‘There are blue skies in my city today’
12 August 2012. An extraordinary fortnight of success and spectacle is drawing to a close. In the Olympic Village, the nation is showing its remarkable ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory with a kitschy, messy closing ceremony. Contrary to rumours, Kate Bush has not appeared live, while David Bowie has been present only in an absurdly truncated montage. The Kaiser Chiefs blundering through “Pinball Wizard”, Ed Sheeran strumming his dreary way through “Wish You Were Here” and the truly grisly spectacle of Russell Brand miming through “I Am The Walrus” (this time he should not be forgiven) have not compensated. The Pet Shop Boys and Annie Lennox have looked and sounded spectacular, but their brightness has only highlighted the surrounding dullness.
Just a few miles away in Hyde Park, something more wondrous is occurring. The Blur-curated “Best Of British” concert has proven better than that irksome title suggested. New Order and The Specials have reminded us of the restless innovation and the political bite that has characterised British pop since it first found its feet in the sixties. Now Blur are finishing a long and glittering set which has romped through the monster hits (from “Girls and Boys” through to “Song 2”, dedicated to Mo Farah) and lingered over the laments (“End of A Century” through to the gorgeous new single “Under The Westway”). There have been reports that the sound is patchy in places, but for the many rammed close to the stage it has been a night of concentrated energy and emotion.
But now tonight is almost over, and maybe Blur too. A strange awareness that this could be Blur’s last performance, their last encore, hovers before sweet, sad strings fill the air, a melancholy waltz rhythm begins and Damon Albarn sings, hesitantly, “This is the next century”. It’s “The Universal”, Blur’s typically ambiguous hymn to British pop culture, a song about the nation’s desperate need to plug in (“satellites in every home”) and escape (“to karaoke songs how we like to sing along”). Then Albarn sings that soaring, sarcastic chorus, and a lyric about the dangled dream of the National Lottery – “it really, really, really could happen” – is for one moment at least a simple celebration of the remarkable and inevitably temporary explosion of positivity and unity generated by the Olympics. Albarn, so often viewed as clever and cold, chokes up. The crowd is lost in the mass jubilation that only huge pop concerts and sporting moments can create.
Yes, Blur love Britain, and Britain loves Blur. No other band have been so important, so central, to our pop life over the last two decades. Not Oasis, whose belligerent brilliance proved so brief. Not Radiohead, whose retreat from the mainstream has been simultaneously fascinating and frustrating. Not the fucking Kaiser Chiefs. Only Blur, only Blur.
But it hasn’t always been this way. If Blur and Britain are in a love affair, it’s been a tempestuous one, characterised by intense infatuations, huge bust ups, sulky silences and radiant reconciliations. Over their long career, Blur have sometimes had us in the palm of their hands, sometimes watched us slip through their fingers, and sometimes held us firmly at arm’s length. It’s been a relationship often dictated by the prickly persona of Albarn, his warring instincts between wanting to be the nation’s master of ceremonies, and its chief critic, his pop heart, and his art head.
No, it hasn’t always been this way. It’s time to go back to 1991, when Blur and Britain first met. There’s no other way.
blurblog 2, the second of five tributes to the band, will be appearing in this space very soon.