Monday, 6 July 2009

Blur: "They fit better the more you wash them"

Man who knows all the words to every Blur song: "They haven't played Charmless Man yet."

Second man who knows all the words to every Blur song: "They're not going to play Charmless Man"

Third man who knows all the words to every Blur song: "Of course they're going to play Charmless Man! I bet you a fiver they play it!"

Second man who knows all the words to every Blur song: "I bet you a tenner they don't..."

I assume by the end of the show that the slightly more laid back man behind us is £10 up on the deal because Blur don't play Charmless Man. This is not surprising considering it's the song which singularly represents their Britpop hubris from which they beat a rapid retreat. But that doesn't discourage the charmless men behind us singing along with every word of the rest of the set. The sense of warm satisfaction that comes over me when Blur play Oily Water - an underrated My Bloody Valentinish megaphone-sung thrash from Modern Life Is Rubbish is huge - here finally is something this barber's shop trio from hell are incapable of singing along to. At last we get to hear what is coming off the stage rather than out of the mouths of the Britpop students.

Hello, I am your resident Britpop Grumpy Old Man and this week I'll be taking you by the hand and telling you about how great it was back in the old days. Relax, of course I won't. Thursday's Hyde Park Blur show was great as I'm sure by now you will have read or more likely seen on Youtube. Did you see the shagging video by the way? I don't know whether the couple's frantic grass jiggery did happen along to The End but this choice of song definitely adds to the power of the clip.

Back in Britpop's heyday when I was just about young enough to still get away with such alfresco antics (although of course, will neither confirm or deny that I ever did) this is the sort of thing that was expected of audiences and bands alike - anything went. Or so it seemed. To those of us who had been going to gigs up and down the country professionally since 1989, observing terrible sub-U2 chest beaters, post-acid house baggy bands, miserable shoegazers and tuneless, right-on crusties play to near-empty venues, Britpop was a welcome hurricane. To finally go to gigs and for the venue to be packed with audiences younger and better dressed than us and, crucially, made of equal numbers of girls and boys - it was life affirming. Several times I had the hopelessly romantic notion that this was what the 60s must have been like. Quite what the 60s were like, I have of course like the rest of us, gleaned from watching Blow Up, Help! and The Italian Job because I was playing with my Lego at the time.

But for sheer exuberance and excitement, it did for one brief summer in 1995, at least, feel like the 60s again. The crux of this as far as being an A&R man was concerned was that it felt possible to a see an unknown band in a small club and within a couple of months they could quite reasonably be expected to be on Top Of The Pops. Admittedly, this probably only happened a couple of times - Menswear being the key occasion. But the fact that it could perceivably happen at all was a remarkable thing considering we were still living under the spectre of album projects spiralling into years, singles requiring many different formats, artwork and b-sides and a pre Evening Session Radio 1. Amongst many good things that Britpop did was reintroduce an element of fun and flippancy to the music business - 7"s came back, coloured vinyl, good melodies, witty lyrics, bands looking sexy, being bitchy to one another in the press, hanging out with each other in private, and very occasionally shagging. We all know what happened in Blur's case.

Damon never did say much on stage. Last Thursday his mid-song banter was truncated to the point of mid-sentence break-up. It didn't matter, no one was there to hear Bono or Chris Martin-like monologues. I suppose Damon, like Mick Jagger, is an articulate man who prefers to just be a performer on stage. Having said that, he did ramble on a bit about the 2003 Anti War march ending in Hyde Park and how we should never forget its importance. Interesting, considering it's very unlikely that he has any recollection of it as on the actual day he was by all accounts so drunk he could barely stand.

But later he mentioned Hyde Park again, this time in the context of "a song I wrote". There was a ripple of anticipation from fifty thousand people. Before launching into a Phil Daniels-led Parklife, he reminisced about how he'd lived in a flat off Kensington High St and would regularly come into the park to people watch. He didn't elaborate about this flat but it set me reminiscing - this flat - in leafy Hornton St - was owned by his girlfriend at the time and very lovely it was too. I knew it was Justine Frishchman's place because I used to leave my car in the underground car park opposite, when I worked at East West Records which was - as Atlantic are now - in the Electric Lighting Station just off Ken High St.

I mentioned in a blog last year that Justine once arrived unannounced at East West with the first Suede demo - presumably because we were local. "Got Justine in reception for you." "Who?" Unannounced strangers pitching up happened surprisingly rarely and it was usually just irritating chancers. Still, I went upstairs to relieve her of the demo and promise to listen to it. It was a good plan she'd had, she knew she looked very cool and that I would immediately check the tape out. It all would have worked splendidly if the music (which I still have somewhere) had been any good. Ironically it was only after she left the band that they got better.

Later, when I was no longer local, I visited her flat for the first time. It was to woo her RCA-wards, as she was by then in Elastica. For our meeting, she had bought some very impressive looking canapes for us. Canapes! We sat, poured tea and discussed her future in rock and pop as if we were in an Evelyn Waugh novel. It was certainly the only time I've ever had a meeting about doing a record deal accompanied by canapes - how very Britpop you could say, although this was, to be fair, 1993.

Either during that visit or another, later, slightly more desperate visit (Steve Lamacq's Deceptive imprint were clearly going to win Elastica's hand), I remember bumping into Damon. At that point he wasn't at a career high. After their initial pop success Blur had somehow got lost. A year earlier, many people, possibly including Damon himself, had given up on them. They were perceived to have jumped onto the baggy bandwagon with There's No Other Way and times had moved on. At some point during Elastica's first run of dates that myself and my mate Michael drove the band to, Damon came along. I think it was probably Guildford. Anyway, on the way back we were chatting about music and success and we got on to the subject of Top Of The Pops. Damon said of the show: "Yeah, I've pretty much done that. Don't feel the need to go back to it." At the time I thought: fair play, you've moved on, you're in a different game now, you've been Blur the pop act, now you're going to be the wayward screeching Blur of Popscene - the band who plays with My Bloody Valentine and Dinosaur Jnr. and ignores the singles chart. How little I understood the Albarn ambition. Buried beneath this faux indifference he was obviously loathing every minute of not being in the public eye; of Brett Anderson's Suede having taken the Britain's Best Band crown; of the ignominy of being ranked alongside other underachievers like Swervedriver and Slowdive. Funny to think that despite Blur starting the Hyde Park shows with She's So High (which finally sounded like the enormous international stadium filler it always was) the band's early hits became mere footnotes after they achieved their big crossover.

Back in Hornton Street I remember standing by the window of Justine's living room chatting to Damon about how things were going. This was some time after our Top Of The Pops chat and, as I recall things were going a little better, Modern Life Is Rubbish was deservedly doing OK but it hadn't quite set their career back on track. Blur could have still gone either way. We made small talk and I asked him what he was up to. I can't remember exactly what he said but it was along the lines of:"Writing and recording B sides, the record label are always wanting more and more". I can't remember much beyond this but it struck me at the time as it strikes me now that here was a grafter; someone who has a respect for the system if it is going to get him to where he needs to be. He was also clever enough to know that as an A&R man I would appreciate the mild dig. Incidentally, I'm surprised with all those B sides that EMI haven't put a Blur box set together. I'd make an exception for that.

But back to Damon's work ethic. All those stories you hear about bands not cracking America because they can't be bothered to put the hours in, the constant smiling, handshaking with local DJs and promoters, the playing in tiny venues after playing European stadia - it makes you wonder why Blur failed to export their hugely commercial sound to the States if Damon was such a hard worker. And how frustrated he must have been to see his girlfriend rocket to the top there. After all, many of Elastica's songs sounded uncannily similar to his own, have you ever listened to Line Up and Boys And Girls back to back?

Talking of which, the blokes behind us are off again, singing along to "Girls who like boys..." lost in a sea of nostalgia for when they were 12 and Blur had just opened up the world of pop and rock for them. Over to our right stands Mark Ronson. Like so many others, he's wearing the Blur shibboleth: a Fred Perry. On stage, Damon wears one too, as does Dave. Damon once said to me, almost as if he was in the company's employ, "They just fit better the more you wash them." And he's right, I'm wearing one now as I write this although last Thursday I deliberately avoided doing so because I didn't want to look like some sad old fella re-living his Britpop years. Which of course I am and was. An old friend I bumped into who now works in fashion said to me, "Damon's wearing one of the Comme Des Garcons ones" She was right, you could tell from the single line of piping on the collar - that's the difference now, the grown ups are recreating the old look via their new access to cash. Another exec next to me is wearing a Marc Jacobs version.

The guys behind us must be mid to late twenties. It occurs to me that the crowd I had expected - the crowd I wrote about in a Radio 4 column a few months ago, who I anticipated being now more familiar with Parklife in the sense of pushing a buggy around one - is not here. Or certainly not near us. We are the oldest people here - everyone else is their 20s. This means that they probably never saw Blur first time around and which by definition means that Blur have done it; they have achieved what every artist desires - a constantly renewing audience. Like the Stones or Bob Dylan they could now carry on forever - fitting better and better like those Fred Perrys. This crowd aren't just here for the nostalgia; sure they want the hits but they're mainly here for a new experience.

As the sun goes down over West London and the moon comes up over the stage I am having a new experience too. It involves hearing The Universal being sung tunelessly from behind my left ear. But I tell myself to chill out, this is what live entertainment is all about - the audience makes the show.