Happy 25th Anniversary to Blur’s debut album Leisure, originally released August 26, 1991.
Blur, Oasis, Pulp and Suede. These are arguably the most successful bands to emerge from England’s Britpop movement of the early to mid 1990s. A subgenre of alternative/pop rock that placed heavy emphasis on infusing “Britishness” within the music, Britpop was born out of the ashes of the Manchester scene and represented the antithesis of the emerging American grunge scene that was slowly making its way into the UK.
Formed in London in 1988, Blur—comprised of Damon Albarn (vocals), Graham Coxon (guitar), Alex James (bass), and Dave Rowntree (drums)—toured Britain with American punk/rockabilly legends the Cramps two years later in 1990, testing out material that would eventually appear on their debut album Leisure. After the tour was over, between October 1990 and July 1991, Blur released three singles. The first single, the trippy, quasi-psychedelic “She’s So High,” only managed to reach number 48 on the UK Singles Chart.
After adding producer Stephen Street to the mix, their second single “There’s No Other Way” became a big hit in the UK, peaking at number 8. Although the third single “Bang” did not fare as well, the band became bona fide pop stars in the UK and, according to NME, “the acceptable pretty face of a whole clump of bands that have emerged since the whole Manchester thing started to run out of steam." The band would later find out that being touted as the next big thing is not necessarily the most desirable tag for a new band with aspirations of career longevity.
Leisure peaked at number 7 on the UK Album Charts. Despite their newfound stardom, the LP received mixed reviews from the British press and was largely ignored in the States. The early release of the three singles had, in effect, rendered the album’s eventual release anti-climactic. One of the album’s chief detractors is Albarn himself, who described Leisure as “awful” back in 2007.
I could not disagree more. Heavily influenced by The Charlatans (UK) and The Stone Roses, Leisure is a great snapshot of a band trying mightily to find its voice. It does not deserve the Cousin Oliver (google it) status that has been placed upon it. What the critics—and perhaps even the band themselves—had no way of knowing at the time was that Leisure was a stepping stone for Blur. Indeed, on the strength of their subsequent releases, the foursome transformed into one of Britain’s most beloved acts of the past 25 years, while they still enjoy a very loyal, somewhat cult-like following here in the US.
Even though Leisure is very much a product of its time, it still holds up as a rather solid debut album. In the early ‘90s, the music scenes here in the states and abroad were struggling to find a definitive sound. In hindsight, Britpop was the ‘90s version of American New Wave. It was a marketing tool devised to categorize a sound derived from a genre that was either losing steam or simply not accessible to the masses. In America, it was the commercialization of punk. Record execs removed the safety pins and the gobbing, replacing them with catchy hooks and camera friendly lead singers. In England, it was much more complex. The Manchester scene had simply died out with nothing to replace it. Blur just happened to be caught in the middle of this transition.
Revisiting this album 25 years after its release has offered me the chance to view it through clearer eyes. I began to look at Leisure as a road map to the future. “Repetition” clearly points to Albarn’s acclaimed side project Gorillaz and their self-titled 2001 debut LP. Another forgotten gem on Leisure is “Sing,” which subsequently featured on the 1996 Trainspotting soundtrack. With one foot stuck in the past (think Velvet Underground) and the other reaching for the future, this song illustrates Blur’s untapped promise.
While there are admittedly weaker, un-Blur-like tracks such as “Birthday” and “Wear Me Down,” Leisure was intriguing enough to make you wonder, at the time, what the band would do next. I had a similar feeling when I first heard U2’s debut Boy. You just knew they could do even more. You knew something special was coming down the road. You just needed to be patient. There’s something quite special about discovering a band at its genesis.
For those of you who were champions of Blur from the very beginning, you have been rewarded handsomely. The groundwork for their next LP Modern Life Is Rubbish (1993) was put in place by Leisure and a torturous American tour in 1992. The tour, by all accounts, only fortified Blur’s preserving the “Britishness” in their music. In a 1993 NME interview, Albarn stated, "I just started to miss really simple things. I missed everything about England so I started writing songs which created an English atmosphere.
For those of you not so enamored with Leisure, I ask you to please give it another spin and try to connect the dots throughout Blur’s discography, as Leisure is where it all started.