Blur codified the inchoate sounds of British indie at the dawn of the 1990s, turning the nascent revival of glam and new wave into a bright, bustling scene called Brit-pop. The band may have been at the epicenter of Brit-pop — singer Damon Albarn fashioned their second album, 1993′s Modern Life Is Rubbish, as a reaction to the increasing hegemony of American pop culture — but Blur was also the first group to leave the scene behind, swapping brightly colored tunes for gnarled introspection just as Cool Britannia hit its peak. Not so much a renunciation as an evolution, Blur’s lo fi-inspired makeover also hearkened back to their psychedelic beginnings and highlighted how the group was at their core an art-pop band, synthesizing fringe and mainstream rock styles in clever, idiosyncratic ways without abandoning the melodicism of pop. Albarn’s gift for hooks was evident from the start, right when “There’s No Other Way” came out at the tail-end of Madchester, and it remained the constant throughout Brit-pop — shining on the hit singles “Girls & Boys,” “Parklife,” “Country House,” and “The Universal” — and anchoring the group during their noisy late ’90s, when the grunge parody “Song 2″ finally gave them an American hit in 1997. The group began to fracture not long afterward — guitarist Graham Coxon walked out during the sessions for 2003′s Think Tank — but at the end of the 2000s, Blur embarked on the first of several recurring reunions that helped buttress and expand their legacy. Initially, those get-togethers coincided with live events, such as the 2012 Olympics in London, but by 2015, the reunion expanded into the recording studio as the group released The Magic Whip, their first album with Coxon since 1999′s 13. After a gap of eight years, Blur returned with another collection of new material, The Ballad of Darren.
The roots of Blur lay in Seymour, a group Damon Albarn had with his childhood friend Graham Coxon and drummer Dave Rowntree. Coxon recruited his Goldsmiths College classmate Alex James to play bass and the group made their live debut in the summer of 1989. By November, Seymour caught the attention of Andy Ross, an A&R rep for Food Records, a subsidiary of EMI run by former Teardrop Explodes keyboardist Dave Balfe. Food agreed to sign the band contingent on a name change. The label submitted a list of alternate names for the group’s approval. From that list, the band took the name Blur.
“She’s So High,” their first single, made it into the U.K. Top 50 late in 1990, a modest success eclipsed by the exuberant follow-up “There’s No Other Way” cracking the Top Ten after its April 1991 release. Food rushed Blur into the studio with producer Stephen Street, with the resulting debut album Leisure appearing in August of 1991. Leisure reached number seven on the U.K. Albums Chart yet it soon seemed like a relic from a faded era, skewing closer toward the paisley-speckled Madchester scene than the nascent glam revival that emerged in 1992 with the arrival of Suede.
As Suede captured the attention of the British rock world in 1992, Blur embarked on a lengthy tour of the United States. The two-month jaunt failed to break them in America, but it had a clarifying effect on Albarn. Immersed in the States during the glory days of grunge, Albarn grew homesick and started to formulate a reactionary stance to flannel-draped alt-rock. Conceiving Blur’s mission as a simultaneous critique and celebration of British culture, Albarn picked up the thread left hanging by the snarling “Pop Scene,” a brash, neo-mod rocker Blur delivered as a single at the start of their 1992 tour. The single wasn’t a hit, but it placed Blur in a lineage of bands that stretched back through the Jam and the Kinks, a quintessentially British tradition that they hoped to emphasize by hiring XTC’s Andy Partridge to produce their second album. Relations between Blur and Partridge quickly soured, so Street was brought back aboard to produce Modern Life Is Rubbish.
After spending nearly a year in the studio, Blur delivered the album to Food. The record company rejected it, declaring that it needed a hit single. Blur went back into the studio and recorded the newly written “For Tomorrow,” which did reach 28 on the U.K. charts. Food was ready to release the record, but the group’s U.S. label, SBK, believed there was no American hit single on the record and asked them to return to the studio. Blur complied with the churning “Chemical World,” which pleased SBK for a short while; the song would become a minor alternative hit in the U.S. and charted at number 28 in the U.K. Modern Life Is Rubbish was set for release in the spring of 1993 when SBK asked Blur to re-record the album with Butch Vig, the producer behind hit albums by Nirvana and Sonic Youth. The band refused and the record was released in May in Britain; it appeared in the United States that fall. Modern Life Is Rubbish received good reviews in Britain, peaking at number 15 on the charts, yet it failed to make much of an impression in the U.S.
Modern Life Is Rubbish turned out to be a dry run for Blur’s breakthrough album, Parklife. Released in April 1994, Parklife entered the charts at number one and catapulted the band to stardom in Britain. The stylized new wave dance-pop single “Girls and Boys” entered the charts at number five; the single managed to spend 15 weeks on the U.S. charts, peaking at number 52, but the album never cracked the charts. It was a completely different story in England, as Blur had a string of hit singles, including the ballad “To the End” and the mod anthem “Parklife,” which featured narration by Phil Daniels, the star of the film version of the Who’s Quadrophenia.
With the success of Parklife, Blur opened the door for a flood of British indie guitar bands that dominated British pop culture in the mid-’90s. Oasis, Pulp, the Boo Radleys, Supergrass, Gene, Echobelly, Menswear, and numerous other groups benefited from the band’s success. Among those was Elastica, led by Albarn’s romantic partner Justine Frischmann; he appeared on Elastica’s eponymous 1995 debut. By the beginning of 1995, Parklife had gone triple platinum and Blur had become superstars. The group spent the first half of 1995 recording their fourth album and playing one-off concerts, including a sold-out stadium show. Blur released “Country House,” the first single from their new album, in August amidst a flurry of media attention because Albarn had the single’s release moved up a week to compete with the release of “Roll with It,” a new single from Blur’s chief rival, Oasis. The strategy backfired. Although Blur won the battle, with “Country House” becoming the group’s first number one single, they ultimately lost the war, as Oasis became Britain’s biggest band with their second album, (What's the Story) Morning Glory?, overshadowing the follow-up to Parklife, The Great Escape. While The Great Escape entered the U.K. charts at number one and earned positive reviews, it sold in smaller numbers, and by the beginning of 1996, Blur had fallen out of fashion.
Blur spent 1996 regrouping. At the end of the year, Albarn declared that he was no longer interested in British music and was fascinated with American indie rock, a genre that had interested Graham Coxon for years. These influences manifested themselves on Blur’s eponymous fifth album, which was released in February of 1997, preceded by the ominous single “Beetlebum,” which became their second single to top the U.K. charts. “Song 2,” a succinct blast of neo-grunge, finally helped Blur make inroads in America: a staple on MTV, it climbed to six on Billboard’s Modern Rock charts. “Song 2” also became a smash in the U.K., helping to send “On Your Own” to five later in the year.
Produced by electronica guru William Orbit, 1999′s 13 found Blur further exploring noise-saturated guitar rock in the guise of an introspective breakup album. “Tender,” the album’s lead single, had a distinctly melancholy current, something that it shared with another single, “No Distance Left to Run.” 13 also featured “Coffee & TV,” the first Blur single to be written and sung by Graham Coxon. The guitarist launched a solo career with The Sky Is Too High in 1998 and, not long after the release of 13, personal and creative tensions between Coxon and the rest of Blur came to a head. During the early sessions for the band’s next album, Think Tank, Coxon left. Blur chose to carry on as a trio with Albarn as their guitarist, completing Think Tank and releasing it in May 2003. Although the album debuted at number one in the U.K. and the band supported the record with a tour featuring Verve guitarist Simon Tong, Think Tank was the end of the line: Blur split after the album’s cycle came to a close.
Throughout the 2000s, Albarn busied himself with Gorillaz, a cartoon group he created with artist Jamie Hewlett in 2000, while Coxon continued his solo career. Rowntree and James both largely left music behind; the drummer became a solicitor and Labour Party councilor before returning to music with 2023′s Radio Songs, while the bassist wrote a pair of memoirs and became a cheese monger. Blur mended fences in 2009, playing a series of high-profile gigs that included a headlining set at Glastonbury and a pair of shows at Hyde Park. The following year, the group released the documentary No Distance Left to Run, which was paired with “Fool’s Day,” a limited-edition single timed to coincide with 2010′s Record Store Day.
Blur had a bustling 2012. Not only did they release the exhaustive box set Blur 21, which contained double-disc reissues of all seven of their studio albums, plus four discs of unreleased material and three DVDs. They issued “Under the Westway/The Puritan,” a single that simultaneously promoted the box and celebrated the group’s headlining spot at the closing London Olympic ceremonies in August 2012. That concert at Hyde Park was released later that year as Parklive.
Blur continued to play shows into 2013. While on tour, they found themselves with unexpected downtime in Hong Kong after their gig was canceled. During this week in Hong Kong, they recorded a bunch of material that lay unused until Coxon started working with producer Stephen Street to turn them into completed tracks in November of 2014. The finished album, titled The Magic Whip, appeared in April 2015, supported by a brief promotional tour. Blur spent the next few years quietly, returning to action in late 2022 with the announcement of a July 2023 concert at Wembley Stadium. Shortly after delivering this news, the band headed into the studio with producer James Ford — best known for his work with Arctic Monkeys and Florence and the Machine — to record The Ballad of Darren. It was the first time that all four members of Blur entered the studio with the intention to record a new album since 13.
The meditative and melancholy The Ballad of Darren was released in late July 2023 preceded by the singles “The Narcissist” and “St. Charles Square.” ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine