Aside from being a writer, I’m also an avid music listener. However, I’m just as picky about my music as I am with my books! I still buy CDs but only if they’re from a favorite artist, and my list of favorites is small (for now, it consists of only five: Blur, Paramore, Coldplay, Florence + the Machine, and the band I’m going to discuss at length below) though I download quite a bit of music from iTunes.
However, it seems to me like the quality of popular music is declining as it’s less concerned about creativity and more focused on cookie cutter arrangements and vocals. I’m not here to hate on pop music nor am I a crusty old soul who can’t stand what “the kids these days” are listening to. However, I will always gravitate towards musicians and bands who take the time to create art instead of just generating the next big thing.
Gorillaz is one such band.
Despite being entirely fictional. But I’ll get to that in a moment. 😉
Seeing as Gorillaz recently released their latest full-length project, The Now Now, the time is right to dish on my favorite band.
I was first introduced to Gorillaz unawares back in 2000. I was watching “BattleBots” on Comedy Central and saw an ad for what was their debut, self-titled album. The ad featured snippets from the music video for “Clint Eastwood,” but at the time, I had no idea what I was watching. I just thought it was a commercial for a new mature cartoon show until I realized it was for a CD. It was weird. It was dark. And I all but completely forgot about it.
I was in college, listening to my car radio on the way home from classes, when I heard the most intriguing song I had heard in the longest time. In terms of my musical tastes up to that point, I mainly listened to music from the 60s, 70s, and 80s and contemporary Christian music. Throughout the 90s, I listened to Christian music almost exclusively because there was a lot to choose from genre-wise. Some of my favorite artists were dc Talk, Jars of Clay, Plumb, and the Newsboys. However, over the years, a lot of the artists I listened to either went on hiatus or ceased to do music altogether, so I felt like I was running out of new music to explore. As the 2000s approached, the wide range of Christian rock, alternative, pop, and rap that I enjoyed was slowly replaced by generic praise and worship songs that, while usually lyrically passable, lacked the sense of creativity and lyrical depth I was craving.
(I want to add that I don’t hate Christian music. I am a Christian myself and I still listen to artists I enjoyed back when I was a teen. Those songs spoke to me then and still speak to me today. So this isn’t a story about how I “graduated” from Christian music to “secular” music. I listen to and love music across a spectrum of musicians, genres, and time periods. I also believe that all truth is ultimately God’s truth, whether it’s sung by an openly Christian artist, an artist with no religious affiliation, or even a virtual band!)
Seeking more variety in my music, I turned to the radio. For years, I mainly listened to a local oldies station and a Christian station that eventually became just a talk show line up. But when I went to college and commuted, I decided to explore other stations. I first tried another local Christian station, but it was dominated by worship music that all sounded alike to me after a while. So I switched to a local pop station and discovered the likes of Michelle Branch, Vanessa Carlton, Pink, Linkin Park, Lenny Kravitz, Evanescence, and Avril Lavigne. While I won’t say everything they put out was/is good, some of their songs were interesting and, at the very least, catchy. I also discovered Coldplay and instantly fell in love their sound and lyrics, and I’m a big fan to this day.
But there was one band that stood head and shoulders above the rest.
So in the fall of 2005, I heard a song that was unlike anything else on the radio. My local pop station played a wide variety of genres at the time (as opposed to the pre-fab pop and rap they spin now), but even then this track stood out. The music was truly undefined as it bore hallmarks of pop, alternative, hip-hop/rap, and electronic. It was a cool fusion of styles that blended harmoniously and made it distinctive. Similarly, the song had interesting lyrics that allowed the listener to derive their own meaning from the curious word play and pictures:
Windmill, windmill for the land.
Turn forever hand in hand
Take it all in on your stride
It is sinking, falling down
Love forever, love is free
Let’s turn forever, you and me
Windmill, windmill for the land
Is everybody in?
I kept listening, hoping to find out who the artist was. Finally, at the end of the song, the DJ announced, “That was ‘Feel Good Inc.’ by Gorillaz.”
Gorillaz. The name sounded familiar but at the time I couldn’t place it. All I knew was I had to look this group up and check out more of their music.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that this was the same band I had seen the commercial for years ago. But now I was intrigued. I snatched up their newest album at the time, Demon Days, and listened to it from beginning to end without stopping. I felt like I was immersed in a musical experience as opposed to just listening to a batch of songs. The album was like a novel put to music where each song was a chapter and told a story. It quickly became a favorite and much-played album of mine and still is to this day.
Naturally, I went on the hunt to obtain the rest of the Gorillaz discography as well as learn more about this strange little band, which technically is a virtual band (read: animated) consisting of vocalist 2D, lead guitarist Noodle, drummer Russel Hobbs, and bass guitarist Murdoc Niccals. But while these characters don’t exist in real life, the musicians and collaborators behind them are real.
Gorillaz is the brainchild of Blur front man Damon Albarn and “Tank Girl” comic creator Jamie Hewlett. These two masterminds started work on their virtual creation back in 1998 and did so partly to poke fun at the state of pop music. It’s no surprise that I’m also a huge Blur fan and I own all of their major albums and then some. I don’t agree with Albarn on his political views, but I admire him as a consummate performer, musician, and songwriter. Just as Blur doesn’t offer mindless fluffy pop songs but presents meat on their musical bones, so Gorillaz delivers the same through a myriad of genres. Gorillaz maintains a mixture of dark humor and dingy tones buried beneath a cheeky exterior, and this style can be evidenced not only in their music and lyrics but also in their videos.
I delved into the band’s history, both the real-life background of their creation and the biographies of the various members (and I’m a proud owner of their fictional autobiography, Rise of the Ogre). I found it all to be a fascinating musical and cultural experiment that has obviously proven successful. The basic premise of Gorillaz is that it ridicules how music is fabricated while, in turn, serving as the ultimate fabrication. Many musical acts seem pre-packaged, ready to consume without much thought. Gorillaz takes this one step further by being entirely concocted yet offering thought-provoking lyrics that encourage analysis.
It’s not too hard to determine that the Gorillaz themselves (the virtual band members, that is) are intended to be caricatures. Murdoc is the egotistical, narcissistic, womanizing rock god; Noodle is the child prodigy; Russel is the low-key, tormented old soul; and 2D is the pretty boy talented singer with a tragic past. I imagine it would have been tempting to make these characters cartoony and kid-friendly. Instead, each one has an elaborately bizarre backstory, making them unique and decidedly mature.
Out of the line up, I like Murdoc the best because he’s the epitome of the ultimate rock star/god in caricature form. He’s christened himself the leader of Gorillaz (as he, technically, is the founder). He believes he’s the most talented musician of the lot despite only playing the bass. He’s touted that he’s a better singer than 2D (Murdoc is tone deaf at least when it comes to singing). He’s a megalomaniac Svengali (so it makes sense that he’s a Satanist) with a razor sharp wit. And he firmly believes he’s desirable to all women despite being less than handsome. Thus, Murdoc represents everything the general public believes about alpha male rock musicians though he is grossly exaggerated for comedic effect, the humor being that despite his grand claims, it’s obvious that Murdoc is no where near being as marvelous as he makes himself sound.
For the record, while Gorillaz doesn’t create offensive music, their image is steeped in dark humor and some of their songs tout a profanity here and there and can touch on saturnine themes, from drug abuse (“Sleeping Powder”), to violence in popular media (“Kids with Guns”), to loneliness (“El Manana” and “On Melancholy Hill”), to even imperialism as a metaphor (“Fire Coming Out of a Monkey’s Head”). Hence, there is more to their songs than meets the ear, which is something I deeply appreciate. Gorillaz’s music is adult but not dirty, poetic but not pretentious, introspective but not mopey or depressing. Nearly every song gives the listener something to consider or imagine, and I love music you have to think about as opposed to earworm-inducing tunes. It’s obvious Albarn and the other Gorillaz song writers take time to make musical art when it comes to Gorillaz.
Jamie Hewlett, too, obviously cares enough about these characters to not present boiler plate animated figures. Much like their sound, Gorillaz retains a mature, darkly comical look rather than be a cast of bright, shiny, colorful cartoons. Hewlett doesn’t try to realistically capture his characters or their surroundings but that’s okay. His renderings mirror the underlying irony of Gorillaz – these characters live in a world that’s not as pretty as it seems despite the seemingly colorful, superficial charm.
Another facet that makes Gorillaz unique is the level of interactivity fans have with the band through various media platforms. Their website (when it showcased the now defunct Kong Studios) was fully interactive, allowing fans to navigate the studio level by level, room by room, complete with videos to watch, tracks to listen to, games to play, and a plethora of strange sights to explore, from the murky kitchen to Murdoc’s crusty Winnebago. The website even earned a Webby Award for its design and interactive content that perfectly represented and encapsulated the Gorillaz brand. Likewise, the band members all have social media accounts (the most “vocal” of whom is – no surprise – Murdoc, who has an active Twitter account). All of this adds to the sense of realism the band’s creators strive to generate around their characters.
Likewise, each major album marks a new “phase” for the band, and, as such, the band’s members change just like real people. Each of the Gorillaz’s members has a birthday and are allowed to age accordingly. At the time of the debut album’s release, 2D was 23 years old, Murdoc was 35, Noodle was 11, and Russel was 26. While their principal designs don’t change much, they’re drawn to reflect their chronological age as time goes on as you can see below through the different phases’ artwork:
Phrase One: Gorillaz (2001)
Phase Two: Demon Days (2005)
Phase Three: Plastic Beach (2010)
Phase Four: Humanz (2017)
Phase Five: The Now Now (2018)
(*Note: Murdoc is noticeably absent from the band’s line up here as, according to the character’s current backstory, he’s serving time in prison. In his place as bassist is Ace, a character borrowed from The Powerpuff Girls.)
Therefore, if you do the math, the band members have aged about 17 years: 2D is now 40 years old, Murdoc is 52, Noodle is 28, and Russel is 43. This adds a layer of attention and creativity that shows that Albarn, Hewlett, and Co. care about making not only good music and visuals but also compelling characters and stories. It would have been easy to create stock characters and give them unchanging designs and a simple backstory. But rather than keep the members of Gorillaz static or condensed, the band’s creators let them age, evolve, adopt their own senses of style, and make their own choices so they seem like real people.
My musical musings wouldn’t be complete without ranking Gorillaz’s major albums and compilations. So here they are below:
8. Laika Comes Home (2002) – This is a rare album and I was shocked I found it at my small local music store. While not my favorite (I’ve only ever listened to this once), it is an interesting musical experiment where the entire Gorillaz debut album is remixed and re-imagined as reggae tracks.
7. The Fall (2010) – Again, this one isn’t a favorite, but I respect its composition process as it was recorded entirely on an iPad app. There are no vocal tracks (otherwise it would have ranked higher), but it’s still a fun listening experience.
6. G Sides (2002) and D-Sides (2007) – I decided to combine these two compilation albums. Noteworthy tracks and remixes include “19-2000 (Soulchild Remix)” and “Faust” (from G-Sides) and “Dirty Harry (Schtung Chinese New Year Remix)” (“Dirty Harry” sung entirely in Chinese!), “People” (which eventually became “Dare”), and “68 State” (from D-Sides).
5. Gorillaz (2001) – Their debut album is chocked full of memorable tracks that present a good range of the styles the band has tackled, from alternative, to pop, to hip hop, to electronic. Standout tracks include “Clint Eastwood,” “19-2000,” and “Tomorrow Comes Today.”
4. Humanz (2017) – This album is a bit darker in tone (redolent of the Demon Days era only with less cheekiness at times) when compared to its predecessor, Plastic Beach, as well as its bubbly follow up, The Now Now. Not to mention it’s filled to the brim with collaborators, which exemplifies Gorillaz’s noteworthy genre fluidity. Standout tracks include the eerie lead single “Saturn Barz,” the infectiously catchy “Strobelight,” and the somber “Busted and Blue.”
3. The Now Now (2018) – Gorillaz’s latest full-length album is a brighter, more upbeat and scaled back (in terms of collaborations) offering than Humanz. Similarly, this album serves as more of a collection of songs rather than possessing an overall concept, thus serving as a fun call-back to their debut album in this regard. Standout tracks would be “Humility,” “Tranz,” “Sorcererz,” and “Idaho.”
2. Plastic Beach (2010) – This album retained the album-as-story vibe akin to Demon Days as it’s more of a concept album than a collection of songs. Its prevailing themes are isolation and conservation of one’s external and internal environment, and most of the songs approach these topics in a variety of ways, from somber introspectivity (“On Melancholy Hill”) to cheeky sarcasm (“Superfast Jellyfish”). Standout tracks include “Rhinestone Eyes,” “Stylo,” “Empire Ants,” “On Melancholy Hill,” and “Broken.”
1. Demon Days (2005) – This remains my all-time favorite album and has yet to be unseated. This album, much like Plastic Beach, is a concept album rather than a random mix of songs. Here, the overall themes are change, loneliness, and isolation that ultimately end on a positive note. Much like trying to navigate through a dense fog, the final track, “Demon Days,” brings you into the light of day as it encourages listeners to Pick yourself up/it’s a brand new day/so turn yourself ’round…into the sun. Hence, the album comes full circle, opening with the morose “Last Living Souls” that wonders if there’s any hope left for mankind and ends on an uplifting note. It’s a musical masterpiece and I love it! Standout tracks certainly include “Feel Good Inc.,” “Dare,” “El Manana,” “Every Planet We Reach is Dead,” “Demon Days,” “November Has Come,” and “Dirty Harry.”
In closing, it’s rare for me to become a fan of really anything, from movies to television and books to music. But when it comes to Gorillaz, I make it a point to buy every album, download every remix and single, watch every video, and check out any related media. So, yes, it’s safe to call me a die-hard fan and I won’t mind a bit! 😀 But their music and level of artistry – even if it is all done behind the scenes by real-life artists and musicians – certainly deserves the attention
So if you’re starving for some music that’s more than just catchy hooks and mindless lyrics, then give Gorillaz a try. There’s something for everyone and you just might find yourself a new favorite band, too.
It’s just a shame Gorillaz don’t exist as real people.
Though if they actually did exist, they’d be some very strange folks indeed!