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Girls & Boys: How A Disco Pastiche Gave Blur Their Breakthrough Hit
Photo: Edd Westmacott / Alamy Stock Photo
In Depth

Girls & Boys: How A Disco Pastiche Gave Blur Their Breakthrough Hit

With its canny lyrics and irresistible beat, Girls & Boys is the career-making song that crowned Blur the kings of Britpop.

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If Blur’s second album, Modern Life Is Rubbish (1993), and its attendant singles, For Tomorrow, Chemical World and Sunday Sunday, had established the group as a vital voice in British pop in the early 90s, they were still looking to prove themselves at hitmakers. But with the release of a brand-new song they’d debuted on tour, Girls & Boys, all that would change – immediately. Launching the group’s career-making Parklife album, Girls & Boys would ride a wave of support to become the summer anthem that brought Britpop to the masses.

Yet while holidaymakers could see themselves reflected in Damon Albarn’s loutish lyrics, the singer kept things distanced enough to convince the outsider indie crowd it could be their song, too. Chart subversion rarely sounded so poppy nor so irresistible – as the story of Girls & Boys reveals…

Listen to the best of Blur here.

The writing: “There’s no morality involved, I’m not saying it should or shouldn’t happen”

With Modern Life Is Rubbish, as he would with much of Parklife, Albarn took a critical look at British society, noting its foibles, its warped sense of tradition; the things that had both made and unmade the culture he’d grown up with. The inspiration for Girls & Boys, however, came while Albarn was overseas, on holiday in Magaluf, on the Spanish island of Majorca – although his countrymen would again provide fodder for his lyrics, as Albarn came into contact with the Club 18-30 package holidays of the era, witnessing the antics that took place when a certain type of reveller was let loose in foreign climes.

“I just love the whole idea of it, to be honest. I love herds,” Albarn said of the gangs of holidaymakers he observed trying their luck in Magaluf. “All these blokes and all these girls meeting at the watering hole and then just copulating. There’s no morality involved, I’m not saying it should or shouldn’t happen.”

Imagining he was “following the herd/Down to Greece” on a getaway of his own, Albarn captured the hedonistic messiness of it all in a simple chorus refrain that would soon be heard booming around his homeland like all good terrace chants: “Girls who are boys who like boys to be girls/Who do boys like they’re girls, who do girls like they’re boys/Always should be someone you really love.”

Speaking to NME 20 years later, guitarist Graham Coxon noted, “We’d never been on Club 18-30 holidays or any of those things. We’re writing about characters that you see and you make up stories about them; there’s not a lot of first-hand experiences.” Yet Albarn had tapped into something that would resonate with listeners, whatever their lifestyle.

The recording: “I was taking the mickey out of the fact that we were practically playing a disco tune”

Along with the song Parklife, Girls & Boys had been tried out on audiences during the Modern Life Is Rubbish shows, so when Blur entered Maison Rouge Studio, in West London, to start recording their new album, they already had a tight arrangement ready to be laid down – if only their record label would agree to it. “At first we had to have our demos approved by the label, and they’d go, ‘Yeah, you can record these three songs,’” Coxon wrote in his memoir, Verse, Chorus, Monster!. But when Albarn played a nascent version of Girls & Boys to producer Stephen Street, the producer heard enough to ignore the approvals process and get straight down to recording the song.

“As soon as I heard Girls & Boys I knew it was a single. I said to Damon, ‘Top 10 single,’” Street later told Sound On Sound. “The minute we finished it I said. ‘Top 5’ – and I was right.”

Picking up on the four-to-the-floor disco beat that underpinned the Albarn’s keyboard demo, Street lifted a 120bpm sample from his Akai drum machine, added a synth bass and asked drummer Dave Rowntree to crash some cymbals on top, giving the song’s motorik rhythm a human element. After throwing some Moog samples into the mix, Street then let Graham Coxon and bassist Alex James “do their usual thing on top”.

In this instance, the “usual thing” was for James to plug directly into the recording console and lay down a naggingly infectious bassline that sounded like the wriggly offspring of Chic’s Bernard Edwards and Duran Duran’s John Taylor, and for Graham Coxon to rough it all up with a spiky guitar part that ensured Blur would retain their indie credentials. “I wanted to put some irksomeness into the chord progression,” the guitarist would recall. “That was my job, to cut across the flow of Alex’s Chic-style bassline. He was sort of Sister Sledging out, or John Tayloring out – a mixture of the two – and I was trying to add a Wire-like guitar part, taking the mickey out of the fact that we were practically playing a disco tune.”

All that was left was for band and producer to pile into the vocal booth to chant their way through the chorus, and the song was complete, setting the tone for much of the rest of the Parklife sessions. “We had such fun making it,” Street later told Uncut magazine, though he was aware of the risks the group had taken with their sarcasm-drenched disco pastiche. “It was a very bold step doing this, it could so easily have backfired.”

Upbraided by Food Records boss Andy Ross for spending time and money recording a song that hadn’t passed his quality-control checks, Street stood firm: “I told him, ‘When you hear it, believe me, you’ll understand.’”

The release: “Surrender now, it will beat you in the end”

As the Parklife album sessions continued, reports on Blur’s progress only added to the anticipation growing around their third album. “There was a sense that there was something happening. That we were developing,” Alex James said in the Blur documentary No Distance Left To Run. “Word got out that we had some good songs. It had gone up a notch.” Speaking to Blur biographer Stuart Maconie, for the book 3862 Days: The Official History, he explained, “You knew Girls & Boys was going to happen. We’d learned how to work studios, we had a producer we got on well with, and to an extent we knew how to handle our record company. It was all primed.”

So certain was James of Girls & Boys’ success that, even before it was released, he could be seen opening the windows of his flat, propping his stereo speakers on the ledge and blasting the song out into the street. After its release as Parklife’s lead single, on 7 March 1994, the song could be heard in every street across the country, blasting from pubs, car stereos and the homes of Blur’s exploding fanbase, who sent Girls & Boys rocketing to the No.5 spot, giving the group their biggest hit yet and paving the way for the Parklife album to dominate the UK charts well into the following year. Awarding the song his I’m As Surprised As You Are, Sheer Chutzpah Single Of The Week accolade, NME’s Ian McCann expressed the inevitability of the song’s nationwide takeover:

“The tongue lolling, deliberately camp-yobbish, mindless delivery and drooling lyrics defy categorisation. The rinky-disco beat is where Sparks meet Giorgio Moroder in his Son Of My Father era, the phased guitar adds a rock noise to the mess, and that chorus! Surrender now, it will beat you in the end.”

Made to look like a cheap Club 18-30 TV ad, with the band performing the song against a backdrop of gurning, churning, both-ends-burning holidaymakers, Girls & Boys’ promo video, directed by Kevin Godley, who’d helmed career-best clips for The Police during their globe-straddling Synchronicity era, only enhanced the song’s mass appeal, while the single’s vintage-condom-wrapper-style artwork provided a cheeky wink for those in the know. (“Girls & Boys is every bit as rude as Frankie [Goes To Hollywood]’s Relax but it got played on the radio. Ha!” Albarn once said with glee.)

Aiding the song’s entry into clubland was a remix by arch pop saboteurs Pet Shop Boys, who hadn’t failed to notice the gender-fluid lyrics that may have slipped under the radar of many of those chanting along. Reportedly undertaken at the duo’s own expense, the remix was given a standalone release in Europe and Australia, while also appearing as a Girls & Boys B-side in the US.

The legacy: “The chorus is ‘Boys, Girls, Love’. That’s quite a universal message, isn’t it?”

Although it would take songs such as Song 2 for Blur to truly gain a foothold stateside, Girls & Boys achieved enough success at home to change the lives of the four Blur bandmates forever – not least that of Damon Albarn, who would later admit to experiencing panic attacks after being thrust into nationwide fame.

“It’s very difficult to cope with that kind of attention,” Alex James said in John Harris’ history of the Britpop era, The Last Party. “I’d walk into a bar with him, and people’s jaws would drop. It was a lot to adapt to… It’s scary: all of a sudden he was very, very famous. And eventually you realise, it’s never going to stop. You’re going to be living on Planet Stupid forever.”

After doubling down on their Britpop-defining sound with 1995’s The Great Escape, Blur would embark on a period of reinvention, with the sonic experiments of their self-titled fifth album leading to the radical overhaul of 1999’s 13.

Yet it’s arguably Girls & Boys that provided Blur with a fanbase solid enough to support their evolution. Straddling celebration and satire, Albarn’s canny lyrics spoke to people who could see themselves in the song, and to people who saw those people as targets for derision. Whatever side of the divide fans are on, three decades on from Girls & Boys’ release they all come together for mass singalongs at Blur’s live shows.

Albarn would be succinct in his appraisal of the song’s wide appeal: “The chorus is ‘Boys, Girls, Love’. That’s quite a universal message, isn’t it?”

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