On the release of a new Gorillaz book, we look back on two decades of the world’s biggest two-dimensional band
You should know the story of Gorillaz by now: Blur’s mockney frontman Damon Albarn started the band with his friend, cartoonist Jamie Hewlett, around 1998. The lineup went: 2D (vocals and keys), Noodle (guitar), Murdoc (bass) and Russel (drums), all of whom were fictional characters. Albarn wrote the music and sung the real lead vocals, while an ever-changing cast of collaborators provided everything else.
And what a cast. Six Gorillaz albums have marked Albarn out as the Ricky Gervais of music (supremely talented, endlessly well-connected, not especially likeable). Among those to have worked with Gorillaz at one point or another are Madonna, MF DOOM, Grace Jones, Snoop Dogg, Slowthai, Skepta, Elton John, Lou Reed, Martina Topley Bird, Bruce Willis and 50 per cent of The Clash.
In the 2000s, Gorillaz won a Grammy, got in the Guinness World Records and sold millions of albums. Their second decade was less successful, owing to a long hiatus and two pretty terrible LPs, meaning the band’s cultural significance—whether due to novelty wearing off or their fanbase growing up—is no longer what it once was.
But they're back now with the Gorillaz Almanac. And a new Gorillaz book matters. Here’s why.
Gorillaz were never simply a Damon Albarn solo project with an occasional rap feature. To begin with at least, Gorillaz were sort of a reggae band. The best moments on their eponymous 2001 debut album are all about dubwise bass pressure, including “New Genius,” “Man Research,” “Starshine” and the smash single “Clint Eastwood”—for which Murdoc “pushed the button marked ‘reggae setting’” on his autoharp (according to first Gorillaz book, Rise of the Ogre). “Dracula,” from the 2002 off-cuts collection G-Sides, is their finest foray into dub, hinting at later tunes like “Last Living Souls” and “Dirty Harry.” For more Gorillaz reggae, listen to the excellent Space Monkeyz remix album, Laika Come Home.
The best thing about Gorillaz wasn't the albums, or the videos, or the narrative, but the way all of those things combined to capture thousands of imaginations. It was the attention to detail in their fictitious world, never more apparent than at Kong Studios, a cavernous mansion built on an abandoned druid site* where the band supposedly recorded their first two albums. Once upon a time you could explore Kong on Gorillaz' website, clicking through a vast virtual space filled with games and Easter eggs. The “DARE” video was set in Noodle’s bedroom at Kong, where the Happy Mondays’ Shaun Ryder had his head pumped with tubes. It was the band’s first UK No. 1. *This is the answer to a quiz question in the Gorillaz Almanac.
“Don’t Get Lost in Heaven” / “Demon Days” (2005)
Gorillaz' second album Demon Days was their mythological peak. As well as going six times platinum in the UK, it came with a rich, ambiguous narrative told through music videos, vague lyrical references and scraps of information on their website. As Noodle was chased through the sky by helicopters (see the “Feel Good Inc.” and “El Mañana” vids), Gorillaz railed against some abstract force of evil. In 2005, sentiments like “Oh green world, don’t desert me now” (“O Green World”) and “You can’t even trust the air you breathe” (“Don’t Get Lost in Heaven”) spoke to the planet Earth’s impending doom. The album’s closing two tracks remain the most beautiful thing Gorillaz have achieved.
“Bobby in Phoenix (Feat. Bobby Womack)” (2010)
To call 2010’s Plastic Beach a concept album would be an understatement (not least because Gorillaz are sort of a concept band). Presumably symbolising consumerism, environmental neglect, or some other thing, the record was named after a floating pink island—“the place furthest from any other land mass on the planet” (Murdoc)—to which the Gorillaz escaped after run-ins with a variety of nemeses.
The music is plush, maximalist pop with a dizzy list of guests, but none of it comes close to “Bobby in Phoenix.” Taken from The Fall, an album recorded almost entirely on Albarn’s iPad on the Plastic Beach tour, the track is (legend has it) about Bobby Womack coming to terms with his imminent death.
“Aries (Feat. Peter Hook & Georgia)”
As early as 2008, Hewlett was telling interviewers he was “f***ing bored of drawing those characters” and, after 2010, Gorillaz became less about developing their warped cartooniverse and more about the numbers in Albarn’s phonebook which hadn’t yet been called for a collaboration. After some eye-wateringly bad linkups (do not listen to the Noel Gallagher track on 2017’s Humanz, or any of 2018’s The Now Now), this year’s “Song Machine” single series has seen occasional sparks flying, such as on this collab with Peter Hook, in which the former New Order man turns in one of his best basslines since “Ceremony.”
With the real world crumbling around us, the oblique social commentary of Gorillaz’ early work has never felt more timely. The Almanac makes little sense of 2020 (it was only written in July, to be fair), but thankfully the Gorillaz mythology lives on, as 2D gets eaten by a whale, Noodle unleashes an ancient hell demon and Murdoc tells a tale of sexy neon unemployment. It also mentions how, in the early 2000s, a Gorillaz movie was once talked about. Would now be a good time to give that another go?
Read more: A brief guide to disco music
Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter