The Good The Bad and The Queen, Don Letts, The Tony Allen Orchestra, John Cooper Clarke (compére)
Holly Barnes 31/03/2007
Saturday 31st March 2007: Time to say goodbye to the Hammersmith Palais.
Although Sunday night's performance by The Fall was to be the final evening of entertainment before developers level the venue to build offices, it was Saturday that proved to be the send-off the Palais deserved. A super-group by any standards, the band known by their album title, The Good, The Bad & The Queen, pulled out all the stops to make sure this was one piece of history that didn't go quietly, and the more I learned about this place, the more indignant I felt at its destruction. Built in 1919 specifically as a music venue and ballroom (unlike the many converted theatre/cinemas that hold concerts now), the Palais de Danse, as it was originally known, brought jazz to London and followed every new genre since, including swing, be-bop, punk rock, ska, reggae, bhangra and dance, although rock'n'roll curiously was banned in the 1950s. It is known to many as a result of The Clash's 1977 song (White Man) in Hammersmith Palais, after Joe Strummer attended a reggae all-nighter there. This song, and the performances of The Clash there in 1980, make bassist Paul Simonon a fitting choice to play the Palais out with his new band. At the time of its closure, with the draped fabric hanging from the ceiling, the latticed woodwork and orange lighting, the Palais felt exotic and mysterious, almost Moroccan. It was beautiful, and sultry.
Compéred by ageing and rakeish punk-poet John Cooper Clarke and filmed by about a million cameras for a Channel 4 documentary, the evening got underway. Introducing the Tony Allen Orchestra, he recalled that the bandleader himself had been described as “instrumental in the development of funk”, by none other than James Brown, the Godfather of Funk. A pioneer, Nigerian musician Tony Allen's career has also spanned jazz with Art Blakey in the '60s and the creation of afrobeat with Fela Kuti. There was plenty of admiration and respect in the Palais for this innovator as he took to the stage with his own ensemble. Combining African rhythms, jazz-style trumpet and ritualistic-sounding vocals, their music is vibrant and mesmerising. A woman dressed in tight white clothing danced at the front, adding percussion and sporadic vocals, her movements being followed by the audience as if in a trance.
This hypnosis could have lasted all evening, but in due time the band closed their set and gave the stage over to John Cooper Clarke again for a half hour of fast and sharp one-liners, anecdotes, limericks and haikus. Two of his much-loved poems received an airing - Hire Car, and Beasley Street - as did a hilarious unrhymed limerick about a man who is stung by a wasp. Greeted with amusement and bemusement in about equal measure, Cooper Clarke's booking as resident poet and funnyman for the evening was another illustration of the care taken to make the night anything but run-of-the-mill.
An awesome DJ set from the legendary Don Letts followed - the man who introduced hardcore dub reggae records to the punk scene through his nights in the '70s, Letts not only influenced punk bands such as The Clash, but made the Grammy Award-winning film on the history of the band Westway To The World. Giving the Palais one last taste of reggae, with liberal sprinklings of crowd-pleasing Horace Andy, Dawn Penn et al, Letts continued this evening of many co-mingling genres and cultures. The combined musical legacy of the performers was almost overwhelming; I was more than little over-excited, and the floor and balconies heaved with people dancing, smiling, drinking.
But it was time for the main act themselves: Damon Albarn, Paul Simonon, Simon Tong and Tony Allen. Standing underneath the red bunting, our compére exclaimed that: “They don't have a name, The Good, The Bad & The Queen is the name of the album. They're too big to 'ave a name!”. An all-female bowler-hatted string quartet joined the band, positioned in front of a dramatic London-scene backdrop. The band, dressed very dapper in smart suits, appeared undoubtedly the project of Damon Albarn, who after his work in Blur, Gorillaz, and with musicians in Mali, has emerged as a true visionary; his lyrics and strong vocals were the main focus. However, each member brought their own influences and talents to the performance. Paul Simonon, who grew up influenced by the music of the West Indies, marked out hard dub bass lines, as he stalked his way across the stage, stabbing the air with the head of his instrument. Ex-The Verve guitarist Simon Tong brought the atmospherics of his previous band, while Tony Allen's many years of experience in the art of beats shone through.
The album, The Good, The Bad & The Queen, was heard in order, like the story of a journey through the city, with Damon making his way back and forth between centre stage and the piano. The band played a tremendous set, comprised of excellent musicianship, solid songs, a sense of showmanship and obvious enjoyment in situation in which they found themselves. So many moments stood out: the dangerously loud bass reverberations of Behind the Sun; the piercing strings/whistling combo of Nature Springs; the Soldier's Tale whistling melody played instead eerily by bow and saw; the about-to-stumble feel of Three Changes; the wistfulness of Northern Whale; the beautiful arrangement of Green Fields; and the title track, which got faster and more frenetic, ending in a cacophony; Damon's voice even more impressive live. Their music is captivating, and intriguing - it's a portrait of London, but not quite as you know it.
An instrumental called Dog House (released as England, Summer (in Black & White) Dog House) started the encore; recorded in Nigeria with local musicians, this song provided the original starting-point for the band. Mr Whippy, another b-side, featured Syrian rapper Eslam Jawaad, ending with Damon asking the crowd to count to four with him, after which the band walked off stage. Paul Simonon returned quickly with a small axe and proceeded to hack a small chunk of the stage away, saying “I think I've done enough to deserve a piece”. With Pennie Smith down the front with her camera, the moment is reminiscent of the last time the photographer captured Simonon wielding an axe - her iconic blurred image of his bass hitting the floor on the cover of London Calling. Holding the shard up, the crowd erupted and Simonon was gone. So, with the live music finished, The Special's Ghost Town erupted across the Palais. Forced to make our way home and out of London, we looked without success for some part of the venue that wasn't nailed down to take away with us, leaving the rest of the audience to dance into the morning. A truly fitting way to consign the Hammersmith Palais to the history books.