Over the past 12 years Blur have amassed a string of quirky, melodic hits in England, many of which helped define the '90s Brit-pop movement. In the U.S., however, the band's only big song has been "Song 2," a short guitar-blaring stomper with a titanic riff and an unforgettable "wooo-hooo" shout-along. In 1997, the cut was used in numerous television commercials and many alternative radio stations still regularly play the track.
Blur are hoping history repeats itself, and it sounds like they've been making a concerted effort to improve their chances. Their new U.S. single, "Crazy Beat," might as well be called "Song 3." Produced by Fatboy Slim (a.k.a. Norman Cook), the cut is propelled by an explosive guitar rhythm and a crashing beat, and embellished with whirring sound effects and an electronic voice that repeats the track's title. While "Crazy Beat" may again endear Blur to an audience that likes its rock muscular, the track wasn't originally meant to be the kind you air guitar to while jumping on the bed.
"It started off in such a different way," frontman Damon Albarn explained. "The nearest thing I could compare it to is a really bad version of Daft Punk [a French disco house group]. So, we got sick of it and then put in that descending guitar line over it to rough it up a bit."
A conceptual video for the song was shot by Shynola at the end of March at Ealing Studios in London and premiered on MTV.com Thursday (check out the video for "Crazy Beat" here).
American listeners will probably always associate Blur circa 2003 with "Crazy Beat," but the track is the least representative cut on the group's new record, Think Tank, which comes out May 6.
The rest of the disc is filled with songs that are alternatively sweeping and melodic and spacious and artsy. Some sound like German bands such as Can and Neu! Others are reminiscent of Albarn's side project, Gorillaz, which is the main reason why founding guitarist Graham Coxon quit Blur after recording just one song with them, the moody "Battery in Your Leg." Coxon, who always resented Albarn's commitment to Gorillaz, was unhappy with the dancey direction the group seemed to be taking and bailed after the group hooked up with Fatboy Slim.
"I think we just grew apart," said Albarn, who previously had been best friends with Coxon. "I'd known him since he was 12, so it was one of the hardest things I've been through, but I'm very, very glad I did it because I think it's been a positive thing for both of us. But I do miss him terribly."
Without Coxon's presence, Blur's aesthetic changed radically. Instead of using skewed, scrawling guitar to drive the songs, the band relied on electronic loops and Alex James' sonorous bass playing.
"The rocking stuff [in the past] was more Graham than me, so we took a very different approach," Albarn said. "We started with a throw-the rulebook-out kind of thing. We'd already broken the basic rule of a band which is 'don't split,' so yeah, we recorded in any way we could."
Think Tank isn't a tight, compact record that reveals its purpose on first listen. It's sprawling, a little unfocused and lacks a strong guitar presence. The disc may not sound like anything old Blur fans are used to, but it reflects the creative environment in which the band found itself. Albarn played the few guitar parts on the record. Since then, ex-Verve guitarist Simon Tong has been hired to play with the band live.
"We started out not really prepared to be a three-piece band," Albarn said. "But we just got on with it, and having one less contributing character changed the whole sound and made it in some ways easier to realize the potential of the songs. We were forced to go with our instincts, so that's what we've done."