Sunday, 5 October 2008

Blanqueford Regenerated

"With the release of this album, Blur have arrived in Blanqueford. In this British newtown people "advert think", happiness is guaranteed at Eat n' Treat and you queue in cars to visit the Sunny Fields Shopping Centre. This town is preparing for the future by airbrushing the past."

On reflection, nothing about Modern Life Is Rubbish should really have worked. The album that somehow reset the dials for a subsequent multi-million selling pop heritage - and just about thwarted Parlophone's apparent wish to issue P45s to Albarn, Coxon, James & Rowntree - was a modest seller for a band who were derided as little more than a joke at the time of release and whose legacy of influence has since stalled via the feeble faux-Weller strums of countless impostors.

Of course, indicting others as cheats and copycats when arguing the case for a band who made their very name on shedding skins and playing parts might seem utterly hypocritical, but it's necessary to acquaint oneself here with the exact nature of Damon Albarn as both artist and performer, and moreover with the context of Modern Life Is Rubbish within the cultural and musical climate of Britain in the early to mid-1990's.

"My lack of natural lustre/Now seems to be losing me friends"

Like a lot of their contemporaries in 1990/91, Blur made no secret of their love for US bands like Dinosaur Jr and The Pixies, but an abortive Stateside tour left them pining for home and the foibles, flaws and traditions of British culture. Seeking to extricate themselves also from the winsome UK indie mire that prevailed through the turn of the decade via the regulars at Oxford Street's Syndrome nightclub, Blur returned to the roots of their inspiration and replaced the bowl cuts, expansive t-shirts and queasy Barrett-esque psychedelia (ostensibly a southern funk/noise melding of two nonsense scenes, 'Madchester' and 'Shoegazing') with cherry red DMs and the epileptic single Popscene, released in March 1992. If the intention was for the band to morph into New Wave wind-up merchants, then it worked. The single certainly didn't.

On The Jesus & Mary Chain's Rollercoaster tour, Albarn climbed the amp stacks and got his cock out while Dave Rowntree canvassed politely backstage for participants in "punching competitions". Meanwhile Popscene stalled forlornly at number 32 in the charts. All four bandmembers began drinking themselves into oblivion and live performances deteriorated accordingly. Blur's new direction had failed.

Through the remainder of 1992, the band appeared to be doing their level best to implode. Shambolic onstage and seemingly aimless in the studio, Parlophone's subsidiary Food dismissed out of hand the second album's first draft. Packed as it apparently was with ill-defined non-entities like Badgeman Brown, Hanging Over and the once mooted follow-up to Popscene, Never Clever, Albarn was ordered to disappear over Christmas and come back with some proper pop singles.

And this, to the surprise of many, he did. For Blur pre-Modern Life were regarded as far too pretty and smart-arsed for their own good, and crucially lacking in the substance that their frontman - arguably the biggest show-off of his day - seemed certain they possessed. Blur rode into town somewhat fortuitously on the back of 'baggy' in 1990/91, and when it seemed likely they would be summarily dropped by Food in late '92, few were surprised and some were undoubtedly rubbing their hands in expectation.

So when Albarn finally began to augment his cockiness with the kind of craft he'd been talking up to anyone who'd listen (and few hung around post-Popscene), he could feel assured that some would never be convinced. But the ability (not to mention sheer confidence and bloody-mindedness) with which Albarn rescued Blur's fortunes in 1993 doesn't tell the whole story.

Whilst Albarn himself in fairness has never tried to hide the fact that he's a bit of a pretender, the kind of pop role-player for whom the practice of choosing and acting out a character becomes the way of life rather than the lives of the adopted characters themselves, the 'jazz hands and puppy dog eyes' image to a large degree damaged his and Blur's lasting reputation. Jon Savage spat at what he saw as the shameless Kinks pastiche of Parklife, yet in response to Miranda Sawyer's probing of this mistrust, that Blur's precise appropriation of iconography amounted to no more than middle class boys mucking around with working class fashions, Albarn simply stated "that's exactly what it is". Melody Maker even ran a Blur cover in 1994 with the headline Would you buy a used ideology from this man? .

What got lost in the ensuing boorishness of 'Britpop' however was the subtlety of imagery Blur called upon with their 1993 rebirth (those sledgehammered 'British Image' press shots notwithstanding, obviously). By the time For Tomorrow appeared as the second attempt at a lead-off single, the path to their renaissance had been cleared by Suede - whom Blur perceived had stole their thunder - and more specifically Pulp and St Etienne. These were acts who toyed with a seedy, multifarious & man-made seam of British everyday life, a modern life where the mundane could become romantic. Italian coffee bars & R 'n' B never came into it: this was a specific perusal of (and in Blur's case a sentimentality for) the Britain of formica, polyester and idealist town planning.

Just as Blur found both a quasi-comfort and frustration in the Britain which boiled down Archigram's hypothetical fantasy land into vast windowless megastructure precincts and paper-thin timber-clad estates, Albarn railed in song against the consumerism and Americanisation of the accompanying social flow. And whilst Popscene found the band a good year ahead of the trend, Modern Life cemented their lead not only of a fashion which resented the lank lethargic angst-fuelled grunge import, but also of the lament for the world of 'lost futures' which Ghost Box took more than a decade to inhabit. The dead-eyed fictional new town of the 'Blanqueford' one-sheet illustrates the prescience best: communities growing fat in passenger seats in preference to dimly-lit walkways bowed over A-roads, derelict districts of a well-intended brave new world turned ghoulish in the glare and vulgarity of the development corporation brochure. Blur at once sought to celebrate the energy of the original aspiration whilst simultaneously drawing on their disdain for how the professed utopia evolved.

There are obvious dangers in pop if you're seen to exclaim "time for action!" dressed in Ben Shermans and three-button suits, and unsurprisingly Blur found themselves unwittingly at the vanguard of an eventually weak-willed third wave of mod. Here, the catch-all branding was most pointedly erroneous: at the launching of the For Tomorrow campaign the band sported full skinhead uniform (from the neck down at least), and by the time Girls & Boys began their chart ascendancy in earnest in March 1994, the casual vogue of tracksuit tops and trainers was the order of the day. If the Baracuta Harrington was a staple of the period, it was not out of any deference to the Ivy League rock 'n' roll icons who had given it such popular appeal. Phil Daniels was a hero (not yet a collaborator), though Albarn & Coxon spoke lovingly of his brilliance as the high-rise anti-hero in Meantime more than they did for the archetypal scooter boy misfit of Quadrophenia. Admittedly the verve of The Jam's earliest character studies proved a conceptual inspiration, but Weller's resurgence as an earnest, 'authentic' soul everyman was an irrelevance to the pace and promise of Modern Life Is Rubbish.

"Practice doesn't make perfect when you're interbreeding/Speaking drivel can it get confused with heavy breathing?"

Most influential to the playful, angular gait of the album's best songs though are probably Madness and XTC. Here they found a connection with a specifically English sense of pastoral drollery that had fallen distinctly out of fashion by the early 1990s, when the predominant mood for guitar bands was one of weighty self-consciousness. The taut staccato verses of Colin Zeal echo Sgt Rock's skip-stomp beat, whilst the pinpoint vocal harmonies throughout the album (and in particular Albarn & Coxon's call and response Starshaped chorus) seem twinned with much of the rest of 1980's Black Sea. Elsewhere, the stop-gap buffoonery of Intermission and Commercial Break became live pogo favourites whilst Sunday Sunday's brass-assisted knees-up made it onto the racks as the album's third single release, despite the reservations of Food boss Dave Balfe.

If Blur just about got away with the goofy swagger of Sunday Sunday (whose knockabout theme outstayed its' welcome with Parklife's title track just a year later, and almost terminally so with the now drastically aged Country House in 1995), then the same can't be said of the near identical When The Cows Come Home, which, perhaps in view of Alex James' assertion that it was "too oompah for widespread appeal", was relegated from the eventual tracklisting and farmed out like much of the scrapped original album as single b-sides in bumper multi-format packs. These comprised largely unfocussed New Wave embryos (a live version of Never Clever) and beaty baggy leftovers (My Ark), plus a selection of demos under the pre-Blur 'Seymour' moniker and 'popular community songs' backing the Sunday Sunday release. Of credit however are the affected krautrock funk of Es Scmecht and the kaleidoscopic haze of two sinister beauties from the For Tomorrow package, Peach and Bone Bag.

This residual shimmer of Blur's first phase Floyd obsession crept its' way onto the album too, and coats several tracks in a woozy bloodshot sheen via Coxon's effects-heavy howls and quivers. Albarn's Balfe/Cope dig Pressure On Julian doesn't quite come off, nor does the warped drunken lament of Miss America (where Dave Rowntree's credit is listed simply and aptly as 'The Plough, Bloomsbury'). Starkly underrated meanwhile is the visceral drone of Oily Water, an endless MBV-esque wall of noise far more in-keeping with the druggy mores which Albarn grandly and paradoxically declared he'd vanquished upon Leisure's release.

For all the misfiring of the album's turbulent recording period, it could never be said that the band didn't apply themselves. The full realisation of the kinships Blur appeared to share with XTC and Pink Floyd both came agonisingly close in 1992, when sadly neither a fruitless studio experiment overseen by Andy Partridge nor a mooted film collaboration with Hipgnosis helmsman Storm Thorgerson could re-ignite the nascent project's spasmodic progress. But a handful of exquisitely crafted songs emphatically did.

"Kicking around in the centre of the town looking in shop windows/Those mannequins look far too real at night"

Whilst Modern Life's world is peopled largely by the misdirected, the 'losers' who frequent Villa Rosie or upwardly mobile cretins like the protagonist of Colin Zeal, the finest moments on the album are reserved for daydreams, romantic snapshots not quite so cluttered by the broad brush, often acid-tongued portraits which, for many, would only mark out Albarn as nothing more than an opportunistic fraudster. What For Tomorrow and Chemical World achieved however (both emerged from Albarn's enforced songwriting sabbatical in late '92) simply cannot be reconciled either sonically or lyrically with the largely substance-less frivolity of their debut.

For Tomorrow's enchanting tale of lovers caught punch-drunk in the vortex of London life could thematically (and somewhat ironically) have found its' way onto either of the first two Suede albums, but an air of melancholy rather than gothic horror is indulged to sumptuous effect. Whether the "trying not to be sick again" is down to a solace in hedonism or the sheer dizzying turbulence of what's passing them by is unclear, but the sense of trepidation - which a pithy yet judiciously apportioned 'la la la' chorus can't obscure - is palpable. This careworn and ever-so-slightly embittered 'us against the world' leitmotif is set powerfully against a wondrous cadence of melody ("London's so nice back in your seamless rhymes") and a stunning, snaking Alex James bassline. Crucial too is Stephen Street's production: whereas his handling of Blur's increasingly experimental bent wasn't sitting too well by the time of their eponymous fifth album in 1997, the string arrangements and backing vocals here are quite sublime.

More in tune with the raucous, distorted capers of Blur's live sets, Chemical World begins in an explosion of heavy six-string chords and thumping snare stops, before Coxon's sugary arpeggio beckons in what appears to be a commentary on Blanqueford itself. The supermarket 'pay me' girl makes her escape to a more rural setting and some rosy cheeks, the local snooper sets his sights on an exhibitionist target (Albarn could be on either side of the lens here) and a conflict between insular old town natives and the overspill is hinted at with the lines "these townies they never speak to you/just stick together so they never get lonely". Beneath the bawdiness and social engineering arcs a sweet yet ambiguous chorus of grapevine ruminations on "putting the holes in", perhaps a reference to the very device on which Albarn's study relies: the view through the cracks in the weatherboarding and a community's fabric made porous by a soaking in soda pop.

Arguably better than both single releases however - and a track without which no evaluation of British mid-'90's pop, let alone Modern Life Is Rubbish would be complete - is a song which didn't even appear on the album. Young And Lovely is a staggeringly delicate rites of passage song which owes its' 'lost classic' status to Dave Balfe's insistence that the vacuous Turn It Up take its' place on the LP, meaning a relegation to the B-sides of both the second CD and 12" Chemical World releases.

This plaintive recounting of childhood merging into teenage insouciance boasts a gossamer light verse of acoustic guitar and strings, whose impeccably measured vocal juxtaposes a parable on the rush of youth against a contemplation on a static shop facade dummy ("Friday's child doesn't know if it's awake or if it's dreaming"). Despite the burgeoning indifference of 'Friday's child', one last teary-eyed reassurance is afforded to mum and dad - "I'll do my bit, I'll raise the flag/I'll be just like you" - before a spiralling hammer-on coda.

Young And Lovely perfectly fixed Albarn's newly affecting depth of songwriting within a keenly adopted and archly English setting, and is in many ways emblematic of Modern Life's chaotic cycle. Blur were by turns out of control and over-restrained through its' timespan, but several shards of brilliance and a rare conviction of concept helped navigate the disarray. As an album, Modern Life Is Rubbish is flawed and patchy, and the final selection of tracks from the pool provided makes no sense in places. Yet between Popscene's false dawn and the overplayed though finely honed craft of what followed, it stands as a raw and unjustly overlooked chapter in the band's catalogue. Blur would never be so vital (or so surprising) again: although they continued to regenerate, Britpop's muddied waters and the self-consciously speculative mish-mash of their post-'95 work meant Albarn would take until his 2006 The Good, The Bad And The Queen project to regain his ability to truly dazzle.

Late 1993 saw Blur embark upon a triumphant 'Sugary Tea' tour and document their prior collapse in the wonderfully tragi-comic tour film Starshaped. By the time of Parklife's delivery barely six months later, their rehabilitation was complete. They made better, more cohesive albums in the ensuing years, but the Parklife single and over-mugged accompanying promo was used as a stick to beat the band (and specifically Albarn) with for some considerable time. Their peers eked out the decade steadfastly clinging to the Blunt-posh mockney mantra as if one day it might come true, and in an incongruous twist, Stephen Street emerged to produce two albums by the band's most inept progenies, Kaiser Chiefs.

Whatever Blur have to answer for (and you could argue that there's plenty), this pivotal moment remains misunderstood. It wasn't simply to do with mod culture or anti-Americanism, and the band's success never appeared overnight out of some crude Lazy Sunday con-trick novelty. Despite the fog of so many misappropriated RAF roundels, Modern Life Is Rubbish somehow hit its target.