the year is 1994. parklife is #1 in the charts. blur are in conversation with i-D. read it here!
As Blur release their Sam Wrench-directed New World Towers documentary chronicling the 7-year run since their 2008 reunion, we look back to their 1994 interview in i-D’s The Saturday Night Issue. Complete with boy band pin-up centrefold, as Blur...
London lads on the pull or just taking the piss? Blur are this year's Brit pop sensations, defining a bold New Englishness out of smart jumpers, sharp haircuts and some serious attitude. Welcome to their modern world…
"So many things get lost on tape, don't you think?" Damon Albarn is curled up on the sofa, looking wistful, dreamy and shagged-out. "The day when we have video magazines will be brilliant. You'll just turn the page and there'll be this real live-action interview."
Alex James stirs beside Damon. "It will happen, won't it?"
"Of course." Damon stretches out a perfectly-formed pink yawn.
"Whole interviews, as they actually happened."
Here's what actually happened.
On a sumptuous sofa in Fulham's Matrix Studios, the tangle of arms, legs, skinny bodies and hangovers that pass for one-half of Blur this sunny afternoon are draped sloppily over the upholstery. They're touching each other. Despite the trainers and the trace of stubble, it looks good. It's pure knuckle-biting sex. Bassist Alex, looking like one of the schoolboy extras fancied by Rupert Everett in Another Country, and motor-mouthed main man Damon, the thinking person's bit of crumpet, are weathering the after effects of being this year's Chosen Ones, this year's golden boys, this year's graduates to the Premier League of superstar parties and super-sonic next-day paybacks. There have been casualties amongst the troops: drummer Dave Rowntree and guitarist Graham Coxton are AWOL. Last night's Pulp Fiction premiere and the following INXS party are mere symptoms of how desirable Blur have become.
"From the Endsleigh Lig to the Premier Lig," laughs Damon, "You have to cherish the novelty. You know, all the supermodels were there and they were very friendly. They were all snogging us, and they all said they had a copy of Parklife and really liked it. Part of me thinks it's very scary when people like that own a copy of my record."But you let some of them kiss you. What's the problem?
"There's no problem. I think supermodels are alright, although they're slightly sinister in a way, I don't think they're stupid. I thought Helena Christensen was lovely. Have I still got her lipstick on my mouth? I thought I did earlier."Inspecting Damon's mouth at close range, there are no lipstick traces. Chapping, maybe. Alex teases: "Damon, I think it might be a bit of The Herp!"
"Shut up Alex," Damon laughs. "I think supermodels work hard. Come on: they get drunk, get up with a hangover in the morning and have to get on a plane, looking good, and then spend all day in front of a photographer who's probably a lech. It's like being a popstar really."Rock-stocracy parties and premieres, where models pinch your bum, Simon LeBon includes you in his round, Neil Tennant suggests you make beautiful music together and you find yourself shit-faced with your head in Dave Stewart's fibre-optics carpeting are a symptom of Making It. Although they aren't talking yachts and tax shelters yet, Blur have been raking in the invites. But Damon and Alex are not totally won over.
"These are not our new mates," Damon snaps. "We're an oddity to them. If you do an album which sells well in this country, you slowly get accepted into that. They're all slumming it, and we still haven't got any bloody money." Alex chimes in: "It's ridiculous. The bit parts in our lives are played by famous actors."
Most people never get to go somewhere like that. What's it like?
"Good!" chirps Damon. "As I said, everyone was really friendly. I don't do coke, so I don't get caught up in any of the seediness of it all or the crappy chat. I just get drunk: three Long Island ice teas, a bottle of champagne and ten pints. It was the first time I've ever been to anything like that, and I felt like I did when I went to my first backstage party. Wow… People! First times are always special."
Was the first time you heard Blur as special as that? Or was it as mundane as a night down your local? Parts of their ascent are familiar territory and other parts best forgotten, as Damon would be the first to point out. Arriving with their baggy anthem There's No Other Way in 1990, Blur quickly followed the mega-hit with their debut LP Leisure, a record nobody, including Damon, likes that much. "I cannot believe I was so lazy," he says now. There were management problems, record company problems and tour problems, all of which are too boring to document here. Things were also pretty low personally, what with being eclipsed by Suede, who sacked their rhythm guitarist, Justine Frischmann, for leaving her then boyfriend Brett Anderson for Damon. Things were shit. That meant no trendy fucker in London wanted to be caught dead of alive speaking to them, and the band went into hibernation and estivation to fashion their second LP, Modern Life Is Rubbish. The Isolation worked, and the hits, the credibility and the respect came flooding in. Blur fashioned teenaged guitar pop with brains, and referenced British cultural signposts like no-one since The Jam or The Smiths. The music grabbed the fans, and Damon's quote-machine persona took over the headlines. Things became pleasant again.
Then, Britain went Blur mad. After a year consolidating their position, touring and watching Justine get sweet revenge as leader of the lauded Elastica, Blur attacked with Parklife, perhaps the essential record of 1994. As au courant as this morning's paper, Parklife hasn't been out of the Top Ten since its release last spring. Its laddish-yet-intelligent view of Britain as a seedy amalgam of Center Parcs, transvestite civil servants and lads on the skive, the piss and the pull struck a chord across the board in this, the Year Of The Yob. The whole concept makes Damon giggle. "John Major should love me. I'm such a good boy, really. A magazine voted me one of the top ten yobs in Britain. And do you know who was number one? Phil Daniels! Now that is yob culture! Fucking hell! How can John Major say something like that when the conservative party have been anti-culture for the past decade?"
"It seems a bit of an oxymoron," sniffs Alex. "And it's weird for a Prime Minster to use slang, which 'yob' is, to denounce it. He is using the language of a yob."
So is everyone else. Whilst John Major whinnies about a moral decline the Tories' "individualistic" policies have largely made possible, and blames the dispossessed for aggravating it, yobs, lads and creeps have become irresistible to the elegant-slumming middle class media. With the success of, amongst other things, Loaded, Fever Pitch, Oasis' bawling-and-brawling Gallagher brothers and Blur themselves, you'd think a large section of Britain's population had never hit on the joys of lager, football and cheap bits of flesh before. Damon, who has celebrated all of these in his lyrics, as well as the downmarket thrills of greyhound racing and holiday clap, is not uncomfortable in his current vocation as honorary spokes-lad.
"You can talk to a yob who'll give you a bigoted, slightly racist, macho view, or you can talk to a middle-class voyeur like myself who will try to articulate it all. The strongest thing in British culture, for better or for worse, is that the nation identifies with gangs. Understand, it's not about gangs with guns, it's gangs with cans of lager. This kind of thing has always been around. The whole Madchester thing was exactly the same, but it's gone country-wide now."
British lads, however, are very soft and colourful compared to, say, American rednecks. Damon nods as vigorously as the hangover allows. "Yes. They like their bonding, their music and their fancy clothes. There isn't the same kind of machismo going on there. They're a bit more charming and stylish, our lads. They are the renaissance men and it is a love thing. The yobs of Britain are actually very feminine, which I find interesting."
"This is a true story. Four of five months ago I went with Phil Daniels (the star of Quadrephenia who guests on Parklife's title track) to see Chelsea. We were in one of the hardcore Chelsea pubs before the game, and this guys comes up and goes, "Ere, Damon! Got your album mate, alright?' 'Ere. Phil, alright, fuckin' 'ell, it's Phil Daniels.' And we were talking to the guy for a while and he goes, 'How'd you get to know each other, then?' and Phil goes, 'Well, we live together." The guy goes, 'What-you-mean-you-live-together?' Then Phil goes, 'He's my boyfriend'. I was shitting myself, but it was fantastic. 'Well, you're Chelsea, so it's all right then, what you do in private is like, your business.' I love Phil Daniels. He embodies the idea of the articulate but helpless yob."
The idea of yobs is always attractive to people who aren't stuck in the lifestyle, who can dip in and out at will. Damon knows yob culture entices him for that very reason. He can turn it off. "I like the idea of being a renaissance human being. I find it very easy to go into any situation, although I don't really belong to any of them. I prefer not to, really. But then I get accused of being noncommittal and detached, which isn't what I am. Just semi-detached."
Blur haven't really offered a political identity to the public. Do you have any political affiliations?
Damon sighs. "I think I do. My parents were so liberal, but even that is so blurred, so to speak. I will vote for a labour government, definitely." Even though Tony Blair has not clarified his position on the Criminal Justice Bill? "I can't really take these issues as the big issues. I know everyone else does, but they're only symptoms of much larger issues. Pop politics is about taking very obvious things and not really thinking about it. I try to avoid being that crass. Obviously our civil rights are important but Britain is such a liberal, non-committal place that it's quite good here. If you're into politics, you should be totally involved in politics. All these sort of pseudo-political bands do not really say anything. They're not really thinking it through. Energies which should be used for entertaining become part of a mindless rhetoric. I always thought that being in a band was about lots of people jumping up and down and singing. Together. In that sense I think I'm true to my politics."
Perhaps Damon Albarn is unique in realising that most political pop is a blind alley, and the issues it sells to a dissatisfied and angry public form the basis of careers and industries as repellent as the systems they mean to oust. Besides which, Damon has already done his stint, training as a social worker. In this sense, Damon feels Blur are out on their own limb. "There's a real vein of people who really object to us. For some reason they think we're not playing the game properly, that we smile too much for the genre of music we're in," he says.
There are so many ways to play the pop game these days that we might as well dispense with the rules altogether. This year's crop of trendy, influential bands (Blur, Oasis, Suede, Pulp, Elastica, the Manics) are part of a renaissance (to use Damon's terminology) of British pop, combines with a cutting-edge style that both underscores and redefines the essential Britishness of the groups themselves. Damon's look - suede trainers, skinny-leg jeans and modernist tummy tickling jumpers - is copies by sharp boys and girls the country over, a sign of lasting lifestyle impact. The Britishness it represents - the steaminess of youth copping off at the village disco, the beauty and passion that crawls from the wreckage of the seediest of new-town estates, the ritual of you and your mates losing the plot completely - is dumb fun going hand-in-hand with clever language and heavy-duty thinking. The new indie elite, if you will, give young people something to aspire to after a few years of the downwards spiral of American junk culture. We, the people, argue about their merits in the pub and the sitting room, whilst the bands themselves fight it out on the front pages, like the Bloomsbury Set you can dance to. "We feel completely apart from everyone else of our generation, besides Pulp and Elastica, because they're the only other bands that seem willing to take the piss out of themselves. And, by the same token, they're the only other bands that I have any respect for," Damon explains.
Five years on the pop trajectory, not all of them filled with accolades, has made Damon wise to the process. It means he can ignore the critics who call Blur 'New Mod Casuals' without looking closely at their music, which is a genius amalgam of tasteful influences - Wire, Bowie, The Jam, Adam Ant - that winds up being much more essential than the sum of its parts. "Once you've hit on something singular, it seems you're not allowed to do anything different or divert anyone's interests. Because of this, the majority of British bands are not able to sustain themselves these days. They do really well on their first album and have lost it by the time the second one comes along. After our first album, there was the possibility that Blur would come to an abrupt end. We objected to that, and it made us into the band we are today."
Another influence that cannot be shortchanged is the presence of Justine Frischmann. Together for the past four years, Damon and Justine make an unusual couple in a world where allegedly-liberal boyrockers have relationships with younger, malleable females; the 'Tiny Girls' eulogised by Iggy Pop. "I am lucky to have a very equal relationship with my girlfriend," he says. "It's a mad household. Indie equality! She absolutely lays into me when I do something naff. I don't think I'd be as tasteful as I sometimes am, without her. The idea of being a 'new man' isn't really an issue, but I suppose it's inevitable because men are not usually the way I am."
Damon's loyalties to his girlfriend also mean it's inevitable that Suede come in for a bashing. Surely, four years is enough time to recover from any emotional wounds. After all, the parties concerned go to the same places, go to each others' houses and have lots of friends in common. "I think Suede are digging their own grave at the moment, and there's a bit too much reverb in their lives," says Damon. "The wrong drugs. I think Blur seem to be out on their own as far as not encouraging people to fuck up their lives with drugs. The reality of drugs is that they affect everyone in very different ways. There are a lot of people, myself included, who get really ill if they take Class A drugs. And heroin seems to be so bloody fashionable at the moment. I think heroin is shit. Damon's vehemence is coloured by more than basic common sense. When he was a small child in Leytonstone, his artist parents regularly sheltered friends who were heroin addicts, whose luck and money had run out. "There were no drugs in my house at all, because my parents never used them. From a very early age I knew that these things were bad for you. I saw these people at the non-glamorous end of taking drugs, which is when you have a kid who you can't feed. I can vividly remember the looks on their faces. It was horrible. It all gets very sordid, very quickly."
Both Damon and Alex readily admit the past year's good fortune has made them magnanimous. But is the accolades and the attention stop, will Blur become the sort of jaded has-beens people cross the street to avoid? No. Parklife's follow-up is in the demo stage, relations with the Americans are going well, and there's always the promise of another bizarre social encounter. Damon's met most of his idols, people like Adam Ant ("I think he fancies Justine because he keeps ringing her up. He's cruising for a bruising!") and Paul Weller ("He's lost it lyrically, but I still have a lot of time for him.") but still no Martin Amis, who asked for a copy of Parklife after all and sundry called the LP a sonic London Fields. "No other author of his day has actually made a mark. I would love to meet him."
Meanwhile, Alex is conducting a further post-mortem of last night's activities, moaning, "I've just remembered! We put all the drinks on Dave Stewart's tab! Oh noooo!" Damon laughs, but it's time to get off the sofa and get on with life, because that's what being in Blur is all about. Bruised but not broken, Damon wobbles toward the door. "I'm really not bothered about things like the next record," he says smiling. "Although I liked to be rewarded for the hard work, I don't think people will realise what we are until we're… gone. Winning while you're still winning is the wrong way around. Know what I mean?"
Text Suzy Corrigan
Photography Donald Milne
Taken from The Saturday Night Issue, i-D No. 135, December 1994