Transcribed by Aida
they've been art school & britpop slackers. now,
blur reinvent themselves again, with a difficult but brilliant album
written from the heart.
by miranda sawyer, the observer
top of the pops studio.feb. 99. it's 8.30 p.m. & way past blur's bedtime. damon & alex & graham are drunk. dave isn't drunk, because he's teetotal,(me-what does that mean?) but he stayed up until 5a.m. last night & he's suffering for it now. blur have been at TOTP since 1p.m., & the only thing i've seen any of them eat is a packet of cheese-&-onion crisps. they've run through their new single, the rabble-rousing,soul-shattered 'tender', 4 times ; damon as frontman ,has done 3 interviews; drummer dave,guitarist graham & bassist alex have had a bash at golf nearby; alex & graham have played snooker; damon has flitted matily from east ender's barbara windsor & sid owen to pops performers ian brown & james lavelle, body swerving round pre-pubescents Next of Kin. now,blur have nothing to do but wait to perform. so they drink,to hurry up life.
outside their dressing room, an entire OK!'s worth of celebs are milling in the corridor. andy ross, from blur's record label, is explaining to graham that it looks like 'tender' will be kept off the #1 spot by a back-flipping 16 year old in a school uniform . no one had factored britney. "never mind," he soothes. "it's like joe dolce's 'shaddap your face' keeping ultravox & 'vienna' from getting to #1".
damon explodes:"we are not like bloody ultravox!" graham is bunched,twisted into a knot of limbs & twitchy fingers . he's worried because tonight he has to sing, as well as damon. "i promised myself i wouldn't get drunk. & i did." graham furrows his brow, looks anxious, then determined. "instead of 'oh my baby',i'll sing 'oh my gravy'."
blur are back-& they're not the band you thought they were. though they're still effortlessly easy to caricature (damon:prattish mouth-on-a-stick. alex:champagne-ponced pseud. graham: suffering genius. dave: drummer, pilot); though they're still that particular, uneasy blend of bohemia & yobbishness, blur are different. they've changed.
no surprise there: one of blur's more irksome traits , according to their critics,is their inability to stand still; how they appear to flip-flop musically, jump from stance to stance. from baggy to mod to pop to fuzz-rock, from thwarted england to balls-out america, from hemann hesse to chelsea FC, from anger to satire to subtlety to farce to incoherence to swihiness to passion. middle-class dilettantes.
"in 1993: we're hooligans with vision"
in 1994:"we're the nanette newman of pop."
in 1995: "we're corporate cock-sucking wankers"
in 1996:"we're ultra normal"
in 1997:"we're an art school band from an art school land".
in 1994, damon pronounced upon american nirvana-type rock groups:"slacker culture says nothing to us about our lives". 3 yrs later, damon described blur's music as "english slacker"
they've made 6 albums in the past 9 yrs:leisure, modern life is rubbish,parklife,the great escape,blur & now 13. leisure(1991) launched them as pretty indie poppets; modern life..(93)skewed into dinky kinks-y character sketches & awkward noises. in 1994,parklife's cartoon narratives & instant tunes swung them back into the mainstream,selling more than 2 million copies worldwide.
blur became britpop & front-page,faint away famous. one yr. later,the great escape-parklife gone sour-sold equally well,but blur were badly trampled by oasis in the war for the nation's hearts. they split up. then 1997's blur-tangential,pop-trashing,'difficult'-unexpectedly sold even better & broke them in america. & now, here comes 13-yet another directional swivel.
2 factors:blur have hooked up with william orbit , space-pop producer of madonna's ray of light album & in 1998, damon split with his girlfriend of 8 yrs, justine frischmann of elastica. we are told that 13 is damon's broken-heart LP. that's the difference,this time damon means it.
on 1st hearing,though,you'd be hard pushed to know it. aside from 'tender'(the single),trimm trabb(a far flung,starry-eyed shuffle) & no distance left to run(a direct,emotional ballad:"it's over, u don't need to tell me..i won't kill myself trying to stay in your life") 13 presents itself as a headache of feedback & scary noises. yet, after 4 or 5 listens,the album somehow transforms:into al layered,schizophrenic, touching testament to lost love,smashed lives & wild, freakish musicality. it's big,clever & grown up. it is different. since parklife,a new blur LP is a worlwide event. record co.,media,marketing & promotions crank into big-wheeled,money-making action. the band has done 250 european interviews in the past month.
the band formed in 1989 when dave rowntree had an argument with eddie , a guitarist, & david a bassist. eddie & david stropped off leaving singer/songwriter damon albarn & graham coxon,who'd been playing sax & percussion &, occasionally,guitar. graham became lead guitarist & suggested his fellow goldsmiths student,alex james , as a bassist. alex turned up at the beat factory where damon worked as a tea boy:the 1st time the new quartet played together,they came up with 'she's so high', their 1st single. graham still has the tape. they called themselves seymour,after a JD salinger character-& they were signed within 3 months.
i met them soon afterwards,in spring 1990,just before they'd change their name to blur:they used to drink in a pub near where i worked. i thought they were good looking & a good laugh,especially alex & dave. graham was a little boy lost,the type women call 'sweet'. damon hid his insecurities under a bowlhead fringe & a stare-you-out cool: he told me that he didn't own any pop records,only books, & asked me if i'd read hermann hesse or umberto eco. they all drank like maniacs.
when blur played,they were berserk:damon would clamber on to PAs,hurl himself into the (then minuscule) audience,pogo,puke,smash himself into whatever came to hand,like a beer bottle,or graham. (me-whoa!) graham himself would be would around his guitar,squirming on the floor,lurching in the air. Louche,perma-cigged alex turned his back to the room to wiggle his bum at girls.(me-another whoa!) dave was always,always bonkers drunk.(me-never seen them play live)
i've seen blur play more times than any other pop group. i've seen damon,so slaughtered he could barely see,improvise like a jazz pro on piano; caught graham strumming abba & beatles songs to his guitar. i've seen dave do the washing up/drunk & desperate for a girlfriend/sober & happily married. i like them all as people; i think they're a brave,often brilliant band. we share mutual friends. blur is twisted through the past 10 yrs of my life.
this makes for a tricky interview. i'm at damon's flat in notting hill,london,trying to ask him about his past, & he keeps avoiding questions by saying "well, u know already." usually, damon loves to opine to the press :he's good at bitchy soundbites,& has a long established habit of re-working events, pretending that accidents were what he intended all along,spinning history to his advantage.
but he's promised not to tell me any lies,plus he's paranoid about the tabloids & his private life: "i'd tell but by telling u ,i'm telling the sun"
our hampered,painful process isn't helped by the fact that evry minute or so, we're interrupted by electronic sounds -buzzes or shrieks or bongs -that go off in different ,hidden palces in the room. damon:"i lose things, so they make various noises to make me find them."
Lots more to come, up very soon I hope