I wrote this for Le Cool London’s blog. Here it is in full!…
If you were a teenager in the UK in the early 90s you’ll have picked a side – Blur or Oasis.
Where I was growing up, near Blackpool, you obviously didn’t choose Blur. I remember it was as much about loyalty to your side of the north-south divide as it was about the music. More so in some ways. Who did these precocious southern upstarts think they were with their poncey London ways? Didn’t they know that the north had always been musically the greatest from the Beatles to the Stone Roses?
So you weren’t supposed to admit to liking Blur – I had a picture of the band cut out of teen mag Just Seventeen, Blutacked onto the INSIDE of my wardrobe door, where no one could see it. My sisters and I danced to Girls and Boys, kicking our legs up and feeling joyful, but only in our own house. Never with our mates. Outside we were all Cigarettes and Alcohol and siting crosslegged on the floor listening to bous singing Wonderwall with guitars in an endless loop.
Blur 21, an exhibition of band photos and memorabilia going back to 1991, when their first album Leisure was released, brought all those memories back.
I’d never thought of Blur as a London band in the same way that Oasis were a Manchester band, but now I’m on the other side of the great divide, a northern girl living in London, looking at the pictures tells me something about what London might have been like to live in at that time: Lambrettas and Adidas track suits tops, pumps and cigarettes and lots of cups of tea.
Their album artwork is a clue to how quintessentially London their version of Britpop was – photos of them at the dogs for their album Parklife nd a painting of the band sitting in a Tube carriage. There’s lots of photos of them clearly performing in London venues, the familiar Underground font spattering the imagery. They’re pictured posing next to the famous (recently removed and even more recently repainted) graffiti of their lyric on Primrose Hill ‘and the view’s so nice’ from For Tomorrow.
They look like they’re having a great time, like London was a free and full place to be, riding around on your scooter, having a laugh, drinking tea and enjoying the scenery.
The exhibition contains prints of the famous Julian Opie portraits, and a set of negatives from years earlier, which were clearly the inspiration, where the boys, with that tragic ‘curtain’ hairstyle that was so achingly attractive when I was 12, pose against brightly coloured backgrounds. To me Blur were always colour and high kicks, big houses in the country and high brow cultural references. They were aspirational. In contrast to the weatherproof parka, fur-lined hoods Oasis wore that belied the damp northwest weather, Damon and the boys could swan around in thin little Adidas trackie tops! Without catching cold! To the regularly chilled and rain-sodden that one thing alone made London the more attractive place to be.
By the time I got to sixth form in 1996, Blur’s triumph was evident. In a glass case in the centre of one of the rooms stand their 1995 Brit Awards – best album, best single – two fingers to you Oasis and to the dour and dreary north. We all embraced the self-titled Blur album which followed with joy and woohooed along to Song 2 loudly at lunchtimes in the canteen.
Those days are long gone but now, about to headline the closing ceremony concert in Hyde Park, Blur and London are back together. A lot changes in 21 years, and looking at Alex James, award-winning cheese maker, peering at a photo of his younger self on the opening night, I wonder if he feels he’s in any way the same person.
And I wonder if London is in any way the same city? Are we shots of coffee now instead of cups of tea? But some things don’t change – I had no idea what a ‘dirty pigeon’ was until I moved to the city, and or any concept of joggers ‘who go round and round and round,’ until I lived near Clapham Common.
Hosting the most environmentally friendly Olympics ever might be a sign that London has grown up, the citywide equivalent of setting up a dairy farm and making cheese, but we’re still living a kind of Parklife, with all the colours and all the flagrant delight and all the people (so many people) that London ever has had.
In spite of that northern chip we’re supposed to carry around with us, if it were a choice between the two bands again, I’d be Blur all the way. Looks like I’ve defected to the other side. Shhhh… Don’t tell the folks back home.