August 25, 2012

Charting Britain's love affair with Blur (Special Story)

Britain and Blur – Falling In and Out of Love For 21 Years 

This guest post is by pop/ music culture blog Pop Lifer, who recently featured a 5-installment long tribute to Blur contribution to music and it's tumultuous relationship with Britain. 

Inspired by Blur’s victory-lap appearance at Hyde Park two weeks ago – which showed the shabby official Olympic Closing Ceremony what a Symphony of British Music should sound like – the Pop Lifer blog has been running a series of blogs on the band, and Britain’s 21 year, on/off love affair with them. As two thirtysomethings whose teens and tweens were soundtracked by Blur, this is a subject close to our hearts and we’re grateful to the brilliant BlurBalls for a chance to share our own personal reflections.

Having charted the band’s tricky early years from “Leisure” time to near commercial oblivion  the double-edged sword of “Parklife” and “The Great Escape” and the fascinating final three albums, we now move onto what happened next.

“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.

blur relationship, blur group pic, blur hyde park 2012, blur picture, blur band picture, blur group shot, blur damon albarnFirst there’d been the war for attention (achieved with “Leisure”) and then the war against irrelevance, commercial oblivion and the glam wrecking crew called Suede. Then came the war for total cultural ubiquity (achieved through “Parklife” and the Britpop area), which they won, and the war against Oasis, which they lost. Finally the war turned into a civil war, with their final three albums increasingly a fascinating tussle between the increasingly independent Coxon and Albarn, with the former finally exiting. 

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.

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 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.

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Damon's goes onto creating the successful Gorillaz - and went Bananaz

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.

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Pals again - Brit Awards 2011 saw Noel and Damon mend their grudges

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.

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Damon Albarn in Denmark, August 2012, Smukfest warm up

The set list 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.

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It really, really could happen - Blur on Primrose Hill and it's (now removed) graffiti 

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 they have earnt our love.
The full version of blurblog 5, the final part in our blur marathon can be read hereblurblog 1, on Hyde Park and how Blur have become a central part of our pop life is hereblurblog 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.