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10 July 2023

Blur and the strange death of Britpop England

Their gig at Wembley Stadium was their biggest yet. But do the nostalgic guitar sounds of the 1990s have wider resonance in 2023?

By Fergal Kinney

“We’ve been waiting for this moment all our lives,” Damon Albarn told the crowd at Wembley Stadium on Saturday 8 July. With a 90,000-strong audience, this was the biggest headline set in Blur’s career. The band has appeared and reappeared at regular intervals since their emotional 2009 reunion, and the overwhelming mood of the show was of uncomplicated goodwill.

But in 2023 Blur occupy a strange position in the cultural landscape. Of their class of ’94 contemporaries, it is Blur whose legacy feels the least claimed. Oasis still swagger in the zeitgeist – Matty Healy, the frontman of the 1975, argued that a reformed Gallagher unit could be “potentially – right now, still – the coolest band in the world”. For their faults, they were, as Alex Niven has written, authentically “a tribal summary of post-war popular culture, with the Labour Party and the 1966 World Cup, and glam rock, and bits of rave, and the Irish immigrant experience”. Pulp, who have also reformed this summer, have been convincingly reappraised for their theatre of low-budget sexuality and class revenge.

When cultural historian Jon Savage identified Britpop as part of “the cultural smugness of the Blair years”, paving the way for Brexit, Blur seemed the worst offenders. “Groups of witless, opportunistic mockneys – middle-class media ‘geezers’ who had learned to drop their aitches and flatten their vowels,” said the Suede vocalist Brett Anderson in one of the many Britpop memoirs of the last decade. “British life, which I saw as more akin to a Mike Leigh film, was being twisted into a Carry On film.”

At their Saturday show at Wembley, Blur assembled a contemporary line-up boasting many of the traits that Britpop boorishly disavowed. Take Jockstrap’s lurid dancefloor experimentalism, or Sleaford Mods, who are by this point a study in masculinity as dense and nihilistic as the complete boxset of The Sopranos. Self Esteem, Britain’s best pop star, proves that no stage is too big for her maximalist, confrontational pop built on queer feminist solidarity. Between bands, no Nineties hits were wheeled out – instead, the former snooker champion turned killer prog DJ Steve Davis played the Fall and autotuned rave gurners, alongside leftfield music hero and editor of the Quietus John Doran (not a figure traditionally synonymous with Wembley stadium). It was brilliant, and felt like a generous and admirable reflection of British music in 2023.

It was in keeping, too, with how Blur have approached their reunions. Unlike many on the reunion circuit this summer, they have recorded new music – their forthcoming album The Ballad of Darren. Given Albarn’s workaholic variety across innumerable musical projects, Blur’s new material seems home to frustratingly straightforward indie rock, such as the opening song of their set, “St Charles Square”. This was a red herring of an introductory track; 1991’s baggy, late-to-the-party single “There’s No Other Way” then began a relentless forward march of big hitters.

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Blur’s peak during Britpop, a movement they defined and shaped, was a commodification of new wave’s specifically suburban outposts. When bands a generation before them such as the Jam, XTC or Squeeze sneered at their local everyman, it was with a proximity that still makes their smalltown vignettes enduringly vivid. Paul Weller, who supported the band on their Sunday night show, knew Saturday’s Kids and could write them with begrudging affection and detail. Albarn’s pen portraits lean towards the brutally generic, like one of those unloved late-period Martin Amis novels about lottery winners with pitbulls, or Grayson Perry’s head-patting Middle England venerations. Phil Daniels appeared on Saturday night from a striped road workers’ tent, rendering “Parklife” as Punch and Judy caper, while Albarn donned a deerstalker hat for the cartoonish “Country House”. These are not meaningful songs, but they delighted the crowd at Wembley. Underlining the band’s everyman theme, masks were distributed across the stadium bearing the face of Darren, the band’s former security guard and the inspiration for The Ballad of Darren. (“Darren,” Albarn has said, “is many people.”)

Caitlin Moran’s recent book What About Men has been criticised for its thesis that men do not meaningfully talk about their feelings, and that male bonding is not reflected in wider popular culture. A good place to look to contradict this would be the rock reunion show – male friendship reaching its highest salvation. These four men who came together in their teens were visibly moved by being bound together once again in their fifties. “I didn’t know it was going to be like this,” Albarn said, showing some of the same emotion present when he sobbed on stage at Glastonbury during their 2009 appearance. You might have needed the giant Wembley LED screens to detect the grin that flashed across the guitarist Graham Coxon’s face whenever he lifted his head up towards Albarn, but it was there. The bassist Alex James, smoking a cigarette, was a floppy monument to the Nineties’ most nightmarish frivolity, from Groucho Club benders to the Chipping Norton set via a bucket of vindaloo.

It might be lairy mateyness that Albarn reserves for the Blur project, but the band’s best material has always relied on his gifted line in melancholia. It runs through the numb solipsism of “Beetlebum”, aired early, and in the groggy and redemptive “This Is a Low”, the band’s most successful fusion of the national and personal. There’s an angelic quality to Albarn’s voice here, now oak-aged, quite apart from his mockney chant. “Tender”, which cribs its main hook from the F Scott Fitzgerald novel, undercuts its secular hymn foundations with a powerful and magnetic neediness: “Let It Be” getting dumped on a bad comedown. What moved me, though, was “Under the Westway”. A song I had forgotten, it is Blur’s last top 40 single, released as a one-off download to coincide loosely with the 2012 London Olympics. No seaside postcard of Albion, it’s grounded in the actuality of Albarn’s London as he sees it – the Westway towering over a city “where the money always comes first”. It’s Ray Davies on his way back from church.

In a summer of multiple Britpop reunions, “the Long Nineties” have felt longer than usual this year. Britpop is endlessly lived out in documentaries, films, memoirs and broadsheet Sunday supplement features, reflective of how many prominent TV, radio and journalist figures had their careers minted in that moment. But unlike, say, punk or rave or skiffle, you could tweezer the whole movement out of British pop culture and almost nothing would change. The British music from the 1990s that continues to shape 2020s music is jungle and drum and bass, or the work of electronic auteurs such as Tricky, Goldie or Aphex Twin. The strange death of Britpop England was marked by its lack of lasting influence.

Do the nostalgic guitar sounds of the mid 1990s have much resonance in 2023? Let’s take down the bunting, put away the Union Jack guitar, and let future generations decide if there’s anything they want to take from those years of British pop culture on their own terms. And why not? Based on tonight – where the surprising endurance of four teenagers is played out on England’s biggest stage – it really, really, really could happen.

[See also: The Ballad of Darren is one of Blur’s best records]

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