01 January 2007

The Good, The Bad And Damon Albarn

Written by Published in Music Interviews

An exclusive interview with Damon Albarn, Tony Allen and Paul Simonon

The gas tanks of Kensal Green make for a strangely absorbing sight. Squeezed in between Kensal Green Cemetery with its dilapidated mini-mausoleums and anarchic undergrowth, the Grand Union Canal with its floating corpses and the bohemian reggae vibe of Ladbroke Grove, the gas tanks are a monument to a time when Londoners liked to wear bowler hats and say ‘sir’. The locals like the gas tanks. Somehow, in pub conversations and street-corner chats, they turn from elephantine rustbuckets into weightless canvases for the imagination. Above my own desk hangs an oil painting of these tanks, seen from among the tombs. Stuck for my next word or sentence, I look up at Mark Cazalet’s beautifully limpid painting and the thoughts begin to move again, like a pooh stick loosened from rocks.

A similar image, white on black, adorns ‘Herculean’, the first single from The Good, The Bad & The Queen. It is by Paul Simonon, erstwhile bass player of The Clash. ‘I’ve done loads of paintings of the gasworks,’ he says. ‘I actually gave a print to the people in the cemetery office. I don’t know whether they still have it or if they’ve chucked it in the bin. I always thought they were an interesting shape. It did floor me the first time I tried to paint them, though. The next day when I came back, the middle bit had gone down. Ha! Actually when I first started painting them I just wanted to paint the sky. By putting the gasworks in it I gave the sky a location. It’s part of living around here, I suppose. I’ve done paintings of the Westway, the Thames, eggs and bacon – you name it, I’ve done it.’

The gas tanks, the graves and their shadows are what ‘Herculean’ is all about. ‘Standing by the old canal now by the gasworks/Celebrate the ghosts go by when all love hurts’, sings Damon Albarn with a voice like a feather: ‘Everyone is on their way to heaven/slowly.’ ‘Herculean’ is the centrepiece of the first album by The Good, The Bad & the Queen, a fresh band forged from the diverse talents of Blur- and Gorillaz-leader Damon Albarn, bassist and reggae fan Paul Simonon, Gorillaz-guitarist Simon Tong and veteran Nigerian drummer Tony Allen. ‘The album is not about Notting Hill,’ explains Albarn. ‘It is about London W10, the area just north of Notting Hill. Golborne Road, Kensal Road, Harrow Road, North Kensington, Westbourne Grove.’

Life, he reckons, is more interesting here. Notting Hill, twenty years ago the centre of London cool, has been gentrified. The last straw was Notting Hill, the film, whose anaemic portrait of the area ironically led to a flood of tourists who, in turn, made it a must for a variety of global coffee and fashion houses and bleached Notting Hill’s once colourful character still more. Only a few roads farther north, however, things are grittier: Kensal Road, Harrow Road, North Kensington, Westbourne Grove and, above all, Golborne Road, the small street at the north end of Portobello Road watched over by the Trellick Tower, the tower block with its slim twin housing its lifts, which was part of The Clash’s iconography nearly thirty years ago....

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