackney – a jazz place used by Blur in the early days – had inspired a favourite piece of rehearsal room silliness. “Total cod jazz,” says Alex. “Chromatic scales with notes dropped at random. It used to really annoy them (the staff).” Needing B-sides, the band decided to record it for a joke. A collection of gratuitous and wonky solos, it could only have been improved by the inclusion of canned applause after each effort. Sure enough, Blur did consider this. The title – Dave’s suggestion – refers to the grossly unfair theory that all jazz aficionados have beards. But as Graham puts it, “We could have called it ‘Pipe’. Or ‘Beret’.”
86. ‘Rednecks’ (B-side of ‘End Of A Century’ all formats. Produced by Blur.)
Graham had written lyrics for a Blur song on a previous occasion (see 1). Eighty-five songs later, he scripted this comedy C&W tune about American truck-drivers. The melody was played by Damon – who was under the influence of potent hashish – on a keyboard owned by Donna Matthews of Elastica. Alex, himself audibly intoxicated, provides oblique vocal interruptions while Graham – in a surprisingly realistic mimic of Johnny Cash – sings alternately droll and feeble verses about intolerant Yanks (“sure is damn good thumpage in that waitress’ ass”). The one member of Blur not involved was Dave, who was escorting his cat Chevy to the vet.
The original version lasted over 30 minutes. It was half-heartedly earmarked for broadcast on Radio One’s Evening Session, but sensibly forgotten about when everyone sobered up.
87. ‘Alex’s Song’ (B-side of ‘End Of A Century’ CD. Produced by Blur.)
Alex’s second songwriting venture was intended as a serious composition – “somewhere between Manhattan Transfer and Prince”. At some stage the plot altered. “They made me do it!” Alex contends. “There was some mucking about with an Eventide harmoniser (the device that sends Alex’s voice up two octaves) in a bored moment and making my voice go all Pinky and Perky. It’s not finished. It could have been far better. Balls I say. Bollocks to them.”
88-96. Blur have recorded nine songs – to various stages of completion – that’ve never been released. ‘I Love Her’ (Seymour-era, recorded at Diorama in Great Portland Street in 1991); ‘Close’ (produced by Stephen Street for the ‘Leisure’ sessions in 1991); ‘Seven Days’ (produced by Andy Partridge for the aborted ‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’ sessions – see 44);‘Death Of A Party’; ‘Singular Charm’; ‘Pleasant Education’; ‘Bleached Whale’; ‘Pap Pop’; and ‘One Born Every Minute’ (see 52). ‘Seven Days’ was recorded for a Mark Goodier Radio One session on April 11, 1992, engineered by Martin Colley and broadcasted on May 5, 1992.