‘Blur 21’: The Best of the Rarities

Calling the new Blur box set (named Blur 21, honoring the 21 years since their first official release) a treasure trove is, if not a bit hyperbolic, certainly not inaccurate. If, like many of my fellow music nerds, you’ve all but abandoned the compact disc in favor of the tried and true vinyl option, there’s a version of the box set just right for you. While including all seven of the band’s studio albums in thick vinyl cut from oak trees (probably), the collection is lacking many of the bonuses which made the CD version too tempting to resist.

Each of Blur’s albums — from 1991’s Leisure to 2003’s Think Tank — is given the double-disc treatment in the CD set, with most of the associated b-sides and non-album singles chronologically placed, allowing the listener to effectively trace the development of one of England’s greatest bands, one which transcended its assigned genre (Britpop) to become something greater, even while celebrating its own inherent Englishness. The CD box set also includes a handsome hardbound book featuring recording information and what one hopes is merely an abridged version of a much longer and more comprehensive oral history. There are three DVD’s included as well, rounding out the promo clips for anyone who already has Blur: The Best Of, and featuring a live performance from the “Singles Night” tour in 1999, a brief run through of 13-era songs from earlier that year and Showtime, a 1994 performance at Alexandra Palace previously only available on VHS. For completists, there’s also a one-sided vinyl single recorded in 1989 when the band was still called Seymour.

But really, the most compelling reason to opt for the CD version of the box set (assuming you’re not simply downloading everything off of torrent sites) is the inclusion of four rarities discs covering the span of the group’s history, from the Seymour-era right up through their 2010 Record Store Day single “Fools Day” and “Under the Westway”, one of two songs recorded in anticipation of Blur’s headline performance in London’s Hyde Park last weekend, a show in celebration of the Olympics and British music of the non-Spice Girls variety.

The rarities discs, arranged like the rest of the box set in chronological order, are fascinating, with many demos and alternate versions of familiar songs, jam sessions, and unfinished thoughts (including the unfortunately-titled “Sir Elton John’s Cock”, a too-brief bit of piano-led melancholy which sadly never developed into anything more). It’s moments like those which make the set like Blur’s career since reuniting with guitarist Graham Coxon (absent from Think Tank, except on the gorgeous “Battery in Your Leg”) in 2009 so goddamned frustrating; Blur should record a new album and tour the entire world, and their inability to commit to anything beyond brief joyful blasts like their handful of Hyde Park warmup dates across England (and a pair of festival appearances in Denmark and Sweden) is difficult for anyone not in Blur (and maybe a couple of the guys actually in Blur, too) to fathom.

It’s partly why my girlfriend — fiancé, now, because I put a ring on her finger in Hyde Park a little over a week ago and she said yes — and I made the trip over in the middle of the Olympics. Yes, we had a wonderful time in my favorite city other than New York, and we spent time with friends and hit museums and record shops and regretted not having arranged for tickets to see any Olympic event. But what we also did was take a two-hour train trip to Margate for the first of the warmup shows at the Winter Gardens, an old music hall which hosted the Beatles nearly 40 years ago. Because I’m still almost completely incapable of conveying what the night meant to me, I’ll say in brief that it was one of the greatest gigs I’ve ever seen. The band was all smiles, and even when they messed up “Trimm Trabb” or “Sing”, or Damon Albarn couldn’t remember which line came where in “Coffee and TV” it was absolutely a celebration. Sure, Graham teetered on the verge of inconsolability when his amp wilted in the oppressive heat, but a hug and kiss from his old friend Damon set it all straight.

And maybe we’re meant to enjoy these moments as they come and file them away and not long for more, but with all the joy on that stage that night, it’s natural to want them to do it all over again, but in New York this time (or wherever you happen to be from). If they never play again, I will be satisfied because I shared this moment with Blur and around 2,000 of their fans. It’s a version of a mantra I’ve repeated again and again as a fan of Blur: If they never release another song again, I’ll still be happy. If they never play another show together, I’ll still be happy. If Alex James continues devoting his energies to cheese-making and having interestingly-named children rather than picking up a bass guitar, I’ll be happy. I love Blur, probably as much as but in a different way to my other favorite bands, the Beatles and the Clash. I’m grateful Damon and Graham have both continued making music outside of Blur that I genuinely enjoy, but even if I thought they totally sucked I’d still be just as happy with what they’ve done in Blur. Fandom is confusing sometimes.

A cynic might consider Blur’s pulling out the stops when compiling their setlists for the recent shows as a craven attempt to illustrate how deep their back catalog is. “Young & Lovely”, a b-side to 1993 single “Chemical World” has always been a beautiful, Beatlesque gem, but they’d never played it live before. At Margate, Albarn self-consciously noted that it would have felt too corny to air it on stage before, but now that most of them have kids of their own it felt right. “Caramel”, a lengthy, atmospheric track from the William Orbit-produced 13 (released in 1999), is another song which was played live for the first time this year. But the cynics can go fuck themselves, because what Blur has proven is that their singles, while unbelievably catchy and wonderful, are not all that the band is about. The knees-up Englishness of “Sunday Sunday” and “Country House” are a key element to Blur’s sound, but so are sonic blasts of weirdness like “Trimm Trabb” and “Bugman” .

And so the rarities, four discs of material predictably varying in quality which, depending upon your perspective, may or may not be essential listening. “Red Necks”, a b-side to 1994’s “End of the Century”, is bad enough on its own, so the addition of two alternate takes seems a waste. And while Damon has all but dismissed Blur’s first album Leisure, the demos included show the band was on the right track with the finished product. “Wear Me Down”, for example, is a bit sludgy and slow in demo form, but its crunchy guitars and harmonies are partly why Leisure is much more valid than Damon gives it credit for being. Remove the bad feelings Blur had about record company interference around that time (which included forcing the band to come up with “Bang”, a single they’ve tried desperately to forget in spite of it not being all that bad; and the removal of “Sing”, one of the band’s best early tracks, from the initial US release).

There are other missteps, though even if they don’t wind up in circulation on your iPod (purchasing any of the reissues and box sets comes with a download code), they’re still worth a listen. Modern Life Is Rubbish, released in 1993, has become something of a tentpole for Britpop fans, signaling a culture shift for Blur into a celebration of British music inspired by the over-Americanization of English society and the popularity of grunge. The album was produced by a number of people, including Stephen Street, who would go on to work with the band on their next three full lengths, but they had actually previously recorded some material with XTC’s Andy Partridge. Three of the songs from those sessions are included here, and while the early version of “Sunday Sunday” (called “Sunday Sleep” here) is an interesting listen, there’s nothing to suggest they hadn’t made the right decision in moving on.

But for all the tracks one might spin a few times for the sake of curiosity, there are some genuinely thrilling moments among the rarities.

Compiling lists is rarely a good idea, because no matter how strongly I might feel about a song or a band, it’s unlikely anyone will entirely agree with me. That can lead to some intriguing debate, but ultimately whether a Blur fan finds anything (or everything) on the rarities discs indispensable is up to that Blur fan. That said, I’ve made a list!

Those are by no means the only songs worth seeking out over the four discs of rarities, and even with the fairly hefty price tag, Blur 21 is worth picking up for fans. And maybe if more of us buy it, Damon, Graham, Alex and Dave will feel inspired to hit the studio and the road next year. Maybe . . .

1. “Death of a Party (Demo)”

“Death of a Party” turned up as a spooky organ-fuelled, full-band performance on Blur’s eponymous 1997 album, but the demo version of the song (recorded in 1992) was given to fans who subscribed to Blurb, the official fanzine, in 1996. The song was fairly complete in demo form, an acoustic run through with chilling harmonies, but it wasn’t until their post-Britpop comedown that the time was right to unleash the finished product.

2. “Far Out (Electric Version)”

Alex James’ spacy Syd Barrett-pastiche appeared in abbreviated form on 1994’s Parklife, but here the guitars and energy are turned up. It’s not necessarily a better version, but is every bit as intriguing.

3. “1”

Of the two tracks recorded in 2000 with Bill Laswell included on the box set, “1” is the most fully-formed, full of weird noises and chimes, and a laconic vocal from Albarn. It bears the sense of dread which pervades much of Blur’s later work, but in the best possible way.

4. “Dizzy”

One could argue which of the band’s earliest recordings best typifies what they were like when they were still called Seymour, but my money is on “Dizzy”, a song alternating between gently picked passages and spasms of kinetic energy. While Britain was in thrall to the Stone Roses and the Madchester scene, Seymour seemed completely oblivious (though later they’d adopt a few shuffle-beats in a half-hearted effort to latch on, their songs were never fully immersed in the ubiquitous sound of the day.)

5. “Seven Days”

Of the three songs here from the Andy Partridge sessions, “Seven Days” is the only one the band never re-recorded and re-released. It’s a testament to the strength of their material at the time that they could leave what could have at least been a quality album track or b-side with harmonies and a chorus which builds upon itself bit-by-bit from beginning to end.