It's all a Blur: An A-Z of Britpop's returning heroes
They created Britpop, could party for England and clashed with Tony Blair. Now Blur have reformed for a major UK tour. Will they put the squabbles and solo projects aside long enough to complete it?
Sunday 14 June 2009
A is for Albarn, Damon
Blur's frontman was born in Whitechapel, east London in 1968, and grew up in Colchester in Essex. His father was a music manager, art teacher and TV presenter; his mother a set designer. He was also close to his grandfather, Edward Albarn, a conscientious objector during the Second World War, from whom Albarn inherited his strong anti-war convictions.
B is for Britpop
The musical movement with which Blur will always be associated. After a dispiriting 44-city tour of the US in 1991, when they found audiences interested only in grunge, Blur returned to the UK determined to write songs that were identifiably English. According to John Harris, author of The Last Party: Britpop, Blair and the Demise of English Rock, the band's subsequent second album, Modern Life is Rubbish (1993), was the first Britpop record.
C is for Coxon, Graham
Blur's guitarist was born in 1969 in West Germany, where his father played in an Army band. He first met Albarn aged 12, when both were pupils at Stanway Comprehensive School in Essex. An accomplished artist as well as musician, he designed the cover for the band's 1999 album, 13.
D is for debut
Leisure, Blur's 1991 debut, was influenced by the then-fading Madchester movement that had spawned the Stone Roses, Happy Mondays and the Charlatans. Though it included singles "There's No Other Way" and "She's so High", as well as "Sing" – later used on the Trainspotting soundtrack – Albarn has since derided the album as "awful".
E is for excess
In his 2007 autobiography, Bit of a Blur, Alex James estimated that he had spent £1m on booze and cocaine in his years with Blur. The book details his escapades with the 1990s Groucho Club set that included Vic Reeves, Damien Hirst and Keith Allen, as well as sexual encounters with supermodels, São Paulo groupies (five at once) and Courtney Love.
F is for Frischmann, Justine
Frischmann was an original member of Suede and dated frontman Brett Anderson. In 1991, she took up with Albarn, and left Suede to form her own band, Elastica. Much of Blur's 13 was supposedly inspired by her break-up with Albarn in 1998. Elastica split in 2001. Frischmann now lives in the US, where she is married to a college professor.
G is for Goldsmiths
Albarn and Coxon met their future bandmates as students at Goldsmiths College, London, in 1988. Albarn's band, Circus, included drummer Dave Rowntree and, when their original guitarist left, they were joined by Coxon. In 1989, two other members were fired and James was inducted as bassist; the band was renamed Seymour, after JD Salinger's novella Seymour: an Introduction. Signing with Food later that year, the record company insisted they change their name, and Blur was born.
H is for Hyde Park
Last December, Blur announced their re-formation with the news that they would play two comeback gigs in Hyde Park on 2 and 3 July. Hyde Park was also the venue for the 2005 Live8 gig that inspired an irate Albarn to form the Africa Express movement (see "M is for Mali").
I is for Iceland
Blur discovered an affinity with the remote Scandinavian nation when they retreated there to record Blur (1997), the follow-up to The Great Escape (1995), away from the Britpop spotlight. Albarn now part-owns a bar in Reykjavik, where he also has a sea-front house.
J is for James, Alex
Blur's bassist was born in Boscombe, near Bournemouth, in 1968. Known as the most sociable member of Blur, he first met his bandmates while studying French at Goldsmiths.
K is for Kinks, the
The Kinks are cited by Albarn as a major influence on his songwriting. In 1996 he recorded a duet of "Waterloo Sunset" with Kinks frontman Ray Davies for Channel 4's The White Room.
L is for Labour
Blur had a roller-coaster relationship with the Labour Party. In 1995, then-MP Ken Livingstone appeared as a spoken-word vocalist on "Ernold Same", a track from The Great Escape. Keen that some of Cool Britannia's sheen should rub off on him, too, Tony Blair summoned Albarn to a meeting with Alastair Campbell and John Prescott to talk about him supporting the future PM's 1997 election campaign. But Albarn later changed his mind about Blair and, replying to an invitation to a fabled post-election reception at Downing Street (attended by Noel Gallagher, among others), wrote: "I'm sorry, I won't be attending as I am no longer a New Labour supporter. I am now a Communist. Enjoy the schmooze, comrade. Love, Damon." In 2007 and 2008, Dave Rowntree twice ran unsuccessfully for election as a Labour councillor in London.
M is for Mali
Albarn's love affair with west African music began in Mali when he visited the country with Oxfam in 2000. In 2002, he made an album of collaborations with local artists. Mali Music was released on Albarn's label, Honest Jon's, which has subsequently produced work by musicians from Latin America, the Caribbean and the Middle East. After learning how few African artists had been invited to appear at the Live8 concert for Africa in 2005, Albarn masterminded the Africa Express project to organise gigs at which African and Western artists would appear together (below). Last year, he produced some of the latest album by Malian Africa Express stars Amadou & Mariam.
N is for number one
After the huge success of Blur's Parklife and Oasis's debut Definitely Maybe in 1994, the two bands were set up as rivals racing to the top of the Britpop heap. When both decided to release new singles on 14 August 1995, the contest quickly became known as "The Battle of Britpop". Following their twin appearances on Top of the Pops, Blur's "Country House" beat Oasis's "Roll With It" to number one by 58,000, selling 274,000 copies in a week.
O is for Orbit, William
Orbit was drafted in to replace Stephen Street as producer of 13, after the band were impressed by his contribution to a collection of Blur remixes for the Japanese market entitled Bustin'+Dronin' (1998).
P is for primates
Albarn's most successful post-Blur project is Gorillaz, the virtual band he created with illustrator Jamie Hewlett. Between them, 2001's Gorillaz and 2005's Demon Days sold well over 10 million copies worldwide, and a third album is planned. The pair also created the opera Monkey: Journey to the West, based on a traditional Chinese story, for the 2007 Manchester International Festival.
Q is for Queen, The Good, the Bad and the...
Albarn assembled a supergroup comprising himself, ex-Clash bassist Paul Simonon, Afrobeat pioneer Tony Allen on drums, and guitarist Simon Tong (formerly of the Verve) to release the album The Good, the Bad & the Queen in 2007.
R is for Rowntree, Dave
Born in Colchester in 1964, the son of a BBC sound engineer and a viola player, Blur's drummer was the one band member not to have attended Goldsmiths. Rather, he played in local bands with Coxon, who introduced him to Albarn in 1989. Until Blur formed, Rowntree was a computer programmer for Colchester Council.
S is for Street, Stephen
Blur's fifth member during the Britpop years, Street produced Modern Life is Rubbish, Parklife, The Great Escape and Blur. Having worked with the Smiths during the 1980s, he asked to meet Blur after hearing their first single "She's So High", subsequently recording their breakthrough 1991 hit "There's No Other Way". He also produced Coxon's three most recent solo LPs.
T is for 'Think Tank'
Blur's last album to date (released in 2003) was recorded in Morocco without Coxon, aside from his guitar part on the closing track "Battery in Your Leg". Thus the album reflected Albarn's preoccupations, specifically with African and Middle Eastern music. It was helmed again by William Orbit, though Norman Cook (aka Fatboy Slim) produced two tracks. The graffiti artist Banksy designed the cover art.
U is for USA
Graham Coxon famously hated The Great Escape and wrote to Albarn saying he wanted Blur's music to "scare people again". For Blur, the band embraced the influence of American lo-fi artists such as Beck and Pavement, apparently abandoning the Britpop philosophy. One lyric, from "Look Inside America", asked listeners to "Look inside America/ She's Alright". Meanwhile, "Song 2" became the band's biggest US hit, reaching number six on the Billboard Modern Rock chart.
V is for 'Vindaloo'
"Vindaloo" was an unofficial football song in support of the England team at the 1998 World Cup; it was written and performed by Fat Les, a band consisting of Alex James and friends Damien Hirst and Keith Allen. James's other side projects include the short-lived pop duo WigWam, with vocalist Betty Boo.
W is for Wallop
After Blur ceased active duty, James began producing cheeses – including goat's cheeses Little Wallop and Farleigh Wallop – near Kingham, Oxfordshire, where he lives on a farm with his wife, the video producer Claire Neate, and their four children.
X is for Xtra-terrestrial
Rowntree and James wrote and recorded a track as a call sign for the Beagle 2 Mars probe, to be beamed back to Earth to confirm the craft's safe landing on the Red Planet in 2003. Sadly, the mission was unsuccessful, and the song remains lost in space.
Y is for 'You're So Great'
"You're So Great" from Blur was the first Blur song to feature Coxon on lead vocals; he also sang "Coffee & TV" on 13. After leaving the band in 2002, due to disputes with Albarn and his struggle with alcoholism, Coxon continued to work as a solo artist, and this year released his seventh solo LP, The Spinning Top. He also played on Pete Doherty's recent album Grace/Wastelands.
Z is for zither
Albarn indulged his love of eclectic instrumentation as early as 1999, when he collaborated with the composer Michael Nyman on the soundtrack for the thriller Ravenous, which used zither, whistle, pump-organ, accordion and marimba. He has also written soundtracks for Ordinary Decent Criminal and Reykjavik 101, and acted alongside Robert Carlyle and Ray Winstone in the 1997 gangster film, Face.
Blur's UK tour runs until 3 July. For more information, visit www.blur.co.uk. They will be headlining at Glastonbury on 28 June (www.glastonburyfestivals.co.uk)
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