TGTBTQ | Time Out London – October 2006

Damon Albarn & Paul Simonon 

‘The first part of the show, I was playing piano with the Buena Vista Social Club, which was amazing,’ says Albarn ‘And I was on such a high afterwards, just for getting away with playing with them. Someone passed me this bottle of overproof rum, and it all went a bit wrong there. When I came back on to play with Tony I just could not find the beat at all. It was terrible. And about halfway through I just wandered over and started hugging Tony like this [treats Time Out to a full-body bear-hug] while he was drumming. Funnily enough, though, we made some kind of bond there. He just laughed, he could see that I’d just got carried away with how exciting it all was, and he invited me over to Nigeria.’

And so off he went, with Gorillaz producer Danger ‘Brian Burton’ Mouse for company. Aside from getting ‘far too stoned’, Albarn admits he didn’t achieve much during the Nigerian sessions. Although he was happy with the tracks put together by the band, Albarn didn’t feel there was any ‘grit’ to his own contribution. For his part, Allen seems highly impressed with Albarn’s skills as a composer.

‘Damon is an inspiration,’ says Earth’s coolest percussionist. ‘I’ve seen good composers before, but Damon is completely different. His way of composing, it is like genius to me. I like to do things the way he wants it. I don’t want to impose myself on anything; I like to do things the way he wants them to be.’ Which is quite a compliment coming from a man who wouldn’t take direction from Fela Kuti.

But it was Burton who first suggested that Damon needed to reconnect with his home town. Since 1997, when Blur veered towards a more American-indie direction at the insistence of guitarist Graham Coxon, Albarn hadn’t felt comfortable writing about his own city, or life, and even after returning to Westbourne Grove he was still unsure of how to approach the task.

‘Then I just thought… Paul Simonon,’ he says. Luckily for him, Albarn works in an alternate reality, where he can just ring up Paul Simonon and Paul Simonon will come round for coffee. Simonon grins. ‘I thought: It’s not every day you get a phone call off a genius asking you round… why not?’ As it happens, he didn’t have far to go: the two of them live a couple of streets away from each other in west London.

Although they have a lot in common musically – both were in bands that famously rooted their songwriting in London and both are heavily influenced by black music – it was their shared local knowledge that formed the basis for The Good, The Bad And The Queen. That day the two of them began a conversation that has effectively become an album, and which continues to this day. Really, you should see them talking about it – they’re like an old couple, finishing each other’s sentences and bringing up shared experiences.

‘We spent a lot of nights drinking and discussing our experiences,’ says Simonon, ‘talking about how strange it is that in this part of town, what were once slums are now back to being one-family Victorian houses, but next door is a council estate that was Victorian houses that were knocked down. That weird ecosystem where the rich are there, the poor are there and on the weekend they meet up.’

‘Where I live on Westbourne Grove,’ chips in Albarn, ‘which now is one of the ponciest parts of the area, it’s gone back to the way it was before. In the mid-nineteenth century, it was called Westbournia, because it was this kind of utopian, unrealistic, ridiculous kind of place. People constantly went bankrupt because the shop rents were too high, which is exactly the same as what’s happening now.’

And they’re off. The ensuing conversation about the development of the area, home to The Clash’s beloved Westway, takes in the Ladbroke family’s purchase of Ladbroke Grove, Lord Hill’s ownership of Westbourne Park, the Rachman era and the Profumo affair. Albarn and Simonon’s impressive command of local history would make a great open-top bus tour, although it probably wouldn’t move very fast, or go very far.

Even though the album won’t be released until next year, ‘The Good, The Bad And The Queen’ makes its debut next week at the Electric Proms, a new urban festival set up by the BBC. The Electric Proms are intended to lend the same weight to pop music as the somewhat more famous classical Proms, which the Beeb has been sponsoring for an astounding 80 years.

The electric version has a similar raison d’être – all the artists who have been invited to take part have been asked to produce something new for the event, whether that’s arranging their existing works in a new way or, say, putting together a brand new super-group spanning three continents and three generations. Sadly the tickets for the GBQ night sold out ages ago, but that doesn’t mean you can’t see the show. Each performance for the Electric Proms will be shown on TV and streamed over the internet so that everyone in the country can join in the fun, as part of the Electric Proms’ remit to provide some value for all that licence fee money.

Festival director Lorna Clarke says, ‘I don’t want people to just do tried and tested work, I want it to be a mixture, I want people to present music that people haven’t heard before. Some people said, “Well, that’s not gonna work, is it? People won’t know the words, so they won’t know if they like it or not, and how are you going to sell any tickets?” I said, “Well, you have to give more faith to Londoners. They’re pretty sophisticated actually.” ’

Quite aside from the GBQ debut, the rest of the line-up draws a line through the evolution of London’s music, from a rare appearance by first-generation calypso guru Young Tiger to a set from Time Out favourite Jamie T, whose punky songwriting casually subsumes elements of all forms of music from dub to hip hop.

Between its dubbed-out basslines, uncomputable Afrobeat rhythms and sprawling ambitions, the GBQ album should sound like it comes from an undiscovered continent. In reality, it sounds like it could only have been made in London. The actual sound of it, however, is hard to describe. It’s filmic, certainly. Atmospheric, without doubt. And it’s definitely good. Very good – you’ll like it. Beyond that, you’ll have to make your own mind up what it sounds like. It’s the product of four very individual musicians (five counting Danger Mouse) taking a sound in numerous very different directions. Ultimately, it’s in the greatest tradition of London music, and life. That is, it’s a jumble of styles, attitudes, language and fashions stolen from all over the world, recombined and repackaged in a fresh way, and stamped for export. After all, most of the things that make London so great, from Cleopatra’s Needle to shwarma kebabs, were stolen from other countries during the age of empire.

‘We’re a nation of pirates, really,’ muses Simonon. ‘And I suppose musically we’ve been that too. We took what’s become known as rock ’n’ roll and we sold it back to the Americans. Unfortunately The Beatles, in my opinion anyway, ruined American music, because they displaced a lot of great music. Now Americans have generally never heard of Bo Diddley and aren’t really in touch with their heritage.’

‘The Beatles are to America,’ deadpans Albarn, ‘what Green Day was to The Clash.’

The album is an attempt, if not to make sense of the glorious chaos of living here, then at least to quantify it. The citizens of London, as you’re probably aware, are remarkably resilient and capable of handling anything from terrorist attacks to the rush-hour Northern Line. This is a city that still has fond memories of the Blitz, after all. However, we’re also past masters at ignoring problems, whether it’s someone struggling with a pushchair on the stairs or a subculture searching for acceptance. We frequently need someone to set the conversational agenda, and for that, we usually turn to music. A few days later we meet up for a yoghurt with renaissance rasta Don Letts. Photographer, filmmaker, musician, commentator and all that, Letts is a mutual friend of the band’s leaders and a very useful person to talk to if you want some perspective on the evolution of London’s music.

‘When I went to reggae clubs, it was a strictly black affair,’ he says. ‘Then comes ’77, I’m taking Johnny Rotten and Joe Strummer to Four Aces, which was the darkest reggae club in England. Now here we are 2006, you go to a Jah Shaka event, it’s like the bloody United Nations, there’s no colour bar, man. And that’s just in my lifetime – government didn’t do that, school didn’t do that, politics didn’t do that, music did that. And that’s a fact.’

Letts first met Simonon back in the late ’70s, when The Clash were beginning their experiments with bringing reggae, funk and even disco into their speedball punk template and Letts was working at clothes shop Acme Attractions. By the early ’80s, as Operation Swamp ’81 set race relations back approximately a century while William Whitelaw denied the existence of institutional racism, black and white youths were already making unsupervised inroads to integration at places like The Roxy, a reggae club run by Letts.

‘That musical reportage quality that black music has, particularly in the ’60s and ’70s, is what attracted the punks. Music was about something. When people were singing “Burn down Babylon” or “I need a roof over my head”, these were things my white mates could easily identify with.’

This idea of musical reportage didn’t start with reggae, however. Going back to the Windrush generation, the newsreel footage of calypsonian Lord Kitchener playing his newly composed ‘London Is The Place For Me’ at Tilbury docks hinted at a new, exciting, exotic age. But faced with a post-war economic slump, the days of beer and roses were over. Within two years, Kitchener was writing the likes of ‘Chicken And Rice’, about being chased down Shaftesbury Avenue by a cleaver-wielding chef after doing a runner from a Chinese restaurant.

These days, of course, calypso is best known to most Londoners as the wellspring of the Notting Hill Carnival, whose gigawatt sound systems are a very different dutchy of saltfish to its origins. And that, fundamentally, is what makes London’s music scene so great. Whether it’s new people, new cultures or new sounds, it’s never ‘them’ who assimilate, it’s us. London’s culture is the result of a continual conversation every bit as wide-ranging and nerdy as Albarn and Simonon’s.

‘Through years of colonialism and the empire bringing in these different influences, English culture is constantly evolving. There’s no full stop,’ says Letts. ‘You put the Union Jack on it, all of a sudden you think it’s Empire-made. But if you know your shit, you know they got their tea from India, they got their potatoes from America. And that’s why I love London, because there is an interaction between the different cultures that doesn’t exist anywhere else on the planet. One of the obvious examples is the different youth movements and subcultures that we throw up every few months. That turnover of ideas doesn’t exist anywhere else.’

It’s true that London has punched well above its weight since we first stole rock ’n’ roll, mostly thanks to our natural instinct to respray the stuff we’ve pinched. From injecting new influences into the beat template in the ’60s to the experimental post-punk funk of acts like Johnny Rotten’s PiL and Letts’ Big Audio Dynamite, London has set a standard for splicing sounds that is still unrivalled. But it’s not just the sound of the music which has made it uniquely London, it’s what it has been saying. Even acid house, commonly seen as drug-driven drop-out music for E-munchers, was the soundtrack to widespread civil disobedience. Music, even repetitive instrumental bleepy music, is our social solvent, dissolving our barriers to bond us together.

Letts believes that, though it’s a sad state of affairs, it has become music’s responsibility to speak for those without voices. Music, he reckons, has the power to say things that public figures are only prepared to admit in private, and give us insights into lives we’d otherwise be terrified of asking about. So if you’d like to stop yourself being scared of Islamist terror cells and ricin poison and Sunny Delight bombs on your Ryanair flight, perhaps you should pop along to some of next week’s Ramadan Nights festival, where sufi music’s finest will soothe your paranoia.

‘The struggles that they had in the ’60s and ’70s that spawned those lyrics,’ says Letts, ‘people think they’ve been won, but they ain’t. They have just been shifted or relocated, to another race or religion or geographic sector. It’s like Gil Scott Heron said: “What happened to protest, man?” ’The biggest protest in London’s history was the 2003 march against the invasion of Iraq, which saw over a million people take to the streets to have their opinion ignored. Although ‘The Good, The Bad And The Queen’ is celebratory, the spectre of that period does hang over it, particularly on the cheerily named ‘Kingdom Of Doom’, which contains the memorable line ‘Drinking all day ’cos the country’s at war’. ‘I think that’s one of my favourite lines on the album,’ Albarn grins. ‘It says how I feel some days. Not that I’m drinking all day, but that the pubs are open all the time.’

‘It’s that sense of helplessness too,’ chimes in Simonon. ‘The country is at war, and like Damon says, people are drinking all day, trying to ignore it, because one can feel powerless. That’s how I read it, anyway, but maybe somebody who’s in a pub all day might go, “Wahey! Yeah! War time!” ’

Damon: ‘You can drink all day, shop all day, watch telly all day and then you add that line, “the country’s at war”, at the end of a sentence and it’s a different world. Even the news is consumerist. Life wouldn’t be normal at the moment unless every night there was someone getting blown up in Iraq. That is the whole crazy thrust of the not-so-hidden agenda of politics over the last five years. It relies on that picture being there, in bars or stations, in shops, you catch a little bit of this chaos on the TV, while you’re looking at that new pair of trainers. They work together in a weird way [mimes looking at telly out of corner of his eye]. “Oh, oh, I’ll get the trainers” [mimes running out of shop].’

There’s been a lot of dirty water under the 12 bridges since the war began, and even that march has become just one of those strange things, like riots, royal deaths and disorientated whales, that amounted to nothing more than an away day for London. We share these historical moments, even start talking to each other on public transport, but then we forget all about them. It’s like bumping into an old friend on the tube and swearing you’ll never lose touch again, and then another birthday goes by and you realise you already have.

London’s always had its mobs…’ says Simonon. ‘But then it just disappears like that,’ Albarn snaps his fingers, ‘and everyone just sinks back into the brickwork.’

‘Apparently,’ says Simonon, warming to the theme, ‘in something like 1870, there was gonna be this big takeover of the government and whatever. Everyone was supposed to meet on a certain day and have this big riot. But unfortunately it was raining that day and no one turned up.’

‘The weather has been the blight of English revolution since time immemorial,’ says Albarn.

‘But there’s also a strange element where there’s the working class who respect the Queen,’ Simonon continues. ‘When we had the Silver Jubilee, it was the working class who were really into celebrating with tea parties and flags. It’s like, when I was a kid, I remember going to West Indian people’s homes with my schoolfriends, and there’d always be a picture of the Queen on the wall, a lot like with a Catholic family where there’d be a picture of the Pope. That was odd because we didn’t have a picture of the Queen in our house. We probably had one of Lenin. It’s the good, the bad and the Queen, I suppose. The Queen’s just… there.’

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