Damon Albarn, Justine Frischmann and Brett Anderson: Love and Poison.
By John Harris
Britpop was the most exciting era in UK music for decades; and at the heart of it was a vicious rivalry between Suede’s Brett Anderson and Blur’s Damon Albarn. Lighting the fire was Justine Frischmann, lover of both and founder of Elastica. John Harris untangles the backstabbing, the drugs, the disorienting success locking them together in an indie soap opera
An indie soap opera: Justine Frischmann, Damon Albarn and Brett Anderson
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The first words Brett Anderson spoke to Justine Frischmann were hardly the stuff of romance. “What’s wrong with your mouth?” he asked, thinking she had a speech impediment.
The pair met at University College London, in 1988; they were both 21. “I wasn’t sure if he was a girl or a boy,” says Frischmann. “He had a bob haircut, two earrings and a handbag. I didn’t speak to him for ages, and then I finally got my guts up… Someone asked him what his dad did and he said he was a taxi driver, and I said I thought that was really romantic, which he thought was really funny.”
Anderson was embroiled in a town planning degree, Frischmann was reading architecture, and so they met at the Faculty of the Built Environment on Gordon Street. They became a couple soon afterwards; she recalls a key marker of their early relationship being the occasion when, prior to a field trip to Milton Keynes, she made him sandwiches. More importantly, she managed to convince him that a life spent fretting about imaginary bypasses was no life at all – Anderson switched to architecture. “I don’t think he was brought up to expect much for himself,” says Frischmann. “He’s very sweet about it: he always says that that’s something that changed when he met me, because I really believed in him.”
Frischmann, Anderson and Anderson’s best friend, Mat Osman, moved into a flat in Finsbury Park. “We had a great winter,” she says. “It was ’88, ’89: an absolutely beautiful cold, blue winter. I just remember going to college together in the morning, all wrapped up. It was a really romantic time: I felt like I was seeing London for the first time; seeing it almost through Brett’s eyes.”
In the context of Anderson’s starry-eyed mindset, he and Osman’s eternal desire to escape the drab ways of Sussex (where they had grown up), and the pair’s teenage dalliances with guitars, it was perhaps inevitable that someone would suggest they form a group. Frischmann proposed as much when Anderson bashfully played her some of the musical sketches he’d worked on at home in Lindfield. “He was really embarrassed,” says Frischmann. “He was like, ‘I used to think I could sing’, and I said, ‘Well, I bet you can – go on.’ But they were really good.”
The trio soon came to the conclusion that they had the core of a band, although there was one glaring snag – neither Anderson nor Frischmann had the technical expertise to play lead guitar. An advert was duly placed in the NME, pitching Suede as a group somewhere between The Smiths, David Bowie, Lloyd Cole, and the Pet Shop Boys. It ended, “No musos, please. Some things are more important than ability.”
By the time a reply came forth, the group had moved west: Anderson was living near Wormwood Scrubs, while Frischmann was in a Kensington townhouse owned by her millionaire father. Bernard Butler, a sometime history undergraduate, was duly summoned to Anderson’s new flat. “They were very cool,” he later recalled, “and I wasn’t.”
Initially, he was puzzled by the presence of Frischmann. “I thought that Justine was just Brett’s girlfriend,” he says. “That’s incredibly sexist – but she did just sit there. I had to ask Brett, ‘What’s the story? Is she in the band?’ But gradually, she became more and more involved. I think it was a case of – and this is typical Justine – not getting involved unless something was going on. She waited to see if we were happening first and then she joined in.”
“They’d take me to Justine’s flat after rehearsal,” Butler recalls. “We’d smoke dope, which I’d never done. That was revolutionary. They’d do things like getting pizzas from Pizza Express. That was like, ‘Wooah – that’s a restaurant .’ She and Brett were a very warm, very beautiful couple – it was kind of understood that they were going to get married. It was like going to Posh and Becks’ house. They had a big telly, an open fire, a big sofa, two beautiful cats. My brothers and my friends thought they were wankers; pretentious toffs. But I loved it.”
Gradually, something started to cohere. Butler’s guitar was starting to take on a slashing, brutal quality, partly derived from his hero Johnny Marr, but imbued with a trebly aggression that was all his own. Better still, Anderson’s lyrics were creeping into an even more singular universe. “His words started to get quite twisted sexually; kind of ambiguous,” says Frischmann. “Definitely the shivering white indie male in his vest and his socks, sitting at the end of the bed, having filthy thoughts.”
Moreover, in Anderson’s use of arcane English slang, his evident fascination with London’s more grimy aspects, and his propensity for singing in his own accent, there was an implied contrast with just about all his peers. “We wanted to go against the grain,” he says. “We talked about what was real to me: being born in a council house, talking about things that were relevant to my world and how I was brought up. We were the first band for ages to talk about these things.”
In the summer of 1990, Suede were performing a slew of Anderson/Butler songs – The Drowners, Moving, He’s Dead – that represented a genuine watershed. It seems incredible that these songs did not grab the attention of the talent scouts and journalists who spent their evenings in London’s more dingy venues, but their attentions were still focused on aspirant shoe-gazers, and the fag-end of the boom that had originated in Manchester.
“I was pretty aware that we were out of sync,” says Frischmann. “I was horribly sensitive about the fact that a lot of people thought we were shit.” Who? ” Everyone. Brett’s always had this kind of doomed romanticism – and it’s really lovely, but it occurred to me that that was going to be part of the history of the group.”
As the year drew to a close, Frischmann’s sense of inertia began to extend to her relationship with Anderson. “Because we were both at college,” she says, “we were spending every second of every day together. And we hit the year-and-a-half stage – the honeymoon period’s over, and it’s got to move on or die. It got to the point where we weren’t sure if we’d said certain things or just thought them. We thought we might be telepathic.
“Nothing was happening with the band. It was becoming increasingly obvious that we were both going to fail third year at college, because we weren’t very interested. And I remember Brett saying, ‘It’ll be really great when we’ve finished here, and you get a job at an architect’s, and I stay at home and do the Hoovering and make dinner for you when you get home.’ I had this vision of me working and Brett being at home with a pinny on, cooking vegetarian pizza – and I just thought, ‘I can’t let this happen. This isn’t working.’ If you could put the end of a relationship down to one comment, that was it. It was, ‘ That’s what this has all been about? That’s how it’s going to end up?” So it was that, in February 1991, she agreed to go out with a musician who had been pursuing her for a few months. His name was Damon Albarn.
Frischmann and Albarn first met at Brighton’s Zap Club in 1990, when Suede were supporting Blur. “I asked Damon for a Blur poster,” says Frischmann, “and he was really rude – ‘Fucking buy it, then.’ And I remember him coming down and lecturing us, saying, ‘We’ve got the biggest dressing room and you’ve got the little one, but you have to pay your dues.’ Just being a real arsehole.”
Albarn had seen Suede before – as he later recalled, he was cajoled into attendance by a simple enough enticement: “Do you want to go and see this band tonight? One of them’s a public schoolgirl and she brings all her really nice friends along.” On that occasion, he had been all but indifferent. In Brighton, however, his belligerence belied the fact that, as he watched Suede play, he could not take his eyes off their second guitar player. “After that, he took it upon himself to track me down,” says Frischmann. “He phoned up on the basis of offering us a gig, and he announced that I was the one, and we would be married and I had no choice in the matter. I was fairly bowled over; no one had done that to me before. He was really cute then; enormous blue eyes.”
In due course, she was introduced to the rest of Blur – guitarist Graham Coxon, bassist Alex James and drummer Dave Rowntree. “I thought they were a bit weird,” she says. “Childish, drunk. Not scary, just pathetic. I loved Graham’s guitar playing, but I thought he was a prat. I thought the band were really good; I thought they were more musically gifted than Suede.”
Albarn’s colleagues sensed the arrival of an impressively sophisticated presence. “We were very impressed with how rich she was,” says Alex James. “We were all living in squats, eating grass – and she was wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice. She was a posh bird, man. I mean, Damon’s posh – his dad ran an art department. But they were cash rich .” James also claims to have had slightly more cynical thoughts. “I think she had an agenda, possibly. I don’t want to rattle any cages, but I think she thought Damon could help her with her career, shall we say.”
Despite Albarn’s rapid declaration of their perfect fit, he expected the relationship to leave room for the odd tryst; the fact that so much of his life was spent on the road apparently made the arrangement inevitable. “We had quite an unusual relationship,” says Frischmann. “We saw ourselves as being quite modern, and not affected by the same rules as everyone else. The open thing does nothing for me, but there was no choice. If you’re with Damon, you’re going to be in an open relationship.”
By spring 1991, they were an item, and – after a period of co-habitational purgatory – Anderson moved out of the flat he and Frischmann then shared in Kensington, whose rent was met by Frischmann’s father. Thus commenced one of the darker chapters of Anderson’s progress, in which he suffered both the pangs of separation and the privations of being broke. “It was pretty frightening for him – that sense that the security net wasn’t going to be there,” says Frischmann. But she believes that it was their split that gave him the motivation he had apparently lacked. “It wasn’t until all the ugliness happened and I ran off with Damon that he got enough of a demon in him; a reason to get his own back on the world. He was quite a stable, happy person when we were together – probably a bit too blissfully happy for his own good.”
By May 1991, following the success of their second single There’s No Other Way, Blur were pop stars. They appeared on children’s TV and were featured in Smash Hits. They were also recurrently portrayed as the main players in a weekly London ritual that all but defined the newspapers’ gossip columns, hanging out at a Thursday night club called Syndrome at the east end of Oxford Street. “I did like Syndrome,” says Frischmann. “Damon went through a phase of snogging boys, so it was really exciting. Girls snogging girls and boys snogging boys. It was pathetic rebellion, really – when you think what Mick [Jagger] and Marianne [Faithfull] were up to at the same age. But they played everyone’s records, and everyone was drunk. It was a laugh.”
Suede spent another year as a fringe presence. Frischmann kept her place in the band for a difficult few months. “There was a period of overlap: it was really, really awkward. I was like, ‘I’ve got to get out of this, coz I’m just making everyone miserable.’ And I wasn’t really pulling my weight: I was just playing bar chords and muddying up what Bernard was doing.”
“She started going on about Damon all the time, while Brett was there,” says Butler, “which I thought was really insensitive. She’d turn up late for rehearsals and say the worst thing in the world – ‘I’ve been on a Blur video shoot.’ That was when it ended, really. I think it was the day after that that Brett phoned me up and said, ‘I’ve kicked her out.’ ”
Frischmann reapplied herself to her studies at UCL, while Suede discovered that her exit gave rise to a very different group. “If Justine hadn’t left the band,” says Anderson, “I don’t think we’d have got anywhere. It was a combination of being personally motivated, and the chemistry being right once she’d left. She was always someone that confused the issue – which she’d be the first to admit.”
“The first time I saw them after I left,” says Frischmann, “they were playing at the Underworld in Camden. I just suddenly thought, ‘They’ve got it.’ ” She attended the show with Albarn, who did not seem quite as convinced. “Damon seemed kind of pissed off with me,” she says, “because I was jumping around, going, ‘That was amazing – they’re going to be the next Smiths.’ ”
For much of 1992, Suede – and Anderson in particular – took up residence in Albarn’s head. Having strolled into the Top 10 and fleetingly been the leaders of their peer group, Blur were now huddled with the rest of their underachieving friends at Syndrome. Worse still, the source of their decline was his girlfriend’s former boyfriend.
Suede’s sudden ubiquity fired Albarn. In 1994, he was quoted in a French magazine as follows: “I knew that my moment for vengeance would come. Public vengeance and personal vengeance. I wanted to prove to myself that I could dethrone Brett and his group of cretins.” When the words got back to Britain, Albarn could only say that they had been taken “out of context”.
In July 1992, Blur and Suede crash-landed on the same concert bill, an event in aid of Shelter at the Town And Country club in London’s Kentish Town. Blur were chosen to go on last; Suede were scheduled to arrive on stage second.
That afternoon, Albarn, James and Coxon had decided to acquaint themselves with a string of Camden pubs. Rowntree was at home, dutifully washing a shirt down which Albarn had spilled red wine. When he arrived, he found his colleagues in an advanced state of disrepair, and saw no option but to attempt to catch them up. Such was the build-up to a face-off with a group who, in Albarn’s mind at least, were little short of their nemesis. Staggering on stage, Albarn at least had the courtesy to warn the audience of what they were in for. “We’re so shit you might as well go home,” he barked. There followed a performance so shambolic that it teetered into comedy. “The punchline was that Suede delivered an absolutely blinding performance,” says Mike Smith, one of the group’s inner circle of confidantes. “It was like turning up pissed at your ex-girlfriend’s wedding to someone really rich and handsome and delightful: you’re the former boyfriend standing there with your tie over here and your hair over there and vomit on the front of your trousers.”
Over that summer, Smith was let in on Albarn’s new vision. “It was all bound up with the vehemence of his reaction against grunge,” he says, “and the fact that everyone was only interested in the music that was coming out of Seattle, and the need for a British response to that.”
“A plan was hatched,” says Frischmann. “Damon and I were both fairly obsessional about the idea of the zeitgeist. And somewhere along the line, it occurred to us that Nirvana were out there, and people were very interested in American music, and there should be some sort of manifesto for the return of Britishness.” Frischmann’s centrality to Albarn’s new thinking embodied a beautiful irony. As their recent interviews suggested, Albarn had more in common with Suede than he cared to mention; his relationship with Justine suggested that this was hardly an accident. “I think a lot of it came from Brett, actually,” says Frischmann. “The whole Suede thing was very much to do with Britishness, and I carried that scene on to Damon and told him about it, and he took it a step further. But he was more playful: he put on a mask and played a part.”
Blur’s second album, Modern Life Is Rubbish, was released in May 1993. The following month, Albarn and Coxon made a brief appearance at Great Expectations, a concert organised by way of a lobbying exercise for XFM, the proposed London radio station. That night, Blur sounded nigh-on perfect. “For me, that was the turnaround,” says Mike Smith. “I remember being with a mate and looking at each other and going, ‘Fuck me, this is going to be huge.’ ”
At the end of August, Blur headlined Reading Festival. It was a performance of quite startling confidence. “Everyone knew: this is it,” Albarn later reflected. “You know when the gig’s yours.” In Rowntree’s rather colourful estimation, the experience was akin to “an hour-and-a-half long orgasm”.
That night, as Reading etiquette dictated, the assembled groups, their aides, and members of the music press made merry at the nearby Ramada Hotel. Also there that night, dressed in a charity-shop jacket and Dr Martens, was a 23-year-old guitarist from Newport, Gwent, named Donna Matthews, a new friend and associate of Justine Frischmann.
Since her exit from Suede, Frischmann had been plotting the formation of a band. The central idea was to specialise in the polar opposite of the epic, sweeping compositions that had played a role in her departure. “It was a reaction to Suede’s drama,” she says. “I was sick of the whole ‘love and poison of London’ thing. It reminded me of being with Brett, so I didn’t want to go anywhere near that.” She had begun rehearsing with Justin Welch, a drummer who had played with Suede for six weeks back in 1990. She found Annie Holland, a guitarist from Brighton who was willing to play bass, whereupon the idea of an all-female front line began to enter Frischmann’s head. The arrival of Donna Matthews made the notion concrete.
Elastica played staccato, angular songs, so compact that they could rattle through a large handful within quarter of an hour. The lyrics, sung by Frischmann in a beguilingly deep voice, were both irreverent and risquй; in the days when Kurt Cobain was still exercising his angst-wracked hegemony – and Suede hardly specialised in humour – this was no mean feat. “I knew from the first month in the band that we were going to be successful, coz of who Justine knew and what she knew from Blur and Suede,” says Matthews. “I trusted her with the business side of it: for me, it was more about, ‘Hey – rock’n’roll’, living the lifestyle, than it was about creating art.”
Matthews’s appearance began to change. When she arrived in London, she had long hair and chubby cheeks; soon, she had razor-like cheekbones and the kind of haircut last seen on Keith Richards in 1966. Her chemical habits – shared by Justin Welch, who became her boyfriend; and, in her own quiet way, by Annie Holland – had yet to exert much of an attraction on Frischmann. “Justine did a lot of stuff with Damon,” says Matthews. “Me and Justin were mad drugheads, and she had this quiet family life. She’d occasionally invite us to dinner, which we’d never do for her. We didn’t eat.”
In 1994 the NME hosted an awards ceremony titled the Brats, an idea born out of hostility to the previous year’s Brits. Anderson accepted Suede’s award for Best Group, and Elastica collected the award for Best New Group. Blur won nothing, but even so Albarn was brimming with confidence. When a small pack of journalists cornered him and began ranting about his responsibility to save British music, he simply grinned. “We’ve done it,” he said. “We really have.”
Blur’s new album, Parklife, was the proof. Many of its 14 songs reflected Albarn’s bittersweet take on the UK’s human patchwork – on London Loves in particular, they managed to construct a vision of Britain that was both modern and affectingly doom-laden. Girls And Boys served rather more gaudy notice of what was to come. Inspired by a 1993 holiday Albarn and Frischmann had taken in Magalluf, Majorca, it told of Albarn surveying hordes of vacationing Britons and finding himsel fascinated. “All these blokes and all these girls meeting at the watering hole and then just… copulating,” he marvelled.
“They were a very bullish band by then,” says Mike Smith. “I can remember being round Alex’s flat – him opening the windows really wide first thing in the morning, putting the speakers in the windows, and turning Girls And Boys really loud, and just standing there, flicking the Vs at the rest of the world.” The single entered the charts at number five. Parklife went on to enter the album charts at number one. “It wasn’t obvious that Parklife was going to be big,” says Frischmann. “Elastica were bigger than Blur for a while: getting more press, more hype. The week Parklife went in at number one, he couldn’t stop crying.”
With admirable candour, Albarn wrote about the experience the following year. “I had been someone who had never in their life felt even faintly depressed or suicidal,” he said. “They were emotions that were as foreign to me as Japanese. Then, completely out of the blue… I woke up depressed. It was like the first day at primary school and a very bad hangover all at once. I had pains in my back and shoulder, panic attacks, and the only relief was to cry.”
“He couldn’t sleep,” says Frischmann. “He was getting everything he’d ever wanted, and he was losing the plot. After that, he lost the part of himself that was childish and couldn’t cope, and actually became able to become a pop star. Meanwhile, I’m doing press, and putting records out, and all of a sudden, I stop being there for him, a bit. He’s not well, and I can’t help him that much. That was the beginning of the problems.”
Albarn made his way to Harley Street, where a doctor recommended by the Frischmann family asked him about his drug habits: Albarn explained that he smoked a modicum of dope, drank quite a lot, occasionally took cocaine. He was told to desist from the latter and given a prescription for anti-depressants. The pills were hardly given a chance – Albarn binned them after a few days, later claiming that they made “the world appear to be coming out of a transistor radio”. He then tried herbal treatment and acupuncture, before discovering the benefits of an altogether more mundane regime: trips to the gym and a once-weekly game of football.
A week before the release of their second single, Connection, Elastica played a gig in Glasgow. Back at the group’s hotel, a crowd of a dozen or so set about getting uncontrollably drunk. Once the last of the gang had made their way to bed, the hotel’s night staff heard the sound of breaking glass, splintering wood and and wrecked fittings.
Donna Matthews and Justin Welch’s relationship was entering its last pain-wracked episode: a tear-up in the small hours that ended with a visit from the police. “We were just punching the shit out of each other,” Matthews later recalled. As any member of the group’s London circle well knew, Welch and Matthews’s romance had been at least partly built on the pair’s prodigious intake of chemicals. “My dad was a heroin addict, so I grew up with it,” says Matthews. “I took drugs all the time from when I was about 12. And when I joined the band and I found out that Annie did heroin, I was like ‘Wa-hey!’. It was, ‘Don’t tell the others.’ ”
While Matthews and Welch were still a couple, the group’s financial position had begun to improve. Soon after the release of their single Line Up, Frischmann’s income from songwriting enabled her to pay the other three a weekly wage. Most crucially, Elastica signed a worldwide contract with Geffen Records. Matthews and Welch were able to move out of squat-land, down Pentonville Road to King’s Cross. “We wanted a place where you could get drugs 24 hours a day,” says Matthews. “When we were thinking of a place to move, we thought, ‘Well, we always end up in King’s Cross in the middle of the night trying to score, why don’t we move there?’ ”
In November, Albarn added his voice to the increasing chatter about heroin, but he was aiming at an all-too-familiar target. “I think heroin is shit,” he said, “and I know for a fact that Brett is doing heroin, and he is a fucking idiot. From Damon to Brett: you’re a twat for doing that. Get a life.”
“Was I cross with Damon about that?” considers Frischmann. “Yeah, I was, actually. Very cross. Damon was a real bully, and he had a real problem with Brett, even though Brett hadn’t done him any wrong, as far as I could see.”
In response to Albarn, Anderson was curt as ever: “I object to arseholes who should know better putting those kind of stories around,” he seethed.
In retrospect, Albarn was indulging in the mean-spirited art of kicking someone while they were down. By the end of 1994, Anderson was not at all happy. “It was a very hard time for me,” he says. “I’d taken far too many drugs, I’d been in a very strange situation where I’d gone from adulation to extreme criticism – and I felt really fucked up.”
After months of arguments, Bernard Butler had left Suede earlier that year. In September, to gasps of incredulity and stifled guffaws, the band announced that his replacement was Richard Oakes, a 17-year-old from Dorset. But by and large, the critics greeted Suede’s second album, Dog Man Star, as a proud step forward – it was only the public who disagreed. The album entered the charts at number three, but slid the next week to 12, then 18, then 31… on, through the 40s and 50s until, by the end of the year, it sat outside the top 75. “Dog Man Star got lost because people saw it as the swansong of a band,” says Anderson. “And it kind of was.”
The following year Elastica began hawking themselves around the globe. In among the 300 people crammed into the Mercury Lounge for their New York gig were Iggy Pop and Debbie Harry; the latter danced to the whole of Elastica’s set.
To Frischmann, who had started the group aiming at nothing more earth-shaking than a handful of singles and the odd appearance in the NME, life seemed to have taken a very unexpected turn. “On that first trip to America,” she says, “it occurred to me: ‘This is getting silly.’ But it was thrilling, too. How could you not want that?”
Elastica’s debut album fused the brittle wit and musical economy that had become the group’s calling cards; the album’s best song, however, sounded a note of genuinely affecting candour. Never Here was Frischmann’s concise, mournful treatise on her relationship with Anderson, one in which wide horizons had eventually been fogged by inertia:
“I moved straight into your shoes/I took up your cause and answered your phone/I couldn’t really imagine/ What life was like when I was alone/Then I started to worry/I thought of our lives left on the shelf/Too much TV and curry/Too much time spent on ourselves.”
For Frischmann, the frenzied pace of that year’s itinerary meant one thing: for the next 18 months, her relationship with Albarn became a matter of long-distance phone calls and the odd snatched weekend. With the help of her father, the pair had bought a new house in Kensington Park Road, W11, celebrated in the tabloids as a “Ј350,000 love nest”. Albarn, preoccupied with the recording of Blur’s fourth album, did not find time to begin home-making. “Damon was there for six months on his own,” says Frischmann, “and he didn’t buy a chair to sit on. There was a telly on a box, loads of newspapers, an ashtray and a bed. And that was it.”
That September, Blur released their fourth album. The reviews brimmed with ecstasy, but there was something very cold about The Great Escape. The gloopy, theatrical arrangements aimed at a kind of whimsical ugliness, while Albarn’s lyrics hid any sense of an interior universe beneath songs recurrently sung in the third person. “I was away when Damon was making The Great Escape,” says Frischmann. “I hated it. I thought it was terrible. I remember Graham having a nervous breakdown because he thought it was so awful. It was fake, soulless, irritating. It made our relationship difficult. But it was difficult anyway by that point.”
In the course of performing no fewer than 102 shows across the UK, Europe, US and Australia, Donna Matthews, Justin Welch and Annie Holland had fallen victim to the random cycle of occasional fix and ongoing withdrawal that is the lot of the travelling heroin user.
“They were extremely furtive,” says Frischmann. “It was like, ‘Don’t tell teacher.’ I used to get called the Fьhrer.
“I thought Donna and Annie were my best friends, and over the course of touring it became obvious that they actually weren’t very keen on me. I’d become a kind of authority figure, forcing them to go on tour, making them do interviews. It was very unfair, really, because I actually didn’t make them do that much. I did most of it.”
When Elastica returned briefly to the UK, Holland announced that she wanted out. “Annie left because of heroin, really,” says Matthews. “We were on tour for so long that we’d stopped being able to always get it. I think she wanted to go home and… take heroin.”
“The moment that Annie left, we should have had a break,” says Frischmann. “But I didn’t feel I had any choice.”
With amazing haste, the group announced that, for the time being, Holland’s place would be taken by Abby Travis, the bass player in Beck’s backing band. The group returned to the US and Matthews and Welch’s troubles continued. “It got to the point that Justin would be like, ‘Oh God – I can’t go on stage tonight’ ” says Matthews. “And I’d be saying, ‘Oh, I feel dreadful for you, Jus – but I just haven’t got anything’. And he’d know I did, because I wasn’t ill. That’s when it started getting bad: we’d be lying to each other, constantly.”
Matthews finally confided in Frischmann in San Francisco. “I remember crying to Justine,” she says, “saying, ‘I’m scared to go home, because I know I can’t stop doing heroin.’ The only time I’d stop doing it was when we were away. And she said, ‘Oh, Donna, don’t be stupid – of course you’ll never become a heroin addict.’ Three months later, I went to the doctor and he said, ‘You’re going to have to go into rehab.’ I said, ‘I haven’t got time – I’m going on tour again.’ It took me another five years to get clean.”
When Frischmann finally returned to London, she found that heroin was suddenly everywhere. “People would be doing Es,” she says, “and at the end of the evening, it would come out on a bit of tinfoil. No one was jacking it up; everyone was smoking it. It was being passed round like, ‘Ooh – try this, it’s mellow and nice.’ ”
It did not take that long for her curiosity to get the better of her. Matthews dates Frischmann’s first experience of heroin to before Holland left Elastica; her own recollection is that she began using the drug in London, after the tour ended. Whatever, rumours were quickly eddying around London that a musician renowned for her hard-headed drive, who had once balked at her colleagues’ fondness for speed, whose boyfriend had so railed at Brett Anderson for experimenting with heroin – and whose father had insisted that she spurn art and study architecture, lest she fall into the lethargic ways of bohemia – was living the life of a drug addict.
For the moment, Elastica’s troubles remained a matter of conjecture: with no records scheduled for release, they were able to retreat behind closed doors. Besides, the press had another story to chase: that, with Oasis newly triumphant, Blur were spiralling towards a very messy demise.
In late February 1996, Blur were booked to appear at the San Remo festival, but only Albarn and Rowntree made the trip. (Coxon had sent advance word that he would not be coming; James overslept and missed the plane.) News quickly reached the NME, which reported: “Blur last week fuelled rumours that they are about to split.”
By this stage Albarn had begun to plot an alternative course, an escape from Britpop. “He literally woke up one morning and said he’d been dreaming of windswept tundra, and said, ‘I must go to Iceland,’ ” says Frischmann. “It was a real turning point for him. I went a few times. I don’t like cold; I felt like I was going in the wrong direction on the aeroplane. I saw it as a slightly aggressive move, because we had been talking about buying a place in Spain or France or Turkey.”
“He met a nice Icelandic girl in LA, which I think made it even more alluring,” says James. “And he went out there. About three days into his trip, I got a message on my answerphone: a voice of infinite calm saying, ‘Alex… it’s… really… really… good… here.’ Which it really, really was.”
That summer, Blur began to regroup. Among the first compositions they recorded was a song entitled Beetlebum. “I thought it was about Justine Frischmann,” says James. “It’s a drug song, isn’t it? All great pop songs are about love or drugs. And all really great pop songs are about both.”
Heroin’s soporific effects had started to define the terms of Albarn’s relationship with Frischmann. The tensions caused by her ongoing absence during 1995 – not to mention her scathing view of The Great Escape – seemed to ebb away; heroin rendered her altogether more accommodating. “I think it prolonged things,” she says. “It made me more passive. You don’t confront anything. You don’t have problems if you’re half asleep whenever you’re together.” Even so, Frischmann had begun working on new material, recruiting Dave Bush, a Mancunian who had briefly been a member of The Fall, and Sheila Chipperfield, a daughter of the circus family.
“I was still going to work every day,” Frischmann says, “but not getting very much done; thinking everything was shit. I think if you’re clean you can get a spirit from music; you know it’s good, just coz of the way it makes you feel. If you’re doing drugs, it’s much harder to get that feel from music. It just muddles you.”
“For Dave and Sheila it must have been mad,” says Donna Matthews, “just three people sat there in the corner, doing gear. Then we’d play some songs. The look on Sheila’s face sometimes was just, ‘These people are fucking mad.’ ”
“Poor girl, man,” says Frischmann. “Clean-living young chick, really up for it.”
In November, Elastica began recording their second album. The world of the habitual heroin user is usually a morass of unfinished business and vain hopes; so it proved when the band put their new ideas to tape. “We came out with loads of intricate music,” says Matthews, “but because we were out of our heads, we couldn’t seem to put it in a cohesive form. There were loads of unfinished songs: thousands of pounds’ worth of tape.”
“I started getting really egotistical, thinking ‘I deserve to be writing half the songs,’ ” says Matthews. “And that’s when it started going wrong. I’d started to become very competitive, which pissed Justine off, because it was her band.”
“The whole balance of power had shifted,” says Frischmann. “She could play the guitar better than me, and sing better than me, and at that point her songs were working better than my songs.”
For three months, Frischmann stopped attending recording sessions. “The band carried on without her,” says Matthews. “And then Justine came to one rehearsal and was just like, ‘What have I fucking done?’ And then she banned me from the studio. It all just went mental.” Though precious few people had any idea how dysfunctional Elastica had become, the immediate result of the group’s problems was clear enough: in an increasingly moribund musical landscape, a source of innovative, intelligent music fell silent.
For much of the following year, Blur were on tour, performing in support of an album, the eponymous Blur, that would turn out to be their biggest worldwide-selling record to date. Frischmann, meanwhile, was at home, bedevilled by drug-related inertia and the travails of Elastica. With Albarn once again absent, she decided to re-establish contact with someone whose company she had not shared for the best part of six years: Brett Anderson. “I had a terrible dream about him: that he was dead, and I wasn’t invited to the funeral,” she says. “I was watching the funeral from the other side of some gates. And I realised I hadn’t seen him for years, and it was sad, so I called him. He was really nice, straight away.”
Suede had secured top billing at that year’s Reading Festival, and at one point Frischmann took the stage to provide backing vocals. “I was only on stage for two minutes. I jumped up and down and sang incoherently and walked off. It wasn’t remotely significant.”
Albarn’s response to Frischmann’s renewed bond with Anderson was not altogether surprising. “I think Damon was a bit pissed off that suddenly, Brett was back, but I think he knew that at some point he would be,” she says. “He just hated Brett. They loved hating each other … I even brought Brett round to say hello to Damon, to try and heal old wounds. He was living round the corner, and I’d got really friendly with his girlfriend, Sam, and I was like, ‘Well, look – why don’t you just make friends?’
“And it was one of the weirdest, nastiest scenes ever. It was like a cat and dog meeting each other. Just, Ssssssssss!’ I got Brett out of there within two minutes; I realised it just wasn’t happening. It was so beyond anything to do with me: it had got to a point where Brett was driven by hating Damon – and Damon’s driven by hating everyone. I think they were scared of not hating each other, because that would have marked the point where they didn’t care any more.”
Elastica remained stuck. “We started jamming on new stuff,” says Frischmann, “and Donna just went off, looking for ‘the note’. She spent four hours looking for ‘the note’, while we jammed this one song over and over. She’d gone by this point. She had braces fitted, because she wanted to get her teeth sorted, despite the fact that she was killing herself. She was about six stone. The last conversation we had in the studio was when Donna said she wanted to turn a song called Operate into a Missy Elliott song. And I said to her, ‘Donna, I don’t think you want to be a guitarist any more.’ She said, ‘No, I just don’t want to be the guitarist in Elastica.’ And she went on to say, ‘I don’t like your voice, your lyrics make me cringe, and the way you play the guitar makes me cringe.’ ”
“I did say that,” says Matthews. “I was barking mad. Not to say that Justine wasn’t, but in my addiction, I was a lot further advanced than she was.” After one last fractious phone call, Frischmann informed her that she no longer had a role in Elastica. Matthews duly let out her King’s Cross house to tenants, underwent an eight-week rehabilitation programme, and spent eight recuperative months in Bristol.
The same weekend that Frischmann ejected Matthews from her life, she called time on her relationship with Albarn. The decision was made in the context of a sudden fit of resolve, bound up with the fact that she had begun to emerge from her narcotic haze. Aside from acknowledging that the first step towards quitting heroin was a visit to a doctor, Frischmann will not be drawn on how she finally accomplished it; whatever, there is little doubt that she distanced herself from Matthews and Albarn around the same time that she started to clean up.
In retrospect, she and Albarn had started to separate during 1995, when their bond tended to be maintained via phone conversations. Worse still, upon her return from Elastica’s year-long world tour, Frischmann found that their respective visions of the future were very different indeed. “Damon was saying to me, ‘You’ve given me a run for my money, you’ve proved that you’re just as good as I am, you’ve had a hit in America – now settle down and let’s have kids.’ He wanted me to stop being in a group, stop touring and have children. I wasn’t very happy, and he kept saying, ‘The reason you’re unhappy is because you really want children but you don’t know it.’ It did throw me: I thought about it quite seriously.”
By 1997, however, Albarn was not exactly behaving like an aspirant family man. “He was being more and more open about being unfaithful,” says Frischmann. “He was spending a lot of time in Iceland. I went over there, and I got told that there’d been a local comedy programme that had done a sketch with a load of women with babies and they were all called Damon. That’s how out of hand it had got.”
Upon his return to London, despite Frischmann’s evident belief that he should leave, Albarn refused to say die. “I kept saying I wanted him out, and he kept telling me to go and lie down, because I wasn’t feeling well. And I wasn’t. He’d put too much time in to walk away from it: he wanted children out of it; he wanted something I hadn’t given him, and he was going to stick around till he got what he wanted. It took a long time to break up.”
Finally, after a last-ditch holiday at the end of 1997, Albarn and Frischmann went their separate ways. “It had got so beyond the point of being a sensible way to live,” says Frischmann. “We’d stopped rowing, which was the scary thing. We weren’t sleeping in the same bed, and we hadn’t been for a while, put it that way.” She is still not sure exactly when her decisive break from Albarn occurred. “I think it was spring time. It was kind of cold and sunny – that kind of weather. It isn’t that vivid.”
Close-up, the details of their break-up were no different from those of countless relationships. In the minds of those who saw only the broadest of outlines, however, there could be no clearer sign that the Britpop era begun by Parklife and defined by such records as Elastica was now over
What happened next?
Damon Albarn Following his split with Frischmann, he began a relationship with the artist Suzi Winstanley: the couple had a daughter in 1999. In the wake of Blur’s 13, he launched Gorillaz; the project’s debut album sold more than 4m copies worldwide. He followed this with Mali Music, an album largely recorded in west Africa, and work on the seventh Blur album.
Brett Anderson used the promotional campaign around Suede’s 2002 album, A New Morning, to admit to long-term problems with crack and heroin. A New Morning was not the vast improvement for which many had hoped, but Suede still command a cult following.
Justine Frischmann launched the third incarnation of Elastica with a performance at the 1999 Reading Festival. The group’s scratchy, off-beam album, The Menace, was released to mixed reviews in April 2000, and Elastica was laid to rest in 2001. Frischmann recently presented a BBC series about modern architecture, and created the incidental music for an animated Channel 4 programme. She remains close friends with Brett Anderson.
Donna Matthews returned to London in 1999. She is currently the singer-guitarist in the trio Klang. She does not drink, smoke or take drugs.
Annie Holland and Justin Welch play together in a project called Hi Fi.