A hard day's night (part 2)


Having let themselves be enticed into a scenario where chart positions were the benchmark of a band's true value, Blur badly needed another Top 10 hit with their third single. They came unstuck with Bang, a poor relation of There's No Other Way, which climbed no further than 24. Had it charted 20 places higher, one wonders whether Bang might have sealed Blur's fate as an indie-dance nine days' wonder like The Soup Dragons or Flowered Up. Its comparative failure was, in retrospect, one of the best things that could have happened to them. Damon: "That's an interesting point, actually. What would have happened? We would have been given a lot more encouragement. The album [Leisure] would have gone in higher... I'm very glad it didn't. I'm very glad that we f***ed it up big-time."


The setbacks soon multiplied. A fourth single, Popscene, came out in April 1992 and fell short of the Top 30. Full of wounded pride and bloody-mindedness, Blur were now at loggerheads with Balfe and with each other. By May, they were £60,000 in debt and in complete disarray on a 44-date tour of America, promoting a remix of Bang they had not been told about. Drinking themselves insensible, they duly came to blows and pined piteously for England. For some reason - homesickness, perhaps, or because he fancied filling in a few gaps in his knowledge of '60s music - Damon listened to a Kinks tape throughout the tour.


April 1993. A year has passed since Blur last released a record. Unbeknown to the public, their second album Modern Life Is Rubbish, produced by Stephen Street and finished in December, had been rejected twice - first by Food and then by the band's American record company SBK. Concessions having been made to both, the album now has two extra songs and is a significant step forward from Leisure. It features brass, strings and woodwind and a new style of writing from Damon that uses poignant humour and Ray Davies characterisation to investigate the dreams, traditions and prejudices of suburban England. Blur's soon-to-be-released fifth single, For Tomorrow, has been written by Damon after a slanging match with Dave Balfe, who worries that Modern Life Is Rubbish sounds too parochial and may kill Blur's career.


Then again, what career? Utterly eclipsed in the press by American grunge groups and by glamorous English newcomers Suede (a band that once included Damon's girlfriend Justine Frischmann), Blur are the forgotten boys. Still experiencing fall-out from their disastrous tour of the States, they appear to be on a mission to rid Britain of grunge single-handedly. In this context, the overtly English-sounding Modern Life Is Rubbish is virtually protest music.


Dave: "We had got past the Seymour point of knowing what we wanted it to feel like but having no idea how to get there. We then had some idea of how to get there, but no idea why we wanted to go there. And then after that awful American tour, we figured out what it was all going to be for." This is what Damon tried to get across to Balfe: that Blur had found their musical identity - and that there was a chance, if they were given their head, that they might bring about a full-scale English pop renaissance. Balfe thought this was ludicrous.


Dave: "I saw both sides of the story. Damon was saying that the so-called American invasion had run out of steam - the bands are shit, the music is lacklustre and grunge has just become a fashion accessory - and that there was the potential for an untapped wealth of English music to be successful again. And he also meant that we could be the band to do it. But Balfe's point was, 'How do you know? You're asking me to stake my company on that.'"


There was a huge unspoken irony. Nevermind, the album that had kickstarted the international grunge phenomenon, had impressed Blur greatly. Graham: "I thought Nevermind was brilliant, as I think we probably all did. But we didn't want to say so. We knew that it was the enemy. We had a lot of respect for the enemy, but we knew that we had to be completely different."


With Damon unshakeable in his belief that English music (not British music; Damon wasn't speaking for Scotland or Wales) was going to come back into fashion, the battle with Balfe became a test of both men's character. Balfe was a practised ego-debunker with a withering wit: he was wont to dismiss Blur's B-sides as "art-wank". Damon had not once shown a chink of weakness or uncertainty to the press during Blur's fall from grace, but his band had severe alcohol problems and the competitive Damon was having to balance the pressures of writing the songs, leading Blur, pacifying Balfe and gritting his teeth as new records by Suede rose higher and higher in the charts.


Damon: "I was putting my whole existence into Blur's music. I felt very passionate - for the first and last time in my life - about being English. I just felt America had screwed me badly. It had taken away a lot of my dreams (laughs) ... Suede and America fuelled my desire to prove to everyone that Blur were worth it. There was nothing more important in my life. I wouldn't want to feel like that again."


On the musical front, Graham, who had been showing himself to be one of the most talented guitarists of his generation, feared that Damon's insistence on using brass, strings and female backing singers might amount to "unnecessary colouration". For Tomorrow, released in April 1993 after Damon received a reluctant go-ahead from Balfe, was compared in some quarters to ELO's Mr Blue Sky and its nice fat '70s feel was no accident. Jeff Lynne had been mooted to produce the song initially, while Stephen Street, who did produce it, instructed the backing vocalists to sing like Thunderthighs on the old Mott The Hoople singles.


Although For Tomorrow and two subsequent singles from Modern Life Is Rubbish charted modestly at 28, 28 and 26 respectively, keeping sales of the album down to 40,000 or so, Alex James remembers the mood in Blur being confident and purposeful. "Success wasn't necessarily something we saw in terms of sales. Modern Life Is Rubbish was a successful record because it achieved what we set out to achieve. I thought everything was shit except us. I wasn't buying many records at all. I don't think I even had a CD player until 1996."


Blur's publisher at MCA Music reminisced to their biographer Stuart Maconie that the band spearheaded a very English social scene in Camden Town circa 1993, where everyone wore suits, Fred Perrys and Doc Martens and listened exclusively to old punk and Mod records. All four members of Blur remember the time fondly. Dave: "I was never into Mod music - not like Graham - but I certainly revisited all my old punk records. I fell in love with Gaye Advert all over again." Surrounded by their Camden acolytes, Blur were arguably the most fashionable act in London. Dave, a man so uninterested in clothes that he is today wearing a sweatshirt adorned with the logo of American Airlines, found himself at the height of sartorial élan in his shiny DMs and three-button whistle-and-flutes.


In August 1993, Blur turned a corner with a brilliant performance at the Reading Festival and embarked on their Sugary Tea tour of Britain, named after a line in their sixth single Chemical World. They also began work with Stephen Street on their third album, one song from which - an alternately spoken and sung number called Parklife - proved an immediate favourite with audiences on the tour. Damon sensed that the new album, an elaboration on some of the vignettes and narratives he had explored on Modern Life Is Rubbish, would have a better-than-average reception awaiting it.


Dave: "We were in EMI having a meeting to discuss the album and I remember Damon saying, 'Whatever else happens, we've got a career now, rather than just being a novelty one-album-wonder band.' Which was what we wanted. Having hit records, being on Top Of The Pops and being in swanky cars wasn't going to be enough any more."


Alex: "Modern Life Is Rubbish had done... something. The time was definitely right to strike with the masterplan. We had a great relationship with the producer. We'd been playing together nearly every day for two or three years - and that's the only way to get good. We understood each other."


However, Blur and Street were under firm instructions from Balfe to record only songs that had been demoed and approved by Food. When Street phoned Food to tell them that a surefire hit called Girls And Boys had emerged from nowhere and been recorded in double-quick time, he was admonished for working on it without their permission.


If Blur's 1994 album Parklife was a watershed in British music that decade, vindicating Damon's prophecy and sparking off the commercially successful movement of musical optimism known as Britpop, it is nonetheless a fact that Damon conceived Parklife as anything but a celebration of Britain.


"Never was anything further from my mind than creating some sort of nationalistic issue," he says. "If anything, it had a lot to do with being completely captivated by [Martin Amis' novel] London Fields: that seedy vision of West London. I've lived in West London for many years and I really bought into that book. I wanted to create a sort of fantasy world. Everything belonged to this idea of Britain as a kind of inner dome. Like Sherwood Forest, where they cut down the forest and created a Robin Hood theme park. Or the pubs, where they replaced wood with plastic. Everywhere you looked, the country was being refitted."
[PR]
by scummy | 2008-01-20 02:59 | interview

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