Monday, 9 August 2010

Damon Days

It takes something unique or embarrassingly personal for me to get excited about touring bands these days, but I’ll admit that getting tickets for the Gorillaz show at Rod Laver arena in December made me do a little happy dance. This has as much to do with me liking the Gorillaz as having an unexpected opportunity to see Damon Albarn live again for the first time in over a decade. Not getting to Blur’s once-in-a-lifetime 2009 reunion tour of the UK because we needed the money to buy our first house was sad but I appreciated the irony when they took the opportunity to put out a greatest hits compilation titled Midlife.

So my participation in Blur’s reunion was limited to watching the 2010 documentary No Distance Left to Run and accompanying DVD of their concert in London’s Hyde Park. Given that bits of that reduced me to tears it’s perhaps just as well we couldn’t get to England last year; I would only have shown Mrs Custard up. Again. Still, I was genuinely surprised at my emotional attachment to the coming back together of one of my favourite bands.

I’ve met no end of music fans that look down their noses at Blur (and Gorillaz) and laugh when I tout Albarn as my generation’s David Bowie. Too pop for the Wire crowd (remember Mogwai’s Blur: Are Shite t-shirts?) and not pop enough for the masses, Blur’s legacy is still up for grabs. Having relived (as much as one can through a DVD) some of their finest moments, I’m still convinced of Albarn’s legend-in-waiting status. As with Bowie, there’s no doubt Damon’s best work occurs in collaboration with others (Blur were mostly awful without Graham; Gorillaz always interesting though spectacular when working with Danger Mouse) but to me his collected outputs and successes over the past twenty years put him on a different level to most.

Yet belittling Damon Albarn has been a popular past time, in the UK at least, since August 1995. This was the nadir of the Battle of Britpop, the race between Blur's Country House and Oasis' Roll With It to the UK number 1 slot (yes, people really did care). Just weeks after Blur won that particular battle Oasis proceeded to win the war by selling several million copies of (What's The Story) Morning Glory and having Wonderwall become one of the biggest sing-a-long anthems of all time. Oasis’ unprecedented success effectively ended the era of indie as some kind of an alternative, leaving those of us hoping for more from Britpop than Ben Sherman Union Jack t-shirts and having to share our dancefloors with beered up wankers a little perplexed.

The idea of Blur as Oasis' equals, never mind betters, was quickly abandoned by a British press drunk on lad culture and keen to rub Damon’s nose in it. By his own admission a previously cocky Albarn took this hard (evidenced by this awkward interview with Chris Evans on TFI Friday just six months later or his grumpy appearances in 2003’s execrable Britpop documentary, Live Forever). Blur abandoned 1996 to Dadrock, The Prodigy and the Spice Girls and didn’t resurface until January 1997.

I remember the date because I was amongst 1500 people at Newcastle’s now demolished Mayfair to see their first English dates in promotion of the Blur album. A newspaper review i kept from that night decided ‘Blur are possibly the last band you’d expect to go all lo-fi and experimental on you’ which seemed a bit silly even at the time given their earlier recordings but its true I’ve never forgotten the joys of hearing a gleefully fucked up Beetlebum live that first time. Blur had written many fantastic songs before then but Beetlebum was the sound of a band ready to stop messing around and make something worth its 7 inches of vinyl.

Since then Albarn has thankfully remained unashamed of making intelligent, experimental and mostly lovable music. Without ever returning to Parklife-style sing-a-longs (not that there’s anything wrong with Parklife, but you know, been there done that) he has also - much like Bowie in his pomp - kept one eye on the charts. Rather than making album after limited appeal album for hardcore fans and navel gazers, Albarn has kept moving, finding new ways to share his abilities and enthusiasms with as big an audience as possible. In the eyes of the indier-than-thou fraternity it will never make him cool, but then it’s hard to imagine Bonnie Prince Billie writing anything as bizarre and joyous as Gorillaz’ kiddie-choir and dirty beat fest Dirty Harry. Whoo-fricken-hoo...

So, it may not be Blur and it may make me unhip to say so, but I for one am looking forward to saluting Albarn and his troupe of cartoon ragamuffins come December. His record is far from unblemished (Crazy Beat anyone? No, didn’t think so...) and modern life may still be rubbish, but as this year’s Plastic Beach showed, there’s always room for another Damon Albarn album in my collection.

Song Too... if you’ve read this far you’ve probably already got Blur’s more celebrated output. If not then grab yourself a copy of Midlife: A Beginner’s Guide which is a better prospect that their 2000 Best Of which is principally a truncated singles collection which criminally overlooks the Modern Life is Rubbish era. For anyone who fancies delving a little deeper here are some of my favourite (non-single) Blur and Albarn songs from the past 20 years. I’ve excluded the Good the Bad and the Queen (because it’s just all good) and also Gorillaz who deserve a whole section on their own, but I’ll quickly say Laika Come Home, the dub remix of their first album, is well worth a listen and there are few songs as pretty as Hong Kong...

  • Girls and Boys - Pet Shop Boys remix (B-side of To the End) “always should be someone you want to faaaack” sang a reinvigorated Damon when Blur played their new single Girls and Boys on Channel 4’s the Word. The indie kids went mental, but it was the Pet Shop Boys day-glo remix that took Blur out of the student disco and into mainstream pubs and clubs across the land. Of its time, but their time...
  • Advert (Modern Life is Rubbish album) “food processors are great” - a sure sign of a great band is when they have songs as good as Advert in their live set and still don’t release it as a single. A definite fan favourite (as shown by its inclusion on Midlife) because of its loud hailer-ed count to sixteen, subsequent insouciant dum-de-dum middle eight before Graham’s circling guitar riff crashed back in. Ace.
  • The Wassailing Song (fan club only release) I don’t actually own this fan club only single take on a traditional Anglo-Saxon Christmas song, but love the way it was used during a segment about Glastonbury on the 1993 Blur documentary Starshaped in which Graham compares visiting Stone Henge as ‘a bit like going to see Morrissey.
  • Day Upon Day - Live (Blur: the Collector’s Edition album) ...another unreleased track (at least I don’t think there is a non-live version out there) best understood through Starshaped in which a immaculately attired though shit-faced Damon climbs the rigging at Glastonbury and pushes over a speaker only to see it fall over and nearly take his foot off but keep dancing anyway... a fantastic pogoing mess.
  • This is a Low (Parklife album) – a song of unspeakable beauty and poignancy that I still haven’t figured out the secret to and hope I never will. Mostly about the British shipping forecast but I don’t think that’s why I cry every time. Ranks alongside Common People as Britpop’s finest hour. No greater praise.
  • Ambulance (Think Tank) my least favourite Blur album but in Out of Time, Battery in Your Leg and Ambulance three of their finest moments with this being perhaps the least feted. A gently menacing bass, Angelo Badalamenti-synths, shuffling programmed drums and saxophone (bear with me!) all rendered beautiful by the romantic refrain of ‘I ain’t got nothing to be scared of cos I love you.’
  • Trimm Trabb (13) buried deep within their ‘space-rock-opera’ 1999 album 13, Trimm Trabbchuggs along acoustically for a while with processed beats and Damon mocking ‘all those losers on the piss again’ before building into a crunching, soaring brother of the Beatles’Helter Skelter. Best experienced live
  • Theme from an Imaginary Film (Parklife single b-side) sweeping waltzing music hall number that would sit comfortably (on its lazy arse) on the soundtrack to Oliver! From a time where it seemed like literally anything could appear on a Blur b-side.
  • No Monsters in Me (The Universal b-side) just one in a line of short and sharp noisy Blur songs a la B.L.U.R.E.M.I, Chinese Bombs, We’ve Got a File on You etc but with a dollop of disco bass, a class Coxon riff and a silly la-la-la chorus it’s better than all of them
  • All Your Life (Beetlebum b-side) the gorgeously produced, ambitious but understated sound of a fallen pop star looking in the mirror and facing up to a world he made for himself: ‘oh England my love you’ve tattooed your past all over me.·
  • Trailer Park (13) if 13 was the sound of Damon’s difficult split from Justine Frischmann it’s nice that he could smile enough to find someone silly to blame (‘I lost my girl to the Rolling Stones'’). More trip hop beats and the sound of a piano underwater create the backing but it’s Damon’s delivery that sticks in the memory
  • Eine Kleine Lift Musik (Help! Warchild compilation) Blur’s contribution to the first Help album in 1995 is a rather lovely doo-wop inspired instrumental with an off key piano melody which sounds a bit like that song Donna and Maddy sing in Twin Peaks but without making you wanting to vomit. Not even in a little bit in your mouth.
  • Oily Water (Modern Life is Rubbish) shimmering guitar, Damon with a megaphone and lolloping bass and crashing cymbals slowly spin and climb around you until the sound fills the room and you wonder just when did everything get so loud?
  • Theme from Retro (Blur album) gothic and swirling Hammond organ-driven instrumental punctuated with echoey yells, cries and spooky ”whooo” sounds. Not good on acid.
  • Jubilee (Parklife album) Parklife’s Advert – a perfect pop song that they just couldn’t be arsed to release as a single. Computer game noises and brass punctuate Blur’s answer to Beck’s Loser (‘he’s gone divvy, too much telly’) which, for many years I thought was about someone called Jessie with bad posture... It’s not.
  • Entertain Me (The Great Escape album) the sound of Jubilee’s older funkier brother. Worth listening to for Alex James best bass line outside of Girls and Boys
  • ‘Intermission’ (Modern Life is Rubbish album) frustratingly tagged on the end of Chemical World on the CD version of Modern Life is Rubbish making it difficult to cue up at indie discos, my friends and I used to take this along to the monthly rock nights in our shitty town and play it in between hair-metal bands to annoy the rock kids. We would spend its ever accelerating two minutes running in circles around the dance floor lifting our knees ever higher as the piano and drums got louder in our own version of Madness’ nutty boys dance. I wish I still had that energy.
  • Death of a Party (Blur album) forever linked to the notion of Britpop’s end thanks to John Harris’ less than perfect account of the Britpop era Death of a Party was actually written in 1992, though I suspect with less of a trip hop beat. Reuses Theme from Retro’s swirling organ sound but it’s Coxon’s circling guitar riff and the pointed pause between ‘hang myself’ and ‘gently on the shelf’ that elevates this even higher.
  • Inertia (There’s No Other Way b-side) sleepy shoegazer number curiously left off their debut album Leisure with Graham’s gently overdriven guitar and Alex’s languid bass creating a dreamy anti-There’s No Other Way.
  • Closet Romantic (Trainspotting soundtrack) actually Damon on his own (Blur’s more celebrated Sing featured prominently on the Trainspotting soundtrack and was reclaimed by the band and fans as a result) but this simple Wurlitzer waltz sees Damon reeling off the names of various James Bond movies in tribute to the film’s Sick Boy character.
  • Got Yer (B-side of To the End) another Damon piano waltz combining elements of Steptoe and Son with woozy guitar, jaunty whistles and a goose being shot dead.
  • Don’t Bomb When You’re the Bomb (2002 vinyl only release) the squelchy bleeps and lack of song structure might have put some traditionalists off (a sign that Gorillaz were knocking on Albarn’s door) but I rather like its messy charms and the production on Damon’s voice when it emerges from the digital fog at 2:20 is still lovely.
  • You're So Great (Blur album) I’m cheating here as this is a Graham Coxon song but if you’re digging around in Blur’s garden you should excavate this whilst you’re at it. A fuzzily recorded acoustic mess, but being completely broken never sounded so romantic.
  • Trouble in the Message Centre (Parklife album) a deceptively ambitious song that recalls the Cars, the detached delivery of Gary Numan and the months of hell I spent bored in a call centre in Dublin. Graham’s guitar at 2:10 still makes my arm swing down in an air-strum despite myself and yet another example of Albarn’s ability with a la la la.
  • Supa Shoppa (Parklife single b-side) yet more instrumental cheesy listening from Damon’s Hammond organ that makes you feel like you’re watching a British 1970’s sitcom.
  • Caramel (13) – proof after ten years that actually there is another way. Organic and sprawling this is Blur at their loosest and most freeform, with Damon’s almost spoken lyrics echoed, chased and finally overtaken by his own choirboy falsetto. More Tortoise than the terraces, this is the moment Blur left the lager crowd behind for good.
  • Music is My Radar (Single) as the only new material on their first Best of... this was meant to herald the sound of a new Blur for a new decade. Instead this raucous combination of melodica, disco-guitar and fuzzy bass and gibberish lyrics threatened to be their swansong (interesting fact/nerd alert: mentions Afrobeat legend Tony Allen who Damon would later work with on the Good, the Bad and the Queen).
  • Strange News from Another Star (Blur album) there’s no escaping that this sounds like Blur’s take on Bowie’s Space Oddity but that doesn’t stop it being lush. Foreshadows the sound they would later perfect on 13 but has its own mournful soul.
  • Fool’s Day (2010 single) ok, so I said no singles, but this is different because unless you were one of 1000 people to get hold of a vinyl copy on Record Store Day in April this year then you’ve probably just got the same free download I got from the website which doesn’t count. A lovely return to action after 7 years apart with lyrics meandering between the mundane (‘porridge done, take my kid to school’) to the wryly sweet (‘consolidate the love we’ve had together on a cold day in springtime)’. The good news for Blur fans? I’m definitely going to do a few more of those 7 inches says Damon.

So there you go. Not definitive, probably not your choices either but feel free to share your own favourites either here in the comments on via Wotcha.

1 comment:

Mint Custard said...

Surprisngly informed and informative interview with Albarn from Herald Sun affiliated website Perth Now for those who are interested. Includes news that Paul Simonon and Mick Jones of the Clash as well as Bobby Womack and De La Soul will play as part of the Gorillaz shows in Australia