How Nirvana's Success Prompted Blur to Kick off the Britpop Explosion
America's grunge explosion took over the world 25 years ago, and Blur knew they had to do something different on 1993's 'Modern Life Is Rubbish.'
Photo by Koh Hasebe / Shinko Music / Getty Image
Of all the accomplishments Nirvana achieved in their short, seven-year existence (and even beyond), inspiring the birth of Britpop was almost as unexpected as toppling Michael Jackson from the top of the charts. While most of the music world fell truly, madly, and deeply in love with the Seattle band’s distortion-happy guitar sound and despondent lyrics, four erudite lads from London, England, felt otherwise.
Despite Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain calling Blur’s “There’s No Other Way” his favorite song of the moment when asked back in 1991, the feeling wasn’t mutual. At the time, grunge had a firm stranglehold on music worldwide, with the UK proving to be as susceptible as any country. With the exception of a few homegrown acts like Teenage Fanclub and Suede making Britain proud, national press had fallen in love with what Seattle was cooking, from Pearl Jam to Mudhoney.
“I thought Nirvana’s Nevermind was brilliant, but I didn’t want to say so,” Blur guitarist Graham Coxon later told Mojo. “We knew that it was the enemy. We had a lot of respect for the enemy, but knew that we had to be completely different.”
It didn’t help that the birthplace of grunge had made Blur’s life difficult. Tours in America didn’t go as well as planned. When they were unexpectedly hit with a massive £60,000 VAT bill, thanks to some bookkeeping blunders by manager Mike Collins, Blur was forced to embark on a ten-week US tour to make some money. The unrealistic expectations of their American label SBK, which reportedly spent $1 million trying to break them, put phenomenal pressure on the band. Blur’s time abroad not only put them on the brink of splitting up, it also caused band members to engage in fistfights with one another, and Coxon to drunkenly smash every windowpane of their tour bus. Frontman Damon Albarn became so homesick on the trip, he would shut himself in his hotel room and obsessively listen to the Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset” every night. In no time he was writing songs that avowed his love for England.
Upon returning home, Blur was broke, constantly drunk, and in disarray. Although they had achieved modest success with their debut album, Leisure, its shoegaze and baggy influences were becoming terribly unfashionable. Blur was now in search of new, different musical directions.
When they got back into the studio, the band came up with a song they called “Popscene,” a mile-a-minute, juggernaut anthem bristling with blaring horns, a driving rhythm section, and laser-like guitar riffs. Channeling favorites like the Teardrop Explodes and the Specials with a punk fervor, Albarn used the opportunity to take jabs at the scenes he now disowned.
“Prior to the recording of ‘Popscene’ we went through a really rough patch and what we felt we needed was some change of direction,” Andy Ross, former co-head of Food Records, later recalled to Sounds. “The band came up with ‘Popscene’ and I thought, ‘this is just amazing, a really groundbreaking song. It’s going to be huge and the band will be enormous and conquer the world. It’ll be a doddle but it turned out to be a disaster really.”
“Popscene” may not have had much of an impact, peaking only at number 32 in the singles charts, but it did manage to spark a an important change for Blur. Originally, the plan was to bring in XTC’s Andy Partridge to produce, but after Albarn recorded some demos with him, it sounded a little too much like the producer’s former group. Instead, they went back to Stephen Street, who had worked on Leisure, despite protest from label boss Dave Balfe.
“Dave Balfe came down to the studio to hear what we’d done and afterwards he read us the riot act,” Street told Mojo in 2009. “He said there were no hits on it, that it was commercial suicide. In a way it was what they needed. It spurred Damon on. It was a case of, ‘I’ll show you.’”
After telling Blur “they’ll sell to a few NME readers and that’s it,” Food Records had discussed dropping the band at this point. But since it was around Christmas time, out of the good of their heart, the label decided to give them another chance. They ordered Albarn to write some songs that could help sell the record. And that’s exactly what he did.
“I went back [home] to Colchester… I went out on Christmas Eve and got really drunk and woke up really early on Christmas morning very hungover and went down into the kitchen and wrote ‘For Tomorrow,’” Albarn would tell Stuart Maconie, author of the band’s biography, Blur: 3862 Days. “I woke my dad up. He came downstairs and wanted to know what the fuck I was doing up this early. That was an important song for us. It was the beginning of us being a different kind of band.”
While “Popscene” may have bought Blur some time, the la-la chorus and extraordinary melodies of “For Tomorrow” reinvigorated them. Food loved the single and insisted they get Jeff Lynne to produce it, since they heard a definite Electric Light Orchestra influence. However, yet again, they would record it with Street. Another song, titled “Chemical World,” followed with approval. All of a sudden Blur had the UK label on their side. Stateside, however, SBK still needed convincing. Looking to capitalize on the popularity of grunge, SBK recommended producer Butch Vig (Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins).
“That seemed a thankless task,” Coxon told Maconie. “So obvious and just what you’d expect from such a shit label. Butch Vig had produced his piece of history with Nevermind. He wasn’t going to do it again.” (To add insult to injury, when SBK released the album in the US, it swapped the studio version of “Chemical World” for the demo.)
By combining their disdain for grunge and their American label, Blur was fully committed to not only embracing their Englishness for their second album, but also flaunting it. All of a sudden they underwent an image makeover, dressing up in Fred Perry tops, Doc Martens boots, and three-button jackets. Their press photos were pretentious, to the point of being labeled “British Image 1” and “British Image No. 2”. This extended to the inside sleeve, which had an oil painting of the band decked in their skinhead attire, while the album’s cover featured a pre-war Mallard steam engine, the British-made locomotive that was boasted to be the world’s fastest. And then there was the album’s title, Modern Life Is Rubbish, which Albarn stole from some graffiti art he had spotted on Bayswater Road in London.
Speaking to the NME’s John Harris, author of Britpop: Cool Britannia and the Spectacular Demise of English Rock, Albarn explained in full pompousness just what he meant: “Modern life is the rubbish of the past. We all live on the rubbish: it dictates our thoughts. And because it’s all built up over such a long time, there’s no necessity for originality anymore. There are so many things to splice together infinite permutations that there is absolutely no need to create anything new. I think that that phrase is the most significant comment on popular culture since ‘Anarchy In The UK.’”
Albarn’s lofty ambitions may have been delusional, but there’s no denying Blur shifted the culture in Britain with Modern Life Is Rubbish. The album is regarded as the definitive proto-Britpop album: a call to their fellow country folk to take pride in their tea-drinking, pub-loitering traditions, while calling for a new celebration of contemporary ways.
More importantly, Blur had found themselves. Gone was the derivative indie band that sounded like a hundred others, and in its place was one brimming with confidence, taking cues from forefathers like the Kinks, XTC, David Bowie, and the Jam. It marked a new beginning for Albarn and Coxon as a songwriting partnership: the former’s gift for writing razor-sharp pop hooks was finally realized, while the latter, no longer held to copying others, unleashed his flare for inventive guitar leads that would go on to make him one of music’s great virtuosos.
With “For Tomorrow” leading the way, the songs all took on lives of their own. From the circus-like romp of “Sunday Sunday” and the dizzying melodies of “Star Shaped” to “Miss America,” a melancholy love letter to the US, and the spiralling pop dazzler “Oily Water,” Blur had laid the foundation for their future, one that would result in a trilogy called “Life” that would go on to include successors Parklife and The Great Escape.
One month before the release of Modern Life Is Rubbish, UK music magazine Select emblazoned its April cover with a photo of Suede frontman Brett Anderson in front of a Union Jack with the headline: “Yanks go home!” Little did the magazine know how much of a stir it would cause. Anderson disowned the cover, acknowledging that the shot of him was not something he posed for, and Select was accused of the same nationalistic pride that had gotten Morrissey into trouble a year prior during a gig at Finsbury Park, where he draped the flag over himself.
For Blur, it couldn’t have been a bigger slap in the face. Suede was the one UK band that Albarn despised, not just because they were getting the attention he felt Blur deserved, but also because his girlfriend, Justine Frischmann of Elastica, was formerly both a member of Suede and dating Anderson. As far as he was concerned, he was fighting two wars: one against the US, the other against Suede. Worse still was the fact that Blur was nowhere to be found in the Select article, brazenly titled “Who Do You Think You Are Kidding, Mr. Cobain?” Little did Select realize that Blur was on the verge of giving the press just the kind of pro-Britannia propaganda it was instigating.
In one interview with the NME, Albarn declared, “If punk was about getting rid of hippies then I’m getting rid of grunge. It’s the same sort of feeling: people should smarten up, be a bit more energetic. They’re walking around like hippies again—they’re stooped, they’ve got greasy hair, there’s no difference. Whether they like it or not, they’re listening to Black Sabbath again. It irritates me.”
In another one with The Zine, he was even more direct, admitting, “We should get a big bulldozer, pile up all the rubbish and send it over to America… It’s time to make England fresh again.”
He even predicted the album would flop overseas. “I know we’re going to have problems with Americans on this album because it has no reference points for them,” Albarn would tell writer Graham Reid. “But every ten years or so Britain goes back to its roots and the Americans don’t get it. Then five years later they do. These days they get Ray Davies and the Kinks, the Sex Pistols and the Smiths, so what we are doing is more an investment for the future.”
And he was right. Modern Life Is Rubbish would only initially sell 19,000 copies and receive very little airplay. Even Beavis and Butt-head took some pot shots at them in the video for “Chemical World,” with Beavis proclaiming, “I'd like to try maybe peeing on one of these guys sometime, y'know like, while they're asleep?”
The album fared much better in the UK. Reaching #15 on the albums chart, however, none of the singles—“For Tomorrow,” “Chemical World” and “Sunday Sunday”—left much of a mark. It wasn’t until their performance at the Reading Festival in August 1993 that Blur would find any kind of reception to their newfound act.
“The real turning point for me was the night they played in the big tent at Reading,” Street would tell Maconie. “It was just awesome. The tent was packed and they were great… For me, that’s the best gig they’ve ever played. You knew they’d survive. More than survive.”
Of course, Blur would not only survive, but less than a year later become the biggest band in Britain. Their third album, Parklife, would arrive only 11 months after their second, and go on to help launch the cultural revolution that was Britpop, for which Damon Albarn would be the poster boy.
“They told us we were doing the wrong thing with [this album] when in fact we were predicting the way, in fact, creating the way, everything would go in British pop for the next three years,” Albarn declared to Maconie, and he’s correct.
Parklife and everything that followed would not have been possible without Blur making Modern Life Is Rubbish. The band themselves understand its importance. Coxon has called it one of their best records, but it was bassist Alex James who said it best to Dazed Digital: “We went from being an indie band to a group with wider aspirations and yearnings. Everyone hated us back at that point but we thought we were doing the right thing and that has been proven in the end.”