Blur are an English alternative rock band. Formed in London in 1989 as Seymour, the group consists of singer Damon Albarn, guitarist Graham Coxon, bassist Alex James and drummer Dave Rowntree. Blur's debut album Leisure (1991) incorporated the sounds of Madchester and shoegazing. Following a stylistic change?influenced by English guitar pop groups such as The Kinks, The Beatles and XTC?Blur released the Modern Life Is Rubbish (1993), Parklife (1994) and The Great Escape (1995) albums. As a result, the band helped to popularise the Britpop genre and achieved mass popularity in the UK, aided by a famous chart battle with rival band Oasis dubbed "The Battle of Britpop".
In recording their follow-up, Blur (1997), the band underwent another reinvention, influenced by the lo-fi style of American indie rock bands such as Pavement. "Song 2", one of the album's singles, brought Blur brief mainstream success in the US. The last album featuring Blur's original lineup, 13 (1999) found the band members experimenting with electronic music and gospel music, as Albarn wrote more personal lyrics. In May 2002, Coxon left Blur during the recording of their seventh album Think Tank (2003). Containing electronic sounds and more minimal guitar work, the album was marked by Albarn's growing interest in hip hop and African music. After a 2003 tour without Coxon, Blur did no studio work or touring as a band, as members engaged in other projects. Subsequently, Blur reunited in 2009 with Coxon back in the fold. Following a series of successful concerts, Blur members have stated that the group has no immediate plans for the future.
Formation and Leisure: 1988?1991
Childhood friends Damon Albarn and Graham Coxon met Alex James when they began studying at London's Goldsmiths College in 1988. Albarn was in a group named Circus, who were joined by fellow Goldsmiths student, drummer Dave Rowntree that October. Circus requested the services of Coxon after the departure of their guitarist. That December Circus fired two members and James joined as the group's bassist. This new group named themselves Seymour in December 1988, inspired by J.D. Salinger's Seymour: An Introduction. Seymour performed live for the first time in summer 1989. In November, Food Records' A&R man Andy Ross attended a Seymour performance that convinced him to court the group for his label. The only concern held by Ross and Food was that they disliked the band's name. Food drew up a list of alternative names, from which the band decided on "Blur". Food Records finally signed the newly christened Blur in March 1990.
"There's No Other Way"
Sample of "There's No Other Way", illustrating the band's early Baggy influence.
From March to July 1990, Blur toured the UK, opening for The Cramps, and testing out new songs. In October 1990, after their tour was over, Blur released the "She's So High" single, which reached number 48 in the UK Singles Chart. The band had trouble creating a follow-up single, but they made progress when paired with producer Stephen Street. The resulting single release, "There's No Other Way", became a hit, peaking at number eight. As a result of the single's success, Blur became pop stars and were accepted into a clique of bands who frequented The Syndrome club in London dubbed "The Scene That Celebrates Itself". NME magazine wrote in 1991, " are acceptable pretty face of a whole clump of bands that have emerged since the whole Manchester thing started to run out of steam."
The band's third single, "Bang", performed relatively disappointingly, reaching only number 24. Andy Ross and Food owner David Balfe were convinced Blur's best course of action was to continue drawing influence from the Madchester genre. Blur attempted to expand their musical sound, but the recording of the group's debut album was hindered by Albarn having to write his lyrics in the studio. Although the resulting album Leisure (1991) peaked at number seven on the British album charts, it received mixed reviews, and according to journalist John Harris, "could not shake off the odour of anti-climax".
Britpop years: 1992?1995
After discovering they were ?60,000 in debt, Blur toured the United States in 1992 in an attempt to recoup their financial losses. The group released the single "Popscene" to coincide with the start of the tour. Featuring "a rush of punk guitars, '60s pop hooks, blaring British horns, controlled fury, and postmodern humor", "Popscene" was a turning point for the band musically. However, upon its release it only charted at number 32. "We felt 'Popscene' was a big departure; a very, very English record," Albarn told the NME in 1993, "But that annoyed a lot of people . . . We put ourselves out on a limb to pursue this English ideal and no-one was interested." As a result of the single's lacklustre performance, plans to release a single named "Never Clever" were scrapped and work on Blur's second album was pushed back.
During the two-month American tour, the band became increasingly unhappy, often venting frustrations on each other, leading to several physical confrontations. The band members were homesick; Albarn said, "I just started to miss really simple things . . . I missed everything about England so I started writing songs which created an English atmosphere." Upon the group's return to the United Kingdom, Blur (Albarn in particular) were upset by the success rival group Suede had achieved while they were gone. After a poor performance at a 1992 gig that featured a well-received performance by Suede on the same bill, Blur were in danger of being dropped by Food. By that time, Blur had undergone an ideological and image shift intended to celebrate their British heritage in contrast to the popularity of American grunge bands like Nirvana. Although skeptical of Albarn's new manifesto for the band, Balfe gave assent for the band's choice of Andy Partridge of the band XTC to produce their follow-up to Leisure. The sessions with Partridge proved unsatisfactory, and were abandoned after only three songs, but a chance reunion with Stephen Street resulted in him returning to produce the group.
The band completed their second album Modern Life Is Rubbish in December 1992, but Food Records said the album required more potential hit singles and asked them to return to the studio for a second time. The band complied and Albarn wrote "For Tomorrow", which became the album's lead single. "For Tomorrow" was a minor success, reaching number 28 on the charts. Modern Life Is Rubbish was released in May 1993. The announcement of the album's release included a press photo featuring the phrase "British Image 1" spraypainted behind the band (who were dressed in a mixture of mod and skinhead attire) and a pitbull. At the time, such imagery was viewed as nationalistic and racially insensitive by the British music press; to quiet concerns, Blur subsequently released the "British Image 2" photo, which was "a camp restaging of a pre-war aristocratic tea party". Modern Life Is Rubbish peaked at number 15 on the British charts, yet it did not make much of an impression in the U.S.
Sample of "Parklife", title track from Blur's third album, which features narration by Phil Daniels, the star of the film version of The Who's Quadrophenia.
The success of Parklife (1994) revived Blur's commercial fortunes. The album's first single, the disco-influenced "Girls & Boys", found favour on BBC Radio 1. It peaked at number five on the UK singles chart and number four on the US Modern Rock chart, where it remains the band's highest charting single to date. Parklife entered the British charts at number one and stayed on the album charts for 90 weeks. Enthusiastically greeted by the music press?the NME called it "a Great Pop Record . . . bigger, bolder, narkier and funnier "?Parklife is regarded as one of Britpop's defining records. The album generated further hit singles, including the ballad "To the End" and the mod anthem "Parklife". Blur won four awards at the 1995 BRIT Awards, including Best Band and Best Album for Parklife. Coxon later pointed to Parklife as the moment when " went from being regarded as an alternative, left field arty band to this amazing new pop sensation".
Blur began working on their fourth album The Great Escape at the start of 1995. Building upon the band's previous two albums, Albarn's lyrics for the album consisted of several third-person narratives. James reflected, "It was all more elaborate, more orchestral, more theatrical, and the lyrics were even more twisted . . . It was all dysfunctional, misfit characters fucking up." The release of the album's lead single "Country House" played a part in Blur's public rivalry with Manchester band Oasis termed "The Battle of Britpop". Partly due to increasing antagonisms between the groups, Blur and Oasis ultimately decided to release their new singles on the same day, an event the NME called "The British Heavyweight Championship". The debate over which band would top the British singles chart became a media phenomenon, and Albarn appeared on the News at Ten. At the end of the week, "Country House" ultimately outsold Oasis' "Roll With It" by 274,000 copies to 216,000, becoming Blur's first number one single.
The Great Escape was released in September 1995 to rapturous reviews, and entered the UK charts at number one. The NME hailed it as "spectacularly accomplished, sumptuous, heart-stopping and inspirational". However, opinion quickly changed and Blur found themselves largely out of favour with the media once again. Following the worldwide success of Oasis' (What's the Story) Morning Glory? (which went quadruple platinum in America), the media quipped that " wound up winning the battle but losing the war." Blur became perceived as an "inauthentic middle class pop band" in comparison to the "working class heroes" Oasis, which Albarn said made him feel "stupid and confused". Bassist Alex James later summarised, ""After being the People's Hero, Damon was the People's Prick for a short period . . . basically, he was a loser ? very publicly."
Reinvention after Britpop: 1996?2000
An early 1996 Q magazine interview revealed that relations between Blur members had become very strained; journalist Adrian Deevoy wrote that he " them on the verge of a nervous breakup". Coxon, in particular, began to resent his band mates; James for his playboy lifestyle, and Albarn for his control over Blur's musical direction and public image. The guitarist struggled with drinking problems and, in a rejection of the group's Britpop aesthetic, made a point of listening to noisy American alternative rock bands such as Pavement. In February 1996, when Coxon and James were absent for a lip-synced Blur performance broadcast on Italian television, they were replaced by a cardboard cutout and a roadie, respectively. Blur biographer Stuart Maconie later wrote that, at the time, "Blur were sewn together very awkwardly".
Although he had previously dismissed it, Albarn grew to appreciate Coxon's tastes in lo-fi and underground music, and recognised the need to significantly change Blur's musical direction once again. "I can sit at my piano and write brilliant observational pop songs all day long but you've got to move on", he said. He subsequently approached Street, and argued for a more stripped-down sound on the band's next record. Coxon, recognising his own personal need to?as Rowntree put it?"work this band", wrote a letter to Albarn, describing his desire for their music "to scare people again". After initial sessions in London, the band left to record the rest of the album in Iceland, away from the Britpop scene.
Sample of "Song 2" from Blur. Inspired by lo-fi and American indie rock, "Song 2' was a hit in the US.
The result was Blur, the band's fifth studio album, released in February 1997. Although the music press predicted that the lo-fi sonic experimentation would alienate Blur's teenage girl fan-base, they generally applauded the effort. Pointing out lyrics such as "Look inside America/ She's alright", and noting Albarn's "obligatory nod to Beck, the new Pavement album as if paid to do so", reviewers felt the band had come to accept American values during this time?an about-face of their attitude during the Britpop years. Despite cries of "commercial suicide", the album and its first single, "Beetlebum", debuted at number one in the UK. Although the album could not match the sales of their previous albums in the UK, Blur became the band's most successful internationally. In the US, the record received strong reviews as the album and the "Song 2" single became a hit. Blur reached number 61 on the Billboard 200 and was certified gold, while "Song 2" peaked at number six on the Modern Rock chart. After "Song 2" was licensed for use in various media?such as soundtracks, advertisements and television shows?it became the most-recognisable Blur song in the US. After the success of Blur, the band embarked on a nine-month world tour.
In February 1998, a few months after completing the tour, Blur released Bustin' + Dronin' for the Japanese market. The album is a collection of Blur songs remixed by artists such as Thurston Moore, William Orbit and Moby. Among the tracks, the band were most impressed by Orbit's effort and enlisted him to replace Street as producer for their next album, citing a need to approach the recording process from a fresh perspective. Recording sessions for the upcoming album began in June 1998, and in August of that year, Coxon released his debut solo album, The Sky is Too High on his own label, Transcopic Records.
Released in March 1999, Blur's sixth studio album 13 saw them drift still farther away from their Britpop-era attitude and sound. Orbit's production style allowed for more jamming, and incorporated a "variety of emotions, atmospheres, words and sounds" into the mix. 13 was creatively dominated by Coxon, who "was simply allowed to do whatever he chose, unedited", by Orbit. Albarn's lyrics?more heart-felt, personal and intimate than on previous occasions?were reflective of his break-up with Elastica frontwoman Justine Frischmann, his partner of eight years. The album received generally favourable reviews from the press. While Q called it "a dense, fascinating, idiosyncratic and accomplished art rock album", the NME felt it was inconsistent and "(at least) a quarter-of-an-hour too long". 13 debuted at the top of the UK charts, staying at that position for two weeks. The album's lead single, the gospel-based "Tender", opened at the second spot on the charts. After "Coffee & TV", the first Blur single to feature Coxon on lead vocals, managed to only reach number 11 in the UK, manager Chris Morrison demanded a chart re-run because of what he deemed was a sales miscalculation.
In July 1999, in celebration of their tenth anniversary, Blur released a 22-CD limited edition box-set of their singles. The accompanying tour in December saw Blur play the A-sides of the 22 singles (in their chronological order of release) at every show. In October 2000, the group released the best-of album Blur: The Best of, which debuted at number three in the UK. Dismissed by the band as "the first record we have seen as product", the tracklisting and release dates of Blur: The Best of were determined on the basis of market research and focus groups conducted by Blur's record label, EMI. By this time, the group had largely disowned the upbeat pop singles from the Britpop era, and favoured the more arty, experimental work on Blur and 13. In an otherwise highly enthusiastic review of the best-of for the NME, Steve Sutherland criticised the band's "sheer disregard" for their earlier work; "Just because these songs embarrassed them once they started listening to broadsheet critics and retreated wounded from the big-sales battle with Oasis doesn't mean that we're morons to love them."
Coxon's departure, Think Tank, hiatus and reunion: 2001?present
After 13 and the subsequent tour in 1999, the band entered into a hiatus, during which bandmembers pursued other projects. Graham Coxon recorded a string of solo albums, while Damon Albarn created the cartoon band Gorillaz with Jamie Hewlett. Alex James worked with Fat Les and co-wrote several songs with Sophie Ellis-Bextor and Marianne Faithfull.
Early in 2002, Blur temporarily broke its hiatus to record a song that would be played for the European Space Agency's Mars Lander, however, the plan fell through when the lander was lost. Recording for Blur's next album got under way in Marrakesh, Morocco in mid-2002. Tensions surfaced, however, when Coxon began to appear emotionally and creatively distant to his band mates, reportedly failing to attend recording sessions. Two of the main causes for this has been cited as the choice of dance DJ Fatboy Slim as the album's producer and also Coxon's alleged alcohol problems. After several weeks of uncertainty, Coxon confirmed that he had been asked to leave the band for reasons connected with his "attitude." His last contribution to the band was a guitar line on the final track of Think Tank, "Battery in Your Leg" which Albarn said was the only song he ever wrote about the band. Before the album was released, Blur released a new single, "Don't Bomb When You're The Bomb" as a very limited white label release. A largely electronic song, sporting a chorus consisting of "Don't bomb when you're the bomb-ba-bomb-bomb-bomb", the single and the band's startling reinvention was a shock to Blur fans, who were expecting a return to the catchy pop tunes of the band's early career. Albarn, however, attempted to assuage fans' fears by explaining the impetus behind the song and providing reassurances that the band's new album would be a return to their roots.
Think Tank, released in May 2003, was filled with atmospheric, brooding electronic sounds, featuring simpler guitar lines played by Albarn, and largely relying on other instruments to replace Coxon. Coxon's absence also meant that Think Tank was almost entirely written by Albarn. Its sound was seen as a testament to Albarn's increasing interest in African music, Middle Eastern music and electronic music, and to his complete control over the group's creative direction. For the following tour the band hired Simon Tong, former guitarist and keyboardist of The Verve, who also played with Albarn in his Gorillaz project. While Think Tank was received well by critics and fans, a minority of critics didn't warm to it. However, Think Tank was yet another UK number one and managed Blur's highest US position of number 56. The album was also nominated for best album at the 2004 BRIT Awards. The band supported the album with a tour and three singles: "Out of Time", "Crazy Beat" and "Good Song".
In early 2004, the band announced, through XFM news, that they would be recording an EP, and there were also rumours that Coxon would return to Blur. Both of the rumours proved untrue. There were also some aborted recordings done in 2005. After Coxon significantly thawed about rejoining the band, James announced in April and August 2007 that the band will reunite and will likely be recording a new album in October. In early October 2007, band members all met for "an enjoyable lunch", but at the time had no intentions of Blur work in the near future.
Coxon (left) and Albarn on stage at the Newcastle Academy in June 2009.
In November 2008, Albarn revealed that he and Coxon had patched up their differences. Albarn added that Blur, including Coxon, would reunite in 2009, and are "going to rehearse and see if we're into it". In December 2008, Albarn and Coxon stated that Blur would reunite for a concert at Hyde Park on 3 July 2009, but after tickets for the concert sold out within 2 minutes of release, Blur announced an additional performance at Hyde Park on the 2 July 2009. A series of June preview shows were also announced, ending at Manchester Evening News arena on the 26th. All the shows were well received; The Guardians music critic Alexis Petridis gave their performance at Goldsmiths college five stars out of five, and wrote that "Blur's music seems to have potentiated by the passing of years . . . they sound both more frenetic and punky and more nuanced and exploratory than they did at the height of their fame". Blur headlined the Glastonbury Festival on 28 June, where they played for the first time since their headline slot in 1998. Reviews of the Glastonbury performance were enthusiastic, The Guardian called them "the best Glastonbury headliners in an age". The band also headlined at other summer festivals, including Oxegen 2009 in Ireland, and the Scottish outdoor show of T in the Park. Their T in the Park headline slot was put in jeopardy after Graham Coxon was admitted to hospital with food poisoning. Ultimately, the band did play, albeit an hour and a half after they were scheduled to appear. As stated by Damon Albarn during the performance, and covered by the press, this would be their final performance. Alex James also stated that the band currently had no plans to continue their reunion. Albarn followed up these comments in July 2009 by stating that the band's summer dates were all the band would be doing together, and the reunion was over. In September 2009, Coxon stated that Blur have no immediate plans for either entering the studio or playing more shows.