Across 1990 and 1991 a band of Madchester inspired middle-class Southern boys enjoyed a little bit of chart success and lot of press coverage…the former due to the records being only a little bit good and the latter being down to their frontman owning a mouth that was turbo-charged. They were called “blur” and they were the dictionary definition of “alright”. Those three singles were “She’s So High”, “There’s No Other Way” and the utterly abject “Bang” (sample lyric; “Bang goes another day, where it went I could not say”). After that, and their patchy debut album “Leisure”, it looked like they were going to disappear with a whimper and not a “Bang” (ba-boom-tish). They were soon steamrollered out of the public consciousness by the arrival of Mr K. Cobain of Seattle, Washington and the rest of the great unwashed in the “grunge” scene. I don’t think any tears were shed and I doubt that anyone really thought we would hear from them again.
Then in March 1992 and following a fairly depressing tour of North America where even Damon Albarns confidence took a bit of a dent the band returned with a single that would, wittingly or not, start the grunge backlash and give birth to Britpop. That single was “Popscene”. Three minutes and fifteen seconds of psychedelic guitar, furious drumming, louche bass and lyrics that were spat out with a laid back fury. It was a punk-pop blast of brilliance that made the earlier releases seem like a twisted practical joke. The problem was the world wasn’t listening. It charted lower than either “There’s No Other Way” and “Bang” making it look like this was a brilliant full stop on a less than brilliant career.
Scurrying off to the studio to lick their wounds blur embarked on a recording session that would result in one of the finest albums released by a British band…ever. A record that would put British music and British musicians centre stage on the world stage. A record that would have as much impact on fashion as it would on music. A record that would be the start of their path to becoming the biggest band in the country.
Where “Popscene” had sounded like a burst of righteous indignation, a song determined to let the world know how angry they were at their being overlooked in favour of people in dreadful clothes and with even more dreadful hair (hello to everyone from Seattle) the album that followed was the sound of a band, and Damon Albarn in particular, trying to figure out their place in the world, to understand their identity and to see if they could find a reason to take some pride in their countries cultural heritage. The result was “Modern Life is Rubbish”.
Meanwhile, in a small town in Fife on the East coast of Scotland I was holed up in my bedroom with a copy of “The World Won’t Listen” by The Smiths playing on a loop on my cassette player. My parents were, slowly, being driven mad. I had cultivated the finest quiff in the land and I had excluded nearly all other music from my life. The exceptions to this were the bands that my dad loved; he had been an original Mod back in the swinging sixties man and about 50% of my collection of LPs were his old Who, Small Faces, Kinks and Jam records along with a healthy smattering of Motown. Despite my love of Morrissey I just couldn’t get on board with the Elvis and rockabilly thing…too much grease in the hair and “Grease” in the air.
I used to rush down to John Menzies on Kirkcaldy High Street every Wednesday after school to pick up my copies of NME and Melody Maker. Thumbing through one of them I stumbled across a picture of blur. They looked very different to the way they had 12 months ago. Fred Perry shirts, three button suit jackets, desert boots and docs; skinheads with mop tops. Behind them the wall was sprayed with graffiti; “Brittish Image #1”. I was smitten.
Clemenceau once said “A patriot loves his own country, a nationalist hates everyone else’s”. Some would argue that there is precious little difference between patriotism and nationalism but I do like the idea of love of ones own country and I very much don’t like the idea of hating someone else’s. There are lots of things about Britain that I love; cricket, good manners, respect and respectability, the language, the eccentrics, football on a Saturday and roast beef on a Sunday (I’m so sorry Mozzer), queuing, Wimbledon, strawberries and cream, the weather, green and pleasant land and on and on I could go. The more cynical (maybe more enlightened) can dismiss this as romantic guff if you like but I likes a bit of romance.
This image of blur and the acompanying music all spoke to me in a very real way. In a way that the whining likes of Cobain and Veder hadn’t been able to. The music they played said nothing to me about my life. “Modern Life is Rubbish” though was my life.
The album was preceded by a single, “For Tomorrow”, which came housed in a sleeve that looked like a boys birthday card from the post-war years. A cloudy sky with silhoutted Spitfires making their way home and a bright red “blur” badge in the top left hand corner. It was vintage before vintage was a “thing”. Retro. Nostalgic. Beautiful.
It was released on 12″ and two CDs which meant that there were 6 orignal tracks as b-sides plus an accoustic version of the single itself. “Into Another” has echoes of the slightly more psychedelic songs from “Leisure”, “Hanging Over” has more in common with the overall sound and feel of “Modern Life is Rubbish” as does “Beachcoma”, “Peach” and “Bone Bag” are hazy, trippy, little songs but the most interesting of these b-sides is “When the Cows Come Home” because it is the first clear indicator for the sound that was to follow “Modern Life…” and define the Britpop sound when “Parklife” arrived. “When the Cows Come Home” is all mockney inflection, brass and Chas and Dave lyricism. It wouldn’t sound out of place on an expanded version of The Kinks “Village Green Preservation Society”.
A few weeks later and “Modern Life is Rubbish” landed. The first track was “For Tomorrow” which must be able to lay claim to one of the finest opening songs on any album ever. The thing that makes it such a great record is that it is utterly unlike anything else that one could hear at that time; it was referential without being reverential, it looked backwards but only to leap forwards. In one song they changed the entire musical landscape of an entire country. The moment it finished anyone who heard it knew that the seemingly unstoppable juggernaut of grunge was about to gring to a hault; out would go the hideous Nirvana band t-shirts and in would come Ben Sherman and Fred Perry.
Next up was a blast of British pop so pure that it makes The Jam look like Green Day. “Advert” is the sort of song that most bands would cut off their own thumbs to be able to release as a single and here were blur, baggy nearly men, slipping it onto an album with a sort of casual abandon normally reserved for the greats of rock ‘n’ roll. Damon spits out his rant against consumerism with the same sort of sneer that had made “Popscene” so exciting.
“Colin Zeal” is a companion piece/doppelgänger for Parklifes “Tracy Jacks”. A classic Albarn character study, Colin is an immaculate dresser and a common aggressor; the sort of coked up city wide boy who views people like Damon as ponces. That tale of macho misery is followed by “Pressure on Julian” which has a lovely sing-a-long chorus about “magical transit children” that hides a much darker story.
By this point I was pretty sure that I was listening to a band that I could give myself to in heart and in soul. While The Smiths had written the songs that had guided me through my adolescence they hadn’t really ever been “my” band. I’d been too young and too square to miss them when they were together, I’d never seen them live and I never would. They were my past…blur sounded like my future while sounding like Englands past.
“Star Shaped” isn’t just the name of the home of the spirit of Britpop it’s also the song on the album that I wish had been released instead of “Sunday Sunday”. It has the same jaunty top of the pops friendly sound but, crucially, isn’t a horribly trite attempt at exhibiting working class cred despite the author not actually being working class. Ah well. It’s followed by another brilliant track in the shape of “Blue Jeans” which is filled with some beautiful images like the Portobello Road purchased DMs and their air cushioned soles and the all too familiar notion of why would you want to change out of your jeans. It’s a sad song in many ways, particularly when the idea of thoughts becoming banal is mooted…the drudgery of modern life crushing the life out of you.
The end of side one is the dazzlingly, dizzying, rush of “Chemical World” which is also the second single off the album. The very idea that a band would release a song like this as a single today is ridiculous. It was fabulously out of step with the times and is, to my ears, one of the finest singles blur ever released. Blur are a great singles band but this is in a different league to something like “Country House” or even something less dreadful like “Parklife” or “Stereotypes”. It’s followed by the instrumental track “Intermission” which was a God send for people like me who made compilation tapes for girls they fancied and needed a song to fill in the end of one side of your C90 cassette.
In a perfect world side two would start with one of the b-sides from “Chemical World”…specifically “Young and Lovely” but it doesn’t because it starts with third single “Sunday Sunday” which, as I may have mentioned, I don’t like very much. It’s lumpen. Dull. A bit snobby too. Moving on.
The next three tracks are “Oily Water”, “Miss America” and “Villa Rosie”. It’s tricky to discuss them as separate songs because I’ve never been able to play one without the others and always in that order. That’s a rare feat of perfect track listing. Three songs so good that you never want to not hear any one of them. Give me another example of that in pop music?
What am I?”
“Coping” doesn’t attempt to answer the question it poses in those opening lines but it does answer another question; is Damon Albarn actually any good at writing songs or is he just a chancer? That is a ridiculous question now, Albarn has a track record of writing hit records that would make any of the greats envious but back then it was a fair question because the lyrics to the likes of “Bang” and “Sunday Sunday” were, frankly, awful. What “Coping” proved was that here was a writer who had learned his craft in blur mkI and who was now capable of writing surreal, enigmatic and curious little pop songs and making them sound like the work of Stock Aitken and Waterman with guitars.
“Turn it Up” with its demand that we “turn it up turn it off turn it in” would also have made a better single than…you know what. It’s a proper pop song and one of my favourites from this album. Then it’s the trippy “Resigned” with its six minutes of dreamy pop psychedelia and another burst of instrumental fluff in the shape of “Commercial Break” and its all over.
Shortly after the albums release word reached my provincial ears about a gig that blur were going to be playing in Glasgow. As part of the Yamaha sponsored “Music Quest” (no sniggering at the back there) they would be playing a set that was going to be recorded for broadcast at a later date by Radio 1. I managed to secure a couple of tickets for me and my best pal Chris and off we set. We drove to Glasgow in a dilapidated Lada that had been bought for Chris as a “reward” for passing his Highers a few years earlier. It had more in common with the vehicle that Fred Flintstone pedals to work than any modern car. Quite how it made it beyond the end of my road never mind all the way to Glasgow is beyond me…but it did.
The line up for the Music Quest included the regional winners of the battle of the bands competition of the same name…who knows what they were called but the lead singer wore a top hat which, I’m afraid to say, marked their card with Chris and I. I once saw Chris beat up a poor unfortunate who made a snide comment about his desert boots so his tolerance for poor sartorial choices or commentary was very low. Thankfully Chris was diverted from physically tackling the singer of that band by the arrival of the second band of the night…Radiohead. This was Radiohead pre “The Bends” but I’m happy to inform you that even then the extent to which Thom Yorke was an insufferable prick and his band were the aural equivalent of something very dull was very clear.
Blur took to the stage with a set that was dressed to look like a sitting room…with all of the furniture blown up to epic proportions. It was ace. A huge standard lamp towered by the drum kit. An oversized armchair. I may be dreaming but I seem to recall a fake cooker for some reason too! Who knows. Who cares. All that matters is that I was there. It wasn’t quite the Sex Pistols at the Manchester Free Trade Hall but I’m willing to be that the couple of hundred punters who had turned out to see blur that night all felt the same way as me; this was the start of something. For me, that night was the birth of Britpop and I’ll hold onto the memories until I die.