It may not be burning down, but Damon's be-hatted crew emerge from the shadows to bring Dickensian London to its knees
Monday night inside the medieval walls of the Kingdom Of Doom, and as the bells of All Hallows strike 10, scattering the ravens across the moon, the jester and the executioner step from the shadows. The jester, one Squire Harold Enfield, places an execution block centre stage; the executioner, hooded and wielding an obviously inflatable axe in one hand, drags behind him the once powerful wretch destined for the chop. They wrestle their victim to his knees, bend him over the block and – CHUNK! – the axe descends with panto thump and the jester holds aloft the severed plastic bonce of Tony Blair.
“I give you the head of the former Prime Minister,” he bellows, and lobs it into the crowd, who bounce it around like a gruesome Muse orb. Seated above at a beaten-up pub piano, Damon Albarn surveys the macabre scene below. He gives a sparkling smile and sighs. “It’s turned out to be a very nice evening.”
Now, clearly there is a laboratory somewhere in a cave in Mali where mad scientists are furiously cloning Damon Albarns at an inhuman rate. How else could he possibly have time to undertake so many different bands and projects and still make them all brilliant? So while Damon.28 is in Manchester directing the Gorillaz opera, Damon.64 is hosing Glastonbury sludge off his djembe drums after the Africa Express project and Damon.0 is buttering up Graham to lure him back into the band. But this Damon – let’s call him Damon.7, distinguishable from the others by his Dickensian top hat – is touring the Electric Proms and national trust halls of the globe, taking care of the scathing political satire and anti-war rhetoric.
And it’s with an almost tangible irony that The Good, The Bad & The Queen (which they are called, according to the all-knowing oracle that is iTunes, so we’ll have no more of this “band with no name” piffle, alright Damo?) should be invited to play at the Tower Of London. It is of course the very building pictured in flames on their album cover, and a monument to everything Albarn has come here to lament. Specifically the disintegration of our nation’s pride and stature – the crushing of all that is “great” about Great Britain beneath the imperialist American jackboot and the fading and corruption of a grainy, romantic vision of old London Town. While the line-up for the Tower Festival 2007 is full of cap-doffing Royalists such as James Morrison and Bryan Ferry making the ravens flee the place with their wings over their ears, this is the very antithesis of Brian May widdle-wanking “God Save The Queen” on the roof of Buckingham Palace under Beefeater guard, with the ghost of Anne Boleyn rattling her jewelled sceptre in the expensive seats. TG,TB&TQ take to the stage tonight resembling a terrorist attack on an East End Jubilee Day knees-up. The stage is backdropped with sketches of smog-swathed cooling towers and crumbling palaces and draped with stained bunting. They will play their record in full, in order, plus one instrumental mood piece and a white reggae B-side called “Mr Whippy” with Syrian rapper Eslam Jawaad Auteur that’s like the putrescence of “Parklife”. It’s got all the bright-eyed street-party optimism of Britpop stripped of all hope and glory.
More than any other “supergroup”, TG,TB&TQ are the sum of its parts. Paul Simonon prowls the stage in natty spiv punk threads, playing his bass from the side like a machine gun, firing out ragga-punk Clash basslines that sound like they’ve just been pick-axed out of the foundations of the Westway where they’ve been buried since 1977. The Verve’s Simon Tong stands precision-plucking distant-heaven storms out of his guitar stage left. And Damon.7 hunches over his battered piano throughout the shattered national debris of a skag-jittery “Kingdom Of Doom” like a pop Fagin coveting every plink, contributing his subdued melodic majesty, socio-political polemic (“Drink all day ‘cos the country’s at war”) and waltzy post-carnival comedown atmospherics to the mix. The resulting noise is a beautifully British desolation drawn from three of the Crown Jewels of British rock history – the dark ska filth of “The Guns Of Brixton”, the searing fury of “All In The Mind” and the broken remains of instrumental bits from “Modern Life Is Rubbish” that sounded like a saucy seaside postcard – having an amphetamine fit inside a piano.
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“This one’s inspired by the whale that swam just over there,” Damon mutters casually before “Northern Whale’s” semi-Gorillaz electro plonk, while Tong fires guided missiles of space noise into the ether, and you realise that they may look like a bunch of haggard old lags having a lock-in jam in a Mile End boozer, but they’re actually a distinctly modern antiquity. The Beach Boys-ish “aaah-aaahs” all over the shoo-woppy “80’s Life” and the funky monks darkening the verses of the methadone-Costello “Herculean” are muscling up to deep electronic beats and bleak guitar slices that perfectly capture the simmering fear and desperation that Bozo Blair has left as his legacy. By melting its Red Wedge-ish protest language of gasworks and welfare states into the trip-hop slink of “Behind The Sun” or the “Ghost Town” funk of “The Bunting Song” Albarn achieves the near impossible and encapsulates the state of a nation for the second time in just over a decade. Tonight proved TG,TB&TQ to be the most incisive and plain best project Albarn has been involved with since Blur’s “Blur”. And to think, somewhere out there Damon.597 is inventing new rave Nicaraguan noseflute deathcore as we speak. This week in 1789 the French were forced to storm the gates of their Bastille. Tonight TG,TB&TQ, touting a mellower, but no less devoted insurrection, saunter into ours whistling a sinister “Chim Chim Cher-ee”. Now bring us the heads of Elizabeth II, Prince William and Brian May.