Blur's front man and mastermind, who looks as threatening as the Milky Bar Kid and who sings with the gruff, heartbroken cockney twang of Anthony Newley, stands amid the wilting rubber plants, confused though only emotionally wounded. It's less than two months since someone stopped his cab in Washington, DC, stuck a gun in his face and joked, "Pow! Pow!" On a screen above our heads, a schlocky video shows a vampire pulling off someone's arms.
Blur's laconic bassist Alex James, a man to whose lip a cigarette was evidently grafted at birth, is draped against a table. "I'm sure if I was maybe out of work and some band arrived that was rich and successful, I'd hate 'em, too." Still, it's probably not what you hope for. Hustled on to the bus, when it comes, by chief minder Smog, the small entourage wedges around another TV screen because guitarist Graham Coxon insists we watch Steve Googan being Alan Partridge. Within seconds, the mean streets outside are forgotten and everyone's well diverted, howling and cuffing Coxon about the head as he fast-forwards selfishly to his favourite skit - "No, wait, this isn't it. Where's 'Dogbombs?'"
Scuffles like tonight's disturb because they're not expected. On the whole, Blur are respected by music pundits and adored by the drooling teens and tots they also attract. After a chequered first few years rank with disappointment, their 1993 album Parklife sold more than a million copies, its thoughtful, often maudlin lyrics camouflaged by the flash and swagger and haunting beauty of its aggressive, post-punk pop know- how. This year has seen Blur, among other things, win four Brit awards and serenade a crowd of 25,000, who stood in a downpour to watch them at Mile End Stadium.
In fact, probably the only people who really hate Blur are Oasis. The gloves came off mid-summer, when Blur brought forward the release date of their single "Country House" to synchronise with Oasis's "Roll With It", and beat the northern stars to number one. Though the publicity helped the new Oasis LP, and later Blur's (called The Great Escape) to sell by the truckload, Oasis's Gallagher siblings began hitting below the belt, saying that they hoped Albarn would die of Aids. They also claimed that he couldn't possibly satisfy his girlfriend, Elastica's Justine Frischmann, because he and his band were "southern poofs". It doesn't help that Graham Coxon once said that Damon's a nightmare to kiss because "he's got a mouth like a washing machine". Cornered on this subject, Albarn is surprised anyone should find it unusual. "We've known each other a long time and, because we come from an arty, university background, that's absolutely normal for us. My parents never explained to me that we had gay friends and straight friends - they were just all friends, so I'm very easy about it." He sighs, smiles. "We're just bloody hippies, aren't we?" (As for Justine, she must be reasonably content; rumours are that the couple plan to marry.)
Hippies? Hard to say. Blur claim to be progenitors of the Lad "aesthetic', but Damon's no natural. He has one can of lager tonight, and most of that he spits over the audience. He loves Chelsea and a good game of football ("If Kurt Cobain had played football, he'd probably be alive today, because he wouldn't have been so self-concerned"), but few lads charter a plane midway through a European tour for a Sunday morning kick-about in Hyde Park because "it gives the week some structure". After the soundcheck, earlier on, Albarn limbers up with 45 minutes of disciplined tae kwon do and when we speak in the backstage canteen, he's shovelling down a vegetarian tea. Sure enough, Damon has lost his taste for the crassness of the scene and is ready to drop the pose. In six months, he observes, everyone will be sick of Lads (if they're not already) "and I feel within my rights to say, 'Bugger that, I'm going to do something else'". He's planning Blur's next incarnation: "It evolves in bits and pieces, but I already know how the music's going to sound..."
A canny string-puller - art school chum Damien Hirst directed a Blur video, Ken Livingstone narrated an album track - and still "psychically ambitious", Albarn has a wider perspective of late because "you haven't achieved anything if you're just a workaholic". The stress-induced ailments he's suffered since Parklife's release - anxiety attacks, claustrophobia, insomnia - are "things that make you think life's shit when it isn't really".
It's possible, when listening to his lyrics, to see Albarn as a pessimist, something he denies. They're strange things, Blur songs, social commentary from a boy who says he might have been a social worker. Son of free-thinking parents, he was a school misfit, a Buddhist with a violin and clutch of Karl Marx books. Laddism was his admission ticket to the rest of the world, but when he does "working class", it's with a self-conscious, Tommy Steele skew. And when Justine fondly nicknamed him Dan Abnormal (spot the anagram) he probably thought she'd finally understood him. He mentions Tricky, someone who has experienced authentic urban squalor, and whose album Maxinquaye, though he loves it, "makes me feel ill". The pair recently recorded a single. "All I did was wrote the melody and sang it and he wrote the words. He was so much quicker than I could be at lyrics. And they're completely disturbing. It's horror..."
Tonight's audience aren't that interested in lyrics. They're here to swoon at "To The End" (some even fainted and were carried away during the orchestral warm-up act, missing Blur altogether), and to leap about to the Clash-style "Advert" and be half-blinded by strobe lights. The set is dizzying, cluttered with a giant replica of the dome of St Paul's, the neon lights of a seaside funfair or Soho's Raymond's Revue Bar (it's hard to tell which) and giant flying burgers. Albarn works the crowd and every inch of the stage, pulling gargoyle faces like a panto dame, romping on to speaker stacks, rolling around the floor and yanking up his T-shirt for the girls ("Don't worry, I'll take it off" - he doesn't), while Graham plays heroically although his strings are breaking. Alex is motionless, except for a twitch of the hips and drummer Dave Rowntree is just visible, locked in hamburger hell. A comprehensive trawl through all the favourites - "Parklife", "Girls And Boys", "Stereotypes" and "The Universal" almost levels the building - makes up for a ropey kick-off. Blur, it is apparent, will be able to adapt to their new scale.
When the crowd have all gone home, and long after the nightclub surprise, the unlikeliest of Lads can be seen at the hotel piano, doodling a melody to himself and a few elderly guests. Its tempting to think he's playing "For Tomorrow" - "He's a twentieth-century boy/ ... /Trying not to be sick again" - but it was probably a new one.
n Blur play Manchester G-MEX, tonight, Wembley Arena, Sat and Sun, and nationwide to 11 DecReuse content