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Paul Simonon

Though his main claim to musical fame is anchoring punk legends the Clash with his dub-inspired bass playing, Paul Simonon went on to make a name for himself in the art world as a painter. His renown as a bassist led to him becoming part of the Damon Albarn projects the Good, the Bad & the Queen and Gorillaz in the early 2010s; the former found him playing in an all-star rhythm section with drummer Tony Allen. He returned to music during the COVID-19 pandemic, reinventing himself as a busker and duet partner, teaming with Galen Ayers to release Can We Do Tomorrow Another Day? in 2023. Born Paul Gustave Simonon on December 15, 1955, in London, England, Simonon was raised first in Brixton and then in Notting Hill, where he attended predominantly black schools, resulting in an admiration for soul and Jamaican sounds like ska and roots reggae. As a teenager, Simonon showed great talent as an artist and won a scholarship to a nearby art school. By the mid-'70s, he'd decided to give music a go, trying out as a singer for a group called London S.S. Simonon didn't get the gig, but he did strike up a friendship with its guitarist, Mick Jones, who would go on to teach Simonon how to play bass. It took a while for Simonon to learn (at one point, he marked the notes off on his instrument's neck in order to know where to place his fingers), but by 1976, Jones and Simonon had formed a band and recruited singer/guitarist Joe Strummer. They called themselves the Clash, a name that Simonon came up with while reading a newspaper. The group built an immediate following within the burgeoning U.K. punk scene and inked a recording contract with Epic in 1977. Although it was Strummer and Jones who penned the lion's share of the Clash's songs, Simonon's fluid, reggae-inspired basslines often provided the glue that held the breakneck compositions together. A clutch of thrilling singles and 1977's self-titled debut album established the Clash as one of the world's finest punk bands, and by the time of 1979's London Calling, the group began to experiment with other musical styles. The record featured Simonon's best-known composition, the deeply political reggae song "The Guns of Brixton," on which he provided lead vocals. The album's cover, which featured Simonon hunched over and smashing his bass on-stage during a New York show, went on to become one of rock's most celebrated images. Further hit albums followed (1980's triple-album Sandinista! and 1982's Combat Rock), as the Clash became one of rock's best-known acts, but tensions between Jones and the rest of the group were simmering behind the scenes, which led to Jones' ousting from the Clash in late 1983. Jones would turn up soon after in a new outfit, Big Audio Dynamite, while Simonon and Strummer kept the Clash alive for one more release, 1985's Cut the Crap, before calling it a day. Simonon's first post-Clash appearance on record was on Bob Dylan's 1988 release, Down in the Groove, where he and Mick Jones contributed to a song. His first post-Clash band was the roots rock-inspired Havana 3 A.M. They issued a self-titled album in 1991, then Simonon returned to his original love of painting. He stuck with that form of expression exclusively until 2006 when Blur's Damon Albarn asked him to join his project the Good, the Bad & the Queen alongside legendary drummer Tony Allen. The band's self-titled 2007 album was a dour, dark mix of dub reggae and music hall melancholia, anchored by Simonon's suitably heavy basslines. The gig led to an appearance on the 2010 Gorillaz's album Plastic Beach as well as a job playing bass on the tour that followed. Simonon mostly left music behind again after this, turning back to art and political protest -- he was jailed for a few weeks in Greenland following a Greenpeace takeover of an oil rig. He was released in time to play with the Good, the Bad & the Queen at a concert celebrating Greenpeace's 40th anniversary. Over the ensuing years he continued to paint and hold regular exhibits of his work, then in 2018 reteamed in the wake of Brexit with the Good, the Bad & the Queen crew to record a second album, Merrie Land. After a short tour, the group disbanded for good and Simonon returned to his brushes. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he spent the early days sheltering in a small seaside town in Mallorca, painting and playing guitar. When he could, he would busk outside cafes, playing a mix of sea shanties and ballads. The experience ignited a desire to explore this musical vision further and when he returned to London he teamed with vocalist Galen Ayers -- the daughter of Kevin Ayers and a noted singer/songwriter in her own right -- and a cast of friends and legends to record an album. Bowie collaborator Tony Visconti helmed the producer's chair while former Big Audio Dynamite member Dan Donovan, ex-the Good, the Band & The Queen bandmates Simon Tong and Damon Albarn, and Sons of Kemet drummer Seb Rochford provided musical backing. A mix of rollicking sing-alongs, wobbling shanties, Del Shannon tributes, and giddy duets that captured both the political bent of the Clash and the magpie nature of the Albarn-led projects he was a part of, Can We Do Tomorrow Another Day? was released in May of 2023.
© Greg Prato & Tim Sendra /TiVo


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