Albarn himself said with hindsight that ‘This Is A Low’ would have made a better choice for the final single from Parklife, but we beg to differ. ‘End Of A Century’, a string-swept ballad of almost McCartney-esque songwriting perfection, was an all-time great Blur moment that was probably worthy of a place even as a lead single. For the first time, Albarn’s character-based writing took on a ‘spokesman for a generation’ quality as he made incisive observations like “He gives her a cuddle / glowing in a huddle” and “we all say don’t want to be alone / we wear the same clothes ‘cos we feel the same”, analysing the human condition in a modern, atomised society. It’s testament to Parklife’s strength that there were even better songs to release ahead of it.
Released in the dying embers of summer, the irrepressible ‘Parklife’ was one of the anthems of 1994. An unbashed pub singalong in the gather-round-the-old-joanna-and-have-a-knees-up sort of way, the band’s decision to get Phil Daniels, the Quadrophenia actor, to do the spoken-word verses was a masterstroke, explicitly linking the listener to a British populist tradition dating back to music hall. ‘Parklife’ was the sound of a band at the peak of its powers going lowbrow and saying “yeah, we just did that: so what?” It was the third single from an album that was already selling by the shedload, explaining the comparatively low chart position for such a well-known song, but statistics don’t do justice to the immense cultural clout it had. Shed Seven, Kaiser Chiefs, Razorlight and The Fratellis would not have had careers if wasn’t for ‘Parklife’ – we’ll leave you to decide whether that’s a good or a bad thing…
It’s hard to imagine now, but suppose things hadn’t worked out for Blur and Modern Life Is Rubbish had sunk without a trace (a very real possibility at the time for such a risky album)? ‘There’s No Other Way’ would have been Blur’s sole musical legacy, a mere footnote destined to turn up at the end of occasional ‘Madchester’ compilations. Certainly, it captures a band full of the swagger and naivety of youth (check out those haircuts in the video!), and listening to their subsequent output it may as well be by a different band, but it somehow still sounds good today. And that’s because of one indisputable fact – even in their earliest incarnation, Albarn and Coxon knew how to write a catchy tune. Its chart success also meant that, even in their darkest moments in 1992, Blur at least had one bona fide hit to trade upon when booking gigs and studio time.
The second single from 13, ‘Coffee + TV’ was Graham Coxon’s turn in the spotlight. Written and sung by the resolutely independent-minded guitarist, it was a sweet anti-anthem that sounds like Coxon’s singing into his ribcage, within himself, embarrassed to look out into the public’s glare. It wasn’t just the shy, introspective lyrics (“sociability / is hard enough for me”), but the spectacular art-rock guitar solo, a series of seemingly unconnected notes made sense of by the mercurial Coxon, that made it work. Backed by an extremely popular animated video that won dozens of awards, ‘Coffee + TV’ surprisingly fell outside the Top Ten, though it was later alleged that many sales went mistakenly uncounted. But the single was a substantial success all over the world, with the message of the music rendered perfectly in the strange melancholy of the video.
Legend has it that Albarn, told by the record company that the first draft of Modern Life Is Rubbish needed a hit single if it was going to be released, came home drunk from the pub on Christmas Eve and wrote it on his parents’ piano in a flash of inspiration. But surely such a moment of total brilliance can’t be spontaneous, can it? Whatever the truth, ‘For Tomorrow’ is the point at which the tide started to turn for Blur. It was an absolutely perfect distillation of the band’s intentions for their album, a coherent, smart rebuttal to the predominance of post-Nirvana grunge in the British music scene in 1992 that explicitly referenced and celebrated the country’s musical legacy. And indeed, you can hear echoes of ‘Waterloo Sunset’ as Albarn’s lyrics conjure up images of the unsettling tranquillity of suburbia. Even in the ‘la-la-la-la-la’ chorus!
Proof that Blur could continue without Graham Coxon came quickly, in the shape of Think Tank’s pretty lead single ‘Out Of Time’. Aside from its heart-stopping beauty, the song was a masterstroke for other reasons. Where lesser groups would have gone for volume in response to the loss of a band member, in an act of ‘us-against-the-world’ camaraderie, Damon, Alex and Dave used their brains and applied subtlety instead. Making use of Far Eastern scales and instrumentation, the lightest brushing of drums and some pretty sturdy bass guitar, ‘Out Of Time’ is so delicately poised and sparse that it sounds as if the merest interruption of loud noise would kill the track stone dead. The group even broke it out at their 2009 reunion gigs, a sign that hatchets had well and truly been buried.
Blur’s third album Parklife couldn’t have been timed better, arriving to capitalise perfectly upon a nation that had only just become aware of its predecessor. It all seems so inevitable now, but it might all have meant nothing without an uncontestable, bona fide hit such as ‘Girls & Boys’ to capture the public’s imagination. Alex James’ bendy bassline, Coxon’s robotic riff and a happy-clappy keyboard line provide a compelling three-way interaction, and Albarn’s lyrics are a tongue-in-cheek celebration / condemnation of the behaviour of young Brits on holiday. Busting into the Top Five as Britpop was accelerating to its fastest speed, it confirmed the commercial revival of Blur after all the hard work with Modern Life Is Rubbish the previous year. Still an absolute joy to listen to and throw yourself around to.
Ah – the great lost Blur single. Released in the wake of their disastrous American tour of 1991 and at the height of Nirvana-mania, the profoundly unfashionable ‘Popscene’ limped in at a lowly number 32 and was overlooked by all but a handful of critics who praised its punky, mod-orientated direction. Listening back now, it’s still an absolutely brilliant track, cramming in twenty-five years of British guitar music history in to just over three minutes of fizzing, vitriolic glory that also manages to presage the future. That sense of ‘British-ness as reaction to America’ would carry over into 1993’s Modern Life Is Rubbish, and the rest, as they say, is history. In later years, the fact that it was never released on any UK Blur album made it a sought-after collector’s item for the newly converted fan. However, it was eventually included on the 2009 compilation Midlife: A Beginner’s Guide To Blur.
‘The Universal’ was the uncontested highlight of The Great Escape. Amid the baroque excess and garish character studies was this perfectly formed gem, a moment of calm amongst the tension of a group that was coming apart at the seams. Albarn’s bleak yet strangely comforting lyrics spoke of a dystopia that wasn’t too far removed from the world as it was, of entertainment distracting the masses (“every night we’re gone / and to karaoke songs…” and “every paper that you read / says tomorrow’s your lucky day”). The lush, epic orchestration would have seemed appallingly kitschy if Albarn hadn’t have got the sentiment just right – of hope and salvation being (possibly) just around the corner. The world seems to stand still as its stately, triumphant coda brings it to a close. Just let yourself get caught up in the moment: all the British Gas adverts in the world cannot diminish its glory.
Throughout most of 13, Albarn seemed to focus most of his heartbreak and anguish at the collapse of his relationship with Justine Frischmann inwards, giving the record most of its sonic brilliance. But for just one moment, he projected it outwards, and the result was the most human-sounding Blur single yet. Starting from the lowliest moment of diary-like introspection, it expands into magnificent widescreen vistas of choirs and blues guitar. Despite his despair at the hands of love, Albarn recognises that it’s “the greatest thing, that we have” as part of his haunting chorus. Coxon contributed his inspired “oh my baby” refrain pretty late in the day, providing the icing on an already delicious cake.
‘Tender’s genius is its universal applicability, ringing true and honest in every context, from listening to it by yourself in a dark room to a field of tens of thousands. Anybody who was present at the 2009 Hyde Park gigs will surely testify to its power to move the human spirit. It would surely have been the band’s third chart-topper if not for ‘Baby One More Time’, the first single by the expertly-marketed juggernaut Britney Spears. Still, it means that ‘Tender’ is another proud member of the club of singles unjustly kept off Number 1. It is, however, the finest single they ever recorded. Do you agree?
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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