Last orders: Britpop pioneers Blur head for Hong Kong on farewell tour
The brains behind the Britpop movement are finally calling it a day, but not before a final farewell tour, writes Charlie Carter
BRITPOP KINGS BLUR are about to make their historic debut in China with a hit-packed Hong Kong gig that will feature some of the biggest songs of the past quarter century.
Five years after reforming for a handful of British shows, the Girls and Boys and Song 2 stars will call on the city as they travel the world playing thank-you concerts to their armies of overseas fans.
While the shows are being billed as the Londoners' farewell tour, singer Damon Albarn is keeping fans guessing as to what the future holds for the influential four-piece.
"We felt it was only fair that if we played a few gigs in England we should do that for everyone who wanted to see us around the world one more time," Albarn says, in an exclusive interview with 48 Hours.
The May 6 gig at the cavernous AsiaWorld-Arena follows sell-out shows in Mexico City and at the Coachella Festival in California. The band will then go on to concerts in Taipei, Japan and Europe, finishing off in Berlin in September.
Never one for giving a straight answer, Albarn initially insists these shows will be Blur's last ever, seemingly putting to rest any hope of the band making their 2009 reunion permanent. Then he adds with a knowing chuckle: "Then again, I've said that many times before."
After almost two decades of hits, Blur called it a day in 2003 when Albarn and his writing partner and childhood friend, guitarist Graham Coxon, fell out over how the band should develop. It put the pioneers of the 1990s Britpop movement on ice, at a time when Blur had notched up multimillion record sales with albums such as Parklife, The Great Escape and their moving finale, Think Tank.
In the interim, Albarn pursued a series of successful collaborative projects, including the cartoon hip hop band Gorillaz, and won plaudits among classical music fans for his operas Monkey: Journey to the West, based on the Chinese legend, and Dr Dee, about an Elizabethan polymath scientist.
By 2007, however, Albarn and Coxon had begun patching up their differences and, in 2009, joined bassist Alex James and drummer Dave Rowntree for an emotional comeback headline slot at Glastonbury.
They followed that up with last year's massive Olympics closing ceremony, playing to almost 100,000 people in London's Hyde Park. The reunion cemented one of the most successful and eagerly awaited reconciliations in pop history.
"I was very surprised after such an absence to be received so well - it was extraordinary," a tired-sounding Albarn says in London days after the tour's opening show in Mexico. "I wasn't expecting that kind of reception. It's a strange thing in a way, Blur, because it's something I've not really done full-time for a long time - when I'm engaged in it I'm always amazed that people are so passionate about it."
It's hard to imagine why he'd be so surprised. Blur grew out of the late '80s British indie pop scene to become one of the world's biggest bands. Catchy singles, such as the effervescent Girls & Boys and the rollicking Country House, captured the optimistic mood of a nation emerging from 18 years of right-wing Conservative rule and riding a wave of economic euphoria during Britain's longest period of growth.
After a debut album that had failed to live up to the promise of their live shows and debut single There's No Other Way, Blur found a pop style that borrowed from English music hall and echoed the witty sarcasm of Swinging Sixties hitmakers The Kinks.
With their modish dress code, knack for a clever lyric and catchy hooks in abundance, Blur, more than any other band, personified the soubriquet coined for the era: Cool Britannia. But their unfettered reign at the top didn't last long. While Blur's contribution to British rock is in no doubt, their legacy will always be tangled up with that of a gang of scruffy young pretenders who rivalled them for the Britpop crown: Oasis.
The Mancunian rockers, led by the volatile Gallagher brothers Noel and Liam, were the cocky, rough, northern English antidote to Blur's southern hipness. While the Blur boys were seen at swish parties in the capital, the Gallaghers - Liam, in particular - provided the tabloids with an endless stream of pub fights, riotous gigs and foul-mouthed pronouncements on everything from the royal family to politics and television soaps.
But they saved their most spiteful barbs for Blur and, in particular, Albarn. In one infamous exchange Noel said he wished Damon and bassist Alex would "catch Aids and die".
It signalled the end of friendly rivalry as the so-called Britpop wars broke out into open hostilities. "I don't know if anyone ever took the thing between us and Oasis seriously, but it definitely had a very big impact culturally," Albarn says, almost 20 years after the height of one of pop's most fascinating feuds.
"I think the words were a lot stronger than any actions," he continues. "It was very real for at least one summer in the sense that neither Noel nor myself could go anywhere without the music from the other band being played. You couldn't walk down the street without people opening their windows and shoving their stereos speaker out the window and singing Wonderwall," he adds, referring to Oasis' biggest hit single.
The rivalry even made BBC News in 1995 when the two bands ratcheted up the feud by scheduling the release of singles from their respective upcoming new albums for the same day. Blur's Country House topped Oasis' Roll With It for the No 1 spot by only a few thousand copies.
While they won that battle, Oasis were seen as winners of the war after they played to a quarter of a million people at two sprawling outdoor shows in Knebworth Park, a venue that in previous decades hosted the likes of The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin.
But Albarn and Noel Gallagher finally put their bitter feud to rest last month when they and Coxon joined perennial British rock favourite Paul Weller on stage at the Royal Albert Hall to play Blur's 1999 hit Tender. It followed a reconciliation in 2012, three years after Oasis split amid another long-running feud - that between the two Gallagher brothers.
When asked before the gig if taking the stage with his former rival was the last nail in the Britpop war's coffin, Albarn replied: "Yes, I suppose it is."
"I'd say we have become friends," he says of Noel. "We enjoy hanging out - we don't hang out often, but when we do we enjoy it. It's nice to find a familiar face in a sea of strangers. The nice thing - and the cathartic thing for both of us - is that we swapped our experiences and they were very similar, it turned out."
He puts the thaw in their relationship down to the moderating effects of advancing age and changing times. "I think it's really nice and it's really positive that we've all grown up enough to be able to have a laugh about it," he says. "I think we've come out of it well, while some other people haven't. A lot of people, including Tony Blair, don't seem to have a sense of humour and are still very self-righteous about how they behaved in the '90s. We have very publicly made it clear that we can laugh at ourselves."
Albarn sees similarities in the rift between the Gallaghers and the row that divided him and Coxon for so many years. "When my relationship with Graham went sour - it was not a nice feeling. People ask you about it and unless they are prepared to sit down for a couple of hours and listen to why [you split], the answers always seem a bit superficial."
Blur have recorded two new tracks since their reformation and included a handful of obscure album tracks in their British gig set lists. For their international shows, however, they will stick to the hits.
"When you're playing to festival audiences you can't assume that you are just playing to your fans and you want to make the whole experience as positive as you can for everybody," Albarn says, side-stepping any suggestions that a hit-filled set was like being on the nostalgia circuit.
"With big crowds you have to be sensitive to that mass of people," he adds. "When you've got an hour and a half to impress what is essentially a new generation, your choice should really be limited to what will work."
While there are no more plans for Blur after these shows end in the autumn, typically, Albarn isn't spending the next couple of years idly reflecting on his legacy. He's just recorded a solo album, which he plans to take on the road next year, and is investing a lot of time in developing his Monkey opera for a run in New York, before taking it to the mainland.
"I'm really excited by the prospect of Monkey: Journey to the West going back to mainland China as a production," he says, adding that he hopes to bring the show to Hong Kong. "I love Hong Kong," he effuses, citing his last visit here in 2010 with Gorillaz. "I had a wonderful time when I was travelling around China doing research for Monkey. I've always felt quite passionate about not resting on my laurels too much and so I'm always keen to keep moving forward. But, at the same time, it's very nice to look back every now and then."
Blur, May 6, 8pm, AsiaWorld-Arena, Lantau, HK$480-HK$880. HK Ticketing. Inquiries: 3128 8288
Bit of a Blur
Modern Life is Rubbish (1993)
After the single Popscene hinted at a punkier future for Blur, their second LP sheds the post-baggy pop of its predecessor in favour of sharply observed commentary on early-'90s Britain. Disgruntled by the band's lack of success to this point, an acerbic Albarn vents spleen on the hypocrisy of advertising, working-class ennui and life in London, a theme that will run through much of the rest of Blur's material.
The definitive Britpop album, Blur's third CD is chock-full of observational, parochial vignettes. Kinks-like and with more than a hint of old music hall rambunctiousness, its witty lyrics illuminate peculiarly British caricatures, from the cross-dressing civil servant (Tracy Jacks), the Brits-on-the-booze holidaymakers (Girls and Boys) and the lad-about-town (Parklife).
Tired of Britpop, his relationship with Elastica rocker Justine Frischmann on the rocks and with more than a hint of heroin experimentation thrown into the mix, Albarn yields to Coxon's preference for American-style indie to the dismay of fair-weather fans. Spawning Blur's biggest worldwide hit, the call-and-response Song 2, Blur sees the band testing new waters.
This is Albarn's breakup album, drenched in harrowing post-relationship misery and the woozy influence of heroin. Musically, it is Blur's most challenging, artistically their most rewarding but commercially their most disappointing album. Spare and stark, even William Orbit's crystalline production is unable to paper over the all-too-evident cracks in camp Blur.
Think Tank (2003)
Blur's swansong is bedevilled by abandoned recording sessions with Fatboy Slim and studio rows that resulted in Coxon leaving the group. The other three decamped to North Africa to record a sombre collection of dance-tinged Albarn-penned tracks.