Capitalized on Success of Gorillaz
Gorillaz are a twenty-first century update of such animated music groups as the Archies, the Chipmunks, and Josie & the Pussycats. The difference between Gorillaz and those 1960s creations, though, is that Gorillaz are comprised of several established, respected musicians and one well-known illustrator, Jamie Hewlett (creator of the Tank Girl comic strip), who assume the identities of cartoon characters. This virtual band surprised many industry observers by releasing an album that sold more than six million copies worldwide, won MTV Europe Awards, and landed on the American top 40 charts. Another distinguishing difference is their music: Gorillaz draw on hip-hop, dub, reggae, and punk, whereas their forebears peddled bubblegum pop.
Hewlett hatched the Gorillaz concept with Damon Albarn, singer of the popular British rock band Blur, in 2000. While sharing a flat, the two men realized they had much in common, and decided to combine their artistic and musical talents. Besides bringing together the four band members—2D, Murdoc Niccals, Russel, and Noodle—Hewlett, with help from Albarn, also invented detailed “biographies” for each. All the musicians involved in the project insist that the cartoon band exists as an actual, unique entity. “We’re just their mentors,” Gorillaz producer Dan Nakamura told RES. “The Gorillaz have their own personalities and idiosyncrasies. We’re just there to make sure everything comes out okay, and Jamie’s art gives a fuller picture of who they are.”
More so than with most bands, Gorillaz’s visual elements are crucial to their overall appeal. Their website and videos feature Hewlett’s Japanese anime-styled animation, which is created in his London-based Zombie Studio. Instead of giving visitors the usual band information, the group’s official website immerses them in the Gorillaz environment and allows for interactivity. Hewlett’s love for early 1970s rock horror films such as The Exorcist and Dawn of the Dead reveals itself on the site as well as in Gorillaz’s videos. When Gorillaz play concerts, the musicians perform behind a large screen on which stills and animation are projected. This pleases Albarn, who has grown weary of his pop-star status in Great Britain. As he told Rollling Stone’s Steve Baltin: “[There’s] no emphasis on a celebrity. The people who work on Gorillaz are there because they love the idea and the idea of experimenting in the mainstream.”
Novel, Yes—Novelty, No
While the musical abilities of Gorillaz cartoon likenesses remain debatable, those of the actual musicians playing behind them are indisputable. Albarn’s Blur has been a British pop-music institution since 1990; Dan “the Automator” Nakamura has masterminded several renowned hip-hop projects, including Dr. Octagon, Handsome Boy Modeling School, and Deltron 3030; Miho Hatori plays guitar in electro-pop charmers Cibo Matto; rapper Del the Funky Homosapien has been a key figure in the West Coast’s underground hip-hop scene for over a decade and is a member of Deltron 3030; Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz formed the rhythm section of legendary New Wave rockers Talking Heads, and the oft-sampled funk troupe Tom Tom Club; and turntablist extraordinaire Kid Koala has won much praise for his 2000 solo album Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and his work with Deltron 3030 and Bullfrog. Even octogenarian Cuban vocalist Ibrahim Ferrer of Buena Vista Social Club appears on one song.
With all of that talent, the Gorillaz self-titled debut could not help but be interesting. The 15-track offering has a loose-limbed, breezy vibe that appeals to club-goers, radio programmers, and MTV watchers alike. The group has a knack for penning catchy tunes and laying down simple yet effective grooves that are usually immediately endearing. Nakamura and Kid Koala’s hip-hop values are much in evidence, but many songs also possess slightly off-kilter dub-reggae rhythms, and reverb and delay effects abound.
With its lackadaisical, loping, quasi-reggae rhythm and mournful melodica riff, “Clint Eastwood” became one of the most unlikely hits of the decade, as Albarn sings and Del raps in striking contrast to each other’s style. In LA Weekly, Oliver Wang singled out Nakamura’s contribution to Gorillaz: “[Nakamura] proves a master of many musical dialects, whether it’s the Cuban-infused keys and percussive shuffle on the sublime ‘Latin Simone’ … or the spaced-out dubtronics of ‘Man
For the Record…
Members include Chris Frantz (born on May 8, 1951, in Fort Campbell, KY), drums; Kid Koala (born in 1975 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada), turntables; Dan “The Automator” Nakamura . producer; Murdoc Niccals (born Jamie Hewlett), bass; Noodle (born Miho Hatori), guitar, vocals; Russel (aka Del the Funky Homosapien), rapper; 2D (born Damon Albarn on March 23, 1968), vocals, keyboards; Tina Weymouth (born on November 22, 1950), vocals.
Group formed in England, 2000; signed with EMI in the U.K. and Virgin in the U.S., 2000; issued several singles in Britain, 2001; released Gorillaz, 2001, and G Sides, 2002; contributed to the Bad Company and Blade II soundtracks, 2002; issued the remix album Spacemon-keyz Versus Gorillaz—Lalka Come Home, 2002; released the two-disc DVD Phase One: Celebrity Take Down in the U.S., 2003.
Awards: MTV Awards (Europe), Best Dance Artist, Best Song for “Clint Eastwood,” 2001.
Addresses: Record company—Virgin Records, 338 N. Foothill Rd., Beverly Hills, CA 90210, website: http://www.virginrecords.com. Website—Gorillaz Official Website: http://www.gorillaz.com.
Research,’ and damn if he doesn’t do a mean Violent Femmes imitation on ‘Punk.’ Hands down, this is one of the best-produced albums of the year—rock, hip-hop or otherwise.” Barry Walters added in Rolling Stone: “Gorillaz is kind of a soundtrack CD to the jaw-dropping animation Web site…, but it stands alone as a playful piece of genre-squishing art pop.” Gorillaz was nominated for Britain’s prestigious Mercury Music Prize, but Hewlett and Albarn, showing their disdain for the media spotlight, rejected it.
Capitalized on Success of Gorillaz
With the stunning popularity of their debut album in several countries, including the notoriously conservative American market, the Gorillaz—or their management or record company—decided to capitalize on the ravenous interest the cartoon band had generated. A disc titled G Sides came out in 2002 with remixed versions of many cuts from Gorillaz. The debut’s most infectious track, “19-2000,” gets revamped for the dance floor by Soulchild and the Wiseguys; also included are a reinterpretation of the smash hit “Clint Eastwood” with English MC Phi Life Cypher adding a rapid rap to the sluggish-paced original, and “Latin Simone (Que Pasa Contigo)” with Albarn’s more understated approach replacing Ferrer’s highly emotional singing. The CD also features five tracks previously only available on British singles and EPs; some of these songs reveal sides of Gorillaz not heard on their full-length debut. “Faust” is a beautiful analog-synth reverie that recalls 1960’s Moog synth popularizer Jean-Jacques Perrey and “Ghost Train” is a slow, chugging soul number that builds a convincing aura of urban paranoia with help from a sample of Human League’s “Sound of the Crowd.” In Rolling Stone, Tom Moon hailed Gorillaz’s “irreverence and typically taut sense of rhythm,” and concluded: “Looks like these cartoons have another season left in them.”
In an attempt to wring yet more mileage from their first album, Gorillaz “collaborated” with Spacemonkeyz (likely another fictitious group; the Gorillaz website describes them as “mutant offspring of the monkey cosmonauts sent into space during the Cold War”) for Laika Come Home, a 12-track excursion that highlights the group’s fondness for dub. While aficionados of Jamaica’s dub originators may find this collection somewhat amateurish, Laika Come Home provides an admirable introduction to the genre for the uninitiated, and all involved seem to have a genuine affinity for dub production techniques. Heather Phares noted in All Music Guide: “[T]he album’s best moments … explore the dub influences at the root of Gorillaz’s sound and offer a fun, fresh take on the songs. In all, while it’s not as exciting—or, arguably, necessary—as a new Gorillaz album, Laika Come Home is still a more satisfying work than the usual boring and/or unpredictable remix album.”
The Inevitable DVD
As could be expected with a group so reliant on visuals, Gorillaz issued a two-disc DVD in the United States in 2003 (2002 in the United Kingdom) titled Phase One: Celebrity Take Down. Besides including the band’s videos for “Clint Eastwood,” “19-2000,” “Tomorrow Comes Today,” “Rock the House,” and “5/4,” Phase One also offers live show visuals, an interview with 2D, a documentary called Charts of Darkness, a bonus CD-ROM of Screensavers, and more. Reviewing Phase One at Pitchfork Media, Rob Mitchum commented: “Hewlett… [crams] the DVD full of interesting clutter and detail, as well as some nifty 3-D CGI.” His conclusion is a negative one, however, “The message I took away from the DVD is that, surprisingly, the conceptual part of Gorillaz lags far behind the music; despite all the detail, there’s not much character to the characters.”
Gorillaz planned to create a television special, a feature film, and another album; a collaboration with the Cartoon Network’s Powerpuff Girls also may materialize. “We have no long-term plans for the Gorillaz. It’s just developing,” Albarn told Hugh Porter of Time International. “Like an unruly child,” Hewlett added. Amid all of this activity, Hewlett and Albarn are entangled in a legal battle with Tom Astor, an ex-partner with whom Hewlett designed the Gorillaz artwork. Astor’s company, Spook Limited, claims it still owns the rights to the artwork. All of the aforementioned plans may be delayed until this matter can be settled.
Gorillaz, Virgin, 2001.
G Sides, Virgin, 2002.
(Contributor) Bad Company (soundtrack), Hollywood, 2002.
(Contributor) Blade II (soundtrack), Virgin, 2002.
Spacemonkeyz Versus Gorillaz—Laika Come Home (remix album), Virgin, 2002.
Independent Sunday, June 2, 2002.
LA Weekly, October 4, 2001.
RES, September/October 2001.
Rolling Stone, June 21, 2001; July 25, 2001; March 14, 2002.
Time International, December 17, 2001.
“Gorillaz,” All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (February 12, 2003)
“Gorillaz: Gorillaz,” Pitchfork Media, http://pitchforkmedia.com/record-reviews/g/gorillaz/gorillaz.shtml (April 2, 2003).
Gorillaz Official Website, http://www.gorillaz.com (April 2, 2003).
“Gorillaz—Phase One: Celebrity Take Down,”http://pitchforkmedia.com/record-reviews/g/gorillaz/celebrity-take-down.shtml (April 2, 2003).
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