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The Independent

Damon Albarn: World champion
By Andy Gill
Published: 30 June 2007

Watching the performance of Fei Yang as the Monkey King in Damon Albarn's opera Journey to the West the other night, it was hard not to be struck by the similarities between that character and Albarn's own. There's an assertive chippiness about both the fictional monkey and the fanciful musician, a stubborn refusal to be gainsaid, that allows both of them to take on seemingly impossible tasks, and a cheery cheekiness that enables them to surmount obstacles with a good heart, as if the notion of failure or inability simply hadn't crossed their minds.

Both are creatures of vast ambition, seeking nothing less than immortality, in their own ways. And as Albarn's bass-playing colleague from Blur, Alex James, explained in his recent autobiography, the singer's friendship is, like Monkey's, secured only after a preliminary locking of horns or cracking of quartersticks. "In the Robin Hood stories," wrote James, "Robin likes to have a fight with everyone he meets before he becomes their friend. Damon loves Robin Hood and he loves a tussle."

Albarn's apparently instinctive antagonism can raise hackles - several people involved in world music have sneered at his interest in African music as being that of a rich dilettante, and there is a broader perception of him as being a bit lippy and "up himself" - but it undoubtedly furnishes him with the bottle to instigate improbable collaborations, carry through his projects, overcome obstacles, and realise his diverse ambitions with the kind of success rate that must be the envy of his peers.

When James compared his own nonchalant, gadfly attitude towards the pursuit of success, he marvelled at Albarn's driven nature. "He was much more direct, full of plans, schemes and determination to make things happen," he wrote. "He had so much energy. That's what creativity is, really, that vigour."

And what vigour: Albarn, 39, is currently the most protean figure in pop, with the chameleonic ability to turn his hand to virtually anything and immediately operate at a high level of expertise, whether it's composing for a Chinese opera, jamming with African musicians, inventing a cartoon band that sells tens of millions of CDs, or creating a vivid sonic portrait of his west London environs, as he did earlier this year with the The Good, the Bad & the Queen project. In Blur, according to Alex James, Albarn was always the one with the natural knack for the most difficult part of the pop process, coming up with the great melodies; and he's clearly so full of them that they couldn't help but come sloshing over the brim of Blur, into myriad other projects and interests.

Albarn's artistic impulses derive directly from his parents, both culturally inclined ex-hippies. His father Keith has lectured on art, designed furniture, been involved in television arts programmes, and even managed pioneering art-rockers Soft Machine for a time, while his mother Hazel worked as a stage designer for Joan Littlewood's company at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, near the family's Whitechapel home. Although their musical diet of jazz and underground music initially failed to win him over, Damon did eventually develop enough of an interest in the performing arts to be considered "posh" by churlish schoolmates at Stanway Comprehensive in Essex.

Studies at the East 15 Drama School in Debden led to a place at Goldsmith's College, but he soon realised that he was not a natural thespian. "I'm not really committed enough to do it properly," he acknowledged, and so undertook the soul-sapping round of service-sector McJobs undertaken by scuffling musicians with more ideas than money. It was during this time that he formed the group that would become Blur with his childhood chum Graham Coxon on guitar and Dave Rowntree on drums, with Alex James joining later on bass. At their very first jam together, according to James, it was obvious the chemistry was right. "It all happened there and then," he recalled. "It was instantaneous, shockingly so." It would take a few years more before the public came to the same conclusion, but by the mid-1990s, the huge success of singles such as "Girls and Boys" and "Country House" made them one of the country's most popular bands, reluctantly locked into a spurious, media-driven feud with Britpop rivals Oasis.

A decade on, and Albarn continues to progress. The Good, the Bad & the Queen is a brave record, in which hope and melancholy are balanced in much subtler manner than the stadium-sized misery of Coldplay and their ilk, full of pastel tints rather than primary hues, like the London it celebrates. Former Clash bassist Paul Simonon, whom Albarn had first met at Joe Strummer's wedding reception a decade earlier, was surprised when the singer called him up, wondering if he wanted to put down his brushes and pick up his bass again.

The pair bonded over their shared interest in the west London neighbourhood, and the way that the various waves of immigrants and refugees added to the rich social ecosystem. "When Damon and I met up, we had a lot of books in common that we would talk about," said Simonon. "Peter Ackroyd's London, and other books about things like public hangings at Marble Arch, some of which became elements in the songs - and there are references in the songs to people like Goldhawk and Lord Hillsbridge, who owned the estate around Westbourne Park. We're quite the local historians!"

Before this latest run of projects, Albarn's restless attention was always being drawn to intriguing, mostly uncommercial diversions, even during the heights of Blur's Britpop success. There have been film soundtracks, to 101 Reykjavik, Ordinary Decent Criminal and Ravenous, where the use of exotic instrumentation, including zither, whistle, pump organ, accordion and marimba, prefigured Albarn's subsequent forays into world music, and gave him the courage to honk away on melodica alongside the virtuoso kora players and percussionists he later encountered making his Mali Music album. And while other musicians - including members of his own band, it must be said - usually occupy the long, tedious emptiness of touring with heroic bouts of revelry and drunken dissipation, Albarn actually managed to come back from an American tour with enough four-track demos for a solo album.

It's as if, like Robert Johnson, he'd sold his soul to the devil, but for prolificity rather than mere virtuosity. But, as he responded when a reporter asked him about criticisms that he might be too clever for his own good, "Are they saying it's better not to be intelligent and have no knowledge of other things outside pop music? How can anyone be too clever?"

In the course of the last week Albarn both premiered his Journey to the West opera - a multimedia spectacle involving actors, circus artists, contortionists, animations, martial arts ballet sequences and a full orchestral score incorporating both eastern and western musical forms - and staged what many consider the most successful part of the Glastonbury Festival. He put on a surprise collaboration between dozens of African and European artists in support of the Africa Express organisation he helped to found, following what he believed was the Western bias of 2005's Live8 show in Hyde Park.

Not for the first time, he went out on a limb to make what might easily have been regarded as a churlish criticism of a doubtless well-intentioned initiative. On Jonathan Ross's TV show a week after Live8, he asked, "What kind of feeling is being sent out to the world when a concert is organised, presumably to raise awareness, and the world doesn't see anyone from Africa there?" Ross, who had helmed the television coverage, surprised many by actually agreeing with him.

Africa Express is his response - an attempt to bring Africa to people's attention as a successful cultural entity, to balance the incessant presentation of it in terms of failure - to convey something other than the constant images of poverty, illness, famine and corruption with which the media define the continent. And last Saturday, in Glastonbury's new Park area, came the broadest realisation yet of this multicultural notion, as African and European musicians performed a series of spontaneous jams that bore out the true Glastonbury spirit far more than the empty stadium rock of The Killers or the cheap celebrity frisson of Pete'n'Kate.

With no more information than a couple of chords, Touareg desert-blues exponents Tinariwen played with nu-psychedelicists The Aliens; blind Malian popsters Amadou & Mariam were accompanied by The Magic Numbers; Somalian hip-hop sensation K'naan appeared alongside Algerian rebel-rocker Rachid Taha; Baaba Maal joined Fela Kuti's esteemed Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen. And that's barely scratching the surface of an event that also included participants such as Hard-Fi, Kano, Don Letts and members of The Specials.

Any musician would have been delighted to have pulled off either one of these ambitious multicultural events, before going home to bask in the warm glow of achievement for a month or two. Particularly if, as in Albarn's case, there is no shortage of doubters waiting to sneer at his failures. (One is reminded of the contemptuous dismissal of his Gorillaz project as "kiddy music" by one or other of the Gallagher brothers, still stuck fighting petty parochial battles from a decade ago, but strangely silent since Demon Days outsold any of their own work throughout that decade.) But to lay one's reputation on the line and expose yourself to the possibility of failure in this way twice in one week surely requires brass-balled courage.

And to succeed beyond anyone's wildest expectations with both projects takes more than courage, it takes the kind of genuine gilt-edged talent that has been in precious short supply for years in a British pop scene corroded by Cowellism. Who would doubt that, if asked, Albarn could knock out, before breakfast, a Eurovision winner that would secure the admiration of even the former Yugoslavian bloc voters? And still have enough ideas left over to make a decent double album. Which would doubtless be good news to his old mates in Blur, as they manoeuvre for a reunion album. One which few punters, given Albarn's Midas-touch track record in recent years, would bet against ending up as the year's biggest seller.

A Life in Brief

Born Leytonstone, 23 March 1968. Aged 10, moved to Aldham, Essex.

Education Met future Blur guitarist Graham Coxon at Stanway Comprehensive. Attended East 15 Acting School in London, where he took up writing and performing music.

Career Formed Circus with Coxon in 1988, which became Blur after the addition of Alex James and Dave Rowntree. Commercial and critical success followed 1994 album Parklife; by 2006, Blur had released seven albums. In 1998, Albarn and Jamie Hewlett formed virtual cartoon rock band Gorillaz, and Albarn has released several solo albums. Also performs with The Good, the Bad & the Queen (a collaboration with Simon Tong, Tony Allen and Paul Simonon). The latter won Best Album at the 2007 Mojo Awards. Albarn and Hewlett have recently collaborated on Monkey: Journey to the West, a reworking of a Chinese legend.

He Says "I'm not really one of those people who believes that if you're a musician you can just leave that behind and start getting into politics."

They Say "A very strong character: charismatic, ambitious and determined. He likes to wrestle; it's how he gets to know people." Alex James
by scummy | 2007-07-04 00:58


by scummy




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