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Song 2: How A Joke Song Became Blur’s Biggest Hit
In Depth

Song 2: How A Joke Song Became Blur’s Biggest Hit

Initially recorded in an attempt to “scare” their record label, Song 2 marked a career turnaround for Blur at a crucial moment.

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When Blur recorded Song 2, they initially thought of it as a joke – something they could use to frighten their record label during discussions about their fifth album. But when the label bosses decided Song 2 had “hit” written all over it, the joke was on Blur. From recording to release, parody to picking a name, here’s the story of how a quick gag became one of Blur’s most famous songs.

Listen to the best of Blur here.

The backstory: “I think I’m in a mid-pop-life crisis. Pop makes me very sick”

Blur were almost in tatters when it came to recording the follow-up to their fourth album, 1995’s The Great Escape. Its lead single, Country House, may have won them the “Battle Of Britpop” when it beat Oasis’ Roll With It to the No.1 spot in the UK, but the image of Blur that Country House’s promo video projected, and the pressure of having to promote and tour another album less than a year after wrapping up duties for their breakthrough record, Parklife, threated the group’s stability. “We didn’t really hang out anymore,” frontman Damon Albarn admitted in the Blur documentary No Distance Left To Run.

“I think I’m in a mid-pop-life crisis,” guitarist Graham Coxon said in the wake of The Great Escape’s release. “Pop makes me very sick.” Seeking to recapture some of the edge he felt the band’s music had lost, he wrote Albarn a letter – “something about the music and everything getting a bit, you know – we’re tired, we need a rest. I wanna make music that scares people again,” he told the documentary filmmakers.

“I don’t know what he thought about what I wrote,” Coxon reflected a quarter of a century later, in his memoir, Verse, Chorus, Monster!. “It was a conscious effort to reconnect, at a time when none of us were communicating on an emotional level with each other. No one wanted to acknowledge or discuss the fact that Blur increasingly felt like a business venture.”

To the cameramen filming No Distance Left To Run, Coxon explained, “I needed to be nourished, I suppose, as a guitar player, and there was none of that happening in English music.”

The demo: “When I originally wrote it, it was like a lounge song”

During early recording sessions for Blur’s self-titled fifth album, Coxon brought in records he’d been listening to at home – music which was worlds apart from the wry observational pop the group had made central to their most recent releases. “My shake-up letter, coupled with the examples of more adventurous US musicians, definitely infiltrated the album,” he would go on to say. “I was soaking up a lot of interesting, inventive music from Beck’s One Foot In The Grave, Pavement’s Slanted And Enchanted and the first couple of albums by the Chicago band Tortoise, who managed to groove while sounding improvised and free.”

“I kind of got drawn towards what Graham was listening to, and then got into different parts of it myself,” Albarn said around the time of the Blur album’s release. But when he brought an early version of Song 2 to the group, it sounded nothing like the worldwide hit it would become. “The weird thing about Song 2 is that, when I originally wrote it, it was like a lounge song,” Albarn told Zane Lowe during an Apple Music special filmed to promote Gorillaz’s sixth album, Cracker Island. Coxon, however, immediately envisioned it as something else entirely.

“Damon had this little song that he had on acoustic guitar,” Coxon told producer Warren Huart while discussing Song 2 on a episode of Produce Like A Pro’s Inside The Song. It was “very slow”, with “a wolf-whistle kind of thing. I was like, ‘This is quite good. Let’s do it really, really fast. Really, really noisy and horrible.’”

Years later, while talking to Daniel Rachel for the book Isle Of Noises: Conversations With Great British Songwriters, Albarn admitted that overhauling the song had been the right thing to do: “It’s definitely better the way it ended up.”

The recording: “I really wanted a clangy, crap guitar sound – a not-played-particularly-well kind of vibe”

Song 2 was recorded in London’s Mayfair Recording Studios, in Primrose Hill. Writing about the session in his book, A Bit Of A Blur, bassist Alex James recalled that it “was about the simplest thing we’ve ever done, and the quickest”.

Stephen Street, the group’s longtime producer, created a loop out of drum parts played by Coxon and drummer Dave Rowntree – Rowntree holding down the main beat, Coxon adding clicks and booms from a tom tom’s shell and head. Coxon laid a few guitars on top (“I remember being very pleased with the squeak at the beginning of the distorted part. And I really wanted a clangy, crap guitar sound – a… not-played-particularly-well kind of vibe,” he told Warren Huart), and James double-tracked his bass during the chorus, running it through a distortion box. Albarn then laid down a guide vocal, shout-singing “woo-hoo” because his wolf whistle couldn’t be heard over the noise. (Even so, Coxon later wrote that he “found Song 2 frustrating because I could never quite reach the disgraceful levels of noise I really wanted with the equipment I had”.)

“Damon’s guide vocal was pure babbling but it worked so well I suggested we went with it,” Stephen Street later told Q magazine. “He just needed reassurance that what he’d done was good.”

While Albarn wanted to work on his performance, further attempts at a master take failed to recapture the energy and impact of that first pass. “He’s relaxed,” Coxon would later observe. “I think he wrote lyrics and had a go at doing the vocal again… It was either trying too hard or something. It was self-conscious or – he was just like, ‘Oh, blow it. Just have these.’”

“The whole thing was done in about 15 minutes,” James reflected. The completed Song 2 hit like a short, sharp blast of fresh air: “I had a bad hangover and I felt horrible. It’s a nasty record and it wouldn’t have sounded so nasty if I’d gone to bed early the night before. We did it without thinking too much about it and felt better afterwards.”

Why is it called Song 2?

Placed second in the tracklist for their self-titled album, after the woozy ballad Beetlebum, Song 2 was originally the song’s working title. But once Blur began playing it live, months ahead of the album’s release, they had no other name to use when introducing it to fans, and Song 2 quickly stuck.

Recalling one of those early performances, in Dublin, in June 1996, Blur biographer Stuart Maconie described the “jaw-dropping effect” Song 2 had on audience members who had become Blur fans during the Parklife era, but who had yet to encounter some of the group’s earlier, more confrontational material. Like hearing Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit for the first time, Song 2 came across as a blast of “aggressive and inchoate noise” which sounded “maniacally gung-ho as it vacillated between spartan verses and belligerent choruses”.

Was Song 2 a parody?

Though many have assumed Song 2 was a parody of the grunge music that had rivalled Britpop for chart space throughout much of the 90s, Graham Coxon has said Blur actually recorded it as a joke on their record label – the Girls & Boys and Country House hitmakers pretending they wanted to release it as a single. “It’ll scare them to death. They’ll hate it,” he predicted.

“And so that’s what we did,” Coxon told Warren Huart. “They came in, and we played it to them, giggling… and they were like, ‘Wow, this is excellent.’ So our joke was foiled…

“We just thought it was way too extreme, in a way, for anyone to consider it to be a single,” the guitarist continued. “We thought maybe it would be a good album track. But we did it mainly just to turn up really loud and blow the flipping record label’s heads off, and just say, ‘We want this to be a single.’ But they got there first.”

The release: “Song 2 was huge because it’s completely unsophisticated and thuggish”

Released as a single on 7 April 1997, in an array of formats featuring further experimental songs as B-sides (Get Out Of Cities, Polished Stone, Bustin’ + Dronin’, plus a live acoustic version of the Blur album track Country Sad Ballad Man), Song 2 went to No.2 in the UK and hit No.6 on Billboard’s Modern Rock Tracks chart, giving Blur their long-awaited foothold in the US. Receiving it as one of the best Blur songs to date, Rolling Stone magazine, then still the arbiters of taste for many North American music fans, noted approvingly, “It starts with a flaky rhythm track, piles on distorted guitars, yelps ‘whee hoo’, then traipses off into a surrealistic monologue before returning to rock out on the chorus.”

Song 2’s promo video captured the group performing the song with gleeful abandon. Revisiting the set design of an earlier pivotal Blur song, Popscene, the Sophie Muller-directed clip opened as a simple performance piece shot in small, dimly lit room, but soon sent the band flying as the chorus kicked in and blasted them to the walls. It would score nominations in the Best Group Video and Best Alternative Video categories at the 1997 MTV Video Music Awards, while Song 2 itself would pick up a nomination for Best British Single at the following year’s BRIT Awards. Fittingly, it also ranked at No.2 in NME’s Top 20 Singles Of 1997.

The aftermath: “It was a fucking big-balls move… That’s what really saved our bacon”

“Song 2 was huge because it’s completely unsophisticated and thuggish. And that’s what, basically, people like,” Graham Coxon said in the South Bank Show’s Blur special, filmed while the group were making their sixth album, 13. And yet that doesn’t account for the song’s across-the-board appeal.

Proving that Blur had transcended genre, emo icons My Chemical Romance would cover Song 2 during a 2005 appearance on BBC Radio 1’s Live Lounge. Cementing its status as one of the best 90s songs, Intel licensed Song 2 for use in TV adverts for their Pentium II processor, and Mercedes-Benz and Nissan would harness its adrenaline rush to help sell cars. The US national ice hockey team adopted it as their entrance music, as did UFC middleweight champion Michael Bisping. Football fans, too, embraced the song, after it was used as the theme tune to the FIFA: Road To World Cup 98 video game. And Song 2 would also soundtrack TV shows and films as diverse as The Simpsons, the spy thriller Nikita and the sci-fi shoot-’em-up Starship Troopers – though Blur drew the line at real-world violence when they turned down “phenomenal amounts of cash” offered by the US Army to use the song in promo videos for their new stealth bomber.

Strafing Blur’s audience with noise and obliterating the Britpop millstone that threatened to weigh the group down, Song 2 marked a crucial turning point in Blur’s career. Drawing a line between past and present, it also challenged fans to follow Blur into a new era.

“If you bear in mind that the sort of front 15 rows of the gigs that we were doing on The Great Escape were 14-, 15-year-old girls, it was a fucking big-balls move to go, ‘I don’t need that. What I’m interested in this,’” Alex James said in No Distance Left To Run. Releasing the group from expectations, Song 2 ultimately left them free to explore further uncharted territory on the 13 and Think Tank albums. “And, you know,” James added, “that’s what really saved our bacon.”

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