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Interview by Will Hodgkinson
Friday November 24, 2000
The Guardian

Blur's bass player, one-third of football anthem merchants Fat Les, occasional airplane pilot and habitué of London drinking dens, Alex James takes inspiration from songwriting's roots at his Covent Garden flat, currently in a state of builder chaos. "I've got these three volumes called 1,001 Songs For Easy Guitar, and it has all the chord boxes, so you can see what the words are, and singing the song for yourself actually takes it down to its essence, with the image of the band being stripped away. It's a source of constant inspiration."

The book revealed the structure of James's favourite childhood song, Laurel and Hardy's On the Trail of the Lonesome Pine, from the film Way Out West. "It's the first record I can ever remember really wanting. It's really sophisticated bluegrass, with virtuoso guitar playing. It takes me back to being a kid." Another childhood favourite is The Peanut Vendor. "My grandad used to walk around the house singing that. It's a very good drinking song, likewise with The Lion Sleeps Tonight, which everyone associates with that awful 1980s band Tight Fit, but it was written by an African called Mbubeh. It's good to strip away all the record company marketing and the video and be left with just a great song. Likewise with Blue Moon; my dad bought a piano when I was 11 and started playing it, and that was the basis of my musical education. Rodgers and Hart, I think. I've just recorded it with Ian McCulloch."

James's favourite album is Strange Weather by Marianne Faithfull. "It came out in the late 1980s, and it featured 12 of the best songs ever written, very beautifully sung. That carried me off somewhere... when I heard it I was working in a supermarket and it sounded impossibly romantic and suggestive. It called to something deep inside me and made me think that I wouldn't be working in a supermarket forever."

The two records that made him want to be in a band, meanwhile, were Blue Monday by New Order and How Soon is Now by the Smiths. "Blue Monday was the reason I got a bass guitar. Everything about the record is unconventional, it's an odd length, the bass is doing one melody and the guitar is doing another, and you've got these great, very honest lyrics. It's sophisticated in a primitive way ... a bunch of herberts claiming high art as their own. How Soon is Now was just one of the great songs of the decade. Whenever I've been up all night, I go to the Two Brewers pub on Monmouth Street and put How Soon is Now on the juke box, then phone Stephen Street [the Smiths' producer], and scream at him."

He also rates two less highly-rated hits from the era, Eternal Flame by the Bangles and Uptown Girl by Billy Joel. "Eternal Flame is another one which I reappraised because of the 1,001 Songs book. Really good words. As I listened to it I was propelled on to a higher plane of consciousness, wrenched from the everyday and into the realm of the ultimate. Uptown Girl is one of those songs that everyone from kids to grannies like. He's met a posh bird, three feet taller than him... write about what you know, Billy."

Then there are the classic albums by the Velvet Under ground ("We've just come back from New York and all you want to do when you arrive is wear a leather jacket and a pair of shades and take some speed, and be the Velvet Underground"), Blondie ("Four idiot blokes and a pretty bird bumbling along, making the coolest music in the world"), and the Doors' LA Woman ("It reminds me of smoking pot in the sixth form"). Then there's some classical, with Bizet's Carmen at the top of the favoured heap. "The Toreador's Song in Carmen is a pop song, and Bizet was a good old-fashioned knees-up merchant and I dig his rabble-rousing."

The only concert Blur performed last year was in Scott Walker's Meltdown festival at the Royal Festival Hall, a testament to the influence of that great singer. He's the one artist all four members of Blur can agree on, and all of Scott's solo albums are in Alex James's record collection. "Scott 4, which was deleted after a week, is the best: I've been living with that record for five years and I'm still only halfway through it. By that album, he was a genius teetering on the brink of complete enlightenment and complete obscurity. The Old Man's Back Again has the best bass line I've ever heard. God knows who it was."

Blur's own career path has been guided by such people, and a Best Of just out covers their decade-long ascension. "Our existence conveniently spans a decade of pop culture - our first record was in 1990, our last in 2000 - so market research suggests that this was the optimum time for Blur's greatest hits. My own favourite album of ours is Modern Life is Rubbish, our second, but the songs on the Best Of were all chosen by computer, there was no space for my favourite B-sides. But we're all keen to get back into the studio. Dr Dre's been mentioned. It's about time we sold 10m records. I need another aeroplane."

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