AWhile Blur ruled the 90s, and Damon Albarn’s bouncy songs about the English language became an example of Britpop, Graham Coxon was usually found frowning behind the band’s group photos. Coxon’s MO as their guitarist often involved throwing “anti-solos” into the machine, the band’s skeptical counterweight.
The two had met at school in Colchester, Essex, where they attended art school in London, where they were at the center of two creative movements: the Goldsmiths’ art set that would become the YBAs, and the bands that would create a new sound. lead. A look at the music press at the time would have revealed that Coxon, bespectacled, sharp and just as fond of American music as The Kinks, was not always enthusiastic about his band’s direction of travel.
The more upbeat Blur’s singles became, the less apparent was the band’s arched eyebrow, or their rural, bittersweet undertones, or their wide range of influences. A flashpoint was Blur’s 1995 hit Country House – ostensibly a satire on success – and the Damien Hirst-directed video. As the band watched Archboy Keith Allen as busty young women pastich Benny Hill, Coxon felt the band’s sense of irony return to itself.
His discomfort with sexism – and success – was played out in interviews. Coxon’s then-partner was in the riot band Huggy Bear, and at the height of Blur’s fame, Coxon withdrew from “high street Blur” to the grassroots DIY punk scene. Other tensions tugged at Blur – both Coxon and drummer Dave Rowntree struggled with alcoholism. Coxon went into rehab in 2001 and the rest of Blur made their album Thinktank without him.
All this is a matter of publicity. Written with the journalist Rob Young – author of Electric Edenan introduction to the transport qualities of British folk music – Coxon’s memoirs reveal nothing new about a much cataloged era.
However, it tells a series of familiar stories – Britpop, the madness that is fame, band struggle, addiction – with disarming candor. Coxon can be lyrical when he talks about the music he loves – from the Who to the obscure American band Mission of Burma – but his tone is usually business-like. There’s a refreshing innocence in his prose when he talks about the much-maligned 12-step program, for example. “Nobody teaches you this stuff,” he riffs — mostly, navigating success and relationships.
It’s a surprise—or perhaps no surprise at all—that Coxon doesn’t say music is fun until more than 200 pages, when he’s touring the short, cutting tracks from his fifth solo album with a group of friends in small venues. Hilariously, Coxon, the naysayer, does exhibit rock star demeanor. He lives for a while in a very large house in the countryside (usually as a hermit, walking around in his pants). He likes to tinker with vintage motorcycles. He immerses himself in spiritualism and Wicca. He moves to LA (but returns soon). Fender makes a Telecaster in his honor.
A recent piece in the Guardian noted the notable number of hardcore punk musicians who had grown up as army children. Born in Germany, Coxon also moved on different bases, experiencing the kind of unsupervised 1970s youth full of sharp edges and casual violence that now seems heartbreaking. Raised in Derbyshire and not wealthy, Coxon was particularly annoyed when Blur was cast as chic southern kids to the more hardscrabble Oasis.
In art, Coxon found both an exorcism and a stylistic exercise. (He mostly drew monsters.) In music, however, he found a strain, and in alcohol a balm for his deep-seated fear and the “constant buzz of shame.” Verse, Chorus, Monster! was written during lockdown, after much therapy; Coxon has been sober for several years. You suspect that Rob Young was chosen as a sounding board because some time ago – certainly in time for his 2009 album The spinning toll – Coxon fell hard for the open tunings and the complex finger work of folk revival guitarists such as Bert Jansch and Martin Carthy. Like the feminist punk scene in the 90s, folk were another tribe from which Coxon (the fictional “pop star”) expected a rejection. Instead, he found acceptance. Verse, Chorus, Monster! breaks off with Coxon, a classically tortured musician, on a blessed smock.
Verse, Chorus, Monster! by Graham Coxon is published by Faber (£20). In support of the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply