It’s slightly hard to believe that it’s 11 years since we last heard from The Good, The Bad & The Queen, the ‘supergroup’ comprising of Damon Albarn, The Clash’s Paul Simonon, Fela Kuti’s Tony Allen and The Verve’s Simon Tong, whose distinctive eponymous first album drew influence from a mix of English musical hall, ska and reggae, with touches of Britpop making an appearance too.
The band’s styling, on both the album artwork and in their videos and live shows, was as individual as the music, reflecting a certain otherworldly, out-of-time vibe. This atmosphere continues on the second album, Merrie Land, which sees the band again mash up historical references with present day concerns, in both the songs and the artwork that comes with them. As in the first album, these visuals are largely created by bassist Paul Simonon.
Talking on the phone from his studio in London, Simonon explains the genesis of the band’s look. “The beginning was really the first album from the Good, the Bad & the Queen, and really that developed from conversations that I had with Damon,” he says. “When we started working together we had a lot of conversations about things we were interested in and we found we had a lot of things in common, like the British Music Hall, and the history of our area [West London], and that continues to this day. So really doing this album, we had endless conversations about periods in art, and I’ve been really keen on Walter Sickert and artists like that. Elements of that inspired me as well as the music to put together images.”
The album cover features a striking image, inspired, explains Simonon, by the Ealing Studios film Dead of Night, which features a malevolent ventriloquist’s dummy. Simonon first saw the film as a child, and memories of it resurfaced when putting together the artwork for Merrie Land.
“It’s pretty dark, and quite a haunting film and memorable – memorable insofar as I’d forgotten all about it until recently when I was trying to put images together for artwork and suddenly that image came forwards and my memory of that film, and combining it with another photograph, made the album cover.”
For Simonon, this process of drawing on past experiences contributes to both his music and his art. “I’d say really from our individual backgrounds, and what we’re exposed to growing up and what haunts us and what we love and what we hate, and all these elements, they all somehow soak into our minds and they come out in different ways at different points in our lives,” he explains.
The ventriloquist’s dummy on the cover makes a reappearance in two videos released from the album so far and in fact is Damon Albarn in prosthetics. Created by Millennium FX, the bespoke mask took six days to make, involving making a cast of Albarn’s face, sculpting the prosthetic and then painting it after it was applied to his face.
There were other unexpected moments in the creation of the artworks for the box set, which features a book with a reworking by Simonon of the Cerne Abbas Giant on its cover and a series of photographic collages, alongside a number of postcards of sepia-toned watercolours showing scenes of piers and funfairs (the album was recorded in part in Blackpool). The latter paintings were created using the unexpected medium of Nescafé instant coffee.
“While we were recording the record, I was doing a lot of drawings in the studio,” says Simonon. “When you’re reduced to limited apparatus you make do with what’s there, so I was using a pen and ink but also I was using Nescafé coffee, so I could get those sepia tones.”
The watercolours also feature cardboard boxes as a canvas. “That came about initially because I used to travel a lot, and bring an easel and canvas, but it’s always the last thing that would be on the carousel. I noticed that everywhere I go there’s a cardboard box somewhere so to cut a piece off and paint on that, it was a lot easier. And I like the mid-tone that it has, so I quite enjoy the quality of a bit of old cardboard and painting on it.”
Video for Merrie Land
Simonon describes the artistic contribution he makes to The Good, The Bad & The Queen as “window-dressing”, which was an activity he also undertook for The Clash too, though the look and feel there was of course very different. “It’s a whole different idea – The Clash compared the Good, the Bad & the Queen, but then again in some ways there are relationships,” he says. “But that was bound to happen because I am part of The Clash – and Damon’s from Blur – so we’re all the sum of our parts really.”
With The Good, The Bad & The Queen’s many references to Englishness, it’s difficult to avoid the subject of Brexit, which has of course taken centre stage in British politics since the last album. Simonon admits that the issue came up – “Well you can’t help it really, can you? You can’t ignore it” – and points out that as someone who is half-European, he has always had a link to wider Europe. “As a kid I always liked the idea of Europe because it seemed they had better food than we did back in those days,” he says. “It always seemed more like a magical place, which it still is. And vice versa.”
He admits that some of the artworks – particularly some of the collages that appear in the book accompanying the box set – play upon the historically complicated relationship between the English and Europe, though points out that nothing should be taken entirely at face value.
“For the Truce of Twilight image, it’s sort of a reflection on history – you have the image of Henry V, Laurence Olivier, topped with an image from a Ken Russell film, and she’s got arrows in her chest … it’s a bit like England shooting arrows into the back of Europe, there’s elements of that. It’s an interesting subject. But the thing is, with these images you can read a combination of possibilities into them.”
Video for Gun To The Head
Simonon’s artistic interest extends to the band’s live performances too, which continue the theatrical atmosphere of the album artwork.
“Obviously I enjoy getting involved in the creation of music but what I like about the theatrical side is it’s like painting images with people,” he says. “With the lighting and the dramatics. I’m really influenced by film noir and early British Gothic films – Great Expectations or Brighton Rock, that heritage of British films – and obviously there’s a lot of amazing French and European films in general that have influenced me.
“I don’t really want that rock n’ roll lighting – I want theatrical lighting, I want it to look like we’re going to the theatre,” he continues. “In some ways it’s old but then the music is new, there’s a contrast. Also it’s not the sort of music that’s going to have power chords all through it, it’s very theatrical.”