The debut that keeps on giving
Jamie Macmillan
16:44 25th March 2021

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The year is 2001. Britpop is long dead, the initial wave of euphoria replaced by the mother of all comedowns and a string of ‘New Acoustic’ bands riding high in the charts and on festival bills. While there are rumours Stateside that some New York City band could change everything with one Stroke, on this side of the water it is down to Damon Albarn again to stir things up. Start of a century? It’s something special.

Hard as it might be to believe now, at this point in his career Damon was playing catch-up to some of his bandmates in the being-successful-away-from-Blur music stakes. Guitarist Graham Coxon was already well down the line towards this third solo record following a couple of well-received and extremely-extremely-extremely lo-fi adventures in sound that leant even more heavily on his love of scratchy ‘what’s a producer anyway?’ outsider wails. Hell, even Alex James had nabbed a number two single with the World Cup-inspired ‘Vindaloo’ under the ‘Fat Les’ moniker a few years earlier.

But Damon? Aside from the odd bit of soundtrack work or guest spot, alongside his work on what can only be described as the batshit ‘Ravenous’ movie score, there was nothing much to show that he was going to get close to living up to his Blur status away from the rest of the band.

How wrong that was.

To be fair, most of Britpop was already like a cartoon or a pastiche - I mean, look at the main players. It got to the point where Steven Spielberg actually wanted to make a Monkees-style TV show based on Supergrass. So perhaps it was an obvious outcome that one of the genre's leading lights would make the leap into making fictional characters himself...

Having met comic artist Jamie Hewlett a decade earlier (Jamie’s first impressions were, famously, that Damon was “arsey, a wanker”), the two came up with Gorillaz as a satirical sideways glance at the modern music industry and its ability to continually churn out manufactured pop groups. Damon described the Gorillaz concept as a band that were “manufactured but kind of interesting”.

Leaving aside that ever-so-slight pop-snobbery aspect for now, this new band were Damon’s chance to explore the worlds of dub, hip-hop and Latin in a way that Blur perhaps couldn’t - but still leaving him room to create a killer melody out of thin air. Though he later admitted that ‘On Your Own’, from the self-titled Blur album, was the first true Gorillaz track, the band arrived properly with the Tomorrow Comes Today EP before the lightning bolt strike that was their debut proper. It proved to be a revelation (and not just amongst the Albarn acolytes), though his old sparring rival Liam Gallagher predictably slated it, calling it “music for three-year-olds”.

With twenty years of hindsight, it’s tempting now to see this record as the natural reaction to his other band arriving at their most experimental stage on 13, Albarn’s pop sensibilities swerving off away from Coxon’s growing influence and control over Blur’s sound. But, in truth, there is as much weird stuff here as there are pop nuggets. Tracks like ‘Re-Hash’, ‘5/4’ and ‘Punk’ may be recognisably Blur-adjacent, but it’s where influences strayed a little further that things began to get *really* interesting.

‘Clint Eastwood’ - both the regular version and the garage edit from Ed Case - is still a behemoth of a track, one that trampled all over the landscape both visually and literally with its many plays on the airwaves. It was the sound of a kid in a whole new toy shop, the catchy classic Albarn earworm of a chorus bouncing off Del The Funky Homosapien’s rap. It paved the way for the Gorillaz’ future.

Digging into a different set of musical influences than on previous iterations, the debut's diversions into jazz-funk and heavy dub brought the likes of The Clash at their most restless to mind (it was no surprise to see Mick Jones and Paul Simonon eventually turn up on stage as part of the live band). By the time the record finished on the thrashy Day Of The Dead-sampling ‘M1A1’, it had raced through a dozen genres in a little over an hour. Stretching against the boundaries of what he could do previously, here it felt like Damon was untethered, ready to explore what a modern ‘pop’ record could do. And with a band made out of cartoon characters, there were no limits and no egos to bump up against in a recording studio. It was, in many ways, a perfect band for Damon at the perfect time.

Reactions in the Blur camp proved to be more mixed. Admitting that he didn’t think that the band were “particularly cool” about Gorillaz’ success, Damon found himself in the odd position of being in two competing acts at the same time. And with Coxon eventually leaving Blur during the recording of Think Tank the following year, it was a strange juxtaposition of the two bands moving in very different directions despite having one person at the centre of both. (Though Blur’s eventual re-union did lead to a slice of music history as he became the first person to headline Glastonbury with two different bands in consecutive years.)

Over time, what began as a mask to hide behind eventually became the real face of Damon Albarn, as even the cartoon characters moved into the background (much to Hewlett’s dismay) amidst an ever-revolving cast of drop-ins and legends. Coxon, Bobby Womack, Sean Ryder, De La Soul, Dennis Hopper - even Noel Gallagher - crossed the Britpop divide (much to Liam’s disgust, though he did elevate his appraisal of Gorillaz to “music for twelve-year-olds”, a progression of sorts). Whether Gorillaz eclipsed Blur in size and stature? That discussion could run for days and days in all honesty. Save that for another time then, and swing back into this world of Gorillaz on its debut's twentieth birthday instead.

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Photo: Press