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If Blur in their Britpop prime revived memories of swinging London then the look of Damon Albarn’s new band The Good, the Bad and the Queen brings Dickens’s London to mind. They played in front of a painted backdrop depicting a grimy vista of gasworks, chimneys and railway bridges, while Albarn in a top hat had an Artful Dodger air about him.
However, any resemblance to Dickens’s London evaporated when his band of middle-aged urchins – including The Clash’s Paul Simonon on bass and the Nigerian percussionist Tony Allen on drums – struck up their music. The Good, the Bad and the Queen’s self-titled album conjures a spectral, desolate London of drifting melodies and haunted dub reggae basslines. It has none of Dickens’s bustle or humour, nor Parklife-era Blur’s colourfulness. Its anomie is summed up by Albarn’s resigned line “Drink all day because the country’s at war” on the stand-out track “Kingdom of Doom”.
Initially their performance was weighed down by the album’s melancholy. Albarn looked uncharacteristically uncertain as a frontman and the music struggled to translate its wistful mood to a live setting. But “Kingdom of Doom” lit the touchpaper, with Albarn retreating behind a piano and Simonon taking centre stage with his ageless guitar-hero poses and a bassline pinched from The Clash’s “London’s Calling”.
From then on the band grew in presence and confidence. Albarn’s ear for melody and affecting vocals gave the songs substance, while a range of different influences floated dream-like to their surface. Memories of classic Britpop bands such as The Kinks went hand-in-hand with more exotic curiosities, such as an outbreak of spaghetti western-style whistling at the end of one track, or the presence of a man playing a saw on another.
Aptly in a venue which doubles as a boxing hall, they ended with a pair of knockout punches: the woozy fairground anthem “Three Changes”, on which Tony Allen’s stuttering, polyrhythmic drumming – an underused resource – was foregrounded, and a fierce rendition of “The Good, the Bad and the Queen”, a manic coda to a bittersweet set of songs about London life.
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