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To The End: Behind The Song That Revealed A New Side Of Blur
London Red carpet / Alamy Stock Photo
In Depth

To The End: Behind The Song That Revealed A New Side Of Blur

Introducing a new facet of Damon Albarn’s songwriting, To The End was the song on which Blur truly showed their ambition.

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Issued as a single in the spring of 1994, To The End followed the release of the Parklife album by five weeks. While fans who’d already bought that record knew it contained Blur’s richest music to date, those listeners whose experience of the group was limited to the album’s boisterous lead single, Girls & Boys, suddenly had a whole new image of the band to consider: gentle, introspective and empathetic – everything the satirical Girls & Boys was not.

Proving there was more to frontman Damon Albarn than arch social commentary, To The End marked the start of an emotionally honest strain of songwriting that has continued to make itself felt through many of the best Blur albums. Here’s how the song raised the bar for Britpop, and elevated the group above their peers.

Listen to the best of Blur here.

The backstory: “There was a sense that something was happening. That we were developing”

With their previous album, Modern Life Is Rubbish, Blur had found their creative voice – a whip-smart combination of 60s pop, art-rock eccentricities and modern-day sensibilities that effectively lit the touch-paper for Britpop, ushering in a host of homegrown bands eager to show off their love of retro fashions and classic sounds. Peaking inside the UK Top 20, the album may have taken a step back from the commercial success of the group’s debut, Leisure, but it was a bold artistic leap forward that attracted a fanbase ready to embrace Blur as the voice of their generation.

“There was a sense that something was happening. That we were developing,” bassist Alex James reflected in the Blur documentary No Distance Left To Run. “Word got out that we had some good songs.”

The recording: “The demo of To The End had a good feel so we worked from that”

A few of those songs had been road-tested by the time Blur came to record Parklife, with Girls & Boys and the album’s title track both eliciting audience responses that suggested the group were about to hit a new peak. After Girls & Boys came together quickly during initial recording sessions for Parklife, the remainder of the album’s five singles were laid down “almost effortlessly”, wrote bassist Alex James, in his memoir, Bit Of A Blur – particularly in the case of To The End, which Damon Albarn brought effectively fully-formed to the studio. “The demo of To The End had a good feel so we worked from that, rather than starting again,” James recalled.

Producer Stephen Street oversaw most of the Parklife sessions at London’s Maison Rouge Studios, in Fulham, but for To The End the group relocated to the larger RAK facility, near Regent’s Park, and hired Stephen Hague to man a three-day session during which Blur would record their most ambitious ballad to date. Having previously worked with New Order (True Faith, World In Motion) and Pet Shop Boys (Please, Actually, Very), Hague was able to give the song the widescreen lift Albarn’s lyrics demanded while retaining most of the demo recording’s key elements – cinematic strings, looped drums, vibraphone – and even the majority of Albarn’s scratch vocal.

The lyrics: “All about sky-high dreams, bathos and underachievement”

Where most of the best Blur songs to date had been character sketches, allowing Albarn the freedom to critique British traditions from multiple angles, with To The End he adopted a more compassionate point of view, surveying the wreckage of a relationship marred by alcohol (“Been drinking far too much”), self-involvement (“Infatuated only with ourselves”) and an inability to communicate (“And neither of us mean what we say”). Yet there is hope – or at least an ambiguity that allows for it. With Stereolab’s Lætetia Sadier providing French-language interjections (lyrics that translate as “Until the end”, “In full sun” and “In full love”), Albarn soars alongside the strings as he declares, “And it looks like we might have made it/Yes, it looks like we’ve made it to the end.”

Without explaining what that end is – whether the dissolution of the relationship itself, or overcoming a period of hardship – To The End’s lyrics invite the listener to draw their own conclusion. What’s never in any doubt, however, is the emotional truth at the heart of the song. Upon hearing the finished track for the first time, Alex James wept at its beauty.

The release: “A musically perfect ballad that dredges up all kinds of memories”

Released as Parklife’s second single, on 30 May 1994, To The End made it to No.16 in the UK charts, proving that this new facet of Blur’s songwriting was more than capable of finding an audience. NME praised it as “a musically perfect string-soaked ballad that dredges up all kinds of misty-eyed Motown memories”, while Melody Maker, noting the single’s artwork – spy-thriller revolver, strategically placed red rose – and the band’s musical ambition, called it “essentially a Bond theme… all about sky-high dreams, bathos and underachievement”.

For the song’s promo single, however, Blur had a different cinematic touchstone in mind, looking to the 1961 French new-wave film Last Year At Marienbad for inspiration for their own moody black-and-white clip. With Lætetia Sadier guesting, the group recreated scenes from the film at Prague’s National Museum and Libochovice Chateau, in the north-west of the Czech Republic, to which were added enigmatic subtitles that complemented the ambiguity of Albarn’s original lyrics.

Along with the new songs Threadneedle Street and Got Yer!, Blur issued a French-language version of To The End as a B-side to the single. But it was a full re-recording of the song that would find the group working with one of their idols.

When demoing To The End, Albarn had his then girlfriend, Justine Frischmann, provide the vocals later performed by Lætetia Sadier, who had been chosen amid discussion of other singers, among them French stars Charlotte Gainsbourg and Françoise Hardy. It was Hardy, an icon of yé-yé pop, who’d made her name with the 1962 hit Tous Les Garçons Et Les Filles, that agreed to duet with Albarn for To The End (La Comedie), a brand-new version of the song, recorded in Abbey Road Studios in March 1995. With an even grander string arrangement and pronounced accordion, the result was issued as a standalone single in France and also appeared as a B-side in the UK, when it was added to CD editions of The Great Escape’s lead single, Country House, in the summer.

The legacy: “It will outlive most pop songs written this decade”

Writing in a 1995 article for Select magazine titled How Do They Do That?, future Blur biographer Stuart Maconie noted that To The End “revealed another facet of their burgeoning talent: they could, almost effortlessly, break your heart”. As Damon Albarn became more comfortable writing about his feelings, heartbreak would make for a central part of future Blur albums, not least 1999’s 13 and 2023’s surprise reunion album, The Ballad Of Darren.

Further praising To The End as a “mesmerizing”, “incontrovertibly brilliant” inversion of “the standard love song sentiments”, Maconie predicted that it would “outlive most pop songs written this decade”. Indeed, To The End has endured. Fifteen years on from its release, it made for a particularly cathartic moment during Blur’s headlining appearance at the 2009 Glastonbury Festival, with Albarn finding himself moved to tears at the song’s conclusion. It was “a reaction to all the tangible euphoria in the air”, guitarist Graham Coxon write in his memoir, Verse, Chorus, Monster!. More recently lending its name to the group’s 2024 documentary, To The End stands as confirmation of the humanity that underpins Albarn’s finest works.

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