The A to Z of Blur
A is for “Aaaaall the people”
So many people. On the face of it, it’s surprising that a band with so many bouts of musical itchy feet within their 25-year-long discography can still unite such giant numbers as Blur do into blanket, unblinking loyalty. Then again, underneath it all, Blur have always been about populism: no matter how scabrous the guitar sounds became, how obnoxious the art-school arrogance or drawn-out the songwriting, singalong lyrics and stadium melodies have underpinned every album and inspired the sort of mass support normally reserved for bands who knock out the same one-note LP every two years – which leads us to…
B is for Battle of Britpop
Twenty years ago this summer, a slow news day in mid-August left John Humphrys reading out a light-hearted pop-music item on the Six O’Clock News to fill space, and what was quite a big story for the indie weeklies became inspiration for a mass of national broadsheet thinkpieces about cultural division in the dog days of John Major’s Britain. Of course, the rivalry between Blur and Oasis, north and south, leafy suburbia and council estate were all writ large, and have retrospectively been seen as aggravating factors. However, when The Guardian asked Albarn in 2003 about the spat really being started by rumours of Albarn sleeping with Liam Gallagher's ex-girlfriend Lisa Moorish behind his back, he laughed it off: "What can I say?” he shrugged. “We were all a lot younger and we were having a good time."
C is for Chipping Norton set
And on the topic of having a good time: Alex James has always revelled in having high-profile extracurricular friends – Keith Allen and Damien Hirst in art-hooligan concept group Fat Les were his first tabloid bessies, during Blur’s imperial phase – but his departure to a Very Big House in rural Oxfordshire to hang out with the powerful bumpkins and bigots of Chipping Norton is said not to have gone down well with bandmates Dave (prospective Labour councillor) and Damon (vituperative anti-war campaigner) in particular.
D is for Dan Abnormal
More than just an anagram of Albarn’s name and a second-half filler on The Great Escape, Dan Abnormal is Albarn’s alter-ego, and was perhaps the first and most outward tell of a personality that would lead to Gorillaz, The Good The Bad & The Queen and all his other schizophrenic side-projects. Abnormal’s got songwriting credits on the first Elastica album too (Norman Balda gets props on The Menace) and for all the mess that Albarn’s magpie musical taste can create (Music Is My Radar, anyone?), the existence of Dan Abnormal is, paradoxically, one of Blur’s most enduring traits.
E is for Eccles cakes
Another of those traits, of course, is the rivalry/bond between Albarn and Graham Coxon. When the pair kissed and made up in the summer of 2008, seven years after parting ways so acrimoniously, it all happened over the most English of bakery items: “We just went for a walk and bought a bun – I think it was an Eccles cake – and sat in a doorway,” Albarn told Radio 4. “It really felt like it was back to how it was when we were younger.” That meeting wasn’t the first rebirth of Blur, however…
F is for ‘For Tomorrow’
After a brace of disastrous US tours, and with half of second album Modern Life Is Rubbish written but also rejected by their label, Blur were perilously close to breaking up. Then, early on Christmas Day 1992, Albarn wrote the song that came to signify their recovery. “I went back to Colchester,” says Albarn in 3862 Days, Stuart Maconie’s authoritative history of the band. “It was a really horrible Christmas. I went out on Christmas Eve and got really drunk and woke up really early on Christmas morning very hungover and went down into the kitchen and wrote For Tomorrow. I woke my dad up – he came downstairs and wanted to know what the fuck I was doing up this early. That was a really important song for us. It was the beginning of us being a different kind of band.”
G is for Glastonbury
Blur’s relationship with Glastonbury over the years is love-hate at best: James called organiser Michael Eavis a ‘yokel’ in the wake of their logistically chaotic headline slot in 1998, but their triumphant return in 2009, complete with an overwhelmed Albarn in tears, is one of the most iconic images of the band’s post-reformation era. It began though in 1992, when Blur were still chaotic art-school punks, with Albarn climbing the stage scaffolding and breaking his ankle under a toppling speaker stack during the final song. They returned in 1994 to provide one of the classic Glastonbury performances, of This Is A Low at sunset, and headlined in 1998 with a sprawling set-list. They finally headlined again in 2009, bringing on the waterworks from Albarn.
H is for Heroin
While their contemporaries were reasonably up front in interviews and songs about their drug use, Blur – and particularly Albarn – prefered to be more coquettish, leaving behind semi-cryptic lyrics to songs like Caramel and Beetlebum to serve as clues to a habit he only confirmed last year. He started using heroin "at the height of Britpop", he told Q, after coming off tour and finding it "in the front room" (which would tally with then-girlfriend Justine Frischman’s admission to the Observer in 2002 to living the life of a “sad junkie between 1996 and 1998” – see ‘J’). But far from encountering the destructive qualities of the drug, Albarn recalls that "heroin freed me up. It was incredibly creative… a combination of heroin and playing really simple, beautiful, repetitive shit in Africa changed me completely as a musician. I found a sense of rhythm." Albarn’s heroin use coincided with the writing of Blur and 13 – arguably Blur’s most creatively ambitious period – something he might have blenched at three years earlier when dismissing Kurt Cobain and the popularity of grunge so virulently.
I is for Iceland
In 1996, as Blur sought to distance themselves geographically as well as stylistically from Britpop, Albarn found himself a house in Reykjavik and began recording sessions for their eponymous fifth album in a local studio. “I like how Iceland’s on the top of the world,” he told a local TV station at the time, all spaced-out and doe-eyed, extolling the virtues of the sunlight there. Within a year or so, he would co-own a bar on Laugavegar, the Icelandic capital’s busiest street, and Iceland would be one of the late-90s’ hippest travel destinations – another example of Albarn’s eerie sense for the zeitgeist.
J is for Justine
Every band needs its muse, but for Blur – that most competitive of bands – it seemed to matter that that muse was also a rival’s ex-girlfriend. Before putting together Elastica, Justine Frischmann had been a founder member of Suede and partner of Brett Anderson in 1990, and eventually got together with Damon Albarn in 1991, and while few Blur songs explicitly tackle their relationship before the break-up album of 13 (Yuko & Hiro, about two lovers who never see one another because of their jobs, is potentially the only candidate), Frischmann’s influence looms large over the band, musically, aesthetically, and – see ‘H’ – recreationally. Frischmann says she left Suede in its early days because she’d “rather be Pete Best than Linda McCartney”; in the end, her role became more that of Yoko Ono.
K is for Kurt
When Kurt Cobain, emblematic nemesis of Blur’s vision of British pop, was asked for his thoughts on British bands in a 1991 Radio One interview, he could remember no names of note but mentioned a song he'd recently heard that he loved. In a fully strung-out Unplugged In New York style, he then sang, "There's no other way, there's no other way. All that you can do is watch them play…”
L is for “Love’s the greatest thing”
While peppy indie-disco floorfillers and thrashy knees-ups abound in Blur’s discography, there’s also a good argument that all of Blur’s truly finest moments are their melancholic love songs, and that for all his pretentions to punksterism, Albarn is most comfortable as a love-lorn introspective torch-song balladeer. From Sing on Leisure, through This Is A Low and He Thought of Cars to Battery In Your Leg on Think Tank, almost every Blur album’s peak is a ballad. Indeed, Albarn’s soppy hippie flower child incarnation is one of the few that endures throughout his career – and it trumps all his other myriad guises.
M is for Midlife
The contractual obligation greatest hits album is one of pop’s great albatrosses, trotted out to bolster album-less tours or, in Blur’s case, to accompany their reunion in 2009. But what distinguishes Midlife, and makes it a worthy addition to the Blur canon, is that it remains the band’s only statement of what they consider to be their best songs. After their 10th-anniversary Best Of tracklisting, picked by the fans, discarded band favourites Popscene and Chemical World, Midlife is a far more rewarding collection for both listener and, one presumes, Blur themselves.
N is for Norman Cook
Given their relatively brief liaison, Norman Cook’s shadow is cast long over Blur’s folk history. For a start, Fatboy Slim’s request to remix Song 2 in 1997 was rejected, with Alex James famously describing remixes as “like giving your dog to someone to take for a walk and them coming back with a different dog” (despite Blur commissioning an entire remix album the following year). Relations must’ve improved by 2001, though, when Cook was somewhat controversially asked to helm the initial sessions for Blur’s new album. Cook only ended up producing the cataclysmically bad Crazy Beat and the actually-rather-good Gene By Gene, but Cook’s greatest imprint on the Blur story is that his appointment as Think Tank producer is said to be what prompted Graham Coxon to walk out on the sessions and the band. Speaking to Teletext in 2004, Coxon declared that, after hearing Think Tank, he was "very glad" not to be in Blur any more.
O is for Olympics
When Blur were announced as the headlining act at the Hyde Park section of the London Olympics closing ceremony, Albarn said it might be the band’s last performance, and even Coxon was noncommittal in a Loud And Quiet interview. Of course, given Blur’s form in predicting ends (see ‘Q’), it wasn’t their final call – and their performance that evening has since become another of note: three years after their initial return, the band played virtually the same set, but managed to match the glee and large-scale emotional outpouring that the country, and London in particular, had enjoyed over the previous fortnight.
P is for Personas
And a back-catalogue filled with them, both named (Colin Zeal, Tracy Jacks, Ernold Same, Mr Robinson) and anonymous. But beyond that, there's the shape-shifting nature of the band members themselves: Albarn’s transformation from sulky art student to rowdy Chelsea fan to tortured heroin addict, to indie Bono-style activist and Serious Composer, and James's, from pretty/silent smoking cool to Barbour-sporting organic farmer, are cause for some of the fiercest vitriol aimed at the band. And that's without even touching on Gorillaz or walking milk cartons…
Q is for Quitting
To celebrate their 10th anniversary in 1999, Blur played a series of “Singles Nights”, at which they performed all of their then 21 singles in chronological order. As the final notes of No Distance Left To Run rang out across Wembley Arena on the final night of the tour, Albarn provocatively sang, “is this the end?”, fuelling rumours that the band was finished. It was the first of several supposed swansongs for Blur: Albarn also named their Olympic closing ceremony show as the band’s last (see ‘O’), as well as their 2014 gig at the Budokan in Tokyo – scene of their triumphant Britpop-era live album. Indeed, so bad are they at quitting that even Coxon, the only one to do it successfully, was eventually coaxed back again.
R is for Rock Profiles
All bands that reach the fame level of Blur come in for stick somewhere, but few parodies have skewered a band as comprehensively as Matt Lucas and David Walliams did in the pre-Little Britain days of Rock Profiles:
S is for Stephen Street
Erstwhile producer of The Smiths, Stephen Street wasn’t Blur’s first producer, but he is their longest lasting and, in the style of Radiohead’s relationship with Nigel Godrich and The Beatles’ with George Martin, became a de facto additional member of the group during the band’s imperial phase. Although Street was ditched after Blur’s first album in favour of Andy Partridge (see ‘X’), he was quickly ushered back into the fold and credited with helping to define the aesthetic with which the band are most closely associated, with the inclusion of such then-untrendy adornments as woodwind sections and brass.
T is for The Magic Whip
Albums made by reunited bands are, as a rule of thumb, not very good. Either a tepid recollection of glory days gone by (the Pixies) or an overly self-conscious attempt to channel newfound maturity (Suede), they seldom add anything dazzling to a band’s discography. But perhaps that’s not the point. “I admire the Pope – I have a lot of respect for anyone who can tour without an album,” goes one of American comedian Rita Rudner’s finest bon mots, and perhaps that’s the real point of The Magic Whip: six years after reforming, every punter who yearned for a beery singalong of Tender has had their fill. If Blur wanted to continue the lucrative art of live performance without becoming a mockery, they needed some new material.
U is for US Army
And on the topic of lucrative arts, in 1998 Blur were offered $4m by the US Army to let them use Song 2 to launch a new Stealth Fighter Jet. The band refused, although they’re not against advertising tie-ins – ‘The Universal’ (another ‘U’ and a track that has become the reunited Blur’s theme song), is the British Gas jingle…
V is for ‘very very very cheap’
The closing line to each verse of Chemical World might seem a tenuous link to a brilliant track, but that song is worthy of inclusion here for similar reasons to For Tomorrow (see ‘F’). When Food Records boss Dave Balfe heard For Tomorrow, itself commissioned because its parent album at that point “didn’t have any singles”, he instructed Albarn to “fuck off and do another one like that”. The result was Chemical World, a thunderously good song full of seedy voyeurs and bored check-out girls that served as a marker of the group’s growing confidence. Food Records’ Andy Ross describes For Tomorrow and Chemical World as “a knight in shining armour and the seventh cavalry respectively” for Modern Life. It changed that album, and Blur went on from being an inch away from being dropped to the biggest band in the UK within a year.
W is for Wakes Colne
This tiny, sleepy village in northern Essex is famous for not much besides the East Anglian Railway Museum, itself famous only for being the site of Blur’s first ever gig in 1989, played while they were still called Seymour in front of a cobbled-together crowd of about 100 friends and family. They returned to the very venue, essentially a railway siding beside Chappel and Wakes Colne train station, in similar circumstances in 2009 to play live for the first time since 2001: the show, in front of competition winners, was the first of the 2009 tour that culminated in Glastonbury’s triumph (see ‘G’).
X is for XTC
The influence of Andy Partridge’s post-punk group is deeply embedded in Blur’s mid-90s sound – the bug-eyed psychosis, a fondness for the English song tradition and a latent yearning for psychedelia – particularly on Modern Life Is Rubbish. That, perhaps, is no coincidence: after growing bored of the pseudo-Madchesterisms of their debut, the band initially requested Partridge produce their follow-up, although it quickly went wrong. “I don’t think he really knows how to be a producer,” Abarn told Stuart Maconie in 3862 Days, “but what I did get out of it was an eight-track that he sold me which I still use.” Coxon, too, was skeptical: “He had this horrible way of saying ‘trust me’ – and I don’t trust people who say that.”
Y is for You’re So Great
A minor song on a major album that also contains Song 2 and Beetlebum, You’re So Great earns its significance in Blur’s story for being Graham Coxon’s first contribution as primary songwriter. Scratchy, shy and sentimental, it was perhaps a foreshadowing of the direction of Coxon’s solo work, and the aesthetic rifts that would grow steadily between him and the rest of the band for the three years leading up to his departure.
Z is for Zelig
“I am a bit like Zelig,” Albarn confessed to the Guardian while promoting Think Tank in 2003, referring to Woody Allen’s eponymous character who takes on radically different personalities depending on his situation. That shape-shifting remains perhaps the most defining aspect of Blur as a whole and the reason why, unlike Zelig, the band are unlikely to fade into history.