Gorillaz: The World’s Most Reinventable Band

After watching endless - savourless - acts being churned out on MTV, Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett decided to manufacture something even more two-dimensional, only with added bite.

Preparations For The MTV Europe Music Awards 2005

Gorillaz were founded in the late 1990s when Blur-frontman Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett, co-creator of cult-comic Tank Girl, were sharing a flat together. Watching endless – savourless – acts being churned out on MTV, they decided to manufacture something even more two-dimensional, only with added bite.

Enter stage right the cartoon characters Murdoc, Russell, Noodle and 2D.

For devoted fans, Gorillaz originated on August 15th 1997, the day that Satanist bassist Murdoc crashed his car into one Stu-Pot, aka 2D, the singer of Gorillaz, named for the two dents now in his head. Drummer Russell Hobbs was kidnapped by the pair while working in a record shop in Soho, while eight-year-old guitarist Noodle was FedExed over from Osaka to land on the front door of Kong Studios, which sits atop a graveyard mountain in Essex. Naturally.

I first encountered Gorillaz (or rather, Ed Case’s two-step-meets-raga remix of ‘Clint Eastwood’) on 2001’s NOW 48: That’s What I Call Music, where the band shared a disc with the likes of Steps, Hear Say, and Papa Roach.

As it happened, Gorillaz weren’t the only cartoons on the track listing. ‘Clint Eastwood’ was joined by ‘Can We Fix It?’, the chart-topping hit by none other than Bob the Builder. Virtual bands like this had existed before – Alvin and the Chipmunks in the 50s, The Banana Splits and The Archies in the 60s, The Wombles in the 70s – and critics were quick to dismiss Gorillaz as an embarrassing novelty, not all that different to Bob and his band of helpful vehicles.

Rich Juzwiak, writing in Pitchfork, called the group ‘a divergent one-off stint’, ‘a conceptual failure’ and ‘a smarmy, promotional gimmick’. All fair and true. All vital to the project’s continuing innovation and critical and commercial success.

As for gimmicks, the Gorillaz’ self-titled debut album featured screen savers, wallpaper and an auto-play – a short film that opened the user’s Internet browser on a special section of the Gorillaz website, to give viewers a tour of Murdoc’s Winnebago. Stunt or not, the album would go on to sell over 7 million copies.

Bear in mind that the internet of 2001 was primordial soup compared to today. According to statista.com only 36% of UK households had access to it (compared to over 90% today). This was the age of dial-up. Google was merely the eighth most popular website. Other sites now synonymous with the Internet, such as YouTube and Twitter, were yet to be launched. Amazon had only just started to turn a profit after six years.

Effectively, Gorillaz enacted a viral marketing campaign, exploiting the internet before it could quite cope with the idea. They were focusing on audience engagement and storytelling, long before these became the buzzwords of social media strategists – in fact, ‘social media’ hadn’t been coined yet.

As such, it must have seemed absurd for Albarn and Hewlett to invest so much in satellite content for a fictional entity. Yet, as the latter told The Guardian in 2001, ‘Gorillaz may not be real, but they are no less than the caricatures that are Marilyn Manson and Eminem.’


The first year that digital sales would surpass physical album sales was 2005, when Gorillaz released their sophomore album Demon Days. ‘Let’s repeat the same process,’ said Hewlett, ‘but do it better. Because everyone thought it was a gimmick. If you do it again, it’s no longer a gimmick, and if it works then we’ve proved a point. And instantly, all of us got excited.’

The album would go six times platinum in the UK and double platinum in the US, but still the jury was out for critics, with Pitchfork again likening it to ‘mere Adult Swim novelty’.

In hindsight, it’s clear that the Gorillaz project wasn’t simply a postmodern skewering of the absurdist fiction that is the music industry. For a virtual band, Albarn and Hewlett had their feet planted in the real world.

Looking back, ‘Dirty Harry’ seems so blatantly about the Iraq War, which had been waging for two years, that it’s hard to believe more wasn’t made of it at the time. In the music video, set in a desert, Pharcyde’s Bootie Brown leaps out of a sand dune wearing military fatigues and raps, ‘The war is over / So said the speaker with the flight suit on’. 

Two years prior, up to 30 million people across the globe took part in an anti-Iraq War march that is still thought to be the largest protest ever in human history. So much for bodies in the streets; against the will of the people, the conflict continued.

The world’s most virtual war – or at least its most high-tech – dominating media off and online including Facebook when it was launched in 2004. It didn’t take long for readers to understand that ‘weapons of mass destruction’ were being used to excuse a straightforward bid for oil.

Damon Albarn of Gorillaz

On ‘Fire Coming Out of The Monkey’s Head’, the actor Dennis Hopper narrates a tale of invading ‘Strangefolk’ mining a mountain, ‘its rich seam fuelling the chaos of their own world.’ Albarn told Notion magazine, ‘That came from a very naive idea, which is: what is going to happen when they’ve taken all of the oil out of the earth?’ The environmentalist allegory would become more explicit on 2010’s ‘Plastic Beach’, which saw the Gorillaz website retooled as a point-and-click adventure game around the island (literally made of toxic plastic waste).

There’s a sustaining paradox at the heart of Gorillaz: the more Albarn and Hewlett embrace the virtual, the more authentic and real their project seems. If virtual can be defined as almost or nearly existing, then the same can be applied to the songs themselves, with each album sounding like a stepping stone to the one that will be released subsequently.

Humanz … is often thought of as a misstep for the band: self-indulgent, incoherent, pretentious.

Humanz (2017), which saw Albarn donning a curatorial hat – collaborating with everyone from Vince Staples to Grace Jones, Kali Uchis to De La Soul – is often thought of as a misstep for the band: self-indulgent, incoherent, pretentious.

Yet, arguably, it laid the groundwork for 2020’s Song Machine: Season One, an album-cum-web-series, featuring guest stars on each ‘episode’, including ScHoolboy Q, Skepta, Tony Allen, Slowthai and Slaves. Visually and musically, each song-episode mutates, to accommodate the strengths of each guest artist, punk sitting seamlessly alongside piano ballads.

On a press release, cartoon Russell Hobbs (drummer) glossed the album thus: ‘Song Machine feeds on the unknown, runs on pure chaos. So whatever the hell’s coming, we’re primed and ready to produce like there’s no tomorrow.’

Exactly. There never was a ‘Gorillaz’ in the first place. They might just be the world’s most re-invent-able band. Year after year, decade after decade.

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