For most British indie fans, Blur defined the 1990s. Though Oasis too were at the top of the game, they just sounded like the 1960s on ecstasy (instead of LSD), so I don't think they deserve the legacy. Blur do. Starting off as Circus, then Seymour, the band changed its name to Blur on the advice of Food, the record label it signed to. Blur were a leading band in the movement Britpop, but developed over time into a more experimental, arty band - this may have alienated lo-fi punk guitarist Graham Coxon and caused him to leave in about 2000, which eventually triggered their split, after 2003 effort Think Tank. Blur influenced scores of modern bands, as well as spawning Damon Albarn's Gorillaz, The Good The Bad and The Queen and Graham Coxon as a solo artist. Back together again after 10 years, Blur may release another album, but recent media reports suggest that this comeback was just a nostalgia trip, and will finish as suddenly as it started.
Blur made six albums. What? They made seven, you say? No, no. It was definitely six.
Leisure is the forgotten Blur album. It is forgotten by choice rather than careless error. Blur, who kicked off and lead the masses in Britpop later on, strolled onto the music scene with this repetitive, slightly lazy album. It sounds like The Stone Roses or The Happy Mondays, though it doesn't have the charm of being new and original. The world was still trapped in the indie dance confines of Madchester, and 'baggy', and Blur did nothing to combat this.
This is in retrospect. At the time, listeners weren't to know of Damon Albarn's later lyrical prowess, and Graham Coxon's later guitar brilliance, so they enjoyed the wholesome, innocent pop of She's So High and There's No Other Way without disappointment. Undoubtedly, There's No Other Way was an anthemic gem, and parts of Leisure showcased Damon's sultry vocals to full effect, and showed Blur's ability to inject emotion into tracks which other bands would fail miserably with (Wear Me Down, Sing, High Cool).
Although only a one-track release, Popscene was definitely a musical turning point for Blur. It was a dramatic change, unlike their later slow evolution. Popscene featured a fanfare, stylish guitar ornamentation, and a shout-it-out chorus, drawing on influences like The Kinks, but also with strains of British punk. It seemed to be part of a calculated effort to be more 'English', after a destructive and unrewarding American tour. Popscene was Blur's first piece of Britpop, and arguably, the start of Britpop as a genre. It remains a fantastic track, angrier than anything from Leisure, and revealing Damon's first go at social commentary: 'Everyone is a clever clone, a chrome covered clone am I, and in the absence of a way of life, just repeat this again and again.'
Modern Life Is Rubbish (1993)
This is the first Britpop album Blur made: it combines social commentary with great music seamlessly. They slid out of the confines of repetitive trance indie and embraced unusual chords, a lo-fi sound and the first of Damon Albarn's very eloquent lyrics. For Tomorrow has it all: the detached melancholy which Blur became known for shines through beneath a perfect pop song, with a 'la la la' chorus but some fine observations on modern England in there too.
Other great tracks on the album include sensitive song Blue Jeans, about Damon's girlfriend Justine Frischmann of Elastica, upbeat but disdainful Villa Rosie and Sunday Sunday, and a lot of interesting, miserably loveable characters in various other tracks, including Colin Zeal, the uptight man caught in the rat race, the disillusioned Miss America, and the bitter Julian with pressure mounting on him. A moment of historical importance on the album is Star Shaped, a more personal track describing Blur snapping out of recent discontent and getting their dreams together: their career was to take off from there, giving the song meaningful resonance.
Album number three exceeded all expectations. After a slow start to their career, and a sudden reinvention, could Blur escape the negative press they'd had from not being Nirvana copyists? Parklife silenced the doubters. Often hailed as Blur's best album, Parklife certainly contains fantastic pop songs: the famous tongue-twister Girls & Boys stands next to title track Parklife, and possibly their most beloved and beautiful song, This Is A Low. The album is more electronic than their previous effort, though it retains its deliberate Englishness: This Is A Low is a whistle-stop tour around Britain, Clover Over Dover a melancholy reference to the famous Dover cliffs, Bank Holiday celebrating the typical British tradition of...celebrating.
Though the most remembered effort, and certainly the one that catapulted Blur to fame, I don't find Parklife as fulfilling a listen as I'm told I should. The merry-go-round electronics are lost on me, Graham Coxon's distinctive guitar sound stifled under unnecessary polish in places. However, there is beauty in the innocence of this album. After Parklife, after a lot of bright lights came into the equation, Blur lost the youthful simplicity in Parklife and previous albums. I'd say it's an essential Blur album, either way: it marked their rise to fame, contains some of their best and most popular songs, and definitely defines what most people think of as Blur.
The Great Escape (1995)
Maybe the fame went to their heads. Maybe Blur felt under pressure to recreate the success which surrounded Parklife, but whatever possessed them, it made them write The Great Escape. There are some good songs on this album, but it sounds like it hates itself. Not clear enough? The songs are sung without Damon's usual soul, and the social commentary almost parodies itself in places: Dan Abnormal and Ernold Same are amongst the many tired descriptions of tired characters.
Even then, Blur cannot stray from writing catchy tunes. Graham Coxon's guitar skills are brought to the fore, and there are some moments which are a lot of fun: the risqué middle section of Mr Robinson's Quango ("I'm wearing black French knickers under my suit, got stockings and suspenders on, I'm feeling rather loose"), the punk madness of Globe Alone and the uplifting quirkiness of It Could Be You. Country House made a commercial splash. Also, of course, this album bred The Universal, somehow infinitely sad and infinitely uplifting at the same time, and destined to be the background music on adverts for decades to come.
Offering the opposite perspective, some people love The Great Escape - they like the classic tunes without getting bogged down in the 'soul' or the subjective charm of the album. And I can't have disliked it at first: it got me into Blur.
Perhaps The Great Escape was the last Britpop album Blur made. Speculation as to why this album is self-titled usually leads back round to the fact that this is a much more personal album, with less commentary and more reflective lyrics: see Beetlebum, You're So Great and Look Inside America. If the previous album sounded tired and like it was retreading old ground, this sounded like a rejuvenation of Blur, but still with a lot of darkness between the lines. Beetlebum is said by some to be about Justine Frischmann's heroin addiction, the fast punk of Song 2 (probably their most famous and successful song) is lined with anger, and lots of the middle tracks are slower and more morose than ever before.
This album uses electronics in a different way to those before it, the slurping sounds in I'm Just A Killer For Your Love a good example: they are less merry-go-round and childish than earlier in their career. Essex Dogs was a pointer as to where they were going next, musically. Blur bridges a gap between the light-hearted but lethargic Britpop of The Great Escape and the new directions of13, rather than standing out as a great album in its own right. However, it did spawn Song 2, Blur's first major US hit, live favourite Beetlebum and Graham's first lead vocal track You're So Great (charming in its boyishness, but somehow lacking, like much of Graham's later solo material.)
To end the nineties, and end Blur as we knew it, they released 13. To me, 13 sounds like Damon's album, with Graham fighting for the lead where he used to share it so well. 13 is experimental and by no means Britpop. It uses those more adult electronics glimpsed in the self-titled, but much more, and with much more precision. Graham's punk guitar (which defined Chinese Bombs, Song 2 and Movin' On on the previous album) is in competition with Damon's preference for distorted electronic sounds and strange new auditory experiments. The new Blur sounds like it has four different directions, four people pulling four different ways. This was probably true: the band was made up of a politician and family man, a pilot and farmer, a world music buff, and probably most worringly, a hopeful solo artist in Graham.
I really like 13. It doesn't have as many singalong moments or big choruses as Blur would usually have (minus famous break-up singalong song Tender), but it has a gritty quality and an intensity they've never had before. It could be because there is so much going on in every track: they have all really learnt to play, loudly, and with electronics and distortion layered over the top, the texture is forever changing and drawing you in. The lyrics are almost entirely abstract or reflective, leaving behind social commentary. Graham's only lead vocal track, Coffee & TV, reveals that underneath all Damon's new direction, Graham is stifled and wanting to get out.
Get out is exactly what he did. By 2000, Blur and Graham Coxon were two separate artists. The band played some shows as a threesome, with Damon Albarn expermenting (albeit not with flair) on a guitar, and Alex James and Dave Rowntree just ploughing on - the band went to record Think Tank in South America and Morocco and Graham never turned up. Alex James was the closest to Graham in the band since he and Damon's friendship had become tense, and he remembers feeling that the band's balance was in jeopardy.
Think Tank (2003)
Think Tank is Damon Albarn's album for ideas, and Alex James' and Dave Rowntree's album for form. The bassist and drummer had got very good by then, but were always in the shadow of unwilling star Graham Coxon for talent. Now, Alex's eloquence on the bass and Dave's precision as a drummer (on the tracks he plays on) can be heard through the mix.
Without the aggression and tension on previous albums, the thing which Damon excels at can be heard best: the lyrics. Damon's lyrical skill is sometimes elusive, because he doesn't use florid language or heavy metaphors, he writes eloquently and simply and sets the words to the exact melody they need. There are hints of his politics on Think Tank in Moroccan Peoples Revolutionary Bowls Club and We've Got A File On You and, between softer numbers, electro punk rock to sustain your interest: We've Got A File On You and Crazy Beat, which is a perfect indie dance-floor classic. Sultry Brothers & Sisters commenting on drug use (which Blur had been very familiar with in the past) is a highlight.
What am I saying? Think Tank is one long highlight, in my opinion. It sounds like Damon breaking free of Graham, a very miserable notion which leads to a great sound, and at the same time it sounds complete. It's made for the summer, every chord evoking the beautiful scenery in which it was made (especially Out of Time, which has taken on South America, in the background noise and the music itself). Blur were at the end of the road though. Alex was right: a band is a very careful equilibrium, and this couldn't work for more than one album.
Blur didn't explode in a public supernova argument, band members didn't die suddenly, and the public didn't knock them from their podium after a bad album. Blur just fizzled out. The drink and merriment had been deserted, because though it had once bound them together, it now tore them apart. Blur gave way to new projects, including cheese-making and law school and folk music and Chinese opera. Over the next few years, Graham Coxon and Damon Albarn slowly reconciled, and they had a triumphant return this year. Lyrics bounced back from exalting crowds, roofs were raised, cheers reverberated around venues, and then the trees of Hyde Park. They headlined Glastonbury. Maybe there is a future for Blur, maybe there isn't, but it's certain that their legacy is now undeniable.
How to Buy Blur
If you are planning on buying/downloading all of the albums, I wouldn't suggest you take them out of order. They track a steady development (even more so than long standing bands like Sonic Youth) and all have some great moments on. However if you just want the general Blur 'thing', I'd suggest you buy Parklife and Modern Life is Rubbish, as well as 13 and Think Tank because they are great albums despite not being Britpop as such. The Great Escape and Blur are optional, though both have classic tracks on them. Leisure - well it's up to you, but it's no real loss if you miss it out. In my opinion.
Not content with their six albums, Blur released their Best Of with unheard track Music Is My Radar in 2000. It lacks simply because they made a great seventh album in 2003 and it's not represented. If you want a compliation album, this year's Midlife: A Beginner's Guide to Blur is probably the CD to go for: they have chosen the tracks and it is definitely a greater compliation. It also contains Popscene, which is quite hard to find otherwise.
There is a well-publicised Damon Albarn biography - Gorillaz and other fables or something - but I don't recommend it. I got about thirty pages in, and despite being very interested in Damon's life, I couldn't get any further. It was dry and dull, packed with facts which you couldn't possibly remember all of, and very little analysis or style. If you were writing an essay on Bohemian upbringing, maybe you'd like it. After reading it, you can quote facts about what his music teacher thought of him for the rest of time, but it's not a fun read.
Bit of a Blur by Alex James, on the other hand, is a fantastic read. It doesn't fill you in on the technicals of the music in depth, but it does give you a few hundred page analysis of various types of alcohol, and girls, and it does so with wit and humour and charm. You may think he's an arrogant git, and you may well be right, but I've read this twice and it still makes me laugh and come out with gooey motherly 'awwww's every few minutes. It is history as well, remember. There are still facts (when he can remember them).
Any other Blur books are uncharted territory for me. By all means explore. There is a world of Blur at your fingertips, and I hope I've made it a little more accessible in this colossal block of heartfelt writing.