One day in 1998 Jamie Hewlett and Damon Albarn were watching television. And what they saw disturbed them. Greeting them was an endless parade of pop idol contestants, boy bands, and celebrity wrestlers. Mindless melodrama and artificial fame were sweeping the culture of the 1990s.
At first, they were alarmed. Then they had an idea. If reality was becoming more and more like a cartoon, why not turn a cartoon into reality?
Inspired, Damon and Jamie penned a manifesto. The document which gave birth to their virtual pop band the Gorillaz took up less than a single page. This has since been lost. But in a world where reality television star was only very recently president of the United States, the noose of celebrity culture has only tightened.
And as it has, the Gorillaz have grown in fame. Four in all, their names are 2-D, Murdoc Niccals, Russel Hobbs, and Noodle. Together they liberate music from the mindless direction of an empty and image-driven culture.
Twenty years after their 2001 debut the world is only now catching up with the Gorillaz. Helped in no small part by their popularity with younger anime-loving members of Generation Z, the group is currently enjoying a resurgence. Perhaps only now can the originality and quality of these singles, music videos and albums truly be given their proper due. Cartoon rockstars, the Gorillaz have certainly stood the test of time.
1. ‘Dare’, Demon Days (2005)
“It’s coming up, it’s coming up, it’s coming up it’s dare!” Few song lyrics of 2005 ignite such an instant sense of recognition as these. Refining the Gorillaz sound, look and concept, Demon Days introduced millions of us to cartoon music videos and genreless pop songs. Two decades before altered reality concerts came into fashion, the Gorillaz were touring the world as 2D avatars. Revisiting the Gorillaz second album in 2021 shows just how far the group was ahead of their time.
2. ‘Ghost Train’, Gorillaz (2001)
Before ‘Dare’ there was ‘Ghost Train’. In fact, the song is the Gorillaz’s first recording. It was later released as a B-side to 2001 single ‘Rock the House’.
3. ‘Clint Eastwood’, Gorillaz (2001)
‘Clint Eastwood’ arrived on March 5, 2001. And ever since the celebrated single’s release Gorillaz fans have pondered its meaning. What do the lyrics of ‘Clint Eastwood’ mean? Talking to author of 2013 book The Art of Noise, Daniel Rachel, Damon Albarn said the song does not as fans often assume express a sense of happiness over feeling miserable. “I’m not happy,” Damon explained, “but I’m glad that whatever I got is in my bag. It’s not sad, but I’m not happy. I’m glad.”
4. ‘Last Living Souls’, Demon Days (2005)
Second only to ‘Clint Eastwood’, ‘Last Living Souls’ is the Gorillaz most-played song live. According to website Setlist.FM, the Demon Days era tune has been performed 159 times live. ‘Tomorrow Comes Today’ follows closely in third place with 155 performances.
5. ‘On Melancholy Hill’, Plastic Beach (2010)
The word “melancholy” describes a gloomy state of mind, one commonly associated with depression. Yes, the music of the Gorillaz may take its greatest inspiration from international genres such as hip hop and electronic dance music. But there is an undeniable sense of melancholy about it that is distinctly British. This comes as less as a surprise considering Damon Albarn’s fondness for eccentric English songwriters such as Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett and David Bowie. And, of course, his own pre-Gorillaz work in chart-topping Brit Pop outfit Blur.
6. ‘Rhinestone Eyes’, Plastic Beach (2010)
Plastic Beach’s ‘Rhinestone Eyes’ touches on a commonly re-occurring Gorillaz theme, environmental protest. While ‘Melancholy Hill’ may be the best-known tune from this era, ‘Rhinestone Eyes’ has enjoyed a recent spike in popularity. Especially amongst younger fans on TikTok. To date, the song has been featured in more than TikTok 400,110 videos.
7. ‘Dirty Harry’, Demon Days (2005)
Like The Beatles before them, the Gorillaz draw ideas from any and every part of popular culture they find inspiring. When they do, they make them their own. And here lays one of the greatest sources of their appeal. “The coolest thing,” co-founder Jamie shared with Wired in 2005, “is that kids are catching the references we put in the music and the visuals, and then they’re going out to learn about the original pieces of culture we were inspired by. The payoff is that the next generation of artists and writers might say, ‘I learned a lot from listening to the Gorillaz when I was 15.'” Prophetic.
8. ‘She’s My Collar’, Humanz (2017)
2017’s Humanz brought the Gorillaz into the modern era. The album contained a wide range of surprising collaborations. Foremost among them was ‘She’s My Collar’, a well-received single with left-of-center Latin American popstar Kali Ulchis.
9. ‘The Pink Phantom’, Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez (2020)
While fans have yet to receive long-rumoured Tame Impala or Artic Monkeys collaborations, Gorillaz projects continue to feature a dazzling array of guest musicians. And yes, admittedly it is sometimes just as exciting to see a familiar musician get the Gorillaz animation treatment as much as listening to the song itself. Take ‘The Pink Phantom’ for example. Who can resist the feeling of joy seeing pop legend Elton John make his glittering entry into the Gorillaz metaverse?
10. ‘Feel Good Inc’, Demon Days (2005)
If there is one song that embodies the Gorillaz it is ‘Feel Good Inc’. The narcotic mixture of pop and hip hop, the blissful melancholy, and the escapist fantasy of the anime-inspired music video embody the elemental energies which bring the Gorillaz to life.
In creating their own fantasy world Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett have certainly left a mark on ours. Capturing the fluid and mysterious energies of modern times, the Gorillaz defy convention. It feels that fans new and old look to the work band is doing today to get a clear picture of where the rest of us will be heading 10 years from tomorrow.
Splendour In The Grass 2022 headliners Gorillaz will be making the most of their trip to Australia next year, locking in a pair of headlining tour dates in Melbourne and Sydney next July. Head here for details.