I used to laugh at my dad when he’d glowingly regale me with tales of Beatlemania like it was only last week. His refusal to stray beyond the 1960’s befuddled me. With so much interesting music on offer since then, why would you stay put? Then Blur return with The Magic Whip. The twelve-year absence of a studio album after 2003’s Think Tank has been made bearable by the numerous interim musical exploits of individual band members Damon Albarn and Graham Coxon, (Graham released four solo-albums during the hiatus and Albarn has left a trail of unfathomably eclectic work with Gorillaz, Africa Express and Monkey: Journey to the West among others) but with their return comes the realisation that I have not really moved beyond the late 1990’s. Am I a chip off the old block? There’s something about the long-anticipated return of a person’s objects of affection that is worth the gruelling wait, provided it is done for the right reasons and now I find myself refusing to leave the confines of my ‘Blur’ folder on I Tunes.
For a kid who discovered Blur in the early 1990’s, my first musical love, I’ve had something of a parallel journey with the band’s career. My school years sound-tracked by the ‘life trilogy’, teenage/college days underpinned by the band’s transformation from media demons/darlings to daringly original pioneers and now… at the age of thirty-two, what could be Blur’s final album drops one week before my own first ever ‘release’ – Champagne and Wax Crayons, Riding The Madness of the Creative Industries, a debut book about life as a creative freelancer, attempting to navigate a path through the art, music and film worlds. This is a book in which my obsession with Albarn and his influence on my creative work, despite my complete lack of any musical talent, is chronicled in detail.
Whilst the dreamer in me was squashed when I couldn’t find the contact details for Albarn’s west London studios to send him my artwork portfolio to pitch for the job of art-director on the record, I was nonetheless delighted by the striking neon ice-cream sign that was chosen as the child in me would have been upon being handed a rapidly melting, dairy version. It’s represents the latest marker on that wonderful side of music that rewards each fanatical follower with their own personal, filmic narrative to the dogged and obsessive following of their chosen band.
My position as creative director of Quenched Music means that Blur’s unique story is as much a picture book reflection of my own stumbling into the art world, as it is a soundtrack. So here is my love letter to the iconic back catalogue of Blur art-direction.
When Leisure was released on Food/Parlophone in 1991, I was eight years old. Preoccupied by Michael Jackson transforming into a car on Moonwalker, it wasn’t until Parklife emerged three years later that I scurried back to the start of Blur’s discography to see what I had missed. This was my first year at secondary school and until then, Right Said Fred, Shaggy and MJ had provided me with admittedly infectious tunes, but nothing I could relate to without the use of LSD. Luckily for me, the unashamedly British art-direction for Parklife offered me a little more insight on the confusing front cover of Leisure; a smiling portrait photo of a lady, taken from a 1930’s swimming cap advertisement photo shoot. For years, I believed that the image was Damon Albarn in drag, which was funny to me in the safe confines of the bedroom I shared with my brother, but in a small-town school at the age of eleven, walking around with that image on my cassette, whilst others were opting for the grungier, more masculine choices of Nirvana and Pearl Jam, then gradually, Oasis, was an open invitation for ridicule.
The image, with its dominant composition, followed me around the room with mascara-fenced eyes and represented a fitting photographic climax following a series of surreal single sleeve artworks, designed by long-term creative direction collaborators Stylorouge, which formed my earliest urge to create record sleeves without the foggiest idea how.
Modern Life Is Rubbish, 1993
I was so transfixed by Chemical World, under the massive listening post headphones when Our Price; the tiny record shop in Keighley finally replenished their stock of Blur’s second album that I was ambushed by a girl from school, who I had a massive crush on at the time. This was the first time in my life that music had sound-tracked any romantic goings-on. She leapt on my back, dangling, knocking other albums off their bays as I flailed around, trying not to drop the booklet, which I had extracted from the plastic CD case (pre-security tag era), to discover a very old-fashioned inlay painting of Blur band members. In it, Damon wore burgundy Doctor Martens boots, sitting on a vomit-inducing chequered train seat just like the ones on my local buses in the early 1990’s. At a reduced £5.99 (the benefit of my Parklife inspired, belated discovery of Blur’s back-catalogue), I blasted two-weeks worth of pocket money on MLIR, before smiling embarrassingly at the now detached girl and scurrying home with my loot.
I sat for hours, listening to the album, flicking repeatedly through the booklet to take in the painting again, wasting many AA batteries during my paper-round by abusing ‘Sunday Sunday’. I would later learn, at college, that the majestic painting adorning the cover is a painting of the steam train ‘Mallard’ and was a stock image from a photo library in Halifax, just up the road from me. I was far too young to consciously recognise my love of art and design as anything but a pastime for rainy days. Subconsciously, the image reminded me of the local Worth Valley Railway and the old-fashioned ‘adventure book for boys’ I’d ignore at Sunday morning car-boot sales, opting for Beano or The Dandy (soon to become Viz) instead.
I was sent out of my classroom not two weeks into secondary school for shouting ‘parklife!’ when the teacher’s back was turned. It was that single, discovered on Now That’s What I Call Music 29 that brought Blur to my attention at a time when everyone wanted to be an adult, hang around with girls and be cool. That was something hard to do in the harsh circumstances of making the transition from oldest kid in one school, to the bottom of the league in the next. Music helped and became a vehicle to live out fantasies of being in a band.
The image adorning the cover, now an iconic sleeve featuring two greyhounds racing was endearing to me simply because I loved dogs. But it was the overall art-direction of Blur’s mainstream breakthrough album, including a photo shoot of the band at Walthamstow dog-track that really drew me in. I’d gone from seeing nothing but American bands on MTV, to now being confronted with ultra-normal, everyday Englishness. The badgering of my parents for a dog and the Harrington jacket that Damon wore a lot during that time became incessant. To see the band in everyday surroundings, in the press photography did not kill the mystique, but upped it, giving me just enough of a pre-internet peek into their world that changed everything. The dogs on the sleeve, although not photographed on that night in Walthamstow, but like MLIR, from a stock image library, represent a split-second snap shot of something altogether new in my life; art that had its origins in my world.
The Great Escape, 1995
My fan boy obsession with the band reached its peak in 1995, just as the whole ridiculousness of the Blur v Oasis nonsense reached its zenith. Seeing pile upon pile of the deep blue sea, sky and speedboat on the shelves of HMV in Leeds gave me a sense of belonging that every teenager quietly seeks. People rabidly snatching at the CD cases, partly thanks to the NME and the News at Ten’s hyping of the tandem release of respective singles Country House and Roll With It (Which my mum bought for me, so I wouldn’t have to deal with the shame of betrayal) in a ‘chart battle for supremacy’. Everyone at school had taken sides whilst we secretly all loved both tracks. Being ‘up north’ meant I was in the minority so verbal scuffles were regularly lost against Oasis fans, which only strengthened my love of The Great Escape. The sleeve image is still lost on me to this day. Who do the feet retreating from the shot belong to? Who owns the speedboat and what are the guys on it up to? But that did not matter. The image captured so much of the arrogantly inflated feel of just about everything the mainstream arts had to offer at the height of ‘Britpop’ that I would have loved it even if it had depicted a naked lady on a hippopotamus. Oh, wait…
The album where Blur abandoned Britpop and shed many pedestrian fans perfectly intertwined with the discovery of my adolescent angst. After speedboats and brochure blue waters came the distorted image of a hospital stretcher being rushed through a psychedelic suggestion of a corridor in yellows and orange tones. It was perfect. The restless evenings spent hanging around in the grounds of the local mill were capped with a behind-closed-doors session of pathetic attempts to play ‘Beetlebum’ on my badly tuned acoustic guitar.
I would attempt to recreate the cover art in pastels and pencil, failing at that too. The concept as digital imaging was as alien to me as what it would be like to kiss a girl at that point. The noticeably bigger bags under Damon’s eyes in the Beetlebum video reflected how I felt about school, where all I wanted to do was twat a football against the tennis court fences and draw, yet would have to meet expectations in algebra, an unruly science class and compulsory religious education lessons. The most embarrassing souvenir gleaned from all things visual about the release of Blur, was the fact that I attempted to enhance my unborn sideburns with my mum’s eye-liner pencil after seeing Damon’s extended facial hair on the promo photos.
The painting on the cover of 13 by Blur guitarist Graham Coxon was one of the first images posted on my white-partition studio wall. The perfect synchronicity reared its head again, this time arriving in the form of 13’s oblique and inventive sound, right alongside the freedom that art-college brings after the drudgery of school. No quirky images of a band wrapped up in a world of media bullies and throwaway public insult tennis this time, only series of front cover abstract paintings and music that started to open my eyes to a world beyond my West Yorkshire mainstays of football and televised wrestling. It just goes to show what the fruits of a singer’s breakup can bear for a seventeen-year old college student still wearing tracksuit bottoms outside of P.E lessons; 13 was the advent of my yearning to pursue a career in art.
Think Tank, 2003
After a stop/start first year at university, on an illustration degree, I discovered Banksy’s work dominating the sleeve of Think Tank in Sainsbury’s immediately after being dumped by a girl from university, in the supermarket car park. Just like 13 had spurred on my fledgling love of creativity at college, Banksy was the beginning of my interest in graphic activism, which I would go on to study for my university dissertation. This revelation triggered the very beginnings of what my own artistic style would become and began in me a newfound interest in the world around me; society, politics and the idea of travel beyond family holidays and college trips – the band having recorded significant parts of the album in Morocco.
David Shrigley’s animated music video for Good Song started me thinking about how line drawing might become moving image. It also taught me that simplicity in art is not the devil’s work. I had no idea that this would be the last Blur album for twelve years, a spell during which I would start producing my own creative work for the sleeves of many bands and music projects.
The Magic Whip, 2015
Becoming a first time author, writing a book about my own journey as a freelance creative, Blur’s eighth studio album is packed with subtle musical references to the many stages of the evolution of the band, but the respective interim journeys fuse to lend the release an entirely original predominant sound. So when the neon ice-cream sign, art-directed by Tony Hung, lighting up the record’s cover emerged following the press-conference, I fell immediately in love with the imagery that captured the Hong-Kong recorded sound so well. I’ve been lapping up the explicitly eastern feel since, the quirky, lo-fi music videos for Go Out and Lonesome Street, fuelling a growing personal interest in asian culture, triggered by a fervent fascination with Japanese horror movies and Studio Ghibli productions. But for now, as an illustrator and art-director and first-time author at the beginning of my time in one of the most culturally vibrant cities in the world, the return of my favourite band has crowned another personal milestone. Whether there are more chapters to come in this marriage between Blur’s creativity and my stubbornly teenage soul remains to be seen, but The Magic Whip has reminded me that the most beautiful thing about music, to me, is its ability to take you on a time-travelling odyssey through the beauty of words, pictures and beats, even if I like my dad in the 1960’s have anchored myself happily in the cultural free-for-all that was the 1990’s.