Celebrating their twentieth anniversary this year, the animated foursome of semi-sapiens produced by Damon Albarn and illustrator Jamie Hewlett have acquired quite the narrative arc over the last two decades. As their debut album hits 20 years old we look back at the innovation, the collaborations, and the music as we ask how a manufactured, cartoon band scored a global hit with an album soaked in Dub-influences.
In the late 90s Damon Albarn, at that time still lead singer of Britpop chart-toppers Blur, and illustrator Jamie Hewlett, famed for his work on comic book Tank Girl, were sharing a London flat. Watching manufactured Pop acts on MTV, the pair decided to create an illustrated band that would allow them to expand on what was possible in terms of presentation with a real-life band and offer a creative outlet for Albarn’s musical ideas that didn’t fit with Blur.
Released with a backstory, a series of music videos and an enhanced CD featuring screensavers, wallpapers and a link to the band’s website containing a short video, the release was innovative for a time when audiences were only just beginning the transition from dial-up to broadband. More importantly, the band were positioned as mysterious characters, and while it was clear that Albarn sang on many of the album's tracks, there was some mystique as to who and how many people were involved in the album's creation. Time, thankfully, has clarified that initial muddiness and we now know this was, in the most part, a Damon Albarn solo album produced by Dan the Automator. Featuring guest appearances from Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club duo Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz, as well as from Cuban legend Ibrahim Ferrer, it wasn’t until the album was completely written that it gained its most notable collaborator. Having recently completed work on the Deltron 3030 debut, producer Dan the Automator asked his recent collaborator Del the Funky Homosapien to lay down some alternative raps on tracks ‘19/2000’ and ‘Clint Eastwood’. The pair would go on to become the biggest hits of the album, bringing with them crossover success to an American audience Albarn had never successfully tapped while a member of Blur. The success of these tracks and the prominent roll of their guest vocalist shift the narrative on this album away from being an Albarn solo project and towards a collective effort featuring a broad swathe of musicians.
In hindsight, it’s easy to track these few collaborative tracks and see the spark that leads to the star-studded features of later albums but that would miss that Albarn himself has become a sought-after collaborator and featured artist with several post-Blur side-projects not limited to Africa Express and The Good, The Bad and The Queen. It’s therefore likely that Albarn was already looking to expand his collaborative horizons. Thus, while ‘Gorillaz’ no doubt helped him scratch an itch to produce music he couldn’t do with Blur, it also opened doors and expanded to more than an elaborate solo project.
Taking in Hip Hop, Latin rhythms, and pure Pop, the sound of ‘Gorillaz’ is also marked by a significant Dub influence. The most obvious example of this influence is the use of melodica, so closely tied to the Dub of Augustus Pablo, on ‘Clint Eastwood’ and ‘Tomorrow Comes Today’ while elsewhere the reverb, delay and heavy bass sound abound on tracks like ‘Starshine’ and ‘Man Research’. On reflection it is all the more surprising that this album gained such crossover, mainstream appeal. There is likely a lot to be said about the fact that the cultural context of Dub had to be stripped away and replaced with cartoons before it was palatable to mass audiences. Nonetheless, ‘Gorillaz’ brought a sound to Pop audiences that simply was not being heard elsewhere in the charts of the time.
Often overlooked is how ‘Gorillaz’ does retain a connected thread back to Blur. On ‘5/4’ Albarn’s cadence, song structure and guitar tone all appear reminiscent of his contemporary work with Blur, while ‘Punk’ feels like a cheeky homage to band mate Graham Coxon’s solo work. With this connection the project avoided breaking with Albarn’s existing fan base, providing a clear path for those already on board while bringing in new ideas and innovations that clearly resonated with a broader, newer audience. The result, an album that continues to sound vibrant and alive and one few who remember its release can believe is twenty years old. Whether channeling Dub, introducing British Pop audiences to Del the Funky Homosapien, or developing characters that were lapped up by the Pop press, ‘Gorillaz’ confounded many and changed the face of music in the early 2000s with an album as improbable as it is enjoyable.