[MUSICIAN IN BLUR; GORILLAZ; THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE QUEEN]
[FORMERLY OF THE CLASH; NOW IN THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE QUEEN]
A Love of Dickens
A group hug with Chrissie Hynde
Damon Albarn (Blur, Gorillaz) and Paul Simonon (The Clash) have a new group together. It’s called the Good, the Bad and the Queen. The music they play is loose like comfy clothes and stylistically untucked—English songs constructed without zips and buttons, but underpinned with a twangy gusset courtesy of Tony Allen, the Nigerian drum master. Their first, eponymous album was released in early 2007 on the Parlophone/ Honest Jons label.
If the group has a purpose, it is to explore themes arising from Albarn and Simonon’s mutual love of their home territory: North Kensington, that storied part of west London mythologized by The Clash following the fiery race riots of ’76. This handsomely decayed (and renewed) couple of square miles is variously identified as “Notting Hill,” “Ladbroke Grove” and “Portobello” by those who live there, depending on which bit of it they choose to identify themselves with. “Notting Hill” usually means well-heeled bohemian; “Portobello” means mercantile bohemian; “Ladbroke Grove” or “The Grove” means you have a lot of reggae records. Well, it used to. Paul Simonon has spent much of the past thirty years drawing and painting the area: its people, its weather, its fetishes, its street furniture, its debris. The area proudly retains a melting-pot identity, but be aware: there’s an awful lot more money now than there was in ’76.
The Believer met Paul and Damon in a swanky new café off Powis Square. Both men wore black pinstripe suits and open-necked shirts, Paul’s in the open-weave, big-collared Jamaican style. He wore a key round his neck on a chain. The cafe would not permit the members of the Good, the Bad and the Queen to smoke.
DAMON ALBARN: We have a very open view of the world and a great interest in everything in it, so in a way we don’t feel shackled by the political correctness in this country, where you can’t really articulate your Englishness. We feel like we’re free of that. It’s obvious that we’re not BNP-supporting white supremacists [as in the extreme right-wing, racist British National Party], so we can actually talk in these terms.
PAUL SIMONON: I don’t know whether it’s an English thing, but there is, it seems to me, a tradition of English poets who celebrate the fact that it’s an awful day—it’s raining, it’s cloudy, and my love has left me. But I’m still here and at least it’s raining…
THE BELIEVER: You sound like a right pair of twenty-first-century flaneurs.
DA: What’s a flaneur?
BLVR: Iain Sinclair, who wrote Lights Out for the Territory, that wandering-and-wondering-about-London book—he’s a kind of a flaneur. A flaneur is a person, usually bohemian in stripe, who walks the streets of the city ingraining himself in them, all the better to register their beauty, I suppose…
DA: Well, I’m not an extremist. But sometimes when I’m on top of this hill that we live on, I close my eyes and imagine the forest that once stood there and see the reflection of the sun setting down in the valley of the Thames and… and if that’s a flaneur, then that’s what I am.
PS: I’ve seen it, too. When I was doing a whole series of paintings of the Thames, I was at the top of the Shell-Mex Building—which was hard to get into because they thought I was going to abseil down the outside of it—I was there for months painting and painting. And there were moments when the whole structure of the city would fall away and for a second I could see Roman London. And then it was the Queen Mother’s birthday and there was a flight over the city, of Lancasters and Spitfires, and then I’d be seeing London in the Blitz. When you’re painting hard and really concentrating, you forget you’ve been standing there for an hour and you’re freezing cold and you go into, well, not quite a dream state, but maybe more what Buddhists do when they meditate—you go into another realm and things seem to enter a different mode. The physicality is nonexistent but your mind is there.
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