It’ s 10.15am in the lobby of New Yorks moody Paramount Hotel. It’s also 1992. Blur are having a brunch meeting with the top brass of their American record company, SBK. Alex James is 15minutes late, and no-one knows where he is.
It transpires that he has been out carousing all night, a hobby he will define to an artform in the coming years. When he finally rolls in, Blur’s manager interceptrs him
‘Where have you been Alex?’ he inquires.
‘I’ve been to the top!’ declares Alex, who is still drunk.
‘Well,’ says Blur’s manager, ‘go upstairs, clean your teeth and back down here to the bottom.’
And there is your Blur touring experience distilled into an instance right there. Hotel lobby. All-night drinking. A demanding foreign record company. Buisnaess meets pleisure. Top meets bottom. And Alex is late.
Blur’s ten year career is all too easily broken down into its component albums, but an examination of their live CV gives a far more balanced picture. From their earliest art-school happenings (their second ever gig, as Seymour, was a Goldsmiths degree show the year Damien Hurst graduated) to the squealing stadia of the late ‘90s, your basic Blur gig hasnt changed that much. It’s stil the same four blokes, the same arch mix of punk rock and art wank, danger and bubblegum, deadly seriousness and fairground fun. Just throw in the odd standard lamp and mirror ball, and double the audience every three years.
In the early days Blur stoked up on beer and wine before they went on. These days they are allowed ‘one and a half strong lagers’ bafore show time. The effect is no less intoxicating. As they topped the main stage at Glastonbury this year, they no doubt recalled their debut there six years earlier. It was daylight. They were on the secnd stage. And Neds Atomic Dustbin went on afetr them. And Damon broke his foot afetr an argument with a speaker stack. There have been ups and downs, triumphant homecomings and misunderstood US legs. They’ve played blinders and they’ve played blind drunk.
Today, the band are gathered in a Kings Cross rehearsal studio to prepare for Glastonbury and remenice over their live years. Next door, Rod Stewart’s band belt out 'Maggie May' with little respect for Damon's hangover - he got back from Stockholm this morning at 3am after watching Chelsea win the UEFA Cup, where he lost his shoe and his passport but not his horrible Three Lions ring. ("The fashion accessory this summer," he insists.) Alex, uncompromisingly bearded, was on a modest Pimm's bender and, as such, looks his usual self. Graham's shorts are an inch from falling down. And Dave's just back from a holiday in Morocco (don't get him started on Moroccans). A staggering ten years down the road, it's time for them to stagger down it one more time on a journey around Blur by gig. It's not always a pretty sight, but there's a reasonable chance Damon will climb the rigging, and they always do 'She's So High'.
Don't forget your toothbrush.
HALF WAY BETWEEN HALSTEAD AND COLCHESTER ON THE A604, NEWLY-FORMED SEYMOUR MAKE THEIR LIVE DEBUT. BAND'S GOLDSMITHS COLLEGE CONNECTION ENSURES ARTY CROWD.
Damon: "It was great. It was perfect. I felt, 'This is something.' It was literally just an old train shed in this low key museum that we hired out. The audience sat in a tube train carriage. We used my Dad's old strobe light from the '60s."
Graham: "It was on a viaduct, a very high viaduct, about 100 metres up."
Damon: "There was a pub nearby called The Swan where we used to go. And one of the things we'd do when we were really pissed up was climb up and walk along the edge of the viaduct. Really stupid thing to do. As for the gig itself, we were drunk, but in a good way. It was very innocent, pure - way before we got sanctified by Dave Balfe. There were about 100 people there..."
Graham: "...including parents. We wore tank tops."
Alex: "It was Damon's 21st birthday, his sister's 18th and his Dad's 50th, so the Albarns had a big party. Damon's Dad's a bit of a mover and a shaker on the Colchester scene so all the local glitterati were there. I remember Dave telling me how loudspeakers work in the car. The first song we played that night was called 'Long Legged'."
Damon: "After the gig I ended up in a cornfield with a girl I fancied at the time, which was a nice end to the evening. We made our own little corn circle."
Dave: "I got off with somebody in the train."
Alex: "We blew everything up. It was chaos in those days. We used to end up pouring wine all over ourselves."
BOTTOM-ENDING THE MANCUNIAN 'INDIE DANCE' BILL OF NEW FAST AUTOMATIC DAFFODILS AND TOO MUCH TEXAS, SEYMOUR BEGIN TO PRICK EARS ON THE LONDON MUSIC SCENE.
Graham: "Andy Ross from Food records! tried to get into this gig but he was too late."
Damon: "He was too drunk."
Graham: "He was too late and too drunk. They wouldn't let him in. We got maced by the bouncers. I think our mate Adam flashed at one of them."
Alex: "It was our first paying gig. Adam was like mine and Graham's dad that summer - we'd left college, living in a squat in New Cross, and he was kind of tough and older than us. He ended up getting his head kicked in. I remember him drinking a bottle of neat
Pernod and saying to the singer of Too Much Texas, 'You've got a tasty little packet', and then grabbing his balls."
Dave: "I drove all the equipment back to the house while the rest of them got maced."
HAVING SIGNED TO FOOD AND CHANGED THEIR NAME, MOP-TOPPED, PENGUIN BOOK-SHIRTED BLUR CAUSE STIR, ENTERIN6 THE TOP TEN WITH SECOND SINGLE AHD FIRST ALBUM.
Damon: "This was the first sense of real mania. We really hit it off with the Midlands crowd, they were really into it. A massive stage invasion. Euphoric. On that tour, we played Bristol Bierkeller in the same week as we'd been on Top Of The Pops doing 'There's No Other Way'.
"A certain journalist from one of the music papers was there, being really sleazy, telling little girls that they could come into the dressing room if they gave him a kiss. But JB's was the first gig where we ever made any money. We were on a percentage and we absolutely filled the place. We got about £450, more money than we'd ever seen ever!"
Graham: "We came away with about £90 each, after petrol. I thought, 'We can buy jeans now!"'
ON THE FIRST OF MANY UNCOMFY US JANHTS, BLUR SECURE A 'NICHE' AUDIENCE ONNY WITH WILD, PUNK- STYLE SHOWS. AMERICAN RECORD COMPANY SBK FAIL TO GET JOKE.
Alex: "I got offwith Damon before that show. I remember us going out the front and snogging each other in the audience. Then he went out the back and got a BJ.."
Damon: "It was our first gig in New York. I got drunk and ended up climbing on the ceiling. They had one of those sprinkler systems with water pipes and I climbed across them. I landed in the lap of our record company boss. We were great at that gig, really punk."
Graham: "We kicked ass. We guys rocked. I decorated all my amps with plastic soldiers. I think we were quite a spectacle. A lot of those early shows, we couldn't finish the set because the equipment would be trashed within 15 minutes. Damon would jump on Alex and they'd be like a drunken giraffe coming towards me. My pedals would come apart and we'd all end up in a heap. I suppose that's quite exciting to watch. The American shows were like that. I don't know if the quality of music was any good."
Alex: "You've got to remember it was our first time in NewYork. We didToronto and that was pretty mental, then Boston, and I'd been up all night drinking and we got to NewYork, in a limo with a phone in and everything, and there were skinny, beautiful girls everywhere. 'Woooaaarr! NewYork, I fucking shit it!' You go fucking crazy. We really pissed the American record company off. At Food you~d have Dave Balfe saying, 'Your drinking's good but you're really not taking enough drugs' - he really did say that! We thought that's what record companies were like! But you go into SBK and it's a bunch of fucking lawyers. Journalists were complaining to the record company about us stinking of booze."
Damon: "That was a confusing tour because in many ways we didn't fit in."
Dave: "The thing was, everybody was pretty shy on that tour. We were feel- ing quite out of our depth, I think. When vou aet a bunch of people like that you fill them with as much drink as they can dank."
Graham: "We were playing a pretty screwed-up set with B-sides in. It was quite an arty set, and we'd made a film to play with it."
Damon: "At Brixton I took my trousers and pants down. Graham looked so embarrassed, and I quickly realised how stupid I looked and I fell to the ground to try and make it look like an accident."
Graham: "J Mascis asked him if he was gonna whip it out again the night after."
Damon: "It was filmed by a Canadian music channel and funnily enough we increased in popularity there."
Graham: "That was the most rock'n'roll tour in the world. Lots of vodka and smoking and lots of noise and late nights. It was ace.Those bands were my heroes - part of the reason I wanted to be in an indie group in the first place was because of those people. I got on particularly well with Kevin [Shields] and the Bloody Valentines."
Damon: "I remember seeing Graham on the carpet in the hotel bar being hoovered around in the morning."
Alex: "That tour was steeped in alcohol. You'd get to the hotel, Jim and William [Reid] would be in the bar, so you'd have a drink then Kevin Shields would come in - top guy, and the Valentine girls were lovely. It just didn't stop."
Dave: "It's amazing how little we knew about what we were doing then."
Alex: "We still thought we were on holiday. It was indie dream heaven! 'Tonight, you'll be going bowling with J Mascis and The Jesus & Mary Chain, and you can have as much booze as you like."'
Dave: "That tour was the origin of the Punching Game. You'd all sit in a row and have to punch the person on your left. The last one left sitting on their chair was the winner."
HAVING APPARENTIY PEAKED AFTER NUMBER 32 PIACING FOR 'POPSCENE', BLUR GET DRUNKER. DAMON BREAKS HIS FOOT ON THE SECOND STAGE, AS CAPTURED ON 'STAR SHAPED' VIDEO.
Damon: "We were the only people at Glastonbury in suits! We really stood out. None of us had been before. I climbed right to the top of the lighting rig - I was really drunk again - and when l got down, I was jumping into the speaker stack and I toppled it over and I didn't get away in time. Bosh! I finished the rest of the song in agony. And we went on and did an encore. I remember hopping off stage and seeing Justine sitting in the corner with a cigarette going [afects posh voice], 'Are you OK?"'
Dave: "I only remember it from watching the film of it. I didn't see it happen."
Alex: "We were like bouncy little teenagers. We'd drink and make loads of noise and go fucking mental. I've broken Damon's nose on stage before. Violent."
Dave: "I try not to look when Damon's climbing the rafters. It encourages him. Still, the kids love it."
BLUR REACH PREMATURE BURN-OUT AFTER THEIR SECOND DEMORALISING US TOUR, CACKING UP NME ORGANISED CHARITY GIG THROUGH STRONG DRINK AND ALLOWING YOUNG SUEDE TO STEAL SHOW.
Damon: "Why did that day start so badly?"
Graham: "We soundchecked very early and we decided to go for a drink... We met Jon Fat Beast [indie promoter and Carter USM stooge] and his then-manager. Me and Alex got completely lost in Camden, so we decided to go to some pubs, basically. Dave was at home with his laundry."
Dave: "Damon had spilt something down himself and I said I'd stick it in the wash and come back in a couple of hours' time. When I got back everybody was on the floor. It was like a different band! So I necked beers for the next hour-and-a-half to catch up."
Damon: "We were drinking with Leo [Finlay tragically-deceased sometime Select scribe] weren't we? God rest his soul. There were weird vibes at the gig. Suede were on, and everybody absolutely loved them, and we'd been away in America and we were totally lost in every sense of the word, ludicrously off course. I came onstage and the first thing I said was, 'You might as well fuck off home because we're going to be shit.' And we were shit, and I got more and more pissed and frustrated, and I was bashing my mike stand around and I hit one of the bouncers in the pit and he had to go to hospital to have stitches. Balfe rang me up the next morning and said, 'I've got to see you now.' It was like going to the headmaster's offIce. He said, 'If you don't get your act together in the next six weeks, you're off the label."'
Graham: "When you're drunk onstage, your mind wants your hands to do things and your hands can't manage to do them. I don't really remember very much of it."
Dave: "There was one pre-Blur gig where I was so drunk I sat down at the drum kit and realised I hadn't set it up."
Alex: "We used to see how drunk we could get, didn't we?"
Dave: "At any gig, no matter how it went, you'd always get some yes-man coming in the dressing room afterwards and saying, 'Well done, lads, it was great!'... Except for that gig."
Damon: "A couple of days later we were all walking down towards Pall Mall and these two lads in a van screeched up and said, 'Best gig we've ever seen!"'
AFTER WELL-RECEIVED 'MODERN LIEE IS RUBBISH' AIBUM AND PROP-HEAVY TOUR, BLUR MARK THEIR REBIRTH IN A TENT - WHIIE HEADIINERS THE THE FAIL TO ROCKTHE MAIN STAGE.
Damon: "Everyone knew: this is it. You know when the gig's yours."
Graham: "We didn't have any of the big props, just crazy lights. I remember being amazed by it. It was a very intense show.
Dave: "It was like having an hour-and-ahalf long orgasm."
Damon: "That's how new bands get through. Every few years, these festivals don't have great headliners, and Then a band that's on the up plays the tent and everyone goes to see them, and it becomes legendary. I remem- ber sitting in the hotel after-wards and I had the editors of the Melody Maker and NME sitting either side of me, and I just thought, 'Things are really starting to work out here..."'
Graham: "You must have been like the Devil."
'PARKLIFE' TOPS THE CHARTS IN MAY. BRITPOP EXPLODES. BLUR HEADLINE SECOND STAGE ON SUNDAY AND HOLD THE WORLD IN THE PALM OF THEIR HAND (OASIS WERE ON EARLIER IN THE AETERNOON).
Damon: "The sun went down curing 'This Is A Low' and I'll never ever forget that. If the audience are in the right hame of mind that song's beautiful to do."
Graham: "We had a regime set up by that time. For an hour before the show you can't have a beer."
Alex: "By then we were putting a bit of craft into things, rather than just going for that totally visceral, push-the-boatout approach."
Dave: "If you go down the road of selling a gig purely on energy, it only works half the time, and it doesn't work at festivals."
FIRST 'EVENT' GIG. IN FRONT OF 8,000 PUNTERS, WITH A BILL INCIUDING SUPERGRASS, CORDUROY AND PULP, BLUR BESTRIDE THE PLANET. OR EN-GER-LAND, ANYWAY.
Graham: "We went to have a look at the venue, and I remember thinking we'll never, ever fill it, because it seemed so vast."
Damon: "I had a massive panic attack. Ludicrous. It takes 8500 people."
Dave: "I had that same feeling supported The Cramps at Brixton Academy in 1990. I thought, 'Jeeesus! There aren't enough people in the world to fill this!' I found Ally Pally quite nerve-wracking."
Alex: "We broke even on that gig, except I left a £200 guitar in the back of a taxi on the way to Club Smashing afterwards."
Graham: "I liked it when everyone had gone and you could see millions of plastic cups."
HELPING TO RAISE 13,000 FOR AN ORPHANAGE IN INDIA, SECRET, STUDES ONNY, NO-PRESS GIG IS ORGANISED BY DAMON'S MUSIC TEACHER, WHOSE 17PIECE ORCHESTRA SUPPORT.
Dave: "It was actually at my old school, so that was a bit weird. I'd stood in that very same hall in assembly every morning for seven years."
Damon: "It was quite a nice thing to come up with, getting the school orchestra to do arrangements of Blur songs. It was my old music teacher Mr Hildreth's idea. They played 'Parklife', 'End Of A Century', 'Tracy lacks', 'Girls And Boys'... it was quite sweet. We wouldn't let the Colchester Evening Gazette in, because they were always giving us bad reviews. They'd always been very bitter."
Graham: "After the gig we went to Colchester Arts Centre with all our parents and the teachers and jumped about."
Alex: That gig didn't mean the same to me, as it wasn't my school, but it's always nice to go back to Bournemouth - we try and slip a show in every couple of years. It's what you dream of doing when you grow up: returning triumphant."
EMBLEMATIC TO POINT OF PARODY, BLUR DO EAST END SPORTS STADIUM AND IT RAINS. QUIXOTIC BILL: THE CARDIACS, WIRE, DODGY AND SPARKS. CROWD: 3S,OOO. 'COUNTRY HOUSE' DEBUTED.
Damon: "I'll tell you what's signficant about that gig, it was the first time that lads and indie kids all went to a gig together. It was the beginning of that explosion. Oasis took it further, but we instigated it. If it had been a sunny day, it would've gone down as a very big event. It stopped raining just as we went on."
Graham: "I was satisfied with my performance, but not with what I wore - a blue towelling shirt like some old darts player."
Damon: "We weren't going to put 'Country House' out, but we got totally carried away by how well it went down at Mile End. With hindsight it was probably a foolish thing to do - it led to a lot of things a lot of people could've done without, and could've really screwed us up badly. But the crowd loved it. I don't think the bill we had was particularly good apart from The Cardiacs. No one was available."
Dave: "It was more of a statement than the bill at Ally Pally. It was quite confrontational. We thought Wire was a coup. They were booed off. I was hoping we'd get booed off as well."
Alex: "Two days later, we had to go off and play pubs in America, so there was always that balance. I don't think we suffered from thinking we were gods."
HAVING VISITED JAPAN FOR EVERY ALBUM, 'GREAT ESCAPE' TOUR SEES THEM GRADUATE TO LEGENDARY 15,000-SEATER JUDO HALL. RECORDED FOR JAPAN-ONLY LIVE ALBUM.
Graham: "I remember Alex coming up to me before we went on and saying, 'Do you know how much money you're going to make in the next two hours?"'
Damon: "We earned £50,000 each for two hours' work. That's how much money you make... if you've ever wondered why people do these big gigs! We also play a lot of small gigs in Japan, it's important to do a mix. It's nice playing the Budokan, because it's amazing to see that many people in a totally seated venue."
Alex: "You always make money in Japan. It saved us from going bankrupt in the early days."
Dave: "The Budokan was a hallowed thing ~r me to do because when I was little, my iend's brother had Bob Dylan at the Budokan and we weren't allowed to touch it."
Alex: "I was sober this time we were in Japan and I loved it."
TEMPORARY VICTORS IN THE BLUR-OASIS FEUD, SlGNED TO VIRGIN IN US, BLUR DO A 16-DATE SELLOUT ARENA TOUR OF THE UK AND ARE SCREAMED AT BY SMALL GIRLS FOR DURATION.
Damon: "The Point at Dublin was brilliant, but G-Mex was the best. We filmed it for the Stereotypes video. It was the most amazing gig as far as crowd reaction goes."
Dave: "The Japanese had always screamed - they're a nation of screamers - but they have a very particular pitch, unique in its ear-splitting quality. The European girl scream is also odd."
Graham: "You soundcheck, then you go onstage for the real thing and you might as well not have soundchecked, you can't fucking hear a thing."
Damon: "It was disconcerting for us. We'd arrived in this strange place: considering our history it was bizarre that we'd become a teen band. By the end of that tour we were all confused, shagged out and disillusioned, and we didn't really want to go on. You can enjoy it in a certain sort of way"
Alex: "You get used to it. You live in Pottyland, that's just where you live. Damon's very dismissive about it now, but it was fucking fantastic. Graham went hedgehog, he curled up into a ball. I think it quietened Damon down a bit. It was five years of trying to get in the papers, and five years trying to stay out of them."
Dave: "As far as I was concerned, we were playing left-field, weird artpop, posturing and making a nuisance of ourselves. And yet here were thousands of teenage girls treating us like Take That. It was like going shopping for apples and coming back with a motorbike. It's very nice to have a motorbike, but it's singly inappropriate. I've just come back from a holiday in Marrakesh. It was fantastic but I'm not fucking going there again."
EPONYMOUS RETHINK AIBUM RAISES CRITICAI PROFILE AND SAVES BAND. SUBSEQUENT YEAR-LONG TOUR TAKES IN AUSTRALIA, EAR EAST AND GREENLAND FOR FIRST TIME.
Damon: "Greenland was pretty insane. There were only 1200 people there but considering there's only about 45,000 in the whole country and it's the size of Australia, that's quite a good turnout. They had bleary eyes. It was like, 'Leave your rifles and harpoons outside."'
Graham: "There were loads of old men, all wrecked."
Dave: "It was a culture shock. I'd much rather have gone to Greenland on my own as a private individual. For me, it's totally the wrong way to see places like that. I can't have a spiritual experience if I've constantly got the tour manager phoning up, going, 'Hotel lobby. Ten minutes."'
Alex: "It's good to take your music somewhere like that and see if it is music. We also did the Faroe Islands, after phoning Greenpeace first. But they're fine about subsistence whaling - it's commercial whaling they get the hump about."
Dave: "Greenland is mud and whales, and you can't sell mud."
Damon: "It was a beautiful experience. Mesmerising place. Last year there were so many great gigs. It was our best tour so far."
Alex: "We did something like 25 countries in 11 months, three big tours of America. We had gold cards from three different airlines last year."
Damon: "The Thai royal family came to see us in Bangkok."
Alex: "They were sat on thrones and had a 200-strong armed guard. It was a new kind of mental."
BLUR COULD TALK ON AND ON ALL DAY about last year's gigs and the "new kind of mental" that has been elicited by the eponymous album. It's as if they somehow recaptured something that they were in danger of losing, circa teenmania, best typified by the short, sharp 'Song 2', and the "ludicrous response" it generates all over the world. It looked like Blur might implode three years ago. Panic over. Ten years on from their Railway Museum gig inception and they still haven't gone offthe rails.
"We were playing 10,000-capacity venues in Australia for three or four nights," boasts Alex as the band slope off to put some rehearsing hours in, topped up with canteen tea and Idris ginger beer. "We could've done stadiums!" (Alex's girlfriend's Dad lives out in Australia and expressed worries that he hadn't seen any advertising for Blur's shows. In fact, they were all sold out. They just didn't need to do any advertising.)
There is something endearing about how childish Blur look with their oversized hip hop trousers and their skinny frames - the new, non-emaciated Alex perhaps excepted - as they group-hug for the Select camera. You get the feeling Alex still smokes because it looks cool, and if Damon's attempts to reinvent himself as a soccer yob are anything other than a panic regression response to turning 30 this March, then the Select psychologist will eat his white coat.
It's all part of their enduring appeal. They are capable of demanding £50,000 a-piece for two hours' work and they fly planes for fun, yet they still look as if they can't scrape together the cab fare home. After Glastonbury, they record their sixth album. And then they will tour it, and it will be good. And they'll still play 'She's So High'.
They came, they saw, they left a lot of plastic cups. ~