Re-Animators: Giving Birth to Gorillaz

How Blur frontman Damon Albarn and comic artist Jamie Hewlett evolved into a cartoon simian rock band

David Nolan
Apr 12, 2016 · 13 min read

By David Nolan and Martin Roach

There are, of course, precedents for cartoon characters being used to front up pop music. The Beatles have done it. The Jackson Five and The Osmonds had a go. Never underestimate the contribution made by Josie And The Pussycats. But one example remains the template — and that involved monkeys too. Or should we say Monkees…

When Mike Nesmith, Davy Jones, Peter Tork and Micky Dolenz — TV’s premier manufactured answer to The Beatles – started to rebel against their taskmasters, who made them international stars with the zany series that bore the made-up band’s name, there was one straw that broke The Monkees’ back. And its name was “Sugar Sugar.”

The Monkees, led by rebel-in-chief Nesmith, were becoming increasingly disenchanted with the material they were being asked to record and decided to make a stand against the latest song put before them. A simple tale of love for a “candy girl” who’s got our unfortunate two dimensional hero “wantin’ you,” “Sugar Sugar” was a bubble-gum confection too far and the band refused to have anything to do with it. Don Kirshner, the creator of The Monkees and the series, hit upon an ingenious solution. If The Monkees wouldn’t do as they were told, then he’d make a band that would — a cartoon band called The Archies who took “Sugar Sugar” to No. 1 in America and Britain in 1969. The song stayed on the U.K. charts for six months. The real musicians, the true voice of “Sugar Sugar”—session singer Ron Dante — remained hidden. No one needed to see them or even know their names. That would be distracting.

Blur lead singer Damon Albarn had stepped back from the fame of Britpop, escaped to Iceland when the pressures of Posh ’n’ Becks-ness became too much and hidden behind the relative anonymity of soundtracks and world music; now was the time to remove his name and face from a project all together. Using the leverage afforded him by the need for a Blur Best Of, he did indeed cut a deal initially for a mooted one-off single. Former flatmate and Tank Girl creator Jamie Hewlett was in on the act too. Damon would write the songs, Jamie would design the band and the world they inhabited and a floating coterie of musicians, singers and collaborators would be parachuted in as required. The pair were born a few weeks apart in 1968, the year of the monkey. Hence the initial banner for the project: “Gorilla.” This was soon funked up to: Gorillaz.

“Jamie and I spent our twenties being successful in many ways, but the residue of that success had left us questioning what we were doing and the nature of the world we lived in,” Albarn explained to CDNow. “One of the things that really got to us was the nature of celebrity and the cynicism of popular culture. That was really the genesis of Gorillaz, besides the fact that he’s a cartoonist, and I’m a musician, so the logical thing to do was to create an animated band.”

The band in question was a virtual four piece: a slightly vacant, pin-up boy lead singer, 2D; Murdoc, a Lemmy-esque bass player; a bulky beatmaster named Russel; and hyper cute pre-teen rock chick, Noodle. Anonymous it may have been — bland it definitely wasn’t. “It demands that people use their imagination more than pop music generally allows for these days,” was one of countless explanations Damon gave to the obvious initial question about the ‘band’… Why? He told Metro:

“If you can believe in figures such as Eminem and Marilyn Manson, why not get your head around something which takes that to its logical conclusion?”

Hewlett was adamant that none of the Gorillaz were based on anyone involved in the band, “Everyone thinks 2D is Damon,” he told Q. Despite this he gave the magazine a very specific breakdown of the band. “2D is the classic stupid pretty boy singer, he’s the fall guy, the stooge. Everybody takes the piss out of him.” Noodle was originally called Paula, with greasy hair, bad teeth and was a “bit of a slut.” “She’s the mysterious one,” says Hewlett. “All she ever says is Noodle.” Murdoc, according to the comic artist, was modelled on a young Keith Richards, “a heavy metal bass player who wants to be the singer but isn’t pretty enough.” “Hip-hop hardman” Russel is “dark, quiet and thoughtful … and hates Murdoc.” For a two-dimensional band, they appeared to have considerably more personality than the majority of pop acts on the market. And that, for Damon in particular, was largely the point.

“The whole pop aesthetic is more and more about personalities and you can get carried away with that and end up being let down,” he said in an interview with Metro. “Humans are such fragile creatures and the whole nature of celebrity screws you up. Look at all the manufactured bands in the world. Even those that claim not to be are, in some way. Bands such as Coldplay are a little bit too clean to be real. Then there’s Westlife, A1… Gorillaz is about trying to destroy that and take it further, to manufacture something with real integrity. It requires a leap of faith.”

Damon Albarn & Jamie Hewlett

There was another plus to the four characters fronting the music. It allowed Damon to experiment with hip-hop, reggae and some of the rhythms and textures picked up on his world music travels. Some of these stylings — had they been presented in the flesh by Damon himself or indeed Blur — may well have attracted derision. Blur’s Alex James had already referred to the singer — who now listed his culinary speciality as “ackee and saltfish” and his favored recent record purchase as 1970s Angolan music — as “the blackest man in West London.”

The full reggae-fied simian assault was launched in March 2001 with an extensive, virtual world website and a live show at The Scala, a former cinema in London — among the audience was ex-Clash bassist Paul Simonon. A full size screen was put back in the venue as Albarn and his fellow musicians performed behind it. “Show yourselves!” one punter cried.

The audience and press were impressed, albeit to the point of bafflement, and the view from The Daily Telegraph was typical: “Much of the animation was not far removed from the elaborate backdrops seen previously at gigs by the Chemical Brothers or Orbital, except here it was given prime position. Gorillaz raised good questions about what we expect from a concert — who wants to look at ugly blokes playing guitars anyway?” The paper suggested that the whole thing may be little more than a post-modern prank by Albarn and his west London playmates, something that was hardly dispelled with the release of the skanking lead single “Clint Eastwood.”

The desire to maintain the illusion of Gorillaz as a real entity went to considerable lengths, with a detailed fictional band history that even went to the trouble of inventing a made-up debut gig at the “Camden Brownhouse” in December 1999, which ended in a fictional riot. When pressed, Damon insisted that he was acting as the band’s spokesman, as shown during an interview with Radio 1’s Steve Lamacq to promote the single.

Lamacq: Where did the idea come from? Is it something which has been there for ages and ages?

Damon: Jamie and I were living together, sharing a flat, and they came to a party where, actually I think Murdoc did with 2D… two-dimensional people at a party, they stand out, don’t they?

Lamacq: Oh yeah, very much.

Damon: And we got talking to them, and then we all kind of came up with the idea it’d be great to have an animated band.

Lamacq: Why?

Damon: Because, everything seems so manufactured these days, even the kind of, well, the kind of tradition that I come from, indie, even that’s manufactured now, you know? So, I think we just felt that, let’s just sort of play everyone at their own game, and make something better, that’s manufactured, that’s actually good.

Lamacq: Have you seen some of yourself in 2D?

Damon: Well, the funny thing is, my daughter, whenever she sees the video says “Daddy” to 2D.

Lamacq: What about, now obviously being involved with the virtual band, the other band…

Damon: Yeah, I mean, they’re not virtual, they exist, you know? I mean, have you heard the record?

Lamacq: I’ve heard the record.

Damon: Well, that exists doesn’t it?

As far as Damon was concerned, he barely existed in the context of the Gorillaz’s eponymous debut album. All tracks are credited to 2D/Murdoc/Russel/Noodle and the various “real life” collaborators who guest on them. Damon’s name is in the fine print as an additional vocalist appearing courtesy of EMI. From the off “Re-Hash” — all sweet sliding acoustic chords, basslines a la Clash and clitter clatter drums — this innovative record is a winner. It has all the looseness of 13 (Blur’s sixth album) with a worldview extracted from Damon’s travels. It doesn’t sound like Damon Albarn perhaps because there’s vocal distractions from Miho Hatari, singer with New York group Cibo Matto. “5/4” and “Tomorrow Comes Today” skip through on a similar vibe with each track’s vocal a little more “Albarn-esque” than the last.

“Tomorrow Comes Today,” with Damon’s beloved melodica and a subterranean bass sound sums up the vibe — it’s an easy listen, dinner party dance music — and is in danger of sliding by unnoticed. Things get a little muddier with “New Genious (Brother)” with its murky, soundtrack, falsetto vocal and old school scratching; then it’s “Clint Eastwood,” the album’s first stab at rap. Damon’s too wise an owl to fall for doing it himself; San Francisco rapper Del the Funky Homosapien does the honors brilliantly.

“Man Research (Clapper)” is all squeaks and random generator noises as Albarn’s vocal stays in the upper register; those looking for the kind of insights into the state of Damon’s mind and domestic situation available on 13 will be disappointed. This track, like all the others, uses words in largely the same way as “oohs” and “la la’s.” Words are here for texture, punctuation and rhythm, not for soul-bearing.

Remember the good old days when Blur used to provide an ultra-short punk song to cleanse the palate? There’s one here too. Just to make this clear, it’s even handily called “Punk.” “Sound Check (Gravity)” kicks in with a serious “Guns of Brixton” bass only to be outdone for the following track, “Double Bass,” an instrumental mood piece with an ultra-posh spoken word drop in by Albarn.

“Rock the House” has the unlikely combination of John Dankworth and Del the Funky Homosapien thanks to its sample from the veteran jazzman’s score for Joseph Losey’s modish 1960s movie Modesty Blaise. “19–2000” is also rich on collaborations, with Miho Hatari joined on vocals by Talking Head Tina Weymouth. The second Gorillaz single release, the song was a handy No. 6 hit for the cartoon funsters. “Latin Simone (Que Pasa Contiga)” is the most ‘world music’ track on offer, with a vocal by the late Ibrahim Ferrer, the Cuban performer who found fame in the film Buena Vista Social Club in his 70s. Albarn takes the back seat, supplying background ‘aahs.’

Synth skank “Starshine” and the lover’s rock “Slow Country” keep up the reggae quotient — it’s a nonsense to classify this as a hip-hop album — until we return to soundtrack territory with ‘M1 A1’ which samples John Harrison’s score for George A. Romero’s 1985 zombie movie, Day Of The Dead, and upsets the dinner party vibe again with its pinging rock drums and squally guitars.

This is music making on an international scale — it was produced in London, America and Jamaica — and has far more to do with “Mali Music,” Ravenous and Ordinary Decent Criminal than 13 or Blur. Even if it is fronted by a group of cartoon monkeys, it just works. Not everyone knew exactly how or why, but it worked nevertheless. Even those directly involved struggled to make sense of it: “Hip-hop has a lot to do with storytelling and therefore it has that with cartoons,” producer Dan the Automator — aka Dan Nakamura — told The Guardian. “With hip-hop you get to say a lot more words than you do in a rock record. You can paint a picture.”

If it was no more than a postmodern prank, it was a highly effective one and Damon’s plan to be incognito hadn’t distracted from the music one bit. “You’ll never see who the musicians are because it doesn’t matter,” Albarn offered to CDNow. “It’s funny. There’s no actual proof that I’m on the record at all. People just assume it’s my voice. And you assume that you are talking to me. But it always strikes me that using the telephone or the internet is a similar kind of mind-fuck as driving down a road and assuming that no one is going to crash into you.”

Such a high risk project — pop star hides behind cartoon characters to produce accessible world music album — could have been taken out into the car park and given a righteous critical kicking. Amazingly, it wasn’t. L.A. Weekly labelled it as, “hands down, this is one of the best-produced albums of the year.” Rolling Stone saw it as “inspired by the punky reggae parties of Sandinista!-era Clash, tracks like the dub-rap-rock mutation ‘Clint Eastwood’ and its catchier two-step Rasta remix bring back the exuberance missing from Blur’s last album, 13, while running with its anything-goes avant-aesthetic.”

It would have been difficult for Damon to find a duff review of the project, but there were conscientious objectors: Village Voice offered this: “It’s what you might expect from a bunch of musos playing with Cubase or ProTools: sampled loops, Brixton dub, trip-hoppy tangents. U.N.K.L.E.’s bratty nephew, really, though the album sounds like the group locked the metronome on ‘heavy funk groove’ — chugging and satisfying at first, it feels exhausted by the fifth or sixth track.” Regardless of the few dissenting voices, the album was critically lauded and — crucially — note how all of the above are American publications.

Several events of 2001 would also have a direct and indirect impact on the fortunes of Damon, Gorillaz and Blur. In June, Tony Blair was returned to 10 Downing Street with the lowest turnout of voters since 1918. Since keeping his distance from the Blair government in the 1990s, Albarn had become increasingly disenchanted with the apathy of the U.K. electorate and an apparent lack of ability or desire on behalf of other performers to tackle political issues. Both these problems seemed to be thrown into sharp relief by one unlikely source that year. First, Popstars in February had shown the other side of using a made-up band to sell an awful lot of records. Damon was appalled, but as ever it brought out his competitive streak. “It’s quite timely,” he said of Popstars when interviewed by Metro. “[It’s] almost part of this weird zeitgeist in pop, but at the opposite extreme to what we’re trying to do. I bet we sell more records in the end.”

The terrorist attacks on New York on September 11, 2001 had undoubtedly focused the world’s attention on the religious and ideological gulfs that had opened up across the world, but at that stage it remained to be seen whether it would invigorate any response from voters. Attention was soon shifting to Iraq and claims that it was purchasing uranium from Africa with a view to furnishing itself with so-called “weapons of mass destruction.” Politics and popstars. A mix that Albarn had resisted in the past — his “inner Sting” as he once described it — was a mix that Damon would find increasingly difficult to ignore.

With Gorillaz’s “Rock The House” charting at a useful No. 18 in November 2001 and the album starting to open up territories that had previously been resistant to Blur’s charms – even the Germans were buying it — things couldn’t be going better for Gorillaz. For a cartoon collective playing zombie hip-hop funky ska, they’d been chillingly effective and tellingly successful. They would even have the pleasure of having the album nominated for a Mercury Music Prize, be designated as the bookie’s favorite, only to peevishly withdraw from the competition. Satanic bass man Murdoc was given the task of band spokesman, explaining why they were pulling out: “Mercury award? Sounds a bit heavy, man! Y’know sorta like carrying a dead albatross round your neck for eternity. No thanks, man! Why don’t you nominate some other poor Muppet?” he said in a statement. The award ended up with PJ Harvey.

Gorillaz were then promptly nominated for six MTV Awards — notably with not a murmur of protest from Murdoc or anyone else connected with the band.

Damon Albarn: Blur, Gorillaz and other Fables by David Nolan and Martin Roach is out now, published by Music Press Books in paperback via Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other fine retailers.

Pieces of this excerpt have been omitted for length and edited for clarity.

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