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Tender: The Full Story Behind Blur’s Cathartic Love Song
Warner Music
List & Guides

Tender: The Full Story Behind Blur’s Cathartic Love Song

The perfect collaboration between Damon Albarn and Graham Coxon, Tender revealed a whole new side of Blur’s songwriting.


As Blur approached the end of the decade they’d helped define, their music, as well as the four bandmates themselves, was beginning to fracture. Personal crises had begun to take their toll on the group, not least frontman Damon Albarn, whose relationship with Elastica’s Justine Frischmann had “absolutely crashed”, as he put it in the documentary No Distance Left To Run, adding, “It really was a spectacularly sort of sad end.” Out of the turmoil, however, came some of the most personal songs of Albarn’s career to date, not least Tender, a heart-rending ballad that would spearhead the campaign for Blur’s sixth album, 13, and establish itself as one of the best love songs of the era.

“I can’t quite believe what an important song that is now,” Albarn would reflect years later. But even as Tender was coming together, Blur knew they had something special on their hands.

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The writing: “Very painful. Agonisingly slow. Getting caught up in your own misery”

Albarn had begun writing Tender in a one-bedroom flat on Golborne Road, in West London, where he’d taken up residence following his breakup with Frischmann. “If the truth be known, a lot of 13 stems from that period,” he told music critic Stuart Maconie, for the Blur biography 3862 Days: The Official History. “I’d rented this flat for a year and I wrote a lot of lyrics there. Tender dates from then. Very painful. Agonisingly slow. Getting caught up in your own misery.”

Across London, guitarist Graham Coxon was also facing up to his own demons and taking his first steps towards sobriety. Sitting at home one morning, he came up with a song fragment which, when woven into the words and music Albarn had written, would see the finished ballad reflect both artists’ vulnerability.

“I dream of songs, or they slip into the world while I am dreaming,” Coxon wrote in his memoir, Verse, Chorus, Monster!. He would go on to reveal that his first experience of waking up with a “little golden chord sequence and a silvery melody or lyric to go with it” was when the “Oh, my baby” refrain that would become Tender’s post-chorus spun itself into existence.

“That phrase found me one morning, bleary-eyed and before my first cup of tea, and embarked on a magical journey,” Coxon recalled. Though he would later admit he “didn’t have much of a clue that things were going wrong with Damon and Justine”, the guitarist recorded his idea on a Sony dictaphone and took it to Albarn. With perfect serendipity, two key elements of Tender slotted into place.

The recording: “It was the best thing we’d ever done”

Much of 13 was recorded in Unit 13, a drab warehouse in West London where, in a new creative process for Blur, the band jammed for hours on song ideas, opening up all manner of unexplored paths. Producer William Orbit, fresh from his work on Madonna’s up-to-the-minute electronica album, Ray Of Light, manned the controls, saving up every sound, no matter how incidental-seeming, in order to stitch these sometimes disparate parts into complex pieces of music that would force a complete rethink over what Blur were thought to be at the end of the decade they’d helped to define.

Although these experimental sessions could be tough, the band found the results satisfying, with drummer Dave Rowntree noting that, up until then, the recording process hadn’t interested him, but that, with all ideas welcome during the 13 sessions, “I had more of an influence on things rather than adding drums to a finished track… This was like a great outpouring of ideas.” Indeed, an unlikely percussion part, created by slamming planks of wood on the studio floor, brought some heft to the song following a few rounds of the scratchy guitar motif Coxon had re-tracked through Orbit’s Panasonic dictaphone (“We haven’t quite decided which has the better wobble,” Coxton told Stuart Maconie), and which now served as Tender’s delicate intro.

The primitive yet highly effective sound of wood on wood had been captured at Mayfair Studios, where the band had relocated in order to take advantage of the facility’s drum room. When Alex James heard Albarn and Coxon working on Tender, he, too, imagined another first for a Blur record and raced home to retrieve his double bass. Returning to find his bandmates had gone for a snack, James set the instrument up, only for Orbit to stop him from playing anything approaching a proper part. “He just sampled me tuning up and his boffins used their computer technology to turn it into a bassline,” the bassist recalled in his memoir, Bit Of A Blur. “I hadn’t even played it, really.”

Inspired by a recent immersion in the music of 60s soul singer Otis Redding, Albarn gifted Tender one of his most soulful vocals (“Tender is the night/Lying by your side/Tender is the touch/Of someone that you love too much”), and Coxon answered Albarn’s impassioned pleas (“Come on, come on, come on/Get through it/Come on, come on, come on/Love’s the greatest thing/That we have”) with the fragile vocal refrain that had come to him unbidden: “Oh, my baby/Oh, why? Oh, my.” Building over seven minutes, from fragile opening guitar part to cathartic cry for emotional salvation, Tender was shaping up to be the grandest introduction imaginable to Blur’s bold new album. But they weren’t done yet.

Noting the song’s gospel-like swells, the group ditched their original idea of adding a string section and instead booked the 40-piece London Community Gospel Choir to sing on it. As band and producer watched on from the control room, the ensemble proceeded to nail their parts in a single take. “It was shattering,” Alex James later wrote. “As soon as they started singing, it was instantly and obviously a number record. I’d never been so certain of anything. It was the best thing we’d ever done.”

The release: “A breath of fresh air in the stale British rock arena”

Picked to be 13’s lead single, Tender was initially released in Japan on 17 February 1999 before following in the UK on 22 February, and it immediately served notice that 13 would be one of the best Blur albums of all time. Heading straight to No.2 in the UK, Tender was backed by some raw jams from the album sessions (the eight-minute French Song and the aptly titled Mellow Jam) and promoted with a black-and-white promo video which, featuring a newly recorded performance of the song live in the studio, complete with choir, proved that, for all the technical wizardry of their new record, Blur’s musicianship had developed in line with their ambitious new ideas.

Welcomed as a “stellar piece of work” (Billboard) that provided “a breath of fresh air in the stale British rock arena” (Dotmusic), and earning Smash Hits magazine’s Single Of The Fortnight accolade, Tender also made clear that Damon Albarn, whose wry social commentaries had provided the lyrical themes for Blur’s breakthrough albums, Modern Life Is Rubbish and Parklife, was entering a new phase as a songwriter. For Coxon, whose contributions had been so crucial to the song’s completion, Tender and other heart-on-sleeve 13 tracks, such as the album’s final single, No Distance Left To Run, marked a turning point in his relationship with his famously driven bandmate, whose ambitions had first made Blur Britpop icons before pushing them far beyond the scene they’d singlehandedly invented.

“It was a reminder at that point for me that Damon wasn’t just a ruthless careerist manic who had no feelings,” the guitarist acknowledged in the No Distance Left To Run documentary. Admitting that he himself was “really out there around 13, which made for some pretty great noise, but I was probably a bit of a crap to be around”, Coxon had come to realise that Albarn “was actually flesh and blood and was hurting quite a lot. And that sort of thing makes me fall in love with him all over again… He is actually like me. He just does it in a different way.”

The legacy: “It’s a celebration of love found and lost but not forgotten”

Immediately taking its place among the best Blur songs ever recorded, Tender has since become part of the cultural fabric. Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston hired a gospel choir to sing it for their wedding march, and the song has been used in everything from Co-op Christmas adverts to Netflix comedy Sex Education and Charlotte Well’s semi-autobiographical movie, Aftersun.

Indeed, what Albarn had initially written as “a tribute to how important something was in my life. It’s a celebration of love found and lost but not forgotten,” has come to take on a universal relevance for Blur fans of every stripe – as borne out by the mass singalongs Tender inspires at the band’s gigs.

For his part, Coxon still marvels at how his small idea, “born inside my head, captured on a crappy dictaphone”, has become part of an anthem regularly sung back to him “by thousands and thousands of strangers who had packed out Glastonbury or a stadium on the other side of the world”.

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