Set to a shimmering, faintly psychedelic Coxon guitar riff, Blur’s first ever single was simplicity personified. Consisting of about four lines of lyrics (“see her face, every day / it doesn’t help me / she’s so high / I want to crawl all over her”), it’s remained a live staple and a fan favourite throughout their career. Taking cues from the then-popular shoegaze scenes, it sounds now like a blank canvas, a band that had all the chops but were free to go in any direction they wanted.
While it sounds more like a track that could have come from any of Albarn’s post-Blur work, from Gorillaz, The Good The Bad & The Queen or Everyday Robots, the first taster from the forthcoming The Magic Whip is a dependably Blur-esque musical statement. Modest, minimalist and yet textured, it contains very few clues as to what the new record is going to sound like. That said, Albarn’s vocal line on the chorus is as catchy as hell. Bring it on!
Now, before you start: how many times can you really listen to ‘Song 2’ before you get bored? Yes, it’s probably their most immediately recognisable tune, and the one which finally allowed them to gain some serious traction in America. But with the passage of time, it sounds rather primitive and, dare I say it, dull. Sure, its satirical appropriation of the ‘grunge sound’ and its goofy throwaway pleasure makes it a thrill to blast out on your own guitar sometimes, or drunkenly jump around to at a grimy indie night. However, its sheer commercial over-exposure has totally blunted any lasting appeal. Something that can’t be said about Blur’s other overplayed single…
That such an indisputably solid track as ‘Chemical World’ can land only in 17th in this list is testament to the large number of brilliant singles that Blur made. Its immaculate, anthemic construction is injected with the slightest hint of quintessentially English melancholia, inspired by the likes of The Jam, The Kinks and XTC. Albarn delivers a cynical insight into cosy middle class existences (“have to sit down and have some sugary tea” and “now she’s eating chocolate to induce sleep”) with the wit of those aforementioned groups’ songwriters Weller, Davies and Partridge, as it grows into a huge, yearning coda. Like we said: solid, but perhaps not spectacular.
‘Beetlebum’ and ‘Song 2’ had been triumphant notices to the outside world that they were not prepared to be shackled by the increasingly narrow horizons of Britpop, but Blur’s third single ‘On Your Own’ was the point at which the group seriously demonstrated their ability to think outside the box. With a bouncy, drum-machine-powered rhythm, deliriously discordant guitars and all manner of whizz-banging effects zipping around the mix, ‘On Your Own’ pointed the way to Blur’s future. William Orbit’s excellent ‘Crouch End Broadway remix’, later used in the soundtrack for The Beach, gave notice as to what that future might sound like.
The hit single at the centre of the infamous Britpop war of 1995, ‘Country House’ seems to be a microcosm of its flawed but intriguing parent album The Great Escape. Underneath Albarn’s grating mockney-cockney delivery and unlikeable character study, the absurd brass band parps and the unwatchable Carry On / Benny Hill video, it’s inspired in its daftness. Coxon’s slashed art-rock solo sows the seeds of queasy discord, and the kinda-sweet ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ middle-eight that remains until the end sees it out in style. A glorious mess of ideas that has gotten better with time.
A song that always gets overlooked in the Blur canon, the fourth and final single from their self-titled album typifies everything that the group was about in 1997. Coxon had said he wanted to make music to “scare people again”, and that’s exactly what ‘M.O.R.’ did. A violent shock of guitar fuzz that owes a debt to US indie groups like Pavement and Hüsker Dü heralds the piece, and the group thrashes through it with glee and abandon. Blur made better songs than ‘M.O.R.’, but they rarely sounded like they had a better time than this. Track down the fast version used in the hilarious heist video for the definitive take on this electrifying song.
Another one of those great under-appreciated moments, the second single from Parklife rather got lost between the Top Ten successes of ‘Girls & Boys’ and ‘Parklife’ released either side of it. Set to sweeping strings reminiscent of You Only Live Twice, ‘To The End’ does indeed sound like some long-lost Bond theme tune, as Albarn engages in a call-and-response with Stereolab’s Laetitia Sadier, whose sultry vocals provide the real magic in the song’s beautiful ambience. One imagines this was a personal career highlight for bassist Alex James, who studied French at university, particularly when the song was re-recorded in 1995 as a duet with legendary chanteuse Françoise Hardy.
For the final release from the gentle chaos that was 13, it seems strange that ‘No Distance Left To Run’ was chosen ahead of more obviously single-worthy tracks like ‘Bugman’ or ‘Swamp Song’. But like ‘Sunday Sunday’ from Modern Life Is Rubbish, ‘No Distance…’ can be seen as the thematic core of 13. Consisting of little more than a quiet electric guitar and Albarn’s lament for his broken relationship with Justine Frischmann, it’s a quite devastating and uncomfortable track to listen to – a man baring his innermost soul on record. The reason it features so highly in our list is precisely because it’s such a strikingly unguarded moment, and from a songwriter who had rarely let that guard down in the past. That fragility and vulnerability was beautifully underlined by its music video, in which a camera crew filmed the band members sleeping.
Scarred by their experiences with Britpop, winning the battle of ‘Country House’ / ‘Roll With It’ but losing the war for the public’s hearts and minds, Blur did what many of their contemporaries failed to do – recognise the danger ahead and adapt. The heartbreakingly lovelorn and despondent ‘Beetlebum’ told everybody that the party was over. Widely believed to be about heroin addiction, its cryptic lyrics were vastly more personal and complicated than pretty much everything that the group had made up until this point, and the simple guitar motif built up into a swirling coda to mirror the emotional chaos of the song.
Tags: Alex James, Blur, Damon Albarn, Dave Rowntree, Ed Biggs, from worst to best, Graham Coxon, list, Matthew Langham, ranked, singles
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