“IT’S BORIS BY A LANDSLIDE.”
So roars the front page of London newspaper The Evening Standard the day after Boris Johnson, a man who has called black children “piccaninnies”, wins 66% of the Tory vote, beating Jeremy Hunt to become our new Prime Minister. It’s as depressing as it is inevitable, the fifth Etonian in charge since 1945, another elite figure – softened by his cosy mononymous title – purporting to speak for the normies.
Well, you’ve got to laugh, haven’t you? Or – wait a minute – maybe not.
A week before the inevitable happens, NME meets two iconic musicians who have etched careers out of taking the temperature of the country: gold-toothed prankster Damon Albarn and the similarly roguish Paul Simonon, originally the bassist in The Clash. Along with the hugely influential Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen and Brit-rock hero Simon Tong, guitarist with The Verve in their glory years, Paul and Damon comprise The Good, The Bad & The Queen, their second album ‘Merrie Land’, released last year, a bruised meditation on a country carved by toxic politics and divisive ideologies.
On the record’s title track, Damon laments “the few and their fortunes / Who crowd the school benches / And jeer at us all / ‘Cause they don’t care about us.” His tone slightly hardens when he insists: “They are graceless and / You shouldn’t be with them / ‘Cause they’re all disconnected / And raised up in mansions.” There could hardly be a more concise diagnosis: those lines aren’t specifically about Boris Johnson, but they might as well be.
“We all laugh at Boris Johnson and Donald Trump,” says Paul, looking dapper in a crisp white shirt, “but unfortunately there’s something quite sinister behind them. And that’s what we have to worry about. The laughing is sort of a smokescreen for something darker. “
Is Prime Minister Boris Johnson the nadir of the phenomenon Damon captured in ‘Merrie Land’?
“Well, no, not the nadir,” Damon replies, “but definitely one of the many heads of the beast. What do you do with any multi-headed beast? Talk to its many parts. Get lots of people talking to each other; catch the attention of each head in a specific way. Tell them something so interesting that they lean over, go underneath one another and all end up in a big knot.”
Damon, in particular, has spent decades weaving compelling depictions of Britishness into song. The Blur album ‘Parklife’, 25 this year, saw him affectionately satirise his homeland with the chipper likes of ‘Girls and Boys’ (“Avoiding all work / ‘Cause there’s none available”) and ‘Bank Holiday’, a punked-up novelty song that bottled the frantic need to make the most of a measly day off. ‘Merrie Land’, though, is a much more melancholy album, a pensive meander through ideas of Britishness represented by Morris dancers (‘Ribbons’) and “the manicured lawns of England” (‘The Last Man To Leave’).
If previous interviews are anything to go by, you won’t get either of them to admit outright that it’s a Brexit album. Interviewing Damon Albarn reminds me of a ‘90s advert for a board game called Wiggly Worms, whose jingle went: “Wiggly worms! You just can’t catch ‘em!” Damon’s a wiggly worm, all right, and will gleefully weave around any question you put him to him. Yet he does so with a twinkle in his eye; you get the sense it’s a game.
For instance: he riffs unprompted on Hampshire’s wild and woolly Boomtown festival (“It’s like a medieval jousting fest”); barks annoyance that Glastonbury hadn’t booked a Welsh choir before he and Simonon and co. took one there this summer; and embarks on a fabulous stand-up bit, delivered in the tone of Charlie Brooker, where he claims that Will Smith could solve Brexit by planting an enormous Men In Black memory eraser in the middle of the country (“somewhere like Birmingham – it’s quite high ground there”) so no-one remembered that it ever happened. “There you go,” he beams. “I did it. I solved the riddle.”
We meet at Somerset House, a plush venue in central London, where the band will perform later tonight. They’re both Londoners; is there a different energy when they play here?
Damon lets out a characteristically loud and long exhalation, sounding a bit like a punctured tyre. “Some of the first gigs you play in your hometown are the ones that never leave you,” he says. “When we played the Hammersmith Palais [in 2007, the year of The Good, The Bad & The Queen’s self-titled debut], that was the beginning of the euphoria. But the weird thing is, we’ve been travelling around Europe doing festivals and our own gigs and I can’t believe the response. It’s on a par if not more than the reaction we’ve had here.”
Prior to making the record, Damon spent time travelling around the UK – he’s particularly smitten with Blackpool – getting to grips with our national identity, and came to the realisation that “we do live in ‘Merrie Land’, in a way; it’s a bizarre time to be living in.”
Nobody would argue with that last bit, but what does the phrase ‘Merrie Land’ refer to, exactly?
Paul: “It could be a combination of possibilities or ideas. One is a traditional concept of an imaginary England with Robin Hood and all that sort of stuff and people dancing around a Maypole. Or it’s Merrie Land that’s not so merry land – you know, tongue-in-cheek.”
Damon: “It’s an allegory to a slightly sad feeling that, like a cold, I can’t seem to get rid of. I keep trying to get rid of it but it just keeps coming back. Some days it’s really not great.”
The album was also inspired by Doggerland, a stretch of terra firma that connected Britain to Europe. “That’s how the first mass migrations started to what became the Island of England,” says Damon. “It was totally connected to Europe. After the Ice Age, Doggerland was no longer. But the point is that we are part of Europe, physically. We are Europeans.”
Which brings us to Brexit, specifically. First, though, Damon has his say on the globally divisive politics Brexit has come to represent, epitomised by Donald Trump’s recent racist comment that four congresswomen of colour (who are American) should “go home”.
“Look at that endorsement of the ‘If you don’t like it, just go home’ mentality,” says Damon, “which was echoed again in quite the most unreasonable way I think you can ever imagine. Especially the senator [Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley] whose family originally came dragged over in irons and beaten and raped. To tell them if they don’t like this country they can go back home is just not acceptable. And yet we laugh these things off. And so we all live in Merrie Land because we’re all just ignoring shit and laughing about it.”
He affects maniacal laughter – “Hahahaha!” – and then softens. “So we get what we deserve, I suppose. But then [the record] is an allegory to love as well. That’s kind of what saves it as an emotional thing.”
Damon laments the way Brexit has opened the door to this kind of racism in the UK (hate crimes increased 17 per cent the year after the referendum, doubling in five years).
“We should all be educated and understand each other, because one thing have in this country is a sense of fairness,” he says. “Common sense and fairness. That is something I’d say I’m proud of, being English. And I thought we’d got rid of all that other stuff through the frame of people like Paul and Terry Hall [of The Specials]. I grew up thinking, ‘That’s over! I love my country!’
“The day after that referendum it was like…” he sighs heavily. “Because, you know, it’s never disappeared but it was never tolerated. After that, there was immediately a mandate to tolerate that kind of ‘Well – if you don’t like it, you can fuck off’ attitude. Which just keeps amplifying. And we see it again. This is something that cannot be tolerated because what it implies is that everyone is not equal. And once you start going… We’ve been down that road many times before and nothing good of it has ever happened.”
With this in mind, and given that ‘Merrie Land’ champions British imagery, are The Good, The Bad And The Queen ever worried their brand of patriotism might be misinterpreted? Are they careful that their vision can’t be misread as nostalgia for a non-existent ‘better time’ in the past, which is perhaps the same logic that created Brexit?
Damon, narrowing his eyes, quietly asks, “What are you trying to say?” I think he’s fucking with me.
“I think it depends on your outlook,” replies Paul. “If you’ve got a twisted outlook, then you’re gonna pick up on the negative things. But if you’ve got a positive outlook you’re just gonna sing praises about the positive things in this country that have happened from the past. Windrush, for instance – all these sorts of elements that have enriched our country.”
At the other of the spectrum, another iconic British musician, one Steven Patrick Morrissey, has endorsed For Britain, an anti-Islamic group led by UKIP reject Anne-Marie Waters. Were Damon and Paul surprised to see Mozzer wearing a For Britain badge on Jimmy Fallon?
Damon smiles, flashing the gold tooth in the centre of his mouth: “Steven is a complicated soul.”
Paul: “But does he live in England?”
Damon: “No, he lives in California. He doesn’t care. He’s just doing it to wind people up.”
Paul: “Sometimes if you are away and you don’t live in the country, then you’ve got a misconception of what the reality is from the ground up. It’s the same as John Lydon – he’s sort of got to a certain level and he’s [entitled] to his views, but if you don’t live here, your vision of it is in a bubble.”
Damon: “Yeah, I totally agree. You shouldn’t even have an opinion. If you don’t live in the country, then you shouldn’t be dabbling in its politics because in order to have the sensitivity to understand, you have to live amongst the emotional world of the people as well, and not just the idea of something. That’s a long way from reality. So I think if you wanna be miserable and English, you’ve gotta be miserable and English. You know – really be it.”
This is a measured response at odds with contemporary tastes for extreme condemnation – justified as it is in Morrissey’s case – epitomised by the trend for ‘milkshaking’, whereby a toxic figure (it’s happened to Nigel Farage and Tommy Robinson) is attacked with a lobbed milkshake, the action caught on camera for the benefit of Twitter, which rewards such just desserts. Is this a mature approach to politics?
“No,” deadpans Damon. “But it’s funny.”
“People don’t have their voice heard, says Paul, “and that’s why they do that. Because there’s no outlet for their voice, or nobody’s representing their thoughts.”
“One of my mates is a Nigel Farage impersonator,” Damon adds, somewhat bizarrely. “One of the top ones. He does all the TV stuff. It has affected him, having to be that person.”
Since we’re grilling one former Britpop don about his opinions on Brexit – here’s another. Noel Gallagher ruffled some feathers last month when he denounced “cunts trying to get the vote overturned,” insisting that although he doesn’t believe in Brexit, it’s part of “a democratic fucking process” to accept an outcome that you don’t agree with.
“[The proposed second referendum] is not trampling on democracy,” retorts Damon, “it’s continuing democracy.”
“It was false from the beginning, “says Paul, “because people voted on something that wasn’t the reality. So really it’s null and void. It was a sort of propaganda issue. It was like Goebbels saying, ‘Listen, if you vote for this, these people are gonna be gone and we’re gonna get this load of money for the National Health Service.’ That’s not what’s gonna happen.”
“If we’re gonna have democracy properly we’ve gotta allow everyone to have the facts,” adds Damon. “What does this tell us about the state of our democracy and the social issues of this country? Well, it tells you that there isn’t a level playing field in education. So that needs to be addressed.”
You mean, say, by abolishing private schools?
“Yeah,” he says. “Well, whatever. I would just like – if I am going to participate in a democracy I would like everyone to have, at least within reason, an equal command of the facts that we’re voting on. Otherwise, what’s the fucking point?”
The seminal Clash record ‘London Calling’, with its unforgettable cover shot by former NME staff photographer Pennie Smith, turned 40 this year. What might the late Joe Strummer, an incisive cultural commentator, have made of the current climate in the UK?
“I think he’d agree with what we’ve been doing collectively with The Good, The Bad And The Queen,” says Paul. “It’s too limiting to be Little Englanders. There’s a whole world out there and for me, for one, I like to experience other countries and be open-minded, rather than just turn my back on Europe.”
Needless to say, Paul and Damon both squirm when I mention ‘London Calling’ and ‘Parklife’. But it’s irresistible to compare the latter album with ‘Merrie Land’; both explore such similar material – national identity, everyday politics – a quarter of a century apart. Yet where there’s a real sense of optimism running through ‘Parklife’, ‘Merrie Land’ is so wistful, so elegiac, a mournful ode to a country that The Good, The Bad & The Queen seem to love unconditionally, even as they’re pained at what it’s revealed itself to be.
With ‘Parklife’ you were taking the piss out of Englishness, I begin, before Damon cuts me off.
“No no no no no no no no no,” he says. “Now, listen – it’s satirical.”
Right, yeah, and there was a chipperness to it –
“Well, I was quite chippy when I was that age, you know what I mean? I have mellowed somewhat.”
So, between those two bodies of work –
“What, between that one and this one? Oh, bloody hell! There’s, like, lifetimes inbetween them. The internet? Just to start the discussion off…”
What I’m trying to ask is: is there less to be chipper about in 2019 than there was in 1994?
“Well, I was young,” he says. “You are a bit more chirpy and chipper when you’re young – or you should be. If you can’t be it then, there’s no hope for you. I’m sorry to say that but enjoy it while it lasts, because soon it will be different.”
Asked if he’s simply more of a realist nowadays, Damon reveals himself as so likeably contrary that disagrees with himself mid-sentence: “Ermm. I think people in my life would probably disagree with that, but I would like to think I am. Well – no! I wouldn’t like to think I am. I would like to think I am…” He jumps on his chair, rocking on his haunches, and makes semi-orgasmic panting noises. “Slightly madder? More eccentric than I was? Why not?”
After the interview is wrapped up, and before Damon and Paul head to soundcheck, Damon shakes my hand, holding it for a beat or so longer than would typically be considered the done thing, staring down into me, flashing that gold tooth, smiling broadly.
He’s similarly eccentric during the band’s Somerset House set, which is opened by Trevor Raven, an organist they discovered in Blackpool. Damon punctuates The Good, The Bad & The Queen’s show by bawling “Order! Order! Order!” for no obvious reason and at one point tells the audience, “A walk away from the here is the Houses of Parliament.” When this is met with jeers and boos, he replies, “Well, that’s not the attitude. We as musicians respond to all of this [political turmoil] by sending out love to everyone.”
Later he explains: “This is a heartfelt record about how shit it is. I love you. We had to make this record.”
I’m reminded of the pre-amble to our interview, when Damon waxed lyrical about Blackpool’s harsh beauty in midwinter: “It’s what it looks like when the fire’s just embers.” Paul then told a tale about Lucian Freud accidentally burning down his art school and painting the wreckage, “taking something that was a disaster and making something out of it.”
Damon replied: “Just keep painting. Paint through it, man!”
Brexit, Boris Johnson, the buffoon in the White House: if you can’t laugh, paint through it, man.