I laugh to myself when I hear Country House by Blur, an anthem that epitomized mid 1990s sheer ridiculousness. It comes first to the mind of a few too many people when you mention a band that produced so many better records. As a kid, I did my bit, buying it on cassette only to come home to find that my mum had bought me Roll With It, by Oasis, neutralizing my petty vote in the one week I which I took any notice of ‘the battle for chart supremacy.’ Even at 12, I had some notion of how silly it had all become. As The Great Escape album on which it lived came to a close along with my childhood, the mood hinted at something a little darker, festering beneath the surface. I found myself skipping the singles that only months earlier I’d played to death, drawn instead to Entertain Me and He Thought Of Cars, without anyone else to talk to about why, or whether this was weird.
With hindsight, it’s clear that what was so tantalizing to me about Damon Albarn riding a pig or lunging at the Top of the Pops TV cameras, performing Stereotypes would certainly have started to wilt and die, had one more album been cut from the same caricatured cloth. But Blur were not a band ever in danger of repetition, so I stayed there, eager to hear what they might create next. The Great Escape was everything I bought into as the childhood idea of rock ‘n’ roll without the life experience to know that this could all be the result of mild hedonism, media overhype and four people who were possibly, dangerously close to being untethered from what made them want to make music in the first place. Only they could know those collective and individual motivations, but creativity and self-expression surely had to be a big part of those foundations.
As Blur came out, a departure from Britpop mayhem, my brooding teenage self breathed with relief, or maybe angst as the sound and ideas intrigued and energized me, the step from quirky character observations into distortion and disquiet, something curled tighter, more befitting of a person awaiting a sense of identity. Of course, like most young people, I didn’t consciously understand any of this, just went along with this love of a band and continued to mine what Blur were producing without overthinking it.
It goes on. 13 was another beautiful mutation, synched nicely with my newly discovered raft of teenage romantic issues. Think Tank landed at a time in my life when I had begun to amass enough small clues to think that the creative industry might be the best place to empty my head where they might pay me for what came out if it. The intro line of Ambulance, first track on Think Tank, ‘I ain’t got nothing to be scared of’ was also the opening lyric of the first live Blur gig I made it to and it felt powerfully raw in the primal way live renditions of personal songs tends to. To a passer by, this line was a desktop inspirational quote calendar page waiting to happen, but as a now seasoned junkie of anything that emerged from Damon Albarn’s mind, it felt pure and indicative of a meaningful creative growth spurt for him too.
For a fan like me, all of Blur’s work stands the test of time, crystalised through my own life experiences, but having seen the evolution of Damon from Britpop poster boy, into a diversely talented and inspiringly ambitious musician, that particular lyric made a deep mark. For anyone trying to light the path ahead with creativity, in a cut-throat commercial world, believing that there really is nothing to be scared of to be true is for the vast majority of the time, getting somewhere close to the realm of science fiction. With a love of a certain craft, a vague idea of where it might fit in the world and an even murkier sense of whether there is a career that could allow this seed to stay alive long enough to flower, the odds are not in your favour. The sooner that truth is accepted then embraced, the easier it gets to work with the unpredictability that defines it. But this has always been the case, in every art form. Illustrator, art director, writer, podcaster, hand lettering specialist, lecturer, workshop leader, overdraft expert, panic technician, the list goes on. Some of these many arbitrary titles are more credible than others. They all in some way help me to make sense of what I’m doing and the reasons why on a weekly basis.
What I do know is that I have survived a decade in the creative industry and even if a lot of the time there is a lot to be scared of, I keep on the path regardless and every-so-often, something positive and personally fulfilling validates that it is the right one for me. I don’t suppose I’ll ever know where it leads and that is, despite the fear, a good thing. That’s why I chose the lyric when it came time to paint onto Andy Cotterill’s series of Damon Albarn photographs for this Lend Me Your Ear collaboration. The quiet moment on Kathy Burke’s sofa lent itself to the sentiment.
He continues to produce work that is always relevant, often ahead of its time and it’s become so routine for him to do so, that most people just nod and consider it what he does. If I know anything of the strange, curious minds that are unable to accept any kind of status quo, to even stop and be truly happy with anything they’ve done, then my guess is that Albarn himself is probably as scared as the rest of us in some deep rooted way and the reaffirmation of that lyric is just as necessary for him as the rest of us who try to stay true to what we are. These days, what is apparent is that my fascination was always bigger than Damon or Blur. As I get into the latter half of my thirties, it seems crystal clear that what drew me towards this bloke from Colchester was the subconscious recognition and inevitable addiction to the ever-changing nature of creativity and the need to become master of the fear to work with it.
The London launch exhibition of ‘Lend Me Your Ear’ runs until 6/6/19 at Stance, 3 Neal Street, Covent Garden and is free to see.