He’s the Britpop boy who grew up to be a rock renaissance man. Laura Barton charts his leaps and bounds ...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Summer 2009
1991: Early Blur
Born in 1968, Damon Albarn had a bohemian upbringing in Colchester, his mother a theatre designer, his father an artist and ex-manager of Soft Machine. Damon played guitar, piano and violin, mucked about at the comp with Graham Coxon and listened to Kurt Weill. Moving on to art school at Goldsmith’s, they met Alex James. After roping in Dave Rowntree, they formed Seymour, named after a Salinger novel. They were spotted by an A&R for Food Records, who disliked the name: Blur were duly signed in 1990. The album “Leisure” landed, unhelpfully, at the scrag-end of the Madchester scene. Yet early Blur had a prettiness, an ear for melody and experiment, that hinted at something lasting.
1994-99: “Parklife” etc
Touring America, Albarn became preoccupied with Britishness. On “Modern Life Is Rubbish” and “Parklife”, he set a wry look at national identity to every conceivable form of British pop, from mod to music hall, psychedelia and Kinks-ish storytelling. “Parklife” made Blur big. They followed it with the darker “The Great Escape”, an album peopled by dysfunctional suburbanites. The single “Country House” got into a chart battle with Oasis that was hyped up as class war—art-school elite sparring with lairy Mancunians. Blur won, though Oasis beat them for album sales and American success. America largely eluded Blur until their 1997 self-titled album, which had a scuzzier sound and big tunes (“Beetlebum”, “Song 2”). Throughout Britpop, Albarn was going out with Justine Frischmann of Elastica. Their break-up culminated in Blur's most emotional album, "13" (1999).
1999-2002: Original soundtracks
Albarn soon settled with the artist Suzi Winstanley; their daughter Missy was born in 1999. He continued to genre-hop, appearing solo on the “Trainspotting” soundtrack, doing vocals for Fatboy Slim et al, and working with Michael Nyman on the score for “Ravenous”, which was more feted than the film. The pair worked separately but complementarily. A highlight was Albarn’s “Colquhoun’s Story”, which began with a cheery squeezebox and ended somewhere dark and dank. More soundtracks followed, including “101 Reykjavik”, with the Sugarcubes’ Einar Orn Benediktsson. Its cartoonish notes and variations on the Kinks’ “Lola” showed both how far Albarn had come and where he might be headed.
The idea of a virtual band was vaguely repellent at first, yet Albarn carried it off with aplomb. Working with the comic-book artist Jamie Hewlett, he dreamt up four animated band-members, 2D, Russel, Murdoc and Noodle, and made a sound for them that was part rock, part dub, part pop and part hip-hop. He drafted in a wildly eclectic list of guests: Del tha Funkee Homosapien, Dan the Automator, Miho Hatori of Cibo Matto, Tina Weymouth from Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club. Gorillaz released their first single, “Clint Eastwood”, to great acclaim, and went on to produce two big hit albums, DVDs, a television mockumentary, collaborations with Danger Mouse, Shaun Ryder and Debbie Harry, an innovative website and even some excellent live shows. The cheek of the concept carried through to produce music with an irresistible joie de vivre.
2002: “Mali Music”
Albarn visited Mali for Oxfam, and the consequence was a masterpiece. He made recordings in bars and on street corners, capturing choirs and xylophone, kora and ngoni, plus leading Mali musicians and himself on melodica. Back in the studio, he added layers of percussion, keyboards, guitar and vocals, to make a work that is at times dizzying and highly charged and at others, as in “4am at Toumani’s”, delicate, threadbare, yet compelling.
2003: “Think Tank”
Mali, the film scores and Gorillaz all drizzled into “Think Tank”—and caused tension with Coxon. Albarn’s insistence on Fatboy Slim as producer (albeit for two tracks) led Coxon to walk out. Albarn replaced his distinctive guitar with loops, simpler guitars and dominant basslines. The effect was disorientating, and yet reminiscent of “Parklife”: another startling achievement.
2007: “The Good, The Bad and The Queen”
For his next trick, Albarn wrote a London song-cycle for an unnamed supergroup featuring Paul Simonon of The Clash, Simon Tong of The Verve and the Nigerian super-drummer Tony Allen. It was odd and beautiful, mixing doo-wop, balladry and cinematic scoring, and providing an oblique but worthy successor to “Parklife”. “The Great Escape” had seen him ostracised by a public that had clasped Oasis to its breast, so perhaps “Think Tank” and “The Good, The Bad” were ways of seeing how he might have played the game differently.
2007: “Monkey: Journey to the West”
The idea of writing an opera based on a 16th-century Chinese novel came from Jean-Luc Choplin of the Chatelet Theatre in Paris. But if ever there was a musician game enough for the challenge, it was Albarn. Working with the actor-director Chen Shi-zheng, he wrote the score while Jamie Hewlett designed the set and costumes for a production premiered in Manchester International Festival that featured Chinese musicians, acrobats and martial artists. Another audacious hybrid; another critical and popular hit.
2009: Blur reunion and “It Felt Like a Kiss”
Albarn pulls two more rabbits from the hat: a full Blur reunion, taking in Hyde Park and Glastonbury, something that few thought would ever happen after the “Think Tank” froideur; and “It Felt Like a Kiss”, an immersive theatre project created by Punchdrunk and the inspired documentary-maker Adam Curtis, with music by Albarn and the Kronos Quartet, which tells the story of America’s rise to power and the golden age of pop, played out over five floors of a disused building in Manchester. Whatever next?
Laura Barton is a novelist and Guardian feature writer. She recently wrote the words to "The First Cut is the Deepest", a photo essay about music fans and their first vinyl records
Picture Credit Retna, Camera Press, AP, EMI, Getty