You and I collapsed in love.
And it looks like we might have made it.
Made it to the end.
'To The End' (Parklife, 1994)
Formed in Colchester, Essex in 1989 in the form of new-wave art-punk (seriously!) band Seymour, blur1 quickly became one of the biggest-selling bands in the country and a mainstay of the British indie scene for over a decade. Seymour's original line-up, which remained constant for the band's life-span was:
- Damon Albarn (Vocals and keyboards)
- Graham Coxon (Guitars)
- Alex James (Bass)
- David Rowntree (Drums)
Blur's debut album from August 1991, a sprightly collection of jangly guitar tunes, which perfectly captured the mood of the early 1990s indie scene2. Reminiscent of The Wonder Stuff at their best, the album spawned the singles 'There's No Other Way' and 'Bang'.
Though hardly original, the album brought critical acclaim, and Damon's onstage charisma meant that blur built up a solid fanbase. Musically, the repetitiveness of the album was its major downfall. After 30 minutes of 'cheerful' summer tunes, most people were in wrist-slitting mood, and the last few album tracks were deservedly overlooked. Not until the advent of Dodgy's Homegrown were the British record-buying public to be subjected to such unrelenting cheerfulness.
Modern Life Is Rubbish
The album that launched the characteristic 'Mockney'3 image was released in May 1993. A satirical examination of homegrown subjects in the suburbs of London, named after an urban graffito, it was extremely well received by the popular musical press.
Moody and ponderous, the album never appealed to blur's existing fans, who saw the concept as pretentious (possibly the first album ever to have an intermission), and the subjects as unworthy of the pastiche. In retrospect, though, it seems a more subtle and delicate precursor to the famous Parklife album - indeed many hardcore blur fans have named it as their all-time favourite.
The album that made the world take notice, and candidate for one of the best discs of the 1990s. Released just one year after Modern Life... it took the same satirical theme, but expanded the ideas to include a wider range of more obvious stereotypes. Hedonistic teenagers, suicidal white-collar workers, apathetic youths, unpatriotic taxi-drivers... every character was immediately recognisable, solving the problem that had haunted Modern Life...
Blur also proved here, more than on any other album, that witty lyricism could be matched to thoughtful and original instrumentation. Broad strings, brass fanfares and French chanteuses all went hand in hand (to misuse a lyric) with Damon's inspired keyboard arrangements. Graham's talent on the clarinet was an unexpected boost, and added subtle tone to several songs. Even the instrumental interlude didn't grate as much as in Modern Life..., 'The Tax Collector' being a three-minute Viennese waltz (really!) and 'Far Out' being Alex's charming little paean to the Universe.
Songs such as the title track (partially voiced by comedian/actor Phil Daniels) and 'Girls and Boys' stormed the top ten and became cult classics for years afterwards.
The Great Escape
Parklife was always going to be a hard album to follow up, and blur's big mistake is that they tried to reproduce the tone of the previous album. After the much vaunted 'Battle of the Bands' with Oasis (producing blur's first number one single in the form of the outrageous 'Country House'), the album was released in late 1995.
While the band were obviously going short of subject matter to send up, the songwriting maintained a high standard, although the bittersweet melodies of 'Fade Away' and 'Best Days' did not really suit the band's style at all. Still, the uproarious beat of 'Country House' was among the band's finest hours, and songs such as 'Top Man' (a slant on fashion conscious 20-somethings) and 'It Could Be You' (a take on the catch-phrase for the - at the time - brand new UK National Lottery) were more than adequate support. Undeservedly savaged by the critics, the album is still a treasured part of many a collection, if only because of that song.
Eponymous albums from well established bands often signify a change in direction, and Blur4 was certainly no exception. Graham had taken over a large proportion of the songwriting, influenced by low-fi American indie as popularised by the likes of John Mellencamp. The result was an album of mixed quality. While songs like 'On Your Own' and 'Beetlebum' showed the band at their musical best, the second half of the album dragged badly and was barely recognisable as the terminal optimists who brought the world Parklife. Damon, especially, seemed particularly inhibited by the songwriting; his vocal lines were frequently weak, and it could be sensed that he was not happy with the new sound
The undoubted highlight of the album came from throwaway track 'Song 2'. With distortion turned up to the max, Dave's powerful thrash-drumming and utterly pointless lyrics (think U2 meets Rage Against The Machine and you'd be somewhere close), the song became an instant favourite in rock and indie clubs and provided some of the most dangerous mosh pits since Nirvana's 'Smells Like Teen Spirit'.
With Damon taking a larger part in the songwriting, the world waited eagerly for blur's sixth album, and in February 1999, most people were surprised with the result. Partially influenced by Damon's break-up with Justine Frischmann of Elastica, the teaser single, 'Tender' was a straightforward gospel ballad. Uninspiringly derivative, it nevertheless said a lot about the band, who insisted that it wasn't representative of the album.
And they were right. 13 was filled with an array of tunes more upbeat than Blur, but overlaid with Damon's wit and charisma. 'Bugman' was 'Song 2' without the testosterone; 'Coffee and TV' was 'Parklife' with a nod to Radiohead, and the album's best track, 'Trimm Trabb' tried ambitiously to combine everything that had made blur great over the last ten years. Far from a classic, the album nevertheless was an excellent portrayal of a band reaching the end of their time together.
A limited-release 'Collectors Edition' was released not long after Parklife. Featuring rarities and out-takes, it had a rougher edge than the mainstream albums and appealed to the hardcore fans.
Bustin' and Dronin' was a re-mix album, featuring a couple of live tracks. Released in the two-year gap between Blur and 13 and produced by the somewhat over-rated William Orbit5, the dancefloor remixes were universally reviled by blur fans, and the album flopped spectacularly.
blur: The Best Of was released in 2000. Containing two or three tracks from each album, it offered no surprises, but acted as an ideal introduction to the band or as nostalgic memorabilia for the non-fan. Perhaps, more importantly it demonstrated the wide range of styles and expression that the band have been capable of.
With no album in three years (other than their predictable Best Of...) it looked very much like blur's days were numbered. Band members spent more and more time working on individual projects:
- Damon guest-wrote songs for several indie albums around 2000, and then created animated band Gorillaz with cartoonist and friend Jamie Howlett. The debut single, Clint Eastwood, gained a huge following and the eponymous album hit the top 5 in March 2001. Damon later released the intriguing Mali Music, a venture into African music.
- Graham, slightly disillusioned by the relatively lukewarm reception given to Blur, formed his own record label, Transcopic, and released three albums: The Sky Is Too High, The Golden D and Crow Sit On Blood Tree.
- Alex worked part-time with novelty-single maestros Fat Les, and recorded a mini-album which failed to set the charts alight.
In 2003 Damon, Alex and Dave reformed and the trio released a new album, Think Tank. In the style to which they had become accustomed, critics and the public alike were baffled by the new coarsely-produced ambient sound; some claimed it as a masterpiece, many were simply wondering where the instantly-recognisable hum-along songs of the 90s albums had gone. The broad soundscapes and lack of obvious structure frightened most listeners off, but the album does indeed have a beauty of its own when heard for the second or third time. It is undoubtedly a shame, though, that the social commentary which made the band famous has all but disappeared.
Whatever the opinions, there can be no doubt that blur have undergone many more metamorphoses than their contemporaries and emerged as musicians of genuine credibility.