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Beyond The Hits

Blur: The Sound Of The Essex Boys Beyond The Hits
Ian Wade , February 22nd, 2012 08:14

As Blur win a lifetime achievement gong, Ian Wade, Charlie Frame, Mic Wright, Mof Gimmers, Jeremy Allen, Wyndham Wallace, Joe Kennedy, Scott McKeating, Tom Hawking, Ben Myers, Stevie Chick, Jamie Bowman, Tim Burrows and Luke Turner select their finest b-sides, rarities and album tracks

As Blur become the latest recipients of the Brits Outstanding Contribution Award, it's as good a time as any to flick through their back catalogue for some of the gems to be unearthed. Come with me, if you will - and let's just draw a veil over the whole cheese thing for now - as we go BEYOND THE HITS!

'There's No Other Way' b-side

While they were busy on their mission to "kill baggy", by erm, having breakbeats in their tunes, bowl-haircuts and wearing shapeless rave-hued t-shirts, the first sign of something else in the Blur armoury came with this mellow shoegazery affair. Quite possibly recorded to allow them full acceptance into the 'scene that celebrates itself' (a music-weekly confection based around the likes of Lush, Chapterhouse, Revolver and anyone else reasonably "shoe-y" who enjoyed alcohol and would fall out of clubs off Oxford Street). Had this been on Leisure instead of, say, 'Bad Day', then Modern Life Is Rubbish may not have been the first great Blur album after all. Likewise…

'Mr Briggs'
'There's No Other Way' bonus track)

It's all in these two tracks – Syd Barrett, The Kinks, Small Faces, My Bloody Valentine – all the influences that would carry the band through the next few years. Fans attending the band's first headlining tour would be treated to a mixtape between turns featuring the likes of these alongside Cream, Hendrix, Revolver-era Beatles, Dinosaur Jr and The Specials. Ian Wade

'Bang' b-side

It may've been their slight resemblance – if you squint - to Teardrop Explodes that may've lead to their signing to Food, the 'indie' record company (but basically EMI) that was co-owned by ex-Teardrop Dave Balfe, who then went on to become the figure lampooned in 'Country House'. The band may have since disowned the A-side 'Bang' as a single, but at the time performed it on Top Of The Pops literally off their faces while Damon waved a cardboard chicken head about (so far, so Passionate Friend). 'Luminous', however, is a glorious psychedelic shimmer not too far off (out) from Julian Cope's early solo stuff, and allowed Graham to get his pedals out to out-Slowdive Slowdive. IW

Leisure album track

They were Britpop, then they were slackers, then they were icons, but before that they were floppy-haired, baggy-jeaned chancers in beaded necklaces purchased during gap years, who tacked a song onto the end of their debut album that sounded like Todd Rundgren attempting to shoegaze. It was considered too weird for the US market and dropped from the record, but in a land where two generations of the Bush family can reign supreme, 'weird' must mean something else, because the only odd thing about this is that it's packed with clichés and yet stands out as one of the best songs Blur ever recorded. Albarn's lyrics tick the stoner box with obvious precision – "I can't feel 'cos I'm numb / So what's the worth in all of this?" – while he stabs absentmindedly at the piano, and Coxon's guitar winds jangling, detuned lines round the melody like ivy. Then there are sleigh bells, and the only things better than sleigh bells are cowbells, so that helps excuse Alex James' plodding bass line. There are many reasons to find this hideous – not least that Chris Martin owned up to its blatant inspiration for Coldplay's 'Lost' – but somehow it just works. Wyndham Wallace

'Slow Down' Leisure album track

Blur were at their most electrifying when playing the tension between Damon’s songwriterly tendencies and Graham’s noisenik nous to the fore. 'Slow Down' might be the earliest example of this; certainly it's the only track from their 1991 debut Leisure that I'd rescue from a house fire. Half the song is exactly the sort of weak-lemon-drink dross that had my teen self sneering in disapproval at peers who preferred 'indie' to the electrifying stuff happening in hip-hop, metal, techno, etc (I was a Melody Maker reader, QED). The dopey see-saw of the melody and Damon’s emptier-than-a-tramp’s-pockets lyrics plumbed a particular Lamacq-approved nadir. Then, at 1:29, the ineffectual jangle ceases, replaced by a gargantuan noise – fizzing with distortion, boosted by megatons of low-end and powered by drums like seventeen Keith Moons pummelling in sulphated frenzy – a noise akin to MBV at their majestic, monsterrific best. For a minute or so it continues, racing and braking and slaloming about, like a drunk falling down infinite flights of goosefat-greased stairs, scored by dirty oohs’n’aahs and sounding like the most glorious collision of ART and POP and sheer CRO-MAGNON CHAOS you could ever imagine. And then, after a minute or so, and with a bathetic flourish, it tumbles back into studey-disco tedium. S'alright though, as there’s nothing to stop you skipping back to 1:29 and taking the ride again. I've done it seven times already today, and it’s still quite the rush. Stevie Chick

'Badgeman Brown'
'Popscene' b-side

Appearing as a b-side to their pivotal 1992 Popscene single, 'Badgeman Brown' is the greatest example of Blur's early ambition to fuse Syd Barrett with My Bloody Valentine. Their debut album Leisure and its accompanying singles were dotted with tributes to Pink Floyd's fallen leader in 'character' songs like 'Mr Briggs'. 'Uncle Love' echoed the likes of Barrett's own 'Arnold Layne' and 'Corporal Clegg', while Damon's hazy lazy Syd-like twang on 'There's No Other Way' even took the sound of late 60s Cambridge into the top 10. On 'Badgeman Brown', Blur's obsession with Floyd reached its apex, from the title of the song down to the huge, heavy riff from Graham Coxon which recalls Barrett's slashing guitar style on 'Vegetable Man' and 'Interstellar Overdrive'. Most overt of all is the unsettling change of tempo as Albarn adopts Barrett's little-boy-lost vocals from the unhinged 'Scream Thy Last Scream', one of the last songs Barrett recorded with Pink Floyd. Allegedly hated by Blur's label bosses Andy Ross and Dave Balfe, the song's Floyd connections even took a bizarre turn when 'Badgeman Brown' was mooted for inclusion on the soundtrack to a film directed by Barrett's artist friend Storm Thorgerson, who was half of the legendary Hipgnosis album sleeve design partnership. The collaboration never occurred, and Blur were soon looking to Ray Davies for their 60s fix. 'Badgeman Brown' however remains a fine rejoinder to those who dismissed early Blur as a second-rate baggy band. Jamie Bowman

'The Wassailing Song'
Limited edition 7"

I have friends who go wassailing. They sing to trees and pour cider made from apples picked the previous autumn into the earth. It's an ancient English tradition that has spawned scores of songs exploring the same theme, including 'The Wassailing Song', Blur's finest moment for the following reasons:

  1. Graham sings a verse. Graham's faux-child vocals are impossible to dislike.
  2. Blur didn't write it. Bands never write their best songs.
  3. If you're going to be retro go pagan retro rather than, you know, Kinks/Small Faces/Wire retro (that came later).
  4. It accompanied the Stonehenge Clip on Starshaped aka the greatest on-tour music documentary ever. Released on VHS. By a British band. In 1993.
  5. Is that a bodhrán?
  6. There is no evidence to suggest the involvement of Alex James*.
  7. Damon's baritone timbre.
  8. It's not Gorillaz.
  9. It's definitely not WigWam.
  10. Accordions.

Ben Myers

'Young & Lovely'
'Chemical World' b-side

As anyone who was a keen fan of any band in the 90s, the music industry was literally taking the piss with the demented craze for two-part CD singles, which would rinse the fans' trust somewhat with the promise of up to five new songs as extra tracks. The 'Part 2 of a 2CD set' was to become the bane of many collectors existence. 'Young & Lovely' – bafflingly – was relegated to such a fate, at the record company's insistence, who weren't wild on it going on Modern Life Is Rubbish. Or were Blur just being stubborn? As Damon said of it, "It should have been on the LP. But it didn't get on there and fucking 'Turn It Up' did". Best described as 'Scott Walker joins The Kinks to essay life in a Chelmsford shopping precinct', it showed a world weary warmth that had become evident with 'For Tomorrow', and would continue with 'To The End' and 'The Universal'. There is a rumoured to be a cover of it by Saint Etienne too (just imagine that. Ooooh). IW

'Oily Water'
Modern Life Is Rubbish album track

Buried in the vigorously eclectic second side of Modern Life is Rubbish, 'Oily Water' inspires thoughts of an alternate-universe Blur. A more paranoid spin on Leisure's neo-psychedelia, dominated by some of the loudest and most dissonant guitar Coxon ever committed to record, Albarn's vocals have a shoegazey unintelligibility which makes them just one aspect of the song's hazily merging textures. The end product is indicative not only of a rarely-discussed debt to My Bloody Valentine but of a nascent discomfort with the clean-lined, observational neo-mod pop Modern Life Is Rubbish showcased. This unease was only really given full expression on Blur, by which time it was too late for a completely plausible reassertion of the band's credentials as a heavier, trippier, more robustly leftfield outfit. 'Oily Water' encourages us to imagine a Blur signed to pre-Oasis Creation, breaking America to sighs of baffled incredulity back home, a prospect which would have at least spared us from having to witness Coxon's embarrassment in the 'Country House' video. Joe Kennedy

Modern Life Is Rubbish album track

Although now I'd hardly call myself a Blur fan at all, there was a time when Modern Life Is Rubbish barely left my stereo. That album had a spirit that the lurid characterizations of Parklife had largely obscured. It felt very British (I was always a fan of the cover art, which featured my favourite train, the Mallard) without being overly parochial or jingoistic. It seemed to be the sound of a band exploring national identity at a time when we weren't quite sure what being vaguely proud of being British meant. Of course, when Britpop harrumphed over the horizon that'd all be ruined, but Modern Life Is Rubbish seemed to capture some of this emergence from under America's shadow. 'Coping' is one of the tracks where Blur managed to whack together the minimalism of Wire with demented psych organ and make it make perfect sense, and in a way the staccato fuzz of this track predicts their post-Great Escape material. Blur were always best at pop songs when they didn't over-think them and try to be too clever. This is a brilliant example of that. Luke Turner

'Trouble In The Message Centre'
Parklife album track

In hindsight you could be forgiven for thinking that Parklife was a cynically-timed faux-cockney concept album that calculatedly exploited the working classes while secretly taking the piss out of them. Given the album's ubiquity (it reached far beyond its year of release and punctuated late-90s parties, seeping loudly from windows from Camden to Cambourne to Clydebank) it's difficult now to regard most of the songs from Parklife with anything but irritation, though 'Girls and Boys', 'This Is A Low' and, in particular, 'Trouble In the Message Centre', have transcended that tired familiarity. Damon Albarn's chameleonic ability to assume and shapeshift was never better demonstrated on what sounds like a lost new-wave classic, deploying a detached, cyborgic vocal to comment on the mundanity of working in a dead-end call centre, presumably with a hangover, with an officious and self-important manager/twat commanding at least a pound an hour more than you. At least that's what it might be about - the song has a dreamy mystery about it, a welcome antidote to the screamingly overt snide of songs like 'Magic America'. The intro too, fading in as it does, is surely a nod to the iconic opening strains of Duran Duran's 'Planet Earth'. Jeremy Allen

'Supa Shoppa'
'Parklife' b-side

With the album Parklife, Damon had begun to bring in his Hammond organ on tunes like 'Lot 105', and this instrumental. Not unlike something from The Specials' more muzak-flavoured More Specials album, wherein Jerry Dammers came to the fore, this was also a nod to the Easy Listening fad that was sweeping, well, Soho anyway. This along with the other b-side 'Beard' (a piss-take on Acid Jazz) couldn't be more swinging London circa 1994 if it tried. (Oh, and if you wanted to know whatever happened to Ray Cokes, he now lives in Antwerp and can be found on Twitter as @raycokes) IW

'London Loves'
Parklife album track

With its seedy protagonist 'coughing tar in his Japanese motor' as he criss-crosses the capital for illicit trysts, 'London Loves' initially comes across as Albarn's most concerted attempt to capture the gleefully amoral tone of Martin Amis' London Fields, Parklife's dominant literary influence. However, Albarn can't wear the world-weariness of Amis for long. There's a vulnerability to this song, completely absent from the source text, that's more suggestive of a misty-eyed romance with the capital than a dispassionate dissection of the hollowness of London romances. Stop-start in a manner which seems indebted to Chairs Missing-era Wire, 'London Loves' is superbly arranged, with a wheezing synth suggesting furred-up lungs, a bristling, counterintuitive solo by Coxon, and a peculiarly touching overdub of a traffic report as the track plays out. This suggests that there was considerably more to geezer-period Blur than history recalls, and that the band never really stopped singing about heartbreak. JK

'Threadneedle Street'
'To The End' b-side

Blur's fondness for British synthpop crept into a number of tracks, especially around Parklife with monster hit 'Girls And Boys' and fan-fave 'London Loves'. Oft-overlooked is 'To The End''s flip, 'Threadneedle Street', which saw Albarn looking at one of his favourite subject - those stuck in the 9-to-5. Albarn sings: "watch the markets move from a screen in a pocket of a grey flannel suit, read tomorrow's crash today and check your pulse" like he's watching the whole of London from a vantage point that would be such a rich seam over the years. This sneakily catchy song showed that there was a time, at least, when Blur didn't really have to try too hard, and they would still make better, more interesting tracks than most of their peers. Mof Gimmers

'Best Days' Great Escape album track

For all that people seem to associate Great Escape-era Blur with the (admittedly disturbing) sight of Damon Albarn and Keith Allen chasing pigs around an oversized gameboard, there's an argument to be made that under its oompahish facade, Blur's fourth album remains their most coherent and fully-realized piece of work. And for all that the it was the raucous stomp of songs like 'Charmless Man', 'Country House' and 'Stereotypes' that caught the public's attention, The Great Escape's real charms lie in its most restrained moments, where Albarn drops the sneer for genuine empathy. Take 'Best Days', for instance. Whereas a large portion of The Great Escape devotes itself to satirizing the empty hedonism of the Cool Britannia era, 'Best Days' eschews condemnation for a simple portrait of the alienation and melancholy that underpins society's excesses, and is all the more effective for doing so. Like all Blur's pre-Blur work, 'Best Days' is firmly rooted in a quintessentially English environment (the opening line "Bow bells say goodbye to the last train", namechecks for Soho and Trellick Tower), and yet its themes aren't geographically constrained in the slightest — it's as universal and moving a portrayal of the fact that modern life really is rubbish as Albarn has ever penned. Tom Hawking

'To The End' (La Comedie)
'Country House' b-side

Ask any Blur fan about 'Country House', and the subsequent palaver with Oasis chirpily wishing AIDS on Alex & Damon, and you'll get a mixed response. Sure, it was lovely and smashing that they'd scored a No.1 and beaten those pesky Northern oiks, but the song itself was almost a parody of the band's imperial phase. Flip it over though, and they offered a version of 'To The End' with Francoise Hardy - a long time Coxon obsession. The results are really quite beautiful (sniff). IW

'The Horrors'
'Charmless Man' b-side

The spectral gloom of the Specials' second album, More Specials, hangs over The Great Escape like a shadow, most markedly on the kitchen-sink ska of 'Fade Away'. But More Specials' presence wouldn't be felt more than on this muted instrumental b-side from the Great Escape era. 'The Horrors' combines a cheap tango rhythm-preset with schoolhouse piano to push More Specials' postcard bleakness into something approaching existential dread. Until 13, Damon Albarn had never been too comfortable writing about himself, preferring to externalise his thoughts and emotions through satire and character-study. Although wordless, this track is most explicit in the acknowledgement of his depressive mental state at the time. 'The Horrors' is the sound of Albarn's demons looming out from the darkness, sapping his soul in a rare private moment far away from the big lights and his rapidly expanding fanbase. Charlie Frame

'He Thought of Cars' Great Escape album track

Albarn has said on occasion that The Great Escape would make for a great musical. If he ever followed through with the idea, then surely 'He Thought of Cars' would have to be its great end-of-Act-One finale. It's a lushly melancholy ballad that unites all the album's key themes — alienation, isolation, a desire to escape — in a lyrical portrait of a mildly surreal near-future dystopia from which everyone apparently wants to flee, be it physically (by plane or car or space shuttle), or metaphysically (there's a sly nod to other, more prosaic means of egress from reality with the line "Colombia is in top gear/ It shouldn't snow this time of year"). The metaphors for our own lives are obvious - the idea of all our pleasures and distractions as means of escape, ways to try to assuage the hollowness inside. But ultimately, The Great Escape suggests, we're all as lonely as the protagonist of 'He Thought of Cars', sitting there contemplating where we might go, if only we could start moving. TH

'On Your Own' (live at Peel Acres)
'b-side to 'On Your Own'

In May 1997 Blur did a live session for John Peel at his Peel Acres in Suffolk. Having never really been a John Peel kind of band, there was a sense of a new serious-face outfit trying to re-write their indie past and brush aside all that cockernee nonsense, and so basically went a bit berserk on the Live At Peel Acres EP. What was already rather marvellous became infinitely better with Graham allowed to essentially "noise" all over it. IW

'Swallows In The Heatwave'
b-side to 'M.O.R.'

Blur's attitude towards the US took a curious about-face for their eponymous 1997 album. Cynics may have sneered and said they'd finally run out of English pop acts from which to cherry-pick, but the band's new-found admiration for American lo-fi turned out to be their saving grace with 'Song 2''s frat-rock-by-numbers finally breaking them to the evasive Stateside market. Graham was particularly vocal in name-checking Pavement as a major influence on his sound. The slacker-kings suffered no less, with their Brighten The Corners album garnering a new crop of UK fans in the same year. Stephen Malkmus – a notorious Anglophile by reputation - chose to downplay the association, claiming Blur had never really featured on his radar. All the same 'Swallows In The Heatwave' is so uncannily reminiscent of the Pavement template that it even echoes a song title from Brighten The Corners: 'Starlings In The Slipstream'. With Brighten... having been released only a few months before Blur's 'M.O.R.' single that spawned 'Swallows…', it's anyone's guess as to whether this nominal similarity was intentional or mere coincidence. – CF

'Country Sad Ballad Man'
Blur album track

Blur always seemed happiest when being awkward and album track 'Country Sad Ballad Man' is as awkward as Blur get while still trying to piece together a decent song. Scratchy, twangy and just the right side of unnerving, Blur were able to get away with such playful lunacy where many of their peers were still determined to create huge lagery anthems. This is the sound of a band retreating from worrying about balancing the books and horsing around in the studio to make a catchy-as-mumps jamtrack that is as fun as it is peculiar. MG

Massive Attack – 'Angel'
Blur remix

Where the original of Massive Attack's 'Angel' was all heavy swooning supplication and propulsive menace, the Blur remix retooled the song as a snapshot summation of their 98-99 transformation. Gone were the Fred Perry print indie-pop caterpillars, now Blur were becoming a butterfly that was breaking itself on the wheel of drugs, ego and celebrity and competing/diverging musical influences. Labelled as remixed by 'Damon Albarn and Graham Coxon of Blur', and probably all the better for not featuring the hand of either Dave or That Cheese-Making Tory Bastard™, this production has more in common with a polished up and funereal paced RZA beat than it does with Massive Attack's yearning atmospheric epic. Simple, stripped, spooky, spindly and just a little weirdly sweet, Albarn/Coxon's xylophone-spined take sounds less like it was made by indie guitar heroes than massive Attack's guitar bleeding original version. The Blur pair replace the majority of alleged homophobe Horace Andy's sweet and tender vocals with either silence, mild dub FX or the sound of a female Speak & Spell spelling out the word Angel letter by letter; 'A is for Apple' etc. Curiously, not taking suggestions from either The Shamen or EMF, E only gets an 'E is for...'. Only dropping the beat into the track more than half way through, this mix (alongside 'I Got The Law' from 13) was one of the first precursors to the forthcoming sound of Gorillaz, Albarn obviously pushing at the constraints of sound and song. Scott McKeating

13 album track

Listening to 13 again confirms the fact that it's Blur's most confident sounding album, untainted by the chest-puffing bluster of Parklife and the cor blimey image we saw embarrassingly collapse around the band in glorious high definition during last night's Brit Awards ceremony. It probably helped that I was a huge stoner when it came out in 1999 – its widescreen William Orbit-produced-ness had a great affect on my 15-year-old self as I listened to my Walkman on the way home to guide Southend United to the Premier League on Championship Manager after a night on the toke. '1992' showcases Graham Coxon's guitar versatility, his affinity with mavericks on the instrument like Syd Barrett, Lee Ranaldo and Kevin Shields. In the hands of Parklife producer Stephen Street, this slow-building song might have become into clichéd ballad a la 'This Is a Low', but Orbit isolated Blur's greatest asset, Coxon's guitar skills, which are given the space they deserve here. Elements of MBV and Sonic Youth pepper the song. Floating bombs of guitar noise explode over measured strumming. Lyrics are used sparingly and well. Backed by Orbit's subtle sonic tics, it's vague, powerful, and experimental – the antithesis of what irks about the band today. If only they carried on this way. Tim Burrows

'All Your Life'
'Beetlebum' b-side

Stuart Maconie wrote that this was a period where "Blur were sewn together very awkwardly" and this is where you can see the join. After years celebrating England in his lyrics, Damon Albarn sounded disenchanted with it: "Oh England, my love / you lost me, made me look a fool". He also seemed to be picking at the scab of the fame he achieved through the ubiquity of the chart battle with Oasis: "Fall through the crowd, and disappear/in the teenage magazines and shopping malls…" The music also reflects a clash between the new Pavement-influenced direction and the Britpop past. In the verses, 'All Your Life' feels like a nod to 'Oh You Pretty Things'-period Bowie, Coxon's angular guitar slicing through from beneath acoustic guitar, piano and basic drums. Things get noisy in the chorus with chunky guitars that are more cousins of 'Song 2''s clatter than anything you'd have found on Parklife. It's a shame it had to play second in command to the moaning drone of 'Beetlebum'. It's a better song. Mic Wright

'Woodpigeon Song'
'Beetlebum' b-side

Blur indulge a certain McCartney II vibe by making a song that sounds like it was recorded in a shed, pressed and released as a half-finished sketch. In places, it's vaguely experimental and teases by fading as it gets noisy, Blur soak up the sound of the short-lived NAM (New Acoustic Movement) scene which birthed the likes of Alfie and such, before destroying it through disaffected boredom. This was one of the first audible clues of the crack that would break Blur, and as such, is an excellent document to their soon-to-be Fleetwood Mac-lite soap-opera of booze, depression and in-fighting. Weirdly, in this little scribble of a song, it's all there. MG

13 album track

Blur's involvement with the Beagle 2 mission to Mars gave 13 a drifting, space-age detachment at one with the album's themes of loneliness and heartbreak following Albarn's separation from Elastica's Justine Frischmann. At nearly eight-minutes-long, 'Battle' is a slow-motion sci-fi dirge, Albarn's vocals drowned out by blasts of dreadnought bass and nebulous distortion. The intensity of these long, fitful passages is relieved by a soothing chorus that acts like an airlock being opened into zero gravity. There's a cathartic sense of abandonment; the same kind of bittersweet elation that comes at the end of a break-up where one finally gives in and lets it all float away. Particularly effective in a live context amid a sea of lighter-flames, 'Battle' is perhaps as epic as Blur ever got. CF

'Black Book'
'Music Is My Radar' b-side

Blur go a bit soul. Get a gospel choir in again (having winningly used them on Tender the year before). It sounds a bit - spits - Doors-y, but then builds into – for "the whitest band on Eart" (cf: Noel Gallagher) – a bit sexy too. IW

'Good Song'

Forgotten single from Think Tank, accompanied by a marvelous David Shrigley animation for the promotional video, this is Blur at their Coxonless, medicated best. Distant, drowsy yet still able to pluck out a terrific little melody. While 'Out Of Time' is inevitably the last thing the band are really remembered for, 'Good Song' is overlooked despite being a worthy single from a band on the brink of splitting and of course, the last time we really heard Damon Albarn able to aim low and easy, rather than the all-encompassing Sunday supplement approved art-botherer we have now. MG