How London shaped Blur, Britpop and beyond
London has always been a hotbed for music. From the seventh century choirs in the earliest creation of St Paul’s Cathedral right through to the Grime development of the early twentieth, the city has proudly worn its status as a music capital. But what does that mean? A trip to the Hard Rock Cafe or selfie outside Abbey Road hardly tells us anything. London’s affiliation with music is more than just the fact that a few musicians happen to live here. The place has been a source of profound fascination for artists, constantly being communicated through imagery and melody. Music is in fact deeply embedded into its very architecture and has become part of the DNA. It’s one of the reasons I can’t ever stay away from this place for too long. Among the many groups and cultural icons connected to London, Blur’s was unusually intimate. By exploring the importance of the city through their music and imagery, I want to argue that London and music go deeper than we may have expected.
It was in fact through consciously embracing a British identity firmly rooted in London where Blur first found their voice. After a disastrous and alienating three month tour of America in 1992 (where grunge still dominated), the band increasingly found themselves craving home and the things that made it ‘British’. Returning with a better sense of who they were, Blur started work on the album Modern Life Is Rubbish, the title copied from a graffiti message on the Bayswater Road. Described by bassist Alex James as ‘a big two fingers up to America’, the result was a record defiantly inspired by Englishness - entirely at odds with the grunge trend of the time.
Modern Life Is Rubbish was the start of an album trilogy that referenced particular ties to London. The NME called the record "a London odyssey crammed full of strange commuters, peeping Thomases and lost dreams”. Indeed, the detailed imagery painted a picture that was firmly focused on the capital and life going on within it. The lead single 'For Tomorrow' was an overt celebration in which singer Damon Albarn described the way “London ice cracks on a seamless line” and how one should “take the drive to Primrose Hill, it’s windy there, and the view’s so nice”. So resonant were these lyrics that people spray-painted the latter to the pavement on Primrose Hill, despite the council’s best efforts to remove it time and again.
Of all Modern Life’s nods to London, Albarn’s mention of the Westway is a landmark that continues to be a constant theme in his songwriting. “I’ve always loved it; it’s part of my life”, he explained to the BBC in 2012, “it’s a metaphor for home and something that is constant”. Indeed, Albarn’s own Ladbroke Grove studio overlooks the Westway, and he even constructed a massive lookout tower roof extension to maximise the view. This fascination culminated in Blur’s beautifully powerful ballad ‘Under the Westway’, recorded for London’s hosting of the 2012 Olympics. It’s one of Albarn’s finest moments, effortlessly connecting himself to his much-loved landmark with poetic musicality: ‘There were blue skies in my city today / Everything was sinking, said snow would come on Sunday / The old school was due, and the traffic grew / Upon the Westway.’ The reference to ‘my city’ is telling of the highly personal relationship that Albarn felt towards London as he wrote those words.
Blur’s proud sense of Britishness went on to help define the broader Britpop movement, which equally had its roots firmly tied to spaces in London. The Good Mixer in Camden was widely considered ‘the centre of Britpop’ - the place for ‘anyone who was anyone’ during the era. It was said you could walk in any night of the week and see someone famous. Albarn’s girlfriend-of-the-time Justine Frischmann and her band Elastica signed with Deceptive Records there, while Blur imitators Menswear formed over a pint at the bar. The place had a lasting effect, becoming a haunt for the next generation that included the likes of Amy Winehouse and Pete Doherty. Indeed, the latter played with similar themes of Britishness and London years later. ‘Albion’ is a recurrent subject in Doherty’s music and poetry, while a recurring lyric on The Libertines track ‘The Boy Looked at Johnny’ laments how “New York City’s very pretty in the nighttime but don’t you miss Soho”.
Following Blur and the Britpop years, Albarn continued to use London imagery as markers for reflection that went beyond a mere celebration of its existence. In particular, the single ‘Green Fields’ from his 2007 project The Good, The Bad, and The Queen uses the Goldhawk Road as a reference point for changing times. The song was originally written following a night out on the road with Alex James and Marianne Faithfull in the mid-90s. It didn’t make the cut for a Blur record, although Albarn found an attachment to the place by using the sound of the road’s traffic at the start of 1995’s ‘Ernold Same’. Only years later did the song resurface along with a more contemplative Albarn. The first verse is as follows:
“I wrote this song years ago, late at night somewhere on the Goldhawk Road, I was never sure how or why. Before the war and the tidal wave engulfed us all, it’s true. How the world has changed, and I was learning how to change with you”.
Writing for The Guardian, Alexis Petridis suggested that ‘years ago’ was a reference to the height of the Britpop years, while the engulfing war and tidal wave referenced the Iraq war and 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. Albarn’s croaked lament on ‘how the world has changed’ is a million miles away from his Britpop cockney of the past, and his use of the Goldhawk Road as a recurring theme to mark this change is exceptionally poignant.
Another use of London as a motif for reflection in Albarn’s work is to encapsulate a strong sense of isolation. In a similar article connecting Blur’s music to the cityscape, Darran Anderson argued an essential characteristic of London life was the ‘heightened introspection that comes from being alone in a place where you’re immersed in people’. He suggested that Blur often captured the urban feeling of being ‘not a flâneur conquering the city, but a badaud watching the world go by and perhaps leaving you behind’. This introspective sense of solitude particularly manifests itself with a fusion to London’s spaces. The confident instrumentation of ‘For Tomorrow’ starkly contrasts with its dark, isolated lyrics. Albarn talks of being ‘lost on the Westway’, while ‘trying not to be sick again and holding on for tomorrow’. Again this appears in ‘Under the Westway’: “Am I lost out at sea? 'Til a tide washes me up off the Westway". These inner feelings deeply connected to London come out of Albarn and Blur’s music time and again.
It’s clear that London occupied a special place for Blur that served as more than just a place of residence. It’s textured landscapes and diverse inhabitants sparked an inspiration that worked its way deep into their music. I’m always reminded of their sound whenever I walk through Portobello Road or fly over the Westway. It’s equally clear that Londoners took inspiration from Blur’s music. The fact that ‘Parklife’ was used in the 2012 Olympics closing ceremony is a testament to this, while the band were invited to headline a Hyde Park concert that same night. Quite fittingly, their stage backdrop was a massive replica of the Westway.
While new rules and regulations pose a genuine threat to London’s music venues, there is a tangibly deep-rooted sense of affiliation between this city and song. For generations, London has inspired and been inspired by artists who have found meaning within its sprawling metropolis. It’s this detailed history that makes London one of the best cities in the world for a music fan and gives it that unmistakable familiarity of home.