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10 Takeaways From Blur’s ‘To The End’ Documentary
Reuben Bastienne Lewis
List & Guides

10 Takeaways From Blur’s ‘To The End’ Documentary

Blur’s ‘To The End’ documentary caps one of the most astonishing years in the band’s career – as these ten takeaways reveal.

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Chronicling their 2023 reunion, the recording of a surprise comeback album, The Ballad Of Darren, and the group’s career-topping headline gigs at London’s Wembley Stadium, Blur’s To The End documentary is an emotive full stop to the latest chapter in the band’s ever-changing story.

Directed by Toby L and premiered at Sheffield DocFest on Friday, 14 June, the film, which is named after the song To The End, which featured on Blur’s breakthrough 1994 album, Parklife, takes a candid look at the band’s relationship after almost a decade apart. Like the Starshaped film of 30 years ago, it’s unflinchingly honest, revealing the tensions and triumphs behind a year no one could have predicted – as these ten takeaways from the To The End documentary reveal.

Listen to the best of Blur here.

1: ‘The Ballad Of Darren’ “dislodged” something within the group…

During one particularly affecting moment in the To The End documentary, frontman Damon Albarn bursts into tears while listening to a Ballad Of Darren playback for the first time with his bandmates. Explaining his reaction, he tells the camera crew, “It’s about loss, it’s about the aftershock of loss. Once something dramatic has happened, whether it’s a breakup or pandemic – I mean, what do you want me to say? Now I live alone, essentially, in the countryside. That’s what happened. And this record obviously very much feels like that.”

And yet, for guitarist Graham Coxon, recording The Ballad Of Darren was a cathartic experience for the whole band. “Emotionally, I think, with this album, something has been dislodged within the group, within Damon,” he says. “The boulder has fallen out. And there’s 40 years’ worth of stuff in this boulder that has been dislodged and now rolls down towards us.”

2: … And it surprised even Blur themselves

While preparing for his bandmates to arrive at his home studio to record what would become The Ballad Of Darren, Albarn admits to being “concerned that we do it as honestly as humanly possible for people like us”. In the years since the release of 2013’s The Magic Whip, the four Blur band members had barely communicated with each other, making the emotional depth of their comeback album all the more surprising.

“I don’t think any of us thought we’d make another record. Especially not a record like this,” says Albarn. “I suppose that’s why I wanted to try and make it as good as possible. Because otherwise it’s just some bunch of old c__ts trying to relive their past.”

3: Damon Albarn’s local pub is haunted

While driving bassist Alex James to his local boozer for a drink one night, Albarn reveals that it’s known for its haunting clientele. “It’s a very, very, very old smuggling pub,” he says of the establishment, which is near his home on the outskirts of Kellaton, in South Devon. “Sometimes you get ghosts… cider-swilling peasants with smocks and red kerchiefs, with bright blue eyes.”

4: Albarn and Coxon’s former school has named a classroom in their honour

Returning to their old secondary school, Stanway, in Colchester, ahead of a warm-up gig in the city, Albarn and Coxon discover that the music room, A0.01, has been named the Albarn & Coxon Room in their honour.

Admitting to being beaten up by classmates who were “somewhat more Anglo Saxon than myself”, Albarn recalls taking refuge in what was then a Portakabin that housed the school’s musical equipment; eventually, the budding musician was given a key to the makeshift building. It was at Stanway that he made his first appearances on stage, in school productions of the musicals Guys And Dolls, The Boy Friend and West Side Story; and it was in the school’s assembly hall that he and Coxon first performed together in front of an audience, in a band called Real Lives. Astonishingly, a previously unheard audio recording of a Real Lives gig is played in the To The End documentary.

5: Damon Albarn can’t stop making music

“Damon’s work ethic is very strong. That’s just part of who he is,” says Coxon, acknowledging that his bandmate is one of the most prolific songwriters of his generation. Drummer Dave Rowntree adds: “I might be watching TV or playing video games – Damon doesn’t do any of that. He just writes songs. We’ll go to the bar, Damon goes to his room, gets his equipment out and writes songs. On the bus, he’s writing songs. At home, he’s writing songs.”

“If we don’t keep him focused on the job in hand, he will literally be doing another opera,” Alex James notes. Indeed, while the band settle in to record the string parts for The Ballad Of Darren, an exhausted Albarn begins working out new melodies on a nearby keyboard.

Addressing claims that he is a “workaholic”, Albarn says, “There must be some sort of a brain condition that drives you to just pursue something so relentlessly. Yeah, it’s just sort of never believing, really, that it’s happening.”

6: Touring is still a “trigger” for Blur

With each bandmember describing life in Blur as being like a long-term marriage, returning to the road puts the group to the test. Via some fraught rehearsal footage, the To The End documentary reveals the band working hard to ensure they honour their legacy, even as some of the old group tensions resurface.

“Going back to the classic model of The Beatles, I suppose the appeal of the band was the psychodramas that accompanied everything,” Albarn says of much of the media attention Blur received in the 90s. Yet while Dave Rowntree observes that it takes time to “work through that relationship, where you can be relaxed and comfortable and not want to push each other’s buttons, and want to be supportive”, Alex James reveals that touring is “a massive trigger for all of us. It’s on a knife edge.”

Albarn is clear-eyed in his assessment of the central danger the group face: “It’s easy to confuse touring with going on a massive self-indulgent binge of sex and drugs and rock’n’roll,” he says. “Booze is certainly a big contributing factor in why Blur stopped being a full-time job.”

7: Albarn feels that Blur’s older songs make “more sense” now

Looking back at the social-commentary lyrics he was writing during Blur’s breakthrough years, Albarn notes, “A lot of those older songs, they make more sense to me now… The language I was using and my kind of obsession back then, which was by some people seen as me being quite cruel to people about media absorption and the sort of paralysing effect of it… I can see that there was some quite challenging stories from all those songs.”

New generations of fans are also discovering that Blur’s music remains as relevant and powerful as ever. “When I feel sad… I need something to soothe me, and Blur has become my first choice,” says one young fan, who makes the acute observation: “There’s a deep depression inside, but then they use a very enthusiastic way to express it. And I feel like it’s the most beautiful thing.”

8: Blur find transcendence in making music

Attempting to explain the intangible effect that music has on both performer and audience, Dave Rowntree says, “It’s a way of expressing emotion to somebody else that bypasses the rational centres of the brain.”

For Albarn, making music transcends our very existence. “It’s the journey and the hunger for the sublime,” he says. “Music is something we’ve been doing from the dawn of our species… it is just a sort of complete abandonment of the self and the ego in that moment, and you’re just one of the many billions of atoms in that space.”

9: The Wembley Stadium shows were “as good as it gets” for the band

Building from low-key warm-up shows in intimate venues to high-profile festival appearances, Blur’s surprise 2023 reunion culminated in two major headlining slots at London’s Wembley Stadium. Overcoming tour tensions and, in Dave Rowntree’s case, a debilitating knee injury, the group played to the biggest audiences of their career – something they readily admit they would not have been able to do even during the white-hot heat of the Britpop era.

“We haven’t played Wembley before because we haven’t been big enough to play Wembley before. That’s the reality,” says Rowntree, who acknowledges that the group’s near-decade absence had only fuelled a hunger for their return: “We’re getting bigger and bigger. The less we do, the bigger we get.”

After leaving the Wembley stage to the roar of a 90,000-strong crowd, Albarn, admitting that he’s usually “always down on everything”, takes a moment to process what just happened. “That was as good as it gets, really. As good as it gets,” he concludes.

10: This may be Blur’s final bow

Acknowledging that he’d had “an amazing year” with Blur, Albarn, whose other projects include solo work and releases under the Gorillaz banner, expresses no desire to repeat it.

“That’s it, really,” he says, before avoiding absolutes. “I mean, I’m not saying that’s it-it-it – although it may be. It will manifest itself again if it’s wanted.”

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