Super Apes: Gorillaz’ Self-Titled Debut, 20 Years On

Damon Albarn could have floated out with the tide after Britpop, but he was too canny, he had too much creative energy, and he had a great deal more to offer. David Bennun salutes a remarkable second act that began with Gorillaz

The first Gorillaz album is not the best album Damon Albarn ever made. It’s not even the best Gorillaz album Damon Albarn ever made. And the list of outstanding albums made with the involvement of Damon Albarn is not an extensive one in the first place, when you consider how long he’s been at it.

But when you look at the list of good, interesting and/or adventurous music that would not have been made over the last 20 years without Damon Albarn, the left-field projects that would not have been seen or heard, a different picture emerges. Somehow, without ever producing a truly great LP, Albarn has been an engine of ambition and invention in British pop for most of this century. And Gorillaz is a key signpost, perhaps the key signpost, in a career that deserves this be acknowedged. It marks the moment when Albarn, refusing to be shackled either by his own past or that of pop music as a whole, first attempted something altogether fresh and different. And in fairness to him, he’s been trying ever since.

Why “in fairness”? Because, let’s face it, the impulse to be unfair to Damon Albarn is a powerful one. I’ve succumbed to it often enough. The reason for that is, he’s highly annoying. Not necessarily in person (although the anecdotal evidence stacks up there too; but who amongst us, and all that. People might say the same of your correspondent, if I were worth retailing anecdotes about.) More in persona. As a presence. He may not be at all times a great deal more pleased with himself than he, or indeed anybody, has cause to be; but if not, he does a splendid impression of someone who is. You might call it Donovan Syndrome: the phenomenon of the artist who is genuinely undervalued, but more than makes up for it on their own part.

What we should allow then is that Albarn does have reasons to be pleased with himself. And Gorillaz is one of them. When he was promoting it upon release, he grumbled to an interviewer how he had been taught “that it’s very difficult in this country to be experimental”. Which was, in 2001, true enough, at least if you wanted to be in the charts. From what did he glean this lesson? From the so-called Battle of Britpop, in 1995, when Blur and Oasis went head-to-head for the No. 1 spot with two of the most backward-looking singles of even that retro-fetishist era, ‘Country House’ and ‘Roll With It’, respectively. In the aftermath, complained Albarn, he’d got all kinds of stick – presumably from people who didn’t grasp just how radical and daring was an oi-matey sub-Kinks pub sing-along. For one of the chief instigators and beneficiaries of Britpop to complain about the country being unwelcoming to pop experimentation is, in hindsight, reminiscent of those Brexit ultras presently fulminating about the hit to the fishing industry, customs logjams, or the prospect of inconveniences on holiday: “This isn’t the Britpop I voted for!”

Well, maybe it wasn’t. Yet thanks in no small part to his band, it was the Britpop we got. At its peak, a host of experimental impulses and remarkable artists were crushed beneath its Cuban heels and classic trainers. For the first time in over three decades, the dominant pop idiom was at heart reactionary and nostalgic. Parklife and (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? condemned British rock music to three years of jaunty, thigh-slapping parochialism and blustering stodge, followed by annihilation at the hands of the light entertainment-industrial complex. Before then, the UK mainstream had seldom faced backwards. It’s taken another two decades, and the emergence of grime and UK rap as a serious commercial force, to reverse that reversal.

Blur vs. Oasis was a neat narrative, pushing so many of the nation’s buttons, and a forerunner of the culture wars which today preoccupy its smaller but most volubly engaged factions while leaving everyone else dispirited, baffled and exhausted. Too-clever-by-half college boys versus streetwise graduates of the University of Life. Cocky faux-Cockneys squaring up to the presumed authenticity of Northern swagger. Slumming intellectualism against honest proletarian aspiration. The Liberal Elites vs the Common People.

None of it proved to be that simple. Oasis, the working-class rebels with the rocket-powered sound and skyborne rhetoric, would turn out humdrum, stick-in-the-mud traditionalists, whose leader also happened to be an outspoken Labour supporter. Blur, and Albarn in particular, would abandon their knees-up-Mother-Brown act in favour of restless exploration, before one of their number joined David Cameron’s Chipping Norton set. Blur edged the battle, then went on to lose the phoney war, before conclusively winning the peace. Oasis stagnated; Blur switched tack, and stayed switched on. The former’s catalogue is stultifying once you get past the exhilaration of that first album; the latter’s, while erratic and frequently exasperating, is (like the band themselves, unkind observers might say) plum-full of nuggets: lively, adroit pastiche, and some cracking tunes.

When the party was over, and the dustcarts were trundling in the wake of the Lord Mayor’s parade, Albarn found himself sharing a Notting Hill flat with Jamie Hewlett, creator of Tank Girl, and the nearest thing Britpop had to a house artist. Both men were newly single – Albarn’s break-up with Elastica’s Justine Frischmann would inspire Blur’s darkest and most affecting album, 13 (1999) – and it’s tempting to picture this set-up as a hipster-flavoured cross between Peep Show and Kirk Van Houten’s apartment at the Casa Nova. It did, however, yield something more viable than ‘Can I Borrow A Feeling’: an imaginary band who made real product, with Albarn providing the music and Hewlett the visuals, intended to improve upon the acts they saw during their obsessive hate-viewing of MTV. (Note for younger readers; MTV was, in those days, a cable channel that played music videos on rotation.) They didn’t mind one bit that those acts were manufactured; they minded that the acts were manufactured so poorly. So instead of merely carping about it, they elected to do better.

And you really can’t argue that they did. The Noughties were not a glorious era for British alt-pop, what with landfill indie, a slew of post punk and new wave revivalists many of whom had one good tune in them at best (the era deserves a Nuggets-style compilation of its own), and The Bloody Libertines. Granted, new rave would happen along and bring a blast of cartoonish colour to the whole business – but guess who was already, by that point, quite literally bringing a blast of cartoonish colour to the whole business?

Hewlett’s contribution should not be underestimated. Gorillaz worked because the concept worked, and the concept worked because of Hewlett’s brilliance. Image matters in pop, always, and Hewlett is one of the great and distinctive image-makers of our time. The quartet of characters he created cannily reflected many of the musical and cultural elements that made up Gorillaz: rock & roll scuzz (Murdoc, a hybrid of Keith Richards and Lurch), the fuck-you weirdness and stylistic élan of Japanese futurism (Noodle, the prepubescent imp, who has wisely been allowed to gradually age), Albarn’s fascination with hip hop (the amusingly monikered Russel Hobbs), and a direct cartoon alter-ego for Albarn himself (the blue-haired 2-D, a kind of idiot savant Tank Boy). The music also leaned heavily on electronica, dub (the band name suggested a nod to Lee “Scratch” Perry), and a preoccupation with The Clash. The last two went hand in hand; while the 96-second ‘Punk’ channels the earliest Clash recordings, Sandinista would become the single strongest influence on the Gorillaz sound, while Paul Simonon and Mick Jones would go on to be serial Albarn collaborators. Albarn wasn’t alone in his Clash fixation; Pete Doherty shared it, and you only have to look at what each man did with his to see how it could go very right, or dismally wrong. (It bears noting how Doherty’s one shining moment as an artist, his excellent solo debut album Grace/Wastelands [2009], featured a central contribution from Albarn’s musical ex, Graham Coxon.)

If Gorillaz were, in effect, a meta-band, then Gorillaz has the feel of a meta-album. All pop music, it’s true, is largely made from the components of earlier pop music, and if you hear any that sounds as though it isn’t, that’s probably because you haven’t yet encountered its sources. The novelty almost always lies in the recipe, and in the hands of the cooks, not in the ingredients; it’s an exceptional act that introduces even one truly new thing. Yet pop itself is ever new – and when you can’t find any that is, it’s invariably because you’re looking in the wrong places. MTV in 2001, for instance. But Albarn also knew where to find bright ideas and how to appropriate them. Should that sound like a criticism, it’s intended as the opposite; appropriation is how pop evolves. And if Gorillaz feels familiar today, that’s in part due to Gorillaz’ own impact; in its formulation, at least, it felt novel at the time.. But what it also felt like, and still does, is music about music. It didn’t so much cop other sounds as cite them. To be as engaging as it was, and is, while doing that is no small feat.

It also succeeded in its most crucial aim, which was to get art-pop back into the charts. That, in 2001, was no small feat either. It was aided in this by an absolute blinder of a debut single, ‘Clint Eastwood’, and the accompanying video – although which accompanied which is open to question. I for one hadn’t been so struck by a combination of sound and vision since three years previously, when thanks to music video channel The Box, Britney Spears’ ‘…Baby One More Time’ was pretty much my world for the month before its official release. Albarn wasn’t the first to dub up a Spaghetti Western vibe, by a long chalk, but he did it in an arresting way. ‘Clint Eastwood’ is a slow-burning banger, deliciously eerie, with a perfectly deployed melodica line and a career-best turn from Del The Funky Homosapien. Albarn’s decision to invite Dan “The Automator” Nakamura to produce the album paid out the jackpot on this track alone. Nakamura’s own groups, Deltron 3000 and Handsome Boy Modeling School, constituted the nearest thing to a scene from which Gorillaz might emerge, and his other production credits to that point (Dr Octagon, The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, a Bollywood funk album, Primal Scream’s XTRMNTR, Cornershop’s breakthrough album When I Was Born For The 7th Time) seem, in retrospect, to make his involvement both an inevitability and a necessity.

The memory of ‘Clint Eastwood’ is inseparable from Hewlett’s co-directed video, a gothic mini-zombie flick which slyly references not only George A. Romero and Peter Jackson, but also Resident Evil and Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ clip. It was postmodern – as of, course, are Gorillaz themselves – but for all its nudging and winking it was a joyous blast of creativity. As if that wasn’t enough, the UK album featured, as a secret track, the Ed Case and Sweetie Irie remix that all but fixes the moment UK garage dubstepped into a new commercial phase. You still hear that one played out today (or would do, if nightclubs were currently a thing.)

The other outstanding tracks from Gorillaz all became singles: the daisy age-ish rap number ‘Rock the House’; ‘19-2000’, a dub-hop tune somehow both jaunty and strung-out. That’s only a fifth of the record, and it would take some effort of will to convince yourself the remainder is as strong. But what the whole of the album does have is an atmosphere, and an ethos, one you might describe as: do the obvious, unexpectedly. Which as a formula for pop music is both desirable, and easier said than done. Gorillaz is a pretty good, if uneven, record, but that alone wouldn’t make it an important one. It matters more as a calling card. It set up an intriguing second act for Albarn.

Gorillaz, as a project, gathered momentum. It stretched itself, drew in noteworthy collaborators in increasing numbers (Gorillaz features Miho Hatori, Tina Weymouth, Chris Frantz, Ibrahim Ferrer; an expansive roster of formidable names would follow on the artistic and commercial peak of Demon Days [2005] and the sprawling Plastic Beach [2010]). It became a live extravaganza perhaps best enjoyed when turned on its head and experienced as a lavishly scored showcase for Hewlett’s graphics. And while, in the 2010s, it seemed as if the air had gone out of the whole idea – by 2018, a sixth album, The Now Now, felt limp and redundant – it surged back last year with the impressive Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez, compiling an ongoing series of collaborative efforts and underlining Gorillaz’ undiminished pulling power. It is, perhaps aptly, like having a guest spot on The Simpsons. Meanwhile, Albarn has gone all-out to promote African (and especially Malian) music in the UK; afforded the recently late and extraordinarily great drummer Tony Allen a new platform for his preternatural talent; made a signal success of The Good, The Bad & The Queen; ventured into operatic theatre with Dr Dee, and Jebus knows what else. His reach has sometimes exceeded his grasp – and if that’s a bad thing in an artist who constantly uses his means and his renown to try new and risky things, I’m damned if I see why.

In short, Albarn might reasonably wonder what he has to do to get some appreciation around here. Well, I submit he’s already done it; and remember, no praise is more sincere than grudging praise. Gorillaz was the first step in a hefty contribution to making life, and pop music, brighter over the last 20 years. So here’s to the annoying blighter. He’s done good.

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