What's it all about, eh? Fame, fortune, rivalry, media manipulation, authenticity and cynicism, how will it finish, how did it begin? In the last of our individual BLUR interviews their louche bass player ALEX JAMES buys BARBARA ELLEN a drink (surprise, surprise).
The week that Blur go to Number One with 'Country House', bass player Alex James saunters into his local wine bar, Mars, already discreetly pissed.
Louche, raffish, silly, Alex is my favourite member of Blur. The 'social diary' he kept for NME recently made me smile: all that haunting of Soho hotspots (here, Freuds, Grouchos), the shameless name-dropping, the petty intrigues, the veritable smorgasbord of hangovers. Whatever your opinion of Blur (and mine happens to be pretty low), no-one can deny that Alex James is a conscientious celebrity. Come rain or shine, he's out there, knocking them back, sliding down walls, acting, as he himself would put it, "contemptibly".
Furthermore, Britpop's answer to Jeffrey Bernard ("I aspire to be a Soho alcoholic") has his dark side. A tummy-baring pussycat by nature, he turns into a vicious, giggling hyena when provoked.
Above all, though, Alex is a 'tart'. Within minutes of our arrival, he has instructed the barmaid to be bereft of underwear the next time they meet. Then, turning his attention to me, he drawls:
"You have no respect for me. That's why you're here. But none of that matters because I know that you fancy me."
This is our second meeting. The time before, Alex was on one of his 'dry' days (a weekly ritual which he believes counteracts the other six days of relentless boozing). On that occasion, Alex was not 'quite himself' and agreed that it would be wise to meet again. Now, as he heads upstairs to a dusty attic room, somehow managing not to spill his beers and flavoured vodkas, he looks on form, ready for action; even his fringe is swaggering.
"I love booze," he confides unnecessarily. "It's a good thing for purveyors of pop art to drink. I can drink five pints of lager and go up to Stephen Fry and go, 'Hello, I'm Alex from Blur'. If I had a cup of tea I wouldn't do that, and if I had heroin I probably wouldn't do that... drugs are just boring. And drug bores are the worst bores, possibly only beaten by drum bores and travel bores. You can have a lot more fun with booze because it's legal."
Have you ever come close to alcoholism?
"I probably drink too much but I can handle it. I can suck corporate cock when I'm sober and I can do it when I'm pissed... I can do The Times crossword when I'm pissed! But having one day off a week is good because you shouldn't get too used to doing everything drunk.
"Anyway," he sighs languidly, "let's change the subject. I didn't come here just to talk about alcohol."
True. In the week that Blur got to Number One and Oasis didn't, there are much better things to talk about. Victors of one of the most hyped chart duels ever, Blur must be feeling pretty smug and vindicated at present. However, in public at least, they are opting to exude an aura of serene, diplomatic calm. Alex even wore an Oasis t-shirt on Blur's triumphant Top Of The Pops appearance.
"It was a magnanimous gesture," he explains. "I think that they're a great band and that this is the defining Britpop moment.
"It's not Blur versus Oasis," he adds emphatically. "It's Blur and Oasis against the world."
I'm not so sure. Blur versus Oasis... Oasis versus Blur.. whichever way you cut it, something doesn't quite ring true about this most copyworthy of stand-offs. It could be that too much emphasis is being put on their superficial differences (geography, class, genre). Perhaps it's time to calm down and realise that what sets Blur and Oasis apart has nothing to do with accents, table manners or musical streaming - it's a simple case of talent. Judged on this level, a brute truth emerges: Oasis are a good band, a 4-Real band who have the potential to be a great band. Blur, on the other hand... are not.
Indeed, in their efforts to be Magnanimity Made Flesh concerning the recent chart stand-off, Blur have hit upon a salient truth. It's actually significant that the rivalry between them is purely of a commercial nature. It could even be the case that Blur simply aren't competing on more important levels.
Whatever you think of Oasis, the fact remains that they deserve better than to be lumbered with such embarrassingly lightweight rivals. The key head-to-heads of the past weren't like this. They featured very different but evenly matched, mutually respectful adversaries. Bands with some kind of spiritual empathy. The Beatles had the Stones, The Sex Pistols had The Clash, the Roses had the Mondays. Oasis have... Blur. You can't help but feel gutted for them.
What does Alex think about this thing with Oasis? Is it really just a North/South, working class/middle-class, rock/pop thing?
"It's definitely Coronation Street versus EastEnders."
Or, given Blur's nature, Coronation Street v The Late Show?
"Yeah, well... triangles versus squares, apples versus oranges... who cares? Basically, there hasn't been any football for a while and the tabloids want to make everything a football match."
One suggestion is that you did Oasis a favour, giving your 'slow-witted' northern rivals a free ride into the limelight on your coattails. But Blur got far more out of it than Oasis. Not least in terms of reflected credibility.
Alex smiles. "When we want credibility we'll suck our cheeks and tummies in."
How does it feel to be dismissed as soft Southern streaks of shite?
He laughs. "Flattered! But it's dead true, isn't it? People thinkt that we're not real and Oasis are, just because Oasis swear and are horrible to people. But we prefer to rise above it all. At the end of the day, it's easy for us to be magnanimous because we sell more records than they do. We're Number One and they're Number Two. That says more than saying: 'Come on, you c---s!'"
A lot of people think that you keep quiet because you don't have a creative leg to stand on.
"Well, a lot of people think that they've got no manners."
"Yeah, Liam shouldn't call his mum a c---, and he shouldn't call Japanese people c---s, and he shouldn't say he takes drugs, and he definitely shouldn't call us c---s! It's bad manners. Intolerable! But you know," Alex shrugs, smiling indulgently, "maybe that's why we love him."
You've made it clear that you respect Oasis, but do they respect you?
"We drink together."
That doesn't answer my question.
Alex smiles stiffly. "The thing that most people don't understand when they read the papers is that this rivalry is all made up. I know that when I want to hear a good song I can write one and when I want to go for a drink, I can call up Liam. There's few people I'd rather drink with than Oasis."
And with that, Alex James leans over the tape recorder and howls, "GIVE US A KISS, LIAM!"
It would be childish to deny Blur full credit for their achievements. A lot of people out there enjoy their tinny, brittle pop: The sub-Kinks/Small Faces/Madness/Fun Boy Three rip-offs; Albarn's tortuously self-conscious Martin Amis(s-the-point) lyrical style; the jingoistic cod-Britishness; the class tourism; the 'eerie', shuddering fairground vibe; the Ray Davies-esque character sketches; the fluctuating accents; the cold-blooded gimmickry; the emotional bankruptcy; the blatant theft; the knowing winks... Yeah, a lot of people enjoy that kind of thing.
In fact, the odd slivers of material ('End Of The Century', 'This Is A Low', 'The Universal' and 'Yuko And Hiro') make you wonder what Blur might be capable of if they ditched the post-modern irony altogether.
My beef with Blur is that, while they're not a bad little pop band, they are ridiculously over-rated.
Alex shivers into life. He wants to share something important. "I don't like arguing. I aspire to agree with everybody. That way I don't get beaten up... it's Damon who likes arguing."
Tell me more about Damon.
"Damon?" he purrs carefully, "What can I say? He's a confrontational... objectionable... big-headed... arrogant... beauty."
Despite Alex's game protestations that Blur is his band (he's the archetypal frustrated frontman), it's obvious to everybody else that Albarn is Blur. Indeed, the way Alex talks you'd think that Albarn was Suede as well:
"Brett Anderson got his impetus from Damon coming along and nicking his bird. Suddenly he had an axe to grind. Ask Freud, that's all you need to make your art."
Codswallop. What Albarn definitely is, is the songwriter, the frontman, the face, the ego, the driving force, the spermatozoa and ovum of Blur. In fact, depending on how you look at it, Blur are Albarn's fault/triumph and it's him we must despise/thank for their current success.
Looking at it negatively, you can see Albarn's prints on everything that continues to be just that little bit suspect about Blur: the homogenised, pretty-wrap nihilism; those dreadful kink(s)y characters; and, most gratingly, the unsettling aural resemblance to any musical starring Tommy Steele - the brash yet curiously frigid showmanship of it all. Perhaps there are some out there who would happily trade Liam Gallagher's obstinate stillness for Albarn's hyperactive caprice. But not me. No way. Not even for half a sixpence, mate.
That said, people get it wrong when they harp on about Albarn being an ex-drama student. The fact is, there's nothing 'ex' about Albarn's drama studentness. He is reputed to have left drama college because he thought that he couldn't act. How wrong he was! Albarn is this country's most hard-working method actor, devoting his life to his role of choice: Mercurial Genius In Pop Band. One could even say that Albarn is wasted on pop - we've all seen him ham, might his Hamlet be even better?
Alex smiles politely, refusing to rise to the bait.
"I suppose it is a bit funny that Damon went to drama school. I wouldn't have. But he's a good performer, isn't he? That's important."
Would all musicians benefit from a background in the dramatic arts?
"Not necessarily... but if people thought that all people who went to drama school were idiots they wouldn't watch the telly, would they?"
Television is where actors belong. The question is: do we want them in bands.
Alex laughs again. "We'll stay home if you like, pick our noses, take five years to make an album!"
But acting is all about pretence, which is the main criticism of Blur. That you're willing to pretend to be something you're not in order to fit in with what sells.
He looks annoyed. "In what way do we pretend to be something we're not?"
First puppets, then losers, then Kings Of The World, Blur have always had a strong instinct for survival which, at times, has strayed into the realms of overt opportunism. No-one minded when they jumped on the Madchester bandwagon (why shouldn't they when everyone else did?), or re-invented themselves as mods (Blur showed guts then. A defiant refusal to die). It was the quasi-Essex yobbism of 'Parklife' that stuck in the craw. What were a group of middle-class boys doing betting on greyhounds, with Woodbines stuck behind their ears? Criticised for 'playing with working-class imagery', Albarn quickly invented the term 'ultra-normality'. Unfortunately, nobody knew what he was talking about. Not even his band.
Alex: "Ultra-normality?... Hmmm, I don't know really... maybe it was to do with... oh bollocks, who cares?... do you want a shag?"
He yawns, exasperated. Haven't I seen the sleeve art for 'The Great Escape'? Blur are wearing braces now, posing with '80s computers.
"All that class stuff is irrelevant now," he chides. "The imagery on 'Parklife' is almost exclusively working-class but this album isn't. We've moved the goalposts and we'll move them again. We'll move the goalposts as much as we f---ing want. It's our ball."
We descend into an unseemly squabble concerning what makes a band fake or genuine.
"I'M A FAKE!" he shouts grandly, at one point. "There! What could be more genuine than me saying I'm a fake?"
Inevitably, wires get crossed. Alex seems to think that by 'genuine' I mean po-faced U2/Alarm types straining and yearning over their guitar licks. He says that if I had my way pop bands wouldn't be allowed to be playful with images. He even accuses me of being against bands changing altogether. This is ridiculous. All decent bands, be they rock or pop, change all the time. It's called development.
But Blur don't so much change as fumigate and start again: out with The Kinks, in with The Specials; out with the greyhounds, in with the computers. The problem being that you can only do this so many times before it all starts to look a bit desperate.
Alex disagrees. "There's nothing suspect about us changing. The more things change, the more things stay the same, as they say in France. That's important because every time you change, you hint at the essence of who you are."
That's one way of seeing it. But isn't Oasis' strength the fact that, regardless of trends, they will always be Oasis. Whereas Blur are prepared to be anything the public want them to be?
He shakes his head. "Being able to change is a good thing to have up your sleeve. There's nothing noble about not changing."
I disagree. I think that there's a certain romance, a gravitas, to bands who have a very clear vision of who they are.
"Blur have ultimately one vision too. It's just that the means of achieving it have changed."
So why are Blur widely perceived as fakes?
"Maybe it's because we're good at it."
Alex stares me out then says, very coolly: "What do you want us to do - sing about going to grammar school?"
Why not? At least then you'd know what you were on about.
He groans. "If you only sang about things you know about or have done, it would be very dull, wouldn't it? We're dreamers of the dreams, mate. Music is a fantastic arena for dreamers and romantics. If you're dreaming about something, that's a much more emotional state than talking about something you know. You can be quite cold about things when you know about them but when you're imagining something you can get very subtle emotions.
"People always go on about us using characters, but you can see Damon in all our songs. He's singing about himself really. The fact that he uses other names and characters is probably something to do with his Ray Davies obsession. But he's met Ray now, he knows him, so he can't really..."
Rip him off any more?
"No. He can't continue to be obsessed with him."
Alex lights a cigarette, grinning wryly. "That's how it should be, kids! Go and get drunk with your heroes, snog them and then tell them to F--- OFF!"
The main reason, clearly, why he adores being a celebrity is that it brings him into contact with other celebrities.
"It all gets a bit odd. You read the papers and you suddenly realise that you know everybody. But it makes sense really. Plumbers drink with plumbers, Oasis drink with Ash, famous people drink with famous people. They've got more to talk about."
Alex announces that Blur's next goal is to become even more famous ("The biggest band in the world by 1999"). To achieve this they will have to crack America. I'm startled. This from the Little Englanders who used to burst into 'nationalistic' tears every time they saw a McDonald's. Do they seriously think that America will want them?
Alex blows a raspberry at me. "We know that we can be big in America on our own terms. Anybody can buy a Les Paul and a Marshall stack and sell American culture back to the Americans. Trust me, that's easy! Our mission is to sell British pop culture to the world. And don't tell me that that's not f---ing genuine. All we can basically represent is British pop culture."
Are you referring to Britpop? People say that you invented that, but I'm confused. Which of those bands are actually Blur-inspired?
"It would be big-headed and indiscreet to answer that. Ask Damon, he thinks we're responsible for everything."
Menswear are the obvious ones, but then you wouldn't want them to be your fault, would you?
"Oh, I don't know. They're nice boys really."
Would it be fair to say that, because of the kind of band you are, the only people you're likely to 'inspire' are chancers and opportunists. People who specialise in schmoozing, networking, cutting corners... A little bit of this, a little bit of that.
Alex grins, eyes flashing. "Well, who wants to go to f---ing music college and learn how to do it properly? Who wants to 'feel it, man!'? That's the whole point of pop music, it's a con. People don't care if things are frauds!"
That's a very cynical viewpoint.
"The world is run by cynical maniacs!"
Alex calls a halt and ambles downstairs to fetch us both a drink. When he comes back, he toys with the idea of terminating the interview.
"NME readers are such pompous c---s, aren't they? They think that what they think about music is so important but there's no point in deconstructing anything. At the end of the day, talking about music is like wanking about rain.
"The truth is, there's nothing unusual about what we do. I hate all that, 'He's a genius, he was just born with it' crap. Playing a guitar is about as mysterious as using a typewriter. It's the same thing only you have your hands the other way up."
You don't believe in talent?
Alex blows a deafening raspberry. "Talent, genius, BOLLOCKS!" There's no such thing as talent, no such thing as genius. Some people just want it more, which is twice as important as being good at it. That's what Damon's got - DRIVE! And Oasis. Noel really f---ing wants to be the daddio and you won't ever be that unless you really want to be.
Musicians just like to overcomplicate what they do. When we're in the studio, I can't see anything mysterious going on. We don't waste time worrying about vibes. We're all good players so we talk about what we want, work out the quickest way to do it and then f---ing get on with it."
You make it sound like a manufacturing process.
Could this attitude explain why the bulk of Blur's work lacks emotion.
Alex gapes at me. "You can't say that we're unemotional! Emotion is inherent in everything we do. Emotion isn't about standing on mountains going, 'I'VE GOT A BROKEN HEART!' If you're going to sing about your heart, you might as well rhyme it with fart, as far as I'm concerned. That's the only way you can get away with singing about your heart in the '90s."
He laughs scornfully. "That's the thing about rock music. It has a set of rules, doesn't it? It's easy to be a rock star - you get leather trousers and long hair and sing about the way you FEEL! And it's easy to be in an indie band: you get... whatever they get... and sing about the way you FEEL! And it's easy to be..."
A pop star?
"Well, it is for me, darling."
Doesn't pop have its own set of rules?
"Yeah, but only to break them. The point of pop music is to keep redefining itself. Pop is the art of compromise and being too precious about things is just as bad as being too flippant. You really want to make this precious thing that's perfect but then everybody's got to like it as well. But that doesn't mean that we don't feel passionately about what we do... are you listening to me?"
I'm listening very carefully.
"Because I've been thinking about this and I'm really upset about the way you say we're not genuine, that there's something ungenuine about us... What does f---ing genuine mean anyway?
"You could just as easily argue that everything's genuine. It's like that old art bullshit about straight lines not existing in nature. Straight lines do exist in nature. Everything f---ing exists in nature."
OK, how far would you go to convince people you're genuine?
Alex explodes with laughter. "I wouldn't f---ing walk to Freuds, mate."
I had a hunch that you weren't the type to carve '4-Real' on your arm.
"How theatrical a gesture was that?"
I was speaking metaphorically. The point is - what was behind the gesture?
"A f---ing suicide!"
That's pure speculation. We don't know that.
"I think we do! He's had his week of mourning, thank you very much. Let the music carry on. There's no point killing yourself to prove that you mean it. You can mean it and still enjoy yourself. You don't have to paint yourself into a corner. Start with the corners and end up in the middle, that's what I say.
"I hate any bands who take themselves too seriously," he continues, bristling now. "Be serious about what you do by all means but don't bore me with your f---ing righteousness. This is the '90s. Who needs visceral geniuses who just 'feel it, man!'?"
You sneer, but maybe some people do 'feel it, man!'
"Don't believe it," he snaps. "They're just as contrived as us."
The thing that makes Alex's attitude sad rather than admirably unpretentious is the selectivity of his cynicism. One minute he's enthusing about his art-buddy Damien Hirst ("He's inspiring! A serious artist... but he can still get into the tabloids!"). The next, he's telling me that neither genius or talent exist in his own field, trying to convince me that all musicians are like Blur: workaholics who got lucky simply because they put the required amount of hours in.
Alex demurs. "It all gets very convoluted because if you can get hold of the zeitgeist you can change things."
Would your fans wait for you for five years?
"That's a good question," he says, but fails to answer it.
"I'm not that keen on obsessive fans. I'm not being dismissive or anything, but I really don't want to appeal to people who need that kind of thing in their lives. I just want to give everybody a little kiss...
"I know what you're saying... Bands have always been about far more than music. But we're not judgemental about stuff like that. I don't want to tell people how to live their lives. I did to start with but people don't want that, people don't want a revolution, people don't want to lay down their tools and stop working... They just want something to whistle in the dark."
He's right and wrong, of course: some people want a lot more than that - some may even want less. What the Blur/Oasis sack-race proved was that, at present, Blur have a vast army of the latter type (floating voters/children/mobile disco DJs) supplementing their fanbase. No-one's sneering (all bands want to cross over), but what happens when the chips are down and Blur discover that even their diehard fans have died pretty easily? How magnanimous will they feel when bands like Oasis recover from the lost battle and go on to win the war?
Indeed, perhaps the most important, if not the only yardstick by which to judge the essentially spurious Blur/Oasis conundrum is that of motivation. Blur would settle for being 'the biggest band in the world'. Oasis won't rest until they're the best.