Useless, But Not For Long: Gorillaz at 20

Little did we know how bright the future was coming on for the groundbreaking collaboration between Blur’s Damon Albarn and Tank Girl creator Jamie Hewlett when Gorillaz was released on March 26, 2001

Gorillaz 2001 (Art: Ron Hart)

By the time Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett launched their Gorillaz project in 2000, Blur had already released six exceptional albums in under 10 years.

Also by that time, visual artist Hewlett had made a name himself both with his installations, and more notably, with his internationally acclaimed comic, Tank Girl. 

So upon first glance, their clever Gorillaz collaboration looked like two talented creatives coming together to make something without any expectations from their respective established careers. It seemed like a vanity project of sorts, albeit an ingenious one with Albarn and Hewlett pushing their imagination boundaries far past anything they had done prior. Or maybe it was just the result of too much downtime the two had at this point in their lives when they were, in fact, roommates. And it was a good excuse to get out of Albarn’s Studio 13 in London and go for a holiday disguised as work to Geejam Studios in Jamaica.

A commentary on the manufactured bands that were proliferating the music industry at the time, Gorillaz was Albarn’s and Hewlett’s version of that. Hewlett’s animated characters: Stuart Harold “2-D” Pot (who represents Albarn), Murdoc Niccals, Noodle and Russel Hobbs, although cartoons, have far more personality than any member of a real-life band assembled via a television competition program or record company executives. 

 

AUDIO: Gorillaz Tomorrow Comes Today EP 

With the release of the Tomorrow Comes Today EP, it was obvious that you would be well-advised to take Gorillaz very seriously. It’s not just that their visual representation and accompanying videos and backstory were engaging and inventive, the music was experimental yet accessible, exploring genres and tempos, bringing in guests like Del tha Funky Homosapien, Talking Heads and the Tom Tom Club’s Tina Weymouth, Cibo Matto’s Miho Hatori,  Buena Vista Social Club’s Ibrahim Ferrer, and Kid Koala plus having Dan the Automator—whom Albarn had worked with on Deltron 3030—in the producer’s seat. The EP sounded not the least bit like Blur, which was kind of confusing and kind of exhilarating at the same time. 

Six months later, the self-titled album appeared and the true power of Gorillaz was unleashed. What was this thing they were doing? It’s a bit hip hop, a bit ska, a bit trip hop, a bit dub, a bit punk, a bit like the theme music of a game show, or maybe the sound effects of a video game. And it’s working incredibly well. 

 

VIDEO: Gorillaz “Clint Eastwood”

The first single, the cheekily-named “Clint Eastwood” is an acknowledgement of the song’s overlaps with the score of The Good, The Bad and the Ugly features Albarn part singing, part talking, part asleep. Twenty years later has the same instant sing-along reaction as it did upon release. “I ain’t happy, I‘m feeling glad/I got sunshine in a bag,” he starts with the chorus, ending on the chant, “It’s coming on, it’s coming on.” Out of nowhere, Del takes over, flipping the script just when Albarn’s draggy delivery is actually starting to drag. And just when Del has exhausted you with his in-your-face rhymes, Albarn comes back in for aural relief: “It’s coming on, it’s coming on.” Over the last two decades, the song has consistently topped critics charts and rankings, not to mention selling a mind-boggling number of copies. 

“19-2000” followed as the second single from Gorillaz—an entirely different sound to the mellow “Clint Eastwood.” As cartoonish in sound as in the visual, Albarn’s refrain of “They do the bump” leads into Hatori voicing Noodle’s irresistible chorus: “Get the cool/Get the cool shoeshine,” with Weymouth on backing vocals.

 

VIDEO: Gorillaz “19-2000”

Albarn is vocally absent from the third single, “Rock the House,” but his presence is woven through every bar. Heralded by a sampled horn section, these orchestral elements, ripped apart and injected into various parts of the song, are what hold the different styles together. 

As smart as the sonic adventures of Gorillaz are, the album does live on the far edge of studio experimentation. It could have easily become a niche, cult venture and disappeared into the annals of hip-hop history. It could have been considered an indulgence of a British rock star whose band does more than well enough—albeit not as much as he would like in North America—for him to have a hobbyist side project to get out his hip-hop ya-ya’s. To Albarn’s initial annoyance, as these musical ideas come from the same place as Blur’s, North America adored Gorillaz. It made it into the Billboard Top 200 and went as high as number 14. It has sold seven million copies to date. New tidbits are discovered upon every re-listen, and new fans collected with every generation. And the album shows no sign of ever becoming stale. 

The anniversary of the Gorillaz being born was marked in 2020 with a hardback annual Gorillaz Almanac from Z2 Comics, a true collector’s item. 

Additionally, Gorillaz fans have organized to create a fanzine commemorating the 20th anniverary with a fan art fanzine, set to ship toward the end of 2021.

 

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Lily Moayeri

Lily Moayeri has been a freelance journalist since 1992. She has contributed to numerous publications including Billboard, NPR, Rolling Stone, Los Angeles Times, Variety, Spin, Los Angeles Magazine, A.V. Club, and more. Lily hosts the Pictures of Lily Podcast, a bi-weekly podcast about her interviewing experiences. She has participated as moderator and panelist at numerous music conferences. She has also served as a teacher librarian since 2004 focusing on guiding students in navigating the intersection of technology and education.

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