They have been one of the most innovative and influential bands of the past 20 years. As Blur re-form for a series of concerts next month, Ally Carnwath, Miranda Sawyer and Imogen Carter speak to those who know them best about the hedonism of 90s Britpop, Damon Albarn’s panic attacks – and that battle with Oasis.
Damon Albarn and Graham Coxon’s music teacher at Stanway school, Colchester
I started teaching Damon in 1980 when he was 11 or 12 and Graham the year after.
Damon could be absolutely infuriating because he had lots of talent and he didn’t always focus it. He took A-level music but failed it. His compositions and performance were good, but most of the exam concentrated on musical analysis and it didn’t help that he didn’t even bring his scores into the exam.
Graham was a very different character, much more diffident. Damon had moved from London, so he was an outsider, and Graham wasn’t part of the Essex scene. But music was a really good place where people who were not part of the normal scene could find a refuge.
They’d formed their own group and they did a show at the school which I remember going to as a member of staff to make sure there was nothing riotous going on. Damon had real charisma. That was when he started being screamed at by the girls. Damon became more popular and Graham had his own cachet from being in school productions. We put on Orpheus in the Underworld. Damon was Zeus, which just about says it all. He was in a toga and chucking thunderbolts. Graham was a minor king or god in the underworld.
A&R man who first signed a publishing deal with Blur
I saw a show by Seymour [Blur’s previous name] at the Lady Owen Arms in Islington and a bunch of shows by Blur at the Bull and Gate in Kentish Town [in early 1990]. Watching Damon back then was like watching Iggy Pop; he would climb along the pipes on the ceiling and then slap down on to the crowd below him. The combination of the front three was incredible. It was immediately obvious that Graham was a great musician, Alex James just looked amazing, like he’d walked off the set of Brideshead Revisited and Damon, with this big shock of blond hair, looked like one of the children from The Village of the Damned; there was something intense and spooky and unreal about him. At that point, I’d been doing my job for three years, there were a couple of bands I’d been excited about but nothing that had hit me between the eyes like that.
Blur’s press officer from 1990 to 1999
The band did a tour in 1992 [following the release of Leisure] called Rollercoaster with Dinosaur Jr, Jesus and Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine. I remember going down to the Brighton Centre and looking for their dressing room after the show: in Dinosaur Jr’s, there was nobody; in the Mary Chain’s, there were three or four people sitting around with big hair; in My Bloody Valentine’s, there were a few whispers in the corner and then I opened the door to Blur’s and the noise was just incredible. There was loads of smoke, beers, millions of people milling around like a big party – that was the contrast, that summed them up, they were very accessible, full of energy.
Damon met Justine [Frischmann] when Suede, who she was playing with, supported Blur in Brighton. He rang me the following day and said: “Do you know this girl, Justine?” I managed to get her number. We would regularly go and see Suede. There was a burgeoning romance but it was tricky because Justine was still in Suede and she had been seeing Brett Anderson (Suede’s singer).
Music journalist and Blur’s biographer
They did an American tour [in mid-1992] and they were fighting and drinking. Every time I saw them, they had black eyes that they had given each other. They were always a volatile bunch, but they were having trouble with the new record and with David Balfe and Andy Ross [co-owners of the Food record label] who believed in them but felt they should be more poppy. Everyone else had given up on them but I remember getting an advance cassette of Modern Life Is Rubbish (1993). It was like a primer for British music distilled through this very individual sensibility. I remember thinking the tide had turned.
Beginnings of Britpop
Even when Modern Life Is Rubbish came out and wasn’t hugely successful, you got the sense of a band who were revitalised. They went straight back into the studio to record Parklife (1994) and it was like something special was happening. I was around Alex’s house when the 12-inch of “Girls and Boys” [Parklife’s first single] had just arrived. He put the speakers up at the windows and turned it up to the maximum volume so that everyone in Covent Garden could hear it. We were all dancing round his flat going: “This is it. This is blast-off time.”
Blur’s record producer
In the studio for Parklife everyone was focused, very driven, there wasn’t tons of drinking going on there. “Parklife”, the track, nearly didn’t make the album because everyone was a bit tired of it and we weren’t happy with the way Damon’s vocal was sounding. We’d had this idea to get Phil Daniels in to read a poem that Damon would write for The Debt Collector but after Damon couldn’t come up with anything, we thought we’d see if Phil could do the “Parklife” vocal. He was fantastic – after four or five takes, we had exactly what we needed and the track was salvaged.
Actor who provided the vocals on the single “Parklife”
I played football with Steve Sutherland, the editor of NME, and he mentioned to me that some young band wanted to do something with me. I said: “That sounds like a bit of fun” and I went off to some studio in Chelsea and met the boys. They were fans, Graham was mad about Meantime and Quadrophenia and kept on quoting bits. I think I did the track in about half an hour. I was directed a bit by Steve Street and Damon Albarn – bit slower, bit faster, those are the only things I respond to – and it was over in a jiffy. My dustman came up to me one day after it had been released and said: “We hope we didn’t wake you up this morning” [referring to the “I get rudely awakened by the dustman” lyric].
Lead singer of Sleeper who supported Blur on the Parklife tour
There were a lot of groupies. The tour manager would come to the front of the stage towards the end of the gig and select the prettiest girls and give them passes to come backstage. And there was a lot of drink and drugs. But as a counterpoint to all the rock’n’roll excess, they had a decidedly middle-class rider and the centrepoint was a giant platter of exotic fruits and foreign cheeses. One night, we sneaked into Blur’s dressing room and destroyed their cheese plate. The band were furious, ignoring us for days afterwards, and it was the closest we came to being kicked off the ticket. It seemed you could get away with almost any level of drunken and boorish behaviour on tour, but heaven help you if you messed with their cheese plate.
Blur v Oasis
I went out with Damon and Alex to the Mars Bar in Soho while we were making The Great Escape (1995). Oasis were there celebrating the success of one of their singles getting to number one. Liam Gallagher came right up to Damon’s face, being very arrogant and lairy, with his finger up saying “fucking number one”. I remember Damon looking at him saying: “Yeah Liam, whatever” but I could see him thinking: “Right, we’ll see.”
Editor of NME 1992-2000
Our news editor discovered that Blur and Oasis were going to put a single out on the same day in August 1995 (“Country House” and “Roll With It”). There was already antagonism. At the end of one of the NME Brat Awards, Liam had walked up to Damon and started poking him and pushing him and saying: “I think you’re a bunch of cunts, I hate your band.” Then Noel started on about how he wished they’d die. These singles went head to head so we put “British Heavyweight Championship – Blur vs Oasis” on the cover and suddenly we were on News at Ten. Damon is a very competitive man and at the time I felt they were very confident they were going to win.
Co-owner of Food and inspiration for the track “Country House”
I sold Food just after Girls and Boys came out, even though [Food co-owner Andy Ross] told me that Parklife was going to be massive. We’d had grunge for a few years and it was really depressing and I thought: “Fuck this, I want to go and do something else.” Later on, I popped into the office and on Andy’s desk there was a cassette labelled “‘Country House’, Blur”. So I said: “Is this about me?” I could tell from Andy’s face that it was. Though the song is obviously not full of praise, it’s still incredibly flattering. It’s like getting my portrait in the National Portrait Gallery; you’re not there because of your own fame, but because of the painter’s. I’ve never discussed it with Damon, it would be too uncool. But the lines “Professional cynic but my heart’s not in it, I’m paying the price of living life to the limit”, they ring very true.
The Britpop hangover
There was a party at Soho House to celebrate “Country House” going to number one but Graham wasn’t very happy that night. The pressure and the media thing didn’t sit happily on his shoulders. By this stage, they had made that video for “Country House”. I knew Graham was unhappy with the direction that took and I agreed when I saw it, it cheapened the whole thing. Graham was being quite awkward at that time; he was quite difficult to get close to unless you were prepared to go out drinking with him in Camden.
Damon started to have panic attacks; there was something about the whole pop star thing that was getting to him at a level he didn’t understand. They were a hugely successful pop band but internally there were stresses about what kind of band they wanted to be. And Damon and Justine being thought of the Posh and Becks of Britpop didn’t sit very easily with him. It’s well documented that there was serious drug use in Elastica (Justine’s band) at the time and it added up to the end of Britpop not being a very healthy place to be. The fag-end of hippy was Altamont, the fag-end of Britpop was too much drink, too many drugs, too much of a narcissistic lifestyle.
As well as doing their press, I was a confidante for the band, certainly through the Tony Blair Cool Britannia period. Blair was schmoozing artists to come and hang out with him which culminated in an event at Downing Street when he got into government. I discussed it with the band and Damon said: “Yeah right, I’m not going.” My point was: “It all sounds exciting but they’re in government now, they’re establishment and you’re not really a very establishment sort of band.” Damon’s pleased now he didn’t go, otherwise he’d be ad nauseam on TV walking through that door.
When we were recording Blur [in 1996], I think Damon began to realise that Graham wasn’t happy and perhaps it was time to let him have a bit more say. Graham at that time was saying he didn’t want to be in the studio with the band. He hated Alex’s mates [Keith Allen, Damien Hirst and others at the Groucho Club] and the West End scene. I had the impression from Damon that the band wanted a bit of a change.
I think he’d grown a bit and was prepared to start writing about his own experiences rather than transposing them on to a character like Tracy Jacks or Dan Abnormal. In the studio, once we got past those first few days, where I felt everyone was treading on eggshells, there was a great atmosphere. I think it was because they didn’t want to be competing with anyone on this record, they wanted to make a record that would help keep the band together.
What Blur did was retreat to an art-rock place and as they fractured over Graham’s discomfort with being famous, they allowed Graham to have his way on 13 (1999) which doesn’t really sound like Blur, but it allowed them an escape route. I was annoyed that they were turning their back on what I thought was their destiny to be Britain’s biggest band. It felt like cowardice to me that they were taking a swerve back into the gutter and not facing full-on the opportunity to do what the Beatles did, which was to take the population with them.
When it came to the recording of Think Tank [starting in 2001], the band weren’t estranged, but they weren’t living in and out of each other’s pockets as they had been. It felt like they had scattered to the four corners of London. There were a lot of internal issues. Graham [who contributes to only one track on the album] wasn’t particularly healthy; he absolutely needed to spend some time with himself to get himself back into shape and the band were impatient to start recording. None of them was living a particularly healthy lifestyle and Graham was eating the least amount of vegetables of the lot.
After Think Tank, it was widely assumed that Blur had split up. Damon Albarn, who had launched the animated band Gorillaz with Jamie Hewlett, released a second Gorillaz album in 2005 and wrote the Monkey: Journey To the West opera which had its premiere in 2007. Graham Coxon continued with his solo career, releasing a further three albums. Alex James moved to a farm in the Cotswolds and found work as a newspaper columnist and broadcaster. Dave Rowntree started studying to be a barrister in 2006. A longstanding Labour party member, he was selected in 2008 to fight the seat of Cities of London and Westminster at the next general election.
I was just reading a piece that they did in about 1992-93 and it said Damon and Graham would be friends forever. I thought at some point once they’d achieved what they wanted to achieve they’d go back to being best of friends.
I’ve been quietly chipping away at Damon and Graham for the past two to three years to get off their high horses and talk to each other. Every now and then, I’d be with Damon and say: “Have you spoken to Graham recently?” and the same with Graham. I would put a little thought in their mind: “Wouldn’t it be nice if you spoke?” Initially, neither of them was interested, but I knew that once they got the chance to be in a room together and talk they would find it impossible not to work together again.
The Blur I knew
When I first started writing about music, in late 1988, for Smash Hits, we were based in Carnaby Street and Food Records was around the corner. When the team first met Blur at the pub, we loved them. They looked like a proper pop group, with proper pop group fringes; they were funny, clever and really good at drinking. Alex and Dave were the easiest to get on with. Graham could be touchy when drunk and Damon was complicated. He got nicer as he got more famous; it was as if he relaxed.
The most important and the trickiest relationship in the group is between Damon and Graham. Damon is bossy and communicative; Graham is sensitive and can find it hard to find the right words. He once told me that he expressed his sorrow at Damon’s upset over Justine through his guitar playing, rather than by talking to him.
When I first met them, Graham was mates with Jamie Hewlett (who would go on to form Gorillaz with Damon) and Alan Martin, who created Tank Girl. But later, when Jamie hooked up with Graham’s ex, Jane Olliver (Justine Frischmann’s best mate), that friendship fell apart. Damon hated Jamie because of it, so it was strange when they became friends. The flat that Damon and Jamie shared, in west London, in the mid 1990s must have had every eligible young Brit-poppette and model going through it. Damon and Justine had split up, as had Jamie and Jane, so neither of them was happy, though they were having a lot of fun. It was hedonism as therapy.
I’ve always liked every member of Blur. They know how to get on with women – they’ve all got a sister apiece – and they’re all good company. They have outside interests; they’ll talk about art or science or politics, as well as music. Also I admire their work ethic; even when Blur seemed to fall apart, none of them stopped creating.
- 1988 Form as Seymour at Goldsmiths College where three band members are studying.
- 1990 Sign to Food Records having changed their name to Blur. Their debut, Leisure, comes out in 1991.
- 1994 Their third album, Parklife, is brought out to widespread acclaim.
- 1995 Achieve their first number one single with “Country House” – which beats Oasis’ “Roll With It” to the top spot in the Battle of Britpop – and release The Great Escape in September.
- 1997 Blur, a much less commercial record, is released.
- 2001 Recording for Blur’s seventh album, Think Tank, begins but, amid talk of serious musical differences, Coxon contributes to only one track.
- 2008 Albarn and Coxon announce that the band will reunite for a series of shows.