Contents

Information Page

Chapter One: The Road To Colchester

Chapter Two: Stirrings In The Portakabin

Chapter Three: A Very Middle Class Contract

Chapter Four: Convergences

Chapter Five: Escape Velocity

Chapter Six: Diver Down

Chapter Seven: Selling Britain By The Pound

Chapter Eight: The Golden Year

Chapter Nine: A Brief Word About Britpop

Chapter Ten: Win The Battle

Chapter Eleven: Into The Blue

Chapter Twelve: Essential Repairs

Chapter Thirteen: Political Gains, Personal Losses

Chapter Fourteen: Slip Sliding Away

Chapter Fifteen: The Killer Awoke Before Dawn

Chapter Sixteen: What Blur Did On Their Holidays

Chapter Seventeen: Never Say Never

Epilogue: I Have Seen Glimpses

Acknowledgements

Discography

Chapter One
The Road To Colchester

“We think we’re very, very clever and we’d like everyone else to think that as well.”

Damon Albarn

There are several possible beginnings to the story of Blur. One might invoke the rich history of Essex, with its ancient occupying forces, legendary warrior queens and bloody, embattled Britons. Another might focus on a beery, yet extremely productive rehearsal in a London studio that bound four musicians together as the eighties fell away to a new decade. Both points of entry have their merits. Both are reasonable starters for ten. But despite any arguments he might offer to the contrary, Blur’s story and the band’s two-plus decades of success will always be linked to the relentless ambitions of Damon Albarn. And so the story begins, and will probably end, with him.

Albarn was born on March 23, 1968 at Whitechapel Hospital in the heart of London’s East End. Fifteen minutes’ walk to the left was Aldgate. Ten minutes to the right, and Bethnal Green was yours for the taking. Throw a stone hard enough and there was real danger of hitting Mile End or London Fields. An area that announced itself in the bloodiest terms some 80 years before, when Jack The Ripper claimed the lives of five prostitutes among its slums and poorly lit backstreets, Whitechapel was still host to some faintly menacing place names in the spring of 1968. ‘Raven Row’, ‘Artillery Lane’ and the rather worrying ‘Jack’s Place’. All seemed steeped in magic and intrigue, all sounded terribly British. But if one wished to escape, the A11 at the top of Whitechapel High Street led all the way to Colchester, Essex, its progress snugly following a Roman road laid some two millennia before. Albarn would make that trip, albeit reluctantly, some ten years later.

For the first decade of his life, he would call Leytonstone home. Seven or so miles from Whitechapel along the Hackney Marshes, Leytonstone had no Jack the Ripper lurking in its historical record, but was none the worse for it. A vibrant, occasionally lively suburb of East London, the town was populated by a mix of English, Irish, Pakistani, Portuguese, Afro-Caribbean and Brazilian communities, all vying for space and reasonably priced rents. With Walthamstow Market nearby, Cathall Road swimming baths defining its centre and “The Flats” marking its borders with Epping Forest, Leytonstone was emblematic of a new type of multicultural London: one where first and second generation immigrants shyly forged alliances and lives alongside those whose ancestors had defined both the streets and culture. Though progress to harmony was sometimes slow (East Enders were well used to immigrants, but there still were pockets of racism within the community), it was still a good enough place to call home. Ethnically diverse, soaked in humour and birthing more than its fair share of icons – footballer David Beckham, cricketer Graham Gooch and photographer David Bailey among them – Leytonstone and its surroundings would leave a lasting impression both on Damon Albarn’s future work and his view of a Britain once again struggling to be great.

Though Leytonstone was an essentially working class neighbourhood at the end of the sixties, Damon’s parents did not quite fall into that demographic. Born in 1939, Keith Albarn could claim strong ancestral ties to Nottingham, his surname known, if not exactly common in that part of the North. Keith’s own father Edward had actually settled in Lincolnshire, where he spent time working with various farming communities. A man of strong principles, political opinions and Quaker stock, Edward Albarn was a conscientious objector during World War Two, imbuing his own family with a free-thinking independent streak that manifested itself in his son’s eventual choice of career. Having studied architecture and sculpture for three years, Keith became a Fellow of the Chartered Society of Designers, before beginning work in earnest as a stage designer for the theatre. By 1964, Albarn had his own company, juggling various theatre engagements with the building of modular furniture and learning toys for infants. But it was his forays into events design that opened doors to the world of music.

In 1966, Albarn helped conceptual artist Yoko Ono confound, then delight London’s critics when he assisted in the staging of her first major exhibit at the Indica Gallery. “My dad was into psychedelia,” Damon later remembered. “He was one of the prime movers in the psychedelic movement. He actually put on Yoko Ono’s first exhibition.” While Ono would become arguably more famous for marrying Beatle John Lennon than her own endeavours, the experience did Keith Albarn no harm at all, gifting him a pass key to the heart of a city then creating some of the most expressive, challenging and influential art of the modern era. By 1967 and the summer of love, he was running a modest, but profitable shop just off Carnaby Street, then the epicentre of London fashion. Specialising in alternative furniture with a mathematical bent, Keith’s store also sold pieces of exotic ephemera heavily influenced by his interest in Islamic art.

Elsewhere, things looked equally bright as Albarn took on associate management duties for Canterbury progressive rock pioneers Soft Machine. A band heavily aligned with all things psychedelic, Soft Machine had already earned a reputation for putting on quite the show at underground clubs such as UFO and Middle Earth. But Keith’s gift for creating “environmental happenings” took things to new heights when the group performed a series of gigs along France’s Cote d’Azur in July 1967. Approaching his craft with considerable gusto, Albarn built an enclosed space named ‘Discotheque Interplay’ on a beach in Saint Aygulf, under which Soft Machine played their set as a beer festival raged outside. After five dates, the Mayor of St. Tropez declared Albarn’s work an eyesore and ordered it closed. When told that all such art was protected by French law, the Mayor had it shut down for reasons of health and safety instead.

This exercise in tomfoolery seemed to spur Albarn on rather than put him off. As Soft Machine were embraced by the French art crowd for their daring, he secured a presenter’s position on BBC One’s Late Night Line Up – a prototype arts programme whose menu of live music, poetry performances and panel discussions provided a template for the likes of The South Bank Show, After Dark and The Culture Show. By the mid-seventies, Keith had added the title ‘Author’ to his CV, penning heady tomes such as The Language Of Pattern and Diagram: Instrument Of Thought, the latter co-written with Jenny Miall-Smith and given to exploring the strange worlds of symmetry and geometry. Stage and furniture designer, band manager, TV presenter and Islamic art expert. In short, Albarn had all the makings of a contemporary renaissance man.

Damon’s mother Hazel was also a gifted individual. Like Keith, her family had their roots in farming, again in Lincolnshire, and also displayed strong liberal sensibilities. If reports are correct, they even offered a portion of their land for the placement of German and Italian prisoners during World War Two. Having already established an abiding interest in sculpture as a child, Hazel trained in stage design and following her arrival in London with Albarn in the mid-sixties, took a job with the prestigious Theatre Royal Stratford East. Led by renowned director Joan Littlewood – whose previous productions included the groundbreaking A Taste Of Honey and Oh, What A Lovely War – Stratford East was at the vanguard of a new type of theatre which Littlewood christened ‘Sinn Féin’. Here, the onus was on dispensing with the traditional presentation of classics, in favour of fresh material given to “anti-form and anti-structure”. While pregnant with Damon, Hazel provided stage designs for Littlewood’s satire Mrs. Wilson’s Diary, a slim tale drawing its central conceit from the imagined home life of Prime Minister Harold Wilson and his wife, Mary. Though motherhood temporarily became a full time role for Hazel, Keith Albarn briefly continued the family’s association with Joan Littlewood, aiding her with design ideas for a ‘Fun Palace’. Best described as “a mobile bubble theatre” that could be transported to parks, the seaside or even town centres, Littlewood hoped such an installation would break down the barrier between performer, stage and audience. Unfortunately, despite a dry run at the Tower Place festival in the summer of 1968, it all came to naught and Keith moved on to other projects.

Given the artistic pedigree of his parents, their choice of careers and the world which they inhabited, it would be perhaps fair to say that Damon Alban was not raised in the most conventional of environments. This was borne out by the aesthetic aspects of Albarn household, where the weird rubbed shoulders with the wonderful. Aside from silver-painted walls and six blue plastic chairs – a gift from the singer/songwriter Cat Stevens, who gave away all his worldly goods on converting to Islam – their Leytonstone home was festooned with various bits of art and craft, one more eye-catching than the next. More, the Albarns’ door was always open to a plethora of musicians, sculptors, writers and artists, with spirited conversations taking place day and night at impeccably designed tables creaking under the weight of food, wine bottles and rapidly filling ashtrays. “I had a very open childhood. People were smoking dope and getting pissed,” Damon once recalled to Q. “Taking drugs … never had that allure for me (because) pop culture was never something ‘new’ to me.”

Taken at face value, such a statement might infer that Albarn was brought up in an anarchic, almost rootless atmosphere. Not so. In fact, his parents ensured that despite the collection of bohemians, intellectuals and other exotic creatures vying for attention in their living room, Damon enjoyed as normal a childhood as possible. An interest in football was actively encouraged, resulting in his life-long devotion to Chelsea FC. He was also fully supported in his school activities, with the Albarns’ open door policy extending to both his classmates and other local children. All and all then, while the environment around him might have been a tad unconventional it was also completely angstfree, and by the sounds of it, extremely entertaining. “My parents were artists, quite eccentric. I liked the idea that when anyone came around to our house, they’d be (open-mouthed) because it was so different. The only time I’d get embarrassed was when my mum danced …”

By 1973, Damon was attending George Tomlinson Primary School on Leytonstone’s Vernon Road, where he would soon be joined by his sister, Jessica. Three years his junior, Jessica shared the Albarn family trait for huge blue eyes, and perhaps unsurprisingly, exhibited a natural talent for fine art which she would cultivate successfully in later life. It was around this time that Damon experienced his first brush with the concert hall, attending an Osmonds gig with his parents at Hammersmith Odeon when the toothy Mormon brothers were at the height of their fame. Keen to extend their son’s cultural perimeters beyond ‘Crazy Horses’ and ‘Puppy Love’, Keith and Hazel soon organised a visit to singer Harry Nilsson’s new musical The Point! at London’s Mermaid Theatre. Inspired by an LSD trip Nilsson had taken (“I looked at the trees and (houses), and realized that they all came to points,” said Harry), The Point! starred former Monkees Davy Jones and Mickey Dolenz, and received rave reviews for its bizarre, but beautiful songs and innovative stage design.

With Cat Stevens and Soft Machine’s Robert Wyatt regular visitors to his childhood home, and a growing list of widely disparate bands and shows informing his experience, one might have thought Damon’s early musical tastes would veer a little off the beaten track. So it would prove. But it took a seemingly innocuous, country-tinged tune to really start the ball rolling. “One of my most vivid memories of primary school is the song ‘Seasons In The Sun’,” he told Melody Maker in 1993. “It had naughty lyrics, and while I can’t remember quite what they were, they really got me going. It had a quality that’s quite orgasmic for an eight year old, if that’s possible.” Albarn – even if he didn’t quite understand why at the time – was essentially correct. Terry Jacks’ ‘Seasons In The Sun’ was actually a sly cover of an old sixties tune written by Jacques Brel. A highly literate Belgian songwriter who specialised in the French ‘chanson’ style, Brel’s original recording of ‘Seasons …’ was full of pathos and sarcasm, its lyric devoted to a man coming to terms with his wife’s infidelities before death took him. If Jacks’ version jettisoned much of the scorn and disdain, it still retained an ominous, uneasy tone – and one which Damon obviously responded to. This was a good spot for a young boy, and while his interest in Terry Jacks proved brief, Albarn would later reap a decent harvest from further explorations of the chanson style.

If the sixties were about making their mark and starting a family for Keith and Hazel Albarn, then the seventies were given to consolidation and establishing firm roots outside the swirl of London life. Hence, when Keith was offered a lucrative position as Head of the North Essex School of Art in mid-1978, he accepted the post immediately. In practical terms, this meant upping sticks to a small village near Colchester, where the job was based. To facilitate the move, a 500-year old, four-bedroomed house backing onto a river and nearby wood was duly purchased for the not unreasonable sum of £9,000. At the time of the great upheaval, Damon was actually on a three-month holiday with a friend of his parents in Turkey – a decision that in principle was probably made for the best of reasons – but which ultimately led to some teething problems for the boy. “(Turkey) was great but when I came back, I found my sister Jessica had got herself settled and was very popular, whereas I struggled with all of that,” he later told The Sunday Times. “Maybe being a bit older than her, I found the transition a lot harder and felt more aware of being the outsider.”

As anyone transplanting a family from one area to another during childhood can confirm, such a move is often easiest on the youngest sibling. Certainly for Jessica Albarn, this proved the case. “We lived in a very old Tudor house in a close-knit village,” she said, “and most of my childhood was spent running around the countryside, making dens in woods and playing down by the river with my friends. I also had lots of guinea pigs, a rabbit and a cat, (so) I was really happy and had a lot of freedom.” While Jessica might have been over the moon with her new surroundings, Damon was not. “That move was the beginning of the end for me, really. The moment I was shoved into right-wing Essex, it all went wrong.”

Unlike the town he had left behind, Colchester circa 1978 was somewhat lagging behind in the UK’s slow but sure move towards multiculturalism, its origins and development taking a markedly different path to Albarn’s beloved East End. Fifty odd miles from London, and housing some 75,000 inhabitants, Colchester was then best known as ‘The Oldest Recorded Roman Town in Britain’ (its existence is even mentioned in the records of Pliny the Elder). Originally settled by Celts who called it ‘Camulodunon’, Colchester had seen mass destruction before the first Gospels were thought written, with Queen Boudicca raising the place to the ground as part of her uprising against the Romans in 61AD. Rebuilt and rebooted – with a rather imposing set of walls and nifty chariot race track – Colchester subsequently fell to the Danes, Saxons and Normans before being given a royal charter by Richard the Lionheart in 1189. By 1648 it was in the wars again, this time acting as the site of a particularly ugly 11-week stand-off between Cavaliers and Roundheads which resulted in the execution of two prominent Royalists in the grounds of the town castle. Fast forward 237 years and it was an earthquake reaching 4.7 on the Richter scale that threw the town into chaos, destroying houses and roads across the length of its borders. Even if things had quietened down considerably by the late 1970s, only a fool would deny Colchester’s sturdy character or ability to keep builders employed on a semi-permanent basis.

Of course, this was all small beer to Damon Albarn, whose first impressions of the town – and indeed, Essex in general – were largely unfavourable. “I was a complete fish out of water,” he said. “It was almost an exclusively white community … pretty racist. They (would take) to Thatcher’s dream and really go for it. The price (of that) was too much for me. The environment was fucked up, the vibrancy of the countryside was all gone. After Thatcher, the fields I was playing in one year (became) housing estates the next.”

Albarn’s observations had the ring of truth to them. By the time he was entering adolescence, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s dream of a New England was taking on full capitalistic shape. Across Essex, and in corresponding southern areas such as Milton Keynes, Northampton and Peterborough, new homes had sprung from old soil to accommodate waves of house buyers priced out of London’s spiralling property market. The phrase ‘Satellite Town’ was now common parlance, its connotations of tired commuters making tired journeys back and forth from the smoke all too familiar to those lined up on station platforms across the south east. “We’d traded community for a disenfranchised life of Barratt homes and neuroses,” Albarn later told The Face. “You see, we all need to fit in, to belong somewhere.”

Back in 1979, Damon was still trying to find his own particular way forward. Luckily, there were several potential avenues to explore, most involving flora and fauna. Having temporarily lost his keys to the city, Albarn had at least gained access to a new world of woods, rivers, wildlife and the occasional witch. “It’s not to say I didn’t love the countryside. I’d often go fishing before school, (and) it was quite a magical place. In fact, there was a strong sense of witchcraft in the area, and we weren’t averse to a bit of magic. We’re not witches but we weren’t scared of them either.”

Away from such arcane distractions, Damon could keep himself busy by helping his mother out at the local arts and crafts shop she now managed. Failing that, there was always the prospect of riding lessons, again organised by Hazel for the benefit of local children. “For a while,” he said, “I went from being a complete urban child to a country child. It was all fishes and birds.” This paradigm shift from city slicker to country gent manifested itself through a rapidly expanding collection of fossils and several stuffed birds, all to be found on various shelves throughout his bedroom. Fishing too would have its place, with young Albarn even photographed for The Angling Times after catching a particularly weighty Chubb. “I had loads of fossils and stuffed animals. I even had a stuffed fox. I was a very keen fossil hunter, fisherman and bird watcher … very into nature.”

Obviously, Damon was at least making a go of the country. But the true test of his assimilation into Essex life came when he joined Stanway Comprehensive School as a pupil in the autumn of 1979. Located just three miles outside of Colchester town centre, Stanway was to be home to the youngster for the next seven years. Once again, there were teething problems. “Well, I was as bohemian as you can get in an Essex comprehensive.”

Raised by liberal-minded parents, well used to conversing with artistic types as a child and brought up in one of London’s more cosmopolitan boroughs, the earring-wearing Albarn must have presented quite the puzzle to his fellow pupils. “They just thought I was a posh-gay weirdo. I didn’t fit in at all.” Unlike many who might have folded under such pressure or sought to conform, Damon simply upped the ante by exhibiting a confidence and extroversion that must have confused and infuriated in equal measure. “I was quite an odd little fellow,” he said. “When I should have been chasing girls … I started reading Karl Marx and playing the violin. Really, I just wanted to stand out, but you learn at that age that standing out doesn’t really pay. It just makes you unpopular.”

At first glance, such attention-seeking sounds like a rookie error, or as likely, a mild case of proto-adolescent belligerence. Yet, it also marks the first real example of a stubborn streak that became familiar in Albarn’s later dealings with the world. Whenever presented with the opportunity to tow the line or follow the crowd, he was as likely to take a bus in the opposite direction or simply design his own method of transport. “I’ve inherited a desire to keep things simple from my mother and a desire to complicate things from my father,” he once said.

Little by little, Damon eventually found his way at Stanway, even if it took time and tide to get there. One positive came from his skills with a football, a simple but effective method of gaining acceptance from those who might view him with suspicion. And if some classmates were still put off by his confidence, others seemed oddly drawn to it, with several of Stanway’s braver souls forming tentative friendships with “the school weirdo”. Just as well, as Albarn was never destined to become captain of the soccer team. “At the school I went to, you either played sport or played music. You didn’t do both,” he told Planet Rock. “So I gave up playing sport and started concentrating on music.”

According to Jessica Albarn, the first signs of Damon’s musical nature had manifested themselves well before his discovery of Terry Jacks. “Right from the start Damon was musical,” she said. “Mum said he could play a mouth organ in the pram, and I can half-believe that because he just took to instruments straight away. He always had that natural ability. We both had piano lessons, but I knew Damon had something special. Whereas I’d come home and practise my sheet music, he’d already be banging out his own stuff. He was always free like that, you couldn’t contain him.” As evidenced, by the time he was 12, Albarn was already taking formal lessons in both violin and piano, this yearning towards music steadily creeping up on him over several years. Aside from the sly delights of ‘Seasons In The Sun’, he had taken to raiding his parents’ record collection at will, pulling out a wide selection of LPs, singles and tapes: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Soft Machine’s Volume Two and various other Pink Floyd releases were all plonked on the Dansette at one time or another. It didn’t stop with progressive pop and rock. Indian ragas, Cuban dance, New Orleans jazz and even the gentle classical strains of Vaughan Williams’ ‘A Lark Ascending’ all found their way into Albarn’s curious ears.

Like many fledgling teenagers, he was also making musical discoveries outside of the family nest, though again, Jessica Albarn might have offered a little help on the way. “My sister made me a tape of Rod Stewart’s ‘First Cut Is The Deepest’. I played it over and over. I played it beyond the point of nausea and it still sounded great.” If Damon was strongly taken by Stewart’s way with a Scotch-soaked ballad, then he was simply transported by the Burundi drums, carbonised guitars and white face paint of Adam & The Ants. “Adam was the first and only pop star I ever wanted to be,” he said. “Adam was the full stop after punk.”

While Albarn was a tad too young to truly engage with the punk revolution of 1976/7, he found himself at a perfect age when the next wave of new wave struck. By 1980, the UK was in complete thrall to ‘2 Tone’, a hugely addictive meld of Jamaican ska, rocksteady and reggae beats with a punk rock sensibility firmly at its heart. Driven by Coventry/Birmingham bands such as The Specials, The Selecter and The Beat, and further supported by their North London counterparts Madness and Bad Manners, 2 Tone promoted the idea of racial equality, sharp suits and even sharper social commentary. In Madness’ case, that template was stretched to include a gift for true lunacy seldom found again in the British charts.

Suffice to say, Albarn was a zealous convert to the 2 Tone cause. Aside from the music and rude boy clothes, it greatly helped in forming a stronger connection with his classmates at Stanway. “When I was 12,” he recalled, “I went to the Great Tey youth club in a little village outside of Colchester. I had my brogues, my little pork-pie hat and my little badge, and I used to get in a ‘hokey-cokey’ circle with all my mates and pretend to be Madness.” To Damon, wearing the right threads and shoes – the self-same ones Suggs, Chas, Terry and Jerry all wore – was not only a point of principle, but also a badge of honour. Therefore, when he later met a younger Stanway pupil letting down the side, it could not go without comment. “I remember (Damon) in a black Mac,” Graham Coxon told Q. “He was wearing a very white shirt, with a small ‘Cary Grant’ tie knot. Very nice rude boy brogues. He was messing with his hair (and) pouting in any reflective surface.” Seconds later, Albarn made his play. “Damon came up to me and said ‘They’re crap shoes, look at these brogues, they’re the proper sort.’ You see, his soles were made of leather, and mine were made of rubber. Then he sort of put his hair right and walked off. I thought ‘God, cheers’, you know. I’d never met anyone with such a full-on attitude.” That Coxon takes pleasure in telling this story some 30 years later continues to tickle Albarn. “Well, he obviously still holds it against me.”

In fact, Graham Coxon was already well aware of Damon Albarn before their one-sided exchange outside the music room Portakabins at Stanway. “Damon was in the year above and I first noticed him singing ‘Please Officer Krupke’ from West Side Story in school assembly,” he recalled. “I thought ‘what a particularly extrovert chap.’” Though Coxon was amused by Albarn’s nascent experiments with musical theatre (a subject to be covered in due course), he unknowingly shared several commonalities with the older boy, even if their individual journeys to Stanway were markedly different.

Born in a British military hospital near Reiten, Hanover on March 12, 1969, Graham was a true army baby, his father Bob then serving as a bandsman in the Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters, one of the many regiments posted to Germany as part of post-WWII peacekeeping force. By the time he was four, the family – which included mother Pauline and older sister Hayley – found themselves living on an estate close to Montgomery Barracks in Berlin, their new city location affording Graham an opportunity to attend his first pop concert. The group concerned had a depressingly familiar ring. “It was The Osmonds. I got a plastic Osmonds hat.”

A year later and Graham was on English soil, sharing a house with his grandfather alongside a motorway flyover in Spondon, Derby while his father served a tour of Northern Ireland during the height of the troubles. If it all sounded a tad grim, the memories were not. “I used to hear my dad playing stuff when he was home,” Coxon said. “In fact, one of my first (musical) memories was my dad putting on Beethoven during an Easter egg hunt.” An excellent saxophonist and clarinet player, it was perhaps inevitable that Bob Coxon would encourage his son towards a musical instrument, though the instrument concerned proved a surprising choice. “I played the Fife,” laughed Graham. A staple of military marching bands, the fife was a high-pitched, small wooden flute comprised of six finger holes. Extraordinarily loud even in the right hands, one can only marvel at Coxon Sr.’s bravery in presenting Graham with such a prize. Thankfully, the child’s experiments with the grim reaper of the flute family were brief, and he soon moved on to drum, clarinet and saxophone lessons, the latter of which he showed a natural aptitude for.

In typical army fashion, the family were soon on the move again and Bob Coxon’s latest (and as it turned out, last) posting brought them to Colchester in 1977. By the end of the decade, Bob had handed in his military cards and taken a civilian job as leader of the East Constabulary Police band. To supplement his income, he also secured a post as covering music teacher at Stanway Comprehensive School, where Graham joined him as a pupil in the autumn of 1980. Given that he spent his earliest years in close proximity to assault courses, bunkers and bomb craters, one might have supposed young Coxon to be a tough army brat, keen to test his mettle against the best Stanway had to offer. The reality was somewhat different. By all accounts Graham was a quiet child – who like the rest of the new starters – lived in mortal fear of having his head flushed down a toilet by older kids. A keen Blue Peter fan (he was to appear on the legendary children’s show twice), who harboured a mad crush on children’s TV presenter Floella Benjamin and numbered the chocolate milk drink Nesquik among his major enthusiasms, Coxon was no trainee bully looking for fights in the playground. “I was pretty good at athletics though, 100 and 200 metres, high jump and discus,” he said. “If it wasn’t for Dominic Pritchley, I’d have been fastest in my year, but he was pretty advanced as a human being, so there was no hope …”

Away from sport, there were two subjects that Graham really excelled at: music and art. In the latter case, Coxon had begun drawing as an infant, sending crayon pictures to his father whenever he was posted away from home. Teachers were quick to spot his efforts, and by the time Graham arrived at Stanway, his skills with a paint brush were being actively encouraged – a future career in design or advertising now a strong possibility. That said, both nature and nurture had dealt a fine hand in Coxon’s favour, as he was also showing real promise as a musician. While the mini-drum kit in his bedroom remained more a hobby and less a vocation, he was beginning to make extremely promising noises with the saxophone his father gifted him with some years before. The only kid in his year – and indeed, school – with such an instrument, Graham again piqued the interest of his teachers who stepped in to offer formal lessons.

When free from the discipline of learning scales, correct embouchure and the relative merits of conical bores, Coxon also had the world of pop music to call his own. Like Damon, Graham’s first brush with such things might have been The Osmonds, but his formative studies didn’t end there. As with so many future musicians, it was The Beatles that took a firm hold of Coxon’s ear and refused to let go. “I’m very fond of The Beatles’ Abbey Road, probably because my dad used to play it to me in the womb,” he said. “I had it floating around my head before I was born. With ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’, I can remember bouncing around on a Spacehopper to it, this cyclical riff just going round and round.” And round. Rubber Soul too, was soon liberated for Graham’s own ends. “I loved ‘The Word’ on that LP. I always thought it was incredibly groovy, with that great harmonica riff. I really wanted to be John Lennon. John Lennon in The Beatles he really wanted The Beatles to be.” At nine years old, Coxon was parting with his own pocket money to soothe his ever-growing habit, purchasing a mint copy of The Police’s ‘Roxanne’ at a local record store. “I’d loved The Beatles’ backing vocals, and ‘Roxanne’ had great backing vocals.” And if Graham didn’t quite have the right Brogues for 2 Tone, it did little to curb his ardour towards the sound. “Bands like The Specials were so sharp and musical,” he said. “They created a completely different world.”

The real breakthrough came for Coxon at the age of 12 when he happened upon Paul Weller’s Epping-based Mod revivalists, The Jam. Astounded by what could be achieved with just drums, bass, a growling vocal and treble-charged Rickenbacker, Coxon’s world-view was forever changed. “I just had to have a guitar so I could play along with The Jam.” Hoping that his son might gravitate towards jazz saxophone, Bob Coxon was a tad unsure when Graham asked for his first six-string, but the instrument was purchased nonetheless. “I used to buy all the Jam albums and songbooks and sit in my bedroom trying to pick up the different chords.”

To Paul Weller’s credit, he was never shy of name-checking The Jam’s formative influences, and where the inspiration for songs such as ‘In The City’, ‘Eton Rifles’ or ‘Going Underground’ had come from. Hence, Coxon pursued Weller’s recommendations with vigour, adding several albums by The Who to his ever-growing collection. “I absolutely loved The Who’s Pete Townshend and was obsessed with The Kids Are All Right (documentary), though I was always scared of playing my Who records too loud in case my mum thought I was some nasty hooligan mod!” Pauline Coxon had good reason to worry. By 13, her son was a fully evolved mod revivalist. “I had the Parka, the boots, well, you know the drill. I’d wear the slimmest-cut school trousers I could find, and alter my blazer to three buttons instead of two. On ‘civvies day’, when you could wear what you wanted, there would be fights on the field between the mods, skinheads and casuals. As soon as it was break time, us mods had to run somewhere safe. There were only six of us, you see.”

When The Jam ceased trading in 1982, it must have hurt Graham Coxon a little. Having never seen his heroes in the flesh, he had to make do with witnessing Weller’s new and decidedly different band, The Style Council, at Ipswich Gaumont instead. But by then, the die was already cast: with a room festooned in posters, a small drum kit in one corner, a saxophone in another and his electric guitar taking pride of place on the bed, Coxon was now a confirmed musical junkie. “I dreamed of owning a real Rickenbacker,” he said. “Two or three dreams, actually. Dreaming of guitars when other boys of my age were dreaming of something else altogether.”

With the benefit of hindsight, it is tempting to formulate trite theories as to why Graham and Damon would strike up such a close friendship, despite the shakiest of starts. Perhaps it was the fact that both were new to Colchester, their backgrounds and experience marking them as different from the pack and more likely to bond as a result. Maybe the two instinctively sensed in each other a commonality of purpose, the skinny ties and ‘Tuf’ brogues early tribal signifiers of the road they would explore together. One might even argue that the younger Coxon was drawn to the older boy’s innate self-confidence. Then again, perhaps not. “Damon wasn’t liked much at school,” Graham later said. “Even I thought he was a vain wanker.” Or as most every teenage boy knows, an insult thrown on a playground is often a true precursor to friendship. Whatever the case or cause, Albarn and Coxon were soon to become the best of mates, an arrangement neither would break for the best part of two decades. “You know,” Damon later said, “Graham and I went through the ‘funny time’ together. School, adolescence, all of that … even if he would disappear when I got into fights …” Given Albarn’s ongoing habit of getting into a scrap when the occasion demanded it, and sometimes when it didn’t, Coxon would turn that disappearing act into a work of art in years to come.

Chapter Two
Stirrings In The Portakabin

From the outside looking in, Damon Albarn and Graham Coxon must have made for an odd pairing at Stanway Comprehensive School. Albarn was all earrings and bleached hair, with a bead necklace his mother made for him years before hanging around his neck – a good luck charm never to be removed. Confident, gregarious and more than a little cocky, the adolescent Albarn was already half way to being a pop star, though that was not his intention at the time. “When I was young, I never had a real interest in ‘pop music’,” he later admitted. “I was just on this big ‘This is going to happen’ thing. I know from the age of 11, it’s quite insane to say ‘I’m going to be great’, but that’s what I did.” Coxon, on the other hand, was a natural introvert. Reserved, even sweet (though he might hate that description) and just rid of the braces on his teeth, Graham’s central focus were guitars and art, with an occasional charge up and down the running track the only real distraction from all the plectrums and paintbrushes. Yet, come their teenage years, the duo were to forge the closest of alliances. “I knew Graham before he even drank or smoked,” Albarn once recalled. “He was the sweetest bloke alive.”

As one might expect of soon-to-be best mates, their bonding routines followed a familiar pattern. As the Coxon family home backed onto Stanway’s playing fields, Graham and Damon would invariably head there after school every day. Friday nights, however, were spent at the Albarn household where Coxon tried dodging free art lessons from Damon’s mother. As the two grew slightly older, their attention turned to the illicit thrills of underage drinking, with cans of cheap cider and stolen bottles of Keith Albarn’s homemade wine dunked in the river at the end of Damon’s garden to make them cold enough for drinking. “Just teenage things, really” said Graham. “It was all quite … Enid Blyton.”

Away from the booze and the odd cigarette, secrets were also exchanged. Coxon owned up to a mad crush on Kate ‘Wuthering Heights’ Bush, prompting Albarn to reveal one of his prize possessions – a suspiciously well-preserved photo of the raven-haired singer dressed in a figure-hugging leotard. “I used to fancy her terribly,” he later admitted. And when boredom set in, there was always their shared hatred of Colchester to fall back on. “At school,” said Graham, “we were asked to bring in photos of what people thought of Colchester, and some people brought in pictures of men digging holes. I took pictures of gravestones. It’s death for young people, (that) place.”

There was also some serious work going on. As Damon professed, while he was undoubtedly drawn to music – his studies in piano and violin confirming it – there was no mad rush to immerse himself in either the history or culture of pop. In fact, he seemed just as content to enjoy the Adam Ants and The Specials of this world for what they were: delightful entertainment. Graham, however, was far more serious when it came to such matters. Already besotted with 2 Tone and the mod revival, Coxon had set out to discover where it had all come from, tracing the roots of Madness to Prince Buster and The Jam to The Who and back again. It was knowledge he was eager to share with his friend. “Graham introduced me to a lot of music and attitudes when we were at school,” Damon later told The Face. “We were both into 2 Tone, but he had a great collection of records I was totally unaware of. He really schooled me.”

Aside from playing Albarn old Kinks and Jam LPs, Graham also commandeered the family video recorder, allowing his mate to enter the world of The Who with the full-length band documentary, The Kids Are Alright, and Quadrophenia, the feature film based on Pete Townshend’s 1973 Who album which follows the story of a young London mod and his adventures during the Mods v Rockers disturbances in Brighton in 1964. Like Coxon before him, these made a huge impact on Albarn – all those parka coats, bulls-eye T-shirts and draped Union Jacks not only visually confirming The Who’s quintessentially British appeal, but also how insightful, impactful and important pop could be in the right hands. “I used to play Damon all these things that I thought were incredible and he’d absorb them,” said Coxon. “In a way, I programmed him …”

Outside of the musical and filmic bubble they had constructed for themselves, there were other characters and events conspiring to shape Albarn and Coxon’s future. At approximately the same time Damon arrived at Stanway, a new Head of Music Department was appointed. Having marked himself out as a teacher of promise at Hedingham School some thirty miles away, Nigel Hildreth came to the position with a clear mission in mind. “There had been a tradition of music making at Stanway but the department needed uplifting,” he said. “This was a challenge, but there was a positive atmosphere in that the deputy head teacher, Yvonne Lawton, had been a previous head of music and therefore supported my activities.” With the full backing of his Deputy Head, Hildreth’s plan was bold and wide-ranging in its scope. “I wanted to raise standards by involving the youngsters in productions, then through ensembles and choirs (with that) also leading to individual achievement for the students. I started an orchestra and a large choir who became involved in larger scale performances, including ‘The Messiah’ and ‘The Return of Odysseus’ at the Royal Festival Hall … and ‘Belshazzar’s Feast’ as part of an Essex-wide choir at the Royal Albert Hall.”

Hildreth was also keen for such performances to be staged at Stanway School itself. To this end, he wrote an ambitious ‘rock opera’ retelling the legend of Faust with multiple harmonies, added percussion and a blast or two of orchestration. Entitled The Damnation of Jonathan Fist!, the production featured a 13-year-old Albarn making his theatrical debut as a millworker. “In his first performance, (Damon) was in the chorus,” said Nigel. “But on stage your eyes were drawn to him. I clearly remember a former drama colleague from Hedingham called David Chapman commenting on that very fact when he saw the show.”

Albarn’s gift for drama was to become something of a dilemma, not only for him and his family, but also Nigel Hildreth. While Damon had already caught the music teacher’s ear as a violinist of some potential, it was also becoming obvious that the youngster was also drawn to acting as a possible career – an ambition fully supported by his parents. “Keith and Hazel Albarn encouraged their children to engage in a wide range of artistic and academic activities, and were both eminent artists in their own right” Hildreth confirmed. “(But) I believe they thought Damon’s true talents might lie with acting.” As enamoured by Phil Daniels’ nervy portrayal of ‘super mod’ Jimmy Cooper in the film Quadrophenia as he was with Madness or The Specials, Albarn would wrestle with the choice of drama over music well beyond his years at Stanway.

For the time being, however, there was plenty of opportunity to combine both interests as he worked his way out of the chorus and into the role of leading man. Damon’s first shot as a principal actor came in Hildreth’s production of Sandy Wilson’s sunny musical The Boy Friend in 1983, when Albarn played the equally sunny ‘Bobby’. Taught to dance the Charleston by Nigel’s wife Wendy, Damon not only seemed to enjoy his proverbial moment in the sun, but also the female interest it brought him. “He had a good voice and (by then had) learnt aspects of stage craft,” Hildreth recalled. “He clearly relished the attention and had a certain confidence which meant he could now partner older female leads.” Albarn consolidated his new position as Stanway’s go to lead in Guys And Dolls, where he took on the part of Nathan Detroit, a role once played with considerable humour (but no great singing voice) by the ‘Method Acting King’ himself, Marlon Brando.

Though a year younger than Albarn, Graham Coxon also got in on the musical act at Stanway, even going as far as to tread the boards with his friend on two occasions. When Hildreth delighted Damon’s parents by staging a production of their old friend Joan Littlewood’s Oh, What A Lovely War!, Albarn and Coxon were both key ensemble players, appearing together throughout the show. “Graham always had a pleasant voice, some great comic timing and soon had his own cachet from being in school productions,” said Nigel.

The music department’s next project – Orpheus In The Underworld – took things even further by giving Coxon and Albarn clearly defined roles, with Graham cast as ‘Styx, god of the underworld’ and Damon as ‘Zeus, king of the gods’. “Damon was Zeus, which just about says it all,” Hildreth laughed. “He was in a toga and chucking thunderbolts around.” Albarn’s part as Zeus was his last appearance before exams beckoned, but he did find time to help out backstage for The Bartered Bride, a Czech comic opera Stanway put on in collaboration with The Royal Opera House. On this occasion, Damon’s younger sister Jessica was also a member of the chorus, while Graham’s role required him to sing with his trousers firmly tucked into his socks. “I don’t think I ever got over it,” he later quipped to Select.*

If Damon was seriously contemplating a life on the stage while at Stanway, he was also bright enough to continue his music lessons, though again, there was an issue or two to contend with along the way. At first, he was heavily drawn to the violin, playing with the school ensemble and much larger Colne Valley Youth Orchestra. But as time passed his attachment to bow and resin was superseded by a growing love of the piano, causing a loss of interest in his original choice of instrument that translated to both class and stage. “Damon could be absolutely infuriating,” said Hildreth, “because he had lots of talent (but) he didn’t always focus it.”

For Albarn, there really was no dilemma. Having made the decision to concentrate on the keyboard, he augmented his studies at Stanway with private lessons from a local jazz pianist called Rich Webb. Inevitably, Damon also began to tentatively experiment with his own compositions. This time, Nigel Hildreth had no issues. “As a composer myself, I really wanted to encourage the students to write music,” he said. “Both Damon and Graham, along with other musicians at Stanway such as Lucy Stimson and Jane Graham (were soon) participating in a town-wide competition with their own pieces.”

White AlbumThe Kids Are All Right.