Graham Coxon: The Curious Flights of an Art-Pop Aerialist

Charles Saufley May 15, 2018

At the apex of Blur’s mid-’90s superstardom, a casual listener could be forgiven for failing to hear Graham Coxon’s guitar brilliance. Songs from Parklife and The Great Escape—records that virtually defined the cultural earthquake called Britpop—were so overflowing with hooks, brass, bubbling synths, radical song-to-song stylistic shifts, and Damon Albarn’s characters writ in boldface that Coxon’s fretwork could seem relegated to the sidelines.

But for those who listened deeper and looked beyond the mania surrounding Blur at the time, Coxon’s hit-and-run shards of chord deconstruction, Fripp-fired leads, and impeccable sense of rhythm and timing were nuggets of pure musical treasure.

Like ’60s British players who assimilated American blues and international influences to brew their own pot of gumbo, Coxon wed his love for unbridled American iconoclasts like Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., and Yo La Tengo to a foundation built on the Smiths and U.K. indie, Canterbury prog, free jazz, krautrock, the Kinks, the Fall, and My Bloody Valentine. And his ability to channel those divergent influences via a vivid musical imagination and raw, instinctive virtuosity made Coxon a potent, protean, and artful guitarist in a British scene that could be pathologically regressive.

To fans who stayed on or joined anew for the post-Britpop LPs Blur and 13, or caught the band live, Coxon’s skills became profoundly apparent. His restless sense of experimentalism blossomed and thrived on Blur and 13, as Albarn warmed to Coxon’s American indie fascinations and the band embraced shared affections for dub, electronica, African pop, hip-hop, and folk. Blur’s live shows, meanwhile, revealed that Coxon could move from Gilmour-scale grandeur to hardcore punk thuggery and unhinged sound sculpture—sometimes in a single song.

“A lot of that freedom in the playing comes from art school. The guitar is my favorite paintbrush.”

Like Nirvana a few years before them, Blur brought indie aesthetics and ideals to the masses, often with uncomfortable and unintended consequences. Yet for all the discord Blur’s success stoked within the band (and among boyhood friends Coxon and Albarn, in particular), it led to fruitful creative tensions. Indeed, the sound of Coxon bursting at the seams—alternatingly weaving chaos, squall, and filigreed beauty around Albarn’s pop ideas—became the backbone of much of Blur’s most vital and enduring work.

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