United Kingdom of gloom

In 1977 gonzo music critic Lester Bangs, writing about London punk band The Clash, attributed their righteousness to the “persistent humanism” that lurks beneath their “wired, harsh soundscape”.

Fitting, then, that when Blur and Gorillaz front man Damon Albarn went looking for a bass player for his new project, The Clash’s Paul Simonon was the man for the job because The Good, the Bad and the Queen (GBQ) is a very righteous album indeed.

GBQ is a musical postcard, one that takes stock of the United Kingdom in its present state, painting it as a dystopian land filled with war, doom and distraction it dares to ask the questions: Where are we at and where are we going?

Albarn pulls no lyrical punches, calling for a new vision of the United Kingdom, which he describes as a “stroppy little island of mixed-up people” and the “kingdom of doom”.

GBQ is an overtly political record, with Albarn flexing his outrage at Britain’s involvement in the war in Iraq, especially in Kingdom of Doom, in which he lethargically spits: “Drink all day; coz the country is at war.”

“That’s how I feel sometimes: that our culture has desensitised us to such an extent that we have allowed our government to make some horrendous decisions on our behalf, which we all, I’m convinced, instinctively knew were wrong, but we just let happen,” says Albarn. “We have this culture of distraction that we all buy into — that is the kingdom of doom.

“While this country is at war, every record I have made has had references to that, because I feel that it is something that needs to be constantly addressed, because I don’t believe in war.”

As a member of the legendary The Clash, Simonon is well versed in the political aspects of rock’n’roll, and he says one of the main reasons he agreed to work with Albarn on the GBQ album was that they shared very similar views.

“I certainly feel strongly about it,” says Simonon. “I felt that was an honest reflection of my feelings too.”

With two legendary West London icons working together, much has been made about how GBQ is a West London record, a successor to Blur’s Park Life or The Clash’s London Calling.

“It’s a waste of time. Those records were made in a different time and a different period,” says Simonon. “There may be times when there could have been valid points made — then that can be brought over to today. But the record we have just made is made for today and tomorrow; there is no point in going backward.”

Simonon points out that although the songs may be littered with geographical references to West London, the album’s subject matter is of a more universal nature. Which make sense when you consider that the album was born during a recording session in Lagos, Nigeria.

A few years back, Albarn and GBQ guitarist Simon Tong accompanied Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen to Nigeria for a series of recordings with other Nigerian musicians.

On his return to the UK, Albarn decided that he was not happy with the bass on the recordings and decided to invite Simonon down to take a listen to some of the tracks, which he hoped would be a starting point for a whole other batch of recordings.

Soon enough Albarn, Simonon, Tong and Allen were jamming away under the watchful eye of 2006’s It-Boy Brian Burton, aka Danger Mouse.

With so many esteemed contributors, it is natural to expect a bizarre hybrid album, yet, the only consistent musical voice to shine through is that of Albarn.

It is evident that this is a Damon Albarn record, but it is unlike any of his recent work with the Gorillaz. Its closest relative would probably be Blur’s last album Think Tank, but even that is too far off the mark.

When I tell Simonon that the album really stands out on its own, unlike anything I have ever heard, he laughs: “Maybe we succeeded then.”

Simonon says he likes the idea that it doesn’t fit anywhere, describing the album as, “hard folk music”, but even that does not sum up its sound.

Ultimately, GBQ is a scintillating, record that is part protest, part social commentary and part metaphysical projection. It just might turn out to be the ideal soundtrack for Britain’s new struggle to find itself.

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