Early on, Blur epitomized the Brit-pop movement of the '90s. Frontman Damon Albarn's lyrics recalled the wry character sketches of the Kinks' Ray Davies, and the band affected an unabashedly British pop sound on its first four albums. By the end of the decade, however, Blur had refashioned itself in the mold of American bands Pavement and Sonic Youth.
Albarn, the son of an author/art professor and a theatrical stage designer, met guitarist Graham Coxon, a self-taught musician whose father played in an army band, in school in Colchester in 1980. The pair collaborated on some demos before heading off to different art colleges —Albarn to study acting, Coxon to pursue art. They met up again at a party on behalf of Albarn's band Circus, which featured drummer Dave Rowntree, a classically trained percussionist. Coxon introduced Albarn to his school friend Alex James, and when Circus folded, the four began recording demos and performing club gigs in late 1989 under the name Seymour (after a J.D. Salinger character). EMI-distributed Food Records signed them in 1990, whereupon they changed their name to Blur and debuted with the Top 50 British single "She's So High." "There's No Other Way" fared even better, and Leisure, released a year later, went to #2 on the U.K. album chart. The followup, Modern Life Is Rubbish, peaked at #17, but 1994's chart-topping Parklife, featuring the hit "Girls and Boys," cemented Blur as British superstars and won the band four BRIT Awards, including Best Group and Best Album. By the time Blur released 1995's The Great Escape, it was locked in a battle of the bands with a new contender to the Brit-pop throne, working-class heroes Oasis. The U.K. press made front-page news out of each band's bid for #1 with their new singles, and Blur's "Country House" beat out Oasis' "Roll With It" by a narrow margin. It was the #1 Oasis album (What's the Story) Morning Glory, however, that "won" in the end earning the Manchester band bragging rights as the biggest new band in the U.K. and significant stateside success, while The Great Escape stalled on the U.S. chart at #150.
Blur's U.S. breakthrough came in 1997 with "Song 2," a hard-rock blitzkrieg from its self-titled fifth album (#61, 1997). The song's exuberant "woo-hoo!" chorus made it a favorite at sporting events, though the band turned down the U.S. military's bid to use it at the unveiling of the new Stealth bomber. Blur was heavily informed by the group's love of American lo-fi rockers Pavement and bore little in common with the clean, theatrical pop sound on which it had built their British following. They went even further off the track with the William Orbit–produced 13 (#80, 1999), though the album kicked off with a lush ballad, "Tender." Albarn had recently split with girlfriend Justine Frischmann of Elastica, and many of 13's songs were mined from the ashes of their eight-year relationship.
Despite a handful of side projects (two lo-fi solo albums by Coxon, and Albarn's score [in collaboration with Michael Nyman] to the movie Ravenous, Blur came out of its first decade in one piece. During an extended and tumultuous period leading up to their next project, 2003's Think Tank Coxon began distancing himself from the direction he saw the production of the album going. He soon left, although it remains unclear who made the ultimate decision. The remaining members continued seeking creative satisfaction in various solo projects. Albarn released his Gorillaz's Demon Days in 2005 which received a Grammy for the single "Feel Good Inc." while Dave Rowntree set-up his own animation company Nanomation, moonlighting as the drummer for the Ailerons.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).