They've just won the Outstanding Contribution at this year's Brit Awards. 18 years ago — when Paul Moody interviewed them for NME (March 5, 1994) — Blur were about to boss Britpop with the imminent and brilliant album Parklife——Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages
High up on the roof of London, above the glow of soft-porn peepshows and beetling black cabs, above the fluorescent record shops and the rush-hour crush of Piccadilly, a dazzling red and blue neon screen flashes out its message over and over again.
Freddie Mercury, Buddy Holly and Mick Jagger, forced to watch the skies forever from the upper balcony of the Rock Circus waxwork museum, stare up in silent homage, blinded over and over again by its silent mantra.
Hundreds of feet below, Damon Albarn's eyes are gleaming almost as much as his solid silver identity bracelet.
"See that? Next time we'll be up there with that lot!"
And all the while, the message keeps flashing: "LONDON LOVES BLUR... LONDON LOVES BLUR..."
"It's like asking us what do we stand for? What do we stand for? So we don't lie down all the time!" — Damon , NME, July 1991
Blur have gone around the bend. Quite literally. Rewind two days and the Colchester four are immersed in a studio bunker buried in a side street behind the British Museum. Deep within its confines there is a mixing desk containing Blur's forthcoming "difficult" third album. Damon (Puma trainers, cream Harrington jacket, Bash Street haircut) swivels in a Mastermind chair, Alex adopts a slouch worthy of Dionysus, Graham stares bug-eyed into the middle distance. Drummer Dave goes to collect the sugary tea. Within five minutes, however, Damon is switching the tape recorder on and fending off imaginary brickbats.
"The thing about this album is that in a lot of ways it's a massive departure from the last one," he says. "If people are scared of that, there's not much I can do about it. I just can't think of anything more boring than doing the same thing over and over again."
But by changing so radically, maybe you'll only succeed in exchanging the fans you've got for new ones, a la Modern Life Is Rubbish...
Damon momentarily affects the look of a 12-year-old who's just been told his birthday party's been cancelled. Alex, his mind miles away on a yacht in the Aegean, looks up from within the sofa and whispers his first words of the afternoon.
"Maybe we will. Perhaps that's the tragedy of Blur..."
What we're really discussing, of course, is the new single 'Girls And Boys'. This, if you haven't already heard it, is not your average single plucked from a forthcoming album. It's not even your average Blur single, if there is such a thing.
It is simply bonkers. A biscuit tin drum machine rattles out an into, a Chad Valley synthesiser bleeps along frantically behind it, and suddenly Damon's barking along on top in sexy robot-cockney about the carnal pleasures to be had on the soaraway fun holidays of Club 18-Dirty. It's Bill Wyman's 'Si Si, Je Suis Un Rock Star' in bed with Devo, with the windows wide open and the sheets reeking of suntan oil. Pop Muzik. Everybody's doing it.
"Yeah, it's about those sorts of holidays," enthuses Damon. "I went on holiday with Justine last summer to Magaluf and the place was just equally divided between cafes serving up full English breakfasts and really tacky Essex nightclubs. There's a very strong sexuality about it. I just love the whole idea of it, to be honest. I love herds. All these blokes and all these girls meeting at the watering hole and then just... copulating. There's no morality involved, I'm not saying it should or shouldn't happen. My mind's just getting more dirty. I can't help it.
"The Pet Shop Boys have agreed to do a mix of it for us, and that should be brilliant. What I'm hoping for is that they can come up with a version that becomes the big summer hit in all those nightclubs in Spain and Majorca. That's exactly what we want. I'd love those people to be into Blur..."
From mohair to where. 'Girls And Boys' is Blur's most audacious record to date, by miles. If the drip-dry baggy of Leisure was a meaningless but colourful enough flare of intent, and the gangster swagger of Modern Life Is Rubbish a Morse-code distress single from a band in trouble, then 'Girls And Boys' — and its attendant album, Parklife — are, well, a big flashing neon sign in Piccadilly Circus, spelling out the message that here is a group who will change and reorganise, strip down and dress up, more or less do anything they want to. A group more focused, in the light of their early airhead hedonism, than any other homegrown group currently on offer. The only thing they seem incapable of doing is splitting up.
It's a three-album progression that's seen them crash land in the Top 20 (most notably with wonderfully dumb chantalong 'There's No Other Way'), get washed up in a drunken haze (Pop Scene and its disastrous airing at the NME's Gimme Shelter benefit gig) and finally come back seemingly more together than ever.
Whilst the whole world washed its hands of the Ocean Colour Scenes and Revolvers, Blur managed to lick their wounds in private, immune to the ceaseless infighting that usually cripples bands slipping into a downward spiral.
A host of groups disappeared into the far distance with each passing bandwagon, but Blur managed to hitch a ride on all of them and still become championed as favourite sons. Most bizarrely of all, they now suddenly find themselves as spiritual modfathers to the burgeoning New Wave.
Damon contemplates three years of being invited to parties he was never quite sure about.
"I genuinely don't know why we got roped into all those things. People say we've changed the way we look, but I was wearing a suit at Glastonbury two years ago, when the whole world had gone crusty. I'm not going to say we're ahead of our time or anything, though. Maybe people just like us."
Damon Albarn spent the first ten years of life in Leytonstone doing "everything an East End kid does". He then decamped with his parents to Turkey for six months before his dad (former manager of late-'60s psychedelicos Soft Machine) landed a job running the art college in Colchester. By 14 he'd enrolled at Stanway comprehensive and become friendly with a quasi-mod in the year below him, who shared a fondness for shiny shoes and Fred Perry. Their religion was 2-Tone...
Graham takes up the story.
"We used to hang around the music block, mainly because that was there the lads never went. They'd be off on the field playing football and beating people up. I suppose we were the school freaks in a way but we never had long hair, nothing like that."
They got drunk together, made themselves sick smoking cigars in freezing cold common rooms and learned that love bites ache for days. They went on holiday to Romania with Graham's mum and dad and became initiated in the snog-laws of the early '80s Eurodisco. They also fell to badly for Madness and The Jam that they'd never be able to love anyone else quite so much again.
Damon eulogises madly...
"All the things we were into then are definitely still with us, but it goes much deeper than that. I mean, Graham's exactly the same now as when I first met him. He looks the same, cares about the same things."
Any talent yobbishness, however, was exorcised by a far more deadly peril: The Art School Years. On leaving school. Graham headed for a Fine Art course at Goldsmiths in London (where he was chanced upon in the bar one night by a desperate, French-studying Alex), Damon flitted between Drama School in Colchester and the newly-found Bohemia of the student bar.
"To be honest I was torn between the two. All my life has been like that. One minute I'm in the East End, the next I'm transported to the outskirts of Colchester, which was practically rural. I used to come back from seeing Graham in London and then I'd go to this club called the Embassy, a real soul boy place. I'm a mixed up person. I've got this real Essex Man vibe, I can't help it. Why else do you think I still wear things like this? [He rattles his solid silver bracelet.] I had this real art school background, so they'd all laugh at me when I came home, because I was wearing Farah's."
Having moved to London, Damon spent two years messing around with the piano, composing re-writes of Kurt Weill's score for Brecht's Threepenny Opera. It was not a good time.
"I used to go around and see him," explains Graham, "and he'd play me this weird stuff that was just endless piano, with no singing on it at all. It was just nuts."
In an effort to cure himself, Damon cashed in all his premium bonds and set about recording a decent demo tape. The only trouble was that his casual obsession had led him to believe that the future could only come in the from of a soul duo. He is not forthcoming ("I don't want to talk about that").
Before long, however, an arty clique of the higher order — it included Situationist sculptor Damien Hirst, of chopped-up-cows fame — had been established. Overnight, the nascent Blur became London's beautiful people.
A mist covers Damon's eyes.
"Lots of people mythologise their past, and to be honest it's about time we talked about ours. The only difference is, we don't need to make anything up. I used to go to loads of parties and whenever I got there, Graham would be lying on the ground like a human doormat.
"One night we went to a Private View where all the drinks were free and got so rat-arsed that the only thing I can remember is waking up at five o'clock in the morning in a cell at Holborn Police Station sitting next to a Gurkha."
Alex: "I found myself walking in circles around a field in Kent. God knows how I got there."
The greatest art student who never was pauses for effect.
"We were young, good-looking and in the best band in the world."
Such are the seeds of Parklife. Just as Modern Life reflected a specific part of Blur's adolescence in crystallised detail, their new opus takes in a far wider sweep of their teenage obsessions. Where a year ago Blur were a band at loggerheads with the music business (Damon: "we were totally, it was like war"), they now seems able to address all the other things that make adolescence so wonderfully muddled.
So the new-wave disco of 'Girls And Boys' and London Loves Blur are a nod to summer holiday nightclubs; the barrowboy odyssey 'Parklife' (narrated by Phil Daniels of Quadrophenia fame) is a further homage to their mod roots; and 'To The End', a swirling 'Je T'Aime'-style duet with Laetitia from Stereolab, is draped in strings and a theatricality born during Damon's drama school, years.
It's all over the place. Clanging mod singalongs interspersed with rinky-dink instrumentals and rampant art-school foppery. None of which will make their reputation as intellectual tearaways any easier to live down...
Damon's eyes light up.
"Well, that's exactly what we're trying to achieve. For me the album is like a loosely linked concept involving all these different stories. It's the travels of the mystical lager-eater, seeing what's going on in the world and commenting on it. It's the same idea as the poem [Book actually — Drug Lit Ed] Confessions Of An Opium Eater; but that sounds much too sensitive. Everyone goes on about the idea of the sensitive artist, but for me that's all bollocks. I can't stand the idea of being a sad, lonely bedsit poet. I'd much rather be perceived as loud and arrogant, because all our sensitivity's in our records."
Damon mentally scans the assembled faces of the entertainment industry for an example.
"Take someone like Daniel Day-Lewis. I hate cunts like that, they're the bane of my life, these people who think they're tortured. They always need someone else to make them good. Where would Morrissey be without Johnny Marr? He's a lager-eater!"
Damon does of course, talk complete sense and abject nonsense in equal measure. This is, of all his charms, the greatest. His band, after all, boast in Alex the man for whom the expression sensitive bass player was invented. Such powers, however, enable him to continually dabble in controversy without ever displays distasteful undertones.
For Damon, the lager-eater is not a creature from the depths of moribund pub culture but a character who can move in any circle; from Highbury to High Art, from William Hill to William Blake. In full flow, however, Damon suddenly veers off to discuss the problems of how people perceive sexuality:
"It's like, all this stuff about New Age sexuality, and how politically correct it all is. That's just a complete load of rubbish. The way people think about sex isn't remotely PC."
Problems abound with such free-flowing thought. Damon's willingness to fall into diatribe-mode means that for the last year the band (in interviews at least) have usually found themselves in a corner, arguing their way deeper and deeper into trouble. Like a golden-haired King Canute, Damon often finds himself demanding the reversal of tides that simply become unstoppable.
There are exceptions. The fuss brought about by the 'British Image Number One' photo-sessions was inevitable. However, such an indiscretion detracted from a central theme which simply celebrated the glamorous aspects of living and growing up with London on the doorstep, majestic and unassailable. The unwritten message was not Britain's good for you, but take what you can from your surroundings and fall in love with them. The trouble is, the message got mislaid amongst the rhetoric.
Damon is intractable.
"I cannot see the point. If people are going to work out who they really are, they need to look around them — at what they can relate to. I sue London as a metaphor for almost every situation I'm in, I can't help it. It's like when we were recording Modern Life..., Generation X by Douglas Coupland was a really big influence on me, but for the new one it was London Fields by Martin Amis. I couldn't get over how much I loved that book, it had so many different levels. London's like something you fall in love with. It's when it gives you the clap that you really find out how much it means to you."
"I never think of London as one specific person. There's so many different elements to it. It's not one girlfriend, it's 20."
A chorus of groans emerge when it is suggested that a love of London invariably equates with a disdainful view of America.
"Please don't get us on to that," sighs Damon. "We could talk for hours about it. What it all boils down to, though, is that the people who buy our records couldn't care less about what America thinks or does. Why does everybody else have to worry so much?"
Definitions are meaningless. Blur are no more or less English than Trans-Global underground or the Prodigy, no more retrospective than the trad-rawk of Nirvana or Pearl Jam. What they conspire to do, however, is write about their lives, and London as a whole, like voyeurs spying through a secret keyhole.
In exactly the same way that the Small Faces talked about Rene the dockers' delight, the Kinks heralded the Village Green Preservation Society and Madness toasted the pleasures of Primrose Hill. They're putting a magnifying glass to the world people live in and just suggesting that we should have a glimpse as well.
At a time when old-school songwriters capable of producing pop vignettes are largely considered to be the stuff of the Antiques Roadshow, they're more important than ever. The only problem is, they're more important than ever'. The only problem is, they're just not selling enough records yet. Damon is little concerned with such trivia. He's crouching in his swivel chair.
"What we want to do is cultivate that chemical inside you that gives you belief in things. When we brought out Modern Life... it was different, we were on the defensive. But now we've broken through all those preconceptions and we can really start. When we first started, I always said to people don't judge us, wait until five years from now, but maybe now's the time to take over. There's just so much stuff to get out...erm, what's that expression...?"
Alex shouts, "ANAL EXPULSIVE!"
Damon practically bursts with glee.
"Yeah, that's what we are. Anal expulsives!"
Two days later, at the photo-shoot, Damon is crammed into a maroon suit, hunched in the freezing cold behind an ice-laden Eros. He's as enthusiastic as ever about the album, which he now describes as "Blur's Ark" and is already planning out a strategy for what the next album's going to look and sound like.
Within ten minutes, however, the American Coca-Colonisation of Piccadilly Circus has him ranting about how, unless something's done, the whole of London will become one huge Rock Circus, with a statue of Elvis towering high above it all.
"The thing you've got to understand about Blur is that there's not an ounce of rock'n'roll in us. Not any. That's why we're capable of making an album a year instead of standing around in a studio with the amps turned on waiting for the vibes. There's so much else to do."
And with that he's off, a desert bootboy striding away.
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- Damon Albarn