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Drawing a line through The KINKS, SYD BARRETT, XTC and The STONES ROSES, arty Brit-pop/indie spearheads BLUR were the quintessential English band of the 90s, scoring hit after hit in competition to their tabloid-infused rivals OASIS.
Formed Colchester, Essex in 1989 by lyricist/vocalist Damon Albarn, guitarist Graham Coxon, bassist Alex James and drummer Dave Rowntree (Damon’s dad Keith was manager of 60s Canterbury scene jazzateers The SOFT MACHINE), the quartet initially went under the moniker of Seymour before opting for The Great White Hopes. Finally settling with BLUR, a title suggested by their bosses David Balfe and Andy Ross’s at Food imprint (a subsidiary of Parlophone/EMI), they secured their first UK Top 50 entry late 1990 with `She’s So High’, an early PINK FLOYD-meets-MY BLOODY VALENTINE-influenced tune that rode the coat-tails of the baggy shoegazing brigade.
With the shadow of SYD BARRETT and The STONE ROSES even more pronounced, BLUR created one of the more psychedelic singles of the era in `There’s No Other Way’, the record hitting Top 10 in early ‘91. The Top 30, but already derivative `Bang’ hit, announced their debut Stephen Street-produced album LEISURE (1991) {*6}, a record that received mixed reviews from the fickle music journals now into grunge and anything Stateside. But for the aforementioned singles, only `Repetition’, `Sing’ (unceremoniously left out of the US release) and the almost horizontal `Birthday’ had any fibre or substance.
Still mainly a singles orientated outfit (the non-album punk-fuelled `Popscene’ only bubbled under the Top 30 in spring ‘92), BLUR progressed dramatically with the much-improved MODERN LIFE IS RUBBISH (1993) {*8} album, which featured some classy tracks including Top 30 hits `For Tomorrow’, `Chemical World’ and `Sunday Sunday’. Blighted by a succession of producers culminating in Stephen Street, via Butch Vig and XTC’s Andy Partridge, the record was almost shelved as their American label S.B.K. thought twice about its release. Not willing to bend into the shapeless mind-funking of the grunge scene, the unwavering stubbornness of Britpop was born here through `Pressure On Julian’, `Star Shaped’, `Colin Zeal’, `Coping’, `Villa Rosie’ and `Oily Water’.
Although the lads had come on leaps and bounds creatively, this wasn’t translated into sales. However, with the release of pogo-friendly `Girls And Boys’, BLUR embarked upon a commercial renaissance that saw the platter become their biggest hit to date (Top 5). It was also the opening salvo on the critically approved, chart-topping PARKLIFE (1994) {*9} album, which also spawned further hits `To The End’ and the anthemic title track (co-sung with “Quadrophenia” actor Phil Daniels). By this point they had evolved into a mod-ish indie-pop combo, Albarn supplying the twee, cockney barra-boy delivery over a musical backdrop that drew from the rich working-class pop heritage, once the domain of such luminaries as SMALL FACES, The KINKS and The WHO. `End Of A Century’ was the record’s fourth Top 20 smash, while `Tracy Jacks’, `Clover Over Dover’ and `This Is A Low’ were fine examples of the Brit-pop times on this 16-track set.
The following year saw BLUR win the battle to the coveted No.1 spot courtesy of poppy `Country House’, beating rivals OASIS (`Roll With It’) who were sharpening their forked tongues for an onslaught of media slagging. However, BLUR lost ground in the credibility stakes, when their chart-topping THE GREAT ESCAPE (1995) {*7} album failed to totally impress the critics; the Gallagher brothers on the other hand, were scaling new heights with their sophomore album. Still, taking in an advertent look at society in suburbia, BLUR’s album had many great moments by way of Top 10 singles `The Universal’ (later used on a TV ad for British Gas), `Stereotypes’ and `Charmless Man’, plus quasi-psych, ENO-like finale piece `Yoku And Hiro’.
The start to 1997 marked a slight return to favour, both the single `Beetlebum’ and their eponymous fifth album BLUR {*8} hitting pole position. Running out of a title for the 2-minute `Song 2’ didn’t exactly curtail its chances of actually soaring up the charts (poignantly peaking at number 2); but for Damon’s detached screeches and the gutsy guitar work, one could almost think this was the BUZZCOCKS a la grunge. Forsaking the Brit-pop framework of their previous albums, BLUR took on lo-fi, psychedelia and druggy electronica on their way forward, while there was hit singles for the stalwart and local through “On Your Own’ and the Berlin-era/BOWIE-esque `M.O.R.’.
With the lads taking a slight sabbatical from the recording studio, GRAHAM COXON took the opportunity to release a respectable solo effort, `The Sky Is Too High’ (1998), the BLUR factor and a few good reviews nearly carrying it into the Top 30. Having involved themselves with various re-mixers (including WILLIAM ORBIT, MOBY, THURSTON MOORE, Adrian Sherwood and TORTOISE’s John McEntire on the once Japanese-only BUSTIN’ & DRONIN’) over the course of a year or so, BLUR were seeing clearly once again; Damon had recently split with ELASTICA’s Justice Frischmann.
In March ‘99, the gospel-tinged `Tender’ went straight to No.2 while the accompanying album, 13 {*6} was their fourth consecutive album to top the chart. Further Top 20 singles, `Coffee + TV’ (with Coxon taking the lead) and `No Distance Left To Run’ were a little self-absorbent, and it would seem BLUR (like many of their Brit-pop counterparts) were beginning to falter slightly. A good time to release a Top 3 “Best Of” set in 2000 – featuring fresh single `Music Is My Radar’ – coming exactly a decade after the release of their debut single. COXON also released his second solo effort `Golden D’ the same year, but the most pertinent millennial development in the BLUR camp, however, arguably came with the inception of Albarn’s GORILLAZ, the pop world’s very first “virtual” dub/hip hop outfit.
When BLUR did eventually get it together for the long awaited THINK TANK (2003) {*5}, the results were less than spectacular. Despite the presence of such savvy producers as FATBOY SLIM and WILLIAM ORBIT, the chilly, directionless experimentation of much of the album wasn’t so much of a surprise given the acrimonious departure of COXON. Albarn’s recent dalliances with world music and soundtracks filtered through to a certain extent, with strings employed by a cast of North African musicians. Yet even this exotica wasn’t enough to redeem the record, its emotionally barren soundscapes skewering the band’s trademark pop aesthetic. Among the few high points were the UK Top 5 single, `Out Of Time’, and the not so successful `Crazy Beat’ and `Good Song’, both Top 30 entries.
GORILLAZ taking precedence over BLUR, one had to fast-forward half a dozen years to their live comeback (Albarn also instigated supergroup The GOOD, THE BAD & THE QUEEN in the meantime), documented on a run-through of the greatest hits on concert double-disc ALL THE PEOPLE: LIVE AT HYDE PARK (2009) {*6}. A cheese-maker and a bit of a TV celebrity/columnist, Alex James abandoned the champagne and coke lifestyle and settled down to life in the slow lane as a farmer on his 200-acre farm in Kingham, Oxfordshire; he’s recently been associated with Bernard Sumner’s post-NEW ORDER combo BAD LIEUTENANT.
To mark their reunion in 2012 (and a headline show at the London Olympics), the original BLUR released a double-A single, `Under The Westway’ / `The Puritan’, both tasters for their concert set, PARKLIVE (2012) {*6}, a triple-CD recorded at Hyde Park.
In the meantime, after busy-bee ALBARN created his meditative solo exploits “Dr Dee” (2012) and “Everyday Robots” (2014), the BLUR brigade dished up their Stephen Street-produced THE MAGIC WHIP {*8}. Anyone thinking the quartet’s “comeback” studio set was going to be of a piece of cake or of “Parklife” standard, well, they’d be slightly out of sync. That was, not from the maddening muse of demon Damon’s solo shape-shifting – with the exception of `I Broadcast’, `Ong Ong’ and opener `Lonesome Street’ – rather through the arty and mood-enhancing quadrella of `New World Towers’, `Go Out’, `Ice Cream Man’ and `Thought I Was A Spaceman’. But this was a game of two halves, BLUR opting to maintain their first half advantage and play out for a funky away win.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/GRD // rev-up MCS July2012-Apr2015

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