It's the oldest story in rock ’n’ roll. Band achieves national stardom with singalong hits. Band becomes drunk, jaded and wracked with self-loathing. Band attempts to cull teenybopper fanbase with a willfully ‘difficult’ album.
Just four years after Blur won the so-called Battle of Britpop, pipping Oasis’s Roll With It to the UK No 1 spot with their own Country House, the London band were virtually unrecognisable on 1999’s 13: a sixth album that replaced pop hooks and parping horns with shrapnel riffs, bleepy noises and a sense of creeping dread. With frontman Damon Albarn nursing his breakup from Elastica’s Justine Frischmann on the lyric sheet and producer-of-the-moment William Orbit adding an icy sheen from the mixing desk, this was music to clear a house party. You either loved it or you hated it.
But whatever you thought of 13, Coffee + TV was irresistible: a sunkissed pop classic built on a thunking Tele rhythm and a haunted verse vocal from guitarist Graham Coxon. “Coffee + TV,” he told Total Guitar in 2012, “is about the idea that you feel like a piece of sh** in a crap job, and you want to marry someone and get away from it all.
“Damon was writing it,” Coxon continued, “and he said, ‘I can’t get anything together for this’, so I said, ‘Well, I’ll write some lyrics tonight’. So I went home, and had a big row with my girlfriend, because I’d gone through some old sketch books looking for little bits of writing that might help with this lyric, and she thought that I was writing a song about an old girlfriend. So she went off her head at me! I sang the verse, because in Blur it was basically that thing where if you write the words then you sing, like the ‘Oh my baby' bits in Tender.”
Coffee + TV opens with a brief harmonic scuttle up the neck, but the song kicks off in earnest with the chunky chording at 0:14. “It’s that thing of updating cheesy clichés: I like doing that,” says Coxon. “That rhythm is very old. I liked Link Wray and I think it’s really a Simon & Garfunkel kinda rhythm. There’s a Sonic Youth song called Sunday that has that similar rhythm, too, but I think the biggest influence for me was Stockholm Syndrome by Yo La Tengo, from an amazing album called I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One, which is this almost Neil Young-y thing.
"The Coffee + TV chord shapes are just ridiculous," added Coxon. "They’re just unusual. They’re not normal. They’re sort of minor chords going against major chords. That’s another case of me making life very difficult for myself!”
Coffee + TV was blown skyward with a classic Albarn pop chorus, but the creative tug-of-war between the singer and guitarist was palpable as the solo landed. As a lead player, Coxon had always been unpredictable – this was the same man who saddled Country House with a teeth-on-edge guitar break – and on both the Coffee + TV solos, he was in an abstract mood. “That was my first go,” he recalled of the final cut. “I said, ‘Look there’s a gap here, shall we have an organ solo or a guitar solo?’ and everyone said, ‘Well, just stick a guitar solo on there for now’. You know, claim that space, sort of thing. So I said, ‘Yeah, all right then: roll it.’ And I was doing that thing of just grabbing the neck and bending. I wasn’t really looking at the fretboard.”
Coxon remembered tracking with a '50s reissue Fender Telecaster into a Marshall Plexi, but admits he couldn’t replicate the effects-laden freakout on the solo if he tried. “I was just stamping on anything,” he says. “Sometimes I was looking at the effects pedals and sometimes I was looking at where my fingers were. I don’t even remember which pedals: I only know them from the colours, and anyway, they’d all been put into a big box so I couldn’t see the actual pedals themselves.
"I think there’s a bit of Boss tremolo on there, there’s definitely some vibrato at times, a couple of Rats that were on at the same time, lots of distortion, the odd squeak of feedback. So I just did that, and I thought, ‘Pfft, that’ll do for now, but it’s a bit ropey’, and put it aside.”
Coxon assumed the solo would be revisited, but later decided its impulsive feel couldn’t be topped. “Three days later we were listening back to Coffee + TV, to maybe do a vocal on it, and we were like, ‘F***ing hell, this solo is great!’” he remembered. “It had sort of taken root in the song and just sounded totally great, so we kept it.
"I like the idea of improvisations because they do eventually [grow on you]. I was talking to someone about the way that sounds can develop like a photograph. Because I could have said, ‘Oh, that was bloody nonsense, let’s do another one’, and then I’d have lost that solo. But because it was developed and sat there for a couple of days, it became the guitar solo.”
Coffee + TV reached UK No 11 in the summer of 1999, and was arguably the final Blur release that would be whistled by the milkman. When he talked to Total Guitar 13 years later, Coxon was aware he’d have to play this fan-favorite when Blur headlined the Olympics closing ceremony in Hyde Park, and was mildly terrified by the prospect. Coffee + TV, he reminded the magazine, is trickier to nail than you’d think. “It’s stressful,” he grinned. “If you work it out, then send me a copy, because I always forget bits!”