To coincide with Blur’s performance at Hyde Park on Sunday, ITV 4 showed No Distance Left to Run, the honest and fairly definitive documentary which captures the preparation for their triumphant 2009 return as well as their overall career arc. You know the one – the rise, the fall and the return to grace. Their final rejection of both fame and each other, and eventual reconciliation with both.
It’s an exhaustive and exhausting two hours; the emotional connection you make with a band you love played out in a series of frank and difficult interviews. It’s a complex tale with some fairly simple conclusions: seeking fame is dangerous (see also Jackson, Spears, Winehouse) and that creative and emotional honesty is crucial to a band’s health. By 1AM, Pop Lifer was slightly teary and bleary, Sing still echoing in the living room, the credits rolling, and then – just before the reach for the remote – a jaunty Welsh announcer chirped:
“Well, Parklife has always been my favourite. Next on ITV 4, Motorway Patrol.”
Let’s face it, Blur will never fully escape “Parklife”, the album, the single, the video, the look and the fall out (essentially “The Great Escape”). The extraordinary variety of musical styles and mood which Blur have explored and which Pop Lifer are so joyously charting this week will, we suspect, always be revered by music fanatics. For much of the broader public which exist beyond blogs, fanzines and Hyde Park, for ‘all the people, so many people’, “Parklife” is Blur. As fellow Britpop survivor Luke Haines notes acidically in his “Bad Vibes” biography, “”Parklife” sold 3 million records in Swindon alone.”
It all started gloriously. Given the band’s recent commercial doldrums, for many “Girls and Boys” might as well as have been Blur’s first single – “we haven’t been introduced”. It’s a storming, dizzying swirl of pop joy; four minutes of shouting and dancing and drinking, somewhere in the middle of which a chorus bends genders back and forth in a rampage of bisexuality and Albarn skews Brits abroad with one part affection and one part withering contempt. Musically, it’s as close to disco as Blur would get, carried along by the sheer fizz of Alex James’ bass and Blur’s most insistent chorus ever. It sounded like nothing Blur or anyone else had done before.
A reputation that had been slowly rebuilding now soared, and ubiquity beckoned. “Girls and Boys” reached number 5 and “Parklife”, the subsequent album, was almost universally praised. Smash Hits and red top tabloids suddenly noticed once again that Blur were rather good looking (this time they came armed with much better hair) and Damon’s eager face soon began to fill their pages.
It is worth remembering exactly why Britain fell in love with Blur for the second time because it explains why affection for this period has proven so durable. Britain fell in love with Blur via an amazing single and a brilliant album which bristled with variety, taking in “Badhead”s languid lament, “Bank Holiday’s”, sharp, jagged punk, a mid-life crisis caught in all its desperation by the arrangement and lyric of “Tracey Jacks” and the stripped down sadness of “End Of A Century”. It’s topped off with “This is a Low”, perhaps the band’s masterpiece, a perfectly realised metaphor for depression as expressed through the oh-so-English shipping forecast, washed over with a breathtaking and still overwhelming guitar solo from Graham. Yes, on dance floors “Girls and Boys” and “Parklife” were danced to in doc martens and high heels, enjoyed knowingly and raucously, but the album was listened to in full (remember when that happened?) and loved, both cheaply and deeply.
Then Phil Daniels happened, three months on from the album release. The genuinely funny “Parklife” video brilliantly caught the mood of the song. However it distorted how Blur came to be viewed by the public thereafter. This was not entirely Blur’s fault.
A pretty face and a good album gets you in to the in-tray of a tabloid sub-editor or on to a TV schedule. Once they’d arrived it was always unlikely that any angle would focus on the band’s multiple influences and versatility, preferring to focus on the Madness-influenced jauntiness and the more smart-arse lyrics. At the same time, media in-trays also had another contender for attention: the belligerently rock’n’roll Oasis. They played it straight and they were backed up not just with another great album, “Definitely Maybe”, but with rowing brothers who generated good copy without the need of a footnote or finger in air quote marks. Raw, visceral, northern – they celebrated dole life and getting pissed, a resolutely irony-free zone. They definitely hadn’t been to art school. A false opposition between Blur ponces and Oasis lads was being established: it did Blur no favours, and nor did the video to “Parklife”.
Every time Blur received an award or appeared on a chat show, the backdrop would be Damon, feet pointing out, on his heels, hands behind his back, in his Sergio Tacchini, jauntily running from back to front and centre. A decent joke, a third single and a song that only reached number 10 became emblematic of Blur and – more detrimentally – cornered them as BritPop’s jesters. It was no good citing Martin Amis as a reference now, Damon; the tabloids wanted to know “when are you and Justine going to get married?
In the build up to the Brits in the Spring of 95, Blur played nice. Damon, aware that “Definitely Maybe” was outselling “Parklife”, felt the Best Band award should have been shared. Magnanimity soon vanished, however. Noel Gallagher wished AIDS upon Damon (he has since apologised which is awfully nice of him) and soon they were exchanging vicious snipes through the music press. Damon is one competitive fucker (have we said that before ?) and as both bands were finishing off their next albums, their labels began planning the release of their showcase singles. And someone, probably Damon, stopped playing nice.
By Damon’s design, Blur had broken through and saved their faltering career. Beyond Damon’s control they had been placed at one end of a spectrum that crudely split North and South, gruffly honest & clever-clever. Damon decided to play up to it.
The race to number 1 single between “Roll with it” and “Country House” was neither honest nor clever. “Roll With It” simply wasn’t very good, and “Country House” was too cynical. By the time its finest moment arrived, the aching refrain “Blow, blow me out/ I am so sad, I don’t know why”, we didn’t care that that the protagonist was “so sad” because we knew exactly “why”: he was a twat. Compare that, for example, with “Tracey Jacks” whose lonely emptiness moves us, whose attempt to escape from normality we identify with, and whose humiliation we share. Yes, “Country House” remains a better song than “Roll With It”, and is still enjoyable live (Pop Lifer is still stirred by the madcap descending bars of the opening) but it cemented the band’s image as wink-wink smart-arses.
The video was awful, a joke stretched thin that wasn’t terribly funny in the first place. Blur, of course won the “big Britpop race to number one”, but the public weren’t having it. They didn’t demand a recount as such, they just bought lots more copies of “What’s the Story Morning Glory?” than “The Great Escape”. Blur were again being eclipsed by hated upstarts.
It’s not that the public fell out of love with Blur at once. “The Great Escape” sold a million copies, after all. But unlike “Parklife”, its singles were rarely heard in bars and clubs, and despite very positive reviews, on each repeated listen to the album (and believe me, Pop Lifer listened to it many times) some of the songs simply didn’t hold up. The depth of “Parklife” wasn’t there. “It Could Be You”, “Charmless Man” and “Top Man” made a brief impression that withered on further listening. Like most relationships, a lack of interest became the main problem in the love affair of Blur and Britain.
And yet there is so much wondrous stuff in that album. “The Universal” is perilously close to perfect. For Pop Lifer, the most depressing aspect of Blur’s slight misfire with “The Great Escape” was that waning interest in Blur meant that a simply stunning ballad was never the massive number 1 it should have been (and now, all these years later, somehow feels like it was). Your two Pop Lifer writers, very young at the time, were so enthralled with the song that we actually storyboarded own own version of the video, only for our perfect artistic interpretation to be trumped by a sumptuous reimagining of “Clockwork Orange’s” aesthetic. It is certainly their finest video, and one of their finest ever songs.
There were other slower songs which were just as gorgeous, from the sighing, low key loneliness of “Yuko and Hiro” to the mesmerising “He Thought Of Cars”, with its extraordinary squiggling guitars and profoundly melancholic glance over the strange, sad modern world. Albarn could easily knock out glib singalongs, but it was in these far more reflective songs that the future of Blur could be found. They make “The Great Escape” Blur’s most underestimated album, even if its best moments are overshadowed by the brash, naggingly catchy emptiness of “Stereotypes” and the like.
But now the band had become an object of scorn again, and were either being sworn at in the street, drinking with builders in Camden, or too pissed to care. Dave’s whereabouts in this period remain a mystery. “Wonderwall” and “Don’t Look Back in Anger” were the anthems of 1995 and 1996 and “OK Computer” was the most revered album of the day. For Blur, the Britpop party had turned sad and nasty, as parties awash with cocaine tend to do.
Blur later distanced themselves from “Parklife”and “The Great Escape” because they had to in order to save the band and their sanity, as well as – let’s be honest – their credibility. However, we, the people, don’t and shouldn’t. Indeed, Blur themselves have come to recognise how pivotal these two records are, as can be seen from the set list from Sunday night which opened and concluded with tracks from both.
“The Great Escape” has unfairly become a cautionary tale for aiming low, considering how good some its songs are. “Parklife” however has become an icon of British music – a cover which sits alongside “Sgt Peppers”, “Beggars Banquet” “Hunky Dory”, “Dark side of the Moon” etc…. in any montage charting the narrative of British Pop. This is not because of a singles battle in the summer of 1995, it’s a tribute to a record of true greatness.
Britpop may be sneered at now. For many the euphoria and attention that the indie scene received was a little grubby and left participants a little embarrassed in its wake, feeling they might have been a little too eager to let mortgage rockers like Ocean Colour Scene and Sleeper into the party. For some, like that small number who bought “Modern Life is Rubbish” on release, Blur’s 94-96 may have been a bastardisation of the indie ideal, whatever that is. For a far greater number Britpop was their introduction to British guitar pop and “Park Life” was their hello.
In a week where the legacy of another very British bubble is being questioned, it is worth remembering Britpops’s enduring effects. Even if Blur could no longer count on mass adoration, a large chunk of those people who bought “Parklife” and “The Great Escape” stuck around. Not “all the people” of course but “so many people” did and so when Blur tried to extricate themselves with their next two albums, they found hundreds of thousands grabbing desperately to their legs. They wouldn’t go away, no matter how hard Blur tried, and boy, did Blur try.
blurblog 3, when our heroes keep accidentally-on-purpose having hits, coming soon