Blur Biography

‘When our third album comes out our position as the quintessential English band of the 90s will be assured.’ A typical bullish statement that could have been made by any number of UK indie bands in 1990 - but from the mouth of Damon Albarn of Blur it amounted to prophecy. Blur were formed in London while Albarn (23 March 1968, Whitechapel, London, England; vocals), Alex James (b. 21 November 1968, Bournemouth, Dorset, England; bass) and Graham Coxon (b. 12 March 1969, Rinteln, Hannover, Germany; guitar) were studying at Goldsmiths College. Coxon had first seen Albarn when he played a debut solo gig at Colchester Arts Centre in 1988. Also in that audience was future Blur drummer Dave Rowntree (b. 8 May 1964, Colchester, Essex, England). Albarn’s desire to make music was encouraged by his father, who moved in circles that exposed his son to artists such as Soft Machine and Cat Stevens, while his mother was a stage designer for Joan Littlewood’s theatre company at Stratford. Rowntree’s father was sound engineer for the Beatles at the BBC, and had taken lessons on the bagpipes.

When the four members convened in London (the first person James saw in halls of residence was Coxon), they formed a band - initially entitled Seymour - and started out on the lower rungs of the gig circuit by playing bottom of the bill to New Fast Automatic Daffodils and Too Much Texas at Camden’s Dingwalls venue. A year and a dozen gigs later, the quartet had signed to Food Records, run by ex-Teardrop Explodes keyboard player David Balfe and Sounds journalist Andy Ross, whose suggestion it was that they change their name to Blur. They earned a reputation with venue promoters for haphazardly implemented onstage stunts. Playing vibrant 90s-friendly pop with a sharp cutting edge, Blur’s debut release, ‘She’s So High’ (which had initially ensured that Seymour were signed when included on their first demo tape), sneaked into the Top 50 of the UK chart. With the band displaying a justifiably breezy confidence in their abilities, there was little surprise when the infectious ‘There’s No Other Way’ reached number 8 in the UK charts in the spring of 1991. This success continued when Leisure entered the UK charts at number 2 - a mere two years after formation. However, a relatively fallow period followed when ‘Popscene’ failed to rise above number 34 in the UK charts. As the ‘baggy’ and ‘Madchester’ movements died, the band were viewed with the same hostility that now greeted bands such as Rain or the Mock Turtles, as audiences looked away from the Byrds -fixated guitar pop of the period. Blur seemed set to disappear with the same alacrity with which they had established themselves, although their names were kept alive in press columns by their ‘expert liggers’ status. Modern Life Is Rubbish was presented to their record company at the end of 1992 but rejected, Balfe insisting that Albarn should go away and write at least two more tracks. The resultant songs, ‘For Tomorrow’ and ‘Chemical World’, were the album’s singles. When it finally emerged in 1993, its sales profile of 50, 000 copies failed to match that of its predecessor or expectations, but touring and a strong headlining appearance at the Reading Festival rebuilt confidence.

The ‘new’ model Blur was waiting in the wings, and saw fruition in March 1994 with the release of ‘Girls & Boys’, the first single from what was to prove the epoch-making Parklife. This set wantonly upturned musical expectations, borrowing liberally from every great British institution from the Beatles, the Small Faces and the Kinks to the Jam and Madness, topped off by Albarn’s knowing, Cockney delivery. At last there seemed to be genuine substance to the band’s more excessive claims, most notably on the album’s more downbeat moments, with ‘This Is A Low’ and ‘End Of A Century’ particular standouts. With the entire music media their friends again, Blur consolidated their position with a live spectacular in front of 8, 000 fans at London’s Alexandra Palace; meanwhile, the album gained a Mercury Music Prize nomination, and they went on to secure four trophies, including Best Band and Album, at the 1995 BRIT Awards. Subsequently, the UK press attempted to concoct an Oasis versus Blur campaign when both bands released singles on the same day. In the event, Blur won the chart battle (with ‘Country House’ beating ‘Roll With It’ to the top) but remained diplomatically silent; however, it was Oasis who took over the headlines on a daily basis.

Following the lukewarm reception given to The Great Escape, a transitional album that uneasily juxtaposed Parklife -influenced material (the aforementioned ‘Country House’, ‘Stereotypes’ and ‘Charmless Man’) alongside more thoughtful tracks (‘The Universal’, ‘He Thought Of Cars’), Blur quietly retreated to Iceland to work on new material. The result of their labour was ‘Beetlebum’, another number 1 single, in January 1997, and Blur, a UK number 1 album. The harder sound (evident on the thrashy ‘Song 2’) and more downbeat subject matter (‘Death Of A Party’) recalled some of their earlier singles, and proved beyond any doubt that they remained a major force in UK pop. With its obvious debts to American alternative rock bands such as Sonic Youth and Pavement, the album also broke Blur in the US thanks to the radio success of ‘Song 2’.

In 1998, Coxon launched his own label, Transcopic, and released his solo debut. Blur returned in March 1999 with the UK number 2 single, ‘Tender’, a passionate, gospel-inflected meditation on Albarn’s troubled relationship with Justine Frischmann of Elastica. The chart-topping 13 marked the end of their long association with producer Stephen Street, with all but one of the tracks on the album overseen by William Orbit. The band’s dismissive treatment of their pre-Blur back catalogue on the subsequent tour indicated a desire to erase the past and forge a new identity, although the new ‘Music Is My Radar’ on 2000’s compilation set was hardly groundbreaking. In the meantime, Coxon released a second solo album while Albarn branched out into soundtrack work and collaborated with comic artist Jamie Hewlett and several leading hip-hop producers to create the manufactured cartoon band, the Gorillaz. He also travelled to Mali to record with traditional musicians. The results were later collated into an album, Mali Music.

After weeks of rumour about inter-band conflicts, it was confirmed in September 2002 that Coxon had left Blur. The remaining trio’s first recording without the guitarist was a limited edition 7-inch single, ‘Don’t Bomb When You Are The Bomb’. The musicians’ identities were hidden by having all the text on the sleeve printed in Arabic. Think Tank was a bold experimental work informed by Albarn’s recent forays into world music. The album also included a solitary contribution from Coxon, the thrashy ‘Battery In Your Leg’.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.