Review Summary: For Tomorrow: A Guide to Contemporary British Music, 1988-2013 (Part 7)
Blur were defined by their almost constant struggles.
They were forced to change their name by their record label, they released a mediocre Madchester album as that scene was fizzling out, they trudged through a grueling American tour, they were a year early to the Britpop party, they broke Britpop big and became a boy band, they found themselves the villains in a massive chart war, they were grossly outsold by their rivals, they were booed for turning their back on Britain, they were booed for getting experimental, they were booed for losing their star guitarist, they were booed for carrying on without him, and finally they broke up. It seems like they had barely a couple minutes to enjoy their success.
All of this opposition has resulted in the most accomplished discography in two decades of British music.
Blur were just too clever. Always have been. The members were pulled into the band while spinning about their respective college careers. Graham Coxon and Damon Albarn originally knew each other through Stanway Comprehensive they would be fused together by eventual bassist Alex James, who showed up at Goldsmith Art School on a whim, as soon as he stepped out of his parents’ car, he saw Graham Coxon.“I fluked it, I suppose,” he says, “I just walked in there. I often wonder what would have happened had I went anywhere else.” Raised in a musical household and self taught on guitar, Graham could be caught at the local bar around school.
When James first met Damon, introduced through Graham who was collaborating with Damon on some tunes, he thought he was “A pompous big-headed moron with a *** band.” Love at first sight. “So what do you think of the music then"” Damon asked. “Well I think its ***,” replied Alex.
Damon was raised to be an artist by parents still in the grip of 60s idealism. Damon’s parents raised him as an equal, encouraged to speak freely about politics and art.
He befriended Graham through a playground gang of rebels, Damon’s looks made him the popular one around Stanway and bonded with the less popular Graham through their shared love of music like The Smiths and The Jam.
Damon’s College band Circus, which already had Dave Rowntree on the drums by this point, had just lost a guitarist, Graham was invited to step in as lead guitarist. Later, two more members were giving the boot and Alex James was invited to step in on bass. Circus changed their name to Seymore and began staging noisy, abrasive performances around London.
Signed by Food Records in 1990, they were order to reign in their weirder tendancies and given a list of band names they could choose from. They relegated Graham’s freakier guitar tendancies to B-side status and changed their name to Blur. Around this time, Damon fell in with Bret Anderson’s ex Justinne Frichmann, completeing the great Britpop love triangle and beginning a quiet rivalry between Bret and Damon.
Blur’s debut album, Leisure
, was banged out to make the last wave of Madchester. The single “There’s No Other Way” cracked the UK top 10 and made Blur into pop stars but the album was - aside from the dreamy “She’s So High” and droning, forward looking “Sing” - average at best. Their label sent them on a tour of America where they played in front of apathetic crowds and endless apathetic interviews. This American experience sent them running back to Britian with a chip on their shoulder. They watched Madchester fade away in the face of the American grunge invasion. Ever the clever one, Damon correctly predicted the backlash and started writing songs celebrating a distinctly British run of tunes in the mold of The Kinks and Small Faces. For a little while, the album was going to be called “England VS. America”. “We spent two months there”, reflected Alex, “Quite acceptable Americanisms become absolutely painful: everything turns into this bull*** blizzard. We became quite embittered.”
Recording got off to a shaky start, only when they linked up with producer Stephan Street, who’s previous work with The Smiths was the best resume material anyone could manage for the band. His punchy production would be exactly what the band was looking for; everything took off from there. The result, Modern Life is Rubbish
, was the first record to truly define what Britpop would come to represent during the 90s.
Suede was too glamorous to really embody Britpop. Their vision of London looked to the seedy nightclub and the shadowy group in the alleyway. Blur looked to the guy mowing his lawn and the kids trying to sneak a fag between classes. They defined Britpop as something working class, something that celebrated (Or pandered to, depending on your perspective) the workingman.
”He’s a 20th Century boy/With his hands on the rails.”
The four crisp opening acoustic guitar strums of album opener “For Tomorrow” is the sound of a band snapping to attention, the opening line is a singer embracing his country’s theatrical heritage. It really feels like the curtains swinging open on the 90s, the scene is set, the players are in pace, and the lead is hurling over the rail of the bow. “With his hands on the rails” Damon sings, “Trying not to get sick again.” It’s a perfect salute to Englands rich theatrical history and sets the tone for the coming movement.
While Damon’s writing always had a dark side, it never dragged the songs down (Not yet at least). “Star Shaped” is about a workaday slug who, despite all his plans, still “feels so unnecessary” as a chiming chorus assures him he “Seems star shaped”. The song is about existential questioning, you’d never know at a glance. It’s a pogo ready pop smash, with a wonderfully sticky call and response chorus. “Collin Zeal” gets his kicks from being punctual, the protagonist of “Blue Jeans” has been stuck in the same rut for so long its starting to become comfortable, “Chemical World” harried hero is so chemically dependant on legal pleasures like tea and coffee she starts to confuse them for heroin (“And I don’t know about you/But they’re putting the holes in”). All of these songs grapple with a keenly British sense of isolation and uselessness but set it to some of the sunniest hooks this side of the planet. Damon has such a canny sense for ear worms he even manages to turn “You dream of protein on a plate” into a “cant get it out of my head/don’t want to” chorus on the wonderful “Sunday Sunday”.
While Damon was the face of Blur, Graham was the lonely hero. His guitar lines are constantly inventive and always complementary to the song, never distracting. He personifies stress on “Pressure on Julian”, quietly lays down extra hooks with his twisty guitar riffs on “Star Shaped”, and leads low-key highlight “Oily Water” into fuzz blown guitar meltdown.
So great was the bands creative output at the time that two of the albums best songs, “For Tomorrow” and “Chemical World”, were made at the behest of a label looking for more singles. The little details, from the oboe solo on “Star Shaped” to the bells during the nothing but hooks “Turn it Up”, make the album superb. Woefully underappreciated, Modern Life is Rubbish
is one of the great lost classics of the 90s.
Modern Life is Rubbish
’s advance single, “Popscene”, is often credited as the first proper Britpop single. Upon release it tanked on the charts and received a poor critical reception, as such, it was left off the album. The singles off Modern Life
didn’t perform much better, none made the top 20. Blur had arrived to the Britpop party before the chairs were set up. The album proved to be just successful enough to keep them from being dropped by their record label, what would come next would silence all doubters.
During the same month of Modern Life is Rubbish
’s release, a no name band called Oasis was impressing the co-owner of Creation records during a gig in Glasgow.