For a moment in the mid-1990s, there were only two bands the papers cared about; Oasis and Blur. While the former would go on to reign a little longer on the throne of Britpop kings, the latter has gone on to become that most cherished of things—cult classics. It means that a lot of the songs that made Blur a great rock band, aside from chart-toppers, are still left comparatively hidden in the depths of the internet. Below, we bring you one of those moments, Blur performing ‘The Universal’ live on Later… With Jools Holland from 1995.
‘Parklife’, ‘Country House’ and ‘Girls & Boys’, those are the songs people think of when they look back at Blur’s musical contribution to the decade. While those efforts are nothing to be sniffed at—each one a stupendous piece of arthouse pub-pop—the real joy of Blur came from their development. The band were always keen to show they weren’t the same old sneering rock stars and they had real musical chops. They showed those chops with songs like ‘The Universal’.
‘The Universal’ arrives on one of Blur’s most contradictory albums, The Great Escape. Widely seen as inferior to the band’s previous two releases Modern Life Is Rubbish and Parklife, the album was a huge commercial success largely driven by the mega-watt pop bop ‘Country House’. The whole record is shiny and highly-polished. Fuelled by the aforementioned rivalry, the record executives pushed the band toward the charts, looking to capitalise on the increased audience. That doesn’t mean the album is without its charms though.
As well as ‘Charmless Man’, one of Blur’s best tracks, there was also ‘The Universal’, a song that came complete with Beatles-esque orchestration that highlighted Blur had their sights set a little higher than upsetting Oasis. The song, written about the effects of Prozac and an imagination of what the next step in prescription mood balancers may be, the song was a flash of brilliance from a band in their pop pomp.
The track is not only one of the largest pieces the band had ever composed, with lead singer Damon Albarn going on to cement this string in his bow in his solo career, but it was also one of their cleanest conceptions too. Using Prozac as a base, the band are able to tell the story of the arresting effects of modernity on our spirits and how life, especially in the ’90s, felt ever more manufactured, plastic and glossy. It could easily be seen as a song rejecting their very trajectory.
While the video for ‘The Universal’ is one of the band’s best—placing Albarn, Graham Coxon, Alex James and Dave Rowntree as characters in A Clockwork Orange—this live performance from Later… With Jools Holland would have likely been Britain’s first real chance to see the band perform the number. It would reach number five in the charts but suggest it no longer concerned the band.
The group would return two years later with their self-titled album that many consider far better, though it never matched the same sales records. But before they did, they would use their increased exposure to sing their songs and relay their message to a wider audience. In the mid-90s there was no music gig bigger on TV than Jools Holland and so the band delivered a stunning performance of the track.
Watch Blur sing ‘The Universal’ live on Later… With Jools Holland back in 1995 below.