A SHITE SPORTS CAR AND A PUNK REINCARNATION

Blur are fighting the punk wars all over again. Having killed off baggy with their first album, they're now ready to see off grunge and all that is American - or rather all that isn't English. But this is no Moz-esque flirtation with fascistic imagery, merely a reclamation of Englishness from the theiving colonial upstarts, claims singer Damon.

Welcome to A Hard Day's Night: The Next Generation. The four members of Blur are standing on the embankment of the A12, staring with disbelief at the steam billowing from a hired 1966 Jaguar that has spluttered to a halt.

They are on their way to Clacton, erstwhile '60s aggro-resort, where they plan to immerse themselves in the last vestiges of pre-Elvis England, cover the town in spray-paint reproductions of the title of their new album and then escape back to London. The Jaguar is soon temporarily repaired, but by the time the group reach a nearby service station, the red Rover carrying Dave Rowntree, Alex James and Graham Coxon has also decided to expire. Blur are now stranded 20 miles north of Chelmsford, surrounded by the strange southern landscape that puts rolling hills and freshly ploughed fields next to Happy Eater restaurants and multiplex cinemas. And they have 50 to get them to their final destination.

After repeated phone-calls, along comes a gold minibus driven by a genial figure who the band repeatedly refer to as "fat bloke". He says he'll allow them to complete their odyssey for 45. They agree, and soon Blur are haring down a dual carriageway, offering each other the expensive contents of four Fortnum & Mason's hampers and looking forward to their imminent arrival in Clacton with a mixture of boyish glee and trepidation.

By teatime that night, they will have sprayed the slogan "Modern Life Is Rubbish" in the toilets of a public house and on the freshly-painted sea wall. They will have had their two hired cars brought by trailer to the end of the pier and indulged in a pictorial celebration of the style of '60s England. And by nightfall, Blur will have vaulted the barrier at Clacton Railway station, laughing like children as they stow away on the last train to London.

What you have just read is not a draft idea for the next Blur video, the blurb on the back of a neo-surrealist paperback or the synopsis for a film. All this actually happened: sometimes life is like that.

This stranger-than-fiction seaside trip was intended to serve as a wayward explanation of some of the ideas behind 'Modern Life is Rubbish', Blur's soon-come new album, and 'For Tomorrow', a stunning single that is sure to acquire a pivotal importance in the band's career. It comes after eight months of backroom drama that began with the relative failure of the 'Popscene' single, took in ructions with the band's ex-management and near-bankruptcy, and saw Blur coming to terms with their innate notion of Englishness while they were cruelly put through three American tours. Were it not for all these difficulties, 'For Tomorrow' would probably have been released months ago - but Blur's timing has been fortuitously perfect.

Why? Because, as with baggies and shoe-gazers, loud, long-haired Americans have just found themselves condemned to the ignominious corner labelled "yesterday's thing". We're now getting in a lather about Suede and the less-lauded Auteurs, both of whom fit neatly into a lineage of clipped, sharp Anglo-pop. And now Blur - who once had a liking for a guitar sound that was influenced by Dinosaur Jr - have trailed an album that is unashamedly rooted in their home territory with a single that mixes up influences like Syd Barrett, David Bowie and The Move, and ends up sounding like a classic English record. It's instantly catchy, it's full of strange melodic twists, it retains a 'what on earth are they on about?' enigma, and it's got a wondrous "Ia Ia Ia" chorus. Make no mistake: it will be a hit.

Still, people are going to shout "OPPORTUNISTS!!" and deride Blur as chancers who've stowed away on pop's latest lucrative bandwagon to save their ailing career. They're wrong. The Anglocentric ideas that infuse 'Modern Life Is Rubbish' were clearly evident on large parts of 'Leisure', their big-selling debut album. They became more focused on the punkified 'Popscene', and were revealed in full when Blur appeared at last year's Glastonbury Festival, at which Damon took to the stage in a sharp-cut '6Os suit and premiered a Kinks-ish song called 'Sunday Sunday'. In addition, Blur have had to fight for their new ideals in the face of vocal hostility from their fashion-conscious record company - and that's never happened to The Soup Dragons, has it?

The story of Blur's time away from camera lenses and tape recorders, and the genesis of their new(ish) identity is articulately recounted by a solitary Damon, wedged into the back of the doomed Jaguar as it crawls through central London. "We felt that 'Popscene' was a big departure; a very, very English record," he explains in clipped Home Counties tones. "But that annoyed a lot of people. We did the Rollercoaster tour (with My Bloody Valentine, Dinosaur Jr and the Mary Chain), and because fashion was completely myopic about America at the time, we felt that we were being mistreated. We knew it was good, we knew it was better than what we'd done before, but certain reviewers hated us for it. We put ourselves out on a limb to pursue this English ideal, and no-one was interested."

To make things yet more problematic, Blur were then shunted off to America to live the torturous life of the medium-league British band whose record company wants them to break the States. The experience, Damon recalls, was little short of nauseating. "We had to go there for two months, out of which we had three days off. We did 44 dates, and each one seemed to involve getting off the bus and being greeted by a record company rep who'd put us in a big black car and drive us to shopping malls where we'd have to 'meet and greet', eat shit in a fast food store and then go to a radio station where they'd think we were from Manchester. Playing onstage was the only release we got from all the irritation, and we became completely exhausted."

In the midst of such nightmarish experiences, however, ideas for the new songs began to take root. Thousands of miles from home, Damon gradually stopped puzzling over vague ideas of Englishness (and sorry, Welsh and Scottish readers, but 'Englishness' is Damon's chosen term) and began to get a better grasp of the cultural milieu that had produced him and his band.

"I just started to miss really simple things," he explains, somewhat ruefully. "I missed people queuing up in shops. I missed people saying 'goodnight' on the BBC. I missed having at least 15 minutes between commercial breaks. And I missed people having respect for my geographical roots, because Americans don't care if you're from Invemess or Land's End. I missed everything about England, so I started writing songs which created an English atmosphere."

At this stage, it appears, Blur were groping towards adulthood; moving away from the wilful adolescent blankness that characterised their first album (Damon candidly confesses that most of the lyrics on 'Leisure' were made up in the studio) and gaining an increased sense of identity and cohesion. And then something awful happened. "While we were in the States," Damon recalls, "we discovered that all the money we'd made on 'Leisure' - which wasn't millions, but quite a reasonable amount nonetheless - had 'disappeared'. We'd worked as hard as people like Ride and The Charlatans, but we hadn't seen anything. We literally had no money; we couldn't even pay our rent, and it was touch and go whether we'd go bankrupt." Along with the band's apparent fall from critical favour, their temporary descent into empty-pocketed penury threw them into a familiar rock 'n' roll rut: in the face of adversity, they began to drink a lot.

"You could see it in silly things like that 'Gimme Shelter' gig at the Town & Country. At that time, we felt that there was no way any journalist was going to give us a break if we played with someone like Suede. We had nothing to focus on - no new records, primarily - and we felt like massive underdogs. We just got really drunk and didn't play at all well. That was the point at which we realised that we were becoming slightly schizophrenic; we weren't thinking straight.

"In addition to that, a lot of people around us were saying, 'Why are you trying to sound like this, why are you singing in such an English accent, why are you using brass bands, why aren't you rocking out a bit more?' Everyone was getting really nervous, because record companies follow fashion: it never occurs to them that they should set a precedent and back it.
"We were at an all-time low - and then we finally went to see the record company and said you've just got to let us do it'. I remember going to speak to them and saying, 'In six months time, you're going to be signing bands who sound English, because it's going to be what everyone wants'. They were very sceptical, but we persevered. And it seems to have worked." You've become an anti-grunge band, in essence. "Well, that's good. If punk was about getting rid of hippies, then I'm getting rid of grunge. It's the same sort of feeling: people should smarten up, be a bit more energetic. They're walking around like hippies again - they're stooped, they've got greasy hair, there's no difference. Whether they like it or not, they're listening to Black Sabbath again. It irritates me."

The Jaguar has now sped through outer London, trailed by the aforementioned red Rover. Our chauffeur is a well-meaning upper-class chap who's been quietly instructed by Damon to keep quiet - so we rarely converse with him, apart from the odd occasion when he seems to be on the verge of getting lost, and a crucial moment when Kevin Cummins politely suggests that he speeds up a bit. He then drives his teak-lined, vintage vehicle at 110 mph, ensuring that the imminent breakdown occurs, and forcing Damon to shout over the sound of the car's vibrating chassis..

By now, he's telling us about the difficult birth of 'Modern Life Is Rubbish', about the abandoned sessions with XTC leader (and notorious Little Englander) Andy Partridge, whose studio demeanour was apparently akin to that of a strict headmaster, and the tribulations involved with using real orchestras instead of synthesisers. Soon, he's explaining the feelings that lie behind the songs - some of which are markedly novelistic, a new turn for a lyricist who once boasted of the banality of Blur's songs.

"This album doesn't celebrate England," Damon muses. "A lot of it is triggered by things which are quite sinister, things tied up with the Americanisation of this country.

"When we were in America, this character followed me around - not as a physical presence, but in my head. He's called Colin Zeal, he lives in a new town in Essex, he's a modern retard and he embodies a lot of what I'm talking about."
He's not our old friend Essex Man, is he?
"That might be one way of looking at him. He's got cable television, he goes to see the WWF wrestling... he's got his own song on the album, but he's in other songs as well. He represents this huge wave of sanitisation which is undoubtedly linked to America. When I was over there, I saw all these worrying aspects of English and British culture, where they originated and where they'd been taken ten steps further. I'm talking about bubble culture: people feeling content in these huge domes that have one temperature and are filled with this lobotomised music. That's all happening here, and a lot of my feelings about it are on this album."

...Which, if you remember, is entitled 'Modern Life Is Rubbish', an indication of Damon's belief in a lot of intertwined post-modern ideas that he himself had best explain. Ready?

"Modern life is the rubbish of the past," he claims. "We all live on the rubbish: it dictates our thoughts. And because it's all built up over such a long time, there's no necessity for originality anymore. There are so many old things to splice together in infinite permutations that there is absolutely no need to create anything new.
"I think that phrase is the most significant comment on popular culture since 'Anarchy in The UK'. That's why I want to graffiti it everywhere. I think it expresses everything."

Damon may well be digging his own critical grave here. After all, his last words could be taken as some kind of semi-apologetic explanation of the revisionist sound of the new single - which, were it not for the more modem strains of other tracks on the album, could be taken as a sign of Blur running scared from the cutting edge and taking refuge in musical anachronisms. In other words: is 'For Tomorrow' a retro record?

"No!" he barks. "The lyrics deal with a futuristic London where it's very hard to live because everything is so in-your-face. That's a very modern image. It's not (adopts quavering Bowie-esque whine) 'I went down to Carnaby Street / She was a lovely girl'. It has a similar atmosphere to some records from the past, I know, but that's what we wanted to create. We had to make it sound like something from a film soundtrack. "And don't forget, this whole album sounds entirely new. No-one's come out with a record like this before..." He pauses, eventually spitting out an impassioned dismissal of anyone who has Blur marked down as copyist bodysnatchers. "Anyone who's stupid enough to think that we called our album 'Modem Life Is Rubbish' because that sums up our music really doesn't deserve to listen to it."

It's now that your correspondent starts to feel as if he's parachuted onto the set of a '60s pop film. The cars break down; the minibus appears; and, at 4pm, we tumble onto the pavements of Clacton, a sad, dilapidated town that's full of boarded-up hotels, half-empty amusement arcades and pubs full of the booze-dependent victims of seasonal unemployment.

The band, it appears, are half-drunk. Over pints of cloudy beer, we talk about Blur's love of skinhead-esque clothing (reflecting a love of the far-flung Two-Tone movement rather than a flirtation with right-wing imagery); about how Graham and Damon feel that their new songs are far more in line with the tastes they cultivated during their adolescences, and about Blur's sponsors at Food Records, whose every move is dogged by fashion crazed expediency. Damon reckons Blur have "spiritually left" the label, going on to argue that Food should change their attitudes and stop being market-followers.

Twenty minutes later, the interview all but falls apart. Damon feels he's laid down the definitive party line, and isn't keen on being contradicted. Besides, the 'stop' button is pressed for the last time when he comes back to our table wearing an impish grin, after spraying 'Modern Life Is Rubbish' all over the walls of the gents' toilet. The fun continues. The seawall gets similarly graffitied. We're forced to leave a sparsely-populated fun pub when a group of thugs start mumbling about "those wankers in the corner", and by the time we jump the last train home the prospect of hordes of locals following us back to London to deliver violent retribution is becoming ever more likely. It doesn't happen, of course. We leave the train at Liverpool Street clutching souvenirs and looking splendidly fazed. It's been surreal, disaster-ridden, and tinged with petty crime and threats of violence: Blur have taken us on the perfect English day trip.