Blur are set to play the biggest gigs of their career at London's Hyde Park, across two nights (July 2-3). Riding a wave of critical acclaim following their triumphant Glastonbury headline performance - which some described as one of the best Glastonbury sets ever - Damon Albarn said of the London gigs: "It's simple. We're going to put our heart and soul into it."
NME.COM will be reporting from both Hyde Park gigs. Meanwhile, Blur plan to release live recordings of the shows. Fans will be able to purchase limited edition CDs and downloads of their performances over the two nights from Blur.co.uk.
It's all a far cry from the band's first ever gig, in Colchester in June 1989. That first show was an intimate, ramshackle affair. It lasted just 35
minutes ("We only had about three songs back then," recalls Graham) and
was attended by Damon's granny. "She said we were good, but I think she
was just being kind," says Alex James.
Blur's busy summer of gigs - which includes a headline set at Glastonbury plus their own giant shows at Manchester's MEN Arena and London's Hyde Park - has already seen them attract glowing reviews. According to Alex James, the reunion has come at just the right time. "We're coming to this with the same sense of joy that we had to start with. It's not work now, it's something else."
Blur's first rehearsal session since deciding to reform was a nostalgic affair. Graham Coxon kicked if off by playing the riff to the band's 1990 debut single 'She's So High'. "It has been like getting the Blues Brothers back together," jokes Alex James. "Breaking Rowntree out of law school and me out of my cheese factory."
In a recent issue of NME we went
behind-the-scenes on Blur's comeback shows. Reporting on the band's
Colchester gig - a return visit to the site of their very first live performance - Paul Stokes wrote: "There are no cobwebs to blow off,
no nostalgic gimmicks; this band interrupted are simply picking up
where they left off."
Prior to Glastonbury, Damon and co were looking forward to injecting a bit of homegrown spirit amidst the big US stars on the bill. "We'll bring it back down to England with a bump after Neil Young and The Boss," said Graham Coxon.
Blur's current setlist is an inclusive one, encompassing even the poppier numbers that Blur were supposedly embarrassed about, such as 'Parklife' and 'Country House' - although a few of the songs have been retooled, such as 'Song 2', which at Colchester started off slowly, before building up.
Writing in The Independent, Alex James described Blur's Colchester comeback gig in emotional terms: "Not a dry eye in the house. The sound of music I never thought I'd hear again."
James' breathless account of the gig continued: "Grown men weeping, bawling, losing themselves utterly; young people saying things like, 'That was mint, bro'."
One of the obstacles to a Blur reunion was drummer Dave Rowntree's non-musical interests. Rowntree is a member of the Labour Party and has twice fought, and twice lost, for a seat in the Westminster City councils of Church Street and Marylebone High Street. He intends to stand again - although he's unlikely to ever become an MP: it is a very safe Tory seat.
Given his sober outlook and passion for politics, it is perhaps a surprise to learn that Rowntree once struggled with cocaine addiction. In 2007 he wrote: "When I discovered cocaine the effect was almost religious in its intensity. Life without drugs became impossible. Luckily I found help before they destroyed my life."
In contrast with Rowntree, Alex James' experiences with drink and drugs have been broadly positive - although he admits he drank champagne to excess: "[I] drank two bottles everyday except Wednesday, and gave a couple away. It's something like 0.1% of the entire country's champagne turnover for a year."
Damon Albarn, whose mother was a stage designer, has always had a theatrical bent. After leaving drama school he performed for a short time as a mime artist.
Graham Coxon was a troubled soul during his years in Blur and once considered committing suicide in by jumping out of a sixth-storey window in 1995, during a party thrown for Blur after their chart battle with Oasis - but Damon albarn talked him out of it. "It felt like a hollow and pointless victory," Coxon explains.
Formerly a heavy drinker, Coxon reached rock bottom when he was caught stealing a packet of sausages from a butcher's. Coxon recalls the incident with shame: "I happened to be wearing a denim skirt and there was a bus-load of people watching. It wasn't my proudest moment."
Alternative titles considered for Blur's sixth album '13' included 'Blue' and 'When You're Walking Backwards To Hell, No One Can See You, Only God'.
A noted lothario, Alex James claims it was he who first coined the phrase "I'm going to have you naked by the end of this song", which crops up in Justin Timberlake's 2003 single 'Rock Your Body'.
Alex James also likes to bang on at length about cheese. This is fair enough, because his talents as a cheese farmer are considerable. His Farleigh Wallop recently won the Best Goat's Cheese accolade at the British Cheese Awards.
Damon Albarn accepted an honorary Master of Arts degree from the University of East London in 2006. He said: "[It was] great to receive [the] award from an institution where my dad used to work and and which I, as a child, used to think of as that big building with lots of interesting people in."
Alex James has had a musical career outside Blur, but his track record as a songwriter is not great. He co-wrote a song on Sophie Ellis-Bextor's debut album. As a member of Fat Les he was responsible for 'Vindaloo', a Number Two hit in 1998.
Another quirky Alex James fact: in November 2008 he appeared in a BBC2 documentary, 'If Music Be The Food Of Love', playing a bass guitar made entirely out of cheese.
The artwork for Blur's 2003 album 'Think Tank' was designed by the graffiti artist Banksy.
Blur's fifth album 'Blur' was originally going to be called 'Five'. Meanwhile, the nurse featured on the cover art was originally going to have a halo.
Blur's current state of harmony is in stark contrast to the infighting that gripped the band during the post-Britpop hangover. Alex James said in 'Select' magazine in 1999: "After being the People's Hero, Damon was the People's Prick for a short period . . . basically, he was a loser – very publicly."
Damon Albarn is fiercely self-critical. "I've made hundreds of mistakes," he says. "I've made two bad [Blur] records. The first record ('Leisure'), which was awful, and 'The Great Escape', which was messy."
Dave Rowntree was unusual amongst musicians in that he came out in
support for the Iraq war. "I’m not a pacifist, I believe that some
things are worth fighting for," he said in 2007. "Saddam was such an
illegal ruthless bastard I didn’t shed any tears for it [the war]."
Damon, an anti-war protester, must have been livid.
Blur's breakthrough album, 1992's 'Modern Life If Rubbish', benefited from a polished production from Stephen Street - but he wasn't the first choice of producer. The band had initially worked with XTC's Andy Partridge. However, the sessions were scrapped after just three songs.