With latest album ‘The Magic Whip’ firing the band back into the limelight, the dawn of Blur’s next phase is looming tantalisingly close. To get you in the mood, here are the stories behind 24 of the Britpop pioneers’ finest tracks to date
'Beetlebum' was infamously written about Damon Albarn's dabblings with heroin. "That whole period of a lot of people's lives was fairly muddied by heroin. It's in that place. A lot of stuff was at that time,” admitted the singer.
'Song 2' – now arguably their biggest hit – was initially seen as a bit throwaway. "I remember having a really bad sweaty hangover that day. I'd been trying to think of a title for a TV show a friend was doing about Rock Wives. Then it came to me: 'Hits and Mrs!' So I thought that was my work for the day over. It sums up 'Song 2'. We didn't think about it at all,” said Alex James of the hit.
Inspired by Martin Amis' novel London Fields, 'Parklife', Blur's ode to the everyday characters on the street, almost didn't feature comedian Phil Daniels' inimitable verses. Albarn was initially meant to sing them himself, with Daniels appearing elsewhere on the 1994 album, but defaulted when he couldn't get into character.
One of Blur's finest ballads, the melancholy grandeur of 'This Is A Low' was actually inspired by a humble piece of paper. With Albarn at a loss for lyrical inspiration, he eventually found it on a piece of gift wrap decorated with regions of the Shipping Forecast. “It had all the shipping regions on it with fantastic names like Cromarty, Fisher, Dogger and Lundy,” says producer Stephen Street.
'End Of A Century' dwelled on the slow slip into the comfortable stupor of coupledom, where “couples get into staying in and staring at each other. Only instead of candle-light, it’s the TV light”. The first line - “She says there's ants in the carpet/ Dirty little monsters” - was about Albarn and then-girlfriend Justine Frishmann of Elastica's ant infestation.
One of only two Blur tracks to feature Graham Coxon on lead vocals (more of the other later...), 'Coffee and TV' documented Coxon's struggles with alcoholism (“'Cos sociability is hard enough for me...”) and the two new stimuluses he'd been trying fill his evenings with. After a stint in The Priory in 2001, Coxon would give up the booze for good.
One of the few tracks unveiled since the band's reunion, 'Under The Westway' was debuted at a War Child show at London's Shepherds Bush Empire in 2012. It picks up from the London landmark mentioned in 1993 single 'For Tomorrow' and was recorded in one take. "It's the first Blur song where it's been one take, because previously I never finished the lyrics before we recorded,” noted Albarn.
Blur's debut single, 1990's 'She's So High' nodded heavily to the Stone Roses-led baggy movement that was topping the charts at the time, but Albarn insisted that the similarities were merely coincidental. “All the material we started off with a year ago is suddenly 'in' now,” he told NME at the time. “Like, 'She's So High' is the first song we ever wrote and that hasn't changed at all”.
The Colchester quartet's infamous ode to the Club 18-30 getaway – inspired by Albarn and Frishmann's recent holiday to Magaluf – celebrated the “strong sexuality” of Brits abroad, creating an inadvertent populist anthem along the way. “I love herds. All these blokes and girls meeting at the watering hole and then just... copulating. My mind's just getting dirtier. I can't help it,” joked Albarn.
After an entire career working with producer Stephen Street, Blur left the familiar stable for 1999's '13' to work with William Orbit. “Streety was more like a schoolteacher, more rigid. With William, it was 'do what the hell you want',” said Coxon of the change. It lead to tracks such as the oppressively brilliant, contorted 'Trimm Trabb' – a world away from chirpy bounce of before.
'Popscene' was the crossover track that was to sonically transition them from the woozy musings of 'Leisure' to their chipper next step. Released to coincide with the band's ill-fated 1992 US tour, it only charted, however, at #32. “We put ourselves out on a limb to pursue this English ideal and no-one was interested,” said Albarn. That would soon change.
While the bulk of '13' was rooted in Damon and Justine's recent break-up, few of the tracks laid the emotions quite as bare as 'No Distance Left To Run'. “It upsets me, that song. To sing that lyric, I really had to accept that that was the end of something in my life,” said Albarn. “It's amazing when you do have the guts to do that with your work, because it don't half help you.”
'Charmless Man' has a colourful history. Its protagonist is largely rumoured to be based on Frischmann's former beau – Suede singer Brett Anderson. Damon later disowned the track, calling it the product of “a dark and confused time” after he started suffering from panic attacks, and lastly it led to the band being sent flowers by gangster Ronnie Kray for mentioning him in the lyric.
Though later recorded for 'Modern Life...' with Stephen Street, the first incarnation of 'Sunday Sunday' was demoed with XTC main man Andy Partridge: a quintessentially English match on paper, but a not-so-successful pairing in reality. “He had this weird habit of regularly saying, 'Don't make the same mistakes I made'. There was a very odd vibe,” said Albarn of the aborted sessions.
One of several character studies taken from 'The Great Escape' (alongside Dan Abnormal and the aforementioned charmless man), 'Ernold Same' is notable for its spoken word verses – intoned by none other than former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone. Livingstone was recruited after Stephen Street suggested a brief of “someone credible with a monotonous voice”.
Were it not for some unnecessary industry pressure, 'For Tomorrow' wouldn't exist. Having delivered second album 'Modern Life Is Rubbish' to their label Food Records, the album was sent back for not having any singles. Albarn was duly instructed to go home over Christmas '92 and write a hit. Hungover on Christmas morning, he sat down at the piano and wrote one of the band's now classic tracks.
It wasn't only 'For Tomorrow' that saved Blur's skin on 'Modern Life Is Rubbish'. After facing consternation from Food, their US label SBK said they weren't happy with the album either. 'Chemical World' was the track that swayed them – so much so that the label tried to get the band to re-record the whole LP with Butch Vig to produce more tracks in this vein. Blur told them where to stick it.
Another obvious fall-out of the Frishmann break-up, 'Tender' and its heartbroken catharsis (“Come on, come on, come on/ Get through it”) left little to the imagination. “My music is a heartfelt thing now, rather than a head thing. Maybe that's what the split with Justine was about. I've managed to find my music and still managed to keep my personality intact,” said the singer.
With the clash between Damon's wry musings and Graham's slacker bent reaching breaking point, things came to a point of resolution on 1997's 'Blur'. Albarn had ditched Britpop after a trip to Iceland and had come back on the same page as his bandmate. “We really tried on this record to make a balance,” he said. 'You're So Great' is a track that couldn't have existed on any previous Blur record.
The B-side to '93 single 'Chemical World', 'Young & Lovely' still stands as one of the band's greatest non-album tracks. A lyrically charming look at the parent-child relationship and the strains of growing up (“Don't worry mum, I won't be home that late”), it was recently brought out for Blur's 2012 Hyde Park set where Albarn dedicated the track to his daughter. Aww.
A gorgeously glacial thing and undoubtedly one of Blur's pinnacles, 'Strange News...' was born directly from Albarn's Icelandic journeying. The sample at the start is taken from Icelandic radio, while Damon says the whole track is about “the majesty of the place”. “The death star mentioned is the depression I was suffering prior to arriving in Iceland”.
While much of 'The Great Escape' dealt in cartoonish characters, 'He Thought Of Cars' stood separate as the only introverted hint at where the band would go next. With its dystopian lyrics about a future Western world in chaos, it hinted that it wasn't just romps around the country house that were filling Damon's mind.
The only song on 'Think Tank' to feature Graham Coxon, 'Battery In Your Leg' was recorded following an alcoholism-related absence from the guitarist. “He came in and we were really thoroughly out-of-sync by that point because we'd spent two months working solidly... the only thing of any substance that we did together was 'Battery In Your Leg'”. Coxon would soon leave the group.
And so to 2015 and the beginnings of the first Blur album in twelve years. 'Go Out' both sounds like classic Blur and a step forged ahead; it's lyrics concern trips down to the local but with an undercurrent of capitalist, money-grabbing doom. With 'The Magic Whip' informed by the band's Hong Kong recording sessions and Damon's worldly travels, April 27 looks sure to be a very good day.