A guide to Damon Albarn’s many guises

Jon O'Brien 8 November 2021

As one of British music’s most chameleonic figures releases his second solo effort, here’s an overview of his many, many guises

Two’s a Crowd

Albarn’s first musical endeavour had a similar teaboy-to-popstar narrative as Rick Astley, albeit without the worldwide chart-topping smash and meme phenomenon. After landing an apprenticeship at London’s Beat Factory, a teenage Albarn teamed up with another studio regular, Sam Vamplew, to form Two’s A Crowd. But following a few synth-ska-soul hybrids, the duo went their separate ways.

Albarn then joined an outfit called Circus which evolved into Seymour and eventually the band that helped shape the 1990s pop-cultural landscape.

Blur

Breakthrough hit “There’s No Other Way” positioned Blur as moptopped baggy merchants. But Albarn (alongside Graham Coxon, Alex James and Dave Rowntree, obviously) soon proved he defied pigeonholing. Parklife which won the BRIT Award in 1994, practically invented Britpop, paving the way for that triumphant chart battle with Oasis.

Blur, from 1997, explored lo-fi US alt-rock, 1999’s 13 launched with a gospel epic, while 2003’s Think Tank fused electronica with dub, world music and jazz. The equally eclectic comeback of 2015, The Magic Whip, further cemented their status as a generation-defining band.

Gorillaz

Pushing the cartoon band concept to new heights, Gorillaz was conceived by Albarn and Tank Girl creator Jamie Hewlett. The two initially clashed after meeting in 1990 but ended up sharing a flat together where, disillusioned by MTV’s playlist, they decided to play manufactured pop at its own game.

Represented in virtual form by Noodle, Murdoc Niccals, Russel Hobbs and 2-D, the pair surpassed Blur’s worldwide success with their genre-hopping 2001 debut and later recruited everyone from Shaun Ryder to Skepta across six further albums of playful post-modern pop.

The Good, the Bad and the Queen

Albarn intended for The Good, the Bad and the Queen to be a solo project before inviting The Clash’s Paul Simonon, The Verve’s Simon Tong and Fela Kuti drummer Tony Allen in 2005 to form his first supergroup. Self-described as a “song cycle that’s also a mystery play about London,” their eponymous debut’s murky art-rock reached Number Two two years later.

But it appeared to have been a one-off until all four members unexpectedly reconvened in 2018 for Merrie Land, a folkier affair inspired by the fallout over Brexit. Sadly, Allen’s death last year has quashed any future reunions.

Monkey

Albarn and Hewlett went from Gorillaz to Monkey in 2008 for their first attempt to “demystify opera.” Co-produced with Chen Shi-Zheng, Journey to the West was adapted from Wu Cheng’en’s 16th-century novel and debuted to huge acclaim at the Manchester International Festival.

Its accompanying soundtrack saw Albarn invent the klaxophone, essentially a keyboard fitted with car horns, and became the first entirely Mandarin-language album to reach the UK charts. Inspired by the life of Elizabeth I’s scientific advisor, the pair returned to the operatic world for 2011’s Dr Dee where Albarn embraced everything from the lute to viola de gamba.

DRC Music

Having previously collaborated with native musicians Afel Bocoum and Toumani Diabaté on 2002’s Mali Music, Damon Albarn further explored his love of Africa for another side-project nine years later. Co-produced with artists including Dan the Automator, Actress and Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs, DRC Music’s debut Kinshasa One Two was recorded in the titular Congolese city in just five days.

And although Albarn takes lead vocals on only single, “Hallo,” he gives local musicians the spotlight elsewhere, most notably scrap metal percussionists Bokatola System and rapid-fire rapper Love.

Rocket Juice and the Moon

 

Albarn insists he had no input in that bizarre moniker—Rocket Juice and the Moon was apparently chosen randomly by a Lagos record sleeve designer. But he was undoubtedly responsible for assembling another disparate array of musicians for another self-titled melting pot of sounds.

This time, Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea and Tony Allen were Albarn’s collaborators of choice (Erykah Badu, Thundercat and Fatoumata Diawara also guested) on a vibrant blend of Afrobeat, dub and psych-funk which screams “impromptu jam session.”

Africa Express

Frustrated by the lack of African representation at Live 8, Albarn and journalist Ian Birrell launched an organisation dedicated to promoting the continent’s musical talents. Living up to its name, Africa Express regularly transported Western names across the Mediterranean to work with local artists, with Mali’s previously unknown Songhoy Blues the most obvious benefactor.

The initiative has also spawned several albums including a cross-cultural tribute to Terry Riley’s minimalist classic In C, while to celebrate the London Olympics, 80 of its musicians performed on a week-long train journey across Britain.

Damon Albarn

In 2014, Albarn finally put an album out under his own name. Labelled his most personal to date, the Mercury Prize-nominated Everyday Robots was no less idiosyncratic, featuring tube station samples, The Leytonstone City Mission Choir and dedications to orphaned elephants.

Albarn had previously released a vinyl-only demo collection titled Democrazy, composed scores for cannibalistic horror Ravenous, Icelandic comedy 101 Reykjavik and The Boy in the Oak (adapted from sister Jessica’s same-named children’s book) and guested on records by Deltron 3030, Kano and Ray Davies. But his first solo credit came as keyboardist on three tracks from Elastica’s 1995 self-titled LP.

Featured image credit: Rama (Wikimedia Commons)

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