Julian Mash’s new book Portobello Road: Lives Of A Neighbourhood, celebrates 150 years of the iconic London street by telling the area’s alternative history. This is an extract from the book, a chapter featuring a new interview with Damon Albarn recalling the Blur frontman’s enduring relationship with Portobello.
As a teenager growing up in rural Herefordshire in the mid-1990s at the height of Britpop, I would read with envy about the club nights and gigs going on in London. I learnt that Camden was the scene’s Mecca, centred round pubs with names like the Good Mixer and the Dublin Castle. It all sounded terribly glamorous to my adolescent ears. But as an avid Blur fan, I heard references in Damon Albarn’s lyrics to another area of London: Portobello Road, the Westway and Trellick Tower. Looking back, I suppose this was my introduction to the neighbourhood, and when I ended up living here in the early 2000s I not only discovered the places he had referenced but also often saw the man himself sculling around the streets on his bike or strolling through the market.
Over the last ten years he has proven a prolific artistic force, forming the hugely successful virtual band Gorillaz, and turning his hand to film composition, opera, several African music projects and his super group the Good The Bad And The Queen featuring former Clash bassist Paul Simonon. But it is the area that anchors him, helping to feed his creativity, and he remains as passionate about it as when he first moved here in 1990. “I’ll never live anywhere else in London, or else I won’t live in London,” he tells me when we meet. It is a bright June morning at his recording studio, which is housed in a former car paint garage near Ladbroke Grove. “On the record I have just finished I’ve got references to All Saints Road, Westbourne Grove and Brunel Estate in one song. It is about the post-Carnival world where I have all these African animist gods roaming around the neighbourhood.”
He first visited Portobello Road as a schoolboy, venturing over to see his aunt, who had an office in Notting Hill. “She worked for the cartoonist Mel Calman. She was his accountant and I would visit her. As a kid it seemed like a very long way away from my home in Leytonstone.” The Albarn family had moved to Essex shortly after he was born in 1968, with his father Keith going on to become head of the North Essex College of Art. It was a bohemian background, where acting and music making were encouraged, and after dropping out of drama school aged eighteen, Damon formed Blur – or Seymour, as they were originally known – with friends from Goldsmiths College of Art. Playing early gigs (which he describes as “chaotic”) throughout 1989, he paid the rent by working behind the bar at the notorious Portobello Hotel at 22 Stanley Gardens. Since opening in 1971, it had become famous for attracting a rock’n’roll clientele, including Van Morrison, Mick Jagger and Tina Turner. Damon explained his duties there:
“I was living in Greenwich, so I had to cycle there, work all night, and then cycle back. My shift was 8pm to 8am. I did that for about a year. It was interesting because there were lots of very famous people staying up all night and I was barman and I had to give room service and all that. So it was a great education for me. That was right at the start of Blur. Graham [Coxon] and Alex [James] were still at Goldsmiths so we were just doing our first gigs. First on the bill at an indie all-dayer at the George Robey pub in Finsbury Park which meant we were on at eleven in the morning and just got pissed for the rest of the day, taking advantage of the beer coupons.”
When I ask if he has any juicy stories from this period he laughs, saying, “Yeah, there’s plenty of anecdotes but I’m not giving them to you because they’re for my book!” He goes on to explain that he moved into the area shortly after, in 1990, by which time Blur had signed a record deal. “I moved here first after meeting a very bright, beautiful girl called Justine Frischmann. My first real time spent here was when I moved in just off Kensington Church Street and then, because she came from quite a well-to-do family, she bought a house on Kensington Park Road near Elgin Crescent. So I was there for the whole of the 1990s. Then we split up and I bought a flat over Tom’s Café before buying a much bigger place just up Westbourne Grove.”
In that time he has seen the neighbourhood change immeasurably. “When I first moved onto Westbourne Grove there were pubs and a 24-hour garage, but virtually every other shop was an interesting antique or knick-knack shop. Now it is very soulless in that sense.” But he is adamant that the creative, bohemian population is still at large.
“We are all still here; we are just not as extrovert as our neighbours, so to speak. I genuinely don’t think that the people who live here and call it their home socialise with those who are more transient, who live here because they have got a great job and fancy living in West London. In time they’ll be gone – they are not here for ever. Westbourne Grove itself has a history of transients. When it was first built, it was a boutique shopping mall for wealthy Londoners. The same thing happened then as now. Rents became extortionate and people left. It all goes in cycles.”
He has worked from a number of studios in the area, the first of which was in the more cramped environment of the Buspace complex on Canlon Street. “I did the first two Gorillaz albums in that little studio, and then had enough money to find somewhere else. I nearly bought the old church on Golborne Road that Stella McCartney moved into, but at the time I had enough money to buy it but not to do it up, so I passed on that.”
When the old garage came on the market in 2006, he snapped it up and is obviously immensely proud of it, giving me the guided tour. The studio itself is full of keyboards and guitars, with exotic-looking African instruments propped up against the walls next to samplers and tangles of cables. Upstairs there is a large roof terrace backing on to the railway and Westway flyover. As a train trundles past he excitedly tells me of his plan to have a giant mural painted on the exterior wall depicting all the musicians who have recorded here – a roll call of names featuring, among others: Terry Hall, Martina Topley-Bird, De La Soul, Snoop Dogg, Bobby Womack and even former Oasis nemesis Noel Gallagher.
In the last 15 years, Damon has shown the ability to absorb new styles of music and incorporate them into his own unique voice. He explains how local record shop Honest Jon’s (located at 278 Portobello Road) has been crucial in this process. “I really got my taste together at Honest Jon’s and have been really influenced by them – first as a punter. I remember first going in there and being absolutely terrified and so ignorant – they just seemed so learned. But I got to know them and bought a lot of records. And that really was my passport, musically, for going to Africa and to Mali in particular.” He has made a number of trips to Mali, most recently to record the album Maison des Jeunes in one week as part of Africa Express, a cross-cultural collaboration that brings together Western and African musicians. “That has had a massive impact on me. After ten years of being in a band and the orthodoxy of that I found myself sitting in the back of minute little clubs in the backstreets of Bamako, just playing my melodica for hours on end. It was just a fantastic education.”
His friendship with Honest Jon’s has led to the formation of a record label established in partnership with the shop, something Damon is clearly passionate about. “It has done brilliant work and really helped to document the black music especially of this part of London. We have put out a lot of records directly relating to West London.”
But despite this ever-expanding musical palette and trips to Africa and China, he always returns to West London. It is here that he feels rooted and in touch with a certain creative energy that feeds into his work. His blue eyes sparkle as he enthuses about the sunsets on his home stretch of Westbourne Grove. “I am sure the Westbourne Grove is very ancient and that 2,000 years ago there was some sort of spiritual focus on top of that hill, because you get the most extraordinary sunsets up there. You feel as if you are directly underneath it, the colours and light are just incredible.”