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Blur … do it again

‘I lead a very quiet life here,’ reports Blur’s Alex James in New World Towers, ‘then suddenly the phone’ll ring and it’s, like, oh you’re doing Hyde Park and its sold out … it’s like getting dragged off by an old girlfriend, and all mussed up and then spat back into my life again when it’s all over, going what was that!’ New World Towers is one of the increasingly common rock documentaries which are, in truth, films about how people age in an art form that has always seemed rooted in some idealistic vision of youth.

Getting old, or extending something beyond its natural life cycle in rock, can be – in the case of a group, which unlike an individual, has to negotiate the creative process – the source of acute problems. Differences in life goals; grievances or other interpersonal relationship issues; and, of course, the need to try and rediscover the ‘chemistry’ that made it all happen or work in the first place.

Blur’s New World Towers, a film about reconciliation and the process of writing and recording a new album under conditions that were not planned – which was released as 2016’s The Magic Whip – draws a great deal on the idea that they key conundrum in continuing to exist as a band is trying to figure out and deal with the forces that made it all work the first time, something that was not always subject to analysis at the time, and is not always welcomed in the present. Damon Albarn, Blur’s lead singer and the band member who ventured out in more directions after Blur originally split, is easily the least interested in making any kind of gesture that might pull him back into the more confined creative space of Blur.

As images of the strange location they now found themselves in – Hong Kong – float across the screen they are accompanied by glimpses of the four members of Blur, the sound of their voices expressing a wariness about the situation – once again thrust back into the dynamics of the teenage gang – they found themselves in. ‘I was trying to avoid being in Blur,’⁠ says Albarn. But what won out over the doubts was the recognition that the chance occurrence that saw everyone once again being stuck in the same place at the same time might just be the kind of circumstance that would allow them to recapture the unthinking spontaneity of what they did when they first formed.

Back in 2010, the Blur film No Distance Left to Run played out a repeat of the lessons that time and fame had thrown up for the Beatles some forty years earlier: namely that rock bands whose origins begin with some abstract idea of ‘making it’, gradually become derailed by the demands of adulthood. It’s a young person’s game. ‘It all starts out being like a gang,’ Alex James said, with everyone ‘trying to agree with each other as a sort of united front.’

When Blur reunited in 2010, they were all a good deal older than the Beatles had been when they broke up – all over forty (with the drummer Dave Rowntree the oldest at 46 years old). Reforming had the attraction of revisiting an idealised time in life, ‘like walking streets you haven’t visited for ages,’ as Alex James said.

The Blur comeback show that was glimpsed in No Distance Left to Run took place at a railway museum in Colchester, Essex, a place they had first played twenty years earlier. We might wonder what it is about rock music that produces such powerful compulsions to reconnect with something that, in truth, is no longer there.

Is it because the urge to ‘do it again’ is a kind of repetition compulsion that is actually part of the DNA of rock’n’roll?

New World Towers was shown on the Sky Arts channel.

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By John Scanlan

John Scanlan is the Series Editor of Reverb with Reaktion Books.