West London Calling 

The Good, the Bad & the Queen’s superstar serenade

Wednesday, Feb 21 2007

“Well, first I found out he lived two streets away from me — amazing coincidence!” Damon Albarn is munching his supper, talking over the phone from England. Between bites, he explains how he first hooked up with bassist Paul Simonon of the Clash to form their new supergroup, The Good, the Bad & the Queen. “Paul came down and he liked the stuff, and from that moment onwards, we were on the right path. And that resulted in this record.”

Albarn — erstwhile leader of Britpop icons Blur and alternative concept band Gorillaz — also recruited guitarist Simon Tong (the Verve, Gorillaz), Fela Kuti drum master Tony Allen and producer Danger Mouse (Gorillaz, Gnarls Barkley, et al.). The result is a miraculously even-tempered presentation of beautifully moody — but not broody — tunes, evoking a trek from English music halls of lore down through punk rock, over to the Afrobeat and skanky dub styles of the ’60s and ’70s.

But before recording a note together, Albarn and Simonon sat and talked. Yeah, they talked about music and art and all that, but mostly they talked about their very special place of residence in West London. Particular aspects of the local history soon gave rise to a theme of sorts for the album, and it seems to have resonated well in England: The Good, the Bad and the Queen has topped the charts for weeks.

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“The part we live in, North Kensington, generally doesn’t get much funding,” the affable, unassuming Simonon chimes in. “But what’s interesting, you’ve got a lot of different cultures pretty much on the fringes or within the area of Portobello. Everyone’s from different places, different religions, but it’s not ghettoized. Everybody sort of brushes past each other and seems to get on okay. And I think that’s quite healthy.”

“It’s a very colorful place,” Albarn says. “Quite mixed, diverse. It has all the classic social barriers and ghettos, but they seem to be in a kind of coexistent and fluid way. And it’s on top of a hill, so you’ve got sunrises and sunsets — it’s a good starting point for something about the country and its horizons.”

Making music ’cause it feels like the right thing to do, at a specific time and place: It’s an oddly unusual scheme that can produce results of depth and subtle splendor. Such is the case with The Good, the Bad and the Queen. It’s a charming little artifact whose lack of pomp and circumstance summons savory pictures of a town and a time perhaps not so unlike our own. Cheering sundown music, you could say.

Albarn felt this record needed at least two things: collaboration with truly sympathetic souls, and excellent bass playing. Simonon hadn’t been playing much bass since his Clash days, instead devoting his time to his passion for painting “and playing spaghetti-Western guitar over dub records.” But with Albarn, he found it easy to get back into the swing of bass — and found himself digging it.

“Well, it’s funny,” he says, “because about two months before I got the call from Damon, I had done a small show with Mick Jones, Bobby Gillespie [Primal Scream] and some other luminaries for a friend’s birthday party. I hadn’t played bass for a very long time, not in public, anyway, not on a record or anything. And I suppose I got a bit of a taste of it, you know?”

And then he found a great new mate in Albarn, a much younger artist with whom he nevertheless shared a lot of musical tastes and, even more, whose personal integrity Simonon was partial to.

“I quite admired the fact that Damon had turned down an invitation when Tony Blair was going into office,” says Simonon. “Blair invited all the pop stars and personalities of the day to come down to celebrate his entry into No. 10 Downing Street, and Damon sent a letter saying that he wasn’t gonna be going. It’s the sort of thing that I feel important, that maybe musicians shouldn’t find themselves too closely connected to politicians, especially if they’ve just been voted in, because you never know what their policies are and how things will go, and you’re all tied in with that by association.”

The Good, the Bad and the Queen — “a narrative of moods,” as Albarn tells it — is framed like a night’s bill of moderately rocked-up vaudeville, albeit somewhat charcoal-colored. Primarily built on a jam, “History Song” employs sparely plucked acoustic guitar over skeletal yet polyrhythmic drums, bass and organ to feel like something the Lee Perry of the late ’60s might have done. It’s an Afrobeat-tinged lullaby grappling with, and finally settling on, a state of mind. The amusing “80’s Life” is a dreamy doo-wopper, with sincere dip-dip-dip backing vocals, saved from sliding into Sha Na Na by Albarn’s gruff attempts at high notes.

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