by Andrew Collins
You can almost hear the sneer coming through the
page whenever Blur are described as an "art school band".
The connotations of 'art school' or even 'art' within the parameters of the horny-handed world of rock'n'roll is one of pretension, timewasting, even privilege as if opting for the visual arts at higher education is the exclusive preserve of moneyed fops with no need of a real job at the end of it. (Would that it were in the stiflingly vocational education system of post-Thatcher Britain.)
Art students may have been layabouts with charcoal under their fingertips who fancied themselves a bit, but without them rock music after Elvis would have been poorer indeed:
John Lennon, Bryan Ferry, David Bowie, Pete Townshend, Brian Eno, Freddie Mercury, Thom YorkeÉeven Bauhaus, who actually named themselves after an art school! (Note that this list is all British the Velvet Underground are probably the closest America's ever come to producing a band with an art school image, thanks to Andy Warhol's patronage, and they weren't really.)Ê So Blur are an art school band. Actually, though Damon Albarn and Alex James both attended Goldsmiths College, they were studying music and French respectively, and Dave Rowntree did an HND in computer science but why let the truth get in the way of a good label? Graham Coxon was the real art student, a graduate of both Essex School of Art and Goldsmiths. Blur, or Seymour as they were then, pretty much formed at Goldsmiths, and their first 'proper' gig was at the 1989 degree show the year Damien Hirst graduated (Sarah Lucas was also in the audience).
It may be opportunistic to describe four people in terms of one collective outlook, but Blur do seem to have an artistic side. While even the scruffiest of bands cares about its image (okay, perhaps not Coldplay), Blur have always taken a healthy interest in the whole package. Which is where Stylorouge come in.
For me, the collaboration between Blur and Stylorouge is unique in rock history uniquely symbiotic, uniquely long-lasting, and uniquely British. Certainly other bands have enjoyed protracted relationships with one designer or design house Yes and Roger Dean, New Order and Peter Saville, Pink Floyd and Hipgnosis,
the Sex Pistols and Jamie Reid, the 4AD roster and Vaughan Oliver but there is something about the coming-together of Blur and Stylorouge that says something about the cultural and political times in which they worked.
The story of their symbiosis is the story of the Nineties, of a paradigm shift in pop-cultural orthodoxy which took place in this country and categorically not in America, where the MTV Eighties continued to rotate onwards throughout the next decade (Motley Crue turned into Marilyn Manson and nobody noticed).
It is neat that Blur's first single, and by definition Stylorouge's first sleeve for them, should occur in 1990, the first year of a new decade that began, unofficially, with the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989. With unification and globalisation came separatism and nationalism, and by the time of the American invasion of 1991 (Nirvana, Seattle and grunge), it was time to repel borders. In 1992, Britpop was born, and the geocultural battle lines were drawn. It was them and us. "Who do you think you are kidding, Mr Cobain?" asked Select magazine in their pivotal Union Jack issue (I should know I was there, at the heart of bomber command).
By 1992, Blur were old news, history even. After exploding onto a scene of the music papers' making with There's No Other Way and 1991's Leisure album, the commercial spark seemed to have been snuffed out as fast as it had been lit: Popscene went to number 32 and hasty obituaries were written (and a hellish
44-date tour of America almost broke the band's spirit). Thus it was that Blur were not recruited for Select's Britpop home guard - it was all Suede, Pulp, The Auteurs and, somewhat improbably, Denim. (Oasis had yet to record a note.)
But Blur were the very essence of Britpop if, that is, we define it by a certain aesthetic sophistication and a knowing wink, rather than as some Blair-stamped wing of the Department of Trade and Industry. It's there in the band's durable logo the lower-case understatement combined with the user-friendly curves and the kitsch nod to another age (or at least to another product). The artwork for She's So High had challenged Eighties political correctness with a humorous image by Pop Artist Mel Ramos of a naked girl on a hippopotamus ("It got us into just the right amount of trouble," commented Food Records boss Dave Balfe). Though the laddish revisionism of Loaded and FHM would soon come to characterise the Nineties, Blur and Stylorouge got in early; polytechnic feminists were inspired to reflect loudly upon the nature of art and pornography and Blur grabbed some column inches in the news pages. They put a couple of cocks on the sleeve of Bang, perhaps just to redress the balance.
Blur and their artwork were not designed to shock, rather to stimulate. Access to "style books" prepared for the band by Stylorouge and to the reams of unused sleeve designs is illuminating indeed to those who see a marriage made in media heaven. For Popscene, for instance, we see a cut-out of the Queen Mother against some floral wallpaper (in the end, they plumped for a dog carrying a pheasant). Girls And Boys which ended up like a packet of condoms might have been an Alsatian sniffing a poodle's bum. Parklife might have been a male model in tennis gear from some godforsaken catalogue, or the grille of a Rolls Royce, or an over-the-top royal coat of arms that echoes an early Queen album. So many images, so many cultural touchstones, so little time!
The apparently insatiable appetite for misappropriating found images was like a furnace into which Stylorouge shovelled endless coal. No kitsch possibility was left untapped, from teenage boy's birthday card and Ralph Lauren polo shirt to beer mat and collectible china plate.
It is no coincidence that the 'British Image' photographs marked the critical turning point for Blur around the time of Modern Life Is Rubbish in 1993. The audacity of naming one of your own press shotsÊ 'British Image 1' (Fred Perrys, Doc Martens and Great Dane) highlights Blur's arch understanding of self-packaging. Modern Life Is Rubbish was not just a title taken from some graffiti in the Bayswater Road, it was a profound statement on the condition of Britain. The old-fashioned painting of a train harked back to some bygone, steam-driven age, when life apparently wasn't rubbish.
By the time of the artificially stoked Blur-Oasis wars of 1995, the upbeat oompah and Benny Hill video of Country House masked strained relations within the band. It was Graham bloody art student! who most resented the seemingly laddish new direction and the pop-star trappings (and he who winced the hardest at the din of screaming girls). But the sleeves from the Great Escape period reflect a world-beating swagger: the pin-sharp parodies of Disneyland ('Blur World'), Microsoft (back of
The Great Escape) and even Alien (The Universal). In truth,
like Blur's mainstream pop success, the band's visual identity would soon be due for a change of direction. It had been an incredible three-album journey.
The band retreated (Damon to Iceland, Alex to Soho, Dave to the skies and Graham into his US noise records) and when they returned, with the regenerative, reductive Blur album, it came wrapped in enigmatic artwork by Chris Thompson (now flown from Stylorouge to his new company Yacht Associates). The outlook had changed: no more visual gags, no more artistic sampling, no more CD-sized critiques of Britain in their place, well, a blur. By the time of Tender and the 13 album in 1997, Graham's fine art had symbolically emerged as the new corporate image of Blur (just as his musical belligerence now drove their sound).
By now, Britpop as a notion was past its sell-by date. To prove its naffness, it was appropriated by the new government and resold as 'Cool Britannia', a concept dreamt up by a New Labour think tank. The minute Noel Gallagher stepped into Number 10 for canapes,
the dream as Lennon had declared on the song God was over. It is hard to credit it now, but there was a time when the tag Britpop was not an embarrassment. Between 1990 and 1997, British music staked its most convincing claim on the rest of the world since Beatlemania, Elton John and Duran Duran. (Wouldn't you know it Blur only really caught on in America with Song 2, a throwaway blast from their fuck-off Blur album.)
The legacy of Blur's relationship with Stylorouge is there for all to see: in the smartest visual CV of any band since glory-years Pink Floyd. Yet while the Floyd and Hipgnosis truly created their own universe with sleeves like Wish You Were Here and Animals, Blur and Stylorouge reflected the real world. You can read Blur's sleeves like a biography of a decade the Nineties are much harder to thumbnail than, say, the Sixties (swinging) or the Eighties (greed), but through Blur's jackdaw plunder of British imagery they said a lot about the state of the nation at the end of a century.
The Nineties were a time of deconstruction and reconstruction, patriotism (Euro 96, "Up Yours, Delors!") and regeneration (new lads, New Labour, the new rock'n'roll).
Blur stood at the middle of all that made the decade interesting. Stylorouge found a willing and proactive conduit for their endless love of printed material and easy knack for lateral thinking (Parklife greyhounds; Chemical World Athena).
It is apt that they were responsible for visualising that other key Nineties talisman, Trainspotting, a film that managed to embody British export optimism despite being shot through with smack and a scabrous disregard for national pride ("I hate being Scottish. The English are just wankers. We on the other hand are colonised by wankers").
Likewise, Britain backed Blur and Blur took the piss out of Britain. They truly were were a kick up the Nineties. And I'm happy to say that both band and design company are still going strong. Not bad for a bunch of bloody art students.