In his first NME feature in over 20 years, celebrated scribe Johnny Cigarettes (aka Johnny Sharp) looks back on an album that defined an era, and hears how Blur's trip to the last chance saloon ushered in a major cultural shift in British music
Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention. And she does a good babysitting job on reinvention too, if the example of Blur is anything to go by.
The join-the-dots version of history might have it that an allergic, angry reaction to grunge spewed up a spiky new direction, but Blur had needed a rethink anyway, given that the ‘baggy’ indie-dance sound they channelled on debut album ‘Leisure’ was starting to sound passe even at the time of its release (“merely the present of rock’n’roll”, as NME damningly faint-praised it at the time).
Accounting tomfoolery had also left them massively in debt, meaning they had to tour and record incessantly to dig themselves out of a £60,000 financial hole. But it was slow going. Released in May 1993, ‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’ received a smattering of decent reviews, but they didn’t result in many record sales.
“We had no end of belief in ourselves,” says guitarist Graham Coxon today, “but the rest of the world had their own brains. I guess we were sort of warming up people at that point.”
Even if the band hadn’t wanted to spend their time either touring or recording potentially career-saving new material, they had to – or starve.
n“They had to come into the studio so they could eat,” says Stephen Street, the former Smiths producer who had helped them redefine their sound on ‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’, and who oversaw the demos for a new album that they began straight after its release. “I think the only time they ate was on tour and in the studio – they could only afford to eat on the Per Diems [daily pocket money given by labels to touring and recording bands] they got.”
Graham Coxon confirms this: “[Food Records joint boss] Andy Ross would buy me couple of pints and bag of chips every night. I was totally skint.”
“There was a sense of: ‘this has got to work'”
– Stephen Street, ‘Parklife’ producer
For Ross, the mediocre chart performance of ‘Modern Life…’ and the hesitant endorsement of the music media (“Not a single front cover – hang your heads in shame!”) meant insecurity surrounding both band and label continued to bite.
“We’d only just come out of a really, really bad time for Blur and my record label was on a sled,” he admits. Thankfully, EMI, [who owned a share in Food records and were about to buy the label outright], gave the green light for a third album.”
But as Stephen Street recalls, another commercial under-performance was not an option.
“There was a sense of ‘this has got to work’,” he says. “But at the same time, we were confident. There seemed to be a feeling that the time was right.”
That sense continued to seep through the back half of 1993, helped by the growing feeling that Blur had fellow travellers on their quest to re-establish a potent strain of artful indie-rock with a smart (in both meanings) British accent, steel toecaps and a subtle but distinct sense of humour.
“At first it had felt like we had no compadres, no gang,” says Coxon, “until we saw Pulp and thought, these guys get it too – a bit eccentric, more highbrow pop with a bit of wit.”
Mike Smith, the A&R legend who had snapped the band up for their original publishing deal and has been a close friend ever since, could also see the tide turning for them.
“They did a show headlining the tent at Reading in August ‘93, and you suddenly realised people were really starting to get it. It was full of kids, in suits and boots – it was a take on mod identity which a lot of people got into, and it’s an easy look.”
“In ’93, ’94, there were bands with real self-confidence and proper talent, all coming through at the same time”
– Mike Smith, A&R
The music press were also starting to get excited, Andy Ross recalls. “The fans really came through for the band that day, and it turned the corner significantly. A lot of journalists realised, ‘Oops, we really fucked up there’. The press in general seemed to come to a collective conclusion that they’d missed the boat, and went into damage limitation mode, getting more and more receptive to anything the band subsequently did.”
“At the same time you had other bands coming out on the scene,” Smith recalls. “Like Elastica, Menswear, Pulp were sharpening up, and I’d seen Oasis in the autumn of ’93 and thought, my god, then the beginning of ’94 we saw Supergrass – another brilliant band. Real self-confidence and proper talent, all coming through at the same time.”
Meanwhile, judging by the new music being demoed at Maison Rouge studios in Fulham with Stephen Street, Blur’s horizons had broadened considerably since ‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’.
The new material ranged from cartoonishly speeding romps like ‘Bank Holiday’ to suburban vignettes like ‘Tracy Jacks’, which took the Kinksian template heard on ‘Modern Life…’ and then decorated it with strings, swirling sound effects and giddy falsetto, as well as the trademark Blur harmonies that Graham and Damon had been perfecting since they met at school. If ‘Modern Life…’ was a guitar record, this added an evocative, quirky jumble sale orchestra to their musical palette.
Street’s love of sound effects helped add further colour to this embryonic world, helping evoke a Britain of trippy TV theme tunes, enticing, ersatz fairground jingles, traffic news, juvenile delinquents, underage drinking and duck pond eccentrics. “A lot of it is nostalgic, referencing our youth,” says Coxon. “It felt comfortable to us, bringing all these elements together like creating Sunday lunch with sound.”
“A lot of ‘Parklife’ is nostalgic, referencing our youth. It felt comfortable to us, bringing all these elements together – like creating Sunday lunch with sound”
– Graham Coxon, Blur guitarist
A key example is of course the title track, lyrically inspired by Damon’s walks through a park near his flat in Kensington Church Street. Yet for a while, its prominence on the record was in some doubt.
“It was probably the track that was the biggest pain in the butt to record,” says Street. “When we first recorded it, the drums and everything were in time and it just sounded a little bit flat, and at this point Damon was still doing the narration for the vocal. After a while we just couldn’t bring ourselves to work on it. It might not even have made the cut for the record.”
It was then that another track that they couldn’t quite nail produced the key for this one’s resurrection.
“Phil Daniels had been approached to narrate a poem called ‘The Debt Collector’ to the instrumental that’s on the album, a piece about a really nasty bailiff character, and Phil Daniels was gonna recite it. But Damon still hadn’t come up with the lyric, so we had this band meeting, and we said, well Phil’s been approached anyway, why don’t we get him to have a go at the ‘Parklife’ song instead? He came in and that turned into something we got a lot more excited about, and that’s when we put more sound effects on it, dogs barking, glass smashing, had a lot of fun doing it, and Dave went back in to do a much looser drum take on it. Then it went from the back of the queue for inclusion on the album to the front.”
Street feels that part of the problem with that song’s original gestation was that label had heard a demo and had earmarked ‘Parklife’ as a potential single, so they felt pressure to get it just right. Food Records’ policy of pre-approving songs for recording based on initial demos had long been a source of frustration for the band (indeed the nice cop, nasty cop partnership of Andy Ross and Dave Balfe would break up during the recording of the album when the latter sold his shares to retire to a soon-to-be-infamous house in the country) even if their tough love approach had got results when provoking Damon Albarn to write ‘For Tomorrow’.
Given that policy, then, band and producer were apprehensive when they took the liberty of creating a new song in the studio without the label’s prior permission.
“Damon played me this demo he’d done at home with a little drum machine, and the chorus stood out straight away to me,” says Street. “I said, ‘This is great, let’s make it what it obviously is, a disco record, record it at 120bpm, and just have fun with it.’ We programmed the bass, synth and drums and then got the band in on top of it – Alex does what he does with the bassline, and Graham does what he does with the guitar, and it still sounded like Blur, so it was really exciting.”
The song was ‘Girls & Boys’… and Andy Ross had yet to hear it.
“The next day he was asking me how the sessions were going,” says Street, “and I said, we’ve done this new track, ‘Girls & Boys’…”.
“There was this slight pause at the other end and then he was like, ‘Stephen, you’ve not been authorised to record that track…’ And I was like, ‘You’re gonna love it,’ and thankfully I was right.”
It was arguably the first song that proved that this was a band who could turn their hand to any genre and still put their own sonic stamp on it.
“It was a bit like when I was working with the Smiths,” says Street. “Both bands had a confidence where you feel like you can do anything you wanna do, in any style, and it will still hang together and it’ll still sound like a proper album.”
‘Girls & Boys’ also worked via juxtaposition of two key creative forces within the band.
“I was being a little arty aggro player, a little bulldozer,” says Coxon, “and Alex was being all bottom-wiggling cheeky. He’s actually a hugely underrated bass player, but when I hear Uncle Monty [from Withnail & I] say ‘he’s so MAUVE’, I think of Alex in those years. But that tension, clash of personalities, and that mix of rhythms kind of helped.”
“It reminds me of Public Image,” says Andy Ross. “They came from a place of, let’s make a racket and see if convert it into a pop song. This was a pop song subverted by Graham’s noise.”
“Blur came from a place of ‘let’s make a racket and see if convert it into a pop song'”
– Andy Ross, Food Records boss
With ‘Girls & Boys’, the band were convinced they had a hit on their hands, and they weren’t the only ones. Mike Smith remembers driving around London with Damon as they played the track over and over, and later dancing around Alex James’s new flat in Covent Garden, as the bassist blasted the newly received 12-inch version of the single out of the open windows, determined the world should hear it. They soon would. And not only would it give the album a head start with a top five hit, but it would repeat a trick managed by ‘For Tomorrow’.
Just as Blur wouldn’t have pricked up disinterested ears ahead of ‘Modern Life…’ if they had chosen a different lead single, the arrival of ‘Girls and Boys’ grabbed people’s attention in a way that, say, ‘Parklife’ might not have done, given that its mockney narration could have been seen as a more predictable logical step on from their almost self-parodic final single from Modern Life…, ‘Sunday Sunday’.
‘Girls & Boys’ also forms part of a fine opening salvo for the album. “To go from an opening that is essentially an electro dance record straight into a quite angular post punk kind of sound then into ‘End Of A Century’, it’s an amazing three-point punch that kind of sets you up for the record,” says Mike Smith.
In terms of coming up with infectious, distinctive hooks, they were also cooking on gas.
“People tend to focus on the lyrical side of it, which was also quite unique at the time,” says Smith, “but they also hit a melodic peak on that record.”
Damon’s new-found talent for ballads also shone through: take the beautifully weary, woozily organ-laced hangover vignette ‘Badhead’, the sweeping Francophile romantic paean of ‘To The End’ and the swoonsome swirl of shipping forecasts, taxis, small islands and piers on the transcendent ‘This Is A Low’.
They’re nonetheless punctuated by idiosyncratic curios such as the Syd Barrett-style psychedelic reverie of ‘Far Out’, the harpsichord-led musings of ‘Clover Over Dover’ and the one-two combo of synthy, radio-sampling retro-futurist pop of ‘London Loves’ and ‘Trouble In The Message Centre’. Not to mention the kitschy instrumentals ‘The Debt Collector’ and ‘Lot 105’. All of which is the kind of material often conveniently forgotten by revisionist critics who like to dismiss Britpop as a reductive movement centred around simplistic rabble rousing terrace anthems.
In that sense, ‘Parklife’ was a victim of its own success, and the band that made it, even more so, thanks in no small part to a rivalry that was just about to kick into gear. Just as Parklife was being released, going straight in at Number One at the start of a 90-week residency in the charts, a bunch of Mancunian scruffs named Oasis were releasing their debut single ‘Supersonic’. And when they came down to London a few weeks later, they were keen to check out Britpop HQ, the Good Mixer in Camden. There they found Graham Coxon nursing a pint and a wary demeanour. Rumour has it that when he went to the loo, one of Oasis relieved themselves beside him and sprayed his shoes.
“Liam can be pretty frightening because you don’t know what’s going on in his mind. It’s like a gunfighter in A Fistful Of Dollars – is he going to draw? Does he come in peace?”
– Graham Coxon, Blur guitarist
“I can’t remember,” he claims, “but that would have been serious. I would have had to get a suede brush for my desert boots, which would have incurred costs. But I remember not knowing what to make of them. Liam can be pretty frightening because you don’t know what’s going on in his mind. It’s like a gunfighter in A Fistful Of Dollars – is he going to draw? Does he come in peace? It’s so hard to read, so hard to know what to do – do I give him some back? Oh yeah, go on, then what? ‘I’m just having a lager, mate!’ Do I make a joke? If I’d have known him well I’d have known he was coming from a place of humour.”
“I quite liked some of their stuff – I liked the fat load of guitars on ‘Supersonic’, the tempo and swagger and swing, but at that point they’re Oasis, we’re Blur, it’s the beginning of our careers, we’re all in our mid-20s and hugely competitive, so it becomes life and death.”
…and the rest is history that will surely be recalled in full forensic detail next summer, on the 25th anniversary of ‘Country House’ and ‘Roll With It’.
But when we look back on ‘Parklife’ as the first big step in Britpop’s journey to dominating the charts of the mid-’90s, it’s slightly frustrating to note that a lot of the more inventive, anarchic and eccentric aspects of the music made back then didn’t ultimately have as big a cultural impact as the broader melodic strokes.
Graham Coxon tells of being regularly approached by guitarists citing his gnarly, abrasive fretknots as an inspiration, and he also feels ‘Parklife’ ushered in a different kind of songwriting.
“Lyrically you could see that the kitchen sink dramas with a twist had a clear influence on all of what would become Britpop. The narrative wasn’t about vaguely digging the words if it sounded good, it was proper stories – coming from ‘Arnold Layne’, ‘Eleanor Rigby’, ‘She’s Leaving Home’.”
He also feels that unlike certain notable contemporaries, they took inspiration from the sheer eclecticism of their cultural forefathers’ approach.
“What Oasis didn’t get from The Beatles was that you could learn everything – R’n’B, blues, music hall, folk, classical music, even a bit of grunge – you could get a massive education from The Beatles, not just big blocks of chords and singalongs.”
“It’s interesting that Britpop’s enduring legacy is not the art school take of Elastica, Blur or Pulp, it’s the big rock ballad of ‘Live Forever’, ‘Wonderwall’, ‘Drugs Don’t Work’”
– Mike Smith, A&R
Nonetheless, the seductive pull of chart success would draw both Blur and Oasis closer to such crowd-pleasing tactics in the year that followed ‘Parklife; (“We both ended up producing sub-par work,” Coxon concedes), even if they subsequently reverted to unconventional type.
But for Mike Smith, whose job has been to track trends in British music ever since, there’s one Britpop trope that we see more than any other now – one unwittingly pioneered by Parklife tracks such as ‘To The End’ and ‘This Is A Low’.
“It’s interesting that Britpop’s enduring legacy is not the art school take of Elastica, Blur or Pulp, it’s the big rock ballad of [Oasis’s] ‘Live Forever’, ‘Wonderwall’, [The Verve’s] ‘Drugs Don’t Work’. You see a line through to Coldplay, through to arguably James Bay and George Ezra. I sadly see precious few contemporary artists doing much [that is] as left-field as Blur did.”
Well, in theory there’s no reason why they can’t. Maybe, like Blur, they just need to be angry, skint and hungry enough.
Parklife, an album by Blur on Spotify