BY MIN CHEN
Twenty-five years after The Kinks waxed nostalgic about their “Village Green”— “I miss the village green / The church, the clock, the steeple / I miss the morning dew, fresh air, and Sunday school”—four young Colchester upstarts responded with their own ode to green living. Blur’s “Parklife,” however, was no tender-hearted reminiscence. It was a voyeur’s report from a city park, where our man, played by Phil Daniels (Quadrophenia), feeds pigeons, sometimes sparrows, and watches “joggers who go round and round and round.” It’s nowhere out in Kinks country (though it does yield “a sense of enormous well-being”), but its landscape still belongs to Britain—unmistakably and unapologetically so.
In 1992, two years before “Parklife,” Blur had undertaken a two-month tour of America, in a bid to replenish funds that their manager had absconded with. By all accounts, it was a gruelling, miserable experience, during which the band drank and fought constantly (“Every time I saw them, they had black eyes that they had given each other,” remembered journalist Stuart Maconie), and grew bitter at the burgeoning army of grunge fans at their shows. It was the summer of Nirvana, after all, and as bassist Alex James summarily put it, “We went to America with what was virtually a baggy record [Leisure].” Frontman Damon Albarn longed for his village green too. “I missed people queuing up in shops. I missed people saying ‘goodnight’ on the BBC,” he told NME upon the band’s return home. “And I missed people having respect for my geographical roots, because Americans don’t care if you’re from Inverness or Land’s End.”
If the band that went to America was British, the one that returned was even more so. “We transformed during those two months,” recalled Albarn, “and came back with a sense of our own identity.” Ray Davies may have gently bemoaned the flocks of American tourists that eventually descend upon his beloved “Village Green” (“They snap their photographs and say, ‘God darn it / Isn’t it a pretty scene?’”), but no way was Blur going to watch “the whole disgusting movement that came over from America,” in Albarn’s words, climb British charts without putting up a fight. Said James of the tour, “I think the effect it had on Damon was it made him defiantly British.”
To be clear, Albarn and co. were no rabid, Union Jack-waving nationalists, but from 1993’s Modern Life is Rubbish on, they did take real pride in writing and championing a British brand of pop. “I started writing songs which created an English atmosphere,” stated Albarn. Making good on their inheritance from The Kinks, Syd Barrett, The Specials, and The Who, the band rallied vaudeville-borrowed cadences and pub-ready choruses to depict a (white) Britain that was equal parts modern and rubbish. “Let’s take a drive to Primrose Hill,” urged “For Tomorrow,” “It’s windy there and the view’s so nice / London ice can freeze your toes.” Other tracks hailed bank holidays (“Bank holiday comes with a six pack of beer”), dissected the upper classes (“Educated the expensive way / He knows his claret from his Beaujolais”) and middle classes (“We wear the same clothes ‘cause we feel the same”), while observing very English Sundays (“Bingo yourself to sleep”).
That Anglo-centricity, particularly as Blur was making 1994’s Parklife, was further shaped by Albarn’s reading of Martin Amis’ London Fields, a darkly comic novel that unfolded along the city’s social and economic divides. Rob O’Connor, founder of design agency Stylorouge, having read the same book, appreciated its influence on Albarn. “It told the story of a guy who deliberately lived a life below his social status, so started going to darts matches, hanging out in pubs with villains and with unemployed people,” he said. “That world became a very potent, evocative place visually for Damon.”
So potent that it bled onto the band’s sleeves. Stylorouge, when not working on covers for the likes of Siouxsie Sioux, David Bowie, and Morrissey, had been overseeing Blur’s visual identity since the group’s 1990 debut single “She’s So High.” Unsure as to what the band was initially about (“a bit baggy, a bit indie”), O’Connor decided to present Blur “in a (probably ironic) way like more of a user-friendly household product rather than the coolest band in town.” First, they devised the band’s logo. Next, 1991’s Leisure, which featured an image photographed by Charles Hewitt for Picture Post magazine, vividly emphasizing a doubly commercial conceit. Then came Modern Life is Rubbish (working title: Britain Versus America), covered by a painting by Bristol artist Paul Gribble, whose depiction of a steam locomotive brought to mind a pre-war Britain—sepia-tinged nostalgia (“Like the last of the good ol’ puffer trains,” as Ray Davies once sang) given an electric, postmodern frame.
For Parklife, Blur’s quintessential reclamation of Britain for the British (working titles: London, Soft Porn), Albarn summoned O’Connor and designer Chris Thompson to a William Hill’s betting shop on Kings Road in Chelsea for a glimpse of the vibe he was after. “We hung around for a bit and picked up some betting slips, took some Polaroids,” recalled O’Connor, but “then went down the road to a coffee shop and that’s really where the idea started.” He and Thompson amassed photographs they shot around London “through the eyes of a tourist who has went off the beaten track,” then produced a number of potential covers. They featured, among other things, a Rolls Royce, a ‘60s tennis player, Buckingham Palace, a fruit and veg stall, and now, a betting shop—all clear indicators of class. Ultimately, William Hill’s won out; Albarn, said O’Connor, leaned toward “the leisure pursuits of the proletariat.” The album, after all, according to the singer, was “a loosely linked concept album [on] the travails of the mystical lager-eater, seeing what’s going on and commenting on it.”
The band eventually went with a Bob Thomas photograph of a set of greyhounds racing around Walthamstow Stadium, describing a notable pastime in working class culture (Albarn himself apparently also had shares in a real-life greyhound, which Thompson remarked, was “taking it totally to extremes—good fun though”). It’s a duly graphic, spontaneous shot—nothing subtle, nothing fancy—suspending motion and the plain joys of the sport. Guitarist Graham Coxon noted: “We centered in on the greyhounds because they had an aggressiveness we liked. We chose the ones with the most teeth. They look deranged, just longing to kill, and there’s a bizarre look in their faces.” Other working class signifiers dot the covers of the album’s singles: beer on “Parklife,” holiday sex on “Girls & Boys.” “Cheesy advertising imagery,” is how O’Connor described it. “That seemed to work for Blur.”
Essentially, though, what the sleeves were advertising was not Blur, but Blur’s vision of Britain—an “English ideal,” as Albarn would have it. It was charming and absurd and above all, eccentric in a way that drew a line between working and middle classes, Britain and America. It was equal celebration and unsparing commentary; and whether in subject, form, or delivery, was an intensely English product. If a Blur album of this time looked and sounded British, that’s because it very clearly intended to—even at the risk of exploding that look and sound (and patriotism) to parodic dimensions.
Blur and Stylorouge’s collaboration ended with 1995’s The Great Escape, the widely lauded follow-up to Parklife that dropped right in the middle of Britpop’s maddest hour. Jaded as the band was at this point (see “Dan Abnormal”), they produced a record acerbic in its detachment, and stinging in its disparagement of capitalism and middle class pretensions. Hence its Tom King-shot sleeve, an escape fantasy complete with blue sky, sea, and speedboat, employed here with maximum irony and heavy quotation marks. Although, noted Coxon, “We were getting quite clever with it, but sometimes too clever perhaps. We were in danger at that point of becoming quite caricaturish.”
Assisting in the caricature was the band performing lead single “Country House” on national TV, their lead singer decked out in some manner of 1930s hunting attire. The track, which made up one-half of the painfully hollow Battle of Britpop, was no rural retreat, but specifically, an indictment of the sort that would own or aspire to “a very big house in the country” at all. “Oh, it’s like an animal farm,” goes its bitter end. “That’s the rural charm in the country.” God save the village green.
In 1997, Blur scored their first hit in America. Their self-titled fifth record contained the unstoppable “Song 2,” a grunge spoof that nonetheless advanced way up the Billboard charts, and the jangly “Look Inside America,” which, in the fading years of Britpop, finally conceded, “Look inside America / She’s alright, she’s alright.” As the century turned, the band slowly imploded; 2003’s Think Tank was recorded without Coxon, after which, Blur ceased making plans.
“The Blur years were sort of over,” said Albarn (the band would reunite in 2015). The frontman proceeded to spend his newly free time traveling the world—“a fantastic voyage of discovery,” he called it—meeting and hanging out with its many citizens. Along the way, he gained sufficient insight and distance, new perspectives. After that, looking back on the dissolution of Blur, he felt, “It no longer seemed to be that important.” And considering Britain, he realized, “This little island, which I love so deeply, is in fact a little island.”