Gorillaz ‘n’ their Myth: How the Hype Machine Helped Push the Envelope for 10 Years

A greatest hits album to tie in with the 10th anniversary of a band’s debut? In time for Christmas? For a band that always had a maverick ace in the sleeve, this is, surely, Gorillaz most conventional move, to date?

While this can easily be interpreted as a ‘cash-cow’ manoeuvre by the executives at EMI, an opportunity for an examination of Gorillaz chart output lies within the chronological running order for The Singles Collection 2001-2011. The canonisation of Gorillaz career is sure to be inevitable, now a physical format exists to put parameters between the virtual band’s yield, and any move in the future, they may make. However, it would be a mistake to categorise Gorillaz’ first decade within a lumpen monothematic idiom. All-encompassing labels are cheap, and would do disservice to a collective, whose ambitions, album to album, were so often well structured and planned with a meticulous enthusiasm.

The collection of songs from each Gorillaz album, are an accurate representation of each of their parent LPs. The primary advantage of having Gorillaz’ singles presented in sequential order, is that a fitting assessment can be made of the band’s work, from phase to phase- defined, mainly within the margins of Gorillaz four albums, Gorillaz, Demon Days, Plastic Beach, and finally, The Fall.

Gorillaz – Plastic Beach Album Cover

The inception of Gorillaz came about in 1998, when Blur frontman, Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett, visual artist, and creator of anarchistic comic book, Tank Girl, were living together in Notting Hill’s Westbourne Grove. Following too many hours watching MTV, Albarn and Hewlett decided to embark on a project that would hold a mirror to the lack of real substance making its way onto the airwaves. The founding of a cartoon band was key to this.

Of course, the idea of a virtual band was not a new phenomenon. In 1959, Ross Bagdasarian, Sr. sped up recordings of his own voice and thus created Alvin and the Chipmunks- winning two Grammys for engineering in the process. The idea of an imaginary act with a bodily output was copycatted across the board throughout subsequent decades; Pinky and Perky, Josie and the Pussycats, The Muppet Show. All had varying degrees of success, but were all mostly infantile efforts in terms of musicality and creativity.

With the exception of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, the concept of a band existing in an intangible state was very much lost on the adult world. In the 1990’s, American act, Bot Brothers, and Australian virtual band, JuJu Eyeballs made attempts at breaking through. However, where The Muppets et al always had television and radio at their arsenal, virtual bands for grown-ups were perennially unable to find a medium in which to flourish.

Nevertheless, come the new millennium, internet bandwidths began to breach the 56k barrier. Personal computer ownership skyrocketed throughout the 1st World, and the accelerated capabilities of the World Wide Web left a platform that was free from convention, embarrassingly inexpensive, and most importantly… there for the taking!

Gorillaz - Graffiti

Albarn and Hewlett’s brainchild, Gorillaz, was a masterclass in perfect timing. The pioneering spirit of the early dotcom boom was a perfect marriage for the collaboration of emerging underground musical movements with the alternative rock format. Furthermore, the fact that Gorillaz was fronted by cartoons; 2-D, Murdoc Niccals, Noodle, and Russel Hobbs [like the kettle, only spelt differently], rather than human beings left the band impervious from the same level of scrutiny as a corporeal band would be forced to endure. Albarn, alongside producer, Dan ‘the Automator’ Nakamura, were obliged to experiment with hip-hop, dub, drum ‘n’ bass and electronica at their own personal whim, adding greatly to the wave of optimism and ambition that runs throughout Gorillaz first four singles.

‘Tomorrow Comes Today’ comes from the first Gorillaz EP of the same name, introducing the band with a drum beat that could have easily been lifted from the cutting floor of Nas’ debut, Illmatic, and a Beats International dub bass that sweeps through the bittersweet, after-hours wistfulness of Albarn-voiced 2-D. Very much the sound of battered concrete and graffiti in the underpass, you can almost hear Albarn’s dry lips cracking as he muses over a post Cold-War London of greatly hastening speed. A city with seemingly limitless potential; but with no real sense of self, nor direction in its feral velocity.

WATCH: Gorillaz – Clint Eastwood

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Following comes Gorillaz breakthrough single, ‘Clint Eastwood.’ Continuing the melting pot themes of Britain in the early 2000s, the song combines Ennio Morricone’s ‘Spaghetti Westerns’ ideals with elements of The Specials’ ‘Ghost Town’ and a Cossack-nuanced piano loop that stubbornly refuses to garner pace. Guest rapper, Del the Funky Homosapian’s braggadocio is juxtaposed expertly by impending rainclouds of strings and keys and Albarn’s low-key choruses about optimism amidst chemical dependency.

19-2000 is an accurate representation of Gorillaz seemingly more light-hearted work. Bleeps and whirrs from Atari keyboards countered with a controlled bouncing bass rumble the song onwards nicely. Yet the lyrical content of the song alludes to confusion, disillusion with materialism, and one’s half-contempt at their own ability to shake it all off when a catchy song comes along- mirroring the ‘E’-induced feelings of free love of the ‘90s, that were invincible at 2am, but long departed by dawn..

WATCH: Gorillaz – Rock The House

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Final single from Gorillaz is ‘Rock The House,’ is wholeheartedly less dialectic in tone, but remains one of the more underrated treasures from Albarn, Hewlett, and Nakamura’s early collaborations. Del the Funky Homosapian returns to emcee over a feel-good, party rap song, recalling the Golden Age of alternative rap and ethos of Native Tongues collectives. The positive nature and horn hooks of the song, alone, conform to become an ideal antidote to the invading gangsta rap beginning to dominate the urban charts at the time. Indeed, ‘Rock The House’ speaks more to the Four Elements than drugs, guns, bitches and bling ever could.

A significant portion of the fervour that surrounded 2001’s Gorillaz and 2005’s follow up, Demon Days, was Hewlett and Albarn’s expertise when it came to online viral marketing. Very much fans of culture jamming and guerrilla semiotics, [better known now as ‘guerrilla marketing’] the pair where able to undermine what was often rock ‘n’ roll cliché, through simple imitation, into a form of viral subvertising. Animations on the band webpage showed band interviews, 2-D getting into Tibetan spirituality or Murdoc in trouble with the police. The fact that these virals had to be conceived, scripted and produced were a comment on the ways in which the kinds of acts Albarn and Hewlett had seen on MTV set up their own PR stunts- whether it being romantically linked with the up-and-coming starlet in the gossip columns, or ringing the paparazzi in advance to let them know where they would be. Channel 4 mockumentary ‘Charts of Darkness’ furthered the public obsession of the virtual band, depicting its creators descent into mental chaos, and perceiving their cartoons to now be real people in the real world.

Gorillaz - Demon Days Album Cover

Gorillaz’ use of iconoclast tactics persisted in the build up towards Demon Days. The collective mantra was their ‘Reject False Icons’ marketing campaign, with the Gorillaz official website launching a ‘Search for a Star’ competition for all-comers, in a response to the growing American Idol culture of mainstream music. Entrants were encouraged to upload their own virals of homemade audio and visual clips, in competition, with the eventual three winners being included in the collaborations for ‘Kids With Guns’ and ‘El Mañana.’ The subversion of convention continued the band’s with the album cover for Demon Days being a lampooning of the cover for the Beatles’ Let It Be signaled that no institution was beyond question.

In fact, Demon Days contains a whole more sinister undertone within its subject matter. By May 2005, the war in Iraq was very much a talking point in the music industry. Green Day’s American Idiot was at the peak of its powers by then. Faithless’ single ‘Mass Destruction’ and Eminem’s ‘Mosh’ further addressed the illegality and immorality of conflict, while Gorillaz’ second album, succinctly captured the tensions of the world post-9/11 and unease at flagrant corporate warmongering.

The singles from Demon Days ooze with the anxiety of the time- the loss of millennial optimism just won’t shift from the shoulder. New producer, Danger Mouse reigns in the abandon of Dan the Automator’s first album, with electronic keys featuring more prominently than the unrestrained drum-programming on Gorillaz making for a wholly more claustrophobic record. ‘Feel Good Inc.’ deliberately illustrates a more constrained expanse in Gorillaz’ sound, with De La Soul’s cameo rap delivered with an uncharacterised malice. Albarn’s vocals appear desolate through muted megaphone, instilling an air of spite that, too, carries through the remainder of the album.

WATCH: Gorillaz – Feel Good Inc.

 

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The only substantial relief on Demon Days comes from ‘DARE.’ In a similarly outwardly happy-go-lucky vibe to 19-2000, the song is propelled by ‘Ringtone of the Year’ synthesizers, and guest vocalist, Shaun Ryder’s backing [delivered with all the eloquence of a pub toilet conversation] suitably masking the vaguely sexual undercurrents of its lyrics.

The remaining Demon Days singles, then bring about a thoroughly more solemn tone to The Singles Collection. ‘Dirty Harry,’ through it’s ‘Vice City’ keyboards is a scathe on public apathy and inaction against global violence, haunted by child chorals and made seasick by the offset dub bass influences that creep into the song, midway. ‘Kids With Guns,’ meanwhile, conveys Gorillaz as at their best, when most visceral. The song could have been written by Kurt Cobain himself, with its slow-burning, stalking bassline and quiet-loud-quiet song structure, although Albarn makes it very much his own through his Mockney zeal vocal, sounding equal parts Squeeze and The Specials, following a long and protracted divorce.

Final single, from the album, ‘El Mañana,’ is probably Gorillaz’ most despairing release, to date, with Damon Albarn able to evoke a disparate melancholia in his tear-choked, staggered vocal, the like of which had not been seen since Blur’s No Distance Left to Run.

Unfortunately, Gorillaz’ career after Demon Days has been a somewhat muddled effort. Failed attempts at getting a world tour off the ground, using holographic Musion Eyeliner technology and Pepper’s Ghost illusion, came about through the sheer cost and logistics of a travelling 3D circus. 3D gigs were limited to the UK, Ireland, and assorted award shows. Proposed Gorillaz feature length, Carousel, also fell through over financial and creative difficulties.

Though much of the music drafted for Carousel did make it through to Gorillaz’ third studio album, Plastic Beach, the collective found that the hype machine Gorillaz had forged had been caught up by the rest of the world. The advances in social media meant that anyone with internet access could utilize their computer into a cottage-industry ad campaign. As a consequence, Gorillaz subversive media output appeared far diluted, considering that even the commercial sector had cottoned on to the inexpensive benefits of viral marketing. Albarn and Hewlett’s cultural jamming no longer went beyond satire or critique, and, as a result, lost its resonance and ensuing influence. Gorillaz eventually resorted to endorsing a band themed Korg app for iPad, in a move confusing to the original ethos of the underground project.

The album and subsequent singles from Plastic Beach are also flawed from the offset. In the conspicuous absence of a Nakamura or Danger Mouse, Albarn became primary producer of a record that was overlong, largely unfocused, featured far too many guest appearances, and contained a poorly directed eco parable that lacked direction, conviction, and was ultimately pithy.

WATCH: Gorillaz – Stylo

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The only high point on the record was first single, ‘Stylo,’ with its Knighrider-esque swathe and eerie Casio funeral organ, throughout. The troubled howls of Bobby Womack’s chorus and Albarn’s aching lament made for an arresting song that suggested Demon Days form, but was, alas, a false dawn for the impending album.

‘Superfast Jellyfish’ should not have made either record. De La Soul’s back-and-forth rapping about the fast food industry, and veiled swipes at overfishing feel like a pastiche of a bad D-12 song while Gruff Rhys’ phoned-in chorus feel like he’s carrying out a favour that no-one really wanted doing in the first place.

On ‘Melancholy Hill’ is a slight return to form, and restores some sought-after warmth to the album; but is a few steps short of what is really needed. The drums and percussion throughout Plastic Beach are lacklustre and fall well short of the ambition and scope that made Gorillaz’ first two albums shift so many units. The songs from Plastic Beach and following album, The Fall are head-bobbingly twee, at times, and desperately miss the aggression, forcefulness, and sense of the dystopian that made the best Gorillaz had to offer so innovative and remarkable. The fact The Fall was made entirely on iPad is a gimmick the record is never able to shake, and feels as if Albarn is well and truly in his own MTV-esque bubble and in need of a shake-up.

While the earliest Gorillaz singles had a sense of accompaniment with a good head-banging and a well-earned Sunday afternoon hangover; the output from ‘Stylo,’ afterwards, feels like it would be better placed accompanying Sunday morning brunch.

The post-Stylo dirge is confirmed by final single, from Plastic Beach’s re-release, ‘Doncamatic’ featuring Daley on vocals. Tacked on, this song is able to recall ‘Am I Wrong’ by French electronic house footnote, Étienne de Crécy, as well as 90’s hairbrush anthem, ‘Where Love Lives,’ by Alison Limerick. However the songs effort feels contrived and is deficient in the formers esoteric charm and the latters sincere universality.

The final two tracks on The Singles Collection serve as an appendage to Gorillaz’ early singles output. The Ed Case/Sweetie Irie Refix of Clint Eastwood is an example of turn-of-the-century 2-step garage being at its most prominent. It was in fact, one of the few times a remix of a song has achieved mainstream daytime airplay. The same can apply to Soulchild’s remix of 19-2000. Whilst worthwhile in their own right, both would have worked better alongside other remixes and demos on an accompanying CD.

Gorillaz - The Singles Collection 2001-2011 Album Cover
Gorillaz - The Singles Collection 2001-2011 Album Cover

Ultimately, The Singles Collection 2001-2011 makes for frustrating listening. The first ten singles by Gorillaz make for a luminous experience in terms of production, songcraft, musicality, drive and objective. They are the standards by which a band, which does not even physically exist, were able to appeal to, and influence so many. Unfortunately, the album’s conclusion is less than awe-inspiring, hampering the band’s longevity, and designed for die-hard Gorillaz fans, only.

[If you do pick up the album in physical format, in order to appreciate the combination of Gorillaz’ music and animation, fully; it may be worthwhile picking up the deluxe version, featuring a DVD of all the band’s videos, as well as a host of other Gorillaz content.] [Even a hefty YouTube session makes for interesting viewing]

The records 2/3 of brilliance and 1/3 of banality can perhaps act as an allegory on the decade of the Gorillaz. When they were new and ground-breaking, in a new and ground-breaking world, they were sublime. When they lived in a world haunted by duplicity and mistrust, they had the courage to take it on. Regrettably, when the world finally caught up with them, Albarn and Hewlett were missing that one final ace in the sleeve.

Gorillaz The Singles Collection 2001-2011 is out November 29th 2011

Worth Listening To…

  • Tomorrow Comes Today
  • Clint Eastwood
  • Rock The House
  • Dirty Harry
  • Kids With Guns
  • El Mañana
  • Stylo