I’m not sure I ever “got” the point of Gorillaz. I mean, I liked the concept of a virtual band that visually only existed as cartoon characters, I liked the fact that a cartoonist teamed up with a pop star and made a band, and that the cartoonist contribution to the band was considered equal to that of the musician, even if it’s the music itself which is selling records and earning awards. The problem is, as much as I get the idea that the cartoons ARE the band, I know when I listen to it that the band is Damon Albarn, Del Tha Funkee Homosapien, Dan the Automator, Miho Hatori, De La Soul, Danger Mouse, MF Doom, etc. So, as much as I appreciate the concept, I don’t necessarily buy it.
I don’t remember the last time I listened to the self-titled release, but the opening guitar hook, the opening lyrics of “Re-Hash”, it all sucks me right back in. I think GAK found Gorillaz before I did, but regardless of whomever found out about them first back in 2000, we were both rather jazzed upon hearing about the new work from Dan The Automator, and his bizarre collaboration with Blur’s Damon Albarn and that Tank Girl guy. I’m almost certain (though my memory is indeed faulty) that we had some exposure to Gorillaz (it was the Napster era, afterall) before the album even hit these shores. But once it did, it was a staple of consumption. The great thing about Gorillaz is under a fusion of hip hop, samples, turntables, live and programmed instrumentation, international musicians and brit pop structure is a sound that’s unique and nearly a decade later still sounds very little like what else is out there. Aside from Gorillaz, I can’t think of another band that’s attempted a fusion of pop, dj, and hip-hop that even bordered on the success Gorillaz has had. The Hewlett factor might come into play, with some really cool iconography and a decidedly different take on the whole live performance/band thing, it didn’t take long before they became legendary.
Gorillaz sound can go anywhere, and it does. 90-second song like “Punk”, which is, well, 3-chord punk, turns tale into the ominous dj-led “Sound Check (Gravity)” which has lyrics - wholly infectious lyrics, naturally - but it revels in the turntable scratches and programmed beats but filling it up with subtle strings and guitars. The more popular tracks like “Clint Eastwood” or “19-2000″ are far more radio friendly and yet still present an undeniable draw for even the most jaded of indie purists.
The closing tracks consist of “M1A1″, which features a 100 second lead-in sample extracted from Dawn of the Dead (the original). It as close to Blur as the Gorillaz ever got toe Albarn’s Blur style… but even after it’s rollicking guitars silence, it’s not over as the track blanks out for two and a half minutes before cuing into a hyper-paced dub-influence remix of “Clint Eastwood”.
Gorillaz weren’t immediately popular, but as advertisers (surprisingly ahead of the curve) caught on, so too did the public and radio, and Gorillaz were everywhere in the summer of 2001. A year later, you would still hear tracks playing in the ether and I was bordering on saturation point. With G-Sides my cup officially runneth over. This was a compilation of eps and b-side tracks, and while today I’m enjoying quite a bit, I recall back in 2002 I wasn’t so generous. Two remixes of “19-2000″ and another iteration of “Clint Eastwood”, tracks I’d heard everywhere far too often, inhabit the disc as well as another presentation of “Latin Simone” which was featured on Gorillaz. The less frequently heard tracks, the haunting electronics of “Faust”, the fuzzed out “Ghost Train”, the spacey “Hip Albatross” and the melodic outro of “12d3″ are all lesser tracks than most of the main album, though they do stand up equally with some of the less catchier ones (particularly “Faust” and “12d3″).
Later in 2002, two more Gorillaz releases came out, a full Gorillaz remix by Spacemonkeyz call Laika Come Home was released alongside Phase 1: Celebrity Takedown, a DVD of videos and behind the scenes, but G-Sides tapped me out and even the completest in me couldn’t find the enthusiasm to acquire them. I think I needed me a Gorilla break.
Though the whole spelling words with “Z” thing had long since past, and I was a little wary of hopping on a new populist wave of Gorillaz madness, I was sucked in despite myself. I had heard that the Automator was gone, and he was my initial draw to begin with. Did I really want to hear new tracks from Albarn and the Grey Album sensation Danger Mouse? But, there was “Feel Good Inc.”, the first single, on the tele, featuring De La Soul, and I just couldn’t resist finding out what other treasures awaited. A quick sample at the listening booth and I knew remarkably that Albarn and Hewlett had topped themselves.
The minimalist orchestral techno of “Last Living Souls” is followed by the wry, Neneh Cherry backed “Kids With Guns”, which is as evocative a song as Albarn has ever constructed (”They’re turning us into monsters, turning us into fire” he sings through a clenched jaw). “Dirty Harry” is a sister song to “Clint Eastwood”, but it moves in strange and unusual ways. We find MF Doom in “November Has Come”, Roots Manuva on “All Alone”, and Shaun Ryder on the incredible party track “DARE”. “Fire Coming Out of the Monkey’s Head” is a spoken word track (by Dennis Hopper) which is utterly fascinating, in a “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” kind of way. The closing tracks “Don’t Get Lost In Heaven” and “Demon Days” are two sides of the same coin, really comprising one grand song, the latter half sung by the London Community Gospel Choir.
Though fully brilliant, Gorillaz once again made their impact on the populace at large and I couldn’t keep up, nor did I try. The D-sides companion album I passed up, as well as a pair of DVDs released in 2006, one a live video, the other Phase Two: Slowboat to Hades, a companion to phase one.
Albarn and Hewlett collaborated on Monkey: Journey to the West, a live musical stage show (”circus opera”), which they release a soundtrack adaptation in late 2008.
Artist: Damon Albarn
Albums owned: Ravenous OST (w/Michael Nyman) (1999); Gorillaz - Gorillaz (2001); Gorillaz - G-Sides (2002); Gorillaz - Demon Days (2005)
Eps owned: n/a
Album(s) missing: Blur -all albums (1991 - 2002); 101 Reykjavik OST (w/Einar Örn Benediktsson)(2002); Democrazy (2003); The Good, the Bad & the Queen (producer w Tony Allen, Paul Simonon and Simon Tong)(2007); Gorillaz - D-Sides (2007); Monkey - Journey To The West (2008)
Status: Working on a new Gorillaz album for 2010 with Hewlett, De La Soul and others, with, presumably, Danger Mouse producing. A Gorillaz documentary, Bananaz was just released June 1.
Personal history: To be honest, I’m not much of a Blur fan. My favourite song of theirs was the only new track on their best-of, “Music Is My Radar”, and the rest of their songs never truly grabbed me, but then I was participating in a Britpop war of wills siding with Radiohead rather than Blur, so I’m not certain I gave them much of a chance. I don’t really need to hear “Song 2″ ever again though.
My fascination with Albarn actually came a few years before Gorillaz though… Back in 1998 while working at my university student newspaper I received a promo pack for the film Ravenous which looked absolutely brilliant from the pictures alone. I came to love that film something fierce, and a large part of its brilliant experience is the awesome Albarn/Michael Nyman soundtrack which has been an enduring staple of my collection. Despite my lack of Blur enthusiasm, I knew this Albarn kid had something. The Gorillaz solidified it. But outside of those two endeavours I’ve not paid enough attention to his other work, and even though I might not like it all, nor do I need it all, he’s certainly an artist I want to keep paying attention to.
33 bands (in no particular order):
1. The National
2. Modest Mouse
3. De La Soul
4. TV on the Radio
5. The Futureheads
8. Danger Mouse
9. Damon Albarn