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Musical Insight: Gorillaz

Gorillaz is my favourite band.  This fact is surprising because if you had asked my opinion last year, it would have been very different: I hated them. Something about their grimy animation and alternative music styles put me off. But when I heard the iconic chart-topper Feel Good Inc I began to review my genre boundaries and appreciate music for its true quality, rather than its potential for the “Hot Top 40”. A healthy music diet of Gorillaz is essential for everyone who wants to be open to new art.

To understand why this is, one must first understand the origins of Gorillaz. The band is fake. The bandmates (2-D, Noodle, Murdoc and Russel) are nothing more than figures dreamed up by Blur frontman Damon Albarn and cartoon artist Jamie Hewlett in 1998 as a riposte to the “MTV Generation” – an all too real phenomenon where music is  manufactured, packaged and faked with pretty faces and silly gimmicks to hide its lack of originality, free-thought expressionism or talent; this a trend that continues today (Shawn Mendes and the Chainsmokers to name a couple).

“The Gorillaz cartoons seem more real to me than the actual people on TV. Because at least you know that there’s some intelligence behind the cartoons, and there’s a lot of work that’s gone into it, so it can’t all be just a lie.”

Damon Albarn

Figurines of the virtual bandmates: (left to right) 2-D, Russel, Noodle, Murdoc

In the Gorillaz book Rise of the Ogre the band quotes Roger Morton: “In a world where everything is a virtual copy of itself,  where there’s nothing but image, where publicists have publicists, where celebrity is bleakly industrial, it’s inevitable that ‘image’ begins to collapse on itself.” The creation of four archetypal bandmates that are perfect countertypes of modern artists was a direct confrontation to the obliteration of substance in music. It is ironic that a made-up band can have more substance than the commercial pop music that dominates the modern era by going against the grain, thoughtfully addressing issues whilst striving to evolve and remain new as well as different. This implies that a true care for craft and talent as the true basis of music, not celebrity gossip appeal or a set of perfect teeth.

Damon Albarn
The man behind the music: Damon Albarn, performing at the Roskilde festival

Even the art style demonstrates this – a filthy band with cracked nails living in squalor provides examples of artistic expression coming from hardship and the metaphorical grime of life, not from the easily marketed, family friendly, uniform façade that all industries like to erect. Remember that there are two men behind the Gorillaz- one being a cartoon artist. Gorillaz is both a visual and audio band. Their music follows a theme led by the story told by an animation- which helps the albums produced from these grouped animations to develop a sense of direction and tangible purpose. Furthermore, the very nature of a virtual band requires a strong animated presence – it’s the only way you can associate the songs with the image that has been built around the band rather than Damon Albarn. This is best exemplified in the way you associate the songs with the Gorillaz characters themselves, rather than the man behind the mask.

“A lot of people put out albums with sort of crappy songs and a couple of singles because they know no one’s going to listen to it anyway. We very much wanted it to be something that you do listen to from beginning to end and had a narrative that was important.”

Jaime Hewlett

All this comes together to create a band with an identity rooted in artistry – ever evolving and changing, yet revolving around four characters. Their purpose is to erode the labelling, categorisation and perversion of musical identity and to overhaul the system to be one of true expression. Their making of music for music’s sake is very rare nowadays and as a consequence, you may not like every song that they release, and sometimes some songs are just plain bad. However, Gorillaz’s  variations in style ensure every one is a unique exploration of a wide diversity of music; fused and melded together under one band.

“I hope we can keep doing it this way – making music and art that are pure products of our influences while not really having to let the whole celebrity side of it get in the way. Then maybe more virtual bands will come out and do the same thing.”

Damon Albarn