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Music

The Britpop anthem Damon Albarn wrote about his heroin-addled relationship with Justine Frischmann

@SamWKemp

Damon Albarn has often marvelled at the public’s inability to pick up on the heroin addiction that coloured Blur’s work in the late 1990s. It’s all there in the album art: with their 1997 self-titled album, the motion and vibrancy Modern Life Is Rubbish, Parklife and The Great Escape were replaced with moodier hues and expressionist brushstrokes, implying that Albarn’s world was beginning to be muddied by his addiction.

The album is riddled with fairly overt references to this period of abuse, the most obvious of which is ‘Beetlebum’, a sluggish haze of jittering guitars and honey-sweet melodies that recalls his drug experiences with former girlfriend and Elastica frontperson Justine Frischmann. If Albarn wanted to keep their addiction under wraps, Beetlebum was a very half-arsed attempt at deception. The public’s failure to cotton on is actually quite astonishing when you consider the track ends with a towering refrain of “He’s on/He’s on/He’s on it.” Talking to The Guardian in 2012, Albarn recalled thinking that “everyone was just being really nice, and not making too much of a deal of it” when in reality they were turning a blind eye.

‘Beetlebum’ falls into the ‘Golden Brown’ category of heroin songs in that it personifies and sexualises the drug to the extent that it becomes synonymous with a woman. Albarn uses ‘Beetlebum’ to explore the push-pull of addiction, juxtaposing his sense of shame with the celebratory declarations of the liberation it offers. “She turns me on /All my violence is gone/ Nothing is wrong.” By all accounts, Albarn’s view of heroin as something with tangible benefits endures to this day. While he admits that it is indeed a “cruel” drug, he has also opened up about its “enlightening abilities.”

Back in 2014, Albarn told Q magazine that he began using heroin “at the height of Britpop” after he returned from a night out to find it “in the front room”. Detailing further, he explained: “I just thought, ‘Why not?’ I never imagined it would become a problem.”

Albarn went on to add: “[Heroin] freed me up. I hate talking about this because of my daughter, my family. But, for me, it was incredibly creative … A combination of [heroin] and playing really simple, beautiful, repetitive shit in Africa changed me completely as a musician. I found a sense of rhythm. I somehow managed to break out of something with my voice.”

Albarn was a fairly exceptional case in this regard. Many of his contemporaries who were similarly addicted weren’t so fortunate, with many disappearing into themselves and, in some cases, disappearing altogether.

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