Top image: photography by Kevin Davies
In the wake of the Brexit referendum, The Good, the Bad & the Queen – the supergroup consisting of Damon Albarn, Paul Simonon, Tony Allen and Simon Tong – turned stormchasers. Travelling the length and breadth of the country (including a longer stay in Blackpool – where 67.5% wanted to leave the EU), the four musicians took to the road to rediscover the country they so love. On their pilgrimage to the eye of the storm, these troubadours discovered a country torn between tradition and insecurity, stuck on a hard shoulder between past, present and future without qualified instruction.
In the eye of the storm, what these troubadours discovered on their pilgrimage was a country torn between its traditions and its insecurities, stuck on a hard shoulder between past, present and future without qualified instruction.
It’s a portrait of Britain vividly explored within the band’s sophomore record, Merrie Land. Here, wonky Tesco trolly wheels squeak to the city beat, mobility scooters transform into spaceships set for new worlds and funfairs chime with escapist glee – all signposted by sonic tropes of British life that could soundtrack a Martin Parr photo book; musical hall piano, dub basslines, church organs and the chirps of seaside frolicking.
It’s a theatrical sound that provides a poignant backdrop to Albarn’s acute commentary on British life – as sharp as he’s ever been. Inspired by Lou Reed and counterculture poetry, Albarn’s writing process saw him pen lyrics in a stream of consciousness, spilling his own indignations, worries and questions with the ache of a confused lover. Allowing his words to constantly evolve, right until the record was literally being cut, it transcribes as a love letter to his country in a time of flux.
Albarn has since said that the record is something of a follow-up to Blur’s Modern Life is Rubbish, and that connection makes sense. Go back to the album release in 1983, and the country was having a Eurosceptic moment of its own. Only that year, the Conservative Prime Minister, John Major, delivered a speech promoting the virtues of economic cooperation with Europe following the Treaty of Maastricht, in which Britain committed itself to the EU. It was a time of split opinion and unheard voices. 36 years on, has much changed?
Yes actually, the country is even more torn, the politicians even more clueless and public even more helpless.
Yet (despite the above), Merrie Land is not a pessimistic tale, it’s merely a chapter set in these uncertain times and told by a group of musicians who have always strived to translate the swirling social atmosphere to music – with impeccable execution. As legendary bassist for The Clash Paul Simonon tells us below, “We’ll come back from this. We’re not lost forever, we’re just circling the deep end.”
Alex James Taylor: Hey Paul, I’m actually interviewing you from Liverpool and I’ve been listening to the new record against the backdrop of the city alongside the old docks here, and it seems like a pretty relevant place for the album.
Paul Simonon: Well it has past, present and future references and I guess you can see that, as you say. It’s where worlds meet.
AJT: Completely. So I wanted to go back to the initial stages of this record, is it something you, Damon and the band have been having conversations about for a while?
PS: Well yeah, I have had these conversations but mainly with Damon because he doesn’t live far from me, so we see each other every so often, socially. We’ve been working on ideas and discussing them, we did actually almost get to the point where we were going to put together a sort of London theatrical show, which would involve both of us. So there were some musical ideas put together for that. At the end of the day, the idea – in some capacity – was sort of simmering and there was a point where we were discussing it and Jamie Hewlett got involved and that went in another direction and became Plastic Beach [Gorillaz’ third studio record]. So yeah, there’s always been something ticking along, but it was only in the last few years or whatever that Damon said, “We need to get a producer, Paul.” I suggested Tony Visconti and from that point on we booked some studio time and got everyone together and began recording really. We had a couple of months rehearsing beforehand, trying to think of ideas, but, for example, one song went through about twelve variations before it got to the point that everyone felt happy with it. It’s always shapeshifting.
AJT: There are clear undertones throughout the record that speak of the end of a relationship and a Britain that is lost and potentially broken. Are these themes you all spoke about and wanted to address?
PS: Put it this way, ideas were put together before the situation [Brexit], and of course when the vote took place, it wasn’t balanced… I feel that people weren’t given the true facts and politicians tried to frame the whole thing around fictitious information, that all the money that we pay into the EU would be paid to the NHS – and of course you know that will never actually happen. That’s why nobody really knows what’s currently going on, because nobody was clear in the first place. We were aware of that, of course, but we didn’t sit down and say, “OK, we’re going to do a Brexit album,” because, for a start, I think that would put everybody off, well it’d put me off anyway. I think people are sick of it. So there are references in the album about leaving and staying, but I think that… it could be about leaving a girlfriend or something. There are a lot of elements to do with the past and the future, historical references and emotional references. Most of the lines you can read into in many different ways, so the listener really reflects their own thinking onto that.
“I feel that people weren’t given the true facts and politicians tried to frame the whole thing around fictitious information…”
AJT: Of course, there’s definitely a romance to the way the record speaks about Britain and our relationship with other countries. What’s your own view on the current state of the country?
PS: I grew up where I did in West London and I was raised believing that the rest of the world was like that too. It was an area where, initially, there was a strong mix of West Indian and Irish families, and I guess as I got older more Indian and Pakistani families moved in, but at the time I thought everywhere was like that, it’s only as I got a bit older that I realised that not everyone lives in one room [laughs]. The world expands suddenly and the reality, for me, is that my experience growing up was this cultural mix, and I felt like I was being enriched by this, in lots of ways, and I’m really grateful that I had that experience, rather than being closed off in some public school with no exposure to different people and cultures. I’m lucky because I had such an overview, but maybe the downside of that is that I didn’t have such a great education.
AJT: Yeah, although I’m originally from Doncaster, which was one of the most pro-Brexit places in the country, I didn’t even see Brexit coming. I think it shocked a lot of people – we all exist in our own social bubbles.
PS: Yeah, well if you think about it, anywhere outside of London lacks the resources in the first place because they get ignored, so no wonder they’re thinking, “Well, why? Where’s the support for our schools and infrastructure?” The problem is that London’s so padded out, it’s got to the point that… Say in the area I grew up in, Ladbroke Grove, all the local people have pretty much been priced out, so now there’s a whole new generation that I can’t relate to, or want to, really. I guess it’s not their fault that they’re posh cunts, but the area just isn’t the same anymore and I don’t recognise it.
AJT: I read that you went to Blackpool for a bit during the recording process for the album.
PS: Yeah, we spent some time in Blackpool and I really enjoyed that. I have quite a strong affinity with piers, because a while back I did quite a lot of travelling around seaside towns painting piers and stuff. I think there’s a sort of poetry about them, especially when it’s really misty and winter time, when the lights come on the contrast is great. I like the empty, ghostly… it’s almost like a theatrical film set, and I like that. So going to Blackpool was a joy to experience that feeling. I think ultimately it’s something that resonated with Damon too. There are a lot of things that we have in common, like a love of British music hall and that tradition.
AJT: How long did you spend in Blackpool?
PS: I think it was about three or four days, and then we went back again and did some recording.
“…all the local people have pretty much been priced out, so now there’s a whole new generation that I can’t relate to, or want to, really. I guess it’s not their fault that they’re posh cunts, but the area just isn’t the same anymore and I don’t recognise it. “
AJT: Did Damon have all the lyrics done or did he work on them as you went along?
PS: The lyrics continued to evolve right up to the last moment when we were actually cutting the records. Evolving all the time.
AJT: Well because it’s an album about politics and culture, in times like this things are constantly happening and changing, so it must be quite hard to stop writing and say, “It’s done.”
PS: Exactly, and also it’s quite an interesting way that Damon approached the writing on this record, as it is sort of like a stream of consciousness. And he has mentioned that it has its roots in Lou Reed’s approach. But think to Lou Reed and he was really influenced by Allen Ginsbourg and beat poetry from New York in the 50s and 60s. In a way it’s a bit like a full circle as it’s the same idea and approach, breaking out of this verse, chorus, verse structure – even though you can still have verses and choruses, but the lyrics are above those structural elements. It’s most noticeable in Merrie Land, in a way, it’s almost like a rap, with a very steady beat underneath with this rhetoric floating over the top.
AJT: You were also heavily involved in the artwork. I actually watched Dead of Night [a still from the film features as the album artwork for Merrie Land] because of the picture you used on this album and loved the film, so thanks for that.
PS: [laughs] Really? No problem.
AJT: What made you go to that still from that film?
PS: Well the thing is, when we were recording I was doing a lot of drawing. Any moment I got a bit of free time I’d work on designs and ideas for the cover and for the song book. At one point we were going to have the Cerne Abbas Giant on the cover, do you know that?
AJT: Yeah, the ancient figure in the ground.
PS: Yeah, the chalk giant. But then Damon saw one of my images that I’d put with the track, The Great Fire, which was the Michael Redgrave snap from Dead of Night. I’d put it in with another photograph of St Paul’s being set alight. So Damon really liked it and said he wanted that as the album cover. Sorted.
AJT: People will probably look into that image in terms of potential symbolism behind puppets and the ruling class etc.
PS: Well, yeah you can read lots of things into it. You’ve seen the film now so you can see a context to the image, but if you hadn’t seen the film, as just an image, it’s open to interpretation. At some point in the process I found myself veering more towards a collage process and found it interesting putting one image next to another, because in some ways it creates a certain narrative that can be read in many different ways. I like that openness. Art and sound and lyrics, poetry, they’re all quite flexible and they’re all down to the perception of the person reading them.
AJT: For instance the collage picture in the lyric book combining the Ken Russell film still of fishermen alongside a woman floating in the water.
PS: Yeah that, you could read that in many ways. I’m not saying this is it, but you could read into it that it’s a betrayal of Europe, or it has this historical context. There’s lots you could read into that.
AJT: I also read that you created some pictures of piers and seaside towns out of instant coffee, is that true?
PS: Yes, that’s right. You make do with what you’ve got. I didn’t have any ink or paints, so I just dipped my finger in some water and then the coffee to create this material to work with.
AJT: With what you were saying about being attracted to piers in the mist, the coffee does create this sort of stormy, foggy atmosphere.
PS: Now you’ve mentioned that, it reminds me a bit of when, during the Second World War, there were a lot of people who were in Anglesey, or maybe it was the Isle of Man, there were a lot of German people, some who were escaping the Nazis, they all got locked in this camp and you had people like Kurt Schwitters, who’s one of the forerunners of the Pop Art movement. Basically in this army camp, it almost became an art school and they’d get the oil from sardines and use that as paint and then cut up newspapers and make art out of very limited resources. That became a forerunner to Pop Art really. It’s interesting what you can achieve with very little.
AJT: Where did you actually record the album?
PS: Latimer Road, West London.
AJT: So just round the corner from Grenfell.
PS: Yeah, well that still haunts the area like a giant tomb.
AJT: Are you optimistic about the future of the country post-Brexit?
PS: I am optimistic. And I think this record isn’t all about doom and gloom, even in the darker songs, there’s some optimism there. You know, we’re not all sat there cutting our wrists or anything [laughs], for us it’s about responding to feelings and attitudes. It’s responding to being alive and the environment around us. So no, we’re not all sitting around depressed about it [laughs].
AJT: I suppose these troubled times provide you with incredible inspiration and subject matter. It’s a bit like a Catch 22 situation [laughs].
PS: Yeah, at times like this I think it’s necessary to find some humour, and I think people do in general. I recently saw the amazing Peter Jackson film where they got all the old World War I footage, and it’s amazing that even then people somehow managed to scrape some humour, despite the devastation they’d experienced first hand. We have that power as humans, which is special.
The Good, the Bad & the Queen’s Merrie Land is out now.