They may be approaching decrepit geezerhood in terms of rock years. Their mention may time-stamp anyone as a “‘90s kid.” (That’s lame, right?) But it can be said with absolution and from a totally righteous standpoint that after almost 25 years of being ridiculously musical wankers, Blur remains the badass.
Actually, for a band that has churned out solid Britpop glory for most of its career, including one of the biggest ‘90s radio hits (“Song 2,” known to rock ignoramuses as “Woo-Hoo”), Blur is still a fairly well-kept rock and roll secret – at least if you’re on this side of the vast aqueous barrier that shields North America from all of the drunken Oasis fans.
Whenever I’m at a party or a Queen’s Luncheon and I bring up Blur, I get one of two responses:
a) (Contemptuous smirk) Blur?
b) (Slow, solemn nod) Blur…
This usually depends on whether or not I’m talking to one of the aforementioned rock ignoramuses. And it’s because of “Song 2.”
“Song 2” is kind of like Radiohead’s “Creep” (to recap an earlier post, most rock ignoramuses are unaware of any Radiohead material other than “Creep”). It’s not necessarily representative of the band’s catalog, but for whatever reason it is the only blip on most people’s radar where the band is concerned. As a bonus, it’s not really the sharpest song in the shed, so the consensus among rock ignoramuses is that Blur is a shallow, candy-pop one-hit wonder. Thus, there is a sizable divide between those who are aware of Blur’s legacy of badassery and those who blithely deny it.
To remedy some of this ignorance, let me try with this humble post to explain the brilliance of Blur for the benefit of those who weren’t previously aware, or might have even doubted it. (Those drunken, Blur-hating Oasis fans can be pretty confident en masse.) If you are already aware of Blur’s awesomeness, this will simply sharpen your awareness, and maybe send you on a tear listening to all of their albums in your car for a week. It’s a plus either way.
Here are several reasons why Blur is a bastion of stone-hewn coolness:
Melodic sweetitude. To sum up this no-brainer and move on, Blur is highly skilled in the arena of crafting luxurious melodies, both vocally and otherwise. Listen to almost any song, and there it is – a cool, less-than-obvious, sing-along-able, air-guitar-able melody. No big deal, you say? Hater, you’d be surprised how hard it is to find bands that can do this consistently, even in the big leagues. The radio waves are peppered with the husks of ‘90s-era alternative bands whose memorable songs can be counted on one hand – Tonic, Sixpence None the Richer, Seven Mary Three, Naked, Fuel, and eons more that play alongside the adult contemporary swill rotating on the PA system at Ralph’s. Conversely, after Blur’s first big single “She’s So High” finished thumping around inside everyone’s brain, their second single “There’s No Other Way” came out and was even more addictive and catchy. Then, rather than fade into obscurity like so many others, they went ahead and produced six more catchy, addictive albums as if they’d won some kind of karmic bet. However, this is only the most superficial observation.
Subtle guitar schizophrenia. This is an ambiguous thing to point out, but listen to the band’s early single “Sing.” In the background there’s a creepy, confusing white noise of guitar strings, forming no particular chord but somehow relatively in key. For another example, listen to “Battery in Your Leg,” where the same sick-sounding white noise avalanches into a wash of electric guitar that more or less resembles what … oh … cancer might sound like. The 10-second-or-so intro to “Coffee and TV” is a nicer, warmer version of the same thing, like maybe a faint dizzy spell or vertigo. Wherever the inspiration for this eerie guitar style came from, it probably wasn’t “let’s do something rational that makes musical sense.” But somehow, in its novelty lies utter brilliance.
Downright loony noises and static. Just in case spooky electric white noise wasn’t unusual enough, guitarist Graham Coxon (presumably) also throws in a bunch of other random stuff to further confound listeners and ward off the shallowest ranks of mainstream popheads. Blur songs seem to be thoroughly drenched in strange noises, speaker static, and random, detached song parts that seem to have all come from some off-the-wall sonic garage sale in Riverside. Here’s an idea: let’s take this “Beetlebum” song that promises to be a great, straightforward pop number, and let’s throw in some super-wacko tape looping noises just to freak everyone out. And you know what? “Music is My Radar” could definitely use a harmonica that sounds like a squeaky swing set, why didn’t we think of that before? The laser-beam guitar sounds in “Death of a Party,” zombie background textures in “Swamp Song,” and ADHD brain noises in “Bugman” (these are highly technical musical terms) are straight out of the manual for bands trying to be excommunicated from the mainstream. No one is confusing Blur with a junkie group, but one wonders what kind of Ritalin-induced haze they spent their time in. Breaking glass sounds? Sure, toss that into “Parklife,” it’s just the title track of our biggest album. Rock on.
Gentle evolution into pop psychedelia. Other bands have done this to a much larger degree (like, uh, anything from the ‘60s). But for a Brit-pop alternative band, this one made some pretty admirable progress in the trashing of traditional song structure. “Caramel” is sort of like the “Revolution 9” of Blur’s catalogue with its surreal opening, garbled background effects, looped guitar parts and general wonkiness. The cool part was they did it without completely losing sight of their core elements – the song is safely nestled under the Brit-pop umbrella where non-burnouts will still listen to it. But the next album, Think Tank, makes one wonder what Damon Albarn was putting in his morning coffee with its absolute departure from, like, normal rock stuff. “Out of Time” is still more or less a pop song, but drummed out on the bottom of a tin can and backed by ethereal spirit noises (or a zither, one of the two). “Caravan” sounds like it was performed by a trio of Arabian zurna players, and I’m sure there are a few other z-instruments in there somewhere. This is also the album with the aforementioned “Battery in your Leg” – yes, the one that sounds like cancer.
Graham Coxon’s crazy axe skills. The psycho lead-guitarist factor is much more obvious with some other bands (like, uh, Van Halen). But here Blur is again, subtly sneaking more awesomeness past the trusting eyes of the masses with Graham Coxon’s raging guitar skills. Listen to the chorus from this live version of “End of a Century,” where he busts out some mad fingerwork while simultaneously singing backup vocals, all without batting an eyelid. OK, that might have been more convincing to guitarists, but here’s clearer demonstration as he plays one of his acoustic numbers for NME on a rooftop during SXSW 2009.
Damon Albarn’s wanker accent. This is low-hanging fruit, but British bands always sound cooler when they sound like bloomin’ wankers. Also see the Libertines, Pulp, the Smiths, the Zombies, and Arctic Monkeys.
The solo from “This is a Low.” This, incidentally, is the Blurism that inspired this post. This solo, which overflows with dark, heavily distorted, blues-inspired bliss and even a little of the schizophrenic discord mentioned earlier, is absolutely one of Blur’s finest moments. The way it swells out of the song is like a warm ocean tide, or a crawling of goose bumps, perfectly displaying Coxon’s taste for subtle, well-thought-out arrangements. It twists in the air in melodic contortions, plunges like a cannonball back into the depths of its distortion, then rises again as a more sinister doppelganger of itself before melting gracefully back into the song’s intro. As far as guitar sounds run, it’s as big and hollow as a barn and twice as filthy. As a bonus, it’s stuck square in the middle of an utterly brilliant, repeat-worthy song, without a doubt my favorite from this band.
Oh, alright, here’s the whole track:
Oh yeah, and you'll want to download my book.