Blur returned from an extended hiatus to play London's Hyde Park at the end of this summer's Olympic Games. The band's performance and even their rehearsal sessions are recorded in perfect detail on a new box set, writes John Robinson
Parklive: Blur provides soundtrack when world's eyes were on London
London in the high summer of this year was nearly unrecognisable. The 2012 Olympics was something that residents had been warned about (the event, the mayor announced from station tannoys, was "the big one"), but no one could have predicted what actually happened. Strangers began talking to one another in the street. People spontaneously applauded Games volunteers. British athletes were successful, in full view of the visiting world. The event took on a meaning well beyond sport, and extended to civic, even national pride. It was possible in that time to sustain a highly romantic view of Great Britain and its possibilities: it filled you, in a famous Blur phrase, with a sense of enormous wellbeing. When it ended, it was a moment tinged with sadness.
A fitting time, in fact, for a concert by Blur. A romantic, if critical, view of British national identity is, after all, what Blur have come to be known for. Damon Albarn's band have written songs about the suburban lives behind the net curtains, the pubs, the parks and the anxieties of the commuters. They have romantically addressed the state of the nation in the idiom of the shipping forecast. Theirs is music held in high esteem not just by lads drinking continental lager in front of flat-screen televisions but also by confused single persons in rented accommodation. It is celebratory but strangely introspective. For a while in the 1990s it seemed that they took the temperature of the nation more accurately than anyone else.
For a long time now, however, the band's future has seemed uncertain, and so when it was announced that Blur would reconvene to play a concert in London's Hyde Park as part of the Olympic closing ceremony, the news was met with the jubilation common in that moment, but it was also accompanied by a melancholy rumour of the band's retirement. Perhaps a Blur concert, like a UK Olympics, was something we would not see repeated in our lifetimes.
Certainly, if this concert was meant to be Blur's own closing ceremony, it was going to be far from an unrehearsed one. Outside the two discs presenting in top-quality sound the band's set at Hyde Park on August 12 (a miracle: at the event, the sound was woefully poor), within Parklive there are two discs of extra live material from two warm-up gigs the previous week that demonstrate the rehearsal and evolution of the songs prior to their delivery at the big event. Damon Albarn adapts his lyrics to reflect that times have changed since he wrote them 20 years ago: "Love in the 90s," he now sings in Girls & Boys, "Was paranoid…". We discover he even rehearsed the introductions to the songs (he explains that one, Young And Lovely only really makes sense now the band have children).
There is even, tantalisingly, new material here. The two new songs (Under The Westway and The Puritan, both released on a standalone single earlier this year) seem to serve notice of a band coming back to what it knows best - the influences that they were subject to as young boys in the early 1980s. The Puritan begins as a quirky synth number, but quickly turns into something whose everyday setting and delivery make it reminiscent of Paul Weller's work with The Jam. Under The Westway, a more self-consciously grand affair, takes its title from one of the physical landmarks of London punk rock, but sounds like a cross between Hey Jude and Blur's own Beetlebum. As the best Blur songs tend to be, it's about the invincibility of lovers who dare to envision a life beyond the prison of the city, and float above it, as if in a Chagall painting.
Around the time the band went on hiatus in 2003, London-based pop songs like this were exactly the kind of thing the progressively elclectic Blur would have run a mile from. However, having in the meantime occupied themselves in pursuits as diverse as Chinese opera, dance-pop and free-ranging collaborative projects (Albarn), eccentric solo albums (guitarist Graham Coxon), legal training (drummer Dave Rowntree) and artisanal cheese-making (bass player Alex James), the timing is possibly appropriate for them to return to and regroup around formative influences. Parklive, the concert and the package, finds that idea of returning to first principles writ large. Self-evidently, this is an album that is a kind of homecoming: a reunited band returning to London, to live performance, and to their greatest hits. But it is also expansive enough to acknowledge the far-reaching journey that the band has taken in its lifetime to end up back here.
The story isn't told chronologically, by any means, although the main concert setlist finds room in its late stages for Sing, a composition from the very early 1990s. Then Blur were featherweights: young, pretty, but apt to be blown on the gust of any prevailing trend. There are still traces of that band's youthful energy in the fortysomething musicians recorded in Hyde Park (the energetic crowd interactions of Damon Albarn, as seen in the accompanying DVD, are every bit as suicidally athletic as they were in 1990). In other respects, everything has changed.
What happened to Blur, which explains their particular qualification to commemorate the summer of 2012, was London. In a time when the cathartic, distorted sound of American "grunge" was ubiquitous, Blur retrenched into what they knew best: warm beer, Sunday lunch and the kind of "character" song that had been so successful for Londoners like Ray Davies of The Kinks - a strong influence on this new reinvigorated Blur.
Here, the effect of the band's eureka moment can be heard in three numbers: the brisk, fabulously named Colin Zeal, the Small Faces knees-up Sunday Sunday and most impressively, For Tomorrow - in which it is all a pair of lovers can do to keep each other upright amid the onslaught of the capital, the romance of which the song is inextricably bound up in. It is one of Damon Albarn's very best songs, and it sits here rightly as the penultimate song in the set.
The band's interactions with London and its themes began as a self-defining liberation, but by the mid to late 1990s they had become a prison, albeit one with some decent tunes. The character sketch Country House and the sweeping The Universal are the sole survivors from the band's album The Great Escape to warrant a place here. In the performance of the former song, you can hear Graham Coxon not so much playing a guitar solo as revenging himself on the jauntiness of the material, his every squalling note a slap in its face. It's this tension within Blur's music that would eventually see the band break free from narrative songs about civil servants and into something a little more adventurous.
The band's subsequent albums for the most part reap the rewards of this unease, and on Parklive, the early placing in the set of Trimm Trabb, a mesmerising ode to training shoes and Caramel, a magnificent, free-roaming falsetto jam that sounds like The Soft Machine, shows just how adaptable and unhinged this band could be, and still is when it chooses. For many people, the defining moment of this August Hyde Park show may well have been when the band played Parklife to a rapturous response - and Blur were joined on stage not just by the actor Phil Daniels, who sings much of the song, but also by the British comedian Harry Enfield, inexplicably dressed as a tea lady. In fairness to Blur's bigger picture, the moment at which Damon Albarn introduced the Syrian Oud player Khyam Allami to play on Out Of Time and talked briefly about the upheaval in that country that prevented it competing in the games was just as representative.
It is, however, material from the Parklife album that propelled the band into the wider public consciousness, and since this event was undoubtedly about promoting communal good spirits, it is this that is most strongly represented here, with a flurry of songs like Girls & Boys,London Loves and Tracy Jacks opening the set and This is a Low and End of the Century helping to provide a romantic, cinematic sweep at its close. For all the adventure and occasional conflict of Blur's journey out, this was ultimately more a story about their journey home.
As a live album, though, the real achievement of Parklive is to show - as they were in the 1990s - just how well matched in August 2012 Blur were to their moment. If they initially seemed like a logical band for this job as somehow representatives of the sound of London, they ended up being exactly the right band, but in a deeper and more nuanced way. As the sound of London, yes - but London as changed by exposure to the wider world.
John Robinson is associate editor of Uncut and the Guardian Guide's rock critic. He lives in London