Friday, March 9, 2007
If "The Good, the Bad & the Queen" were a fantasy novel, a good subtitle might be "A Series of Fortunate Events" that went something like this:
It's 2000, and Damon Albarn of Brit-pop darlings Blur gets soon-to-be departing guitarist Graham Coxon into the studio to do a track for a Blur best-of; it will be the last track featuring all the original band members. In "Music Is My Radar," Albarn name-checks the drummer and musical director of Fela Kuti's legendary Afrobeat band, Africa 70. "Tony Allen makes me dance" is the song's oft-repeated mantra, and a pleased Allen invites Albarn to Lagos, Nigeria, to appear on his "HomeCooking" album.
Albarn, just then scheming up a "virtual/cartoon band" project that will become Gorillaz, decides to do another album in Nigeria and recruits Allen, guitarist Simon Tong (the Verve, latter-day Blur and Gorillaz) and 20 African musicians. That album is shelved when Albarn decides to approach things a bit more simply with Allen, Tong and a surprising new recruit, Paul Simonon, former bassist for punk pioneers the Clash. Simonon hasn't played for a dozen years, during which time he has become an established painter.
Finally, Albarn enlists American producer Brian Burton (better known as Danger Mouse), a committed Anglophile who suggests that the new album should be very . . . English.
"The last thing I would have thought when Tony and I embarked on this journey was that we'd make a really English-sounding record," Albarn admitted recently from Manchester, England. "It was the thing furthest from my mind because I was in the head space of working with an African musician. But I just love working like that: Set up a situation and then go with it and see what happens, and don't be afraid if it ends up being sort of wrong. Mistakes in anything from mathematics to social reform have to be made, but then they should be learned from."
The end result was a band with no name, though the album title is standing in for one as Albarn and Co. embark on a short American tour, including a Wednesday show at the 9:30 club. Interestingly, "The Good, the Bad & the Queen" does not sound at all like what one might expect mixing Blur and the Clash with the Verve and Africa 70. It's restrained, impressionistic, cinematic, textural (moody "rock noir," one British critic suggested), and, Albarn insists, "it should sound like something different."
"I don't think any of us wanted to sound like stuff we've done before if we could avoid it, 'cause we've done that," he adds. "The Clash aren't going to be any better than the Clash, and Tony's never going to be any better than Tony Allen in Africa 70, know what I mean? It's time for everyone to do something new and enjoy this particular chemistry, rather than trying to compete with the past."
In fact, any past that informs "The Good, the Bad & the Queen" is not musical, but geographic. Both the Clash and Blur were noted for London-centric albums, "London Calling" and "Parklife" being respective examples. Albarn's out-of-the-blue call to Simonon led to several intriguing discoveries, such as that they lived less than two blocks apart in the richly multicultural North Kensington section of West London. Simonon had recently finished a series of landscapes inspired by the Thames River winding through London (see sidebar), and when they got together, he and Albarn found they'd also been reading the same books: Peter Ackroyd's "London: The Biography" and Michael Paterson's "Voices From Dickens' London."
"When I first met Damon, one of the things we first fell into was a big discussion about the area where we live, about London and its history and its future," Simonon recalls. "In some ways, it was a focus for the project as a starting point -- I suppose it's 'Write about what's on your doorstep.' "
As for Albarn, he says he'd "been inspired by the Clash and their [London] imagery back in the day. I felt like we were both very up to speed with each other: We shared an emotion about the city, and it was very easy to write, establishing that that would be a notion that was going to finish the story of the record."
The songs on "The Good, the Bad & the Queen" are rich with imagery and geographical references, not just to London but to an adjoining countryside slowly changing with the incursion of modern life: The haunted "History Song" conjures "Sundays lost in melancholy" while "Herculean" celebrates "the ghosts gone by." The album tempers romanticism with melancholy; the latter, Albarn concedes, "infuses this project more so than any other, but there has always been an element of that in the way I write music."
But, Albarn says, "I also wanted to ring a few bells," so there are songs addressing the dangers of global warming, political apathy, the war in Iraq and "other things we all have to deal with as human beings on this planet."
In fact, Simonon says he was curious to meet Albarn "because I liked his stance as a human being and his political outlook, felt we probably had quite a few things in common. And I really respect his music; what he's done is pretty fantastic stuff. I went [to the first meeting] out of curiosity, as well as just to hear a couple of tracks, and the discussions went along several different lines about getting involved in what was yet a nameless project.
"As it turned out, we all got on very well, and after about a week, and meeting Simon and Tony and Danger Mouse, we seemed to have quite a good, open, working unit going there. Nobody was too precious about anything, everybody contributed and it seemed a very healthy working environment. And before we knew it, we'd made a record."
For Albarn, this is a common occurrence, and though Blur may be on hiatus, his activities are something of a blur. As the new group was preparing for its American tour, Albarn was in Manchester doing phone interviews while workshopping "Monkey: Journey to the West," a Chinese opera collaboration with director Chen Shi-Zheng and Gorillaz/"Tank Girl" artist Jamie Hewlett, who is doing the sets and costumes for 45 Chinese circus acrobats, Shaolin monks and Chinese vocalists. Based on the monkey king myth, the opera will open the Manchester International Festival in late June; it's also where Gorillaz staged the first live performances of "Demon Days Live" in November 2005.
As soon as the tour is done, Albarn will move ahead on a full-length Gorillaz animated feature. "[Director] Terry Gilliam is in the loop, so it's going to be a fascinating journey making that film," Albarn says.
The Gorillaz project, built on Albarn's artistic conception and songwriting, was partly funded by the success of Blur's "Song 2," ubiquitous in commercials and sports arenas. Now royalties from the two Gorillaz albums -- 12 million sold worldwide -- are funding future Albarn projects.
"We were astounded that we managed to get it to this point," Albarn says of Gorillaz's left-field success. "At first, it was just going to be an album, very experimental and odd, but we had a blast doing it. The first album did what it did, and we tried to make a film, realized we weren't ready for it and made [the multi-artist] 'Demon Days,' which I think is such a brilliant collaborative effort" (and where Albarn first worked with producer Danger Mouse).
Though Albarn is obviously a master of multi-tasking, he's focused on the Good, the Bad & the Queen, which, like Gorillaz, may have started out as a one-time project but could also become an open-ended one.
"I hope so," Albarn says. "I absolutely love being in this kind of environment with these personalities, and we all get along brilliantly. It's about the willingness of everyone to sit down again and spend that amount of time again. It's not like everyone's at the beginning of their lives, and everyone has their own projects, so it's hard to plan. But I'd love to do a really electronic record with the four of us, work the bass and drum to their maximum."
He's already thinking forward.
Appearing Wednesday at the 9:30 club
Note: The group's official band pictures are by Pennie Smith, responsible for what a Q Magazine survey crowned "the greatest rock'n'roll photograph of all time." That would be the iconic shot of Paul Simonon smashing his bass onstage at New York's Palladium during a September 1979 Clash concert. It's on the cover of the Clash's "London Calling" album. Parts of Simonon's Fender Precision bass are in the exhibit "Revolution Rock: The Story of the Clash," at Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum through Oct. 7.