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Music

Watch Damon Albarn record Gorillaz demos in 1999

Let it never be said that Damon Albarn lacks ambition. Having fronted no fewer than three bands during the 2000s, Albarn offered ample opportunity to showcase the entirety of his personal oeuvre. Whether it’s boredom or adventure that brings out the goods in him, Albarn continues to move forward with his work. 

“I’m not into how beloved you become of the smell of your own farts,” Albarn exclaimed. “The greatest exponent of that is the Rolling Stones, who just couldn’t let it go. It’s disappointing. Not to say that I didn’t absolutely love the Rolling Stones in their heyday — they were magnificent. But do other stuff in your life. Singing ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ when you’re pushing 80? Come on.”

Between Blur and The Good, The Bad and The Queen came the sound of a pulsating group Albarn formulated, based on the comic doodlings of his pal, Jamie Hewlett. In their own quirky way, Albarn and Hewlett spearheaded a new form of music, a genre that melded visual and music into one spirited whole. Not since Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks had an album sounded so visceral, but the Gorillaz project has wider influence, netting vocal collaborations from Shaun Ryder to Lou Reed

These days, Gorillaz are an institution, flitting from Glastonbury headliners to generous music makers, having released an impressive seven albums over the last 20-something years they have been in motion. Truthfully, Gorillaz stands as a thinly-veiled pseudonym for Albarn, and whoever he should invite into the studio with him, but who cares about such frivolities when he’s got such an impressive body of work. And with Gorillaz, he has a vehicle that allows him to wear several other guises and flirts with genres he has never explored before. 

As of the time of print, Gorillaz stand as a mosaic that is grander, and certainly more popular with the general public, than the foundations of the British Empire themselves, but in 2001, the band came as something of a shock to listeners who knew Albarn for his jaunty Britpop work. But like many great inventions in life, Gorillaz stemmed from his everyday life, as he watched MTV on a hellish, perennial repeat.

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Gorillaz set out to comment, even lampoon, the channel, which Albarn felt discarded nuance for flashing lights and other pyrotechnics. “This was the beginning of the sort of boy band explosion,” Albarn lamented, “And it just felt so manufactured. And we were like, well let’s make a manufactured band but make it kind of interesting.”

Gorillaz have certainly held up better than Boyzone or Westlife over the years, matching those two for charm, albeit with a crisp level of quality control that appeals to electronic artists. If the band had a modus operandi, it was to deviate from the importance of the guitar or piano to develop a soundscape based on beats, brasque effects and electronics. Gorillaz gave Albarn an excuse to deviate from the framework Blur had built for him, and when he returned to his band in 2003, the finished result Think Thank reminded listeners of the work he had completed with Hewlett. 

The first Gorillaz album is the most fondly remembered precisely because it was so unique. Still, Plastic Beach is actually the richer experience in sound, boasting luminaries as diverse as Mos Def and Bobby Womack on one track, ‘Stylo’. By the time Plastic Beach was issued in 2010, their legend had grown to encompass several genres and musicians. By the time they filled in for U2 at Glastonbury, nobody was surprised to see two members of The Clash on stage together. No doubt Joe Strummer would have joined them if he was alive to witness the event, but it was charming to see Paul Simonon and Mick Jones together on the main stage, 30 years after their heyday. 

Little wonder Albarn revived the outfit during the 2020 lockdown, and bolstered by the improvements in technology since the early 2000s, netted rockstars from all over the world for Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez. The fishing net had grown to include Joy Division bassist Peter Hook, rapper 6lack and Fela Kuti mainstay Tony Allen on percussion. The work encompassed newer and braver genres, creating new ones in the process. The only person missing from the credits was Sir Paul McCartney himself. Doubtless, he will be on the next album, and if he’s unavailable, then Ringo Starr could provide his services, either as a drummer or a singer. 

Clearly, the group means a lot to Albarn, because he wouldn’t have spent so much of his time dedicated to the group. As it happens, they made a greater impression in America than Blur ever did. And Gorillaz did something the Britpop band could never have pulled off. They got Oasis guitarist Noel Gallagher to perform on a track!

Watch Albarn recording demos below.