A classic of britpop picked apart from a personal point of view
Most people remember the time they heard ‘the’ album – the one that became their moment of musical epiphany. And most people also remember the first time they fell in love. Mine were one and the same.
1993, I was an awkward 13-year-old with a record collection that was pretty much made up entirely of Stock, Aitken and Waterman. There were a few random gems in there brought on by having two musically minded big brothers in the house (I remember getting Depeche Mode’s ‘Enjoy the Silence’ in my Christmas stocking in 1989) but in general I followed the crowd of other 13-year-old girls and pretended to love Jason Donovan.
That was until one fateful day when I was innocently leafing through BB’s copy of the NME having probably finished reading my copy of Just 17. There, in front of my very own eyes, was the most beautiful boy I had ever seen in my life. All pouty lips, floppy hair, doe-eyes and scruffiness. He was flanked by some equally pretty, miserable looking boys but I only had eyes for him. That was the moment I fell in love with Damon Albarn.
Blur had just released their second album ‘Modern Life is Rubbish’ named after some graffiti on the Bayswater Road in London. Their first album, ‘Leisure’ was released in 1991 and sold well, tagging onto the last days of the Madchester scene. Modern Life was a reinvention – and one that was allegedly not all too popular with the label.
After touring Leisure in the US, an experience which was acknowledged as pretty disastrous all round, Damon is said to have become disillusioned with America and its impact on the British music scene. The band returned and wrote Modern Life, an album they looked upon as quintessentially British and, as far as I’m concerned, the birth of proper modern Britpop.
So there I was, still stunned into a lovestruck silence staring into those blue eyes and knowing that nothing was ever really going to be the same ever again. “Who. Is. That?” I asked, at which point one of the brothers played me ‘For Tomorrow’, the first single from the album.
Blur – For Tomorrow
And everything changed again. “What. Is. This?” First I fell for the man, then I fell for the music. I’d never really heard anything like it before. And it wasn’t about broken hearts and writing love letters. It was about London boys riding buses and trying not to be sick. It was about being lost in a big city, about not fitting in but not caring.
|“It was me attempting to write in a classic English vein using kind of imagery and words which were much more modern. So it was a weird combination of quiet nostalgic-sounding melodies and chord progressions, [with] these weird caustic lyrics about England as it was at that moment, and the way it was getting this mass Americanised refit.”|
—Damon Albarn on Modern Life Is Rubbish
Produced by Stephen Street (who is now working with another London band Life in Film who I will also shortly be writing about on here) Modern Life was described at the time by music journalists as a ‘thinly-veiled concept album’ and ‘a communion with past masters of smart, satirical brit-pop’. Influenced by The Kinks, The Jam, Small Faces and The Who, it combines Albarn’s gritty commentary of London life with Graham ‘the new Johnny Marr’ Coxon’s guitar melodies and orchestral accompaniment and studio tricks.
Modern Life produced three singles, For Tomorrow, Chemical World and Sunday Sunday. The video for the latter sees the band larking about in full colour which never sat particularly well with me. I much prefer the black and white broodiness of For Tomorrow but Chemical World is the stand out track of the album as far as I’m concerned.
Blur – Chemical World
And so began my 20 year love affair with Blur. I bought Modern life on cassette and listened to it endlessly on my walkman until it went all weird and I had to wind it back in with a biro. I then bought Leisure and loved everything on that. I decided if I ever released an album it would be called Jemima Jellybean, an obscure reference to the Leisure track ‘Miss America’ and I put the NME poster on my bedroom wall where it was soon followed by many more. The Kylie and Jason tapes gathered dust under my bed.
At school I wrote ‘Mrs Albarn’ and ‘I heart Damon’ all over my exercise books and told my friends about my new cool crush. They’d never heard of Damon, or Blur, at that point. But that was all to change a year later with the release of Parklife. This was the album that made Blur famous and brought the love of my life to the attention of lots and lots of other teenage girls.
I bore all the scars of the irrational teenage crush – I HATED that my friends now loved Damon too but I was at least safe in the knowledge that I had loved him first. I HATED Justine from Elastica, Damon’s long term girlfriend at the time and therefore the woman who ruined my life. (To this day I have never bought any music by Elastica, it’s just a niggling dislike I can’t get rid of.) And I sat in my bedroom on the verge of TEARS looking at his picture and knowing I would never get to nuzzle into that Fred Perry top because he would never be my boyfriend.
Modern Life will probably always be my favourite Blur album. I love basically everything they’ve ever done (almost) and individually my top three songs probably wouldn’t come from Modern Life (although Chemical World is definitely up there). But it’s the album that introduced me not only to Blur but to a whole new world of music. I felt like I’d sort of found my place for a while and that’s why it will always be the best.
Listening to it again while writing this has reminded me just how good it is in its entirety and I encourage anyone else to rediscover it. It may be twenty years old but it’s not lost its appeal. And neither has Mr Albarn. He’s still my first love and it still makes me want to cry that he’ll never be my boyfriend. It’s just a cross I have to bear.
all photographs by Kevin Cummins.