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‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’: How Blur Kickstarted A New Era In British Pop
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‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’: How Blur Kickstarted A New Era In British Pop

Establishing Blur’s identity, the ‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’ album become one of the most influential British albums of the 90s.

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While it may not have given Blur the chart success it deserved, their second album, Modern Life Is Rubbish, would go on to be one of the group’s best-loved records and, in many ways, prove to be one of the most influential British albums of the 90s.

However, after the moderate success of their debut album, 1991’s Leisure, Blur found themselves facing a backlash from the then all-important UK music press and, in January 1992, discovered they were in debt thanks to financial carelessness on the part of their manager. Rather than bringing Blur to their knees, those problems became the making of the group. Under new management, and in an attempt to recoup some of their losses, they embarked on a 44-date tour of the US.

Listen to Modern Life Is Rubbish here.

An ultimatum

The tour went badly. Gripped by grunge, US audiences had little time for Blur’s baggy-inspired indie music. Meanwhile, feeling homesick for British culture, the band’s performances became increasingly drunken and belligerent – qualities that failed to endear them to US crowds.

Things weren’t much better back home. Blur’s March 1992 single, the horn-driven punk of Popscene – now rightly regarded as one of the best Blur songs of all time – had flopped, while their rivals Suede were gaining momentum with a glammed-up, melodramatic and defiantly British brand of indie music. In August that year the two bands shared a stage at a charity gig at London’s Town & Country Club. Though Suede were lowest on the bill, they blew an intoxicated and shambolic Blur off the stage. Dave Balfe, the head of Blur’s label, Food Records, delivered frontman Damon Albarn an ultimatum: if Blur failed to get their act together in a month, they’d be dropped.

“They were taken aback by his hostility”

The band entered the studio with XTC’s Andy Partridge on production duties, for the first stab at what would become Modern Life Is Rubbish. With a new focus on writing about everyday British life and influence taken from classic British guitar pop – The Kinks, Small Faces, The Jam – Albarn’s new material was a marked improvement on Leisure. Still, neither producer nor band were happy with the results, and Blur found themselves back at square one.

Happily for all concerned, guitarist Graham Coxon bumped into Stephen Street – producer of the band’s breakthrough hit, 1991’s There’s No Other Way – at a gig in early October and, come November, the team were reunited in the studio. Street would go on to produce every Blur album up to 1997’s Blur, a period during which the group experienced huge success. Still, when Blur played Modern Life Is Rubbish to Balfe the following month, the label boss felt something was missing. “One day, Dave Balfe came in for a listen to the album and said, ‘It’s crap. It’s commercial suicide. It’ll sell to a few NME readers, and that’s it,’” Street told Uncut in 2009. “They were pretty taken aback by his hostility, but it did make Damon write two more cracking songs for the record, Chemical World and also For Tomorrow, which he wrote at his parents’ house in Colchester on Christmas Eve.”

Though Balfe’s bluntness may not have been appreciated at the time, his instincts proved correct – with his boss’ tough love, Albarn produced a pair of singles that took Modern Life Is Rubbish to another level. Released in April 1993 as the album’s lead single, For Tomorrow marked a watershed moment for the band in terms of both subject matter and sound – that Kinks influence came to the fore on a jaunty, singalong chorus, while the stately verses were sprinkled with character sketches of young Londoners and references to the capital’s landmarks. And the group’s image had changed with their music – in came modish suits, Fred Perry tops and turned-up jeans in another stark contrast to the grungy fashions that had defined early 90s alternative culture.

An exciting new era

For Tomorrow was the perfect introduction to Modern Life Is Rubbish, which followed on 10 May 1993 and ended up peaking at No.15 in the UK. It also brought with it more tales of suburban life (Colin Zeal, Sunday Sunday, Star Shaped); dreamy vignettes (Blue Jeans, Oily Water); and diatribes against contemporary living (Advert, Chemical World). Musically, too, it’s a step up – Coxon seems to treat each song as a challenge to do something new with the guitar, unleashing waves of menace on Pressure On Julian; bringing shimmering psychedelia to Oily Water; and punctuating Coping with taut, stuttering distortion. Stephen Street also helped to bring the best out of Albarn’s instinctively melodic songwriting, providing dynamic and innovative production throughout.

With Modern Life Is Rubbish, Blur not only gave themselves another chance – which they grasped emphatically with 1994’s Parklife – but helped to kickstart an exciting new era in British guitar music. Rubbish? Not at all!

‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’ Track-By-Track: A Guide To Every Song On The Album

For Tomorrow

As an early acoustic demo, For Tomorrow sounded more like an outtake from David Bowie’s Hunky Dory album than the statement of intent it would become for Blur. Fleshed out in the studio with producer Stephen Street, Modern Life Is Rubbish’s opening song and lead single introduced everything anyone needed to know about Damon Albarn’s – and, by extension, the band’s – development in the two years since the release of Leisure. A short series of boy-girl vignettes depicts the uncertainty of life for a generation seeking to make its way in in England’s capital in the wake of the early-90s recession, before an ambiguous domestic denouement – tea, telly, a trip to Primrose Hill to take in the London skyline – offers the weary remark that gives Blur’s second album its name. The reference to Emperor’s Gate, in West London, is a deliberate nod to both a former stomping ground of Albarn’s parents and the street on which John Lennon made his first London home, though Albarn himself is here more obviously graduating from the school of Ray Davies lyric-writing. Widescreen strings give the localised observations a universal relatability, while the female backing singers make good on their task of imitating the work of lesser-known figures in British pop: Thunderthighs, vocal foils to Mott The Hoople and Lou Reed (on his Bowie-produced Transformer album).

As a group, Blur unabashedly claim their place in the British pop pantheon with For Tomorrow, drummer Dave Rowntree laying down a solid beat for Coxon’s sharp, art-rock chords and Alex James’ winding bass work, while the song’s jolly-sounding “la-la” chorus evokes the all-in-it-together camaraderie of early Britpop. Stick around for the Visit To Primrose Hill extended mix: picking up from the album edit’s fade are a further two minutes of brass accompaniment, timpani playing and wiry guitar lines. The Blur of legend had arrived.

Advert

A frivolous keyboard motif and the sampled promise that “Food processors are great!” open this insight into the hell of rush-hour travel. Graham Coxon lets his post-punk leanings show with scuzzy chords that land like the barrage of advertisements vying for commuters’ attention, while Albarn vents his distrust of sales pitches that don’t deliver on their promises (“I need a holiday somewhere in the sun/With all the people who are waiting/There never seems to be one”). A megaphone siren adds to the sense of perpetual emergency felt by huge swathes of the population who feel burned out and in need of a break.

Colin Zeal

The sort of scathing character sketch that would pop up again on Blur’s fifth album, The Great Escape (see Charmless Man), Colin Zeal is less about sympathising with the overworked and the undervalued, and more about satirising the kind of people you might find installed as their line manager. Zeal’s irritating self-satisfaction (“Looks at his watch, he’s on time yet again”) is partnered with a bassline which spins on the spot like that ostensibly busy co-worker who creates more work than they complete. Coxon’s pre-verse guitar fills create an almost mocking theme for said colleague’s approach; Albarn’s “Butlins Tannoy vocal” part gives voice to the echo chamber that is the inside of their skull.

Pressure On Julian

With its panned guitars and woozy time signature, Pressure On Julian approximates the dizzying panic that comes from feeling life is closing in on all sides, and nightly performances of the song provided something of a release valve for Blur during their short co-headlining Rollercoaster tour of spring 1992. Rather than one of Albarn’s characters, the Julian in the title was Julian Cope – an in-joke of Albarn’s, who once said that he enjoyed slipping musical and lyrical references to The Teardrop Explodes’ neo-psychedelic frontman into Blur’s songs because it drove Food Records boss – and former Teardrops keyboardist – David Balfe “bananas”. The “magical transit children” of the chorus, meanwhile, were picked up from a piece of graffiti the group spotted while posing for a Melody Maker photo shoot in the Kings Cross area – a touch that ensured London life wove its way into even the album’s more impressionistic songs.

Star Shaped

Dissatisfaction with nine-to-five monotony is answered with a disingenuously chipper morale boost (“We don’t think you/You seem star-shaped”), as weekend beers and the carrot of a job advancement are what keeps this unnamed office drone going. The forced optimism of “a clean mental state” is expressed in Star Shaped’s upbeat melody, though its Beatlesy middle eight is cut through with some abrasive guitar – never far away when Blur need to roughen-up the edges a little (Coxon’s final Moog note, seemingly shooting off into infinity, was given an “anti cat and dog” credit in the album’s liner notes). One of the Modern Life Is Rubbish songs that best exemplifies the creative leap Albarn’s songwriting had taken prior to recording the album, Star Shaped also lent its name to an early Blur tour documentary, its lyrics bearing no small relevance to the grind of life on the road.

Blue Jeans

While most of the protagonists in Modern Life Is Rubbish are exhausted and nervy, Blue Jeans presents a rare exception: comfortable in his air-cushioned trainers, happy to wear the same clobber every day and content to while away time amid the throngs of tourists crowding Portobello Road’s weekend street market, this figure’s low drive is matched by an idle beat and a daydreaming melody adorned with Albarn’s go-to instrument for laidback moods, the melodica (see Clint Eastwood, from Gorillaz’s debut album). There’s a gentle love story here, too – though, this being the Albarn of the mid-90s, it’s not without hints of stagnation (“I don’t really want to change a thing/I want to stay this way forever”).

Chemical World

Released as the follow-up single to For Tomorrow, Chemical World could chart the ongoing adventures of that earlier song’s desperate young hopefuls, imagined as having punched their way through the paper-thin temptations of Adverts before eventually succumbing to the quick-fix sedations of sugary tea and bedtime chocolate. A stop-start rhythm mirrors the frustrating pace of a life that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, and for which countryside day-trips or inner-city voyeurism are the only reprieves. In a modern world of processed goods, the song suggests, true nutritional value has become a rare commodity.

Intermission

Tracked as a postscript to Chemical World, this instrumental interlude starts out as an end-of-the-pier piano melody conjuring images of British beach holidays – rolled-up trousers, stick-of-rock confectionary – before careening into a frantic climax, thrashed out with all the chaos of a motorway exodus on a bank-holiday weekend.

Sunday Sunday

Bounding forth with music-hall pizzazz and a Salvation Army brass section, Sunday Sunday surveys what’s left of middle-class tradition at the end of the 20th century. Peeking through the windows of suburbia’s two-up two-downs, Albarn spies roast dinners, weekend papers and religious programming, and makes the acquaintance of a World War vet who bemoans the disappearance of the values he went into battle for. Waving goodbye to these anachronisms, the song rides its cheerful retro send-up into a zany double-time section ripped from the Intermission playbook, before righting itself for one final burst of Old Blighty bombast.

Oily Water

Writing in his memoir, Verse, Chorus, Monster!, Graham Coxon cited Oily Water as an example of the “harder edge” he felt Blur’s music had lost during the Britpop years, and which he wanted to recapture for the band’s self-titled 1997 album. One of the earliest songs recorded for Modern Life Is Rubbish, Oily Water’s murky sound – a thick eddy of swirling guitars and a relentlessly circling rhythm section which threatens to pull Albarn’s vocals under – fits the spiralling anxieties of its lyrics. Stepping away from the scrutinous stance he takes across much of the album, here Albarn seems to chronicle a poisonous hangover (“In a sense of self in decline/Growing fat on sound/It’s only an early morning dream”) before being engulfed by a lengthy instrumental outro which builds like a wave of dread preparing to break over a particularly unforgiving morning after.

Miss America

Blur failed to crack the US on their first attempt, and worn-out disappointment pervades Miss America, the ever ambitious Albarn declaring his love for this personified stand-in, even as he casts a distrustful eye over her surface pleasantries (“She’s a well-wisher and she wishes you well/Wish away, wish away”). In the Modern Life Is Rubbish liner notes, drummer Dave Rowntree earns himself a credit for “The Plough, Bloomsbury” – the pub the band spent an evening in before a drunken Graham Coxon wandered back to the studio to finish his guitar parts (that’s Coxon yelling “Michael!” at the start of the song, greeting Blur’s publisher, Mike Smith, as he and the band returned from seeing their fellow Britpop figureheads Pulp play a gig). Instead of Rowntree’s drumming, percussion comes from Coxon hitting a chair leg. Despite some chart successes, it would take until the release of Song 2 for Blur to make serious inroads into the US, while Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz project would ultimately go on to do more stateside business than Blur.

Villa Rosie

Though not based on any real-life place in particular, Villa Rosie sits in a long tradition of British drinking songs, its “ooh-ooh” backing vocals and come-one-come-all chorus seemingly promising a right old knees-up in a local boozer. Pay a little attention, however, and you might find a leery appraisal of after-work drinking culture and the false confidence a few quick halves can bring. “Speaking drivel, can it get confused with heavy breathing?” Albarn sings of his pub patriots. “Meandering through this and that, you’re suspected of vagueness.”

Coping

Choppy chords and a crazed synth solo soundtrack the inevitable crack-up from shouldering the strains of contemporary living. Albarn delivers his nonsensical lyrics with numbed detachment, asking repeatedly, “When I feel this this strange, can I go through this again?”, before wondering if what he’s experiencing is a dream, or just what it feels like to be clinging on. A deranged “la-la” outro doesn’t have any answers.

Turn It Up

With a steady beat, distorted guitars and a something of a positive lyrical rejoinder to Coping, Turn It Up may have little message beyond a belief in the power of noise to provide distraction, but Blur play it convincingly, displaying a knack for no-fuss rock that crops up periodically in their work whenever they fancy a break from the more taxing concepts.

Resigned

After letting off steam with a clutch of boisterous guitar tracks, Blur close Modern Life Is Rubbish with a short rumination, Albarn seemingly coming to terms not only with the state of the world as he has seen it across the preceding songs, but also reaching an understanding of his own place within it. Coxon’s guitars shimmer and Albarn reaches for the melodica again, prettifying a fatalistic view on the limits one’s own character (“I think too much on things I want too much/It makes me hateful and I say stupid things”) and of life itself (“I’ll forget to breathe someday/I’ve never stopped to think why”). Albarn’s songwriting would become more openly heartfelt in years to come, but Resigned offers proof that the best Blur albums always featured moments in which he dropped his guard.

Commercial Break

A somewhat sinister sibling to Intermission, Commercial Break dispenses with itself in less than a minute, but not before Coxon’s off-kilter opening guitar line extends an invitation for Alex James’ bass to brawl with Dave Rowntree’s crashing drums. Albarn picks out piano runs like a distracted referee, this jingle doing little to soothe a frazzled consumer’s troubled mind.

Buy Blur vinyl and more at the Dig! store.

Original article: 10 May 2021

Updated: 10 May 2023. Extra words: Jason Draper

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