With Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett’s virtual band poised to make a comeback, we look back on their ridiculously complex fictional storyline and unique multi-media approach
During their time sharing a flat in the late 90s/early 2000s, Blur’s Damon Albarn and comic illustrator Jamie Hewlett became bored of MTV. They were disillusioned with the lack of connection that manufactured bands had with the creative side of their music, and were finding the music videos they were watching increasingly lacking in substance. So they decided to push things the other way: they created a band so manufactured that the lines between fiction and reality became blurred. They created Gorillaz.
Billed as the world’s first virtual band, for a brief period Gorillaz lived entirely within their self-contained multi-media universe. They connected with fans by giving interactive tours of their fictional studio on their website, while their off-the-wall music videos gradually developed into an immensely complex and strange story of a band unbound by reality. Before long Gorillaz spilled into real life and the non-fictional minds behind the band began to trickle into common knowledge, but by this point Albarn and Hewlett had achieved their goal: the manufactured Gorillaz universe had become so immersive that nobody really cared who was behind it. As Albarn would later put it, “delivery of misinformation is as valuable as delivery of information.”
The Gorillaz universe is more detailed and multifaceted than anything before it. Hours upon hours of skits, short films (or ‘Gorillaz Bitez’), music videos, fake interviews, games, and interactive tours can be dredged from the depths of the internet to this day, and with Gorillaz beginning to re-emerge with rumours of a new album (or, as the band’s lore would put it, re-emerging from the fallout of the events at Murdoc’s Plastic Beach hideout), we made an attempt to get our heads around all of it.
THE FICTIONAL BAND
The Gorillaz universe still exists in almost its entirety online, and every bizarre, dark, hilarious twist and turn can be traced if you have the time. To summarise loosely, the Gorillaz story is at this point divided into four phases – one for each album. Phase 1 begins with bassist and Satanist from Stoke-On-Trent Murdoc, who – while attempting to steal music equipment – ran over Stu-Pot, aka 2D, named after the two dents Murdoc made in his head. Rather than serving jail time, Murdoc was sentenced to care for 2D, and during that time noticed he was an attractive guy who could sing – so he shanghaied him into his band. Drummer Russel Hobbs was involved in a drive-by shooting in which his friend Del (the real life Deltron 3030) was killed and possessed Russel. Needing a drummer, 2D and Murdoc kidnapped Russel (who was fine with that) and stayed on in the band. Eight-year-old Noodle responded to an advert for a guitarist and FedExed herself over from Osaka to the front door of Kong Studios – their fictional studio, perched atop a graveyard mountain in Essex – and Gorillaz was born.
Following this, things get very complicated and fantastical. Phases 2 revolves around Demon Days, Gorillaz’ darkest work and their darkest phase as a band. Noodle, having traced her past and discovered she was brainwashed as a child to become a war machine, regaining her once-lost memory in the process, is living a life of tranquillity on that floating windmill from the “Feel Good Inc.” video, where she writes most of Demon Days alone. In a complex plan gone awry – originally conceived by Murdoc, but hijacked by the shadowy Black Cloud organisation – the island is shot out of the sky and Noodle is missing, presumed dead. Fearing the worst, the remaining members fall into a deep depression and split up following the invasion of Kong Studios by zombies.
After a four year hiatus, in which the whereabouts of Noodle are still a widely speculated mystery, Gorillaz return out of the blue for Phase 3. Plastic Beach, the band’s most glistening, absurd outing, is also their most daring, and the story again reflects this. Here the band’s make-up shifts dramatically: determined to record a new album but with his band scattered who-knows-where, Murdoc kidnaps 2D and replaces Russel with a drum machine and Noodle with a cyborg he built from DNA recovered from the crash site. Taking refuge from The Black Cloud (now hunting Murdoc) in his Plastic Beach hideout, an island built from rubbish and spray-painted pink, Murdoc records the album along with Gorillaz biggest selection of collaborators to date – who he’s also kidnapped.
At some point Russel gets wind of what Murdoc is up to, and is understandably annoyed. He’s also found out that Noodle is alive, tracking her to a ship where she’s being attacked by pirates. He rescues her, ingesting toxic waste and becoming a giant in the process. They journey to Plastic Beach, where they rescue 2D from the whale that guards him, destroy the cyborg Noodle, and appear to settle their differences. This becomes clear in the Andre 3000 and James Murphy-featuring “DOYATHING” video, where they’re all seen living together once more in the flying windmill, with giant Russel sleeping on the roof.
THE REAL BAND
At the turn of the millennium, the music press and fans alike still had a very tribal mentality when it came to genre. Though Damon Albarn pushed the boundaries as much as possible with each of Blur’s albums, it was still hard for them to step outside the confines of the rock band setup. Gorillaz offered a unique way to circumvent these divides: as a ‘virtual band’, they evaded categorisation and enjoyed the freedom to dabble with hip hop, electronica, dub, pop, punk rock, and anything in between. For fans of Albarn’s music, this also offered an introduction to genres they might not otherwise have discovered – in the case of hip hop, Gorillaz introduced a diverse cast of rappers into their world, like De La Soul, MF DOOM, D12, Snoop Dogg, and Deltron 3030.
Additionally, the combination of animation and fiction were able to give birth to a completely unrestricted world. No other band could evolve the way Gorillaz did – Alex James couldn’t be replaced, unquestioned, with an android version of himself, nor could Graham Coxon be possessed by a dead rapper.
Gorillaz’ music videos strung together an interconnected arc that lasted longer and shone brighter than anything else like it. Even the early, more crude two-dimensional characters had stories that were rich in detail and imaginative in content, with a dark, subversive sense of humour that became synonymous with the band. As time progressed and budgets grew, the characters took on three dimensions, even occasionally interacting with real(ish) people – from collaborators to guest stars (Bruce Willis even pops up in the mile-a-minute “Stylo” video).
Gorillaz videos could easily have been a gimmick, but thanks to their inventive approach and Jamie Hewlett’s design talents, they never stagnate – much like their music, no two videos are ever the same. From Murdoc batting balls away with his crotch in the unsettlingly funny “Rock The House” video to the glimmering tranquility and bonkers story of “On Melancholy Hill”, the videos can be rich in plot detail or simple, standalone fun – but they’re never boring.
THE LIVE SHOW
Following the success of their debut album, Gorillaz embarked on a live tour that retained an air of mystery about the band’s creators. While initial shows saw the band perform as silhouettes behind a screen – innovative and novel, but ultimately little more than a cinema trip with a live band – as their success grew, audiences demanded bigger performances. Gorillaz soon began to take on a third dimension, brought to life in the form of 3D holograms with pre-recorded music that – meaning that Albarn was perhaps one of the first musicians able to perform on live national television while watching from his own seat.
Before long, the live show changed yet again to amalgamate reality and fiction. Their huge live setups saw Albarn (along with Jeff Wootton, The Clash’s Mick Jones and Paul Simonon, and any number of interchangeable additions) take centre stage while projections skulked and grooved on the screens behind. For the first time, it was the fictional world that became the one with boundaries – the cartoon band remained a four-piece, but the live band could shift their lineup to include orchestras, ensembles, and surprise guests.
You could almost forgive Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett for their actions in Charts of Darkness, a fake documentary broadcast on Channel 4 in 2001 that saw presenter Krishnan Guru-Murphy follow Albarn and Hewlett as they became increasingly invested in the Gorillaz world, eventually committed to an institute for believing their characters to be real. In the process, they visit the Dazed & Confused offices, smearing the walls with burgers and throwing TVs across the room.
When Albarn and Hewlett created Gorillaz, they didn’t just create a few zany cartoons: they completely reinvented the notion of what a band could be. Their influence can be seen today in the likes of PC Music’s QT, or Flying Lotus’ cartoon rapping alter ego Captain Murphy – but the extent to which the Gorillaz universe became tangible is still unrivalled.