If you’ve ever seen Blur’s tour film Starshaped, then you’ll know what a strange yet powerful proposition it really is. Commissioned at the height of their top ten-scaling post-Madchester indie pretty boy fame, it opens with them on a triumphant round of the big music festivals; to a backdrop of elated posh teenagers and a scowling John Peel, American girls casually tell Damon they’re ‘stalking’ him – he doesn’t seem to mind – and the others generally enjoy the trappings of fame. And, erm, play table tennis a lot for some reason.
Then they’re off to America, and it all goes very wrong. Nirvana take off and change the musical landscape into a more slovenly, noisy and introspective one, while their old rivals Suede suddenly come to dominate what little attention the music press are prepared to give homegrown acts. The girls have gone off elsewhere, the posh kids are wearing ‘Pop Kid’ t-shirts, and Peel is scowling at Bang Bang Machine and Daisy Chainsaw. Blur’s first ‘new’ single of 1992, the noisy and angular Buzzcocks-meet-Krautrock thrash Popscene – intended as the lead-in to their second album and, incidentally, my favourite single of all time – barely scrapes the top forty and the similarly conceived album is immediately shelved. Fantastic songs like Seven Days, Never Clever and Pleasant Education will fall by the wayside as they endlessly try to rethink an album that they don’t have any other ideas for. With what little money they’d made so far having mysteriously vanished into an administrative black hole, gigs falling apart in drunken demoralised disarray and no real progress being made in the studio, EMI are on the verge of quietly letting them go too.
Needless to say, this all finds its way into Starshaped courtesy of moody silences, terse exchanges and drunkenly urinating and vomiting on camera like they just no longer care. This reaches its absolute nadir when a clearly distressed Graham disappears after one European festival show; aware that they have to pack up and leave on schedule, Damon stomps around the site with a right face on him, while Alex shrugs “you can only look for Graham for so long” before giving up and, of course, playing more table tennis. Somewhere during the European jaunt, however, this all changes.
Feeling increasingly unwanted in an Americana-saturated media landscape, and thinking back to what made them want to get into making music in the first place, they take a look down the side of the bed and find inspiration in the form of some scuffed Doc Martens and battered Kinks and Selecter singles. It was time to reclaim everything they were being told they weren’t allowed to like, and in short they stopped fighting each other and just started fighting. The moment that this hinges on comes during an interview with an unidentified European music journalist who appears to neither particularly know nor care who Blur are, but asks what can be expected from their next record regardless. Suddenly visibly animated, Graham gestures expressively whilst affirming with evident optimism that it would be a ‘head’ album, but played from the ‘heart’. And that’s precisely what it was.
The earlier attempts at what became Modern Life Is Rubbish have since been released in various places, and while sometimes it’s difficult to see why Blur and/or their label were so unhappy with them, it’s also equally easy to see that they would not have made for the right record at the right time. They’re robust songs given a robust treatment but there’s no fire, no spark, no burning need to be heard whether you wanted to hear them or not. No, well, ‘heart’. Or ‘head’. But whatever happened during the long and arduous and seemingly never-ending process of making the album, it pushed them past the point of not caring and even past anger and resentment and towards a need to make everyone sit up and pay attention. In short, it gave them an attitude, and it’s an attitude that is shot right through Modern Life Is Rubbish, guitars, lyrics, drums, vocals, ‘Anti Cat And Dog Moog Tone’ and all.
What’s more, it was an attitude that a small but significant audience knew and had been waiting for. It’s an attitude that’s there in the two-fingered poster for Kes, Phil Daniels’ questioning swagger in Quadrophenia and Meantime, The Sex Pistols’ grins into the middle distance just before rounding on Bill Grundy, and Syd Barrett cracking up laughing at a classical music critic asking him why it all had to be so terribly loud. It’s in the style and demeanour of XTC, The Specials and Wire, not to mention tangible throughout the very best music made by David Bowie and Raymond Douglas Davies. As much as it pains us all to admit it, it’s there in The Smiths before Morrissey dedicated his entire life to shoving his head inside every waste paper basket in the known universe. It’s Radio 1 swallowing a dictionary, or Radio 4 pulling faces at its own audience. It’s Chris Morris telling Douglas Adams he’ll see him outside the bus station if he’s going to take that tone. And it’s got precisely fuck all to do with jellied eels, xenophobia and pissing bastarding flags.
It’s an attitude that, if you poke it with a sharp stick, will tell you exactly where that stick’s going if you try it again. Kick it to the kerb, and it’ll sit there saying alright, yes, it’s on the kerb and what are you going to do about it? It’s an attitude that, whether it’s convenient for your politics or not, fuelled the very first stirrings of what came to be called Britpop. You might want to mention it the next time you’re belching out a ‘thinkpiece’ blaming Elastica for Nigel Farage or something. In fact, it’s tempting to suggest that Modern Life Is Rubbish is Blur’s ‘forgotten’ album precisely because it causes such enormous logistical headaches for silly little people and their silly little theories about a handful of bands that had the temerity to make a couple of quite good records when nobody had given them written permission to do so.
Short, sharp and economical, yet tearing up the speakers with its sound and imagery, Modern Life Is Rubbish is driven by that attitude and with plenty to spare. It’s there in Damon roaring the second verse of Advert through a megaphone with the crowd control siren wailing, the searing guitar solo in Starshaped that Stuart Maconie and David Cavanagh once likened to someone strolling through a suburban avenue burning down the hedges with a blowtorch, the snarl at “irate people with yellow tongues” in Pressure On Julian, and most of all in the dedication on the inner sleeve of the album. Where Leisure had boasted – if that’s the right word – a seemingly infinite list of thanks to associates (and high street shops) with tedious nicknames for presumably wildly varying levels of contribution, Modern Life Is Rubbish simply stated “Friends – you know who you are, you know we’re grateful”. The difference in circumstance and outlook could not have been more marked, and to the friends it was intended for, it must have felt as heartfelt as the music. And the ones that it wasn’t would have bloody well known about it.
Some individuals that almost certainly weren’t counted as ‘friends’ were the ones who provoked two serious last minute setbacks to the completion of Blur’s long-delayed second album. With the band so fired up and energised, however, it was almost a foregone conclusion that they would turn these disasters into triumphs; in fact, into the absolute making of Modern Life Is Rubbish. EMI felt there wasn’t a strong enough single on the ‘finished’ album to make the kind of impact that a band in such a precarious position would need; Damon Albarn went off to see his parents for Christmas and came back with For Tomorrow. Then their spectacularly useless American label insisted that it stood no chance of Stateside success, and fending off an initial suggestion that it should be remixed in its entirety by a more Grunge-friendly producer, they agreed to write yet another single to catch the attention of the all-important College Radio networks; I probably don’t need to tell you that was Chemical World.
Yet for one fan who was shaken awake in the head and the heart and fired up with that very same ‘attitude’, blazer, Ben Sherman shirt, Doc Martens, bewilderingly if appropriately street aggression-provoking turned-up jeans and all, the real key track was Coping. Hidden away near the end of the album – and, incidentally, the original proposed lead single before Damon was forced to write For Tomorrow overnight – Coping was described by Maconie and Cavanagh more concisely and effectively than I ever could as “a potential career-saver – a rousing tune with a catchy, anachronistic synth line”, with lyrics that stick up a Kes-style two fingers to everyone who’s been standing in their way, while noting that the only people who can sort it all out are Blur themselves (“It’s a sorry state you’re getting in, the same excuse is wearing thin, there’s no self-control left in me, what was not now never will be”), and posing the key question “when I feel this strange, can I go through this again?”. It was clearly a rhetorical one as Coping sailed through all of the false starts at finishing the album as if guiding it towards its brilliant completion, thundering along on the hook “and I’m too tired to care about it, can’t you see this in my face?”. There are a set of photos of Damon taken during the making of Starshaped where his face does indeed betray how tired and past caring he understandably was at the time; it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that he took one look at them and went off and wrote the song that, in its own way, did indeed save his career.
If you’ve not seen Starshaped – or even heard Modern Life Is Rubbish – then you really ought to. If nothing else – in the words of what Maconie and Cavanagh called “a song and a saga all on its own” – it’ll convince you that when you are feeling this strange, you really can go through this again. Oh and they try to get on a Postman Pat ride. Humber, Thames, Dover: Southwesterllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllly fiiiiiiiiiiiiiivschwc…
This article is dedicated to David Cavanagh, without whom I would never have written Higher Than The Sun.
You can find a feature on the impact of For Tomorrow, and what it felt like to be someone who didn’t like Grunge at a time when it was inescapable, in my book Can’t Help Thinking About Me, available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
There’s a detailed feature on Well At Least It’s British, a 1964 album by Alan Klein that had a huge influence on Damon Albarn circa Modern Life Is Rubbish, in Not On Your Telly, available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.