The Student Playlist

Showcasing the Best New Music, Curating the Classics

CULT ’90s: Blur – ‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’

Influenced: Supergrass, Idlewild, The Libertines, Kaiser Chiefs, The Cribs, Arctic Monkeys, Japandroids, Peace, Gengahr, Blossoms, Rat Boy

Influenced by: The Beatles, The Kinks, The Who, Syd Barrett, David Bowie, The Jam, XTC, Julian Cope, The Smiths

Looking back at the trajectory of Blur’s career, their Britpop-defining success in the mid-Nineties and their millions of album and single sales, it’s difficult to believe that they were once in danger of being dropped by their label, going bust and fading into oblivion. However, that’s exactly the position they found themselves in by mid-1992. Although they had briefly risen to prominence in April 1991 with breezy breakout hit ‘There’s No Other Way’, a Madchester-indebted affair that entered the Top 10, and their subsequent debut album Leisure, the group found themselves on the brink in less than a year.

Subsequent single ‘Bang’ had belly-flopped in the charts, and Blur’s profile faded almost as quickly as it emerged. They nearly went broke due to questionable management from their small indie label Food, and were forced to tour America purely to stay afloat, trying to sell T-shirts to a public that, in the aftermath of Nirvana’s Nevermind, couldn’t have been less interested in a bunch of post-baggy merchants from England. Helplessly, Blur looked on as the zeitgeist slipped away from them.

However, their second album Modern Life Is Rubbish not only got their career back on track, it was one of the first pushes in a massive momentum shift, along with Suede’s debut album released a matter of weeks before, that made British guitar music fashionable again, just at the point at which it looked like a spent force. Don’t forget, in the gap between the end of the acid house scene and the beginning of Britpop, 1992 was a dark time indeed for British indie, with bands like Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine and Ned’s Atomic Dustbin touted as saviours (*shudders*).

READ MORE: Blur’s singles, ranked From Worst To Best

While it may not be Blur’s most famous album, without Modern Life Is Rubbish, pop history would have been very different. No Parklife, no ‘Country House’ or Britpop wars, no Gorillaz, and British guitar music would unquestionably look very different in 2018. It’s also an interesting thought experiment to consider that, if Albarn’s plan had not worked, Blur would be nothing more than a musical footnote whose sole legacy would be ‘There’s No Other Way’ – a song that would probably simply pop up near the end of disc two of countless ‘Madchester’ compilations.

BACKGROUND

Just as triumph and inspiration often arrives in the face of adversity, it was the trauma of that ill-fated American tour that contained the genus of Modern Life Is Rubbish. Conceived of as a musical and pop-cultural reaction to the prevalence of American grunge, and the mindless model of consumerism they saw encroaching on life back in Britain, Damon Albarn plotted and executed a complete overhaul of Blur’s paradigm. Taking the album’s title from a piece of graffiti he had seen on London’s Bayswater Road, Albarn felt the slogan was “the most significant comment on popular culture since ‘Anarchy In The UK’.”

“Nothing in England counted and that really pissed us off,” Albarn recalled six years later. “So we decided to make a record as English as possible; a record full of English references and English cultural icons.”

Ideology, image and music all became resolutely British-focussed. Albarn’s subject matter took inspiration from great English pop lyricists like The Kinks’ Ray Davies, The Jam’s Paul Weller and XTC’s Andy Partridge, focussing on characters and settings. Aside from a questionable photoshoot flirting with normally right-wing iconography – of the band wearing brogues and posing with a bulldog titled ‘British Image #1’ –  the promotional campaign steered clear of the obvious pitfalls of potentially jingoistic flag-waving. More importantly, it was completely different to anything else around at the time.

Commercially speaking, it’s worth appreciating that Modern Life Is Rubbish was an incredibly risky album to have made in the context of 1992, a time when shoegaze and grunge were the predominant trends in the British charts. It was conceived and written well before Suede’s debut had helped turn the industry’s attention to the potential of British bands raiding the country’s musical history for inspiration, in the way that Blur were doing. Food must have been concerned at Albarn sticking to his guns in such a way, particularly after the non-album single ‘Popscene’, a brilliant but profoundly unfashionable retro mod-punk belter, had limped in at a lowly no.32 in March that year.

SUBSTANCE

As ever, true genius wins out in the end, and Modern Life Is Rubbish became a slow-burning success. The end result was melodic and lavishly produced, featuring brass, woodwind elements and backing vocalists, and a much more diverse collection of songs. Thematically, Albarn investigated the dreams, traditions and prejudices of the English working and middle classes in the immediate aftermath of Thatcher’s government – a mile away from the nihilism and self-obsessed ennui of post-Nirvana grunge. The American art-rock leanings of guitarist Graham Coxon, always Blur’s secret weapon, slotted in surprisingly well alongside the English aesthetic, and ensured that his ability to provide sonic context for Albarn’s words wasn’t underused (as it was by the time of the mockney-isms of The Great Escape just less than three years later).

The jaw-droppingly beautiful opening track ‘For Tomorrow’, is the most obvious expression of the new approach, where ‘retro’ could be applied to point the way to the future. Having recorded the bulk of the album by the end of 1992, Albarn had been told by Food label head David Balfe that it lacked a single, and was told to go back to the drawing board and write a hit. ‘For Tomorrow’ came to him in a flash of inspiration as he sat in front of the piano at his parents’ house early on Christmas Day morning, as he nursed a hangover.

Brazenly lifting from T.Rex with its opening line (“he’s a twentieth century boy”) and utilising London landmarks for its psychic space (“But we’re lost on the Westway / So we hold each other tightly / And we can wait until tomorrow”), it was an obvious choice for a first single, and represented the point at which the tide slowly started to turn for Blur. ‘For Tomorrow’ was an absolutely perfect distillation of the band’s intentions for their album, a coherent, smart rebuttal to the predominance of post-Nirvana complaint-rock in the British music scene in 1992, and one which explicitly referenced and celebrated the country’s musical legacy. You can hear echoes of ‘Waterloo Sunset’ as Albarn’s lyrics conjure up images of the unsettling tranquillity of suburbia, right down to the “la-la-la-la-la” chorus.

This moment of classic English indie greatness paves the way for a diverse bonanza through Modern Life Is Rubbish, ranging from mod-punk stompers to lushly orchestrated rock balladry. ‘Advert’ zeroes in on the encroaching culture of mindless consumerism that was being imported from America. The career-obsessed character at the centre of ‘Colin Zeal’ makes for a Weller-esque punk-pop stompers in the vein of The Jam’s sneering ‘Mr. Clean’, while ‘Pressure On Julian’ has the same topic but sets it to something more expansive. While they go down easy without leaving much of an impression, the breezy back-to-back pop gems of ‘Coping’ and ‘Turn It Up’ do much to lighten the mood near the end of the album.

Albarn’s now-infamous ‘character songs’ make their first appearance on Modern Life Is Rubbish, but there’s an ambiguity that lies at their heart that allows observations of mundane and pettifogging routine – about washing “with new soap behind the collar”, about Colin Zeal keeping “his eye on the news” etc. etc. – to avoid being both celebratory at one end or derisory and spiteful at the other. They’re infinitely more complex than the irritating ‘Charmless Man’ from 1995, let’s put it that way.

Much more so than Leisure, which was largely monotonous in its pacing, Blur showed a much wider range of dynamism on Modern Life Is Rubbish. The pace slows on the oboe-aided ‘Star Shaped’, an ode to the power of positive thinking and a masterstroke of English exotica. Neo-psychedelic highlight ‘Oily Water’ gives only the faintest indications of Blur’s erstwhile fondness for shoegaze.

But what makes Modern Life Is Rubbish a great album, as opposed to a merely very good one, is that Blur repeatedly articulate, through both lyrics and music, the peculiar sense of ennui yet stoic spirit that comes with British life. The atmosphere of ‘Blue Jeans’ perfectly evokes the spirit of a washed-out weekend, of having to turn the lights on at two in the afternoon because the sky is so grey outside, with Coxon’s reverbing and shimmering guitars providing the perfect bed. The goosebump-inducing closing track ‘Resigned’, with its long, repetitious outro, sounds just like its title, while the Syd Barrett-esque ‘Miss America’ is a woozy, understated nugget of melancholia.

‘Chemical World’ is another majestic moment, its immaculate, anthemic construction injected with the slightest hint of quintessentially English melancholia, inspired by Albarn’s forebears like Weller, Davies and Partridge and their ability to put the mundanity and magic of suburban existence under the microscope. Cynically throwing out barbs like “have to sit down and have some sugary tea” and “now she’s eating chocolate to induce sleep”, with the wit of those aforementioned songwriters, it grows into a huge, yearning coda with lines like “now they’re putting the holes in… / until you can see right through”. In lesser hands, it would have been pale revivalism, but in Albarn’s, it seemed like an update of Sixties pop tradition for the consumerist and anxiety-driven Nineties.

Even the daft knees-up of ‘Sunday Sunday’ is charming – an unabashed, totally cheesy celebration of all things British, concerning roast dinners, seeing family, chatting to old soldiers in the park, its novelty value overshadows the fact that it was, in some ways, the best encapsulation of Blur’s image overhaul on Modern Life Is Rubbish. For heaven’s sake, the second CD edition of the single release even contained two covers of music hall staples ‘Daisy Bell’ and ‘Let’s All Go Down The Strand’. Ill-advised and overstating the point Blur were trying to make, sure, but this kind of caricatured celebration of British pop-culture history weirdly underlined their point.

LEGACY

With no other choice open to them and fighting for their careers, Blur toured almost constantly throughout 1993. While the album’s three singles performed only modestly (‘For Tomorrow’, ‘Chemical World’ and ‘Sunday Sunday’ all peaked at either no.27 or no.28 in the UK Singles Chart), word got around about the revived band and their spirited new album, to the point that they were able to headline the second stage at that year’s Reading Festival – an opportunity they aced with a triumphant set. Against all odds and prevailing fashions, Blur had acquired that rarest of assets: momentum.

Although Modern Life Is Rubbish is a triumph in purely artistic terms, it also became a key thematic plank in the narrative foundation of what eventually became Britpop. Its broad theme speaks to the survival of British-ness, and specifically British independent culture, a history of handcrafting, characterful communities, quirky individuals and small businesses, in the face of the post-Thatcher onrush Americanisation of popular culture that dictated mass production and soulless malls – a future where every city and town looks the same. However, that survival is framed and expressed in a way that is romantic, rather than crudely nostalgic or xenophobic. The album’s cover art, a quaint water-colour painting of a steam train, is a key part of the package and feeds back into Modern Life Is Rubbish’s theme, seemingly evoking a half-remembered past that was under threat of being forgotten forever.

It’s never been out of print, but the lavish 2012 re-issue, containing all of the era’s B-sides, alternative versions and even the lost single ‘Popscene’, released as part of a simultaneous discography repackaging to mark Blur’s 21st anniversary, is the final word on Modern Life Is Rubbish.

READ MORE: Blur // ‘Parklife’ at 20 years old

As such, this is the crucial link between the image shift not only in Blur’s career, from their debut to 1994’s breakthrough success Parklife, but also from one era of wider British guitar music to another. The idea of a band being ‘retro’, of raiding the dressing-up box of Britain’s musical past, became an acceptable thing for the first time, and after they swept the board at the 1995 BRIT Awards, suddenly Blur were embraced for the very thing that they had been ridiculed for proposing just under two years before. It is also set a template for other Britpop bands later in the decade, but one that very few had the guile to emulate. Truly, Modern Life Is Rubbish is a lost British classic. Parklife, and all of Blur’s their subsequent successes, as well as the Britpop scene itself, simply cannot be explained without it.

Listen to Modern Life Is Rubbish by Blur here via Spotify, and tell us what you think below!

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