blurblog 5, the final part in our blur marathon below. blurblog 1, on Hyde Park and how Blur have become a central part of our pop life is here, blurblog 2 on the tricky early years is here , blurblog 3 on the triumph of Parklife, and the cracks beginning to reveal themselves in the Great Escape here and blurblog 4 on Blur to Think Tank here.
“There were no rows,” Graham Coxon said when he left Blur in 2002, in the middle of the troubled “Think Tank” recordings in Morocco. This was both magnaminous and unlikely, given the combustible personalities involved. Indeed, looking back on Blur’s career, it seems obvious that Blur have been in various states of war from the very beginning, that their career has been one long and confusing battle.
First there was the war for attention, a battle all four members seemed eager to sign up to, and which culminated in their first, false commercial dawn with “Leisure”. This was swiftly followed by the war against Suede and looming irrelevance: the band barely had a chance to celebrate their success before Brett Anderson’s glam wrecking crew had eclipsed them utterly, in the music press, in the charts and most importantly of all musically. This led to the band striking back with a far more satisfying record, the razor sharp, bristling “Modern Life Is Rubbish”, one which didn’t sell.
Maybe it was the spectre of commercial oblivion that spurred Damon on to his next battle, one Alex signed up to eagerly, but which seemed to leave the punk-hearted Graham conflicted at best. This was the war for total cultural ubiquity – proper pop star fame in other words – and resulted in the blitzkrieg of “Girls And Boys”, “Parklife” the single and album, tabloid spreads and awards hailing down almost as fast as the sales figures racked up. This war was an utter success, but came – as such things do – with a price. All conquerors are faced with the problem of how to hold on to the territory they have won, and Blur were faced with the emergence of a new superpower: Oasis.
Blur versus Oasis is of course the war that would most define Blur, while actually discrediting and trapping them. The brassy, glitzy “The Great Escape” is a far, far better record than it is given credit for, but it also began to shatter the fragile band (shortly after its release journalist Adrian Deevoy described Blur as “on the verge of a nervous breakup”), with Graham openly expressing his loathing for cynical high-jinks like the “Country House” video, and Damon’s own songwriting betraying the empty sadness (“where to fly to, and who to fly there with?”) that was gnawing away underneath the trappings of success.
Blur famously won a battle with the “Country House” single but lost the war, with Oasis rising to a level of cultural supremacy that even “Parklife” hadn’t achieved. As anyone who ever walked into a Top Shop in 1995 to hear “Cast No Shadow” on eternal loop, or who staggered down Princes Street in Edinburgh on Hogmanay to hear thousands of rowdy Scots engaged in a mass singalong of “Wonderwall” can tell you, Oasis seemed to have become not just the biggest band in Britain, but the only band in Britain.
Blur, wisely but ostentatiously, quit the arms race, throwing everyone’s toys out of the pram in a flurry of interviews about how bored they were with success and repeating themselves. But as “Blur” and “13” revealed, the fighting wasn’t over yet, it simply became a civil war. Coxon’s urge to swap commercial success for scuzzy punk backfired spectacularly when “Song 2” became the band’s biggest global hit, whle the rest of “Blur” was a fascinating struggle between Albarn’s poppy instincts (the gorgeous melodies that suffused songs like “Beetlebum”) and Coxon’s rawer aesthetics (the stripped down, sickly “You’re So Great”). Given that two members of Blur have now quit drinking, it’s safe to say that alcohol consumption played its usual creative/destructive role in proceedings. If “13” seemed to show a band more at peace with itself, more unified than ever – see Coxon’s co-helming duties on “Tender” and his step into the spotlight on “Coffee and TV” – the “Think Tank” implosion proved this peace, like Chamberlain’s, wasn’t worth the paper it was written on.
After “Think Tank” the band staggered on for a while. The live shows were smaller than they had been – both Pop Lifer writers were present for one at Brixton Academy – and for all the joys this intimacy could create, the absence of Coxon left Blur looking like a maimed band. It probably didn’t surprise many that efforts in the next few years to revive the Blur band and brand – there were rumoured attempts to recruit a replacement for Coxon, as well as some aborted recording sessions – proved fruitless.
Each of the members drifted on to new projects so disparate that it increasingly seemed like a miracle the band had ever managed to share the same stage at all. Damon’s Gorillaz provided enough commercial affirmation for even his ego, while other side projects like The Good, The Bad and The Queen found an outlet for his increasingly melancholic, reflective songwriting. Coxon seemed to enjoy his solo records as well as the much smaller scale success that had escaped him in Blur, Dave showed a perverse interest in politics and Alex turned his attention to cheese, with some relish.
And then something strange happened. Slowly but surely, music critics and fans alike began to wake up to the fact that there was a gaping, Blur-sized hole in British music. It became obvious that history was winning all of Blur’s wars for them, without them having to raise a finger or a pistol. Suede had long ago faded into a ghastly parody of themselves before calling it a day (and if Damon ever needed comfort during dark nights of the soul, Brett Anderson’s solo records would surely have brought the laughter back). As for Oasis, they had degenerated into such a generic, repetitive caricature that only the doggedly loyal didn’t want the Gallaghers to finally have an argument big enough to make them leave the rest of us alone.
But most of all, it was obvious that there was no other new band with half the depth and range that Blur could command at their best. Franz Ferdinand could do the choppy guitar pop with aplomb, but couldn’t make the leap to songs as complex and moving as “This Is A Low”, while the Kaiser Chiefs could provide the knees-up entertainment but were incapable of such effortless loveliness as “Out Of Time”. As for Kasabian, well, they had their place, but it wasn’t Blur’s.
Britain needed Blur. Articles began to appear saying just this, in the very same music papers that had once begged them to give it a rest (when they got their wish Alexis Petridis spoke for many, though in uncharacteristically akward prose, when he wrote that “Blur’s music seems to have potentiated by the passing of years”). Although the day glo japes of “Parklife” were still remembered, pub conversations increasingly turned, longingly, to the understated beauty of “End of a Century” or the lolloping charm of “Coffee and TV”, or the swooning heartbreak of “The Universal”.
And in 2009, after a few false starts, Blur again decided to give Britain what it wanted. Usually news of a band reforming is met with sneers, shrugs or cynicism – but Blur couldn’t be accused of needing the money, and the announcement of new live shows was met with a jubilation that may have surprised even Albarn. And so, for perhaps the first time in their career, the band lived up to expectations with ease.
The word’s “triumphant return” have become two of the most devalued in all music journalism, but they fit Blur’s 2009 Hyde Park shows like a glove. Over a 100,000 people flocked to the centre of London over two nights representing, if the clothes and hairstyles were anything to go by, fans from every Blur period. There were Fred Perryd Parklifers, sharply suited Modern Lifers, scruffily hip 13ers and even a few baggy old men of the Leisure class. If most were thirtysomethings whose teens and twenties had been soundtracked by Blur, there were also a huge contingent of kids who hadn’t been born when “There Is No Other Way” hit the top ten.
Here are Pop Lifer’s diary notes from that night, scribbled as soon as we got home, still fizzing with adrenaline
At 8.15 Blur came on, perfectly timed, with the sun beginning to set on the park. Damon said “you look so beautiful with the sun setting.” I bet he says that to all the crowds.
How to put the fantastic into words? Through impressions. Opened with a soaringly simple “She’s So High” followed by a deliriously good “Girls And Boys”, me pogo-ing like a maniac. And then an enormous “Tender” really milked by the band, the whole lot of us bellowing “love’s the greatest thing” by the end. A gorgeously misfit “Beetlebum”, a beautifully ambling “Coffee And TV”, a riotous Country House (oh, that sad refrain).
And then an onslaught of perfect songs. A longing “End Of A Century”, a tragically sad “To The End” and then “This Is A Low” ripped my heart out with its beauty and sadness. “The Universal” repaired it, and I ended the night dancing arm in arm with my friends. Perfect. The band looked so happy!
And they truly did, almost as much as the crowd. A set list which touched on every album they’d ever done, from “Leisure” through to “Think Tank”, saw a band finally unified. It showed a band who could happily indulge in the pop romp of “Parklife”, but also give space to the more esoteric “Oily Water”, who could all take their moments in the limelight for “Tender” or who could be a springboard for Albarn’s hyperactive frontmanship on “Girls And Boys”. It showed a band who could be scuzzily furious (“Popscene”) or shamelessly, utterly beautiful (“For Tomorrow”), and every shade in between. It revealed Britain’s most complex, most versatile, most beautiful band in short, as did this year’s Hyde Park reunion reunion, in spite of the now famous sound problems.
Looking back over their 21 years it seems obvious that even when Blur claimed to know exactly what they were doing and where they were going, they never really did. Or, even if they did, there were some of them didn’t want to go there. So the contradictory statements since the big Hyde Park show, with some members suggesting Blur are finally done and others suggesting that there might be a future after all, are entirely in keeping with the band’s restless, contradictory nature. So yes, there could be more shows and there could be another album. With this amazing band it really, really, really could happen… but it might not.
And if not, if Blur have no distance left to run, we still have something quite extraordinary: the Blur songbook. Because one other thing has become obvious. Blur have probably not produced a perfect album. Every one of them has been bedevilled by lapses into the obvious or the obstinate, glibness or grumpiness. But they do have, overall, one of the best, most glittering back catalogues in all of our pop history. They won the only war that has ever mattered, the one for greatness and excellence, and they have earnt our love.