Alex James, one might say, grew up in a town where people go to die. He wouldn't say it... and indeed it would be a cheap and slighting thing to say of the Dorset seaside resort of Bournemouth. But, there, we've said it now. And there's a tiny kernel of truth in there. Being an island, Britain has a wealth of coastline and every inlet, promontory and headland has its own identity, a fact later to be celebrated in Blur's psychedelic paean to the British coast, 'This Is A Low'. Thus, Blackpool is brazen, vulgar and fun, Skegness bracing, Brighton shabby genteel; there are gritty working ports such as Hull and Grimsby, Swansea and Aberdeen and the mysterious, forgotten Silloths, Zennors and Flamborough Heads.
In this way, we might characterise Bournemouth as presentable, attractive and well mannered but with, who knows, hidden depths - a sort of Carol Vorderman of the seaside. It's a relatively young town, evolving from a summer residence constructed by affluent Dorset squire Lewis Tregonwell in 1810. In 1841, there were still only 26 buildings in the town but thereafter, with the arrival of the railway in 1870, Bournemouth expanded rapidly. The sandy heaths and pinewoods that spread behind the Poole cliffs filled with homes and the town proper grew up around the river mouth where the Bourne empties into the sea.
The balmy summers and mild winters of the south coast and the town's pleasant setting meant that it developed as a resort. That same hospitable climate has meant that Bournemouth has become a Mecca for the retired. It's cruel to say that they go there to die but certainly they go to doze out their days in a very English haze of flower gardens, promenades and crazy golf. But it was also, according to Alex James, 'A great place to grow up.'
He was born in the now demolished Boscombe Hospital on 21 November 1968 as students and Soviet troops fought on the streets of Prague. Bournemouth was considerably quieter. He had a sister, Deborah, two years his junior - all of Blur, amateur psychologists should note, have one sister - and the family lived in Stroudon Park on the outskirts of the town, a mixture of middle-class prosperity and sprawling council estate. His class origins, he feels, were similarly mixed. 'My grandparents were pretty working-class but my dad caught trains and would be classified as middle-class.' Alex, though, describes his upbringing as 'extremely suburban - nice residential area, golf course'. Dad had been in the navy but was now employed as a sales rep selling forklift trucks for a company based in Coventry, where he was often taken on business. 'Coventry Climax, they were called. Bit saucy. But then it was the 70s.'
Later, Alex's father was to start his own rubbish compacting company but in the meantime Alex's grandfather died, leaving them an imposing guest house in the town centre, into which they moved with their menagerie of pets, including guinea pigs, tortoises and Sparky the dog. 'When my dad said we had to move, none of us wanted to. All my mates were round the corner but in the end it was the best thing we ever did. It was a big house in the middle of town with a huge basement where we practised later when I was in bands. Absolutely great. My mum and dad did try to run it as a guest house but that nearly ended in divorce so we just lived there.'
By all accounts, Alex was a gregarious, popular youth. He was good at sport, particularly football and, at least in secondary school, academically excellent, gaining thirteen O levels. 'I did find it easy really but all I was concerned about was being good at football. I didn't study art or music - that was what you did if you couldn't do physics and chemistry.' Outside of school, Alex remembers Bournemouth, with its long beaches stretching from Sandbanks to Hengistbury Head, as a fine place to drift through teenage life.
ALEX JAMES: The pier was the major hang. In summer, it's packed but in winter, there's no one there and it's just as nice. Our guest house was near the sea so I walked down there most nights being windswept and romantic. And I soon discovered that if you took a girl down to the sea with a bottle of wine, it was very atmospheric and you could snog them. So growing up by the sea was a brilliant thing. But as a place it's stifling; there's no ambition there. I went to the grammar school where you were encouraged to believe that you were nothing special and would have to work very hard to get anywhere in life, which is a really bad message to send to kids. Most Bournemouth folk think they're going to have to spend their lives doing something shit because there are no opportunities there but then you move to London and you realise you can do what the f*ck you like in life.
Contrary to most reports, Alex's academic career didn't run as smoothly as some have suggested. His studies were going, in his own words, 'catastrophically'. 'I'd gone a bit wayward, discovered booze and girls, that sort of stuff.' Though he'd been accepted by Goldsmiths College in London, he took a year off during which he amused himself in various ways. He worked on the cheese counter of Safeway and as a labourer on a building site during the construction of Winfrith nuclear power plant. 'I dropped acid on my first day there,' he recalls, rather chillingly for environmentalists. He now describes this year as 'a year spent half asleep': falling in love with Justine Andrew - whom he still lives with - and moving into a house with her and his friend Charlie Bloor in nearby Charminster where Charlie and Alex would while away the hours playing guitar and dreaming of going to London and being pop stars.
Alex had never studied music at school because, as we've learnt, it seemed academically lightweight and, as he later explained, 'Because the music teacher was a buttock fondler.' His path into music was a roundabout one.
ALEX JAMES: At junior school a note came round saying your child can have violin lessons and my mum said, 'Oh, you've got to learn to play the violin. Learning an instrument would be marvellous.' So I did it because she wanted me to even though I was only interested in football and the violin is the stupidest instrument to give a child since it's very difficult to play. It sounds wank and you need twenty to make a decent noise. Then there was the recorder which is a godawful thing and you only ever play 'Pease Pudding Hot' and 'The Old Grey Goose Is Dead' so I was bounced out of recorder class for not being interested. But the turning point came when my old man bought this 100 quid piano when I was twelve and put it in the spare room. One day, he sat down at it and raised an eyebrow and started to play twelve-bar blues and 'Blue Moon', which I had no idea he could do, and I demanded to be shown how to do that. I got the bug and after that I spent loads of time sitting at it trying to play Human League songs and 'Are Friends Electric'.
Alex's first band, The Age Of Consent, was less a group than a prankish bit of Situationist subterfuge. In fellow conspirator Jay Birtsmail's bedroom, they spliced an intro of their own devising on to Fleetwood Mac's AOR classic 'The Chain', famously the theme from BBC's Grand Prix coverage. The resulting Frankensteinish demo they would hawk round to parties, hoping to impress girls, until one night they fell foul of someone who was familiar with the original, a humiliation surely not a long time coming in the suburban Bournemouth of the late 70s. At sixteen, Alex was desperate to be in a real band - largely as a means of meeting girls - and was eager to extend his rudimentary keyboard abilities. 'But keyboards were 600 quid and bass guitars were 50 and Mum and Dad didn't think I was going to take it very seriously so for my sixteenth birthday I got a Columbus Fender precision copy from South Bournemouth Exchange and Mart, which is still there now. I had to wait till Christmas to get the amp, though.'
His 'virtual' band with Jay Birtsmail and others gradually became a reality as slowly all the people who didn't have instruments were thrown out. A drummer who could manager 'Whole Lotta Love' was recruited and via him Don White, the class hippy, who brought along his decrepit Vox amp to the James basement where rehearsals - 'f*cking about, really' - took place. As soon as the venerable antique amplifier was switched on, however, the new recruit 'got the full 240 volts right up his arm and he was screaming "F*ck!" and then my mother appeared at the top of the stairs screaming, "I will not have swearing in my house." So that was my introduction to the world of real rock and roll; swearing and screaming and loud music and smoke everywhere.'
(Note: Alex's mother, like his band mates, would have known him as Steven at this time. It was not until he ventured into London that he switched to his middle name Alex. 'Like Bunbury in The Importance of Being Earnest,' jokes Dave Rowntree today. 'Alex in town and Steven in Bournemouth.')
The remainder of Alex's time on the south coast is a pageant of variously competent bands. One foundered in fisticuffs and acrimony after he was caught in flagrante delicto with the drummer's girlfriend. There was a school band The Rising who were 'dreadful... but being in a band means you're the coolest people in the school and that's what we were interested in'. Later came Mr Pang's Big Bangs, named after their Charminster landlord who had once achieved minor fame with appearances for Southampton Reserves football team. 'We had this song called "The Neighbours Are Coming Around", which started really quietly and then got louder until the neighbours came round. It was all cheeky experimental bollocks.' Alex also played guitar and bass in The Victorians, who were 'quite good - Gemma from that band works with The Propellerheads now'. But by now, Alex's genial, dilatory year off was coming to a close. Armed with physics, French and chemistry A levels, the bright lights and golden pavements of London beckoned. Curiously, given his aptitude for sciences, he had chosen to do a BA in French, and so it was time to bid the Dorset coast au revoir.
from Blur: 3862 Days, the official history © 1999 Blur and Stuart Maconie.