Summer 2010 may forever be remembered for the puzzling revival of everything 80s: from TV adaptations (“The A-Team”) and remakes (“The Karate Kid”) to the mechanical disco-flavored rhythms of Lady Gaga.
Countless articles by the likes of New York Times’ A.O. Scott and British writer Toby Litt reminisced about the innocence and the unrealized dreams of a not-so distant age where “nothing went and everything mattered.”
This wave of contagious nostalgia got me thinking about my own adolescence, of the hazy daze that was the 90s. Still not in vogue as the 80s, my generation was treated earlier this year to an unexpected trip down memory lane in “No Distance Left to Run,” Will Lovelace and Dylan Southern’s moving documentary of the rise, fall, and rise again of Blur, the immensely popular British rock group and pioneers of the short-lived 90s Britpop wave. The result was much more emotional than I had anticipated.
Britpop was the most popular, most exciting new wave to strike England and the rest of Europe in the 90s. Widely seen as a reaction against American grunge, Britpop combined catchy hooks, accessible melodies harking to The Kinks and The Beatles along with tendencies of punk to produce an electric mix commenting and celebrating British culture.
The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays planted the seeds of the movement in the late 80s while Blur and Suede transformed it into a cultural phenomenon by the early 90s. Several bands emerged in their wake, including Oasis, Pulp, The Bluetones, Dodgy, Elastica, Supergrass and Shed Seven to name a few. Indie became the new mainstream.
Although Oasis went on to sell more records than all their competitors — “(What’s The Story) Morning Glory” remains the third best-selling record of all time in the UK — Britpop remained primarily identified with Blur, their arch-nemesis.
I was first introduced to Blur in 1993 via the long-running compilation series, “Now That’s What I Call Music!” Back then, the Egyptian music market was awfully closed, saturated with pop, heavy metal and 80s rock.
Blur’s music was unlike anything I’d ever heard: wry, fresh and rebellious. Having been established as my school’s biggest misfit after several miserable endeavors to fit in, Blur became my perfect companion. Music wasn’t just entertainment or distraction; it was a founding block for the identity I grew to assume.
Released a year later, Parklife was even a bigger revelation than 93’s “Modern Life in Rubbish,” one of the very first albums I bought. Witty, sophisticated and occasionally cold, Blur’s third LP was rich in details and imageries: an anti-conformist record about a very conformist world.
By the time they released the more cynical, melancholic “The Great Escape” in 1995, I was preaching the gospel of new Britannica to my heathen friends, succeeding in converting some along the way.
Each subsequent album saw Blur moving in a new direction, and I was with them every step. Each album represented something different to me; each album represented a well-preserved piece of my adolescence.
Perhaps that’s why watching “No Distance” was a difficult experience: an invitation not only to revisit an era that seems to have been largely forgotten, but to piece together the smudged memories of an ever-present past.
Shot in the few months preceding 2009’s Glastonbury fest in July, the film starts as the band ready what would turn out to be their triumphant return to stage for the first time in nine years.
With an unfussy direction, Lovelace and Southern relay the history of the band and the origins of the Britpop; from singer Damon Albarn turbulent relationship with guitarist Graham Coxon and the impact ill-fated 1992 American tour to the legendary 1995 chart battle with Oasis and Coxon’s departure in 2002.
The tale of Blur is a tale of defiance. With a heightened sense of time and place, the band embraced their shunned heritage and traditions with arms wide open, creating a wondrous universe of the mundane. Albarn was the poet of the ordinary; a spokesman for another lost generation trying to find its place in the world.
Despite the overriding cynicism governing Albran’s carefree anecdotes of countrymen, park dwellers, civil servants and misguided teens, the music was rendered with palpable compassion. Even in their angriest moments (“Beetlebum” and “Song 2” from their self-titled fourth album) and their most despairing (“Trimm Trabb” and “No Distance Left to Run” from 13), Blur’s music has always simmered with genuine innocence of a time that feels simpler compared to the current digital age.
Beneath the music and history though lies a story of a long friendship between an unlikely pair. Albarn is depicted as a determined, career-driven showman, the kid everyone in school loved to hate. Coxon, on the other hand, was the quiet one, too mild to be noticed. And it’s this contrast that fueled the dynamism of Blur’s music. “Blur,” the album, was Coxon’s attempt to distance the band from Britpop while “13” was partly driven by Albran’s much publicized break-up with Elastica’s front-woman Justine Frischmann.
Albarn didn’t mind the spotlight and fame; Coxon couldn’t bear it, resorting to alcohol to hide his insecurities and weariness of the showbiz demands. By the time he left the band during the recording of their last studio album, “Think Tank,” in 2002, Coxon came to regard his childhood buddy as a ruthless, uncaring business mogul.
“The idea of bumping into any of them [Blur members] was terrifying,” Coxon says. Seven years later, he decided to call up Albarn, have coffee and patch up their differences. “I missed everyone. I just wanted to get my friends back.”
The Guardian’s five-star review described the resultant Glastonbury gig as “the best Glastonbury headliners in an age,” and it’s difficult to argue against this assessment. From the infectious cheekiness of opener “Girls & Boys,” the dreamy melancholia of “To the End” and the cathartic abandon of “Beetlebum” to the intoxicating euphoria of “Country House” and “Parklife” and the grand noise explosion of “Song 2,” the Glastonbury bigger-than-life set-list is a reminder why Blur were once considered the biggest band in Britain.
It’s the slower numbers though that made me melt. The 11-minute “Tender,” with its sing-along chorus, is heartbreaking in its vulnerability, beautiful in its gentleness and naked honesty. The epic emotional release of “This is a Low” still hits the target; when Albarn breaks down at the end of the song, it’s hard to keep a dry eye.
And then there’s the closer, “The Universal,” my all-time favorite Blur song, with its soaring strings and quiet resignation; the moment when everything comes full circle, when the dust is dispersed from the rusty frame to reveal the colorful universe that 18 years ago felt like mine, and mine alone.
Commenting on the band’s reunion, bassist Alex James says, “It’s like going back to where you’re born or something. The streets you haven’t walked for ages, triggering bizarre flashes of forgotten moments.”
I don’t think I miss school days; I still detest them as a matter of fact. Watching “No Distance” though stirred in me a strong nostalgia for a distinct culture that did matter, the struggle we faced for acquiring unpopular records and the ecstatic anticipation for new music. All this has vanished with the cluster of choices, the dominance of one unified global American culture and the epidemic spread of ADD.
Most of all, I miss the youthfulness of this era; the friends I shared the music with; the illimitable optimism of an age rife with infinite possibilities.
After watching “No Distance Left to Run,” I put on my 15-year-old “Great Escape” record — the very first CD I purchased, closed my eyes and let myself go. Flashes of the people, the places and the sounds that made up who I am now ran in slow motion through my head, eclipsing all the disappointments of the present. We’ve lost more than we gained over those years, but for those few brief moments, the world somehow seemed alright again.
“No Distance Left to Run” is currently available on DVD. The double-disc set also includes the two-hour live performance at Hyde Park.