The Fab Four
We meet Blur on our second sortie into France, this time at a festival in Rennes. There are dozens of music festivals dotted around in Europe: next summer we will drive to ones in Italy and Denmark and Norway and one in Spain, where we’ll sit and watch Iggy Pop crowd surf from a giant stage in the foothills of the Pyrenees. But today it’s northern France and there they are, the fab four: Damon, Alex, Graham and Dave. I think, as a courtesy, to start things off on a friendly footing, it might be nice to go over and say hello. Blur have asked us to support them on a UK tour and the dates are just a few weeks away. I spot them lined up against a wall wearing matching bower boots and Fred Perry shirts, bottles of beer clutched in their hands.
“Hi,” I say, “I’m Louise, good to meet you. We’re going on tour with you lot.”
They don’t say anything. They are silent, this little gang, surly and still and suspicious: Mr. Blond, Mr. Brown, Mr. Spectacles, Mr. Ginger. Finally, after a long time, time enough to scuff my heels and wish I’d stayed put on the other side of the venue, Damon sighs and says something like: ‘Yeah, right.’
I say, “Well, good then. Just wanted to, you know… say hello or something.”
That was weird. Like walking over to the cool table in the school canteen and nobody offering you a seat. Maybe they’ll soften up when we go out on tour. Or maybe the Blur boys will turn out to be the goal-attack girls of indie.
I’m a little bit nervous about this tour, to be honest. The fab four don’t seem like the friendliest bunch, and I doubt very much we’ll be able to con them out of their whisky by hanging around their dressing room and complimenting them on their mumbly poetry. This lot are a little more sophisticated than that. I know they’re sophisticated because I’ve just seen their laminated 25-page detailed tour itinerary, and it has become clear to me that not all bands travel the country staying in spunky B&Bs, surviving on Ginsters pasties and wine gums.
Blur are staying in posh hotels every night. They have a team of caterers travelling with them to make them teatime treats and cook their dinners. They have a giant truck to carry all of their equipment — the lighting rig, the sound desks, the monitors, the instruments — and a tour bus to transport their sound people and their lighting people and their roadie people, not to mention the pushy man with the briefcase and the brick-shaped mobile phone, whose sole job in life is to ensure his charges’ day-to-day tour happiness and comfort.
This is something else; it’s very impressive. Blur must be big if they can commandeer a set-up like this. A number-one album is one thing but by these standards you’d almost imagine they were about to become the biggest, most successful, 11-conquering band in the nation.
Blur’s catering smells very good indeed. I wouldn’t mind some of that shepherd’s pie. I wouldn’t mind some of that jelly and custard. Have you seen what they get in their dressing room after they come off stage? You ought to see it. Platters of exotic fruit and buckets of champagne, posh crisps and dips and new underpants and sweets and the biggest, sweatiest cheese plate you’ve ever seen, laden down with foreign cheeses, accompanied by a crate of fine red wines. We get some beers and some towels. Yesterday we had a small bowl of Twiglets.
I realise that Blur are chart toppers with two monster singles behind them — ‘Girls And Boys’ and ‘This Is A Low’ —and now this new one about the pigeons with Phil Daniels. I know we’re only indie squibs, yet to trouble the top 40 singles chart, but even so, this headline band versus support band caste system they’ve got going on is beginning to get to me. I mean, it wouldn’t kill them, would it? They’re full up with jelly and custard as it is; they wouldn’t miss the odd tub of tzatziki. Maybe I should say something to them. Maybe I’ll mention it when they’re playing all those Elastica songs at sound check.
Cheese envy aside, we make the very best of this tour — a half-hour set, seven songs, all a rush — and the chance to play to Blur’s captive audience. They’re a tough crowd at first — they chant ‘Blur, Blur, Blur’ as we strike up our first chords — but we’re learning how to win them over and we’re turning the corner a little earlier each night. It’s a good feeling. I’m oblivious to every weakness at this stage, utterly up for it and unselfconscious. If my guitar playing is ragged I don’t seem to notice. If my vocals are off, I can’t care less. For now, it’s all about the challenge, about proving ourselves, about willing them onto our side.
On the fourth night we have the crowd mashing from the start, hot and sticky for rows into the distance, singing along to our recent indie chart hit ‘Delicious’, and afterwards Damon stops by our dressing room. He stands in the doorway as we cool down, rubs his chin like some portly uncle and bestows a grudging compliment.
“You lot did alright tonight,” he says. “They seemed to quite like you.”
I think, Sod you, Damon Albarn, I’ll be bigger than you one day, you patronising, cheese-eating mockney. I really believe this is true, the bigger-than-Damon thing, I mean. I don’t say it out loud, though. Word is that Blur don’t take kindly to insubordination from their support acts.
The fab four take to the stage a while later, in this big boxy barn of a civic hall. The atmosphere is brittle and charged and when the band come on there’s that telltale, almighty, eruptive roar. They love them. They love them. ‘Girls And Boys’ is their song, `Parklife’ is a riot, the girls have tears in their eyes for ‘End Of The Century’. I can barely hear Damon singing any more, the adoration is so fervent, so intense. The lead singer crowd surfs and he’s pulled across the mashing audience, floating overhead on their hundreds of outstretched hands. Both his shoes are gone by the time he’s back on stage and I wonder how he got there, safe and sound and intact, with a thread of cloth left on his body. They are chanting at him, now: ‘Jesus, Jesus, Jesus‘, they sing, and Damon just stands there staring out at them, like a kid at Christmas, half elated, half overwhelmed and lost.
I watch them every night; it’s like a fix. I’m studying what they do, working out if I can learn how to do it too. It’s just like that night watching The Jam at Wembley Arena only this time we’re in the vortex, peripheral and slight, but close enough to feel the turbulence. I watch from the wings, or at the sound desk, or buried deep in the centre of the crowd. Even now, I only have to hear those five little glockenspiel notes at the start of ‘To The End’, and I’m immediately back in the glow: with that sense of it all taking off, with that feeling of everything just about to begin. Sometimes I stand and watch the band with Andy. The two of us are getting on well this tour. He’s been the engine of our confidence on stage, playing his drums standing up. And back here, sharing a beer, watching the band, he has the kind of infectious ambition and positivity that I can’t help being a little captivated by.
Bohemian Like You
If I’m going to be bigger than Damon Albarn, and I definitely am, it might be a good idea to start taking notes on this tour.
Note one: Things have become distinctly more cordial. Graham Coxon has asked me to marry him. He is drunk. He asks everyone to marry him. Graham Coxon is great company at the start of the evening, funny and gentle and sharp. But you have to tread carefully when Mr. Spectacles is on the sauce; there’s a moment when he tips over to splenetic. He has a tendency to insult people to their face. Strangers. Passers-by. Couples quietly drinking in the hotel bar. He is a harsh critic. It is sometimes uncomfortable.
Note two: The way to get groupies, should you require the attention of such, is to ask your tour manager to go out into the crowd, select the best-looking girls and give them passes to your after-show party. In this case they’re called Blur-job passes. Mostly the tour manager is spot on with his choices but every so often a lesser specimen gets through. No matter. Alex James is magnanimous in these cases. He walks up to one girl with glasses and cheerfully informs her: you’re ugly but I’m going to fuck you anyway. She looks grateful.
Note three: All manner of rock-star excess is to be encouraged on this tour but you must never, under any circumstance, mess with Blur’s sweaty plate of foreign cheeses.
“Come on, they’ll never notice. I’m sick of Twiglets and besides, they’ve got loads.”
“I dunno, they’re much more observant than… ooh, look at that, they’ve got Jarlsberg!”
We only meant to eat a Dairylea triangle-sized amount. We didn’t mean to decimate the entire plate. I’m hoping that by rearranging the grapes and organizing the crackers into an elaborate fan-shape we might have gone some way to covering our tracks, but I don’t think we have. Dave the drummer has been sent to find us. He looks like a dog chewing a wasp at the best of times but he really looks like one now that he’s chewing us out. The band are properly angry, he barks. They may have to drop us from the tour. We scuff our feet like we’re in front of the headmaster, but honestly, I don’t know what their beef is: it’s not like we touched their champagne buckets, it’s not like we messed with their fruit. Even so, it’s a major transgression. The fab four lock down. For 48 hours, Graham stops asking me to marry him.
We’re all drunk and merry at an after-show party.
“Don’t worry about it.”
“I won’t, then.”
“It’s forgotten about.”
“But don’t ever do it again.”
With customary generosity, now the Jarlsberg episode has been safely put behind us, Damon would like to provide me with notes four and five all by himself. He hangs his arms around me, and gives it to me straight.
“Course, the way to be successful in this game,” Damon slurs, “is to make all the boys wanna be you and all the girls wanna sleep with you. In your case… that’d work in reverse.”
“And another thing”, he says, jabbing his finger in the air for extra emphasis, “you shouldn’t be shagging someone in your own band.”
“Nah. Always fucks everything up.”
I’m about to tell him how right he is when he spots a grand piano in the hotel foyer. He spends the rest of the evening merrily tinkling away, playing show tunes from Pirates of Penzance. They are, I can’t help thinking, an odd and annoying and intermittently disarming bunch. Damon bossy and arrogant; Graham shy and sweet with the black dog inside of him; Alex louche and pompous. And Dave, the straight man who doesn’t seem as mannered as the rest.
You don’t catch him with his arms wrapped around his bandmate’s girlfriends; he doesn’t raise his glass and clink it, salute you with his floppy fringe, and purr ‘chin chin’. On some nights it’s just us and the band and various groupies and hangers-on at the after-show parties. The fab four disappear off into the shadows, with big-busted blonde girls, and skinny eager brown-haired ones.
On other nights they relax with their entourage, shipped out to the provinces from the trendier climes of Notting Hill. Damon’s squeeze, Justine Frischmann, Alex’s squeeze Justine something else, who looks just like her, and various other confident, diffident ‘ types that gather round the bar drinking and smoking and getting high on whatever it is they’re high on at this point, It’s quite a crowd.
I imagine them back in their hotel rooms: the girls on their backs channeling Marianne Faithfull, the boys on their elbows doing pelvic press-ups, Mick Jagger by way of Ray Davies. There’s a cliquey, incestuous scent to it all; an easy, bohemian, moneyed odour. The mood is ruthlessly ambitious and, pose or not, they seem unquestioning in their acceptance of all that is coming their way.
We flit in and out, as observers and guests, wanting what they have, dipping our fingers in and seeing how it tastes, wondering how we will get it. There’s a moment, quite soon after getting signed, when you stop being grateful for the chance and start feeling pathologically envious of everyone who is remotely more successful than you are. We’re off the starting grid now, we have momentum, and I can feel my competitive streak hardening with every passing hour. Which must mean now’s the perfect time to set about fucking the entire thing up.