Blur - Biography
By Marcus Kagler
The seeds for Blur were planted in 1988 by vocalist Damon Albarn, when he formed the short-lived band Circus, while still a student at London’s Goldsmith College. After numerous line-up changes, Circus took on bassist Alex James, guitarist and childhood friend, Graham Coxon, and later drummer Dave Rowntree, with Albarn subsequently changing the band’s name to Seymour after the J.D. Salinger novel Seymour: An Introduction. In the summer of ’89, the band sent a demo tape to Andy Ross of Food Records, and after seeing the popular art school band perform live he signed Seymour under one condition: they change their name. Ross presented the quartet a list of potential names and the band chose Blur out of the bunch. The band wrote new material and toured the UK relentlessly throughout the spring of 1990 and released the madchester inspired “She’s So High” as their first single in the fall to moderate success. Blur spent the remainder of the year in the studio with former Smiths/Morrissey producer Stephen Street to recording their debut full length.
Leisure (Food/SBK) was released in the summer of 1991 when the madchester and shoegazer movements were quickly losing ground to grunge. The madchester influenced first single, “There’s No Other Way” was a decent hit but ultimately the song only established Blur as a one hit wonder. The band toured Europe throughout 1991 before heading over to the U.S. for an extended national tour. Leisure was largely ignored in the states and their tour was a poorly attended disaster that left the band with a distaste for all things American. Defeated, the band returned to England to find the madchester scene practically dead and their fan base dwindling. Blur spent the entirety of 1992 reinventing their sound and recording their next album. Originally their sophomore full length was to be an America-bashing concept record titled, “England vs. America,” to be produced by XTC’s Andy Partridge. However the relationship between Partridge and the band soon deteriorated and Blur hired producer Stephen Street to complete the album. Street would remain their sole producer throughout the 90’s.
Over the next year and a half, the band toned down the anti-Americanism of the album and changed the title to Modern Life is Rubbish (1993 Food/SBK) after Albarn saw some graffiti of the phrase on a nearby London road. Their first reinvention found the group ejecting all the madchester elements of their sound, in favor of fuzzy, literate, power pop. Citing no radio friendly singles, Food Records rejected the album and the band returned to the studio to record the future hit single, “For Tomorrow”, which appeased Food but not their U.S. label SBK, who also cited no radio friendly singles. Blur once again went back into the studio and recorded the single, “Chemical World,” but SBK was still not convinced. The label asked the band to re-record the entire album with Nirvana producer Butch Vig. Blur declined and when Modern Life is Rubbish saw a U.S. release in the fall of 1993 it received little publicity or support from SBK. In the UK, however, Modern Life is Rubbish was well received and the band developed a significant following on the strength of the last minute singles, “Chemical World” and “For Tomorrow”. In hindsight, the influence of bands like the Kinks, the Who can be heard throughout the album and many critics consider Modern Life is Rubbish to be the first Britpop album.
Blur returned to the studio to record their third full length armed with a much clearer vision. Albarn and company had long been obsessed with traditional British rock & roll, British politics, and particularly the British class structure. Their third full length would reflect all of these interests in creatively varied ways and would become the quintessential Britpop album. Parklife (1994 Food/SBK) was released to unanimous critical praise and made Blur superstars in their native Britain. The dance floor hit “Girls & Boys” became a club hit in the U.S and the UK, and the band even got Quadrophenia star Phil Daniels to narrate the title track. In February of 1995, Blur won four Brit Awards for best album, best British group, best single, and best video for the song “Parklife”.
In a hurry to capitalize on their success the band entered the studio to record a follow up. However, with success also came the trappings of fame and the invasive British music press. In 1995, Albarn was in a well publicized relationship with Elastica vocalist Justine Frischmann, while guitarist Coxon received negative press for his consistent public intoxication. Also Blur wasn’t necessarily the biggest band in the land. Oasis was vying for the same title, and the press was selling newspapers by pitting the two bands against each other. In August of 1995, Albarn fueled the tabloid Oasis.vs. Blur fire when he bumped up the release date of Blur’s new single, “Country House” to coincide with the release of Oasis’ new single, “Roll With It”. The British press had a field day with the competition they dubbed, “The Battle of Britpop”. Blur won the battle by selling 58,000 more copies than Oasis, but Blur’s fourth album, The Great Escape (1995 Food/Virgin) was a commercial disappointment compared to Oasis' second album, (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? (1995 Epic). Morning Glory was a massive hit and catapulted Oasis to worldwide superstardom. The public backlash against Blur was severe and relationships within the band were soon strained. By February of 1996, Blur was on the verge of breaking up due to tensions between Coxon and Albarn. After completing various tours the band went on hiatus until the summer of 1996.
Coxon had always been dissatisfied with the slick pop production of The Great Escape and had longed to steer Blur into a more lo-fi guitar driven direction. When the band reconvened to begin work on their fifth album, they agreed to pursue a different direction. Albarn had been turned on to the lo-fi art rock of Pavemenet and early R.E.M., which fit with Coxon’s ideal for the band. Once again produced by Stephen Street, the band’s self-titled fifth album, Blur (1997 Food/Virgin) abandoned the Britpop sound in favor of more experimental, guitar-driven avant-garde rock music. The album earned Blur their best reviews since Parklife in both England and America. Their second single, “Song 2,” became a worldwide hit and earned the band the elusive U.S. success they’d been striving for. After falling out of favor, Blur was, once again, one of the biggest bands in the world.
In 1998, Coxon released his first solo album of lo-fi art rock on his own Transcopic records imprint. Later in the year the band reconvened to begin work on another album. Once again Blur decided to take a different direction, this time opting to work with electronic producer William Orbit, rather than long time producer Stephen Street. 13 (1999 Food/Virgin) mixed the lo-fi art rock of their previous album with blankets of electronic ambience and gospel choirs. Thematically, the album tended to revolve around Albarn’s breakup with Frischmann, particularly with the gospel tinged first single “Tender”. Critics were divided on Blur’s new direction, but once again the band found success with pop single, “Coffee & TV” and its hilarious music video featuring “Milky” the CGI walking milk carton. Coxon contributed more creatively to the album than ever before by taking lead vocals on “Coffee & TV” and designing the album cover. After performing several small tours throughout Europe and the U.S., the band went on hiatus for most of 1999, only releasing a singles compilation, Anniversary Box Set (EMI) in honor of their 10th anniversary.
By 2000, Blur was on an indefinite hiatus. Albarn’s cartoon hip-hop art-rock side project Gorillaz had become a full time gig, while Coxon was content to continue issuing solo albums. In late 2001, Albarn traveled to Mali where he conducted various field recordings with native musicians. Later, he mixed the recordings with his own studio trickery and issued the world music influenced album, Mali Music (2002 Honest Jon’s). By the summer of 2002, the band reconvened in Marrakesh, Morocco with electronic DJ/producer Fat Boy Slim to begin work on their seventh full length. However it wasn’t long before personal and creative tensions arose between Coxon and the rest of the group. Unhappy with the choice of producer and rarely showing up for recording sessions, Coxon was asked to leave the band shortly after recording began. The remaining three members finished the album as a trio with Albarn filling in the guitar parts. Divided between beat heavy dance tracks and elusive ballads, Think Tank (2003 Virgin) was the least cohesive record Blur ever produced and showcased the band at a creative crossroads after the loss of their guitarist. Still, their first single, “Crazy Beat” was a moderate success and the band hit the road with ex-Verve guitarist Simon Tong filling in for Coxon.
After the conclusion of a worldwide tour in 2003, the remaining members of Blur went on a hiatus that continues to this day. Albarn released another Gorillaz album while Coxon reunited with producer Stephen Street and began releasing more power pop oriented solo albums. In 2004, Albarn formed the ambient art-rock band, The Good, the Bad, and the Queen with former Fela Kuti drummer Tony Allen, former Clash bassist Paul Simonon, and guitarist Simon Tong. The band released their debut full length in early 2007. Although Blur have never officially broken up, there are currently no plans for the band to record new material. Allegedly, Albarn has refused to even consider another Blur album unless Coxon is on board. In the fall of 2007 a message on the band’s official website announced all four founding members of Blur had sat down and enjoyed lunch together for the first time in years, ultimately resulting in a full blown reunion which took place with 2 shows in 2009, followed by many more shows and festival appearences. In 2010 a documentary about the band, No Distance Left To Run, was released. The band continue playing live shows and contemplate recording and releasing new material.