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Coffee & TV: Behind Graham Coxon’s Beloved Blur Song
In Depth

Coffee & TV: Behind Graham Coxon’s Beloved Blur Song

The Blur song that put Graham Coxon in the spotlight, Coffee & TV found the guitarist seeking refuge from ‘this big, bad world’.

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Blur’s sixth album, 13, is most often remembered for frontman Damon Albarn’s heart-on-sleeve songwriting – a reaction to the breakdown of his relationship with Elastica frontwoman Justine Frischmann. Yet an altogether different catharsis was taking place for guitarist Graham Coxon, who, in the song Coffee & TV, expressed his desire to live a slower life after surviving the Britpop tornado and making the decision to stop drinking.

Featuring touching lyrics and one of Coxon’s greatest guitar solos, Coffee & TV was a wake-up call of its own. Here’s why…

Listen to the best of Blur here.

The writing: “It reflected my anxiety and feelings of alienation”

Though rightly associated with Graham Coxon, Coffee & TV grew out of a song Damon Albarn had begun to write, but which he’d yet to finish. While pushing for Blur to record what he called “a cute, straightforward, poppy thing” like Yo La Tengo’s recently released Stockholm Syndrome, Coxon heard in Albarn’s sketch a vibe that fit, and offered to come up with lyrics for the partial tune. Welcoming the help, Albarn had one mild caveat: “If you write the words, you have to sing them.”

That evening, back at his flat in Camden, North London, Coxon leafed through old notebooks looking for ideas that would suit the tune while also reflecting, as he put it in his memoir, Verse, Chorus, Monster!, “my anxiety and feelings of alienation – that the world is a scary place”.

Having recently given up alcohol, Coxon voiced his wish to “start over again”: to avoid the “big, bad world” and find refuge in the simple pleasures that gave Coffee & TV its title. Though his lyrics initially led to a fight with his then girlfriend, who thought he’d written a song about one of his exes, Coffee & TV was, Coxon told Total Guitar magazine in 2012, actually “about the idea that you feel like a piece of shit in a crap job, and you want to marry someone and get away from it all”.

The recording: “Everything he did was brilliant. He never played a bum note”

During the recording of 13, which took place with producer William Orbit (fresh from his work on Madonna’s Ray Of Light album, and replacing Blur’s previous go-to producer, Stephen Street), Coxon himself seemed keen to get away from everything, often skipping sessions entirely. “It was frustrating because, when he did [turn up], everything he did was brilliant,” bassist Alex James wrote in his memoir, Bit Of A Blur. “He never played a bum note.”

Coxon had previously scored a Blur songwriting credit with You’re So Great, from 13’s predecessor, the simply titled Blur. But whereas that lo-fi DIY tune fit the alt-rock sound of its parent album, Coffee & TV – though a more straightforward ballad compared to some of the songs on 13 – had a complex arrangement in keeping with the ambitious new music Blur were recording.

“The Coffee & TV chord shapes are just ridiculous,” Coxon told Total Guitar. “They’re just unusual. They’re not normal. They’re sort of minor chords going against major chords.” Drawing from a mix of Eagles, The Velvet Underground and Sonic Youth influences, Coxon wove the whole into “gentler textures” for the finished song.

However, when it came to honouring his agreement to sing the lead vocals, the guitarist took a moment to settle. “The first take was too jumpy and aggressive, and Damon made sceptical noises,” he wrote in Verse, Chorus, Monster! “I went in and did another one, softer and nicer this time, and it seemed fine.”

All that was left to add was a guitar solo. Assuming he would come back and overdub something more structured, Coxon threw out an improvised clash of atonal notes and distorted effects which, upon reflection, felt like the perfect counterpoint to the song’s radio-friendly melody. Singling it out as one of his own personal favourites, Coxon told guitar manufacturers Fender, “That solo had no predetermined plan; it’s just the thumping on of a load of effects pedals on the floor and bending notes to see how they fit. It’s kind of like Jackson Pollock style.” NME would later place it at No.38 in a list of the best guitar solos of all time.

The release: “The pleasant feeling of getting run over by a hit squad on Vespas”

Developed from a song idea that Albarn wasn’t even sure he’d finish, Coffee & TV was quickly deemed worthy of a standalone release, following 13’s lead single, Tender. Issued on 28 June 1999, with band remixes of the album track Bugman for B-sides, the song made it to No.11 in the UK, its performance boosted by a heartwarming promo video in which an anthropomorphised milk carton named Milky sets out in search of a missing Coxon.

Created by Hammer & Tongs, the duo of Garth Jennings and Nick Goldsmith, who would go on to helm the clip for Coldplay’s Shiver and, later, adapt The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy for the big screen, the Coffee & TV video had an upbeat melancholy that suited the song. Later winning Best Video at the NME Awards and MTV Europe Music awards ceremonies, the video’s concept was, Coxon later acknowledged, a Blur in-joke based on the guitarist’s propensity for not turning up to things, particularly during 13’s demanding recording sessions.

The legacy: “It was Graham having his little turn in the spotlight”

Reviewing 13 for Rolling Stone, music critic Rob Sheffield heard in Coffee & TV the sound of cult US indie outfit Pavement “sitting in with Brian Eno circa Taking Tiger Mountain” and creating “the pleasant feeling of getting run over by a hit squad on Vespas”. His only complaint was “that the song has to end”.

Proving its longevity, however, Coffee & TV has since ranked among the best music videos of all time in lists compiled by both UK TV’s Channel 4 (2005) and NME (2011).

Certainly, for Coxon and fans alike, it remains one of the best Blur songs: evidence not only of the group’s masterful ability to merge pop smarts with art-rock instincts, but also of Coxon’s burgeoning talents as a songwriter. Releasing his debut solo album, The Sky Is Too High, while the 13 recording sessions were taking place, the guitarist has since amassed a parallel discography that includes soundtrack work and supergroup side projects.

And yet, Coffee & TV will arguably remain his signature song, lovingly embraced during Blur gigs. “I always took the vocal on that song, even though it was a scary moment, because the guitar part is bloody tricky in itself without worrying about singing in tune,” he wrote in Verse, Chorus, Monster!. “But it was a nice moment too – fans treated it as if it was Graham having his little turn in the spotlight, and they would shout, ‘Go, Graham!’ I always felt they were rooting for me.”

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