Back when I was in university, I still listened to commercial radio relatively often, but for me, the only station worth listening to had become Toronto’s CFNY 102.1 (these days called The Edge). I loved the morning show with Humble & Fred, the weekend live-to-air shows by Chris Sheppard and Martin Streek, Alan Cross’s Ongoing history of new music on Sunday nights, and of course, the all request nooner on weekdays. The nooner was music “as chosen” by the listeners. I was a regular listener and tried often enough to put in requests but I think my songs only made the show once or twice.
The one time I can say for absolute certainty that it happened for me was when I requested they play Blur’s “Chemical world” just a few days before the band was due to play The Phoenix in Toronto in September 1994. Back then, requests couldn’t be made by webform, email, or tweets, they had to be called in by landline telephone. The phone lines opened 30 minutes to an hour before the show was due to start and some intern or other answered the calls, and if we’re being serious here, they were the ones that really decided which songs were going to be played. After dialling, getting the busy signal, hanging up, and hitting the redial button a number of times, I actually got through to a live person! The guy asked what I wanted to hear, hesitated briefly at my response, and then said “yeah, I think we can play that for you.” He recorded me giving the song an intro and let me go so he could take the next call. I sat by the radio for the next hour in my basement apartment while I ate my lunch and got ready to head in to the university for an afternoon class. Just at the end of the hour, I heard my groggy voice croak the intro and my request was played.
“Chemical world” was the second single released off of Blur’s sophomore release, “Modern life is rubbish”. It’s one of the songs the band recorded when they were sent back to the studio by their labels after initial recordings for the release did not yield any singles. It definitely fits the definition of single without straying far from their new aesthetic. After their debut couldn’t decide whether it wanted to be baggy or shoegaze and it (and their performances) couldn’t find foothold with the US markets, they decided to record the antithesis of the grunge music that was taking over in North America. “Modern life” would turn out to be one of the initial albums to fly the Britpop banner and in the process, influenced a host of other like-minded bands.
“Chemical world” was the only track from the sophomore album to crack the US charts and it was one of the few songs I would hear by the band on occasion, even on alternative radio, at the time. It’s still one of my favourites by Blur and came in at number three when I counted my five favourites by the group a few years ago*. Dave Rowntree is pounding away at the drums, violent but tame, Graham Coxon is ripping away at his guitar like he’s been hanging with John Squire, Alex James’s bass line is holding it all together tightly in muscular arms, and Damon Albarn is once again bashing out against modern life and modern Britain and how it cannot be escaped, even if it was wanted.
“It’s been a hell of a do
They’ve been putting the holes in, yes, yes
And now she’s right out of view
They’ve been putting the holes in, yes, yes
Well, I don’t know about you
They’ve been putting the holes in, yes, yes
Until you can see right through”
*In that post, I told a shorter version of the story detailed above.
For the rest of the Best tunes of 1993 list, click here.
As some of the more frequent visitors to this blog may already be aware, I’m something of a Blur fan and have been since the beginning.
I borrowed a copy of their debut album “Leisure” shortly after its release and dubbed it to a C90 cassette tape*, one which I darned near wore through. Their next two albums, “Modern life is rubbish” (1993) and “Parklife” (1994), were amongst the first CDs I would ever buy and I pretty much ate up everything they served thereafter. Even though Blur’s seventh album, “Think tank”, was my least favourite to that point, I was still very saddened at the news of the hiatus they announced in 2004.
They kissed and made up** at the end of 2008 and played a number of huge shows throughout 2009. Then, for the 2010 edition of Record Store Day, they issued a brand new 7” inch single called “Fool’s day”, which was distinctive for being the first recording to include the work of guitarist Graham Coxon in almost a decade.
Then, in February 2012, the band were deservedly recognized for their “Outstanding contribution to music” at the Brit awards. I don’t typically watch awards shows so I found out about it a few days later and while reading up on it and watching video clips on YouTube, I learned some even more exciting news. Apparently, Damon Albarn and Graham Coxon had performed a three-song set at a Brits pre-show put on in support of War Child, two nights earlier, that included a brand new song called, “Under the westway”. It was so new that Damon was reading the lyrics from a sheet of paper because the song ‘had a lot of words’. I remember tracking down a shaky fan filmed video of this performance. Then, I watched it more than a few times, easily enough to fall for this new piano-heavy number, a tune that reminded me somewhat of a David Bowie ballad. Needless to say, I liked what I heard and began to hope that there was more new material where that came from.
I started seeing ambiguous tweets from the Blur camp a few months later. When they finally came clean, Blur announced that they would be releasing two brand new tracks, the aforementioned, “Under the westway” and another called “The puritan”, on July 2nd. To add to the excitement (like I needed more), Blur was to perform both songs, live, at a ‘secret location’, and stream them over the Internet, the first song at 6:15pm and the second at 7:15pm BST. Immediately afterwards, the songs were made available for download on iTunes with a special edition, double A side, 7″ single to be released later. It was all a brilliant ploy by a band that pre-dated the ‘Internet’, embracing technology and the brave new world of music.
But it wasn’t just all fireworks and no substance. Both of these were great tunes, especially “Under the westway”, which ranks up there with my all-time favourite tunes by the band.
It’s sad but glorious. Old veteran soldiers of Britpop and London town, looking down at it all, the smouldering wreckage, the changing times, the ghostly memories. It’s like they’re revisiting home and realizing they can’t go back, only forward, and though it hurts, they sit down and write a song about it all.
“For the way I feel about you
Paradise not lost, it’s in you
On a permanent basis
But I am going to sing”
It is seamless and easy and perfect. And I can just listen to it over and over and over.
*On the other side of which was recorded Chapterhouse’s debut “Whirlpool”.
**Not literally, of course.
For the rest of the Best tunes of 2012 list, click here.
Damon Albarn (vocals, keyboards)
Graham Coxon (guitars, vocals)
Alex James (bass)
Dave Rowntree (drums)
Modern Life Is Rubbish (1993)
The Great Escape (1995)
Think Tank (2003)
The Magic Whip (2015)
Context: Today marks 25 years to the date exactly that I got to see one of my favourite bands (back then and to this day) live. Yes, on September 28th, 1994, I saw Blur perform at a relatively small club called The Phoenix in Toronto (with Pulp supporting them) for their Parklife tour. The following summer they headlined a show at the newly completed Molson Amphitheatre (in the same city), a stacked lineup that included Elastica and Ned’s Atomic Dustbin (also Our Lady Mother Earth, or whatever their name is). I remember wondering in the days leading up to that second show how Blur would follow such a high energy act like Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, but they truly did blow all the other bands away. Indeed, those who have never seen Blur live or haven’t seen them in so long (like myself) that they may have forgotten how good they are in the flesh would do well to watch the documentary, “No distance left to run”, especially the bonus footage.
Blur had its beginnings in a band called Circus in the late eighties. There was a little bit of roster shuffling in their early days but they quickly settled into their final lineup of Damon Albarn, Graham Coxon, Alex James, and Dave Rowntree, and once they did, they re-branded themselves as Seymour. The name Blur came about a year later, in 1989, because the label (Food) that was signing them really hated Seymour as a band name.
Blur’s debut album, “Leisure” came out in 1991 and was a mish-mash of the shoegaze and madchester sounds, as if they couldn’t quite decide on what kind of band they wanted to be. Frontman Damon Albarn has since gone on record as hating the album, calling it a mess, but it did generate a number of hit singles and some really quality tracks. Their sophomore release, 1993’s “Modern life is rubbish”, was borne out of their frustrations with touring North America and their inability to crack that market. It was an album that both chided and celebrated British culture and became part of the blueprint of the musical movement known as Britpop. Consequently, their third and fourth albums, released in 1994 and 1995 respectively, enjoyed immense success in England by riding the tidal wave of this movement that they helped create.
In 1997, they released their self-titled record and it was a dramatic shift in aesthetic. They embraced an American lo-fi indie rock sound, something they had previously derided, but more than that, they were starting to experiment more, speaking the rock lingo rather than that of pop, an ethos that would continue on through albums six and seven. When Blur toured in support of that fifth album, a single from it called “Song 2” had garnered them a whole new legion of fans so they were playing much bigger venues. (I believe it was Smash Mouth that supported them on the North American leg of that tour.) I passed on that particular show due to the lack of funding that is usual with starving students but was primed when their next tour was announced in support of “13”.
Unfortunately for me, but keeping in line with their new musical aesthetic, the band decided to scale things back and play smaller venues on this tour so they switched off Varsity stadium for the very tiny Palais Royal. On the morning the tickets went on sale, I was on the phone to Ticketmaster playing the dialling game (they didn’t have online ticket sales quite yet) but by the time I got through, five minutes after ten, it was all sold out. In fact, the agent told me that tickets were sold out within moments of going on sale due to all those pesky pre-sales. I later heard mixed reviews of the show. Mixed because the band chose to play their new album in full and those who loved “13”, loved the show but those hoping to hear “Song 2” were greatly disappointed. I definitely would have fallen into the former category, had I managed a ticket.
When they split up in 2003, no one was all that surprised. Guitarist Graham Coxon had already left the band during the recording of “Think tank” and Damon Albarn was appearing increasingly more interested in his extracurricular projects apart from Blur. Indeed, it was a far greater surprise when the band reunited five years later, even welcoming Coxon back into the fold. They have never officially split since then, performing live infrequently, including high profile gigs at the closing ceremonies of the London Olympics and a headline spot at Coachella in 2013.
Things were just starting to quiet down again with the band when out of nowhere they announced the release of their eighth album, their first in twelve years. “The magic whip” was released on April 28th, 2015, and blew us all away, providing us with a collection of songs that teased a band with plenty more to share, rather than one just riding the coattails of past successes. Nowadays, though Albarn is still a very busy boy with his multiple bands (Gorillaz, The Good, The Bad, & The Queen) and of course, his solo career, he no longer wishes to entirely close the book on Blur. And the rest of group, Coxon with his own solo career, Rowntree as Labour party councillor, and James as famed cheese maker, all seem content in their own lives and happy to revisit the band whenever the mood takes them. I for one would love to see Blur live one more time. My hopes were raised on this score when they first reunited back in 2013 but I think the closest they’ve gotten to my neighbourhood since has been that Coachella festival a bunch of years ago.
All that verbiage to say Blur is a super important band to me, which made the task of narrowing their top tunes down to just five damned near impossible. Here are the results of my efforts.
The top five:
#5: There’s no other way (from “Leisure”, 1991)
Blur’s second ever released single is also, to my mind anyway, still one of their best but then, I was always such a fan of the “baggy” sound. This style’s prevalence in 1991 was probably what boosted the song so deeply into the UK singles charts, peaking at the number eight spot. It has that wicked breaking beat and tambourine shuffle that gets the toes off tapping and an organ backbone that sounds like it was ripped out of The Charlatans’ playbook. Derivative? Perhaps. But executed to near perfection so that though they didn’t hail from Manchester, they could’ve easily been mistaken as such. And then there’s that awesome family dining room music video that just has to be watched to be believed.
#4: Under the westway (from “Under the westway EP”, 2012)
Do you remember where you were when you first heard this song? I do. I was sitting in my kitchen on July 2, 2012, streaming the live performance on my laptop. It was so sad and emotional and utterly brilliant, that I immediately wanted to watch it again. It’s another great ballad by the band, smacking heavily of David Bowie and The Beatles, a plodding and soft intro turns bombastic and quite epic by the climax. Shortly after the performance mentioned above, it was co-released with “The puritan”, another excellent but very different sounding tune. It was these that stoked my excitement for a new album, only to be quashed later that year by members of the band, claiming that no new material was forthcoming… But we now know better.
#3: Chemical world (from “Modern life is rubbish”, 1993)
I remember once calling into CFNY, Toronto’s alternative radio station (now named The Edge), to request this very song for the daily lunchtime show: The all-request nooner. Looking back, I’m not sure why I did such a thing, perhaps it was to hear my own voice on the radio, but these days, I don’t even bother with radio so the idea sounds ludicrous. Nonetheless, “Chemical world” was the only song I ever requested that was actually played on the air during that timeslot. Twenty or so years later, it’s still among my very favourite Blur tracks (though Edge 102 likely wouldn’t play it these days) and a really brilliant pop song. Written specifically to appeal to American audiences, it deals with one of Albarn’s favourite universal themes, that of industrialization, rather than the uniquely British identity tropes prevalent on the rest of the album. Oh yeah, and I love that rippin’ guitar lick.
#2: No distance left to run (from “13”, 1999)
And here at number two we have another ballad. There’s just something about Damon’s voice that lends itself to sad or otherwise emotional numbers and nowhere is it more heart-wrenching than on “No distance left to run”. He has said of the lyrics: “It upsets me, that song. It upset me singing it. Doing that vocal upset me greatly. To sing that lyric I really had to accept that that was the end of something in my life.” Although I don’t think he has ever outright admitted this, many people believe the song is about his split with Elastica vocalist, Justine Frischmann. Whether true or no, it makes for a compelling listen, brutal and brilliant at the same time.
#1: This is a low (from “Parklife”, 1994)
“This is a low” was never released as a single but it is a favourite with both the band and their fans, was picked as a track for their “best of” album, and was frequently part of their set list when they performed live, often using it to close their show with a bang (it was their final song both of the times I saw them live). It is a sad and lonely ode to Britain, with Damon and crew longing for home after weeks and months on the road. Coxon’s guitars come crashing like waves against rocks, Rowntree’s drums tapping and sometimes pounding like hail on the pavement, and you can almost picture James with his bass, hair in his eyes, cigarette dangling from his tightening lips. And Damon, he sounds so forlorn and anguished, magnum of cheap red wine in hand, both his collar and the day undone. Cheers to that!
For other top five lists in this series, click here.