The Anniversary

Gorillaz Turns 20

Virgin Records
Virgin Records

It was a Trojan Horse in the shape of a blue ghost and dancing gorillas. Consider this premise: You are 10 years old and you have one of those friends who has older, cooler, brothers who turn them on to music when they’re young (and, maybe, other things too soon). Some recommendations trickle down and the two of you end up on a computer with dial-up internet trying to access the video for a song called “Clint Eastwood” before the age of YouTube. You just started watching some of those old Eastwood movies. It’s cool there’s a song called that, and it’s cool that the video features all these vibrant cartoons, and it’s cool that it’s a rap song that lurches and snaps and makes you think you like rap music when you live in a town where you’re far likelier to hear nu-metal and soft rock on any given radio station. That video, if you were a kid who was just barely starting to explore and figure out what you like, was revelatory.

The self-titled Gorillaz album was the first album I bought myself. (If I’m being truly honest it was actually Smash Mouth’s Astro Lounge, but that was more like a misled prologue, and I have a feeling Gorillaz was at least the first one I bought with my own money.) Parental Advisory stickers were still a big deal back then, and my parents definitely weren’t psyched about that. Eventually I managed to secure an edited version — I’ve now recently realized this is in fact still the version I have on my computer — and that was it. I was hooked. I carried my Walkman and my one CD around with me, listening to Gorillaz over and over the way you do when you are young and each new piece of music is a treasured talisman. There was world-building at play in that “Clint Eastwood” video, and then each song on Gorillaz in turn felt like its own world beyond that.

In interviews at the time, Damon Albarn remarked how Gorillaz was a departure from Blur partially because he wanted to make music that, as Britpop waned, interacted more directly with pop culture again. He also, at times defensively, claimed he embraced the idea that his cartoon band would appeal to 10- or 12-year-olds rather than those his own age, who might’ve still been waiting for a work that grappled with relationship fallout, drug use, and fading youth the way Blur’s 13 had in 1999. Whether Albarn had some sort of master plan based on that premise or whether Gorillaz was a cheeky lark that got out of hand, the self-titled album marked a giant pivot in his career. Albarn wouldn’t age the same as his Britpop peers. With Gorillaz, he caught my ears when I was 10 years old, alongside those of a whole lot of other kids my age, and built something entirely different for himself.

I had no idea what the premise was behind Gorillaz back then. When you’re that young you don’t consider the potentially gimmicky element of the virtual band, you embrace the characters and the hints of a broader story surrounding the small bit of music then existing under the Gorillaz banner. It was years later that I found out some guy named Damon Albarn was behind the project. Even then, the first realization was that before Albarn created the Gorillaz music I knew and loved he was in some other band called Blur, who in turn I only recognized as the band behind “that woohoo song” that had been used in the BMW The Hire series of commercials-as-short-films. Those films were insane: starring Clive Owen as a mysterious driver, in a role that was a would-be inclusion on a theoretical resume to become Bond, and snagging all kinds of other talent both behind and in front of the camera. In one episode, he drove a miserable celebrity played by Madonna, directed by her then-husband Guy Ritchie. It was while Owen whipped around town that a track I’d later come to recognize as the infamous “Song 2” blared. (Incredibly, that BMW series was also what influenced Luc Besson to make The Transporter, somehow.)

Anyway, my point is: Albarn succeeded in ways that, one would have to imagine, he didn’t even grasp quite yet. He had divorced himself from the overbearing context of Britpop, even if the cartoon band was a thin ruse quickly solved once people heard his distinctive voice on the Tomorrow Comes Today EP in late 2000. But more importantly, he had wormed his way into the minds of young American kids who might only know him as the voice behind 2-D and the dude who sang that other song for that BMW clip.

Two decades later, it’s easy to lose sight of just how unique and bizarre a prospect Gorillaz was. Popstars undergo great seismic transformations and adopt alter-egos all the time. But Albarn had attempted to remove himself from the picture entirely, and in turn it brought him arguably greater success than ever. Gorillaz was a hit in his native England the same as Blur’s albums had been, but soon Albarn would reach commercial peaks stateside, and elsewhere, places where Blur had been more of an indie concern. At the same time, he was able to dismantle some of the tabloid-level celebrity that had dogged him as the frontman of Blur. In America, people probably wouldn’t readily recognize Albarn on the street, despite how ubiquitous Gorillaz songs were through the ’00s. All of that began with the project’s self-titled debut, which came out 20 years ago today.

After having met Jamie Hewlett back in 1990, Albarn found himself splitting a flat with the Tank Girl cartoonist in the late ’90s, when they’d both turned 30 and gone through big breakups. That time was supposedly, if their tales are to be believed, full of insane parties with all manner of characters and famous friends; ironically, something a little like what later Gorillaz albums would sound like. But at the same time, the two sat around and watched TV. In particular, they started to take in the boy band craze sweeping the world and dominating MTV, at which point they began to mull over artifice and manufactured bands and figured, well, why don’t we do that? Bands had been created before, and headlines name-checking the Monkees and Josie And The Pussycats abound. But the duo claimed they were doing something that hadn’t been done before, imagining a band where the actual voices could be subsumed in this virtual world.

The balance between Gorillaz’ musical and virtual sides — the latter of which grew more sophisticated over time, while you could also choose how much you really wished to engage with it — was naturally born from the collaboration between Albarn and Hewlett. But it was also a shield of sorts for Albarn, who wanted to expand his palette into reggae, dub, hip-hop, and soon further global influences. If you revisit interviews from that era, Albarn talks about how he was drifting further from the guitar-based aesthetics of his younger days; he even felt hemmed in by Blur in terms of what kind of rhythm he could explore. While Hewlett devised the characters — 2-D, Murdoc Niccals, Noodle, and Russel Hobbs — Albarn holed up in his London studio and began following his muse wherever it led, building up a crop of new material based on beats and synths.

He later enlisted San Francisco native Dan Nakamura — AKA Dan The Automator, whom Albarn had previously collaborated with for 2000’s Deltron 3030 — to help with production. This in turn led to fellow Deltron 3030 members Kid Koala and Del The Funky Homosapien providing turntables and verses, respectively. They weren’t the only outside collaborators; Albarn also brought in everyone from Talking Heads/Tom Tom Club members Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz, to Cuban singer Ibrahim Ferrer, to Cibo Matto’s Mito Hatori, and more.

While the level of collaboration presaged just how much Albarn would expand beyond his British rock scene roots as the next two decades unfolded, Gorillaz was really a dry run for just how capacious and multifaceted the project would become on subsequent albums. Musically, Gorillaz was still mostly Albarn. He had lied and said he was working on a solo album in the years when journalists would ask him about future Blur plans while he and Hewlett were trying to keep Gorillaz under wraps, but it’s also not not a solo album. Compared to the guest-packed outings that would follow, Albarn’s voice was still front and center, drawling and bleary. He recorded those vocals in Jamaica, and allegedly went through multiple suitcases worth of weed while completing the album there.

It turned out that if Albarn was steering the ship solo, his mind was eager to go in a lot of different directions. Gorillaz has pop songs both ramshackle and giddily animated, a couple rap songs, a lot of trippy dub stylings, a handful of punk fervor outbursts. He found room for nodding-out sonic experiments like “Man Research” and “Sound Check” and “Double Bass.” In many instances, his purported goals were achieved. Both the stalking “Clint Eastwood” and its rap counterpart — the brighter “Rock The House,” led by an infectious horn part — were obviously new territory for Albarn. Even more Albarn-centric moments, like the technicolor pop of “19-2000,” didn’t feel like they could’ve been at home within Blur.

At the same time, when viewed from the perspective of 20 more years of Gorillaz material, so much of the self-titled album is not as radically different from Albarn’s then-recent work in Blur as it felt at the time. “Re-Hash” and “5/4” and “M1A1” are all not too far removed from the Britpop idiom, if just a bit rougher around the edges. Albarn himself has since noted the overlap, calling Blur’s “On Your Own” one of the first Gorillaz songs; other tracks from the era, like “Music Is My Radar,” also foreshadowed Albarn’s forthcoming new gig. As much as Gorillaz overflowed with ideas, it had the same strung-out, druggy mood of Blur and 13. When Albarn was in this zone, it resulted in some of his best material, like the hazy dream of “Slow Country.” And right near the beginning of the project there was “Tomorrow Comes Today,” as immaculate a downer pop song as Albarn has ever written. As the late-2000 precursor to Gorillaz it greeted the new millennium with a melancholic city drift.

You can imagine how liberating all of this must’ve felt for Albarn, and not just for the solo-ish album idea dump or stylistic sprawl. Stepping away from Blur wasn’t just about Albarn being able to exercise different creative energies outside of a band context, but also about fully divesting from Britpop in a way Blur and 13 had wrestled with as the ‘90s came to a close. When I interviewed Albarn before Humanz came out in 2017, he remarked on how Blur was his British band and Gorillaz, a one-time side project, was more his American band. In terms of scope, that’s entirely accurate: Gorillaz were far bigger here than Blur ever were. Of course people would’ve raised eyebrows at one of the foremost Britpop frontmen — an avatar for a deeply white genre — trying his hand at an array of Black traditions from across the world. Of course people would’ve initially dismissed Albarn’s new cartoon band as a gimmick until he got on to the real business of Blur’s future. But two decades later, Gorillaz is as much Albarn’s legacy as Blur — and, in some ways, more so.

One way “Clint Eastwood” and the surrounding album worked as a Trojan Horse is how Albarn ferried his work into the unsuspecting ears of a new generation of fans. But the other is also how Gorillaz became liberating not just for Albarn himself, but for the kids who found them back then. Through Gorillaz, young indie or rock listeners might find their way to all kinds of other avenues in the music world. They’d hear styles and histories collide across eras and continents, and could choose to follow those threads over to Afrobeat, or grime, or dub, or who knows what else.

In Blur, Albarn was at the forefront of one of the last great moments when guitar music was truly pop music. In Gorillaz, he was omnivorous, wanting to try everything and linking up with multi-generational musicians who could bring their own voice, presence, and traditions into Gorillaz. Albarn tapped into something that would only develop further over the ensuing decades. Even if Gorillaz was still the work of a white rock musician, it primed its listeners for a more open-minded approach to music. Before the circumstances and accessibility of the digital age made a genre-agnostic free-for-all something we now almost take for granted, albums like Gorillaz were a precursor to a hungrier, more curious approach to pop music.

Of course, that’s what Gorillaz would grow into, not what it was at the very beginning. It took five years — and Blur’s battered erstwhile postscript Think Tank — before Albarn and Hewlett reemerged with Demon Days. Then Gorillaz blossomed, giving Albarn a space for concept albums that had guest rosters that were getting longer and more impressive and more seamlessly woven into the music and the albums’ narratives alike. This is also the conflict at the core of Gorillaz’ identity. It’s something of a utopian vision, but especially in the Gorillaz’ second act, sometimes the parties get over-crowded — as in Humanz feeling a bit all over the place even in comparison to the sprawling Plastic Beach, or the fact that Song Machine flits between truly inspired collaborations and songs that feel half-baked.

For every lightning-in-a-bottle moment like “Feel Good, Inc.,” Albarn’s still often at his best when he’s using this vehicle for whatever kind of songwriting he happens to be interested in for his own voice at a given moment — think synth-pop gems like “On Melancholy Hill” or “Tranz” or last year’s “Aries.” While it can be tempting to regard Gorillaz as a prologue compared to what the project evolved into, there’s a certain charm to going back and getting more of that pure Albarn restlessness and pop acumen mingling on the self-titled — a moment where his vision was broadening but he still had to work within certain confines, one that yielded at least a few songs that would help define his career.

Gorillaz is not a warm-up or a rough draft, though. The album was a huge success in its own right, as was “Clint Eastwood.” By the late ’90s, Britpop was over, collapsed into a transitional era for UK rock music. Most of Albarn’s peers fell off, or abandoned it entirely. But nobody played it like him, following a tangent that soon broadened his worldview well past the coast of England. Albarn called Gorillaz his American project. But over the years, it became his global project, a space for all kinds of music and artists that scanned as “pop” around the world but had been left out of the mainstream conversation in America and England. This was also when a homeland superstar wandered off to find what else was out there, and wound up carving out his own iconic position in the whole of pop history. Twenty years ago, Gorillaz started teaching us a lot with their cartoons. But perhaps the most enduring lesson from Albarn and Hewlett is an eternal reflection on transforming yourself through art: If you look around and can’t find the world you want, just make it up.

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