Perfect Sound Forever


Out of Focus?
by Ashutosh Ratnam
(August 2009)

One can picture Blur dressed as pubescent schoolboys in an overexposed black and white pinup, smoking cigarettes in the loo, disinterested with and defeated by life. Picture them being huffed, puffed, blown away, and then run over by the Rolls Royces of Britain's big-bad-wolf band, Oasis. Picture them kidnapped and tied to chairs in a shooting gallery, being made the butt of syringe stoked, solvent fueled jokes cracked by the beautifully self-destructive phoenix that was Suede.

Which is tragic, because if Britpop did indeed help the UK's mercurial alternative rock scene "regain its voice for a while" (Ian Youngs, BBC Entertainment Correspondent) then Blur was the seed from which the it developed.

In 1993, the world was run by off-key, un-bathed American bands wearing second hand flannel shirts and singing songs about psychiatric medication, yearnings to be molested and the inherent salvation in a razor blade. Seattle, city of a million garages, was rock music's misplaced capital. It didn't seem even to be on the same planet as quiet Colchester, Essex - cradle of Humpty-Dumpty and Ole King Cole, from where a four-member band had set sail for a 44-city tour of the US.

That band was Blur, and the tour would be enough of a disaster to almost break the band up. Empty concert halls, abysmal sales and a blatant rejection of everything about themselves hit Damon Albarn, Graham Coxon, Dave Rowntree and Alex James hard. Ravenous Americans dwelling in mosh-pits tore apart Blur and their artsy work. In the one successful New York show they did, the band had to feign punk by getting drunk and clambering across the roof's sprinkler system. Things reached a nadir when a record company exec told them 'Your drinking's good but you're really not taking enough drugs.' This gigantic physical and commercial F**KOFF from a country stabbing itself in time to songs about depression and self-pity piped the bugle for a war Blur was to wage against all things America.

They came back saying they wanted to "get rid of grunge" and "declare war on America." At the time, Damon Albarn, lead singer and keyboard player looked more badly bleached Pinocchio than fermenting incendiary rock hero. But he'd soon be declaring "If punk was about getting rid of hippies, then I'm getting rid of grunge." They marched straight into the studios, and produced a viciously intelligent album that they almost named England vs. America. The better sense of producer Steven Street prevailed, the iron-fist record was clad in a velvet glove, and released as Modern Life is Rubbish. Among the songs on it was 'Popscene', a number so "very very English", and hence unfashionable, that releasing it at the time seemed almost an act of courage. Said Albarn "It annoyed a lot of people. We put ourselves out on a limb to pursue this English ideal, and no-one else was interested."

It wouldn't happen for a while, but the interest and subsequently the search for the source of the coming hysteria, would come. And how. Despite it's seeming failure at the time, 'Popscene' would one day be called the place in time where Britpop began.

Blur had taken shape some four years earlier. Coxon, Rowntree, and a Salinger-enamoured Albarn were starting off on Goldsmith College's Club Sandwich club scene as the band Seymour. Their first gigs were small, woozy, innocent affairs with a large majority of the audience being friends and family members forced to buy tickets by Damon's parents. After roping in ape-ishly handsome bassist Alex James, they sent a demo tape to indie label Food Records. Surprisingly, the management loved everything about them but their name, and the band were handed a list of alternative monikers and a contract in 1990. Within a year, they had served up the album Leisure, and its two hit singles – ‘She's So High' and ‘There's No Other Way.'

The yankee stomping took place as Blur toured Leisure across America, and on returning to English shores, they weren't exactly offered familiar tranquil climes to lick their wounds in. For one they were wretchedly poor (repercussions of earlier management decisions gone badly wrong). And then everyone back home was also listening to Nirvana. But worst of all, they walked into the unwelcoming arms of the media frenzy storming around the snarling potent sounds of ‘the best new band in Britain' – Suede. Suede, glaring off the cover of every magazine in England, had not officially released any music yet. Sadly for Blur, they delivered on their promises. With music braver and more furiously challenging than anything since vintage Bowie, Suede went from strength to strength. Blur simultaneously went from one fuck up to another. The defeat became complete at a charity gig organized in London by a music magazine – Suede amazed everyone, Blur included, with a majestic set. Damon Albarn, demoralized, dumped by America, drunk, careened up to the mic and told the audience 'You might as well fuck off home because we're going to be shit.' And they were. The band was told they'd very likely be fired by the label in two months.

Spurred on by impending unemployment, by having to live off girlfriend Justine Frischmann (whose band Elastica was creaming Blur on the charts), by an intestinal hatred for America and its ubiquitous, unhygienic grunge, and by the prolonged Diazepam dream rivals Suede were living, Damon Albarn hounded together his tattered force and readied the record Modern Life Is Rubbish. So dirt low were confidence levels, that after listening to the finished product, Blur were ordered back to the studio to manufacture a hit single - a ‘peppy tune' that would give the album a better chance of actually selling – something Britain's best below-poverty-line band very badly needed it to do.

The album performed rather well, even reaching #15 on the UK charts. But it more importantly instilled in Blur the ability to believe in their music. "'Modern Life' was the beginning of us having an idea of what we really wanted to do" Albarn explained. As they fed off this new-found confidence, Blur's intent became less blurry. It was at 1993's Reading festival that the band announced their true arrival, and their steely desire to stay for good. After headlining act The The had flopped abysmally, Blur, aided by ziggy lights and a pre-gig drinking curfew, offered a show described by drummer Rowntree as "an hour-and-a-half long orgasm." At the end of the evening, Albarn was sitting with the editors of Melody Maker and NME (the two most important people in Britain's music press) on either side. He felt, he said, "like the Devil."

Thankfully, Blur couldn't do the quintessential British thing and sit back and gloat. They were too darn broke. Explained Albarn "If we hadn't lost all our money, we wouldn't have made two albums in a year, but it worked." That second album would be Parklife. With its release in 1994, Blur would truly break on through, and crown themselves the bluest eyed of Britpop's brood. The record was a ribald comment on England's foibles in general, and the East end of London in particular – erstwhile hunting ground of Jack the Ripper, existing as a herbarium of crime, poverty and tanneries amongst the opulence of Cool Britannia. It contained three of Blur's biggest songs – the eponymous single, the nearly-heartbroken ballad ‘To The End', and the mechanical neo-mod hit ‘Girls and Boys', which even spent 15 weeks on the US charts.

In the wake of the critical and commercial carnage Parklife had wrecked, Blur picked up an unprecedented 4 Brit awards (Best album, single, video, and band). The death of Kurt Cobain, coupled with the rollicking triple-platinum success of Parklife led many – Blur included – to believe that intelligent British music's resurrection had arrived. So high did fly the Union Jack that Blur even said they wanted to share the Brit award for best band with Oasis (Oasis had just been declared best breakthrough band).

Such camaraderie would die an ugly, public death on August 14, 1995. Oasis, fresh off tasting top of the chart success with 'Some Might Say', hungered for more. They were to release follow up single 'Roll With It' that Friday, and as per the plan, it would blast its way through to #1. Or so they thought. Blur unceremoniously had the release of ‘Country House' brought forward by a week to compete with the Oasis release in what was being called the Heavyweight Championship of Britain. Oasis were convincingly drubbed – 274,000 to 216,000 – and their management had to proffer humiliating unGallagher-ly excuses about barcode errors recording incorrect sales figures and Country House's more ‘competitive price.' Blur had earned short-lived bragging rights, and celebrated with a triumphant 16-venue sold out tour of Britain.

Oasis were wounded deeply, for this ‘Battle of Britpop' had much more at stake than just record sales. Where Blur and Oasis came from, and who they embodied, turned the August showdown into a class and region brawl. Oasis flew the flag of North England's gritty working class. Blur made the middle-class art sound of the South. Albarn told Q magazine "The only thing we've got in common with Oasis is the fact that we're both doing shit in America."

Come album release time, and irony would make him eat his words in a most merciless manner. When Blur released the predictable Great Escape, Oasis uncaged Britpop's most thoroughly bred thoroughbred, (What's the Story) Morning Glory? It would spend 3 years in the charts, outsell not just Escape (by a factor of 4) but also every album the Beatles ever made. The humiliation would continue in the US, where Albarn's cheeky ‘shit in America' quip cruelly resurfaced at the worst possible time. Blur could only watch helplessly as Morning Glory clawed its way into the Billboard Top 5, and was selling 100,000 copies a week by January. The Great Escape would sell 122,000 copies in total. The butchery of Blur culminated at 1996's Brit awards. Oasis picked up three awards (best band, album and video) all of which Blur had won the previous year. Adding spittle to submission, Oasis' acceptance speech for best band was a gruesomely entertaining drunken rendition of Parklife, with the lyrics changed to ‘Shite-life.' In Oasis' victorious campaign to conquer first Britain, then America, then the world, Blur became the mop with which blood was wiped off the floor. Hell hath no fury like a Gallagher scorned.

As if the media backlash for The Great Escape wasn't bad enough, Blur were very nearly broken by the bandmembers' personal demons. Guitarist Coxon chose to drown his anger in alcohol. Only his fury learned how to swim and he very nearly punched Albarn in the face at a sound check "Alcohol made me relaxed enough to have the most awful fights with people. I was very negative, and I would lash out because I was angry about feeling terrible all the time." The singer himself was wallowing in dark depression, the kind that gave him heart palpitations and made him believe that "the off button was going to be switched at some point very soon." And then there was Alex James and his absinthe.

Blur's epiphany came as they were being beaten into a squirming heap by Oasis. The Manchester mauling showed them what they had become – pallid, unimportant musician caricatures who made a living out of mixing Britain's limp headlines with haughty sarcasm and singing the sappy concoction to ad-jingle music. Albarn knew that Blur would have to be torn down, or torn apart.

The band reached for all the American lo-fi and alternative albums Coxon had been stockpiling, and spent all of 1996 in a studio in Iceland – regrouping, reassembling, resurrecting Blur and recording Blur. Much has been made of the departure the band made on a record they described as a compilation of all the whims and little ideas the old Blur would have discarded. But that the old Blur would have managed to come up with nonetheless. The eponymous album, an unquestionable deviation, was not as much the fabled reinvention as one thought.

Blur always had the ability to churn out primal, under-produced and gravely wounded and/or ill songs. They had, even in Britpop's sun-shiny daze, managed to slip under a rock and conceive B-sides aptly named 'Inertia', 'Hanging Over' (i.e. hung over) and 'Bone Bag' – all successful experiments in cacophony and distortion that walked the fine line between tuberculosis and vocal chord cancer. Only at the time, Blur didn't have the depression to celebrate them as the minimalist indie gems they could have been.

In early 1997, while Noel Gallagher was still sunning himself in the euphoria of victory and giving radio interviews on the virtues of Ecstasy use, Blur quietly released the new album. Their near total rejection of everything the quintessential Blur fan paid money to hear – mintishly peppy sounds, hackneyed Daily Mirror lyrics, and the celebration of laddish naivete – led to the same fans rejecting them in turn. Despite this being their breakthrough US album (#61 on the album chart, ‘Song 2' reaching #6 on the Modern Rock Chart), Blur's erstwhile adoring fan base failed to bring themselves to like or even understand songs like the lead single ‘Beetlebum.' It started off at pole position on British shores, but was forgotten fast. The UK did eventually warm to the album though. It took eight months, but it eventually became a British #1, perhaps coinciding with a new generation's onset of puberty.

Blur by now had ceased to care. Everything possible was given new direction – the sound, the lyrics, the target audience, the attitude towards the media, even the tour bus. The subsequent year-long voyage in support of Blur would take the band from the Far East to Greenland – "There were only 1200 people there but considering there's only about 45,000 in the whole country and it's the size of Australia, that's quite a good turnout.", and by including early quasi-indie material like ‘Inertia' and ‘Sing' on set lists, Blur declared they couldn't give less of a beetle's bum about Britpop (and Oasis) anymore. When asked by an American radio station how the new album was setting them apart from their British Pop contemporaries, Albarn summed up where they stood and were headed – "We haven't got any contemporaries anymore."

Blur had been resuscitated, reborn. But at the end of the tour, they felt that true sonic experimentation asked of them a complete severing of all ties with the old. The band asked producer and longtime collaborator Steven Street, the man once known as "the fifth Blur" to leave. Enter dance producer and Madonna collaborator William Orbit, who's electronic leanings would dominate Blur's next effort, 1999's 13. The album spawned a triad of hit singles – 'Tender', a miraculously successful combination of electronica and gospel, 'Coffee and TV', this release's America pleaser, and 'No Distance Left to Run', heartbroken melodic gloom at its wrist-slitting best. With guitarist Coxon sharing vocal duties and even designing the cover, the album seemed the work of a more democratic band. But it was in actuality, all about one man and one thing – Damon Albarn and his wrenching breakup with girlfriend of eight years, Justine Freichmann. A crippled Albarn would describe the album as "justification for my feelings, for everything I invested in that relationship" Just the sort of thing you didn't want an angry crapulent guitarist or a disgruntled bassist to hear.

If songs like ‘Tender' showed how their music was getting more tightly knit, the band itself was doing the exact opposite. When he wasn't so depressed he couldn't even speak, Albarn would complain how Coxon's alcoholism had "totally wrecked our ability to get on with each other" and describe the agony and embarrassment of hearing reports of his childhood friend being found "unconscious at 4 in the morning somewhere in London." Coxon would be less loquacious – "Damon is a self-centered fucker sometimes." All the while, Alex James was openly voicing his hatred for the art-noise rock influences running through 13. He'd also cooked up a theory as to why songs he'd written for it were kept off the album – "Punishment for Fat Les" (the enterprise he'd set up with actor Keith Allen and artist Damien Hirst).

This was clearly no longer a crew of popster chums from Essex who'd gladly put their feet in their mouths (or put some other organ somewhere else) to get some tabloid coverage. Blur were now devoted musical craftsmen at the top of their game. They had grown enough as artist to think of solo efforts. But the excesses of the Rock and Roll experience – alcohol, drugs, homesickness, women, inflated egos – had left Blur the band, in tatters.

A decision was made to take a two year hiatus, as cracks had begun to show from all the incessant touring and recording. The crew would do motley things in their time away. Damon Albarn was taken to Mali by Oxfam. He'd be jolted to learn that his yearly salary was about the same as a tenth of the collective annual wages of that nation's workers, and would devote considerable time and energy to charity work. Dave Rowntree joined the Labour Party and was even projected as a candidate in a council election. Thankfully he lost. Alex James became the unlikely best friend of Professor Colin Pillinger, holder of the Greshman Chair of Astronomy. James added considerable inputs to the ‘Beagle-II' project – an eerily Bowie-ish search for life on Mars, involving a lander burrowing under the surface and studying carbonates as evidence. Graham Coxon set out to see what the weirdest sounds he could wring out of a guitar were, and whether people would buy them if he put them on a solo album.

When the band converged in Morocco to record their seventh album Think Tank in 2002, the Blur in one of them had clearly gone rancid. After showing up in his best ‘Surliness-Man' costume for the few studio sessions he attended, Graham Coxon let it be known that he was disillusioned. He said the band's "professional commercial" approach was the exact opposite of how he wanted to make music. To be fair, this was a man who detested fame to the extent of nearly jumping out of a window at a champagne party EMI had organized to celebrate the Battle of Britpop verdict. Perhaps the addition of celebrity DJ Fatboy Slim to Think Tank's production pantheon was one tabloid feeding frenzy too many. As if possessed by the ghost of Brian Jones, Coxon just sat in a corner, excoriated everyone he saw and everything he heard, smoked and felt left out. The only thing he didn't do to fortify the ill-will was resume his boozy fist-fights.One day, he was asked to walk out the door. He skipped. Graham Coxon wouldn't be found holidaying in Morocco for a long time.

Blur could have chosen to fill the gigantic void Coxon left behind with another guitarist. They could have allowed the vacuum to win, and the band they'd built to implode. They did neither. Said Rowntree (ironically, now the band's most vocal member) of the ‘huge great hole in the sound', "we discovered that if you left a lot of space rather than filling it up with something else then it made all the other instruments sound a lot bigger."

Even if you didn't consider the shitstorm it was conceived in, how the inertia of past greatness could have dampened the effort, even that this was now a rock band without a guitarist, the brooding electronic sounds of Think Tank showed Blur in the pink of health. It wasn't familiar, but it was clearly fantastic. Fears of Norman Cook turning the band into the Venga-blokes had been allayed – he'd produced two of the guitar-iest songs on the album. Not only did it sexily slouch its way to #1 on the UK album charts, but also became their best State-side performer (#56).

Having been an band of art jesters, a cynical headline broadcasting band, a punching-bag-for-the-biggest-band-in-the-world band, and a band that wished they'd been Sonic Youth, Blur were now the George Forman band. They'd survived.

Since then, rumours of a Blur reunion resurfaced regularly, but much like all those Elvis sightings, never came to much. That the band never officially ‘split up' is a lame barter when weighed against their very official inactivity. Damon's insistence that he'd never hire another guitarist because there were none as good as Coxon, coupled with the bespectacled one's stubborn refusal to return to the fold made any future work unlikely. Coxon has already released three solo albums produced by old crony Steven Street. The last one, Crow Sit On Blood Tree firmly established him as one of Britain's low-budget-high-octane guitar heroes. Damon Albarn, besides doing his best Gorillaz impression for an animated band and selling millions of records, is now giving the score to a stage reworking of the Chinese legend Journey to the West. 45 Chinese acrobats and Shaolin monks sundari to the man who once sang Parklife. Dave Rowntree's animation company, Nanomation, released the series Empire Square – a stiff-upper-lipped South Park in cockney. Alex James' Mars lander never took off. He now devotes large periods of time exercising on his trampoline and continues to be the catalyst trying to get the band back together.

He hadn't met with much success. Until now.

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER