Blur's Modern Life Is Rubbish: The Definitive Britpop Album

Parklife might have made them superstars, but 20 years on it is the band's sophomore effort that stands up as their true highlight...
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Parklife might have made them superstars, but 20 years on it is the band's sophomore effort that stands up as their true highlight...


The concept of Britpop was first conceived by John Humphrys in August 1995 whilst presenting the Six O’clock news on BBC1, when he announced that “two of Britain's most popular pop groups have begun the biggest chart war in 30 years... the Manchester band Oasis and their arch-rivals Blur released singles today, each hoping to reach the number one spot next week...” Well, at least that's the narrative according to every interminable 100 Greatest Culture countdowns we've been spoon-fed through our goggle-boxes each passing year.

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In fact the birth of Britpop came much earlier than that, and was shrouded in a miasma of apathetic indifference for a good couple of years before we all decided to climb aboard. Britpop was actually conceived in a London recording studio in 1992 by one Damon Albarn, who at the time was a young, blue-eyed, impossibly pretty little thing stuck in a perennial frustration at what his band had become – a Stone Roses rip-off - in order for them to attain a record deal for their debut album, Leisure. And after a notoriously unsuccessful tour of the US to support said album, in which they drowned their sorrows in gallons of piss-water (or Budweiser, if you want to give it its formal brand name) and thumped each other’s heads in till they were black and blue, the band were at their lowest ebb, with nothing left to lose.

Their label – Food Records – were understandably worried. And I'm sure they didn't receive even a crumb of comfort when the band waltzed into the studio one day with mop-top skinheads, Dr Martens boots and a jingoistic, anti-American attitude. American music in the early '90s was all the rage, and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that the guys from Food were carefully snipping the sleeves off four plaid shirts and planning on asking the lads if they could “grunge it up a bit” for the impending album. It was during a bass take of the fabulous 'Starshaped' that the label told them they were utterly bonkers for attempting to pioneer an Anglocentric movement in the UK. But Blur had obviously learned the lesson – having copied the 'baggy' scene of the Stone Roses, Happy Mondays et al - that emulating the latest craze can't guarantee fame, fortune and the respect of your peers. It can, however, guarantee shame, misery and embarrassment (young musicians take heed).

Bassist Alex James said in their superb feature film No Distance Left to Run that they “hated the Stone Roses” - which would go some length in explaining why Leisure sounded like such a phony bucket of steaming shit. Modern Life…, on the other hand, is one of the most organic, tuneful and astonishingly brave records to have been released in modern times.

It kicks off with the album's first single, ‘For Tomorrow’, which breaks the listener's ear in gently – coolly crafted and unique, but rather 'slouched' in sound. The band take a far more jerky, punked-up approach on ‘Advert’ - swiftly kicking you in the side of the head with their newly-acquired Dr Martens boots and aggressive demeanour. The band – Damon in particular – were thoroughly repelled by the American-ised, capitalist direction their beloved Britain had taken, and the lyrics reflect that to sardonic perfection. Sure, the economy was booming and the quality of life for most people had greatly improved, but they were all such fucking sell outs, man. As a piece of music, it's blinding. Tunefully abrasive, an absolute belter.

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By this point you're seriously impressed by how original it sounds. And when I first heard track three, ‘Colin Zeal’, I was completely blown away – and after a further five listens it became my favourite song on the album. That was until many years later when I discovered that its melody and vocal delivery sound remarkably similar to the song 'Sleeping Gas’ by The Teardrop Explodes. And it doesn’t stop there. The succeeding track, Pressure on Julian, is widely believed to have been written about The Teardrop Explodes' enigmatic frontman, Julian Cope, who was under immense pressure to indulge in far-out LSD trips to expand his creative mind, which - as Damon warns, “it’s colourful, it’s colourful/but it washes you out” - ultimately became detrimental to his mental health. And thrice, The Teardrop Explodes keyboardist, Dave Balfe – famously the subject of Blur’s 1995 abomination ‘Country House’ – was the boss at Food records, and there’s talk of the song being a personal dig at Balfe, insinuating that he was complicit in the downfall of Mr Cope whom he had a very turbulent relationship with. With a back story like that, we can forgive a little bit of plagiarism, can't we?

Other notable tracks include the barnstorming knees-up number 'Sunday Sunday', which really  encapsulates what Alan Partridge meant when erroneously critiquing U2's ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’: roast dinner, Sunday papers, washing the car, having a snooze in front of the telly. Magic. The subsequent track, ‘Oily Water’, is a wholly different, arty affair, with guitarist Graham Cox at the helm with his jaw-dropping use of tremolo guitar; while Damon intoxicatedly meanders around on deck, telling the tale of a paranoid hypochondriac, through a distorted megaphone. It wouldn't sound out of place on an early Radiohead record. It's that bloody good.

However, the best track on the album is sadly the most underrated - and has been completely abandoned by the band for the reason (the only one I can muster, mind) that it's very technically demanding on Graham's dexterity. I'm of course talking about the ever exuberant ‘Villa Rosie’. There are several interviews, which you can find throughout the Blur chronicles, with Graham unashamedly confessing to choosing their live setlist based on how easy the songs are to play on stage. And because of Villa Rosie's opening fret tapping and subsequent technical riffery, I can only deduce that the song was left on the scrapheap to save Graham the arse-ache. A crying shame, that, because the vocal performance's cleverly disdainful lyrics (a precursor to 'Girls and Boys') married with the emphatically chirpy delivery, renders it one of the most enjoyable songs to drunkenly scream your lungs out to.

I can now see a number of readers in my mind's eye, contemptuously shaking their heads, in the firm belief that Blur were just a bunch of fakers, and it was in fact Suede's self-titled debut (released the same year) that should take the Best Britpop Album crown. But it's precisely Blur's divisiveness that makes them so interesting. I, and many thousands of other people around the world, consider them to be the best thing since bagged tea. But there are people out there who hate them with the most profound execration. Scottish art-rockers Mogwai – a truly fantastic band in their own right – have made their loathing of Blur very clear over the years; but just to really drive the point home, they decided to manufacture t-shirts with the words 'Blur: Are Shite' on them, and sell them at their shows.

In spite of all that hate, Blur determinedly became the most respected and artistically consistent band to come out of the Britpop era. Every album, bar Leisure and Think Tank, are absolute masterpieces. But it's Modern Life is Rubbish that has come to be the definitive Blur album. It's the palpable danger; the flagrant disregard for compromise; and the sense of artistic freedom that exudes from every pore of the record that makes it so especially spine-tingling - and most worthy of a place in the history books, which is where it will most definitely still be in another 20 years’ time.

Follow Dan on Twitter-@danalland