Before the 2000’s if you heard the term ‘virtual band’, something like ‘Alvin and the Chipmunks’ or ‘The Archies’ would come to mind. However, the true potential of this concept wouldn’t be fully explored until 2001 when former ‘Blur’ frontman Damon Albarn and ‘Tank Girl’ comic book artist Jamie Huelet would collaborate and release their debut, self-titled album; Gorillaz
The idea to put together this animated band arose from their frustration with the ‘MTV generation’, the faces of the music industry becoming the celebrity without substance. So, if the music was going to be created, they wanted to do it properly, from the ground up. And with these 4 animated characters: 2D, Russel, Murdoc and Noodle, they could strip away the celebrity, making the face of the music into these caricatures, parodies of what they were seeing so much in the industry.
In their book ‘Rise of the Orge’, there is a quote from Roger Morton which says; “In a world where everything is a virtual copy of itself, where there’s nothing but image, where publicists have publicists and where celebrity is bleakly industrial; it’s inevitable that ‘image’ starts to collapse in on itself”. Gorillaz set out to shatter the myopic idea of what pop music should be. It became an experiment to deconstruct genre using these fo
ur musical architypes as a conduit to explore everything from hip-hop, trip-hop, brit-pop, J-rock to orchestral, electronic, jazz folk and opera.
There is always a higher conceptual theme to each Gorillaz album, but the individual songs are radically different in tone, atmosphere, instrumentation and lyrics. An example from their album Plastic Beach; Empire Ants first half shows a folksy, ethereal and calm tone, something on the other side of the spectrum to the second half of the song, with an electronic trance vibe that starts halfway through the song. These constant musical shifts drive the albums momentum and keep you on your toes, you never expect what’s coming next.
The need to over-categorise music, putting everything into neat little boxes, is detrimental to the exploration factor when acquiring your musical taste. Categorisation is something that is just human nature, learned from childhood, however it is also human nature to combine, merge and collaborate, with this all being part of the experimentation process. I grew up listening to the Gorillaz and that erosion of genre boundaries opened me up to appreciating so much more music, and that’s something very important to learn when you’re young. In an interview, Albarn talks about Liam Gallagar’s thoughts on Gorillaz after hearing him call them “a kid’s band”. Albarn says: “I thought that was probably the coolest thing ever said about Gorillaz because I want it to be for kids. The sort of eight to fifteen year olds ‘cause they’re the ones who don’t care who’s behind it. They don’t know who I am, they don’t know who Damon is. They think it’s ‘Gorillaz’ and so they buy into it the way they should.”
Gorillaz was not only an experiment for Albarn, but it was a method to influence people away from the MTV atmosphere of the early 2000’s. Albarn talks about this, saying “When ‘Clint Eastwood’ (their first hit song) came out, it went in the top 5 and it was in there with all this teeny bop crap and yet, the kids were listening to that, they were listening to music influenced by dub and reggae and hip hop and thinking it was cool. I think it worked”
Damon and Jamie could completely disappear behind an artifice of this animated band and their music took full advantage of that freedom, utilizing a constantly rotating roster of guest performers, anyone from Snoop Dogg and Bobby Womack to Lou Reed and the Syrian National Orchestra. The animated element of the band isn’t just a gimmick or a distraction, the visuals could suffice on their own, so can the music. But the marriage of those two together opens a whole new world of narrative driven song writing. Damon talks about this calling it “a movie that will never make it to cinema, because it doesn’t have to”
Artists like Kanye West and Beyonce have experimented with visualising an entire album with music videos and large performances, but that doesn’t have the same reach as something like Gorillaz. When you hear Damon Albarn’s vocals, the fact that you picture ‘2D’ singing is something that is uniquely special to this concept. And that’s what makes Gorillaz so deserving of a double platinum selling album, nine Grammy nominations and a GQ band of the year award, given to a band that doesn’t actually exist.