WHEN Blur announced their comeback album, eyebrows were raised at the rather puzzling title – The Ballad Of Darren.
Yet it comes with an intriguing backstory, so let me explain why it actually makes perfect sense.
Blur isn’t just about the four people on stage under spotlights, soaking up adulation, namely Damon Albarn, Graham Coxon, Alex James and Dave Rowntree.
At the heart of their wider community, which includes crew and hardcore fans, is Darren “Smoggy” Evans.
He has been head of security since, in the estimation of drummer Rowntree, the turn of the Nineties when they played only their “fifth or sixth gig” . . .
. . . Since long before they became Britpop’s southern upstarts battling for chart domination against the rowdy northern lads called Oasis.
Smoggy and his pal, Stuart “Stu” Lowbridge, also founded a fanzine and both still work for Blur — and on Albarn’s other projects including Gorillaz — to this day.
At the band’s two emotionally charged nights at Wembley Stadium earlier this month, the merch even included Darren masks made from an old image of the blond bodyguard asleep on the tour bus.
At a certain point, Albarn was seen wearing one himself and, as he peered through the eye-holes to a sea of similarly creepy cardboard cut-out faces, he said: “This is like a nightmare I had as a kid!”
Rowntree picks up the story: “Darren, AKA Smoggy, is famous in Blur circles. He’s always in the pit when we’re on stage.
“He knows all the fans and looks after them. He’s a really positive influence on us and on the fans.”
‘Wolverhampton is real home of Blur’
It is also important to know that Smoggy comes from Wolverhampton. Thanks to him, Blur have a special connection to the Black Country city.
Though they formed in Colchester in 1989, Rowntree asserts: “Wolverhampton was where we first made it big, so it’s always like a hometown crowd for us.
“In fact, you could say it is the real home of Blur!” he adds, confirming why they chose the city’s The Halls to play one of their recent warm-up gigs.
With Smoggy in mind, we also have to go back to 2003 when Albarn released his vinyl-only double EP of song sketches called Democrazy.
It included a wistful snippet called Half A Song, clocking in at just 65 seconds.
“It became Smoggy’s favourite song that Damon had ever written,” says Rowntree. “So he was always nagging him to finish it.
“In the end, Damon did finish it while he was on tour (with Gorillaz ironically) and writing prolifically.”
Now, 20 years on, Half A Song has morphed into fully-fledged The Ballad, taking pride of place as the 3min 36sec opening track on Blur’s ninth studio album.
“In part, I think The Ballad is about Smoggy and Damon’s relationship over the years,” says Rowntree.
All the new songs are unmistakably Blur, lyrically and melodically very strong, yet infused with a reflective quality.
Themes of loss and longing loom large, capturing the sense that thirty years of life, with all its ups and downs, have elapsed since their early work with all its youthful exuberance.
This is undeniably mid-life Blur rather than Parklife Blur.
Rowntree suggests that the title, The Ballad Of Darren, goes far beyond a shout-out to Smoggy.
“Darren is a name laden with meaning for people of our age,” says the 59-year-old. “It has working-class connotations. People with that name have felt looked-down upon.
“I would hate to put words in Damon’s mouth but I see The Ballad as a kind of everyman song about what it was like for our generation growing up and about who we are now.
“Even in the early days of the band, we all felt like Darrens, like a bunch of slightly looked-down upon misfits — except maybe Alex!”
I’m talking to Rowntree and bassist James to mark the album’s release and both tell of the band’s enduring chemistry.
‘Whole process was joyous, weightless’
For James, who grew up in genteel Bournemouth and is the only member of Blur not from Colchester, the atmosphere in the studio has hardly changed.
“I suppose it could have been quite daunting trying to make a new record. What if it was s**t?” he exclaims.
“But as soon as we started playing together, the world fell away and it was just the four of us in a sweaty room again.
“Singers and guitar players probably feel they need to suffer a little bit or they haven’t turned up, but from a bass player’s point of view, the whole process was joyous, weightless, effortless.”
That said, he had to get back into good physical shape for the rigours of a Blur tour.
“Playing the bass? Easy-peasy,” he laughs. “Everything else, oh my God! There has been a lot of press-ups, a lot of burpees.
“But it’s great that Blur seems to have a really positive, benign effect on me. The perceived wisdom is that rock and roll f***s you up but I’m fitter than I have been for years.”
I ask James if his kids are impressed with their newly svelte rock star dad, also known for making cheese and running a music and food festival, The Big Feastival, on his Cotswolds farm as well as writing for The Sun.
“I’ve got five teenagers. So all I usually get is, ‘F*** off, fatty!’” he answers ruefully.
“Yet they all came down to Eastbourne (for another warm-up gig) and, afterwards, they were like, ‘Dad, that was so cool, we’re so proud of you’.”
Rowntree can include solicitor, DJ, solo musician, local Labour councillor and pilot on his CV, but the Blur reunion was like putting on his most comfortable shoes. “We’re all a bit more cantankerous but, honestly, when I look at Graham (Coxon), I still see a 19-year-old kid,” he affirms.
“With these relationships, you mark out your territory very early on.
“We were always relentlessly ambitious, overwhelmingly so, but these days we haven’t got anything to prove to anyone.
“There haven’t been any power grabs and the more we do this, the more we relax into it.”
For Rowntree, “the source of Blur magic is the chemistry between the four of us.
“In the first years of the band, I remember reading an article in the music business press about there being an estimated 100,000 bands in the country.
“But how many of them were bull-headed enough to push on through the chaos and rejections and end up being blessed enough to play gigs like Wembley and have their songs held in such high esteem?”
Crucial to the current get-together, just like the last, is that Blur have a new album to promote as well as playing all the old favourites.
The Ballad Of Darren serves as the long-awaited follow-up to 2015’s The Magic Whip.
‘Every song like a single to me’
Earlier this year, Albarn told me how the album took full shape after the band’s Wembley announcement last November.
“I’d been having quite a good run with my songwriting,” he said. “But I didn’t tell anyone I was writing a Blur album.
“I pretty much wrote it on the road with Gorillaz. I even demoed the songs on my travels.”
Then, having returned to the UK, he “wrote some more over Christmas” and, “by the New Year, had 24 songs ready to record”.
Time was of the essence to get an album out by summer so sessions began in January under the watchful eye of James Ford, the producer best known for his work with Arctic Monkeys.
Rowntree is thrilled with the results of their efforts and says: “Every song we’ve ever written sounds like a single to me.
“I’m invested in them all and, to be honest, I’m quite offended that the ones which weren’t singles, weren’t singles!”
The first new track to be released, The Narcissist, has gone down a storm and Rowntree is quick to praise their producer for his role in the recording.
“James Ford is a self-effacing, modest guy,” he says. “He told me that his main contribution to the album was to turn The Narcissist, which started life as a ballad, into an up-tempo song.
“Although that’s utter nonsense because he did so much more, it’s true that it was transformed into an obvious first single.
“It’s already a huge live favourite and has done us so many favours. It’s very radio-friendly and we’re back in the charts in America, where we haven’t been for decades.”
Of the other tracks, Rowntree says he’s particularly fond of Barbaric which allies jangly guitars and punchy drums to a bruised Albarn vocal.
He also mentions the dreamy, echo-laden Far Away Island, underpinned by military-style drumming, and horn-fuelled Avalon, which draws on jazz and music hall to great effect.
As for James, he recalls the day they recorded the biggest banger, St. Charles Square, named after a place in Ladbroke Grove, not far from Albarn’s Studio 13.
He says: “When the chorus kicked in and Damon was rattling around on the acoustic guitar, it was like, ‘Oh my God, this feels so good.’
With its glam rock vibe, St. Charles Square has proved to be a breathless and brilliant opener for the live shows.
The desperate-sounding lyrics namecheck Gorillaz drummer Pauli. We find Albarn in a “basement flat with window bars” and “something down here/and it’s living under the floorboards”.
Cue a tortured howl that puts it in the same bracket as Warren Zevon’s cult classic Werewolves Of London. Rowntree says: “Damon’s demo had a satisfying scratchiness about it that suggested Roxy Music or Bowie to me.
“There’s an effect you can put on the snare drum which instantly suggests all of that, so with absolutely no embarrassment whatsoever I simply used it.”
James maintains that the whole album “is really well played, well recorded and well sung. Somehow or other, everybody seems to have got better.
“When we started out, Damon literally couldn’t play The Entertainer.
“Now he’s an incredible pianist and I love his voice. He’s never stopped learning and that is true of us all.”
And Rowntree again: “I hesitate to say this because I knackered my knee playing tennis, but the sessions were like a game when your racket feels six feet across and every shot goes in.
“Most of what you hear is the first or second or third takes. It all sounds playful and full of excitement.”
James echoes his bandmate’s statement with the sort of quip you’d expect from a big foodie: “Everything happened that fast. It was like watching Mark Hix make an omelette!”
Before I let the Blur rhythm section go, I ask if they’d be up for future reunions after upcoming festivals in Europe, Japan and South America.
“I don’t feel as if we’ve drawn a line under anything,” says Rowntree. “But it took Wembley to tempt us because all the other projects we’ve been slaving over had to go on hold.
“We couldn’t say no to Hyde Park in 2009 or to headlining the Olympics party there in 2012.
“If we get another interesting opportunity, I imagine we’ll jump on that too.”
James agrees: “We all realise that it’s something that none of us can ever walk away from. Why would we want to? It is very emotional for us.”
Then he adds with one of his broad grins: “Keeping Albarn interested is absolutely vital.
“The minute he loses interest, he’ll be off to write another f***ing opera!”
The Ballad of Darren
Dave: How do you cry AND play the drums?
“WHEN the choir came on, I burst into tears.”
Blur drummer Dave Rowntree is reflecting on their Wembley Stadium gigs and the moment his emotions got the better of him.
During the encores, The London Community Gospel Choir sang with the band on the euphoric showstopper Tender.
Two giant mirrorballs and thousands of phone torch lights also helped make it an overwhelming atmosphere for Rowntree.
He says: “When the choir started, I was thinking, ‘How do you cry AND play the drums,’ because it’s a different skill entirely. The choir grew up with us. We’ve known many of them for 20 or 30 years. Then to hear the joy they bring to that song, it was all too much.”
So how did he feel about playing Wembley? “I was a bit nervous,” he replies. “I thought it would be a bit of a sprawl and the sound might be bad.
“But none of that was true. It’s actually a very small footprint for a stadium that holds so many people.
“You can look everybody in the eye and get a real sense of the impact you’re having. It felt very intimate.
“On both nights at Wembley, the magic was there. It was wonderful.” And what impression did he have of the Wembley audience? “Well, it wasn’t a nostalgia fest.
“It felt like we were the wrinklies and everyone else seemed quite young! Many of them clearly weren’t around the first time.”
I remind Rowntree that the departing crowd could be heard singing Tender down Wembley Way and into the Tube station.
“Yes, I saw a video and heard the beautiful acoustics of those echoey underground corridors,” he says. “We’ll need to collect some PRS (copyright) money from those audience members!”