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Sunday Sunday: The Blur Song That Lovingly Skewered British Tradition
Warner Music
In Depth

Sunday Sunday: The Blur Song That Lovingly Skewered British Tradition

With the song Sunday Sunday, Blur paid homage to British conventions while playfully sending up the very customs they respected.

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When Sunday Sunday was released as the third and final single from Blur’s second album, Modern Life Is Rubbish, it became the highest-charting song from the record. The bridge between that Britpop-instigating work and the band’s career-making Parklife album, this homage to British music-hall entertainment and other homegrown customs was, improbably, written on an entirely different continent, thousands of miles from home. And yet it captured a strain of Englishness like no other, making Blur frontman Damon Albarn the heir apparent to The Kinks’ Ray Davies.

This is the story of how Sunday Sunday defined “the modern Blur” and ushered in a new tradition for Albarn’s songwriting.

Listen to the best of Blur here.

The backstory: “The effect it had on Damon made him defiantly British”

Blur had released their debut album, Leisure, in the summer of 1991, but dark days descended when promotional duties forced them to undergo a thankless US tour. “So much of our culture is sort of American culture now. And I think it’s important to make a connection,” Albarn said at the time. In reality, however, the band found themselves schlepping around clubs, playing to audiences who were in thrall to grunge music and who couldn’t relate to Blur’s art-rock-leaning indie music. Feeling homesick and falling out with each other, the group began to cast mournful glances across the Atlantic, back towards home and the momentum they had left behind.

“We were getting more and more depressed doing this pointless tour and seeing our career in the UK going down the toilet, really,” drummer Dave Rowntree said in the Blur documentary No Distance Left To Run. “While we were in the States, the music focus had shifted completely, and we were just no longer relevant.”

Never shy of a challenge, Albarn realised Blur now had the chance to define themselves against what they were not. If grunge was characterised by abrasive guitars and angsty lyrics, Blur would present something different: something stylised; something that looked outwards instead of inwards; something that would celebrate where the band had come from. “I think the effect it had on Damon made him defiantly British,” bassist Alex James later said of the group’s first taste of North America. “It made us think about who we were.”

Speaking to music critic John Harris, for his history of Britpop, The Last Party, Mike Smith, the A&R exec who’d signed Blur to their first label, Food Records, elaborated: “It was, ‘Hang on, we have such a deep, rich musical tradition in this country, we’ve got something that goes back to the Victorian period.’ He wanted to bring all that into what Blur did, and combine it with the music of the 60s and come up with an articulate response to what had come from America.”

The writing: “Sunday Sunday is a very Mike Leigh-influenced song”

As Blur’s ill-fated US tour took them from the East Coast to the West Coast and back down through the South, Albarn began to write a new clutch of songs that would do away with the dance-rock crossover sound of their breakthrough single, There’s No Other Way, and instead bring a history of humour-laced social commentary bang up to date for the 90s. Of the new statements of intent that would make it on the Modern Life Is Rubbish album, including For Tomorrow, Blue Jeans and Chemical World, Sunday Sunday was written on an actual Sunday, as Albarn looked out from a Minneapolis hotel window at a shopping mall buzzing with activity. A far cry from anything he’d experienced at home, where corner shops and high streets were crucial parts of a town’s geography, and Sunday trading hours were restricted, the rampant consumerism led Albarn to think of all the things Brits did on their seventh day – read the newspaper, take a stroll through the park, enjoy family time over a Sunday roast – and consider if they still had a place in the world at the end of the 20th century.

Writing in his memoir, Verse, Chorus, Monster!, guitarist Graham Coxon also noted the influence of the kitchen-sink dramas of British filmmaker Mike Leigh on the song. “Sunday Sunday… is a very Leigh-influenced song,” he wrote. “Leigh’s films frequently showed characters struggling while doing everything they could to forge an identity and make a difference within their community.” Highlighting Leigh’s 1983 film, Meantime, as a particular reference point, Coxon explained: “The downtrodden, working-class Pollock family and the suburban interior and exterior landscapes accurately reflected the small-town England that all of us experienced while growing up… For us, this was comfortable, even safe territory.”

The recording: “We weren’t afraid to have a knees-up”

As demoed, Sunday Sunday had a politeness in keeping with the surface manners of Albarn’s weekend vignettes. During initial recording sessions for Modern Life Is Rubbish, produced by XTC mainman Andy Partridge, it was given a lightly psychedelicised wash that spilled into trad jazz, edging the song away from Kinks territory – and from the more straight-up vaudeville homage Blur had heard in their heads. “We weren’t afraid to be uncool,” Coxon told Produce Like A Pro host Warren Huart. “We weren’t afraid to have a knees-up in a music-hall kind of way.”

Reuniting with producer Steve Lovell, who had helmed their debut single, She’s So High, the group found what they were looking for: some Old Blighty bombast, a Salvation Army-styled brass arrangement, performed by the three-piece Kick Horns (The Rolling Stones, Spice Girls, David Gilmour, Chris Rea), and the creative freedom to throw in an anarchic middle section which speeds up in pursuit of Coxon’s dizzying guitar and a frantic organ part that approximates the sound of a seaside Wurlitzer careening off a pier. “Those drums are huge at the beginning,” Coxon later marvelled. “I remember going, ‘Oh, I love the drums like that!’ and [Lovell] said, ‘Yeah, but when the other instruments come in, we’re gonna have to calm them down a little bit.’… I wanted the drums to stay stupid and loud like that, but we had to rein them in so you could hear everything else.”

When Food Records execs visited the studio to hear how Modern Life Is Rubbish was progressing, it was suggested the group themselves needed reining in. As Blur biographer Stuart Maconie wrote, in 3862 Days: The Official History Of Blur, label boss David Balfe – later to inspire The Great Escape’s lead single, Country House – was perplexed by Sunday Sunday, asking the band: “When was the last time you heard a hit single that sped up in the middle?”

“I remember the record company coming down and just saying, ‘You’re all mad. You’re absolutely mad. British pop? You’re mad,’” Alex James said in No Distance Left To Run. Yet Blur knew they were hitting the accelerator not only on their own career, but also for a stalled homegrown music industry.

The release: “Britpop was 100 per cent Damon Albarn’s idea”

Issued in late March 1992, Blur’s riotous non-album single Popscene had already served notice that things were about to change for the group, but when Sunday Sunday was released, on 4 October 1993, it quickly took its place among the best Blur songs, capping off a trio of Modern Life Is Rubbish singles, including For Tomorrow and Chemical World, that confirmed the band were spearheading a new movement in British music.

Featuring the four bandmates taking a caravan holiday in a clearing amid London’s high-rise buildings, the Sunday Sunday promo video, directed by Dwight Clarke, visualised the balance of satire and respect with which Albarn showered the very British pastimes he sang about. Across a 7”, a 12” and two CD single releases, the group issued a slew of B-sides that included songs recorded during their pre-Blur days as Seymour (earning the defunct band name a credit on the respective single sleeves), and, on the wryly titled The Sunday Sunday Popular Community Song CD, a pair of covers of late-19th-century music-hall songs, Daisy Bell (Bicycle Built For Two) and Let’s All Go Down The Strand, that took Blur’s commitment to honouring the past to a raucous conclusion.

Connecting the dots between Sunday Sunday and Small Faces’ similarly jaunty 1968 hit Lazy Sunday, Uncut magazine noted that Blur’s latest single was “undeniably commercial” and “likely to prosper”. When Sunday Sunday peaked at No.26 in the UK, the highest-charting of Modern Life Is Rubbish’s three singles, it proved that Blur had regained momentum in their homeland, clearing the way for their leap into the mainstream.

The legacy: “You felt there was a real movement starting”

For drummer Dave Rowntree, songs such as Sunday Sunday, along with the 13 others that would secure Modern Life Is Rubbish’s reputation as one of the best Blur albums, were “really the birth of us turning into the modern Blur”.

As the band set out on another run of live shows in the autumn of 1993, dubbed the Sugary Tea Tour and timed to coincide with the release of Sunday Sunday, they had already begun to include two new songs, Girls & Boys and what would become the Parklife album’s title track, in their setlists, hinting at where they – and therefore British music – were heading next. “With its acerbic observations of quotidian English life cloaked in heel-clicking Tommy Steele bonhomie and boozy brass arrangement,” Stuart Maconie wrote, in 3862 Days, Sunday Sunday was “thematically conjoined to Parklife rather than Modern Life Is Rubbish.”

Blur’s plans were coming together. Reflecting on the crucial creative decisions the group’s frontman made in the early 90s, Alex James would assert: “Britpop was 100 per cent Damon Albarn’s idea.”

“Slowly, you felt there was a real movement starting,” Albarn furthered. “It was the classic thing. It just got bigger and more intense.” Yet no one, not even Blur themselves, could have predicted just how big and how intense things were about to get…

Buy the transparent-orange 30th-anniversary vinyl reissue of ‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’.

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