It’s hard to believe, but it has been 15 years since the Gorillaz first captured people’s attention and imagination with their self-titled debut album. They provided a timely antidote to the banal pop factory that was taking over the charts everywhere – the UK Top 20 at the time was dominated by the likes of Five, Westlife, Atomic Kitten, S Club 7 and Hear’Say, to give you an idea. But despite their first success with single Clint Eastwood, no one really knew what to make of Gorillaz upon first seeing and hearing the band. Were they a gimmick? Were they too just another pop idea to generate sales? Or were they actively mocking the audience’s conceptions and obsessions with celebrity and popular culture?
With the recent news that the Gorillaz will return next year, we take a look back at the genesis of the band and examine just how they came to reshape the musical landscape during the beginning of the new millennium, while remaining a constant mystery.
The Gorillaz were formed when friends Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett devised an idea for an animated band. Both had enjoyed successes throughout their respective careers, but these experiences had left them somewhat disillusioned.
“Look at all the manufactured bands in the world. Even those that claim not to be, are, in some way. Gorillaz is about trying to destroy that and take it further. It’s about trying to manufacture something with real integrity. It requires a leap of faith,” Damon Albarn explained in the Metro about their premise.
The former flatmates devised a strategy for a new band that would address the manufacturing of pop, while proving that it could be done well, with actual artistic integrity. Albarn would provide the music, while Hewlett would create the images. All of the extras (musicians, singers, rappers etc.) would be added in wherever necessary.
The devised characters, with their own unique personalities, added extra value and new dimensions to the music. There was Murdoc who was centred on Keith Richards, Noodle the “mysterious one”, Russel the “hip-hop hard man… who hates Murdoc”, and the “fall guy” vocalist 2D. Their inner dynamics immediately offered something different to their contemporaries (Here’s Brian McFadden from Westlife calling a talk show host a “flowery ponce” and then burping).
Albarn presented himself behind 2D, and in doing so made a new musical identity for himself in the process. Known in his native England as the frontman for the phenomenally successful Blur, over in America he was relatively unknown besides being the “woo-hoo” guy.
Whereas Blur seemed somewhat limited to the Britpop tag- the inherent British-ness of the band meant that the American audience often overlooked them, Gorillaz were not locked into any kind of context or geographical boundaries. They were a band that seemed to have no obvious nationality. This was probably due in part to the constant collaborating with a broad range of artists that went on. Gone were the kitchen sink dramas and in their place were references to Hollywood royalty like Clint Eastwood.
The idea of a virtual band wasn’t entirely new to the music industry. The Monkees were one of the first real examples of this during the 1960’s. Don Kirshner, the man behind the band, was the first to realise the possibilities of an animated band. He devised The Archies when the Monkees refused to sing the saccharine chart hit Sugar Sugar. It then subsequently went on to become a number one in both England and America in 1969. Music journalist David Nolan remembers in his piece “Re-animators: Giving Birth to Gorillaz“, “The true voice of Sugar Sugar—session singer Ron Dante — remained hidden. No one needed to see or even know the names. That would have been distracting.”
The Gorillaz took part of the idea behind this but then expanded upon it to allow greater creative freedom for themselves. The project essentially allowing Albarn to escape from the confines of Blur. While it gave Hewlett, the creator of cult comic strip Tank Girl, an opportunity to fully immerse himself in a multi-faceted form.
The band hit the stage when their debut was released to the public in March of 2001. They stood behind the scenes and played while a giant projector displayed the animated band. It wasn’t exactly seamless though, and early on there was understandable scepticism and doubts about it all. The Daily Telegraph wrote that while impressed, “much of the animation was not far removed from the elaborate backdrops seen previously at gigs by the Chemical Brothers or Orbital. Gorillaz raised good questions about what we expect from a concert though. Who wants to look at ugly blokes playing guitars?”
While the concept of the animated band seemed to capture imaginations and draw many admiring glances from the critics, the album didn’t necessarily receive glowing reviews from all media outlets. “It’s what you might expect from a bunch of musos playing with Cubase or Pro Tools,” the Village Voice wrote. The knives were already out for Albarn, with Pitchfork being particularly harsh on the band; yet despite getting many of their facts wrong, it still received a decent score.
“The novelty group finds Albarn assuming the role of 2-D, the animated lead singer of a pack of four misfits. The Dan the Automator-produced ‘act’ is a smarmy, promotional gimmick. It has a short-lasting, faddish appeal. Gorillaz is the definitive side-project. Even at its best, it’s never more than a divergent one-off stint.”
This initial struggle was only heightened when the band were sued by Doppelgangerz, who claimed that they had come up with the idea first. “He claimed he’d ‘invented’ Gorillaz. Then he was demanding rights over my music, brain, image and face, which obviously made my blood boil. It felt like we were under attack from a hail of bullets,” Hewlett stated.
This didn’t make the duo retreat though and they were rewarded later with a nomination for the prestigious Mercury Prize. They remain the first and only band to ever turn down a nomination. In true Murdoc style, he responded: “Mercury award? Sounds a bit heavy, man! You know sort of like carrying a dead albatross around your neck for eternity. No thanks, man! Why don’t you nominate some other poor muppet?” This stance summed up their approach to the music industry perfectly. They played along with the game just enough to be part of it, but did so while remaining far enough away to take a step back whenever necessary and mock it.
However, they wouldn’t be so quick to have a blasé attitude towards recognition when they were nominated for multiple MTV awards the same year. In fact they went to considerable efforts to make pre-recorded winning speeches, only to lose out in all categories. As Jake Whitely wrote in his piece “Are the Gorillaz a postmodern artistic statement?” “They are a band that branded themselves with the slogan ‘Reject False Idols’. They had a focus on deconstructing image as an identifier with its audience. But yet the Gorillaz have presented multiple contradictions in their ethos.”
Regardless of whether or not you believed they were just another manufactured outfit of the pop industry or were actively seeking to deconstruct those mechanisms, the debut provided a fine example of a band that would go on to redefine the boundaries of what it meant to actually be a band. Named in the Guiness Book of Records as the most successful virtual band ever, they rose to become a preeminent force over the next decade and a half. What was to follow was an even more impressive sophomore album jam packed with features. There were headline festival slots around the world. An album made on an iPad, and the all-encompassing Plastic Beach. But what Gorillaz produced with their first effort was a deeply satirical and fiercely creative response to the music industry that it would go on to dominate for years to come.
You can read our feature on their sophomore album Demon Days here.