Like so many Britpop bands, Blur formed after its members met in art school, coming together in London in the late ’80s. Originally named Seymour, the group became Blur after a Food Records A&R man pooh-poohed the earlier moniker. The group changed it, signed to Food, and a couple of months later, released its first single, “She’s So High.”
A blend of the psych-rock coming out of Manchester at the time and more traditional Beatles-esque pop cuts, Blur’s tunes were and still are quintessentially English. That’s something the group played on around its inception, with press photos capturing the band both sporting mod clothing and partaking in a pre-war tea party. They read as particularly posh contrasted with their American counterparts of the era, including grungy, gritty, and forlorn acts like Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Blur was lush, proper, and entirely aboveboard, despite what some of its songs suggest.
That dichotomy is part of what helped the group gain a foothold in both Britain and America, alongside the strength of tracks like “There’s No Other Way” and “Sing.” The 1994 album Parklife took the group to another level entirely in Europe, with lead single “Girls & Boys” landing at No. 5 on the U.K. Singles chart and No. 59 on the Billboard Hot 100. The group’s highest-charting single in the U.S., “Girls & Boys” summarized the group’s cheeky take on modern life and love—or, at least, sex.
Subsequent 1995 album The Great Escape found Blur embroiled in a press-fueled battle with a bigger, more successful British band: Oasis. That band’s members were painted as working-class heroes, in the wake of the massive success of (What’s The Story) Morning Glory?; Blur ended up looking like the Gallagher brothers’ posh cousins, despite the band’s relatively blue-collar background.
Mired in shit and tired of the grind, Blur almost broke up in 1996, only to refocus and slightly tweak its sound. The result, 1997’s Blur, drew on guitarist Graham Coxon’s love of acts like Pavement and frontman Damon Albarn’s love of club music, earning the band a hit U.S. single, “Song 2.” One of those tracks that was in every commercial and movie at the time and still pops up constantly during sporting events, “Song 2” is enthusiasm laid to tape—albeit the kind of enthusiasm that hasn’t really aged well over time.
Blur moved away from Britpop even more with 1999’s 13, which soars on the strength of tracks like “Tender” and “Coffee & TV,” the first single to feature Coxon on lead vocals. Though the move was meant to satiate the guitarist, he left the group a few years later during the recording sessions for 2003’s Think Tank. Blur soldiered on for a bit before properly reuniting in 2009, headlining a concert in London’s Hyde Park. A triumphant return to the scene, that show led to subsequent appearances at Glastonbury and Coachella, as well as a lifetime achievement nod at the 2012 Brit Awards. The Magic Whip, Blur’s first record in 12 years, was released late last month to mixed reviews.
Blur probably won’t make the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, but it’s one of England’s most important bands. Sublimely skilled at capturing the sound of its era, be that the early ’90s or the mid ’10s, Blur makes complicated music for complicated listeners, all while making life sound easy.
An act that always plays to its strengths, Blur released quite a few of its best songs as singles—in the U.K., at least. Some of those tracks make up the basis of this Power Hour, though U.S. newbies should find the 59-minute long mix to be a good introduction to the band’s expansive catalog.
Parklife’s title track blends Blur’s general sense of fun and freedom with spoken-word verses recited by comedic British actor Phil Daniels. Like Blur itself, “Parklife” is concerned with social order, day jobs, and the village green. Since its release, it’s become a popular anthem at British soccer matches, and Blur played the song at the closing ceremonies of the 2012 Summer Olympics.
One of the singles from Blur’s self-titled LP, “On Your Own” was overshadowed by the much more popular “Song 2.” A far-better cut, “On Your Own” has also aged pretty well. Albarn’s lyrics, which tell the story of a traveling man who’s using music, nightclubs, and drugs to avoid the horrors of everyday life, are still poignant and timely. The singsong chorus and stomping beat also make “On Your Own” a hell of a live track.
Parklife opener “Girls & Boys” is Blur’s most commercially successful song. With a single cover ripped from a condom wrapper, it makes sense that “Girls & Boys” is a track about carefree sex (and its consequences) in the swingin’ ’90s. A club anthem even now, “Girls & Boys” preaches the virtues of true love—or, at least, truly loving the one you’re with at any given moment.
The first track on this mix from The Great Escape, “Country House” was written by Blur at the peak of its Britpop success. The song, about a rat-race-mired man escaping the city and spending some time in an expensive version of the titular abode, is made all the better by its accompanying video, directed by artist Damien Hirst, which features tributes to both Benny Hill and “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Hirst, a schoolmate of Albarn and Coxon, is now reportedly the United Kingdom’s richest living artist.
Though it’s a solid LP, Blur’s Modern Life Is Rubbish is perhaps best viewed as a whole rather than as a collection of individual singles. Even without its sonic counterparts, “Turn It Up” still shines, a great encapsulation of the burgeoning Britpop sound circulating around its release. All hazy guitars, harmonies, and reverb, “Turn It Up” is one of Blur’s great little earworms: Once that chorus is in your head, it’s not going anywhere.
Though Damon Albarn has since denounced Blur’s debut LP, Leisure, the group still performs “She’s So High,” so they must not hate it that much. While other Leisure cuts are pure pop, “She’s So High” is slightly more navel-gazing, reflected in the accompanying music video. A track about love and/or obsession, “She’s So High” could have been an Oasis song, had Blur not written it first.
Another cut from Parklife, “Tracy Jacks” finds Blur once again delving into the world of mandatory civil participation. Why be a slave to the man, after all, when you could be doing something more personally fulfilling? As Coxon once told The Guardian, Parklife “epitomizes what Blur were about—having fun and doing exactly what you want to do.” That’s something that plays out on “Tracy Jacks,” as the titular protagonist, a steadily employed civil servant, finds his “seams… splitting” as “he’s getting past 40.” After a unannounced departure and a trip to the sea, where he “threw his clothes in the water… and ran around naked,” Jacks is subsequently picked up by the police and escorted back home, presumably to resume his normal, boring life.
A six-minute epic accompanied by one of the cutest music videos in the history of the world, “Coffee & TV” was both written and voiced by Coxon. Inspired by his battle with alcoholism, the track is quieter and more singular than previous cuts by Blur, making it stand out both on its album, 13, and among the rest of the group’s catalog. Lyrically, “Coffee & TV” is also a departure, with Coxon’s personal lines about isolation, depression, and his attempt to “start all over again” striking closer to the heart than most of the band’s work.
Another single from Leisure, “There’s No Other Way” is a bit of a nod to the Madchester scene that was still swirling around the time of its release. Full of druggy noodling and Happy Mondays-style tambourine, “There’s No Other Way” is Blur finding its sound. Essential listening when attempting to figure out the group’s musical genealogy, “There’s No Other Way” isn’t Blur’s best song, but it’s an important one. (Also, Albarn’s hair in the video is hilariously hideous.)
A track that might be best known for its slot on the Trainspotting soundtrack, “Sing” is one of Blur’s great anthemic cuts. Opening with swirling feedback and staccato piano beats before succumbing to a Spiritualized-style haze, “Sing” once again finds the group questioning the social contract or inquiring, as Albarn sings, as to “what’s the worth of all this.” Another great live cut, “Sing” is an old Blur song that hasn’t aged a bit.
Though its lyrics—a tribute to the British Isles penned by an ailing Albarn—are lovely, the strength of “This Is A Low” comes in its instrumentation. A swirling and epic closer to Parklife, “This Is A Low” finds Blur once again embracing its potential magnitude and delving into a somewhat challenging sonic landscape. It’s not a pop song, but who said it had to be?
The almost-eight-minute opener to 13, “Tender” is the sonic equivalent to Albarn and company flat-out saying, “Hey, we’re not just ‘Song 2.’” With backing vocals provided by the London Community Gospel Choir, the soulful “Tender” is full of plainly American influences, from country to gospel to blues. It’s something of a departure for Blur, but worked out splendidly.
Another soaring epic, “The Universal” is the perfect closer to any Blur live show or—in this case—any Blur Power Hour. With a science-fiction theme and nods to Stanley Kubrick, “The Universal” is Blur taking its sound and launching it into outer space. Understandably, it’s not as upbeat as a “Girls & Boys” or “Parklife,” but what “The Universal” lacks in pep it makes up in breadth and density.
Running time: 59 minutes