Oxegen 09: Blur -- The return
Published 03/07/2009 | 00:00
They're both popular draws, but Kings of Leon and The Killers have become almost annual attractions at Oxegen, which means Friday night's headline appearance from the re-formed Blur is the big-name highlight of the festival.
Despite persistent rumours, the confirmation that Blur would reunite still came as something of a surprise. During the recording of their last studio album, Think Tank, the quartet became a trio after the departure of guitarist Graham Coxon.
According to singer Damon Albarn, the subsequent tour, which called at the Olympia for three nights, felt "rubbish".
"Deep down, the problem with our band has always been founded on the fact that all four of us have got one sister and no brothers," drummer Dave Rowntree recently revealed.
"We've become each other's surrogate brothers, and that brings with it an ability to understand each other very deeply -- and an ability to push each other's buttons at will.
"That was always going to boil over at some point. But in the time we spent apart, we all grew up an awful lot."
In 2004, Coxon claimed that his Blur years were spent "dragged kicking and screaming all the way around the fucking world on someone else's meglomaniacal trip".
This barb hurt Damon Albarn, but the pair of former best friends are now reportedly on very good terms again, and such bickering has been left in the past.
Coxon has been publicly forthright about his alcohol problems, which contributed to the collapse of the band.
"Dipsos are easier to deal with when they're pissed, not when they've sobered up," he said.
"When they're sober, they tend to tell the truth a little more. I don't know if I was behaving a little out of turn, but it did feel awkward for everybody [recording Think Tank]. And in the end Chris [Morrison, manager] said, 'Look -- the boys don't really want you to go into the studio today', and I said,
'Well, when then?' He said, 'Well, not really at all'."
At the height of Blurmania, the band famously went head to head with Oasis by releasing a single on the same day and unwittingly launching the Battle of Britpop.
"It felt like a hollow, pointless victory to me," Coxon said on reaching number one with Country House.
"Our record company threw a big champagne party at Soho House in London. I felt I was being forced into enjoying the moment and I just wanted to be alone, really.
"I couldn't handle being part of that crowd, so I tried to jump out of a sixth-storey window," he continued. "It was Damon who talked me out of it. Looking back, I should have enjoyed myself a lot more than I did."
One person who thoroughly enjoyed his Blur days is foppish bassist-turned-journalist and cheese-maker Alex James. In his 2007 memoir, A Bit of a Blur, he wrote: "During the Nineties, I must have spent about £1m on Champagne and cocaine, and entertained more women than I can really remember.
"It was completely decadent. But I was a rock star, after all, with a public duty to perform."
In addition to the seemingly polar opposites Coxon and James, you've got a curious and affable drummer in Dave Rowntree.
The oldest member of the band, Rowntree is studying law and attends a local police station every Tuesday night advising people who have just been arrested. He also unsuccessfully ran for the Labour Party on Westminster City Council and has been selected to run as an MP in the next general election.
The Labour Party is often to be found lurking in the background of the Blur story. Former London Mayor Ken Livingstone did a spoken-word piece called Ernold Same on The Great Escape. Damon Albarn was invited to the Downing Street reception to celebrate the election of Tony Blair. Albarn claims to have replied: "I am no longer a New Labour supporter. I am now a Communist. Enjoy the schmooze, comrade. Love, Damon."
Albarn is credited with being the musical genius of the band, but others describe him more circumspectly as "complicated".
His hiatus years from Blur have been enormously productive, with his Gorillaz project outselling the entire Blur back catalogue in just two albums.
He also recorded an album with The Good, The Bad and the Queen, collaborated with musicians from Mali, campaigned against the Iraq War and wrote an opera in Mandarin. Once the poster boy of Britpop, he's now regarded as one of modern music's most prolific and talented chameleons.
Perhaps part of Damon's productivity can be attributed to a fierce work ethic coupled with a non-addictive personality. "Damon is a swine," claimed Graham Coxon. "He can say 'yes' or 'no' to drink, and he's never needed drugs. His will is so strong, he can walk away from things other people get lost in."
His Gorillaz co-creator Jamie Hewlitt also revealed that Albarn will always be found in the gym the morning after a night on the tiles. "It's the same with cigarettes. He'll smoke like a chimney one night and then not touch a cigarette for three weeks."
Put these four odd and extremely divergent people together and you've got a simmering band chemistry that's produced one of the finest collections of alt-pop classics of modern times.
For the first time I can remember, Paddy Power bookmakers even had a market open for what song Blur will open with at Oxegen.
The bookies' favourite was Beetlebum at 5/4 and drifted out to Good Song at 33/1. The book closed in April, so you've missed your chance for a flutter. Interestingly, at a warm up show in the Rough Trade East shop off Brick Lane last week, they kicked off with their first single She's So High, which wasn't even quoted by Powers.
The band's first public performance in nine years was first announced on Graham Coxon's Twitter page and capacity in the London record shop was limited to 170.
When asked on how he felt the show went, Alex James replied: "You tell me. There were a lot of people crying."
Now that Blur are back on full live duty, the question remains whether a new album will ever see the light of day.
"We'll see how we feel at the end of the summer," Albarn said. "I've no doubt that we could make a fantastic record together."
His newly reconciled friend Coxon is also glad they're back in action.
"The weirdness disappeared," he reflected. "Before, we just needed some time out but didn't know how to tell each other."
It appears that all their youthful indiscretion and personal tensions are now just vodka under the bridge with the band entering a new era of understanding.
"We'll always be friends," said Alex James. "I like the idea of seeing each other being really old and doddery."