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Parklife: The Story Behind The Blur Song That United “All The People”
Warner Music
In Depth

Parklife: The Story Behind The Blur Song That United “All The People”

Released as a single in the summer of 1994, Parklife was the song that confirmed Blur’s place as Britpop’s definitive band.


One of the first songs Blur recorded for their breakthrough third record, Parklife wasn’t just a focal point for the remainder of the tracks on the era-defining Parklife album, it was a unifying anthem whose singalong chorus crossed generational, social and cultural lines in the summer of 1994, and which continues to bring audiences together in raptures whenever Blur hit the road.

“That was cathartic!” frontman Damon Albarn said after the group performed a particularly rowdy version of the song in Eastbourne, in May 2023, during a warm-up show for their landmark headlining concerts at London’s Wembley Stadium. Indeed, Blur may have gone on to develop beyond Parklife’s bombastic chants and observational humour, but the track still sits among the best Blur songs of all time – a game-changer for the band, and the moment of arrival for Britpop as a whole.

Here is the story of how Blur fashioned Parklife into a song “all the people” could get behind.

Listen to the best of Blur here.

The backstory: “Before ‘Parklife’ came out, the tide was starting to turn”

With their second album, 1993’s Modern Life Is Rubbish, Blur knew they’d taken a creative leap. Through delivering commentaries on British society, Albarn had found his voice as a frontman, and together the group began to hone a sound that stood apart from both the baggy remnants that had seeped into their debut album, Leisure, and the angst-fuelled grunge music that was pouring out of the US and crashing like a tsunami on British shores. Effectively drawing up the blueprint for Britpop, Modern Life Is Rubbish may not have made Blur a household name, but it took them one step closer towards becoming one. “Before Parklife came out, the tide was starting to turn,” bassist Alex James noted in the Blur documentary, No Distance Left To Run. “There was a sense that something was happening. That we were developing. Word got out that we had some good songs.”

“At that point there was no such thing as a leftfield indie band that were that commercial. And I think everyone had accepted that it was never going to be like that,” Albarn added. But as Blur began to gain traction, they readied themselves to enter the studio with a whole new batch of songs that would force an industry-wide rethink over what indie bands were capable of.

The recording: “Parklife was obviously a single. It was all there in the demo”

With touring commitments keeping them on the road sporadically throughout 1993, the Parklife album was recorded across a series of sessions, the first of which was held in August of that year, when the group entered Maison Rouge Studios, in Fulham, London, to lay down the album’s title track, along with its eventual lead single, Girls & Boys.

Even in demo form, it was clear Parklife was something special, its bouncing rhythm, razor-edged guitar and radio-ready chorus needing little more than a polished re-recording under the guidance of producer Stephen Street. “The first time Damon played it to me, I was certain: ‘Damon, this is it, man, this is great,’” Alex James would tell Stuart Maconie, for the Blur biography 3862 Days. “It was one of the most complete things I’d ever heard. It was all there in the demo. Usually all that there is is just an acoustic guitar and a vocal melody, not even any words often, but that was pretty complete.”

To ensure its chances of airplay, Street had the group rebuild the song on a foundation of programmed drums. Let loose to bash his kit on top, drummer Dave Rowntree gave the finished track a pleasingly homemade feel, and even smashed some plates to approximate the sound of breaking glass at the start of the song. Samples of birdsong, a barking dog and a gaggle of unruly children added to Albarn’s wide-angle look at everyday British life, while his sly dismissal of Audi’s omnipresent “Vorsprung durch Technik” ad slogan was countered by guitarist Graham Coxon playing a rudimentary snippet of the German national anthem on saxophone, as if a music student’s practise session were wafting in through a nearby window.

However, when it came to singing his lyrics, which contained references to everything from morning exercisers and refuse collections to the simple pleasures of feeding pigeons in the local park, Albarn was dissatisfied with his attempts at nailing the voice of the “habitual voyeur” who regales the listener with his thoughts on the general public going “hand in hand through their parklife”.

“He just couldn’t get into character,” Coxon later told The Guardian. “He thought it would be better to get in a celebrity, so I suggested the actor Phil Daniels, because we were big fans of Quadrophenia.” Daniels, who had also appeared in Mike Leigh’s Meantime, another Coxon favourite had originally been booked to recite a poem over a different Parklife tune, The Debt Collector. But when Albarn shelved the words he’d been working on, that track remained an instrumental, and Daniels was asked to deliver Parklife’s now-iconic Cockney narration instead.

Arriving at the studio with long hair and a beard he’d grown for a role in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel, Daniels may not have looked like the sharp-dressed mod the group had expected, but within 40 minutes he’d nailed the Parklife verses and brought his own personality to the lyrics. “Should I drop the ‘h’?” he asked of the lyric “there will always be a bit of my heart devoted to it”. “If I pronounce it, it’ll sound more adorable.”

“You never knew exactly what the song was about, and I still don’t, which is part of the magic of it,” Daniels later admitted. “What I do know is that as soon as it began to get played on the radio, dustmen started apologising for waking me up in the morning.”

The release: “Just as Damon had predicted, the mainstream of music did change”

By the time Parklife was released as its parent album’s third single, on 22 August 1994, lead single Girls & Boys had already taken Blur into the UK Top 5 for the first time, and the ennui-laden ballad To The End had further established the group’s range in the eyes of a public that had now wholeheartedly embraced them. Given a promo video that featured Daniels and Albarn as double-glazing salesmen, and the rest of the band as characters from the song (Coxon appears as the “gut-lord marching”; Alex James as one of the “joggers who go round and round and round and round and round”), Parklife went to No.10 in the singles chart, where it not only established itself as the group’s signature song, but also confirmed that Blur were spearheading a unique moment in British pop history.

“Just as Damon had predicted, the mainstream of music did change,” Dave Rowntree later noted. “Everything about ‘indie’ disappeared, and indie became the new pop music.”

Reflecting on how, in a little over a year, Blur had almost singlehandedly boosted the credibility of a British scene that had become overshadowed by its US counterpart, Coxon added: “It was quite a relief that British music was suddenly being appreciated again.”

The legacy: “It epitomises what Blur were about – having fun and doing exactly what you want to do”

Parklife the album would spend a staggering 119 weeks in the UK Top 100 – well into the campaign for its follow-up, The Great Escape. That album, and particularly its lead single, Country House, would throw Blur into the media-fuelled “Battle Of Britpop”, one instigating factor of which was the 1995 BRIT Awards ceremony, at which Blur made history by becoming the first group to win four awards in one night, including Best British Album and Best British Group, with the Parklife song coming away with Best British Single and Best British Video.

In the decades since, Parklife has become an almost permanent fixture at Blur concerts, and was even performed during the closing ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics, in an arrangement for the brass bands of the British Army’s Household Division. The song’s quintessentially British world view has also, on occasion, been reinterpreted for overseas audiences. In 2015, during Blur’s tour for The Magic Whip, comedian Fred Armisen joined the group on stage at the Hollywood Bowl to translate the song for a Los Angeles crowd more au fait with recycling collections and gridlock on Route 101 than they were notions of dustmen and “morning soup”.

For his part, Phil Daniels has regularly travelled with Blur to reprise his turn as the song’s narrator. “I’ve been all over the world doing it,” he told Radio X ahead of the release of the group’s 2023 comeback album, The Ballad Of Darren. Damon always said, ‘You can do it whenever you like. I’ll tell you when we’re going to an interesting country, and you can come along if you want.’ So I’ve been to Japan, South America, America… All over the place.” The actor was also called back into in the studio a decade on from the Parklife session, to recite the verses on Me, White Noise, the hidden track on Blur’s 2003 album, Think Tank.

If Daniels’ vocals gave Parklife much of its charm, Graham Coxon has cautioned listeners against mistaking the intent behind his Cockney accent. “The Parklife single wasn’t about the working class,” he told The Guardian. “It was about the park class: dustbin men, pigeons, joggers – things we saw every day on the way to the studio. It epitomises what Blur were about – having fun and doing exactly what you want to do.”

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