The Singles Collection 2001-2011
Like the Monkees without people or the Archies but real, the Gorillaz are part of a great and proud tradition in pop music of pretend bands that are somehow more real than their flesh and blood rivals.
Damon Albarn’s first post Blur project are so smartly on the ball that their collision of pop culture from cartoon to hip hop to indie smarts is the first real 21st century band. A perfect idea, if the guitarist won’t turn down then remove him from the cartoon strip, if the studio is too far away whip out the ipad.
Of course it’s difficult to love the Gorillaz, I mean what is there to love? They don’t even exist. They are not meant to be loved. They are not even real, just a cartoon strip running amok round the world, 2D characters in a 1D pop world. They may have turned into a band in the end, somehow half reforming the Clash on the way with the iconic Jones and Simonon flankingkey creative force behind the Gorillaz, Damon Albarn on the stage but even when fleshed out they still felt like cartoon cut outs ready to be put back in the box after the gig.
You were not meant to love them. This was no sweaty rock n roll pied pier on a trip. This was brilliantly conceived 21st century pop that was so often so far ahead of the game that it left everyone else scrambling.
It’s such a hip 21st century concept, create a band out of the detritus of pop culture, like a modern version of punk rock DIY but with the best people in the field working on it. Co- conspirator Jamie Hewlett is one of the defining British cartoonists of these times and his characters became the central motif to the band. He drew a series of scuzzy, low life rock n roll swine, the type of misfits who hang around in Camden bars hoping for the best. The cartoon figures are the perfect vehicle for his friend Damon Albarn who was looking for some fun time after the stress of the Blur day job.
The Gorillaz world is a digital fantasy that is backed up in the cartoon videos and on the website creating a world of modernity and freak in jokes that also had serious content.
Albarn was doodling with hip hop and smart modern pop and somehow the concept turned into bona fida pop sensation massively outselling Blur and even breaking America where Blur remain a cult enigma. A made up band dabbling in beats and cartoon figures should never have broken the States but it did and this compilation shows you how.
A collection of the band’s singles it plays to their strengths. There’s plenty of doodling in the Gorillaz canyon, some of it is effective but when it comes to a single they suddenly snap into focus in a series of great ideas that sometimes feature guest vocalists like Shaun Ryder or Mark Smith in suitably left field vocals that somehow add to the commerciality of the music whilst adding idiosyncratic textures.
The guests became almost as much of a focus to the releases as the songs themselves and the list makes for some reading, a whole cross section of musical mavericks that are somehow perfectly mashed into the Gorillaz whole trip like hip hop scene vets and players like Danger Mouse, Del the Funkee Homosapien, Snoop Dogg, Dan The Automator, Mos Def, De La Soul and Bootie Brown fromThe Pharcyde as well as D12 and as a contrast the likes of Buena Vista Social Club’s Ibrahim Ferrer representing the old guard with Bobby Womack, Ike Turner and Lou Reed and then a total switch with post punk mavericks Mark E Smith, ex Talking Heads bass player Tina Weymouth, Madchester legend Shaun Ryder and Neneh Cherry..a roll call of the last original voices in pop culture.
It’s a mark of the band’s imagination and talent that the music really stood up. This is a kinetic, imaginative modern pop, taking it’s cue from the anything goes framework of hip hop where the beats could provide a chassis for any ideas that you wanted. The Gorillaz worked on the ideal that there were no boundaries and that there were no rules, quickly constructing tough urban pop that went across boundaries and became an international sensation.
Perfect for the iPod generation flicking through the a variation of pop culture on their file packed mini machines. The Gorillaz mash hip hop, alternative rock, dance, funk dub, world music and idiosyncratic singers who were coaxed to join Damon Albarn’s multi faceted outfit. The melding of the guests to the band’s own vision takes some skill, the multi guest line up already patented by Massive Attack, who arguably provided some kind of model for the Gorillaz but taken into the heart of pop culture.
Formed in 1998 the Gorillaz were a whim, a fun project between Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlitt. In a very modem way they were already removed from the band as gang mentality, one musician and one cartoonist creating a made up band to release shape shifting music that had no human focus. Hiding behind four animated characters ”â singer/keyboardist 2D, bassist Murdoch, guitarist Noodle and drummer Russell Hobbs the ‘band’ was created to front the operation and play with the form. Cartoon characters would do interviews as everyone went along with the joke. Albarn provided the music and Hewlitt the pastiche of band life stories.
Their debut ‘Clint Eastwood’ single set the stall- a brilliant piece of pop that when you strip away all it’s clever production wizardry was a great pop single- proving that something as old fashioned as great song writing was the key to this operation. The 2001 release mashed up hip hop, a great rap from Del The Funkee Homosapien and spaghetti western soundtracks like some sort of 21 century version of Mick Jones’s post Clash BAD had done the decade before but taken to a logical illogical conclusion. It was a breath taking swerve in direction from the cleverly constructed but working within the realms of indie of Blur.
The Gorillaz four albums continued this theme, everything was for grabs and the rush of 21 st century technology and the Internet from iTunes to web culture was the perfect platform for a band that didn’t exist. The old model of touring was redundant as they played with the tech platforms of the early 21 st century whilst also skilfully parodying it.
This white heat of hot chip technology was underlined by their forth album, 2010’s ‘The Fall’ which was one of the first albums to be solely reorder on an iPad.
They even managed to do some semblance of gigs with the cartoon figures but gradually morphed into a full on band with an ensemble of musicians that reads like some sort of fantasy list but the perfect platform for the Gorillaz is this singles compilation. The diversity of songwriting really shines through on the compilation of singles and is the perfect telling of the Gorillaz story. In these days of downloading and the death of the album and the confusion that is the singles chart it’s rare for any band to have a run of defining singles. A greatest hits means little these days when no- one even knows what a hit it but the Gorillaz could put up a good argument for being the last of the singles bands, a band whose every release helped to signpost a decade.
The singles range from the aforementioned ‘Clint Eastwood’ with it’s hip modern pop sheen to the pure pop shakes of ‘Feel Good Inc’ to perhaps their finest moment- the disco gone wrong of ‘Dare’ with Shaun Ryder’s great confused vocal. Add a bunch of remixes just to keep things moving forward and lesser known cuts like the brass flavoured ‘Rock The House’ and it’s a never ending run of hits that stand the test of time, a rare case of peering into the future and not being caught out by it.
With the news that there is a new Gorillaz track soon it looks like the project may be rolling on, after all cartoon characters never age and, indeed , never die and if Albarn is busy with a multitude of contrasting projects it doesn’t really seem to affect his creativity.