A very focused Blur

Nicholas Barber on the pop star as caring big brother and normal bloke; profile; Damon Albarn

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HE'S THE pin-up with the spiky blond hair and the grin like a friendly shark. He writes and sings the tunes that get the kids jumping around in an inebriated approximation of dancing. He's the King of the Camden pop scene. And he has a new album recorded and ready for release.

He is Suggs, formerly of Madness, and now a solo artist. But the description also fits Damon Albarn, lead singer of Blur, as snugly as his parka jacket. Suggs is well aware of the similarity.

"I saw Damon at the football," he said when we spoke last month. "You know I go to Chelsea a bit. And now he does, he's assumed that mantle. I stood looking at him and he was really getting mobbed by people, and I thought, God, that could so have been me a few years ago. It seemed identical.

"And I suddenly remembered standing outside Stiff [Madness's record company] and seeing Ian Dury looking at me being mobbed by people, and it was exactly the same. And before Ian Dury! Max Miller looking at Ray Davies looking at Ian Dury looking at me looking at Damon looking at ..."

Damon Albarn is proud to admit that he is a scion of this peculiarly English family tree. Last year's Blur album, Parklife, bristled with bank holidays, dustmen, pigeons and patios. It's also, let's not forget, a wonderful collection of clever, inspired and perfectly crafted pop songs. With a fan demographic that extends from the adoring teen readers of Smash Hits to the hoary rockers who buy Mojo, it won the Brit award for Best Album of the Year (Blur also won Best Group, Best Single and Best Video). It also marked the rebirth of Britpop. Immediately prior to that, rock had had an American drawl. To quote Albarn: "If you weren't Nirvana or a Diet Nirvana, you were nothing." Post-Parklife, the UK was once again OK, and those bands classed as "indie" and "alternative" were as likely to top the charts as "mainstream" bubblegum pop groups.

On Monday, Blur are back with a new single, "Country House" (Food Records). It's a Madness song right down to its vocal phrasing and sax arrangement, with a sprinkling of Blur's other idols: the Small Faces, the Kinks, the Beatles, the Who, The Jam, XTC ... in short, the country's most brilliant and most British groups.

Albarn is frank in acknowledging his influences. He paid tribute to his hero, Ray Davies of the Kinks, on Channel 4's My Generation, and then duetted with Davies on The White Room. Thanks to the phenomenal success of Parklife, it was the 50-year-old Davies who had cause to feel grateful for this patronage, and not the other way round. It's a far cry from 1976, when Johnny Rotten spat his hatred of hippies and of the old (ie, those over 20). Albarn may want his band to change the world, but he is no revolutionary.

You could blame the parents. Albarn's father, an acquaintance of Cat Stevens and Soft Machine, used to work as a furniture designer; his mother as a stage designer for Joan Littlewood's company. Damon was born in Whitechapel Hospital, east London, on 23 March 1968. He spent his early childhood in Leytonstone, until Mr Albarn Sr became a lecturer at North Essex School of Art and the family moved to a village just outside Colchester. It was, by all accounts, a Bohemian household. "Pop culture was never something new to me," said Albarn in Q magazine. "It never served as a reference point for rebellion. I was always allowed to stay up late and stay around at parties with people smoking dope and getting pissed and taking drugs. So that never had any allure."

This goes some way towards explaining his attitude towards pop: it's not a weapon of revolt, it's a sensible career option. Even the money he spent on making his first demo tape was given to him by his grandad. And while he has hardly abstained from drug use, his experience of drugs around the house as a boy suggests why they were never much of a thrill. "I think Blur seem to be out on their own as far as encouraging people not to fuck up their lives with drugs," he told the style magazine ID. "There are a lot of people, myself included, who get really ill if they take Class A drugs. Heroin seems to be so bloody fashionable at the moment. I think heroin is shit, and anyone who suggests otherwise is an idiot."

This is pop star as intelligent, caring big brother. Respectful to his elders, setting an example for the little ones. At concerts he throws water over the frazzled crowds, and chides them for crushing dangerously at the front. He knows all about the cliches of outrageous rock behaviour - even trying out a few of them for himself - and has decided that they're not really suitable for the Nineties. The punk movement dissociated itself from the musicians of the decade before, but ended up aping their beliefs: that they could bring down the government, that rock stardom meant throwing television sets out of windows. Albarn, on the other hand, knows better. He said in an article for NME: "In the Sixties, people took acid to make the world weird. Now the world is weird, people take Prozac to make it normal."

He is sussed and self-conscious, prone, in his own words, to "nauseous self-preoccupation". He is a post-modern pop star, not covertly manipulating our expectations of celebrity behaviour, just smirking at them as if he were an outsider, one of us, a normal bloke. "People don't think I'm unapproachable or anything and that's really good," he said, in this week's Melody Maker. In the same interview, Blur's guitarist, Graham Coxon, says that the band members are just normal people. More normal than their predecessors, inquires the interviewer. "Oh yeah, I think we're a lot more sane," says Coxon. "I mean, in the Sixties and Seventies everyone used to buy great big white Rolls-Royces and wander around in big cloaks dressed like wizards and things. And that's just silly, isn't it?"

LEGEND has it that Albarn failed his A-level music, but won a regional heat of Young Composer of the Year. He enrolled in a three-year drama course at Joan Littlewood's East 15 drama school, but left after a year. In 1988, he gave a one-man show at a Colchester Arts Centre. In the tiny audience was an old school acquaintance, Graham Coxon, who introduced him to Dave Rowntree, a drummer. With the addition of Alex James on bass, they were Blur. Well, actually, they were Seymour, but on signing to Food Records in 1990 they were instructed to change the name.

Albarn never doubted that they would be a huge success. Their first single reached the top 50, their second reached the top 10, and their first album, Leisure, went to No 2. But their brand of baggy, danceable guitar pop was already falling out of favour with the press and the public, and soon the band were drunk, disillusioned and self-destructive. The lowest of many low points was a benefit concert for the homeless charity Shelter. The group had been drinking all day, and by showtime they could barely remember their names, let alone their songs. Albarn warned the audience that they were going to play an awful show, and was true to his word. A memorable evening came to a close when he assaulted a security guard and ran for his life.

But on the preceding American tour, he had started to ward off depression by listening to the Kinks' 1967 hit "Waterloo Sunset",reminding himself of the kind of music he wanted to make. In 1993 Blur returned with an album whose title was a manifesto: Modern Life Is Rubbish. Albarn described it as "futuristic music hall", his self-analysis as acute as ever. He had found his style, Blur had found their niche, and their confidence was restored.

Last year, the single "Girls and Boys" hit the top five in March, and the album that followed, Parklife, went straight into the charts at No 1. It hasn't been far-off since.

But even now, Blur's relationship with the press is not without its tiffs. The band are criticised for being reactionary, a perception that won't be dented by the video for "Country House". It stars superyob actor Keith Allen, and a giggling gaggle of Page 3 models. The director of the video is Damien Hirst. "It's all very Benny Hill," admits Albarn.

Albarn has also been criticised for contriving a character, for overplaying his East End origins. "I'm not allowed to talk cockney," he replied at July's concert at Mile End Stadium, "even though I was born across the road." His seemingly exaggerated Englishness, and the group's Mod attire, have led to charges of nationalism. It's not an accusation that stands up against Albarn's excellent, ambivalent lyrics. As lively as the songs are, the characters within them lead threadbare lives. They stand at cliff edges and on the verge of despair, more likely to see Britain through an alcoholic haze than rose-tinted spectacles.

"We're a British group who revel in and despise our culture," Albarn stated in Vox. And in NME: "All my songs criticise this country. They're all about characters who are fed-up and trying to get away. But they've got nowhere to go."

Half of Blur's core fan base can barely remember the time when there was a different government, and half of them weren't born. The Sixties and the Seventies are ancient history. To them, revolution seems a laughable impossibility. "And I might as well grin and bear it," goes one lyric. "Because it's not worth the trouble of an argument."

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