In Rank Your Records, we talk to members of bands who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
Since Blur's inception in 1988, they’ve been one of Britain’s most beloved bands and although they’ve been delighting fans with reunion shows since Graham Coxon’s return in 2009, this year saw the release of their eighth album The Magic Whip—a record many thought would never happen. Catching them last month at New York’s Madison Square Garden, as they seamlessly slotted in newies like “Go Out” and “Ghost Ship” alongside heart-tugging anthems like “The Universal” and “This Is a Low,” proved there’s still plenty of creative sweet stuff left in this decades-long partnership. So we called up Blur drummer Dave Rowntree (our legit favorite member) for Rank Your Records.
“I don’t really have a least favorite Blur album, or a most favorite Blur album,” says Rowntree. “This is an entirely artificial interview structure that you’ve imposed on me!” True, true. Thanks Dave.
As well as being a thoroughly underrated drummer, Rowntree is also a qualified lawyer, pilot, and one time Labour candidate. A wryly humorous renaissance man, Rowntree’s most recently turned his attention to the Syrian refugee crisis. He’s roped in his musician pals and asked them to donate dozens of one-of-a-kind items which will be available for public bid on eBay from 9 PM GMT November 26 to 9 PM GMT December 6. Everyone from Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys, to Coldplay, to Sir Paul McCartney, and of course, Blur, have contributed items. All funds raised will go to the International Rescue Committee (IRC) which is providing much needed emergency assistance for refugees in Syria and across the region in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Turkey.
“The Bataclan is part of the DNA of the European music industry. I’ve played there, as have most of the musicians I know," said Rowntree. “Now, more than ever, we must show our support for the men, women and children who are fleeing terror in Syria because, on Friday, we all saw what that terror looks like.
“After nearly five years of conflict in Syria, four million people have fled their homes and are seeking safety in neighboring countries in the Middle East,” Rowntree added. “With winter approaching the crisis will become even more desperate. We want to raise money to buy winter kits for refugees, containing warm clothes, blankets and bedding. All proceeds will go directly to those in need.”
7. THE GREAT ESCAPE (1995)
Noisey: I knew this one would be at the bottom…
Dave Rowntree: There’s actually nothing wrong with this album, but to some extent it’s Parklife number II. This album and the war with Oasis propelled us to the next stage in our career. People talk about this album as being the third part of a trilogy—with Modern Life is Rubbish and Parklife—the Britpop trilogy or whatever the hell people say. I certainly think a lot of the things we started on Parklife we finished here.
“The Universal” is a massive song and at the time we realized what we’d done with that. That’s another one that would always close one section of the live show. We’d be bottled off stage if we didn’t play that and never be asked to return again. We had [British politician] Ken Livingstone on the album and he turned out to be a lot of fun, and him and Damon became friends. We’d spent a lot of time in Japan at that point and the more time we spent there the more we felt for the record company workers who seemed to us to be treated appallingly by their bosses—to the point where when the band were in town they weren’t allowed to go home! They had to sleep in the office, ready to snap to attention at a moment’s notice. Of course we found out that by Japanese standards they weren’t being treated appallingly at all. “Yuko and Hiro” it seems to me is about our experience in Japan—a beautiful song.
Obviously we have to talk about “Country House” and the battle between you and Oasis for the number one spot.
So the story goes, Food Records were a part of EMI, and at various stages in the contract, EMI could buy Food for a pre-agreed price. One of these stages came up after Parklife, and Dave Balfe—record company boss, an unsung hero of the British music industry, and the man behind many of the successful bands of the last 30 years—he decided we’d probably peaked and now was the time to get out. He sold the company to EMI, we became an EMI/Parlophone band and Balfe got a huge check! We’d heard he’d bought a very big house in the country and all those things that are mentioned in the song—the rumors that were flying around. As it turns out when he tried to sell that very big house in the country he put a piece in the estate agent’s blurb talking about the album and the fact that it had been mentioned in that song to up the price!
This is Damon’s dig at Balfe and Balfe later said he’d probably sold at the wrong time. He made a small fortune, but I think he said had he waited and had more faith he’d have made a large fortune. We were friends with [actor] Keith Allen at the time and for the video we drafted him in to play Balfe along with some extraordinarily pretty girls and Damien Hirst wrote the treatment. At the time we were at war with Oasis where they would say something childish and then they would say something childish; they would say something funny and we’d try to say something funnier. Every time someone said something it got in the papers, and any time we didn’t saying anything it got in the papers. I had a parka at the time and it was written up in the papers that I was sneering at Liam while wearing a "Liam-style parka." “The war continues with Dave Rowntree sneering.” I was just wearing a parka! Oasis moved their single so there wasn’t a clash with ours, and we moved our release date to ensure there would be a clash—another equally childish move—and the rest as they say, is history.
How did you find out you guys got to number one and won the war?
With the calm arrogance of youth I assumed we’d sell more records than them and that we’d come away victorious. This was back during a time when I was flying airplanes a lot, everywhere I could, so I’d flown myself to France on holiday, and then halfway through, my holiday was ruined when I suddenly had the thought that we might be left with egg on our face. I was flying back on the Sunday evening when the charts were coming out and I wasn’t going to arrive in the country until after the charts were announced. So I had the air traffic controller at my local airfield radio me en route. The message came along the network that we’d won the ridiculous chart battle and I could breath a sigh of relief! It was a double-edged sword though because then they had everything to prove and they had massive success in America, which we never did. But then they split up, which we didn’t do. At various points in our career people would say Blur won the battle, but Oasis won the war, or Oasis won the battle, but Blur won the war. That’s been the big sign off line on more articles than I care to mention. As of today, they’ve split up and we’re still going, but maybe next week we’ll split up and they’ll have formed again, and then they’ll have won the war which just goes to show you: all history is bunk, just like Henry Ford said.
6. THINK TANK (2003)
This one started in Studio 13 in London and finished in a barn an hour outside Marrakech in Morocco. We started it, Graham played on some of it, and then that all fell to bits and we found this farmhouse and hid ourselves away, it had about 15 bedrooms, so we could have a room each as well as having a big communal space in the middle. Lots of crazy stuff happened. Ben Hillier was the main producer and we tried loads of stuff out. Norman Cook [Fatboy Slim] came out and worked on some tracks. We had an Andalucian orchestra come out—don’t ask why there’s an Andalucian orchestra in Marrakech, but there was. We cut and pasted their performances into some of the songs.
It was an adventure really, plonked in an entirely different culture and I think it sounds like a very different record as a result. It’s a great album, but I’m not entirely sure it sounds like a Blur album. “Battery In Your Leg” is a Blur song, but when Graham’s not playing it sounds a lot less like Blur. If I hadn’t been on the album I’d flatter myself to think it would be the same, or Alex, or Damon: It’s the four of us together that makes the magic happen. However I do think it’s a good record.
I’ve often said you’ve got to leave home, to find out what home’s lke, otherwise you have nothing to compare it to. It’s traveling around the world that makes you understand what you like and what you don’t like about the UK, it puts it into sharp focus when you see other cultures and countries. Same with Graham leaving. We didn’t know what Graham’s contribution to the Blur sound was because we’d never made an album without him.
That being said I think the first tune “Ambulance” is an amazing song: it’s got interesting ideas and sounds which fill up the space that Graham normally takes up. A really high, maximum treble guitar line that Damon plays comes in halfway through and the album just soars from there on in.
“Out of Time” is the heartbreaker.
Oh absolutely that’s the big success of that album. It had a video that seemed to capture the public sentiment at the time. There was a documentary on TV about two people in the British navy and it was a very lonely doc because whenever one was home, the other was out on duty and vice versa. They didn’t even really see each other. It must have been heartbreaking for them, a young couple in love. The director took the doc and cut it up in a way that focused on the woman and talked about her experience. It came out during a time of global conflict and a lot of people were feeling uneasy about what was going on. The doc had double meanings, not overtly, but you could read it in two ways. It captured the spirit of what was going on in the world, and also the spirit of what was going on with the band.
5. LEISURE (1992)
The baggy sound was pretty popular when you were starting…
Yes, the record company had had big success with Jesus Jones and Parlophone had signed EMF who had even bigger success. I don’t want to point fingers, but it appeared to me at the time that they copied the production techniques of Jesus Jones, which Dave Balfe, the record label boss had come up with. It was a novel idea at the time to use dance samples in a rock band. That was all Dave’s idea. To make that work in an indie context was an interesting challenge. He signed Jesus Jones who were called something else at the time—Camoflage! They were a straightforward rock and he signed them on the condition that they took on these sample ideas and it actually worked extremely well. They had some big hits including “Right Here, Right Now” which went to number one in the States.
That’s crazy that Balfe was pushing that. I had no idea.
Well Balfe was an established musician in his own right. He’d been instrumental in the Teardrop Explodes and basically came up with their sound. And then he ran Food Records and helped come up with the KLF thing, that’s what Dave Balfe did—the unsung genius.
Then comes Blur. Live we were pretty crazy in those days: We’d smash things up and you never quite knew how or when the show was going to end. It would end when all the instruments were broken. I think Balfe signed us thinking he could develop this idea further and he was constantly trying to get us to use dance samples and baggy beats. To some extent at the start we went along with it and “There’s No Other Way” and “Bang” are the most obvious examples of that. We spent most of our career detesting “Bang” and wondering how on earth could we have put that on the album, let alone the second track. When we came to listen to it [when rehearsing for the reunion shows] we realized it actually wasn’t that bad. Songs like “Fool” were much more representative of stuff we were doing before we signed and “Come Together”—you can imagine instruments being smashed at any point during that song. It’s incredibly fast and aggressive and counterintuitively happy but with frustrated lyric over the top.
In the early recording sessions of that album we were still listening to the record label and they said, “Put samples in, you’ve got to use keyboards, you’ve got to sound like Jesus Jones and EMF, that’s what’s selling. This EMF thing is going to be massive, you’ll be riding on their coattails.” By the end of the album we were like, the samples and baggy beats are crap.
As a compromise we took the bits we liked of the keyboards, which actually ended up being more the hip-hop side of keyboards and sampling, rather than the Manchester dance side of it. Not that we sound like hip-hop records, but we were much more attracted to the way keyboards were being used in that kind of context rather than the way the keyboards were being used in the Manchester dance context.
Wasn’t it during this album that you had that disastrous debut tour of America?
It wasn’t the tour of the States that was soul destroying it was the circumstances under which we were doing them. Our manager had stolen our money, so we had to tour the States for months to pay off our debt. We had made our first album, first rung on the ladder, and instead of being able to capitalize on that we were essentially bankrupt and had to sing for our supper.
4. PARKLIFE (1994)
This was of course the one that propelled us into the mainstream. Actually what it did, bizarrely was switch the mainstream so that we were part of it. It changed what mainstream music was in the UK. Up until then indie bands like us didn’t get into the real charts: You had the indie charts and the pop charts and never the twain shall meet. The indie charts meant you’d sold 20 records and the pop charts meant you’d sold 20 million. Parklife went to number one in the UK, we had a bunch of number one singles, and all that happened because of that album and what Oasis were doing. We changed people’s perceptions of what mainstream pop could be—it didn’t have to be Kylie Minogue. I think us and Oasis made albums good enough to kick off something new, and then everybody was like, “Oh yeah we like music that sounds like that and there were all these other bands doing stuff as well.” That spawned the many-headed beast [Britpop] that we all came later to regret, but it kicked off a new kind of career for us.
It drove Graham mad. Up till then if you went out to a restaurant or a nightclub and there’d be a gaggle of paparazzi outside, you’d walk past them completely unmolested, because they were waiting for Kylie. It was in that brief moment in our career when our nights out were accompanied by the flash of cameras and the shouts of the paparazzi. Our audience changed a lot over night too—they were much younger, more girls, more screaming.
Did you like that?
It was weird, you know? It didn’t upset me like it did Graham and equally it didn’t fuel me like it did Alex. To me it seemed like we’d always been doing what we’d been doing, and that was kind of true, but suddenly we’d become media darlings. There was one paper that ran a cartoon about us called The Blur Story—about the formation of the band—as if were a boy band! If it’d happened on the first album we’d have probably been alright about it because we’d have been willing to pose topless and put on cheesy grins and say how we wanted to find the one true girl we wanted to love, and how we make music for ourselves and if anyone likes it, it's a bonus! [He’s joking.] But by Parklife we were grumpy touring musicians who wanted everyone to piss off, to some extent, so the boy band thing landing on us seemed weirdly inappropriate.
Come on though—you were still young. You were in your mid-20s at that point.
I was 30, the others were mid to late 20s. We weren’t young, young. I still looked like I was 40, but I was 30!
What about the songs?
“Parklife” was a huge track obviously. We got in one of our heroes Phil Daniels who we knew best from this film Meantime by Mike Leigh in which he played a kind of proud, but disaffected man who grew up on a council estate struggling with the meaning of life if you didn’t appear to have a life, and what could it all possibly mean. Also, of course, Quadrophenia, the archetypal mod film with the soundtrack by The Who. They were our two favorite films, the ones we’d watch on the tour bus and knew most of the lines off by heart. We were slightly dumbstruck when we got him in. I think I wandered over and said hello, but no one else said anything to him! [Laughs.] He was very nice!
And “Badhead.” I love that song.
Me too. A hangover song—the first of many hangover songs. It’s got one of Damon’s beautiful melody lines that only he can do. There are some great tracks on there. In general I think that album just had loads of singles on it which is why it did as well as it did. “Magic America” is really hooky and it’s got “This Is a Low” on it which we pretty much finished every Blur show with from then onwards because it evokes such intense emotions.
3. 13 (1999)
The vocal sessions were done in Reykjavik, but mostly the sessions were done in studio 13, a big old building split up into light industrial units, so you’d get somebody making handbags, next to somebody preparing shoes, next to somebody making websites, and then this incredibly loud recording studio jammed in the middle that pissed everybody off. It lasted a few years before they got booted out, but that was a great place to record. We named the album after the studio, but people are so weird about the number 13. If you believe in these things 13 has always been rather lucky for us. We were also kind of tempting fate: Come on then! Do your worst.
You also worked with William Orbit on this record which changed the dynamic I’m sure.
We worked with him and Damian LeGassic which isn’t well known. He was the engineer. William would come in and loosely supervise the sessions by day and then Damian would turn up in the evening, take the material back to his studio and cut and paste and edit things into shape and bring it back in the morning and we’d carry on. It was a different way of working for us. It was much more freeform, much more improvisation. There are a lot of what I call studio noodles on that album like on the track “Caramel”—where you record lots of ideas, somebody else edits it into some kind of format, and you record more ideas over it, and again and again. “Coffee and TV” is a very traditional Blur tune, “Bugman” is another studio noodle—there was freedom in doing that. Damian doesn’t get the credit he deserves: most of the editing came from him and William, a lovely guy, was basically supervising jamming sessions rather than acting like a traditional producer. It was very different to how Stephen Street had worked. [Orbit] was much hands off.
Famously this was Damon’s break up album. How were things within the band at this point?
[Titanic pause.] Well! Things are better now: we’re a bit older and a bit wiser and a little bit more focused. So much waffle’s been written about all that, you don’t really want to write any more about that! It’s all documented in laborious detail!
2. BLUR (1997)
Things were starting to deteriorate and we weren’t getting along as well as we had been, but despite that we managed to come out with songs like “Beetlebum” and “Song 2” and “Look Inside America,” which is one of my favorite Blur songs of all time. It was something of a fresh start where Graham took the lead and got involved with the production with Stephen Street. And Graham sang a song! “MOR”—which we got sued left, right, and center for. It’s quite clearly a Bowie rip off! It was another time where we decided to park where we’d got to, and move forward by taking a big step sideways. “Beetlebum” is a great live favorite and we play pretty much every track on that album live. “Song 2”—the song that launched a thousand car adverts! I think every car that’s ever been made has been advertised to that song. Plenty of other bands say they get sent the product that their music advertises, but I’ve never been sent a car. Never! “Song 2” came about incredibly quickly. Everybody had an idea: I had an idea for the drums going into that session—“Wouldn’t it be interesting if I did this and Graham I could bounce ideas off each other.” I think that’s how it started.
When you finished “Song 2” did you think this is going to be massive?
They all feel like that to me! Even “Essex Dogs” sounded like a hit single to me! I think bands are the worst at knowing what their hits are going to be. That’s what record companies are usually best at. I find it much easier with other people’s materials to hear the singles. You’re so emotionally invested in your own stuff, it tricks you into thinking other people are getting that emotion back, but you are because you put your blood sweat and tears into making the music, and that feeds back to you when you listen to it. That’s why every songwriter thinks their new song is the greatest song ever written and you can’t convince them otherwise until nobody buys it.
Do you ever listen to the lyrics Damon’s writing at the time?
In general that happens last: Damon does a guide vocal which is ordinarily just nonsense syllables strung together and you put that down with the tune. Sometimes the guide would stay and he’d pretend he’d written some lyrics. Like on “Song 2”—that’s just the guide vocal. We tried re-recording it many, many times but we could never get it as good as the guide, so we just kept it and Damon wrote down the nearest sounding words to his nonsense syllables. He may remember it differently, but “Wah lah wah wah” became “When I feel heavy metal.” It was called “Song 2” because it was the second song on the list of songs pinned to the studio wall—as you think of song names you scribble them on the board but “Song 2” never got a name.
1. MODERN LIFE IS RUBBISH (1993)
This was the record that meant we could have a career and we weren’t going to be one hit wonders. Modern Life Is Rubbish was a big risk and it was a raging battle with the record company to even be allowed to record it because it was going to be radically different. At the end of it, when we finally delivered the album the label, Dave Balfe wrote us a very nice letter apologizing for being such a pain and that he actually thought the record was very good. I found the letter the other day when I was going through a load of old correspondence from the 90s. A letter on Food Records headed paper and it ends with a kiss!
It didn’t graze the charts—it wasn’t a commercial success at all. Had we not followed it up with Parklife that could’ve been the end of our career. “For Tomorrow” is the first track on that album and it went on to be one of our most popular songs even though it’s not an obvious choice. We had lots of stuff on there that might have been shot down in flames, “Intermission” and “Commercial Break”—which were songs we’d do live during the Seymour days before we changed our name to Blur—we put all that stuff on and it might have had people running for cover, but it made a lot of people who might have dismissed us before sit up and think about us as a band.
We were making music rooted in English sensibilities and the classic English bands of the 60s, like the Kinks. It was music we liked and we thought the kind of music we were making had the potential to kick off something different. Turned out we were right and if it hadn’t have worked out I wouldn’t be speaking to you now. I’d be some bitter old bloke in the pub, cigarette in hand, sunglasses on, and a bad haircut. As it is I’ve just got a bad haircut!
Kim Taylor Bennett loves Dave Rowntree. And Blur too. She's on Twitter.