“I always think there are two routes to Blur. The high street route and this other route round the back, which is a little more interesting.” – Graham Coxon, NME, 2009
So spoke Graham Coxon when quizzed about the setlist for the gigs that saw him return – after a near decade-long absence – to the band he’d started at Goldsmiths College some twenty years prior. In a sporadic but occasionally exhilarating fashion, it’s a reunion that has continued to the stage where Blur can celebrate the twenty first anniversary of their debut album Leisure with the release of a career-spanning box set, Blur – 21: The Box, as a proper, functioning band, one handed the honour of closing the London 2012 Olympic Games atop a bill that sees them lauded higher even than established national treasures like New Order and The Specials.
Coxon’s ‘high street / route round the back’ analogy is handy when trying to reconcile why it is records by Blur are as likely to exist in collections of those who own around twenty CDs as they are in the vast libraries of fellas obsessively dusting their alphabetised Sonic Youth vinyl. What the box set ably demonstrates is that there’s more to both sides of the band than anyone other than its members could possibly have guessed before. Street’s masterful remastering work on what amounts to nigh-on their entire studio recordings not only hangs fresh bunting on the Blur high street, but the wealth of demo versions, alternative takes and rare live footage featured in Blur – 21 points out not only the route round the back, but also the window left slightly ajar on the second floor, the basement lock that gives way if you just jiggle it a bit, and the bookcase that opens up to a secret vault if you gently pull out Damon’s copy of London Fields. It’s this close to just being, well, a bit much really.
A preface – this article is the work of one whose critical faculties when it comes to Blur are, in honesty, completely shot to shit. If you told me Damon Albarn would be farting in a box somewhere in the UK, I’d ask you for a presale link. As such, it’s not really your standard review of Blur – 21, more of a retrospective, or exploration of the darker corners of a discography that contains some of the brightest moments in British guitar music of the Nineties. Maybe we’ll all learn something, or maybe I’ll prove incapable of containing my fanboy tendencies and go off on one about the audacity of folk referring to this as a ‘complete recordings’ when there’s no sign of any studio take of ‘Day Upon Day’, leaving us still only with the live version recorded at the Bath Moles Club in 1990. That, friend, is just the risk we’re running here.
Anyhow, obsessives, haters and the ambivalent alike cannot fail to have noticed that Blur are back. Well, they kind of are. And also they’re not. There are new studio recordings, interviews conducted as an amiable four piece, gigs both small and massive. What we’ve not got however is a new album. But with the release of Blur 21, we’re provided with what pretty much equates to a good few records’ worth of never before heard material not just culled from their last Coxon-less fumblings around the North African desert, oh no, but a snapshot of a band at the peak of their powers. It’s enough music for a few new Blur LPs, a fair chunk of it culled from that most purple of patches around Modern Life Is Rubbish, Parklife and Blur. Which is arguably better than anything they’re going to come up with now, right?
A studio version of ‘Day Upon Day’ aside (dude, let it go…), Blur – 21 is so comprehensive that it even includes a wealth of material from the band Blur were before Food records sat them down and suggested the name ‘Seymour’ was ‘too student’, imploring them to pick something from a provided list that was more of the times (like, ‘Ride’ or something). That band was formed of childhood friends Albarn and Coxon and the latter’s Goldsmiths pal Stephen James on bass, who insisted on being called by his middle name Alex upon his arrival at art school. Joining them for all things drums was Dave Rowntree, who’d previously played in bands with Coxon in Colchester, Essex.
Seymour’s music can accurately be described largely as a bunch of students pissing about; songs very rarely stick to one tempo, the recordings range from lo-fi to lower-fi, and you could either call the lyrics Dadaist or puerile depending on how generous you felt like being. For much of it, there’s a ramshackle, on the edge of destruction quality that’s oddly reminiscent of the Butthole Surfers if they were smashed on lukewarm lager as opposed to hallucinogenics, the Stone Roses-esque bagginess of their debut album Leisure almost wholly absent. Much of it, though a hell of a lot of fun, is musically a dead end. But there are early versions here of songs like ‘Sing’ and ‘Birthday’ that were the reason that Dave Balfe and Andy Ross at Food clocked that, with a bit of guidance, there might just be something special going on after all.
With Blur – 21 including a ten minute-long Seymour rehearsal jam of Blur’s debut single ‘She’s So High’, it’s possible to actually pinpoint the moment when the one band morphed in to the other. Though only intermittently in tune and seemingly pretty aimless, this thoroughly trying listen for anyone whose interest in the band could only be described as passing is at least of historical importance – it’s the exact recording on which Blur became Blur. Simplistic though it may be, the final version (thanks largely to Coxon’s gorgeous guitar riff) has stood the test of time better than much of Leisure, an album Albarn deems something of a missed opportunity. Superior tunes such as ‘Inertia’ and ‘Explain’ were condemned to b-side status at the time in favour of a contemporary, baggy flavour that, though preferred by their label, never really suited the band beyond glorious anomalies like second single ‘There’s No Other Way’. That number was to propel the band in to the top ten, on to Top Of The Pops and, for a few months, make them a fixture of the high street in such a manner that had indie purists doubting whether they’d put in the ground work – where exactly was the route round the back?
Blur toured the hell out of Leisure, and though the experience nearly killed them, it eventually led to a regrouping and the formation of a gang mentality that would see them produce their first great works. The failure to capture the attention of enough of the public to propel the now-classic ‘Popscene’ single further up the charts than number 32 led to it not being included on the band’s second record (“if you didn’t want it then, you’re not having it now”, remarked Coxon), despite it now being a staple of any Blur set. But it did see Blur’s confidence in their own abilities grow immeasurably, perhaps bolstered by the fact that they were now sharing US bills with the likes of Dinosaur Jr and My Bloody Valentine rather than Jesus Jones and Ned’s Atomic Dustbin back home. Coxon in particular would start revealing just how closely he paid attention to such American guitar bands in his own playing, and in combination with Albarn’s increasingly Anglocentric lyrical and melodic focus, drawing from The Kinks and David Bowie, it all still sounds remarkably fresh.
The record in question, of course, is Modern Life Is Rubbish. Though again ignored by the high street Blur fan – in fairness, there barely was such a person matching the description left in 1992 – it was a work of which the band were, and remain, justifiably proud. Though a calculated attempt at creating a ‘Big Hit Rock Record’ by getting a fresh-from-Nevermind Butch Vig on board was mooted, the band stuck with Stephen Street (responsible for the finest of Leisure’s sound) for an album that sees Blur displaying the diversity of their capabilities for the first real time. Anthemic explorations of the London and its effect on the minutiae of human relationships (‘For Tomorrow’) and punky pop culture romps like ‘Advert’ sit alongside songs where characters deal with contemporary life by either becoming obsessed with the details (‘Colin Zeal’ looking at his watch to find “he’s on time yet again”) or get driven mad by the pointlessness of it all (the ‘Pressure On Julian’ of “pushing trolleys in the car park from B to A and back to B”) over music as curiously forward thinking as it is nostalgic for some kind of golden era of songwriting.