WHEN it came time to pick a band to headline the Olympics Closing Ceremony Celebration Concert in London, the Brits were spoiled for choice. Any number of amazing UK acts from the history of rock and pop could have been called upon and the selection of Blur was a pleasant surprise.
But it makes perfect sense. The recently reunited group are quintessentially British in their sound and have always proudly walked a tightrope between the experimental and the popular, the past and the present, the cynical and the whimsical.
Their concert set - which was released to buy straight after the show - may prove to be their final gig in the UK. It's as if they have finally confirmed their legacy, and with metaphorical gold medals around their neck, can walk away knowing they were among the greats. Here's a look back at that legacy.
BLUR'S rise was rapid. Forming as Seymour in December 1988, they played their first gig six months later, renamed themselves Blur, signed a record deal in March 1990, and had a top 10 single by April 1991. That single, their second, was There's No Other Way, and it turned the building hype into a press frenzy. It was a hype that slightly overwhelmed the August 1991 release of Blur's debut album, which was met with plenty of positive reviews, but quite a few that felt it failed to live up to the massive buzz around the band.
Sonically, it's a time capsule that sits somewhere between the fading Madchester scene and the starburst of shoegazer. First single She's So High is a cross between the grooviness of The Stone Roses and the dreamy noisyness of My Bloody Valentine, and this is a theme throughout much of the album. Third single Bang is pure Madchester, with Damon Albarn's slightly snotty vocals coming off as a more in-tune version of Happy Monday's Shaun Ryder. Throughout the album there are bursts of noise, fuzz, backwards guitars, and walls of distortion such as on Reptition, Wear Me Down and Slow Down (My Bloody Valentine's Kevin Shields told the band he loved the latter track).
The best track is easily There's No Other Way, which captures The Stone Roses baggy funk vibe brilliantly, but builds on it thanks to Graham Coxon's inventive and interesting guitarlines and Albarn's great vocals and hooks. Sing is the signpost, not only pointing towards Blur's future inventiveness but any number of Coldplay pop-stompers - it's droney and strange but beautiful and dreamy.
The album peaked at #7 in the UK and while it got a mixed response from critics upon release, the two-decades-on re-evaluations have been somewhat kinder. TheQuietus.com's Jim Keoghan called it "a pretty decent album... that managed to capture the indie scene of the early '90s like no other", noting that the album was unfairly "derided, unloved, and forgotten". Drowned In Sound's 21st anniversary review said "Leisure far outweighs the 'clumsy' and 'unfocused' tags it found itself saddled with upon release, and indeed has actually stood the test of time better than some of Blur's most celebrated works."
But perhaps the final word on the album goes to Albarn himself, who said in a 2007 interview that Leisure is one of only two bad Blur albums, describing it as "awful".
Modern Life Is Rubbish (1993) / Parklife (1994)
IN the wake of Leisure, everything started going wrong for Blur, making 1992 their annus horribilus. Their manager had ripped them off and left them in debt, their label Food Records dismissed early recordings for the planned follow-up, their live shows had deteriorated into shambolic drunkeness, a second attempt at a second album was aborted, their label warned them to smarten up or they'd get dropped, and a third attempt at making their next album was met with the typical label response: "needs more hits".
During this period, interest in the band had waned - Blur were now perceived as Madchester wannabes and one-album wonders, while Suede were the next big thing. There had also been a disastrous American tour, but these disappointments helped steel the band for a revival. "Suede and America fuelled my desire to prove to everyone that Blur were worth it - there was nothing more important in my life," Albarn told Mojo in 2000.
As a result, Modern Life Is Rubbish, released in 1993, finds Blur embracing their Britishness (a working title for the record was Britain Vs America) and inadvertantly kicking off the Britpop scene. Albarn sings of the Westway, the underground, the colour supplement, and Portobello Road, leading critics to reference Ray Davies and Paul Weller in their reviews, while musically it moves on from their own shoegazer/baggy past and embraces the guitar pop, rock, psychedelia and punk of Britian's musical past. Second single Chemical World, a last-minute inclusion at the insistence of their American label, brings all these elements together, while first single For Tomorrow (another late addition to the record), does all that but with an added string section.
Other highlights include Sunday Sunday and Blue Jeans, and the album helped bring Blur back into favour, with critics adoring it. Modern Life Is Rubbish bombed in the US and only sold moderately well in England, but it was a watershed for Blur - people were taking them seriously again. Not wanting to waste time, Blur were back in the studio in December 1993 and finished their third album Parklife by February '94. Disco-tinged first single Girls & Boys proved a great taster, hitting #5 in the UK, #19 in Australia, #59 in the US and the top 30 in six other countries. More importantly, it hinted at a greater diversity, plus a growing confidence and ability. Tracy Jacks is reminiscent of XTC, Bank Holiday is yobbish punk, Far Out owes a debt to Syd Barrett, and satirical spoken-word single Parklife is a Kinks-ian piece of guitar pop, while the band reaches new levels of majesty on End Of A Century, To The End and This Is A Low.
Once again, Coxon's guitarwork is stunning, abrasive, inventive, unexpected, and all-round awesome. 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die called it "indebted to the past, yet... stridently modern", Q magazine said it "still sizzles as the sound of band seizing the day" while naming 35th best album of all time, and the album regularly appears on Brit-produced 'best of' lists. The Americans largely ignored it - fools. In less than 12 months, Blur had reinvented themselves as godfathers of the burgeoning Britpop scene, completely reversed their fortunes, and made two of the great British albums of the '90s. Amazingly, Food Records called the album a mistake - Blur laughed last.
The Great Escape (1995)
THAT 2007 interview where Albarn said Blur had made two bad albums? This is the other one, according to the lead singer, who labels it "messy". Many fans and critics disagreed, with the album following Parklife's lead and going to #1 in the UK, as well as being their first record to crack the US Billboard 200 and the Australian top 10. The reviews were also glowing - NME gave it 9/10 - and the album contains some of their best songs, notably Country House and Charmless Man.
But The Great Escape's fortunes rested not on the quality of its songs. In a move orchestrated by their record labels and devoured by the ravenous British music press, Blur found their Great Escape pitched against Oasis' What's The Story Morning Glory? in the Battle Of Britpop. The release date of Oasis' single Roll With It was moved to coincide with Blur's launch of Country House, and the music press salivated as they waited to see which song would go to #1 in the UK. It was Country House, but in the contest between the albums, ...Morning Glory reigned supreme, leading critics to suggest Blur won the battle, but Oasis won the war. Ultimately, this hype has led to The Great Escape being slightly dismissed in retrospect, especially when compared to ...Morning Glory.
But Blur's fourth is a solid effort. It could do without Top Man and Mr Robinson's Quango, which are let down by Albarn's too-snide lyrics and disappointing melodies, and the boring Ernold Same, but largely The Great Escape is collection of great rockers that marry the solid rhythm section of bassist Alex James and drummer Dave Rowntree with Albarn's tales of suburban loneliness and disenchantment and Coxon's inspired guitar lines. The Universal finds Albarn in his best voice, and the band throwing everything at the beautiful anthem - a big sweeping symphony with brass, strings, female backing singers. Elsewhere, Country House is their hookiest creation, Best Days is one of their best downers, Charmless Man is snarky but fun, while latter tracks such as Dan Abnormal and It Could Be You are often forgotten but still cool. The album completes Blur's "Life" trilogy, and Albarn spent ages trying to come up with a title with "life" in it but failed and settled on calling it The Great Escape.
WORN out by touring, the war with Oasis, and constantly being in the limelight, Blur were a band fraying at the edges by the end of 1995. A Q magazine article summed it up thusly: "Graham is grumpy and drinking too much, he thinks Alex is being a tosser; Alex and Damon aren't seeing eye to eye, Damon thinks Alex is taking too many drugs and overdoing the pop star bit; Alex thinks Graham and Damon have sided against him and that Damon is becoming a little too megalomanic for his liking."
The creative tussle between Coxon and Albarn was another problem, but two things happened in 1996 that changed the band for the better. The first stemmed from the fact Coxon had been raving about US band Pavement and other such lo-fi alternative acts for years, and when Albarn finally met Pavement's Steve Malkmus, who told him how loved Blur was in the US underground, Albarn started listening to Coxon, ushering a new era sonic era for the band.
The other shaping moment was Albarn's holiday in Iceland, which led to the band recording their fifth album there, well away from the British music press. Inter-band relations improved and Coxon had more input as Blur's sound moved in a more lo-fi, alternative and Americanised direction, with guitars noisier and more front-and-centre than ever. He even gets to sing a song (the charmingly raw You're So Great). So after years of focusing on their Britishness, Blur decided to "look inside America", as indicated by one of their song titles. While it was move undertaken for creative reasons - they couldn't stay together and continue treading the same waters - the results yielded commercial benefits. Blur is their most successful album in the US by a long way with sales in excess of half a million copies (more than triple their previous best, Parklife) and worldwide (over 2.4 million copies sold).
The American success was spurred by the ubiquitous Song 2 (aka The One That Goes 'Woohoo' as many people referred to it) - a two-minute-and-two-second blast of metallic punk nonsense that was track two on the album and reached #2 in the UK. It's their best known single, but not the best track on the album. That honour goes to opener Beetlebum - a sweetly sad heroin tale with a distinctive yet simple strum-and-slide rhythm and one of Albarn's best melodies, sung partially in a layered falsetto.
Beetlebum is one of only two #1 singles Blur had in the UK (the other being Country House), while the album's other singles - the electro-tinged On Your Own and the pacy M.O.R. - were also successful and based around equally unique guitar lines that blurred the lines between melody and noise.
The remainder of the tracks hint at further sonic experimentation, such as the noisy carnival of Theme From Retro, Coxon's solo effort You're So Great, the trip-hop influenced Death Of A Party, the Song 2 companion Chinese Bombs, the apocalyptic Strange News From Another Star, and downright strange closer Essex Dogs. Not as influential as Parklife, Blur remains one of their best albums.
13 (1999) / Think Tank (2003)
BLUR'S final two album's couldn't be more different - one is a forgotten gem, the other is a divisive finale. The missing ingredient in the latter is Coxon. His guitar lines, so intensely electrifying and fascinatingly constructed throughout their catalogue, are lacking from Think Tank after one final fight with Albarn (apparently over the choice of Fatboy Slim as producer) saw Coxon dismissed from the band. It's his insane axe sounds that help make 13 such a career highlight. Building on the experimentation of their self-titled effort, 13 revels in psych freak-outs, languid atmospheres and spacey grooves, but maintains the well structured songwriting (for the most part).
Indeed, the album holds three of their best compositions - the gospel ballad Tender, Coxon's alt-pop stunner Coffee & TV (which features one of greatest noise-drenched solos of all time), and Albarn's post-break-up lullabye No Distance Left To Run (which features the heartbreaking resignation "I hope you're with someone who makes you feel safe when in your sleep"). The deeper cuts are also rewarding. Rowntree's beat in Battle is perfectly produced by Will Orbit (Madonna), who fittingly helps send the song into outer space. Rock songs are soaked in fat fuzz and warped noise, such as Swamp Song, B.L.U.R.E.M.I. and Bugman, or completely disappear in such sounds, as is the case of 1992.
But it's an album of contrast - Blur are pushing themselves and their sounds to breaking point, while on the flipside Albarn opens up to share some emotional moments, such as on Tender, Mellow Song, and the amazing No Distance Left To Run. In the four-year gap following 13, Albarn took time out to launch his cartoon side-project Gorillaz and his African collaboration Mali Music, causing increased friction in the band. But those two records shape Think Tank more than Blur's own past. With Coxon out of the picture (he played on five songs recorded for the album, but only Battery In You Leg made the cut), Albarn gets free reign to indulge in his new passions for world music, dub, hip hop, electronica and dance, while Rowntree and James get more time to shine.
The results are mixed - the obvious stand-out is gorgeous single Out Of Time, which features a Moroccan orchestra. There are rockers (We've Got A File On You and Crazy Beat) and the closer Battery In Your Leg is a great track, but a lot of the album slinks along at a mid-tempo but goes nowhere. Many disagree and the album appeared on a lot of end of year lists - NME called it one of the best albums of the '00s, Pitchfork gave it 9/10, Uncut called it "the sharpest, most imaginative and downright listenable album of Blur's career", and Drowned In Sound initially gave it 10/10 but re-evaluated that as 6/10 for its recent re-release. That re-evaluation seems a more appropriate view of what Allmusic called "a lousy album" made up "of half-baked demos and unfinished B-sides" - whereas 13 is now heralded as "lost classic" according to Wikipedia, Think Tank has proven largely forgettable.
At their Olympics gig, they only played one song from Think Tank and no one seemed to mind.