Twenty-five years ago this month, during a time when a bands place in the UK singles chart mattered, Blur released ‘Popscene’ – a single whose chart performance almost signaled the end of the road for the group and have them lodged in musical history as little more than a 1990s one hit wonder.
Sounds Magazine’s Michael Halpin spoke to those around Blur in 1992 to hear a tale of record company disagreements, music press backlash, a disastrous tour of America, financial mismanagement and fighting against the tidal wave of grunge in the UK.
As ‘Popscene’ crept to a disappointing number 32 in the UK singles chart less than one year after the dizzying success of ‘There’s No Other Way’, one could have been forgiven for assuming that Blur’s days were numbered. For Damon and co however, ‘Popscene’ became the song that not only lit the fuse for them becoming one of the most important British band of the 90s, but also paved the way for a youth movement that would change the course of both independent and popular music in the UK for years to come.
In April 1991, on the coattails of the Manchester/baggy scene, a scene that they were never really a part of (the majority of the band hail from Colchester for a start), Blur’s top ten hit, ‘There’s No Other Way’, propelled them onto not only Top of The Pops but also found them briefly adorning the inner pages of pre-pubescent pop mag, Smash Hits.
Four months after ‘There’s No Other Way’, Blur’s debut album ‘Leisure’ reached number 7 in the UK album chart but if ‘Leisure’s’ chart performance was something to be celebrated, the reviews were not. At this point, Blur appeared to be a band of little substance, cashing in on a movement that was already past its sell by date. NME journalist Andrew Collins commented in his review of ‘Leisure’, “It ain’t the future. Blur are merely the present of rock ‘n’ roll” suggesting Blur were simply feeding off the scraps of baggy. Alexis Petredis, writing for the long forgotten Lime Lizard had similar reservations, “on the evidence of this album they don’t appear to know what they’re doing and as a result make appalling mistakes all over the place.”
Speaking to Sounds, Andy Ross, the man who signed Blur to Food Records along with the labels founder David Balfe, saw the bands debut in a different light however, “I think that for a young group to do their first album, what do you expect? They’d only been going a couple of years. What you get with a first album is the-best-of-so-far. They were signed when they were about 20 and the record came out when they were about 21 or 22. It is a bit all over the place but I don’t really consider that to be a failing. It was a top 10 album which a lot of people got very jealous of at the time”.
As Blur toured ‘Leisure’ around the UK during the second half of 1991 the baggy scene was breathing its last with leading lights The Happy Mondays and The Stone Roses losing their momentum, while the baggy scenes also-rans fell quickly by the wayside. More telling in Blur’s case however was the fact that on the date that they landed in America for their first U.S. tour, a little known alternative rock band from Seattle called Nirvana released their second album ‘Nevermind’. In his autobiography ‘A Bit of a Blur’ Alex James calls ‘Nevermind’ “the most significant American record of the decade” and states that on that day, the 24th September 1991, “the world changed”.
The last thing American’s alternative rock buying public needed on the 24th September 1991 was a half-baked British debut album with the apathy laden lyrics of ‘There’s No Other Way’, when they could listen to the vitriolic, gut wrenching cries of Kurt Cobain. Blur were definitely in the wrong place at the wrong time.
While Nirvana and grunge took hold of the white-trash, disaffected youth of America it killed baggy stone dead in the UK. The soundtrack to the post-Manchester comedown, which ran alongside grunge, was the gloomy, apologetic, introspective, confidence baron scene: shoegazing. A phrase coined by Food Records boss and former Sounds writer Andy Ross to describe bands who did exactly that; gaze at their shoes whilst performing. Bands such as Ride, Slowdrive and Swervedriver took the template of My Bloody Valentine’s ethereal, spacious, droning aesthetic and ran with it full pelt. It appeared that the swagger and buoyancy of the Manchester scene had been crushed over night.
Not only was the shoegazing scene introspective, the bands around shoegazing were often seen as being a self-indulgent clique. This was no more evident than at Syndrome a weekly club night that took place every Thursday on London’s Oxford Street. Dubbed by Melody Maker as ‘The Scene That Celebrates Itself’ the majority of its attendees were bands themselves. Bands who fell specifically into the shoegazing pigeon hole along with those who found themselves on the periphery of its social scene such as The Senseless Things, Lush and with their not-saying-very-much-at-all lyrical content on ‘Leisure’, Blur.
Blur’s Alex James gave his memories of Syndrome to John Harris in ‘The Last Party’: “Jared (the in-house DJ) would play everybody who was there’s record and you’d check out who was dancing: you knew they were your mates if they danced to your record.” After a short while, Blur simply did not fit in at Syndrome and the jealousy of Blur scoring a top ten album became apparent according to Andy Ross. “We all used to hang around in the same little clubs in Camden and London and so it was a very little, incestuous world. Syndrome and all the little petty politics that was going on in that small world just spilled over. It was all going swimmingly but at the time the music press didn’t like success at all and as soon as the press considered Blur too big for their boots they started to pick holes in them.”
Within the atmosphere of both the music press and The Scene That Celebrates Itself crowd turning against Blur, Damon Albarn set to work on his most direct piece of songwriting to date. Debuted in Blur’s live set at the Kilburn National Ballroom on the 24th October 1991, ‘Popscene’ was written as a thinly veiled swipe at both The Scene That Celebrated Itself and Syndrome. Set to be Blur’s next single, ‘Popscene’s’ lyrics, “Everyone is a clever clone, a chrome clever clone am I’ and ‘hey, hey, come out tonight, Popscene, alright!” may well have found several of Syndrome’s shoe-gazers feeling a tad paranoid as well as finding their shoelaces even more interesting than usual. Damon’s frustration around Britain’s independent music scene (and Syndrome in particular) reared its head again when he was interviewed by the NME months later whilst promoting ‘Popscene’. “There’s a noisy indie group on Top Of the Pops every week now. All looking very satisfied with their Number 18.” For the first time it appeared that Blur, and Damon in particular, were on a crusade to give British indie a much-needed jolt.
The brief flirtation that Blur had with teen-pop magazine Smash Hits however, mainly due to Damon’s photogenic nature, meant that the band found themselves to be having something of an identity crisis by late 1991. They were too popular for the elitist end of music press yet they were already far too angular to be deemed a fully blown pop group.
This musical no-man’s-land that Blur found themselves in only became more difficult to deal with during the early months of 1992. Blur’s manager during this period, Mike Collins, who had previously worked with Wire and was therefore no stranger to managing a successful band, became guilty of some serious financial miscalculations, eventually resulting in Blur being landed with a £60,000 VAT bill. Alex James in ‘A Bit of a Blur’ said, “It turned out that quite a lot of bills remained unpaid. We owed everybody money. We brought in new accountants, who told us we were staring bankruptcy in the face and were facing prison if we couldn’t come up with the cash to pay the VAT.”
Mike Collins was promptly sacked and David Balfe pulled the necessary strings in order to drag Blur out of the mire. “Mike Collins was a lovely guy who basically cocked up doing all the paperwork.” Balfe told Sounds. “He couldn’t face everybody to admit it and ran away. Nobody could find him! So I sorted things out with a lawyer and an accountant and found them a new manager.”
Blur’s new manager, Chris Morrison’s first action was to set the band up on an American tour in order to raise the £60,000 to clear the debt. Morrison struck a deal with a T-shirt company and signed Blur up for a 44-date, three month tour whereby Blur simply needed to sell enough t-shirts to clear their debt. Although Blur were virtually unknown in the U.S. their label-mates Jesus Jones weren’t, having scored a number one single with ‘Right Here, Right Now’ the previous Summer. With this in mind, SBK, who were both Blur and Jesus Jones’ record label in the States, had no choice but to finance Blur’s tour.
David Balfe: “When things are going well for a band and you’ve got the momentum going forward, something like that just tends to be a hiccup in the road. They owed a bit of money but because the prospects were looking good, we dealt with it temporarily and everything was okay. So it wasn’t a big deal. If their last single had got nowhere and people were talking about dropping them, it would have been cataclysmic for them.”
With this ‘hiccup in the road’ dealt with ‘temporarily’, it appears that Food Records at least still had faith in the band even if certain factions of the music press did not. With this in the background, Blur went into the studio to record their new single, ‘Popscene’.
“What happened was, they were writing stuff that was poppy but they weren’t really a pop band,” ‘Popscene’ producer Steve Lovell told Sounds. “They were an alternative pop band. Smash Hits’ audience was starting to get into them and they were becoming something they didn’t want to become. They wanted to claw a bit of creditability and get back to their original wall of sound because that’s what they had. Playing live they were really exciting and raw and anarchic and they were concerned that they were going in the wrong direction, so they came to me and they said, ‘we want to make a different sort of record, we just want to claw something back’ and that’s how we did ‘Popscene.”
With much of Blur’s musical influence being rooted in the likes of The Jam, The Specials, Madness and The Teardrop Explodes, in retrospect it is of little surprise that a horn section was added to ‘Popscene’, in late 1991/early 1992 however a horn section had rarely been heard on a pop/rock record in the previous ten years.
Steve Lovell: “What you’ve got to realise is that Damon and Graham were massive Julian Cope fans. One of Damon’s all-time-favourite-albums is ‘Fried’, which I produced. So perhaps that was influential in him using the horns. I thought they really worked. They added a real power, an Englishness and that’s what that whole period was all about. It was like arresting music because a lot of people, in the way they sing in terms of accents, was Americanised and the lyrics could be slanted towards that. Then suddenly you were getting people writing stuff about English culture, singing in English voices and ‘Popscene’ was very much the start of it. ‘Popscene’ was very much a kicking against what was happening at the time and Damon being quite cynical about it.”
Andy Ross: “Prior to the recording of ‘Popscene’ we went through a really rough patch and what we felt we needed was some change of direction. The band came up with ‘Popscene’ and I thought, ‘this is just amazing, a really ground breaking song. It’s going to be huge and the band will be enormous and conquer the world. It’ll be a doddle but it turned out to be a disaster really.”
‘Popscene’ appeared to be too English for the Grunge market and too heavy the pop market, and with BBC Radio 1 still wallowing in its pre-Matthew Bannister-shake-up-period, those championing ‘Popscene’ were few and far between.
Blur’s appearance on the cover of the NME on 4th April 1992 may have served the band well had ‘Popscene’s’ reviews been kind. Unfortunately, they were anything but. Single releases within the pages of the NME that particular week were being reviewed by special guests The Beastie Boys who, according to the NME, argued about whether ‘Popscene’ was being played at the correct speed whilst they listened to it. Melody Maker was equally critical calling it ‘a directionless organ-fest in search of a decent chorus.’ The fact that the reviewer seems to have mistaken the horn section for a Hammond organ probably said more about the reviewer than it did the track itself.
Upon reading ‘Popscene’s’ reviews, producer Steve Lovell doubted the decisions he had made whilst recording the track. “My roots were in noisy guitars and that punk ethic and ‘Popscene’ was very much from that perspective for me. That was my background and maybe I’d been irresponsible, maybe this wasn’t the right direction for them.”
On the Sunday following its release, ‘Popscene’ only managed to limp to number 32 on the Official UK Chart. Inevitably the mood in and around the band was downbeat.
Steve Lovell: “Damon didn’t want to be 32 in the charts, no matter what he said. He wanted to be number one.” Lovell himself was not surprised by the tracks poor chart performance however, “Obviously, when you do something, you want it to be popular. There’s always that there but if you listen to that track and look at that video and think of what they’d done before, you can’t imagine them taking a big part of their audience along with them. You can imagine teen-y sort of girls looking at it and going, ‘what the hell is this?’ It was so different, so I wasn’t surprised. I think the record company on the other hand weren’t too happy.”
If Steve Lovell was concerned that he had been irresponsible upon ‘Popscene’s’ failure, Food Records founder Dave Balfe was worried for the bands future. “When you’ve got a new band and they’ve had a big hit, you always think, ‘is this a one-hit-wonder’. You always want the latest single to be doing bigger than the previous one and if it ever goes (in the chart) less you think, ‘well if this drops twenty places, maybe the next ones going to be in the 50s and the one after that the 70s.”
Andy Ross told Sounds how both he and the band expected ‘Popscene’ to fair far better than number 32. “My expectation, and certainly the bands, was that it was going to be top ten and that and it was going to be huge. We were so confident about it that we had a song that was the second part of the attack called ‘Never Clever’ which was in a similar-ish vein and we thought, ‘well that’s a good tune too so we’ll have a whopping great hit with ‘Popscene’ and quickly get in with another belter…except that ‘Popscene’ didn’t connect at all and at that time we thought, ‘we’ve just got to stop.’ We didn’t really have a plan-B.”
Following the failure of ‘Popscene’ Blur set out on an eleven-date UK tour entitled ‘Rollercoaster’ where they accompanied My Bloody Valentine, Dinosaur Jr and The Jesus and Mary Chain on a 1960s style package tour. Blur very much being the pop element of the line-up.
In the lead up to Rollercoaster, Damon gave a telling interview to the NME’s Stuart Maconie in which he bemoaned the lack of ambition within British Indie with his quote on ‘noisy guitar groups looking very satisfied with their number 18.’ He also discussed his own musical discoveries over the previous twelve months. “I hadn’t bought a record until a year ago. Then I started going out with my current girlfriend and she had a massive record collection and as I started to buy them, slowly I began to find things out. I began to see all these little coincidences where we were linked with bands that we worshipped. And I began to realise that fuck, we are something. We are part of a heritage of British bands, we are somebody.”
The ‘current girlfriend’ that Damon referred to was Justine Frischmann who at this point was both the former rhythm guitarist in Suede and the ex-girlfriend of Suede front man Brett Anderson.
Speaking to ‘The Last Party’ author John Harris, Justine Frischmann told Harris that ‘a plan was hatched’ to create a much needed British response to grunge. “Somewhere along the line, it occurred to us that Nirvana were out there, and people were very interested in American music, and there should be some sort of manifesto for the return of Britishness. We didn’t think that Nirvana said anything to us about our lives. I wasn’t remotely interested. That’s where the manifesto came from.”
A manifesto that came just as Blur were about to set out on their mind-boggling thirteen week tour of the United States. Inevitably, the tour only served to highlight the disdain Albarn felt for all things American. “I missed people queuing up in shops, I missed people saying ‘goodnight’ on the BBC. I missed having at least 15 minutes between commercial breaks. And I missed people having respect for my geographical roots, because Americans don’t care if you’re from Inverness or Land’s End. I missed everything about England,” Damon also told John Harris in ‘The Last Party.’
As Blur played to a bunch of genuinely uninterested American audiences, the band found nothing better to do than consume as much alcohol as possible. “We were drinking obsessively” Damon told Stuart Maconie in Blur biography ‘3862 Days’. “Ridiculous amounts of booze every day…it was relentless and depressing.” Graham Coxon told Maconie that the band were ‘very, very close to imploding’ at that point.
Each Blur member would be drunk during radio interviews in which stations would assume the band were from Manchester. Dave Rowntree told Maconie that at one point ‘every member of the band had a black eye’ through fighting with each other.
On 24th May 1992, Blur found themselves in Atlanta staying in the same hotel as The Beastie Boys. Blur contacted the Beastie Boys rooms and invited them out for a drink, only to be promptly told to ‘fuck off’. It appeared that Blur were not wanted on either side of the Atlantic.
The annoyance and contempt that Damon felt for both grunge and American culture flooding into Britain only heightened during the U.S. tour. The melting pot of shopping malls, fast food and theme pubs only increased Damon’s desire to remind people of the importance of both British music and British culture.
When Blur’s American tour finally ended in Orlando on 29th May, one would have assumed that the band could return to Britain to rest, take stock and set to work on Damon’s desire to get rid of grunge. Blur returned only to find that Suede, having released their debut single ‘The Drowners’ two weeks before, were being lauded in the music press as the best new band in Britain.
Andy Ross: “Suede had come on the scene and the press decided that they were the new darlings and called them ‘The Best New Band in Britain’. Damon had nicked Brett Anderson’s girlfriend so there was a lot of animosity between the two bands. The press decided that we were the bad guys and Suede were the people’s champions. For those reasons Damon had added incentive to get back into the fray.”
Just as Suede were becoming the darlings of the music press and grunge was huge on both sides of the Atlantic, what Damon should have been doing – stealing British kids away from grunge and getting them to take notice of British music again, was being done by his girlfriends-ex.
Although Albarn would be loath to admit it, in their own way Suede too were reclaiming a sense of Britishness in their music, albeit more slanted towards the glam-rock leanings of the early 70s. “I think the whole Suede thing was very much to do with Britishness” Justine Frischmann told John Harris, “and I carried that scene onto Damon and told him about it and he took it a step further.”
Blur had little choice at this point but to carry on regardless. A selection of European Summer Festival dates was followed by one genuinely disastrous gig on 23rd July 1992 when Blur found themselves on the same bill as Suede for a benefit gig in aid of the homeless charity Shelter at London’s Town and Country Club. Blur were the gigs headliners, followed by Suede as the main support. Blur spent the day getting drunk in Camden haunt, The Good Mixer and were well and truly legless by the time they took to the stage. Albarn’s opening line to the audience that evening: “We’re so fuckin’ shit, you might as well go home now. This could be the worst gig you’ve ever seen.” Suede by comparison, are said to have played an astonishing set.
The following day Blur were summoned to David Balfe’s Food Records office in Camden where they were told that after the failure of ‘Popscene’, their disastrous American tour and now their drunken escapade at the Town and Country Club, that one more step out of line and they would be dropped by the label. Their career, in effect, over.
With their tails between their legs, Blur set to work on recording their second album in the Autumn of 1992. Tentatively entitled ‘England Vs America’ before the less confrontational title ‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’ was arrived at.
An attempt to use former XTC member Andy Partridge as producer was quickly shelved before the band eventually began working with the producer of much of their early work, Stephen Street.
In the December, Food Records’ executives Andy Ross and David Balfe arrived at Maison Rouge Studios to listen to what the band had recorded so far. “Damon pretty much wrote the basis of what was to become ‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’ ” Andy Ross says. “He presented it to us just before Christmas ’92. That’s when David Balfe lost his relationship with the band and fair play to him. He stuck his neck out and said that there weren’t any singles on the record and he was quite right. He was prepared to confront Damon and say, ‘we can’t take this into EMI, it hasn’t got any hit singles on it. Ergo – they’ll drop you.’ He had a fair point and Damon didn’t like that.”
Damon went back to Colchester over the Christmas period and wrote ‘For Tomorrow’ on Christmas morning. Blur then went back into the studio in January 1993 to record it and then presented it to David Balfe. “We went ‘Great! that’s exactly what we’re looking for” says Balfe “and we loved ‘For Tomorrow’. I still think it’s one of their greatest ever singles but then the American record label said, ‘we need a second hit single’ and the band got totally fucked off with us at that point but then Damon went away and wrote ‘Chemical World.”
Andy Ross describes ‘For Tomorrow’ and ‘Chemical World’ as ‘saving the bands bacon pretty much.’ “They were both modest hits and they were sufficient to put them back in play really and also reposition themselves from being see as southern art school twats to being seen as valid songwriters. You know, it was a bit Kinks-y, there’s no question about that but then all of a sudden the whole concept of this record made sense. It all sounded as though it clung together as a body of work.”
In the April of 1993, ‘For Tomorrow’ was indeed released as a single. It reached number 26 in the UK charts and although fairing slightly better than ‘Popscene’, Blur were still deemed uncool. NME and Melody Maker were none too enamoured with ‘For Tomorrow’ and although acknowledging that Blur were trying something new, neither publication seemed to understand the stance or direction that the band were taking.
Blur drummer Dave Rowntree said in 3862 Days: “The British music press had turned away from anything going on in Britain. Nothing in England counted and that really pissed us off. It’s one thing to be called crap, but it’s another to not even think you’re counted, not important enough.”
The following month, as promotion began for the release of ‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’, Blur found themselves the victims of misplaced outrage after the NME accused the band of flirting with fascist imagery. The image in question was one of Blur dressed in Doctor Marten’s, Fred Perry t-shirts and turned up jeans with a Great Dane on a short leash and the phrase ‘British Image 1’ sprayed on the wall behind them. The image gained a reaction similar to that aimed at Morrissey when he danced, Union Jack in hand, during a gig in Finsbury Park the previous Summer.
Blur’s re-appropriation of Britishness was gaining the wrong kind reaction before it had even had chance to breathe. In actual fact the image was a reaction against the self-pity and self-loathing of grunge. What Blur were aligning themselves with was positive, exuberant, driven and through Albarn’s lyrics, both cheeky and humorous. Their image was clipped and angular; taking in mod, rude boy and skinhead (before skinhead became a dirty word). It was all that was great about British pop culture and it was everything that Blur had consumed over the last eighteen months.
On10th May 1993, ‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’ was finally released. The artistic statement meaning more than the actual sum of the albums parts, the image and aesthetic around the album being far more relevant than some of the music. Reviews in the music press were favourable without being ecstatic. The album peaked at number 15 and the murmur of a turning tide in British youth culture was bubbling somewhere beneath the surface.
Blur’s tour in support of ‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’ unexpectedly became a sell out. Alex James said in ‘3862 Days’, “We played in Italy and Kids turned up on mopeds. The mods had arrived.”
Chris Morrison: “It was a strange situation because although no single went above 25 in the chart, things felt like they were moving forward.”
The turning point in Blur’s career for many was at 1993’s Reading Festival. On Saturday 28th August, as The The delivered a particularly self-indulgent set on the main stage 10,000 people packed into the Melody Maker tent to watch Blur.
“They were astonishingly good and everyone was just raving about them,” Andy Ross told Sounds while Alex James in ‘A Bit of a Blur’ called the show ‘probably the most important gig we ever played.’
After the gig a jubilant Damon Albarn found himself back at the Ramada Hotel flanked by the editors of both Melody Maker and NME. Suddenly the music press wanted to know Blur after eighteen months of nonchalance towards them.
Andy Ross: “Just after Reading, and this is five months after the album came out, Select Magazine put them on the front cover for no apparent reason other than saying, ‘oops, we all missed out here, we fucked up. We didn’t champion this album but they are great and we should acknowledge that now.”
In the September, filled with a newfound confidence in what they were doing, Blur went back into the studio and began recording what became their real career-changing album, ‘Parklife.’ Songs like ‘Bank Holiday’, ‘Girls and Boys’ and the albums title track were already being aired at Blur gigs during the latter part of 1993.
By the latter part of 1994 Blur would be the most popular, and through ‘Parklife’, the most critically acclaimed band in the country. Without ‘Popscene’ being in place to kick start both Blur’s change of direction and what became known as Britpop, the likes of Pulp, Elastica, Oasis, Supergrass, Dodgy, The Boo Radleys (etc etc etc) would have, without doubt, experienced their musical careers in a very different way.