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Music

Revisiting Blur's divisive debut album 'Leisure'

1991 was a game-changing year for music, and there is no doubt about it. Nirvana’s NevermindMy Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, Massive Attack’s Blue Lines, Primal Scream’s Screamadelica, albums that are just the tip of the iceberg of the innumerable amount of pioneering albums that were released at the onset of the decade. 

It was the year grunge, shoegaze, and hip-hop broke free, to name but a few genres that would take the mainstream by the scruff of the neck and hold it up to the mirror of musical, cultural and societal possibilities. Although it was 30 years ago, when you look back at the hallowed year and heed the effect it had on music, it is nothing short of jaw-dropping. 

It was to set a precedent for the most visceral and hedonistic decade of the twentieth century. Carrying on where the ‘swinging sixties’ left off, the 1990s took the ethos of the ’60s and repackaged it for the modern era. The Berlin Wall had fallen in 1989, Thatcher and Reagan were no longer in power, and the ‘Second Summer of Love’ had shown that the younger generation had an optimism central to everything they did, wanting to cast off the shackles of the ’80s. In short, the ’90s was stacked with endless possibilities. 

Fashion, music, politics. All were intertwined in a gordian knot unified by progress. In terms of music, we saw the ascension of pioneering icons such as Björk, Aphex Twin and Portishead. This is not to say it was all artistic brilliance, though. The ’90s also gave us Babylon Zoo and the New Radicals. Although both acts’ one-hit wonders are retrospectively not remarkable, they still number amongst the best one-hit wonders ever released. In this sense, the ’90s can also be defined as the decade of the one-hit-wonder. Whigfield, Chumbawumba and Haddaway all gave us classics that would be the peak of their powers — it is a phenomenon we have long since been devoid of. This is an area of music that shows no sign of returning owing to the Soundcloud rappers with their faux-nihilistic worldview and repetitive discussion of pharmaceutical abuse.

In the UK, though, we got the most unique musical phenomenon. The Oasis vs Blur rivalry. Interestingly, both bands were, at the time, walking contradictions, embodying the best and worst that British life and the decade had to offer. This is made even clearer today with our so very post-modern tool of hindsight. The stand-offish behaviour, hedonistic excess, coupled with countless artistic misfires, is pretty laughable today.

This is not to undermine either band’s legacy, though. Both gave us some of the most memorable and iconic pieces of music Britain has ever produced, and both Blur and Oasis are rightly hailed as national treasures. Their music evokes elements of British society that has only really been tapped into by the Arctic Monkeys since.

However, before both bands came to loggerheads over chart supremacy or fashionability, both were following separate paths. Coming back to 1991, Oasis had only just formed. On the other hand, formerly known as ‘Seymour’, Blur had been a band since 1988 and had even supported the Cramps on a summer 1990 UK tour. It was on this tour that they would test out the material that would make it onto their obscure debut album, and it is here that we arrive at our story today. Signed to Food Records, on August 26, 1991, the band now known as Blur released their debut album, Leisure. Preceded by the 1990 release of stoned lead single ‘She’s So High’, the album is an oddity within Blur’s back catalogue and in the collective memory of the ’90s.

One would argue that not only is it Blur’s most underrated work but that it is also an underrated gem, lost amongst the dense tapestry of ’90s releases. Leisure is also critical within Blur’s history as it established their long relationship with ubiquitous British producer Stephen Street, of the Smiths et al., and also informed the band of the should’s and should not’s of music. 

Blur’s debut has split fan opinion. (Credit: Blur)

Drawing on the influences of the burgeoning shoegaze scene and the acid-drenched haze of baggy and ‘Madchester’, the album sticks out like a sore thumb in Blur’s back catalogue. It presents the four-piece as a young, excitable group who were still in their post-art school phase, rather than the mature, perceptive British social commentators we know them as today. Crazy to think that bass player Alex James is now a purveyor of cheese nestled in the Cotswolds and a friend of former Prime Minister David Cameron.

One would also wager that Graham Coxon‘s iconic guitar riff at the start of the second single ‘There’s No Other Way’, is the most ’90s sounding riff of all time; as soon as it comes on, you want to move your feet. Songs such as this are the earliest examples of the prowess Coxon possesses on the six-string. Fittingly, he is now regarded as one of the greatest British guitar players of all time. At the heart of ‘There’s No Other Way’ is Coxon’s saxophone-like guitar style; busy, perpetually sliding and augmenting the rest of the music.  

This floppy-haired early iteration of Blur also treated us to the baggy-delight that is ‘Bang’. The third single off the album, it again features the busy fingers of Coxon dovetailing with Alex James’ super funky bassline. It is moments like this that make you realise just how underrated as a bass player Alex James is. He holds the thing together, perfectly complimenting drummer Dave Rowntree’s classically loose beat. Boosted by the kaleidoscopic, saturated music video, the song’s chorus could quite easily have been featured on an album track by the Stone Roses.

The album’s highlight is undoubtedly ‘Sing’. A trippy, washed-out number, it is six glorious minutes of sonic brilliance. Featuring frontman Damon Albarn’s subdued lyrics, upon the song’s introduction, you automatically start to feel a little stoned. It has flecks of Syd Barrett era Pink Floyd, sung with a BBC-esque English accent and with a brilliant, unhinged chorus.

Other exciting moments include the American alt-rock inspired ‘Slow Down’, the fuzzy wall of sound that is, ‘Repetition’ and the criminally underrated ‘Fool’. One would posit that the latter is one of Coxon’s most underrated riffs. A real earworm containing elements of R.E.M. and Dinosaur Jr., ‘Fool’ will be stuck in your brain for days. 

Leisure‘s detractors may wager that Damon Albarn‘s lyrics are what lets the album down, often thin and melodically similar. It turns out the frontman is not keen on the album at all. Retrospectively, in 2014, Albarn revealed that making Leisure “wasn’t a particularly happy experience” as the band were preoccupied with pleasing the label rather than making music that they were happy with. Allegedly, Food Records’ main concern was to release an album that was commercially successful, rather than one of any real artistic value.

Consequently, Blur’s debut is divisive amongst fans and the band themself. Whilst it is certainly dated, there are some refreshing moments of genius in it that make it a nice change of pace in comparison to some of the quaint, overly British music the band would release over the rest of the decade, such as the god awful ‘Country House’.

It is also significant as it was Blur‘s first album and effectively set them on their way to superstardom. Like with any debut, the band learnt a lot about themselves, and without the experience, it is likely that we would have got a very different Blur to the one we know today.

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