Blur exhibition: it’s got nothing to do with your vorsprung durch technik, you know
The poster-sized prints and original artwork on show at Imma will take fans back to the bedroom of their adolescence
Blur recreate the famous Beatles pose on the balcony at EMI, Manchester Square, London, in 1995. Photograph: Chris Taylor
A reference image for the back-cover painting for Modern Life is Rubbish. Photograph: Rob O’Connor/Stylorouge
Dave Brolan arrives barely late but full of apologies; he was getting food, taking a break from setting up Blur 21: The Exhibition at the Irish Museum of Modern Art. I’ve spent the past 10 minutes or so left to my own devices in the Great Hall, surrounded by a trove of Blur memorabilia and wondering if the CCTV works.
This is a little more than rock memorabilia (there’ll be no objectivity in this article). For about as long as Blur have been making music, Brolan has specialised in music photography, curating shows by some of the genre’s most celebrated practitioners, including a recent exhibition of work by Jim Marshall for the Rolling Stones’ 50th anniversary.
“Over the years, you find that a lot of this stuff that seems like useless information becomes important. And then you have these unseen photographs, stuff that was unused from a session, which, over time, takes on new meaning.”
It certainly does. Hung on stands around the Great Hall, ahead of the band’s outdoor gig here on Thursday, the poster-sized prints and original artwork – aside from telling the story of Britpop’s most influential band – take me back to the bedroom of my adolescence and the summer of 1994 spent listening to Parklife on a loop.
The show begins with a black-and-white contact sheet from Blur’s first portrait session and a black-and-white print of what would have been their most recent portrait when the show first opened in London last year. From the start, the camera loved them. “They’ve always worked with photographers they trusted,” says Brolan, “and they’ve always been very involved in the whole process.”
Bands today are less inclined to give over the same time to photography, he says. “You might pencil in an hour between things to get a cover shot taken, and they figure the rest can be manipulated in Photoshop or whatever later. It’s the one thing I always say to bands: have someone take your picture – you’ll be glad of it in 20 years’ time when you’re a cab driver.”
Momentous week for fans
Of course, the notion that Damon Albarn, Graham Coxon, Alex James or Dave Rowntree would end up a London cabbie is unthinkable to the Blur fan. Cheesemakers, maybe, but never cab drivers.
This is a momentous week for the Blur fan. The last time the band played their own outdoor gig in Ireland was at the RDS, back in 1996 (we refuse to count their headline gig at Oxegen, in 2009, on account of the 15-year-old philistines who ruined it for the rest of us diehards) .
It was June 22nd and the weather was . . . completely irrelevant on account of us being 15-year-old philistines at our first gig. From the moment they burst on to the stage with Tracy Jacks to the heart-wrenching (15 years old, remember) closing number of The Universal, and all the crowd-surfing, flare-wearing and vodka-swilling in-between, it remains the perfect gig. The memory of Albarn climbing the stage scaffolding is forever etched on my mind, along with the first and last time I’ve seen a friend vomit out their nose.
Thursday night’s gig will likely be a less raucous affair, but I’ve taken five days off work for it just in case. No matter that many fans will be twice as old as they were when they first saw Blur, you only have to look around this exhibition to see their lasting appeal.
From the outset, they were the real deal. They looked like a band, in that old-school way of being forged by the music, man (rather than the man, man). Even in the most posed of photographs, they look relaxed and confident. Part of the reason for it, says Brolan, is the trust they placed in their photographers and the access they gave them. “The photographers were almost treated equally, like another band member. On stage, they were practically sitting on the drums with them.” That kind of access is almost impossible to get now, he says.
There’s a gorgeous physicality about Brolan’s exhibition as it journeys through the band’s career. It includes original album artwork, with handwritten notes about changes to be made, and a board of fonts showing the evolution of the band’s first logo by Stylorouge – the company still works with the band and has designed a poster for the Imma show. This trial-and-error, hands-on approach to art is something that resonates throughout, harking back to a less digital era, when men were men, except when they were dressed as smokin’ Blondie (check out Albarn’s half-shaven legs to really understand the man’s dedication to detail).
“We’ve picked the images we’d most like to see as fans,” says Brolan, who will be at the gig on Thursday, the final day of the exhibition. “There’s nothing we’ve left out that fans would want to see.”
You will leave this small but perfectly formed exhibition with a renewed sense of that teenage fan who loved not only the music but the art and attitude that went with it. You will also leave with the knowledge that there are no bad photographs of Graham Coxon and that Damon Albarn is, and always will be, a dreamboat.
Blur 21: The Exhibition is at Imma until Thursday