Luminous – The Bright Light of “Leisure”

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Groovy.

Peace,  love and ecstasy.

It is the second summer of love.

Ian Brown has replaced the Queen as the (un)official (out of our) Head of State.

Shaun William Ryder is the poet laureate.

People are flowered up.

Everybody knows that this is how it feels.

Everything has gone a bit…baggy, soft around the edges, dreamy and trippy.

Not for me.

I’m a slightly, actually very, repressed teenage boy in a coastal town of the sort that Sir John Betjeman would weep over.  Come friendly bombs and fall on…Kirkcaldy.  It doesn’t scan very well but it was a far better target for a full blown nuclear assault than Slough.  At least that was how it seemed to me.

It is 1989 and I have just turned sixteen.

Before the summer holidays things had seemed the same as ever.

The cool kids were over there.

The popular kids were over there.

The casuals were lurking by the blaze pitches drawing on the butt end of cigarettes and keeping an eye out for staff members.

Me?

I was probably skulking around in a stairwell somewhere, wondering where it had all gone wrong.

Then, miraculously, I had made friends with one of the kids who was both cool and popular.

Chris.

Good football player.

Ice-hockey star.

Keen artist.

Had a girlfriend.

Heaven knows how the two of us ended up as mates.

But we did and so I had headed for the summer holidays feeling pretty good about what might follow at school at their conclusion.  I was excited too because my folks had scraped the money together to send me off to America for the summer.  While I was there I had discovered both Neneh Cherry and, thanks to “Green” being big news on college radio stations, R.E.M.

When school started I felt sure that my discovery of these slightly left-field (for Kirkcaldy) musical gems would endear me to the cool kids.

“Hey guys” I could hear them say “Max has unearthed some totally rad new sounds while he was in America, check it out.”

No, I don’t know why they were talking like extras from Beverly Hills 90201 either.

That was not what happened.

Instead what happened was that I returned to a country that seemed more alien to me than the one I had just spent six weeks in.

The casuals were strutting around the High Street in enormous flared jeans and bucket hats.

The slightly weird kids that I had loosely associated with before the dawning of the age of Chris were also dressed in a similar fashion…hair was longer, fringes floppier and shoes were softer.

I was a man out of place.

Out of time.

Madchester had gripped this miserable seaside town with a vice like grip.

I had no idea what Madchester was and I thought baggy described my pants after one too many washes.

There was only one thing I could do, only one place I could turn.

Dave.

Sat in his bedroom we listened to “Sit Down” by James, “Waterfall” by The Stone Roses” and, probably something by the Happy Mondays too…maybe “Hallelujah”?

I liked them all but I wasn’t prepared to cut off my quiff and ditch my Levis for a bowl cut and a pair of Joe Bloggs just yet.

Baggy continued to be the primary obsession of both the music press and the kids at my school for the next year or so.

Just as the world was about to move on and embrace a miserable, nihilist from Seattle came a trio of singles from a band called Blur.

“She’s so High” was woozy, wonky, poppy and cheeky…she’s so HIGH.  Get it?  Drugs.  Naughty.

A follow up wouldn’t arrive until about six months later but when it did it was bloody magnificent…”There’s No Other Way” suggested that here was a band with more to them than good looks and being in the right place at the right time.  It was tighter than “She’s So High”, guitars chopped, bass pulsed and the drums hinted at the sort of ramshackle indie pop that people like me loved.  It still sounded “baggy” but it had something…more.

A third single arrived in late July, a few weeks before the debut album was due, and it was…and lets all be honest here…a bit rubbish.  Lyrically it is no better than the sort of nonsense, “moon in June” gubbins that teenage boys write every day in the back of their jotters.  Muscially it was a bit…dull.

Things were changing.

Nirvana were about to become a thing.

Both “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Nevermind” were looming.

The summer of love was over.

Anger, discontent, dreadful clothes and even worse hair was on the horizon.

Blur were a band out of time.

Into that climate they released “Leisure” on the 26th August 1991, it reached number 7 in the charts but nobody really thought we would hear from them again.

The times they were a-changing.

“Leisure” is a strange little record.

Often ignored because of the era defining nature of “Modern Life is Rubbish”, the global smash of “Parklife” and then the genre hopping, increasingly mature and endlessly creative follow up work…it is the “lost” Blur album, or at least the one that people talk least about.

What is interesting about “Leisure” is that there are moments on it where you can hear what was to come later.

It is the sound of a band crafting, creating, honing and finding their identity.

Take “Repetition” which could be the demo version of “Oily Water” or “Pressure on Julian” from “Modern Life is Rubbish” with its hazy, fuzzy, muggy sound and the deployment of a megaphone for Damon to intone “…slow down don’t be so eager to let me go”.  The same could be said for “Come Together” which also sounds like a template for some of those “Modern Life…” tracks.

“Sing” of course became something of a Britpop anthem thanks to its inclusion on the “Trainspotting” soundtrack and it is testament to how good it is that it still sounds fresh nearly thirty years later.  It is a jam…a tight, carefully constructed jam.

Listening to “Birthday” you realise it wouldn’t sound out of place on “The Great Escape” alongside the likes of “Best Days” or “Yuko and Hiro”…it has a similar temp, a certain feel.

It isn’t a perfect album, far from it, and it doesn’t sit anywhere near the top table of Blur’s catalogue but it cannot be dismissed because it does introduce the band and point us in the direction that they would head next and which, ultimately, would define an entire era of music in this country.  Two great singles and four songs that stand up against anything else that comes after make “Leisure” an album worth revisiting.

 

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