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18 June 2024

Inside Blur’s reunion psychodrama

A new film documents the band’s cautious reconciliation at Damon Albarn’s very big house in the country.

By Tom Gatti

Blur were the Beatles of Britpop, not because of the music but because of the personalities. Damon, Graham, Alex and Dave were as inextricable, and as individually identifiable, as John, Paul, George and Ringo. They even seemed to work from the Beatles’ job specs: the gobby, criminally handsome frontman; the mischievous sonic wunderkind; the cool, quiet one with the cheekbones; the easy-going chap behind the drumkit.

The two bands also had a sense of psychodrama that became part of their legend, as Damon Albarn admits in the documentary To the End (in cinemas from 19 July). Albarn and Graham Coxon first bonded in the music Portakabin at Stanway Comprehensive in Colchester, Essex, in 1981, but by the time of Blur’s fourth album, The Great Escape (1995), they were – like John and Paul before them – pulling in different creative directions. Coxon, who was pushing for a more adventurous American sound, despised the Page 3-era sexism of the “Country House” video, disapproved of Alex James’s entry into the Groucho Club set, and struggled with his own anxiety and alcoholism. There was even a Yoko Ono figure: Jamie Hewlett, the comics artist that Coxon introduced to the band and who ended up “taking over from Graham” in Albarn’s life. Hewlett and Albarn moved in together, and formed Gorillaz in 1998. As that project was taking off, Blur was falling apart – and during the recording of Think Tank (2003), Coxon finally made his exit.

Blur had already reconciled (for live shows in 2009, and a decent album in 2015), but there was still something momentous about the plan, hatched by Albarn, that they would play Wembley Stadium in 2023 armed not only with their greatest hits, but with a new record. James remarks that, in any given year, “I get more from Downing Street and the palace than I do from Albarn and Coxon.” But when Albarn invites them all to his house – his very, it must be said, big house – in Devon, they show up. As does a film crew, to capture what happens between four pop stars in their mid-fifties facing their largest performance yet.

Can they pull it off? We know they can, because the shows were a triumph: those of us who were at Wembley won’t forget Albarn breaking down in tears at his piano, a stadium singing “Parklife”, or Coxon’s glorious, questing guitar solo for “This Is a Low” spiralling into the summer night. But can they do it while keeping their friendships – as well as their ageing joints – intact? For the director of To the End, Toby L, this is the trickier and more interesting question.

The candid, natural style of the film secures plenty of telling moments. James is the first to arrive in Devon. Albarn has been collecting his chickens’ eggs: he has a stick to keep the rooster, Tony, at bay. “I got married and started making cheese,” James says simply, summing up the past 20 years. Albarn takes him for a pint and a sea-swim: they wade out unsteadily, James preserving his modesty with a T-shirt, Albarn allowing his green trunks to sag (insert “Beetlebum” gag here). The pair, once rarely seen without skinny blazers, now sit in their voluminous changing robes. James looks pleased not to be running his cheese factory or explaining to his kids why he wrote in his memoir that he spent £1m on champagne and drugs in the 1990s. Compared with being a father and running a festival on his Oxfordshire farm, “bass playing is the easiest job in the world”.

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Then Coxon materialises. He has been playing music outside Blur for more than 20 years, and currently has a band with his partner, Rose Elinor Dougall – but, ushered into Albarn’s home studio, he is bouncing around and tinkering like a kid. The pair don’t seem able to exchange anything resembling full sentences but they keep putting their arms around one another and the affection is palpable. Finally, Dave Rowntree shows up: he has been a lawyer and is now running to be Labour MP for Mid Sussex. Tea is served. Hopefully, he asks, “Is the cake gluten-free?” Alas, it isn’t. Poor Dave.

As the film progresses, and James relaxes, his scarves seem to get smaller and smaller, and his reclining poses increasingly horizontal. Albarn, too, meets the soft furnishings with a great unpacking of limbs (he’s always had a knack for filling the frame). James is the only one to still enjoy full knee mobility: Albarn and Coxon have existing injuries, and a tennis mishap before the gig means that Rowntree hobbles in to Wembley stadium on crutches. But glimpses of archive footage show what hasn’t changed about their bodies: when James plays bass, his shoulders still rise up his neck; Coxon has the same fluttery hands; on stage, Albarn launches into the jack-in-the-box jumps he was doing 30 years ago.

The album Blur made in Devon, The Ballad of Darren, is a melancholic, melodic wonder, but the film gives few insights into its creation. We see Rowntree, Coxon and James dutifully recording their parts in solitary rooms. Albarn has always been the chief songwriter, but if there were alchemical moments when his ideas were transfigured by the group, the cameras were kept away. Instead, we are shown the band sitting down to hear the album in full for the first time, Coxon vaping, Albarn and James smoking (these are men forged in the pre-ban world; James admits he enjoys “having a fag with my kids”), Rowntree keeping his counsel on the edge of the sofa.

As he listens to himself sing “The Everglades” (“Many ghosts alive in my mind/Many paths I wish I’d taken”), Albarn sobs, just as he would do onstage at Wembley. He doesn’t mention that his relationship of 25 years with the mother of his daughter has ended, though at one point he describes himself, poignantly, as a 55-year-old man living alone. In his new songs, the epic hurt of this break-up has merged with a yearning for the curative power of music and nostalgia for Blur’s earliest years. It’s clear this means more to Albarn than the rest of them.

Being men, though, it takes the others some time to figure it out. “I thought he was laughing,” James admits later (perhaps he’d have had a better view if he ever sat up straight). But the project does have an unlocking effect. “Emotionally, something has been dislodged,” says Coxon. “A boulder has fallen out… and now rolls down towards us.” The approaching boulder threatens their equanimity – forcing them into boring rehearsals, bringing out Albarn’s ill temper or wandering mind (“If you don’t keep him focused on the job in hand,” says James, “he’ll literally write another opera”), or James’s inability to say no to another drink – but it also sends them back into their past. In Essex, before a warm-up gig, Blur’s original duo visit their old school. The new head, in his slim-fit suit, proudly shows them “The Albarn & Coxon Room”, a featureless, pine-and-grey music room. You can tell they preferred the old Portakabin. “We should get some posters up,” Albarn says. “A bowl of weed.” The head’s face registers a delicious combination of confusion and panic. Despite the long separations, James admits that he thinks about “the boys” every day. 

It’s not until the band begin to perform, though, that the magic truly returns. “We are at our freest when we’re on stage,” says Albarn. The chemistry between him and Coxon is electric, recalling John and Paul in the most thrilling moments of Get Back. In the audience at Wembley, Blur’s capacious songs of love and the modern condition unleash boulders everywhere. 

Why do it? The band are keen for the reunion not to seem self-indulgent. Albarn senses a renewed “appetite for something that pokes a bit of fun at the conservative aspects of this country”, noting that the band is now more popular than it has ever been. “It felt for some reason that it was wanted at this point in time”. The fans wanted it, yes, but the band needed it. In the continuing psychodrama of Damon, Graham, Alex and Dave, it took 90,000 people to remind them why Blur exists: because they are in it.

[See also: There is no cultural armada behind today’s left]

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This article appears in the 19 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, How to Fix a Nation