A look back on the “career” of the world’s most successful virtual band, written in anticipation of their fourth album. Originally published 28 March 2017 for Smoke Magazine.
Please do yourself a favour and watch the first 30 seconds of this video:
That terrifying, LSD-infused facsimile of wholesome family entertainment is the intro to a half forgotten television programme called The Banana Splits. The show focused on the titular (fictional) band; a pop/rock group comprised of four actors (who presumably dreamed of doing more with their lives) dressed in funny animal costumes. They sang songs, went on adventures, and generally continued to prove it was a miracle that any child came out of the late 1960s remotely well adjusted.
Why bring up this bizarre piece of pop culture ephemera? Well, when Damon Albarn left one of the biggest and best rock groups of the 90s, Blur, to start a “virtual band”, this was the precedent he had to go off.
It is easy to forget just how weird and revolutionary Gorillaz was when they first began.
First, the concept: An animated band consisting of a satanic bassist, a possessed drummer, a Japanese tween, and an (apparently) eyeless Britpop singer.
Next, give them a massively, furiously convoluted backstory which involves fractured eyeballs, ghost rappers, and guitarists being sent through the mail.
Now, make the music a complete and total mish mash of genres, spearheaded by an alt rock star and incorporating pop; RnB; hip-hop; rock n roll; and literally whatever else we feel like.
Oh, and make super heavy use of that newfangled internet thing as a promotional tool, with cryptic puzzles and hidden websites which, after much decoding and sleuthing and puzzle solving, allow one to see a photo of the bassist’s stolen Winnebago.
As it turned out, it was. All comparisons to the likes of The Banana Splits were thrown out the window immediately upon the release of Gorillaz’ self titled debut – the album which won them the title of “most successful virtual band” from Guinness World Records. And over the next decade or so, Damon Albarn’s eclectic side project became just as successful, influential, and iconic as the band which made his name.
The answer is twofold.
First, Gorillaz was designed to be a band of a type which hadn’t really existed for decades – one which combined the personality driven relatability which boy bands had co-opted with the serious artistry of less, ahem, ‘vibrant’ acts like Radiohead or The Smashing Pumpkins.
(Don’t get me wrong – I adore both those groups, but it’s hard to imagine either one starring in anything like A Hard Day’s Night.)
It’s always fun to immerse oneself in the lives and stories of our favourite celebrities and artists. Autobiographies and reality TV are based on this fact, but long before they came along, pop stars came pre-packaged with their backstories and multimedia adventures – recall that The Beatles had a saturday morning TV show, while Sonny and Cher once solved mysteries with Scooby Doo – to say nothing of The Monkees. This trend withered throughout the 70s as rock bands began to take themselves more “seriously”, but it clung on to respectable and critically acclaimed acts like the Jackson 5 and Diana Ross, whose screen personas filled television and film alike, just as their music filled the airwaves. But, like it did so many things, punk killed this trend, consigning the notion of pop stars as fictional heroes with backstories and adventures to the world of the kitsch and the forgotten. And when it was resurrected by the likes of the Backstreet Boys and the Spice Girls, there wasn’t exactly any sense of artistic credibility behind it. (I say this with love, as I (in particular) adore Backstreet’s Back, but neither of those groups will be remembered as among the most artistically innovative of the late 90s.)
Gorillaz combined the inherent fun of tracking the adventures of a group you like with genuine artistic ambitions. Damon Albarn had been writing nostalgic alternative rock under the britpop banner for a decade, and it was clear he wished to branch out.
This brings me to the second big contributor to Gorillaz’ success: their tunes were, for lack of a better word, banging.
The first taste of Gorillaz the world got was an EP called Tomorrow Comes Today, most of which soon appeared on their debut, self titled album. But the song that really launched them into the popular consciousness was this:
It’s not hard to see why. Gorillaz created something that sounded like nothing and everything on the radio at the same time. It was a clear descendant of the amorphous blob we call “pop” music, but when it came to its specific parents, things got murkier. That bassline was distinctly funky, while the harmonicas, strummed guitar, and vocals all heralded from alternative rock. And then, the verses were two fantastic bits of rapping from Del The Funky Homosapien (seriously, everyone remembers where they were the first time they heard “that it’s all in your head”). This is weird, edgy pop music at its very best – something you can groove to while discovering new lyrical and textural surprises with each listen (“I ain’t happy/I’m feeling glad/I got sunshine/In a bag” – now that is an ambiguously inviting chorus for you).
And the trend continued.
Feel Good Inc is, justly, one of the most remembered songs of the 2000s. That groove; that beat; that bass; that laugh; that “shake it shake it”; that hook; that video, that De La Soul verse – this is perfect pop music. Demon Days, their second album, continued to prove that musical eclecticism didn’t have to mean self indulgence – this is music that is meant to listened to. Gorillaz achieved something which only the very best pop artists do – I’m talking here of the lineage of The Beatles; The Beach Boys; Outkast; Marvin Gaye; Kanye West – to combine genuine musical innovation and experimentation with traditional pop formulas in an entirely successful way. Nothing we’d heard sounded like Gorillaz, and that new-ness was palpable with every song, but it was never inaccessible. They took the parametres of pop music and used them to create songs everyone could appreciate – tunes which belonged in your hi-fi headphones as much as in the club, and they did it while crafting a wholly unique musical identity.
Their third album, Plastic Beach, shifted away slightly from their alternative hip hop/RnB aesthetic, featuring Beach Boys and Phil Spector influenced lush orchestration and composition. If it wasn’t quite the commercial monster its predecessors were, it compensated by, arguably, being even more interesting, earning further critical acclaim, and continuing to be far, far better than a cartoon band had any right to be.
If Gorillaz had a real flaw, it was the wait between albums. Years of emptiness passed the time between quick and sudden bursts of creativity. When albums came out, they came as part of a new “phase” – replete with villains, backstories, and allegorical music videos. And yet, they never dated. Despite their debut being indelibly associated with a pre-Myspace internet; despite Demon Days being overstuffed with potshots at George W Bush, and despite each album being as much about adding to the Gorillaz mythology through viral marketing and cartoon adventures as about new music; the first Gorillaz songs sound as fresh and important as ever. But, naturally, such creative flourishes being interspersed between years of nothingness creates a sense of… abandonment. Having been seven years since the last major Gorillaz release, and with the weight of 2016 (God, what a year) hanging over us, not only did Gorillaz seem forgotten, but when Damon Albarn casually slipped that he wouldn’t mind giving his virtual band another go, it was hard not to wonder what relevance this relic of the age of Howard Dean and friendster could possibly have in the modern pop landscape.
And then the first single dropped.
Some dismissed its crooning, synthy neo-soul as “not Gorillaz”. Apparently they longed for the funky dance grooves the “band” had built their name on. These people missed the point. Gorillaz had delivered exactly what they were expected to: the unexpected.
Musically, Hallelujah Money blends genres with the best of them, while its lyrics’ gorgeous and ephemeral metaphors ensure that its message won’t fade the moment its politics cease to be immediately relevant. Damon Albarn had blindsided us once again.
And so, now, here we are. Four further tracks from Gorillaz’ upcoming album Humanz have been released. They range in style from slippery, insidious neo-funk (Saturn Barz) to aggressively lonely edm (Andromeda) to rock influenced alternative hip hop (Ascension) to sheer glorious power pop (We Got the Power). I love every single one of these songs for the same reason I love all Gorillaz – hell, for the reason I love pop music. There’s nothing wrong with music that invites and requires concentration – I dig jazz and prog as much as the next guy – but pop affects you on the most elemental of levels – hooking itself into your brain and refusing to let go. It is musical instant gratification, and when this is combined with the genuine artistic aspiration of someone (Damon Albarn) who thinks his listeners are as smart, as discerning, and as interesting as he is, and deserve to be entertained, not just distracted – well, then you get a special kind of great art.
Gorillaz, we love you. And we are very, very glad you’re back.