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Flashback: Blur’s Woo Hoo Moment

Our 1997 cover story on Britain’s prettiest boyband as they change the formula and get set to dance on Britpop’s grave.

To coincide with their first Australian tour in 18 years, here’s the original Blur cover feature that appeared in the September 1997 issue (#539).

The English countryside unfurls in verdant ribbons and skies of dignified grey as Damon Albarn’s car leaves London’s sprawling housing estates behind and steals through the dark summer afternoon. As the blonde, blue-eyed face of Blur, the boy in the speeding bubble is rock & royalty in this country. As a recent high-rotation fixture on MTV he’s also, at long last, the US equivalent. He steps to buy some Lucozade at the petrol station off the motorway, then the Essex lad is off into the country to kick a soccer ball in a Sunday celebrity league. “At the moment I find myself being hyper-critical of Britain,” says the 29-year-old pop millionaire as the Empire streaks past. “In Britain we either hate ourselves or love ourselves. There’s no sensible and balanced medium. And I’m just another fucked up British person facing those two demons.” Well, crikey. Anyone acquainted with the pro-Blightly stance of Blur’s last four years might conclude that the idealogical founders of the 90s’ British rock renaissance had changed their tune. But that’s not true. They’ve only fiddled the arrangement.

Related: Win a Double Pass to see Blur Live

Last February, Blur’s fifth, self-titled album saw the a radical departure from the defiantly Anglocentric style of its predecessors to mark the symbolic end of an era. Now, via the frankly grunge-flavoured “Song 2”, Albarn, Graham Coxon, Alex James and Dave Rowntree are enjoying the greatest international success of their seven-year career.

The irony has not gone unremarked. Since 1993, Blur’s very platform had been an exploration of British culture in a framework loaded with essentially British musical references, from music hall to Morrissey. Their second album, Modern Life is Rubbish, was nearly called England vs America in aggressive response to the conquering Nirvana wave and what Albarn referred to as “the coca-colonisation” of Britain. “We definitely had a miserable time in America,” the singer says today, tracing his antipathy to Blur’s first, disastrous US tour of 1991. “We were on a pretty bogus record label [alongside Vanilla Ice, Wilson-Phillips, Jesus Jones and, er, the Ninja Turtles], which was profoundly depressing. Every day was an act of ritual humiliation.

“It became too much to bear and we became really pissed off and blamed it on America as a whole. Which wasn’t really fair”, he adds with the munificence of hindsight. “I just became very homesick and couldn’t take for granted my roots after that experience. I wanted to explore them fully.” Blur’s 1991 debut, Leisure, had been a messy affair, lyrically empty and musically bogged somewhere between the declining Madchester scene of the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays and the noisy emergence of the so-called shoegazers typified by Ride, Lush and Slowdive. In retrospect, Damon is happy to embrace the adjective “naive”. But in America, in a perverse sense, the band found their first proper focus. “When we did Modern Life is Rubbish it was quite an odd, underground thing to be talking about being English. I know it sounds ridiculous now but at the time we got a lot of criticism for being into our own culture. Three years later and you’ve got Noel (Gallagher) with a Union Jack guitar and it’s hailed as statement of intent, a symbol of the New Britain,” he laughs dryly. Oasis were, for the record, late-comers to the rallying national resistance. In 1993 Suede and Blur were the hapless joint spearheads of a smash media fiction called (drum roll please) “Britpop” As loaded as terms go, it quickly found a places somewhere between “Falklands Crisis” and “Spinal Tap” and today nobody’s claiming responsibility. But come 1994, it was Damon Albarn as our host and figurehead on the genre-defining BBC TV documentary, Britpop Now.

“I regret that for two reasons,” he says. “One, I made a pathetic presenter. And secondly, I was told it was one of five programmes that were going to showcase all aspects of British music from jungle to reggae to bangra. They conned me. I was saying stuff like, ‘This is the best of British’, and a lot of it wasn’t. It was a ludicrous bit of back-slapping that meant nothing.” Which would have made a perfect epitaph for the whole Britpop beat-up, except for one thing. It meant business. Always keen to talk up a musical revolution, the UK music media grabbed the label and ran hard. In 1994, the year Blur released their benchmark Parklife album, British record sales spiralled 14 per cent to reach an all-time high of £1.5 billion. Although Oasis’s Definitely Maybe enjoyed the greater hype, Parklife was arguably the year’s creative triumph and catapulted Blur to the peak of national favour: serious units, press accolades, record number of Brit Awards, the lot. Melody Maker called it “the greatest hits of 1994” with its cherry cockney title track, the ’80s electro-pop of “Girls & Boys”, the stage musical pathos of “To The End” and concise bed-sit drama of “End of a Century”. But the skilled celebration of British song craft – the Kinks, the Small Faces, Madness and music hall loomed pretty large – masked some dark observations. The chirpy title track and colourful, comic imagery of the packaging were merely the foil to Albarn’s overall view of a decaying Britain stocked with dead-end social deviants.

“It wa being brought up in Essex,” he says of this inspiration. “It was a rural place until Margaret Thatcher landed from whatever planet she came from. That part of England completely embodied her selfish, robust idea of a New Britain and the place turned into a perpetual housing estate. Everyone had a nice new car and all those ’80s pretensions about them and very little soul.

“And because it was near to London there were thousands and thousands of commuters committed to this drudge through 40 years of their lives. It was a depressing place in the ’80s,” he says softly, suddenly sounding very depressed indeed, “and I never felt positive about it at all. ‘Essex Dogs’ [the closing track on Blur] was the final I had to say about the place and that is a really bleak piece of music. I could’ve done it that way from the beginning but I wanted to trick people a bit and humour is a good way of doing that. It’s like smiling while you put the dagger in”

Damon Albarn was born in a “rundown” part of northeast London since replaced, he reports, by a slab of motorway. He remembers being extremely happy in its liberal, multi-racial environs before his family moved to the “exclusively white, conservative, selfish” Essex suburb of Colchester when he was nine.

Based partly on a mutual love of 2 Tone and the Jam, he befriended Graham Coxon at school, where they both pursued classical composition and theatrical studies with some local success. They played and performed in school musicals before arriving in the same band, Circus, with drummer Dave Rowntree in 1988. The band became Seymour with the admission of bass player Alex James and finally, after signing to Food Records in 1990, Blur. Albarn recalls being far more interested in drama than rock & roll as a teenager and cites the twisted stage-orchestral works of Kurt Weill as a major influence. Combined with a thoroughly English appreciation of the pantomime tradition, the seeds were sown for Blur’s commercial alienation from the world outside Britain for years to come.

“I didn’t care,” he says bluntly. “Overseas success wasn’t the point. We just got really into the whole idea of music hall and English-sounding things. It was interesting to us, we enjoyed mucking about with it. I’m amazed that we actually managed to sell as many copies of Parklife and The Great Escape as we did worldwide considering in essence how difficult the musical genre would be for people.”

The Great Escape (1995) was the thid album in the London life trilogy and despite its musical sophistication, it amounted to quite enough oompah and Jackanory for now. Albarn’s bleak view of post-Thatcher Britain remained but his characters had evolved into a Carry On cast. Bed & Breakfast wife-swappers? Churchill the lottery addict? Ronnie Kray? Ernold Same? By now, Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker was offering a more credible view from behind England’s lace curtains.

“I think it was more of a musical than a pop album,” Albarn reflects. “Songs like ‘Country House’ would be brilliant on stage, but just a little too far in that theatrical tradition for bona fide pop music I suppose. Everyone got fed up with it in the end. Live, it was such a vehicle for me to live out my…” (he pauses to fairly cack himself) “…vaudevillian fantasies.”

The musical comedy had broken onto the real life stage as well. Just before The Great Escape‘s release, the Blur Vs Oasis media frenzy sent the whole Britpop fantasy supernova. This time even British tourism authorities recorded a victory but Blur’s time was up. Despite a promising start, they handed the invisible crown to the working class interlopers shortly after The Great Escape left the box.

Damon remembers their part in the big singles chart showdown in terms of deliberate irony and media manipulation, an “elaborate joke” on the nation. “Our mistake was we assumed [Oasis] could see it as a sort of a quirky cultural event as opposed to a real battle – which was how they took it. And the nation, in the end, sympathised with them. I think they opened everyone’s eyes up to the fact that we’d actually been taking the piss!” Blur’s drummer Dave Rowntree is a little more direct in accepting responsibility for the media backlash: “I think all that bravado, on reflection, was insecurity. We’re a lot more secure now. We don’t feel the need to constantly bombard everyone with our egos. We’d been gamely flirting with the tabloids, thinking we were just so cool we could play them as a little game for our own entertainment. And it did bring home to us that they are a law unto themselves and there isn’t anything to gain by getting involved. It all came home to roost. It taught us a bit of a lesson, really.”

The Great Escape performed well at home but by early 1996, Oasis had cast a shadow over the whole playing field. The absurd competition unique to the English rock & roll scene had picked its champion and Blur were last year’s premiers. When the Manchester team went on to beat America in the finals, Blur were implicitly disgraced, such was the patriotic fervour Britpop had come to represent.

“Well, we just don’t get on, you know?” Albarn says of the Gallagher gang, still exasperated. “We talk to each other but it’s always who’s gonna get the last little stab in. Whenever I’m with Liam I feel exactly like I’m back in junior school. He’s in one gang and I’m in another gang and we can’t like each other ’cause we’re rivals, like in Romeo and Juliet or West Side Story. It’s just ludicrous.”

The war of words continues unabated (“Spice Girls on drugs” is Albarn’s latest volley into the Oasis camp), but while Liam Gallagher and his gang went on to make an artform out of juvenility, Blur opted to “grow up”. “I’ve never taken it really seriously, being a pop star,”, Damon insists. “I take seriously being a musician and a writer but the rest of it…” a dry, contemptuous laugh finishes the sentence. “I couldn’t possibly believe I was a rock star. Ever.”

“World domination doesn’t mean anything does it? Good luck to [Oasis] of that’s what they want, but I’m gonna try and be a bit more localised and get in control of my life instead of getting in control of the whole world.”

In terms of finding creative space, being ignored was the best reception Blur ever had. Their post-America crash of 1991 had already demonstrated their ability to fight back and once again in 1996, the combined spite of the UK media and the indifference of the American market would be catalysts for re-evaluation and redirection.

“When we finished touring The Great Escape everyone was very miserable and fucked up and for a while it looked like that was it. No one wanted to carry on and I thought well, that’s really sad, but I’m not gonna stop writing songs,” Albaran recalls.

“The weird thing was that once I started writing with a vague idea that I was going to be performing them on my own, I found the songs were becoming more intense, more personal and less humour-driven.” As Blur took shape, Damon’s crisp caricatures were replaced by broad, impressionistic strokes (hence the title, perhaps), fuzzy sound textures reflecting a far less literal approach in the lyric department. These were songs, not stories, due emphasis on top tunes remaining beneath initially disconcerting blankets of distortion.

Definitive Brit heroes such as David Bowie and Syd Barrett remained vital reference points but the vaudeville aspect had done its dash, with nary a knees-up tempo or a “la-la-la” refrain in earshot. Ironically, only “Look Inside America” harked back to the London life trilogy and even then, Uncle Sam has revalued as, well, “all right”!

One common appraisal was that the new direction was due to Albarn abandoning his more catholic tastes and embracing guitarist Graham Coxon’s more extreme – and fundamentally American – influences. It’s an idea Dave Rowntree disputes: “It is, I think, erroneously viewed as more of Graham’s album. I think it’s more of everybody’s album. There was more input from everybody.”

“We’ve always liked to make intricate records,” says Albarn. “I think we just wanted to calm that down a bit. Graham didn’t want to have so many guitars and I didn’t want any strings or brass. A lot of the time in the past we covered up the root sound of the four of us. This time, we din’t do that.” What was effectively covered up was Albarn’s state of mind. While previous record covers had reprinted lyrics, even chord diagrams to spell out the gist of their narratives, Blur‘s inner-sleeve sported only a fractured collage. The new, improved, “grown-up” Blur rocked out, half-buried their vocalist and revelled in ambiguity.

“Because it was my first sojourn in coming clean about what I do in my private life, I didn’t really want to make it too explicit,” he laughs. “It’s great fun imagining the dark recesses of your soul. You can get very caught up in it. I’ve got a house in Devon in the middle of nowhere where owls screech at night. I like going down there and working myself into a state.” Hmmmm. Angst. Distortion. Anti-stardom. More intensity. Less humour. Maybe it’s not precisely grunge, but it’s a bloody long way from “Clover Over Dover”. As Blur’s proud Anglocentricity goes out the door and MTV, David Letterman, Triple J and Rolling Stone come in the window, does Damon Albaran find, deep in his heart of hearts, the term “sell-out” written in tiny letters?

“Not at all because the song that’s really done it is ‘Song 2’. I’m not under any illusions that it’s anything other than that song which has made the difference in Australia and in America. And it was such a quick thing. We did it in an afternoon and didn’t think anything of it. We can write two-minute punk songs very easily. That’s what we started off doing in the late ’80s. I think this record is quite different. It requires repeated listens. It’s not a pop record. When it first came out it was reviewed in terms of us having this revitalised kind of energy but it was unanimously described as commercial death. It’s gonna outsell all our previous records at this rate,” he says, the old Damon’s celebrated cockiness making a slight return, “so they got that completely wrong.”

And with that final, forked salute aloft, Damon Albarn’s motor leaves London well behind. The rest of the year will be dedicated to packed houses in the rest of the world. Lord knows, he’s done enough for this ungrateful country and the intensity of their mutual passion had to amount to a few tears along with all the laughter in the long run. Right on cue, it begins to rain over the impending soccer match. But that’s England for you. “It is, yes,” Damon says cheerfully. “God bless us.”