by Ellen Barnes
The year was 1998 and Damon Albarn — then the dynamic frontman of Britpop band Blur — and cartoonist Jamie Hewlett were sprawled out in their London flat doing what a lot of fellow 30-year-olds were doing during their spare time in 1998: watching music videos on MTV. On that otherwise ordinary day, Albarn and Hewlett hatched the idea for the epic multi-media cultural phenomenon that would become Gorillaz. With a highly ironic hat-tip to the substance-less, ADHD-driven programming they'd just stomached, they started a cartoon band. Four fictional characters would comprise it: vocalist 2D, bass guitarist Murdoc Niccals, guitarist and keyboardist Noodle, and drummer Russel Hobbs. Together Albarn and Hewlett fleshed out the concept, then Albarn went off to tinker with some demos that mashed together electronica, pop, and hip-hop, while Hewlett animated the band's googly-eyed, gape-mouthed members.
Three years later, the video for the Gorillaz' interplanetary first single, "Clint Eastwood," landed on the very music channel they'd aimed to lampoon. Off their eponymous debut LP, the single served as a woozy, thrilling introduction to one of — if not the — most innovative and important bands of the '00s. The first act to fully embrace the multi-media movement, Gorillaz built their identity on more than just albums and music videos, also utilizing an interactive website, DVDs, and an innovative live show to earn mass critical and commercial acclaim. Today, they've moved 20 million albums, earned a Grammy and a Mercury Prize nomination, even an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records. In spite of their intriguing multi-pronged approach, Gorillaz are successful and beloved for the same simple reason that Bob Dylan and The Beatles and Les Paul always were: Their songs are just plain amazing, with inspiring compositions unlike anything that came before. It always comes back to the strength of the songs. And these songs? They're bulletproof.
Now, at age 42, Albarn's hammered away at Gorillaz for more than 10 years, and though he indicated in a 2006 issue of Uncut magazine that he was done cutting pop albums under the Gorillaz name, the project inevitably lures him back for more. Gorillaz is his musical manifesto — both his protest against modern pop and his profession of undying love for the genre.
As Albarn told MTV this year, "I love pop music. I just love a certain kind of it — the kind that may not look nice, but still reminds me of the stuff I used to listen to growing up … Lady Gaga works very, very hard, and so does Beyonce, to be very, very popular. That seems to be all they care about in life, and that's fine, you know? It won't last forever, and if it does, you'll turn into Madonna, and if you want to turn into Madonna, that's great — for you. Not for me."
Albarn's distaste for mainstream popularity manifested itself most notably in 2001, when he withdrew Gorillaz out of consideration for the prestigious Mercury Prize. Despite that and other early efforts to maintain some level of obscurity — including playing behind a screen that first year — the Gorillaz' popularity and productivity continues to balloon. Today, they can list three studio albums, two B-sides albums, and one collection of remixes on their discography. And this past summer, their headlining Coachella performance drew their biggest crowd yet; 30,000 people stood spellbound by the pop spectacle. Their prominence has yielded lots of goodies, too; chiefly, opportunities to play with some seriously talented musicians. While the band's cartoon "lineup" remains largely unchanged, its real-life players have been in constant rotation and are often supplemented by heady guest stars — everyone from Snoop Dogg to The Talking Heads' Tina Weymouth. The most recent incarnation of the core group includes The Clash's bassist Paul Simonon and guitarist Mick Jones.
As it goes with all true revolutionaries, Gorillaz have weathered some hiccups. They've made big announcements only to retract them. A two-year world tour — which would feature the band in concert as larger-than-life holograms — was ruefully scrapped (though they did pull off spectacular holographic performances at both the 2005 MTV Europe Music Awards and the 2006 Grammys). A Gorillaz feature film, too, careened off the rails. Both projects were dubbed too pricey to be completed as grandly as Albarn and Hewlett envisioned.
This past June, Hewlett assured Entertainment Weekly that he and Albarn still intend to make a movie one of these days and that they have plenty of reason to continue on as the Gorillaz: "It's a project that is growing larger all the time. For me, definitely I don't feel it's complete … It's something that can continue to grow until it reaches a point where we can't really go any further with it. We haven't reached that point yet. I don't know if we will."