NME / Paul Postle

20 Years On Blur's Parklife : An Oral History

Photo : Paul Postle
NME / Kevin Westenberg
Jovial in 1994. Photo : Kevin Westenberg

Pick an album that defines each rock'n'roll decade? Those pivotal youth-rallying records that gave a shared meaning and identity to their respective generations; that you didn't just want to listen to, you wanted to be?

Easy. 'Sgt. Pepper's...', 'Never Mind The Bollocks...', 'The Queen Is Dead', 'Is This It' - and 'Parklife'. Twenty years on from the moment when 'Girls & Boys' impacted the Top Five and the gravitational waves of Britpop expanded to create the '90s, Blur's third album remains its defining artefact. It was the point where the archness and artiness of the British anti-grunge rebellion merged with the lager-funnelling, Mykonos-ruining masses. Where the classical ideas of national identity, Kinksy melody and sociologically illuminating character sketches that Blur had dabbled with on 'Modern Life Is Rubbish' burst into vivid colour.

To celebrate the anniversary, we spoke to Graham Coxon, the man who signed Blur, and designers, movers and shakers in the Britpop world to get the inside track on how 'Parklife' was made, Blur's identity in 1994 and the legacy of the album. Listen to and watch the interviews below and click on the pictures on the right to see the team behind the oral history of this landmark of Britpop...

The Birth of Parklife

Graham Coxon (Blur guitarist): "We were pretty smashed all over the place at this point, because we'd been in our own bubble for quite a long time. 'Modern Life Is Rubbish' was created in our own fantasy world. For us it was nostalgia. We were looking back to our childhoods in the '70s and early '80s, things like [Mike Leigh film] Meantime; zip-up cardigans and DMs and three button jackets; foppish haircuts; Great Danes and Primrose Hill. And after baggy, shoegaze and our fantasy land of 'Modern Life is Rubbish', we were finding more about our identity. Before that we were kids learning how to play."

Andy Ross (Food label boss): "The band had been through a torrid time emotionally and financially and were bruised by their experience during the 'Modern Life is Rubbish' period. They'd fallen out with [Food boss Dave] Balfe over artistic issues and were out of vogue in comparison to Suede, their nemesis at the time. "It was a very low ebb, but for no reason apparent to any of us, that opinion started to change over the summer of 1993, culminating in this legendary gig at Reading Festival in August, five months after 'Modern Life...' came out. It was a huge show, absolutely ballistic. That instigated a mass reappraisal in the press."

Stephen Street (producer): "The gap between 'Parklife' and 'Modern Life Is Rubbish' was relatively short. The band felt quite rejuvenated after the reception they'd had - it wasn't a huge commercial success but generally the press were very positive, but more importantly the fans were very positive. They felt that they'd found the right kind of formula to take forward onto the next album - and I was delighted to be asked back to help guide them through the whole process. "After we finished 'Modern Life Is Rubbish' there was that famous meeting with Dave Balfe coming in and washing his hands of it, and I know I wasn't Balfe's first choice producer to work on that album. I assumed I'd never be called back after 'Modern Life...', but between us we'd found something that was right for Blur, so I was delighted to be asked back. We hit the ground running."

Graham Coxon: "I remember demoing a lot of it in Matrix Studios (in Fulham, west London). You demo something quaint and charming, and you don't know you've created something that's going to become a monster. Things like 'Parklife' and 'Girls & Boys' take on their own energy: sonically, they start driving the car and you're in the back going 'flipping heck, slow down'. Before you know it you've got a monstrous record. "That was when I got decent enough on the guitar to put some humour into it, some contrariness. My sonic contrariness really matched up with Damon's. I think my guitar playing was wilfully British."

Stephen Street: "These were the days when Blur had to demo their tracks to EMI and Food to be given authorisation to go in the studio and do the final masters, so [the album] was all pretty much written. The demos for 'Jubilee' and 'Parklife' were pretty similar to how they ended up. "'Girls & Boys' was different; I remember Damon bringing in a basic home demo he'd done himself. I hadn't been authorised to record that one, but Damon played me it and I said, 'We gotta do that'. We used a drum machine and turned it into a 120bpm disco-type track, and it turned out really great. "They were confident and incredibly prolific in that period. The amount of songs written in that year between 'Modern Life Is Rubbish' and 'Parklife' was immense. There were 16 on the album and plenty more left over. It was good times, happy times. The album was here, there and everywhere stylistically, but it hangs together really well."

Graham Coxon: "This is around the time I was falling in love with French music. There was a lot of French influence on songs like 'To The End'." Stephen Street: "'This Is A Low' is a strange one because we'd recorded the backing track but Damon didn't have a final lyric for it. That sat unfinished for a long time until Alex bought Damon a present wrapped in paper that had all the Marine naval districts around the UK on it, and that triggered something in Damon. "There was also a song on the album called the 'The Debt Collector' and Damon was planning to write a poem about a nasty debt collector, and Phil [Daniels] was going to play the character reciting the story. But Damon hadn't come up with anything he was happy with. At this stage we'd recorded 'Parklife' and were all thoroughly sick of it - it wasn't sounding great. Damon was doing the monologue in the verses and doing fine, but we were thinking it had to be a single, so we'd been too meticulous about it and got thoroughly bored with it and put it to one side. Then we thought, 'Hold on, why don't we see if we can save 'Parklife' by letting Phil have a go at it?' Phil came in one evening, we did three or four takes, and it saved the song."

The Story of Girls & Boys

NME / Paul Spencer
Blur's aesthetic defined Britpop. Photo : Paul Spencer

Andy Ross: "Balfe and I really liked 'Girls & Boys' but it was a ground-breaking record in that it was completely at odds with the concept of traditional indie rock. It was a cheesy disco tune - Black Lace meets Public Image! And it had that really cheesy video, and everything just fell into place. "It reached number five, out of the blue - in those days, for an indie group, that was a substantial hit. We all got completely pissed because they hadn't had many opportunities for celebration over the previous couple of years. That exorcised many demons." Graham Coxon: "The video with Kevin Godley was just us dancing round in front of a green screen against images of 18-30 holidays: women riding bananas, wet T-shirt competitions. We paid a phenomenal amount for that video. It would get put on a lot in The Good Mixer (Camden pub and Britpop hangout) when I walked in."

Steve Sutherland (NME editor in 1994): "'Girls & Boys' was great because it partly implied criticism of that herd mentality, yet the herd could embrace it. So smart."

"British and Proud"

Andy Ross: "The 'Modern Life Is Rubbish' period is very introverted, but with 'Parklife' there was more bravado and swagger. The penny had dropped for Damon and he thought 'Well, if we're gonna do this, let's embrace the concept of popularity being acceptable as opposed to uncool'. That confidence spurred them on to write a sequence of interesting pop songs. Damon, particularly, was on his British obsession, so for the artwork he made a mood book featuring cartoon Bobbies wearing Union Jacks, and Eric Bristow might've been in there. The brief was: 'British and proud'. "We were gravitating towards a betting shop office window - horses, fences, a footballer, a couple of greyhounds - but we thought, 'That's a bit messy,' and gradually we were drawn to just the dogs, because of the eyes."

NME / Chris Thomson
Picture : Chris Thomson

Chris Thomson ('Parklife' sleeve designer): "Damon called one day and told us to meet him off the Kings Road - said he wanted to show us something. When we got to the address it was a William Hill betting shop. He was interested in the atmosphere. The window display was very alluring: dogs, horses, athletic footballers. But inside was this seedy world."

Rob O'Connor ('Parklife' sleeve designer): "Damon had been reading Martin Amis' London Fields, which concerned the seedier side of London life."

Karen Johnson (Blur's press officer in 1994): "The album launch at Walthamstow Stadium epitomised the band's celebration of and commentary on British life. Damon appeared on the cover of The Face, backed by a Union Jack - unthinkable one album earlier. Suddenly the tabloids wanted to cover guitar bands." Andy Ross: "It felt like payback for all the suffering they'd endured. Vindication."

NME / Zanna
Blur gear up for an extraordinary career. Photo : Zanna

Graham Coxon: "I wasn't aware [of having created a cultural benchmark]. I wanted success but when it came I really wanted to ignore it. I didn't know what to do with it."

Karen Johnson: "The Brits were exciting. The band were very nervous, especially Graham. Liam [Gallagher] swaggers up to him and says 'Look me in the eye and tell me you deserve these awards.' Graham in his usual quiet way said, 'Fancy a beer mate?' Classic."

Steve Sutherland: "Going on the 'Parklife' tour felt exceedingly exciting. Everybody sang every fucking word. This hadn't happened for a very long time. Nobody sang every word at shoegazing gigs because you didn't know what the bloody words were."

How Blur Defined Britpop

NME / Paul Postle
The band get on it at the dogs. Photo : Paul Postle

Steve Sutherland: "There was a collective desire for Britpop to happen, although we didn't call it Britpop then. It was very hard on the heels of Kurt Cobain committing suicide. We were in a very dark place, then there was this other thing that was ours and jubilant and a bit silly and about us and not about far-off Americans. "Whilst you had a guy on the other side of the world telling you that being famous and rich and having a family wasn't enough, you had a bunch of British kids saying 'Let's just 'ave it. We want our young lives to be as fantastic as possible'."

Karen Johnson: "The show at Ally Pally [where Blur headlined above Pulp and Supergrass] was a real celebration. And guess who was there? Massive Blur fan Liam Gallagher. I know this because his girlfriend, dumped by him that night, was in tears in the ladies. "Graham managed to get knocked over by a car outside! Every paper ran the pictures the next day."

Chris Thomson: "The Ally Pally gig (in October 1994) was when we thought, 'This has got big. This is getting crazy.' But we had fun with that. We had a bingo game at the beginning. Everybody got given a bingo card." Rob O'Connor: "Of course everyone had the same numbers. So as soon as one person shouted house, thousands did."

Graham Coxon: "Was it a gathering of the tribe? It was weird because the tribe was confused. They'd wear Fred Perry, then a tie, then a zip-up Adidas cardigan. It was casual and mod in one, kind of hideous, like when plasticine turns into a brown lump. "Then there were big things like Mile End (in June 1995). I was sort of confused. I kept my head down and turned my amp up."

Andy Ross: "I'm sure a few thousand people had their first ever gig at Mile End. It was a fairly evangelistic event."

Mathew Priest, Dodgy (support act at Mile End): "It defined what Britpop was. It was the last culturally important phase of music. Although I hate the term, when people say 'Dodgy - weren't you a Britpop band?' you just go 'Yeah'. I'm glad we were around for that."

The Legacy

Stephen Street: "'Parklife' hangs together as a piece of work that's hard to date. Something like 'London Loves' and 'Trouble In The Message Centre' sound like they could've been recorded recently. It's just quality, and quality always lasts."

Graham Coxon: "I don't know if it has endured. I hope it has. It was going to be about 'UK Vs America' or whatever, but it's not about us wearing DMs or drinking tea. It's really about human feelings in the same way grunge was, just a little more guarded about its self-destruction. It was more coded."