Oh dear. The first night of [a]Blur[/a]'s last tour of the millennium and [B]Damon[/B]'s about to [B]'lose his rag'[/B] with a rowdy Newport crowd...
"How can I be a flash bastard?" he pleads, indicating his super-slacker clobber and heroically ugly new Sting-style haircut. Poor Damon. Ten years of playing man of the people and still the party line that Blur are classless art-scruffs is being ignored.
Welcome to Singles Night, a chronological all-hits marathon and Blurzone's definitive campaign to stamp their brand on the dying decade. Hence their sluggish start in the indie-dance sludge of 'Leisure', including the Madchester trundle of 'She's So High' - which, as Damon helpfully remarks, "sounds a lot like Oasis even though it's from 1990". Oh yes. Glad to see you're over that little spat, old bean. The only problem is we've got Ray Davies and Syd Barrett and David Bowie's lawyers on the phone. And they sound mighty pissed off.
The 'Modern Life Is Rubbish' section brings novelistic characters and those cheerily dumb "la la la" singalongs which propel ambitious bands into the big time. The arrangements also become sharper and more historically aware, from the kaleidoscopic harmonies of the mighty 'For Tomorrow' to the herky-jerky music-hall supermarket dash of 'Sunday Sunday'.
Blur officially became Brit Art with a side order of Lad Lite on 'Parklife', and the throbbing disco-muppet romp of 'Girls And Boys' still sounds like a high watermark in this period of Blurography. Then a slightly wobbly 'To The End' provides a rare hint of vulnerability from a band who rarely risk exposing any emotion at all.
But 'Parklife' itself is, was and always will be crap. This is Blur's most caricatured moment - a feeble heavy metal riff, a comedy knees-up chorus, a rambling mockney lyric of stunningly meaningless word association. Never mind Aqua, Placebo or the Spin Doctors - this must be the most irritating smash hit of the '90s. Sorry, Damo, but The Kinks only ever wrote three decent tunes and Quadrophenia is adolescent rock-opera wank. If this is the landmark Blur will be remembered for, gawd 'elp us orl.
Strange, then, that Damon affects reluctance when 'Country House' arrives. "This is doing my head in," he announces, over-dramatically, for anyone who hasn't swallowed the official post-Britpop spin that Blur never relished competing with That Band and are frightfully embarrassed by chart success. Yeah, right.
Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes true. But even if it doesn't suit their inverted-snob revisionism, the much-maligned 'The Great Escape' is probably still Blur's finest hour, the point where their arty melancholy and dead-on pop sensibilities gelled most perfectly. Exhibit A: the tumbling strings and blissed-out future-blues of 'The Universal'. Exhibits B and C: the leering, boorish, self-satirising 'Stereotypes' and 'Charmless Man', everything that 'Parklife' fails to be plus strong melodies to boot.
The post-encore section heralds New Blur, New Danger. But is the divide really that wide? OK, Damon's voice sounds more crumpled and lived-in, Graham's guitar scrongles where once it thrummed, but 'maturity' makes a great marketing angle for broadsheet profiles and South Bank Show producers. Yeah, 'Beetlebum' is beautiful and 'Tender' autumnally anthemic, but just as hollow and artful as anything on 'Leisure'. Are those real tears in Damo's eyes on the achingly sublime 'No Distance Left To Run', or is he crying with relief at the end of another job efficiently done? He's a professional cynic but his heart's not in it.
After ten years, do we care whether Blur 'mean' it any more? Does it matter whether Damon is a 'real' cockney or not? Shall we sneer once again at their middle-class roots? No, no and no. We just want our hearts to be touched, moved, transported - or our heads to be dazzled, dumbfounded, impressed. But after 23 songs, a few genius moments, lots of lulls and a surprisingly low excitement quota, we feel as ambivalent as ever - that Blur are too accomplished to dislike, but too studied and remote to love with a passion.
End of a century. It's nothing special. But it's the only one we've got.
To read all our reviews first - days before they appear online - check out NME magazine, on sale every Wednesday