We’re celebrating Britpop in this week’s NME and one of the most important albums of that time was undoubtedly Blur’s ‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’. It changed the landscape of the UK music scene, making way for a new wave of British pop music. The band’s second album brought Britpop into focus; it was the culmination of something that had been gathering pace since the release of ‘Popscene’ the previous year. Here are 20 things you might not to know about the album, released 20 years ago this month.
Upon release, NME’s Paul Moody awarded the album a solid-but-unspectacular 7/10, noting that while the album “has enough faults to give a surveyor nightmares,” the band had “reinvented themselves in the image of their youth… it’s the Village Green Preservation Society come home to find a car park in its place.”
XTC’s Andy Partridge was originally due to produce the album, but those sessions were quickly scrapped, with bassist Alex James remarking that the results didn’t sound “sexy” enough.
After the aborted Andy Partridge sessions, the band reunited with Stephen Street, who later recalled how “we seemed to be on the same page… I felt like I was their older brother through the whole process of making a record – I felt very close to them, a very tight kinship with them.”
In an interview with NME around the time of the album’s release, Damon nailed his colours to the mast when he said, “If punk was about getting rid of hippies, then I’m getting rid of grunge. It’s the same sort of feeling: people should smarten up, be a bit more energetic. They’re walking around like hippies again – they’re stooped, they’ve got greasy hair, there’s no difference.”
Many of the songs were written during the band’s 1992 tour of America, and was a direct reaction to, as Damon put it, “the vacuous that America was filling us with.”
In keeping with Damon’s hatred of grunge and his mixed feelings towards the country it came from, the working title for ‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’ was ‘Britain versus America’.
Far from glorying in the birth of Britpop, Graham Coxon remembers the ‘Modern Life’ period as a time when “we were just fighting for our life as a group. We were just writing about everyday life, which was basically pretty awful.”
‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’ is Alex James’ favourite Blur album, the one on which, “we went from being an indie band to a group with wider aspirations and yearnings.”
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‘Chemical World’ was recorded at the behest of Blur’s American label, SBK, who felt the album lacked commercial appeal for the US market.
In fact, SBK had so little faith in the album, they asked the band to re-record it entirely with Pixies and Nirvana producer Butch Vig, a request the band flat-out refused.
Blur delivered the album to Food Records in December 1992, but the label were concerned by the lack of potential singles. A depressed and hungover Damon wrote ‘For Tomorrow’ on Christmas morning, while sitting at the piano in his parents’ house.
Although they’d already recorded the bulk of the album with Stephen Street, the band toyed with the idea of recruiting Jeff Lynne to produce ‘For Tomorrow’, because the song reminded them so much of ELO.
‘Oily Water’ is one of the oldest tracks on the record: it was originally released in 1991, as part of an indie compilation called ‘Volume 2’.
’Sunday Sunday’ was given its live debut at Glastonbury in 1992, where Damon also shook off the yoke of baggy by performing in a sharply-cut 60’s suit.
The album was a make-or-break one for Blur, who had just discovered they were £60,000 in debt. As Damon told NME at the time, “We literally had no money; we couldn’t even pay our rent, and it got to the stage where it was touch and go whether we’d go bankrupt.”
Despite kickstarting Britpop, ‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’ was only a modest success upon release: it peaked at number 15, and its highest charting single – ‘Sunday Sunday’ – only reached number 26.
Just as SBK had predicted, the album fared poorly in America, where it sold only 19,000 copies and failed to chart on the Billboard 200.
The album was heavily influenced by Ray Davies and The Kinks, who Albarn began listening to obsessively during the band’s American tour. According to him, Davies was “very near my idea of perfection in songwriting, who carried it off with an immense amount of dignity.”
Graham Coxon was perplexed by the lukewarm reaction to the record. “We were being so prolific,” he said in 2000. “We’d go into the studio and make about six songs in one day. ‘Resigned’, ‘Oily Water’ and ‘Miss America’, along with two others, were all done in one day. We did them off our heads and I think those are the best songs on the album, because there’s no producer on them.”
The album’s title, which Damon called “the most significant comment on popular culture since ‘Anarchy In The UK’”, was taken from graffiti art that he had spotted on Bayswater road in London.