Blur Art Pop's Life of Leisure
Published May 01, 2003The bowl cuts. The booze. The birds. The animated apes and spaceships, the woo hoo and vindaloo. From their shaky beginnings as chaotic conceptualists Seymour, through the mid-90s Britpop sound that they helped define and then reject, art pop merry pranksters Blur have weathered storms with artistic integrity and friendships intact. They've faced a roller-coaster of soap opera-esque infighting, drugs, money problems, and break-ups that East Enders could only hope to dramatise. This month sees the birth of Think Tank, the band's seventh full-length, partially recorded during a humbling experience in Northern Africa. "Just to escape to rural Africa is to escape the ghastly provincial ghetto of Western civilisation, which is a fucking narrow minded place," says bassist Alex James. "It was good to go somewhere where people believe in different gods and where there's no pop music."
Damon Albarn and Graham Coxon meet at the Stanway Comprehensive School in Colchester, Essex and bond over a common interest in drama and music. Albarn's father runs the North Essex School of Art, which Coxon briefly attends after high school. Meanwhile, in the sleepy seaside town of Bournemouth, a gregarious social butterfly named Alex James is avoiding school, playing bass and keyboards in teenage band Age of Consent. He heads off to London for a French degree from the illustrious Goldsmiths College where he meets Coxon, who lives above him. Recognising a common interest in guitars and squalid bohemianism, they commence an intense Withnail and I-esque friendship revolving around booze, drugs, and music. "I was getting out of my parent's car and he was getting out of his, and we both were taking guitars out," James says now. Around the same time, David Rowntree, growing up in Colchester, receives early classical music training.
While playing sax in a jazz-punk combo, Rowntree meets Coxon and is introduced to Albarn, who has moved to London to nurture his love of drama and intellectualising performance arts. Albarn starts a band named Circus; Rowntree drums and Coxon occasionally playing guitar. Coxon's friend Alex James runs in the same circles, but initial tension between he and Albarn, and a dislike of Circus's oeuvre inhibit an invitation to join the band. He joins when they change to Seymour, named after a recurring character in J.D. Salinger short stories, and begin playing anarchistic art rock influenced by My Bloody Valentine, 2-tone, the Cardiacs, Joy Division, and mid-30s performance artist Antonin Artaud's Theatre of the Absurd. They demo "She's So High" for the first time in December at Beat Factory Studios.
Seymour play their debut gig at a Goldsmiths' end-of-year party and early shows are marked by drunken antics and chaotic performances. One is seen by A&R man Andy Ross of Food Records, a label started by David Balfe (Big In Japan) and home to indie dance upstarts Jesus Jones.
Seymour changes their name and signs to Food for a measly 7,000 pounds. "We needed to change from the Seymour caterpillar to a butterfly sort of thing. I don't think anyone can remember who said Blur, but I still think it's a really good name, just an inarticulate utterance," says James. Toning down their aloof radical rampage, the foursome play their first gig as Blur at Brixton Academy, supporting the Cramps. MCA is intrigued enough to sign them for a publishing deal for 80,000 pounds. They release their first single, the spacy "She's So High"; it reaches #48 in the charts, despite (or helped by) criticisms of the song's publicity poster involving a young woman astride a hippo.
Still without a manager, Blur hires laid-back, open-minded Mike Collins, formerly of Wire. After an appearance on Jukebox Jury, Smiths producer Stephen Street volunteers to help record. "There's No Other Way" is released in April; its pseudo-psych dance beats lead to comparisons to the "baggy" craze of the Happy Mondays and the Stone Roses. Albarn meets Justine Frischmann, the daughter of a military noble and rhythm guitarist in glam-pop band Suede. Leisure is released in August to lukewarm reception. Its four different producers leads to a lack of cohesion, individual band members' sonic intentions don't coincide and its association with the dying embers of "baggy" bring it little artistic respect. Without their knowledge, the band's finances are draining; by the end of the year, Blur find themselves somehow 60,000 pounds in debt; 400,000 pounds have disappeared into thin air. Manager Mike Collins is sacked, replaced by Jesus and Mary Chain manager Chris Morrison.
The debauchery-filled "Rollercoaster" tour with Dinosaur Jr. and My Bloody Valentine validates their status as a rock'n'roll band, not just a pop outfit. Their second trip to America is disastrous; touching down at the height of the grunge explosion and with no new material, Blur receives a cold-at-best response from audiences and a nasty blow to their confidence. Fostering strong anti-American sentiments, they numb the frustrating experience (captured on Matthew Longfellow's "Star Shaped" video) with immense amounts of alcohol and the smashing of hotel rooms. "We arrived to promote our first album in America the day that Nevermind was released," remembers Alex. "Suddenly American youth culture had found a voice and a look and a hero. We, as a young British band, were totally superfluous to it. That started to make us aware of who we were and where we came from. When we got back from that tour, we made a very determined effort to eschew the Americanism that was all very annoying to us. We became resolutely English."
Blur is dismayed to discover that personal and artistic rivals Suede have become the new media darlings, their Bowie-influenced beautiful trashiness and dirty glamour an unexpected hit. Suspicions of the band appropriating Blur's then-unfashionable English shtick leads to competitive snarls and general animosity. Both appear at a charity gig in Camden, where Blur deal with the hostile atmosphere in their characteristic manner: getting shit-faced. A sloppy, messy debacle that Albarn warns ahead of time "could be the worst gig you've ever seen," the show is rock-bottom for the band's drinking habits and professionalism; berated and scolded by the record company for nearly imploding, they promise to cut back on alcohol, at least on stage. Off stage, rowdy antics include Rowntree's nasty fistfight with the Buzzcocks' Tony Aber, broken up by Lush guitarist Miki Berenyi.
Frenzied recording of Modern Life is Rubbish ensues, first with XTC's Andy Partridge as producer, with whom they don't click, then back to Street. In part the product of the defensive, fighting spirit developed during their horrid American tour, the album ends up with a rebellious, snide, and cocky tone. Its flirtation with character studies and its illustration of their love/hate relationship with English culture becomes the keystone of their identity and a conscious rejection of grunge apathy. Label owner David Balfe dislikes it and Food Records almost rejects the album because of its seeming lack of an American hit.
Saved by the relatively poppy single "For Tomorrow," Modern Life is Rubbish is finally released in May, fifteen months after its inception. Some misinterpret the band's re-appropriation of English working class signifiers (Fred Perry/ Union Jack style) as dabbling in fascist skinhead culture. Due to persistent money problems, work begins rapidly on Modern Life's follow-up, Parklife. Phil Daniels, star of mod chronicle Quadrophenia and an archetype of the distinctly British hipster, is brought in to do Cockney spoken word vocals on the title track. Also, they recruit Laetitia Sadier of Stereolab for French background whispers on ballad "To the End" (after contemplating candidates Francoise Hardy, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Justine Frischmann).
The infectious single "Girls and Boys," a drum machine and bass-heavy dance track hearkening back to the days of disco rhythm, is released in March. A rude and naughty celebration of holiday hedonism, it works as shallow surface fun and subtle, ironic subtext. The whole package is rounded out by a glaringly cheesy video by Godley and Crème and record packaging that looks like a condom. Label head Balfe's dissatisfaction with Blur's new-found identity leads him to pull out of his role and sell the label to EMI in April. The same month, Parklife is released; its simultaneous celebration and critique of Britishness is a focused expansion of familiar themes, while its timing is in synch with the public's growing devaluation of slacker culture. "When the media got bored with the American grunge music, we had this antidote," James says. The album enters the UK charts at #1, stays on there for 90 weeks, and goes on to sell about 1.5 million copies. A spring gig at Alexandra Palace witnesses the height of the Britpop era: Supergrass, Blur, and Pulp all in top form. Justine Frischmann's androgynous Buzzcocks-meets-Wire band Elastica are also on the rise; she and Albarn become Britpop's royal couple but the constant hounding by tabloids puts a strain on their relationship and Albarn starts to experience nasty panic attacks. Meanwhile, Coxon and James have opposite reactions to the pop star lifestyle; the former is disillusioned while the latter is upbeat. "It's something you enjoy rather than deal with," James says. "People have to know who you are if you want to be a successful band. So if people start listening to you, you can't start complaining." The cocky Mancunian brothers in Oasis (with whom Blur shared the bill at Glastonbury that summer) start to mouth off about their ambitious intentions to take over the Brit rock throne.
The band takes four trophies at the Brit Awards. Table neighbours and award contenders Oasis taunt the whole time, but the bitter rivalry to come is simply seen as jibing for shits and giggles. The next night sees a memorable performance on Top of the Pops, with queens and kings Elastica and Blur playing switcharoo with band members. Riding high on confidence and creativity the band digs into recording for The Great Escape. They change the release date of their first single, "Country House," to match that of Oasis's "Roll With It" a move they freely admit is a publicity stunt. The competition between the two is trumped up immensely by the media; the suspense and bipartisan allegiances resemble a political election, and the rivalry represents age-old English divides of class and region. Stereotypically Northern, boorish working class Oasis have a blast spewing nasty comments to the press Noel Gallagher tells The Observer that he wishes James and Albarn "both die of AIDS." Blur are more light-hearted about the whole affair; James even wears an Oasis T-shirt on Top of the Pops. "I looked at that whole thing as a kind of pantomime," he says in retrospect. "Oasis just tend to be rude about anyone's records other than theirs." On August 14, Blur's single comes out on top of the battle, but they end up losing the war. There's a populist backlash against Blur's art school conceptualism and The Great Escape gets a lukewarm reception. Critics dismiss the album as a less focused, more pompous continuation of played-out autobiographical character studies with unclear intent.
Rumours of internal collapse spread when Albarn's anxiety attacks persist and his hints of a cocaine flurry in their circle lead to public finger-pointing. Coxon's disillusionment with stardom grows; his relationship with a member of former riot grrl band Huggy Bear and immersion in the American underground puts him at odds stylistically and ideologically with Blur's growing role as pop stars. Coxon attempts subtle jabs at the teenybopper audience by turning "Country House" into thrash metal at some performances. Work on their eponymous fifth album takes place in Iceland; the remote, calm, beautiful change of locale helps ease tension. "To make good music you've got to feel free some way or another, you've got to get yourself out of the mundane shit of your life and feel like somebody fresh, somebody whose life has possibilities."
Blur comes out in February, and its fusion of members' different interests is a significant divergence from the sound that made them famous. Coxon's love of guitar fuzz is appeased, while "You're So Great" is his recorded songwriting debut. The new sound finds them artistically reinvigorated. "The whole reason to keep making records is to keep making new music. You have to fight really hard for the freedom to keep changing." The biggest change, in commercial terms, comes in the form of a quickly recorded, no-nonsense primal thrash bomb with a few "woo hoos" thrown in. "Song 2" finally brings the band widespread notoriety in North American, and appears in ads for Nike, Pentium II, Labatt, Playstation and many more. The band's most consciously uncommercial album ironically becomes their biggest international hit; Blur sells more than two million copies worldwide, nearly twice as much as any previous album.
James teams up with art pals Keith Allen and Damien Hirst to form joke pop band Fat Les and release a World Cup anthem, "Vindaloo." "That was just a bunch of friends, really exactly how Blur started out," says James. He also starts flying airplanes, a hobby introduced to him by fellow amateur aviator Rowntree, who is busying himself with web design and animation. Coxon releases his debut solo album of personal, sober, lo-fi guitar pop, The Sky's Too High, while Albarn starts collaborations with film composer Michael Nyman. His relationship with Justine Frischmann starts to crumble even more, and this painful, dark disintegration becomes the songwriting influence for the next album. The band amicably parts from long-time producer Stephen Street for the recording of 13, instead turning to William Orbit.
Blur releases their sixth full-length, and its sonic map-jumping actually works as a whole. They hit gospel heights on "Tender," simple pop craft on "Coffee and TV" (another Coxon composition), vocodored record company critique in "B.L.U.R.E.M.I.," and even some prog rock. It is Albarn's Blood on the Tracks a chronicle of love lost, surprising in its naked emotional confessions. A tenth anniversary boxed set is also released, with a total of 22 singles. Coxon exhibits artwork in Prague and Paris, Albarn joins Nyman again for the soundtrack to the film Ravenous, and Rowntree and James start their own unusual cause celebre: raising funds for the development of Britain's first space shuttle to Mars. "When you're in a band, you're a mobile marketing machine; if you're willing to make enough phone calls, you can get anything for free as a band. We just said Instead of people sending us stuff, what do we think is really cool and what can we back?' What we were promised as kids: they said by 1999 there'd be spaceships!" Alex enthuses. "So I called my accountant and said I wanted to start a space program. Two meetings later I was talking to the head of the British space program."
Coxon's second solo outing The Golden D hits lukewarm ears; otherwise, the only new music is "Music Is My Radar," on a greatest hits compilation. Its cover's cartoony images of the band, by Julian Opie, ends up in the National Portrait Gallery.
James exorcises his writing demons for journal The Idler. "It's like the Velvet Underground of magazines how everyone who heard them formed a band. If you've got a copy of The Idler, you've got to write a book." As a promotion for the issue, he lounges in the window of Tower Records in Piccadilly Circus for over an hour. Albarn helps form animated hip-pop group Gorillaz. Tank Girl animator and Albarn flatmate Jamie Hewlett is a co-conspirator, as is beat master Dan the Automator. They recruit Kid Koala, Tina Weymouth, Del tha Funkee Homosapien, and Cibo Matto's Miho Hatori for the virtual reality experiment. "What Damon found with Gorillaz is that if you go and make a record with no pressure for it to be anything at all, it can often be much easier for it to work," says James.
Albarn spends time jamming in Mali, and the result is Mali Music, where he adds layers over locally-recorded musicians; released on his own label, the proceeds go to Oxfam. After years of feeling out of synch, Graham Coxon officially leaves, fuelling rumours of the band's complete disintegration. "He's happy. I wouldn't write him off as never coming back. It's just not what he needs in his life right now," says James. Coxon's stand-in for live performances ends up being former Verve guitarist Simon Tong. Recording finally begins on the long-awaited follow up to 13, this time partially conducted in Morocco. "It was a real hassle to go to Morocco," admits James. "We had to get all scruffy with customs cause they wouldn't let us import our gear into the country. It was a struggle and it cost a fucking fortune. But it was well worth it." A trio of producers Ben Hillier, William Orbit, and Norman Cook (aka Fatboy Slim) teams up with the now-trio of musicians. With Fatboy Slim on board, there's scepticism about a possible Blur dance party album. "Nobody wanted a Fatboy Slim record. Ben Hillier was the guy who was really in charge, but Norman was a really nice injection of fresh energy at a point in the proceedings when we needed one, and he fundamentally understands music."
Blur release the much-anticipated Think Tank, their seventh full-length and first without Coxon. Albarn takes over most of the guitar duties, yet Coxon's absence mixed with Albarn's recent foray into African music makes it a much more beat-oriented affair. As with their last few releases, diversity and experimentation are key driving forces. Yet one thing new is a sense of contentment and sincerity something unexpected from the former tongue-in-cheek ironists. Graham's third solo album is slated for release in the summer, while Rowntree and James await the launch of their interstellar baby, the British Unmanned Mars probe, which should take off this month. "It's amazing that spaceship was a boyhood dream of mine," gushes James. "If you have goals and are determined, you do get what you want from life. The hard thing is working out what you want."